{ Reconnaissance and Relief }

May 26, 2014 § 1 Comment

Ahoy! Results ain’t quite in for Missouri River Relief‘s cleanup at St. Joseph, Missouri (when they are, you can find them here), but I couldn’t wait any longer to share the experience from May 15-18. This was my third away-team cleanup as a crew member. My first experience with the group was back in 2009, and despite attending dozens of events as a regular volunteer, it’s impossible to know just how much work goes into preparing for these things.

First, there’s the matter of time and location. Where’s a good boat ramp to conduct a cleanup, and where can we camp that’s reasonably close? At St. Joe, we lucked out with Remington Nature Center hosting us on its grounds, just a parking lot away from the boat docks. We cut driftwood behind the building and established a kitchen underneath it, pitched tents by Roy’s Creek, and built a campfire laughably close to the city’s riverside bike trail.

Sunrise on Roy's Creek. I wouldn't mind unzipping my tent to this every day.

Sunrise on Roy’s Creek. I wouldn’t mind unzipping my tent to this every day.

And then there are logistics of the cleanup itself.

Since an aerial trash scout in 2011, it’s been a little easier to spot dump sites on maps. Even so, there’s a lot of foot work for crew members to find litter that’s washed in by recent floods. The day before a big cleanup, we scout for sites up and downstream, about five miles each way, on both sides of the river. A few people are elected dispatchers and assistants, a couple drive the boats, and the rest of the group piles in to check out the damage.

The river was low that week, meaning steep and muddy banks. Melanie, Jennifer, and I scrambled up them into the woods to find trash caught behind logs and foliage. Surprisingly, there wasn’t a lot to find, maybe because the river is so straight and swift in this channelized stretch by the city. I did, however, eat a bowlful of lamb’s quarter, watch several Common Yellowthroats flitting through the woods, and even scared up a Nighthawk! Seeing a Caprimulgid in the daytime was a first for me. Just one of the little serendipitous joys in getting outside.

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Boots get muddy. Boats get muddy. Mud gets muddy.

That was Friday. A pretty easygoing day, although the scout does get tiring after a while. We assign jobs for the crew the night before, and get started really early the next day. Like, 6 a.m. breakfast early. On a Saturday! Then follows this volley of set-up, registration, driver meeting, volunteer orientation, safety talks and finally–rejoice!–getting out on the boats.

It’s a lot to do before noon, but we pull it off flawlessly, crew members filling in wherever they’re needed. Because turnout was fairly light this day, the drivers and first mates got to stay with their boatful of volunteers instead of leaving to get another group. That was awesome for me, as I got more alone time in nature, and was able to hang out with a totally precious gang of 7-year-old bicyclists. On the way back, when I ate an orange and tossed the peel in the stream, one of the kids looked totally disappointed. “Eli, what’s wrong?” He threw his palms in the air and said, “You’re littering!” in such a dismayed voice that I’m sure my response of, “don’t panic, it’s organic” would fail to redeem my sin.

After the cleanup, we give lunch to our volunteers, host and judge a trash contest, chill for a while, then peel out in the boats again to pick up the trash. Volunteers leave their bags, tires and other stuff on the shore. We pick it up in the afternoon in a streamlined fashion.

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This, my friend, is a well-orchestrated daisy chain of trash.

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John Brady is our premiere frontloader communicatuer. Here, he’s telling the driver to smash down on this refrigerator.

I’m a little exhausted just writing about this. Which is ok, because feeling exhausted means you did a lot of hard work, eh? And what better frame of mind for a sunset walk on a trail by the river? This was one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen, seriously. Even my fancy new iPhone (hey world, I finally upgraded!) couldn’t capture it’s glory, but here. I tried.

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You can catch me at the next river cleanup at Leavenworth, Kansas, and Weston, Missouri the weekend of June 7. Seriously, come if you can (free boat ride and fuzzy feelings), and if you can’t, follow my Twitter and Instagram. (Yep, Instagram. That’s new for me. Give me something to follow!) I’ll bring you along for the ride.


{ Q&A with Osha Gray Davidson, pt. 1: on covering wildfires, treating sources with respect, and pitching science stories to mainstream mags }

May 13, 2014 § 4 Comments

Just hours after Osha Gray Davidson returned from a fellowship with the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources, 19 firefighters died in a wildfire a few minutes north from his home. That night, using knowledge gained from the fellowship, Davidson pitched a story to Rolling Stone and traveled to Yarnell before even receiving a reply. His story, “The Great Burning,” tells how climate change, development, and political interests disrupt natural fire ecology and human communities.

osha-gray-davidson-hair-cropped-300x230Davidson is an award-winning freelance author and photographer who writes about climate change and the environment for Earthzine, Rolling Stone, and Mother Jones, among others. His latest project involved covering an international conference that decided the future of earth observation. In Part 1 of this interview, he gave me the run-down on writing “The Great Burning,” drawing humanity out of subjects, and live-blogging a major international conference

I haven’t told him this yet, but after we got off the phone, I broke out my typewriter, wrote “Remember when you wanted to write for Rolling Stone?,” clipped the “National Affairs” banner from his article and pinned them up on my office’s cork board. He’s truly an inspiring person, and I’m so glad we had the chance to talk.

{ Check back soon for Part 2 of this interview, in which we discuss growing up in the Midwest (!) and how telling human stories and embracing bias can bring a little activism—just a little—to science journalism. }

When you write for mainstream magazines like Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, or The New Republic, do you have a different approach in writing and editing than when you write for something like Earthzine?

The story itself is generally something that I want to do anyway, and something that I think is an important story, and think I can do a good job on. The pitch is different, but the piece itself is generally the same. I’ll target the pitch based on the place itself, but also the editor.

I had started working with the Rolling Stone National Affairs editor before at Mother Jones on a climate change story, and he asked me to pitch to him at RS. The first piece I did with him was about timber sales in the Tongass National Forest. I was surprised at first that Rolling Stone wanted this kind of article. But it wasn’t just that editor, it was others, like [managing editor] Will Dana, who I worked with on the wildfire story.

My pieces weren’t pitched as science pieces, but as environmental and policy/politics pieces. Climate change was always a big part of the story, from the pitch forward. Those are the draws – it’s not science or rock music. With the fire story, the essential structure was mine, but we did work together on balancing the amount of attention given to fire ecology, climate change development, and politics.

“My pieces weren’t pitched as science pieces, but as environmental and policy/politics pieces. Climate change was always a big part of the story, from the pitch forward.”


How many people did you interview for “The Great Burning?” I counted 18 sources.

That’s how I do stories, and it has its good side. But it will also be my downfall because I feel compelled to be encyclopedic on something before I write it. I did dozens and dozens of interviews. Most of them were email interviews, but a large number were on the phone. And I went up to Yarnell several times and interviewed lots of people: firefighters from different firefighting agencies, experts and residents.

Obviously you can over-research things, and that is a problem, but you don’t necessarily find the gems that you need unless you do that. The best research I think is interviewing people and people who are actually touched by an event like that.

That comes out in the lede with the woman who lost her house.

I have my wife to thank for that one. She’s a former journalist and came up to Yarnell with me. She was just hanging out and had gone to the place to where people from Yarnell had been evacuated to. She interviewed this woman and said she was willing to talk to me about it.

I love talking to people anyway, to meet people and find out what their life is like. Being nosy, essentially. That’s such an important, vital part of being a journalist—being open and respectful, not seeing them as a character in the story, but just [talking as] two human beings at that point. Treating them with dignity, making them feel comfortable enough to tell their story, and then not burning them is really important.

“That’s such an important, vital part of being a journalist—being open and respectful, not seeing them as a character in the story, but just [talking as] two human beings at that point.”


How did you know where to begin? Did you have experience reporting on fires before this story?

I did a fellowship with the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources, and that’s what led to the article for Rolling Stone. I got to spend some time with a fire expert, and he was telling us things about fire that I had never heard about. I got back from that fellowship just hours before these firefighters died. Because I had just finished this fellowship, I knew the right people to talk to, and that I night I wrote a query to Will Dana and before I heard from him the next morning, I drove up to Yarnell. Obviously, it was a great tragedy, but because I had just done that fellowship I could do that story. I recommend applying for as many fellowships as you can.

Illustrating the human side of a tragedy is one thing, but how do you draw humanity out of scientists?

That’s easy, actually; Just get them talking about their work. Then there’s all the essential tricks of the trade where literary nonfiction comes in—what they’re wearing, how they say things, speech patterns, telling details. In literary novels, those details let you see into the interior life of the person. We can do that in journalism, the only difference is you can’t make that up.

I interviewed a medical director of Doctors Without Borders about his time in Haiti, working on cholera [article here]. He said if you don’t treat somebody immediately at this certain symptom, “You’ll have a lot of bad outcomes.” I knew exactly what he meant, but it was an opportunity to draw him out as a person.

So I said, “What do you mean about ‘bad outcomes?’” There was a long pause, and he said, “It means death.” It was painful for him to say it, I think. So in this story, I include this pause. I hope people read into that, this doctor insulating himself from the pain and suffering. Then to drop that and be vulnerable is an amazing thing.

“I hope people read into that, this doctor insulating himself from the pain and suffering.”


And how do you do that with politicians? I noticed in “The Great Burning,” that all of the congressmen’s quotes come from hearings and official statements.

I gave up on that a long time ago, on career politicians. It’s not really an interview. There’s a saying [among politicians]: You don’t answer the question you were asked, you answer the question you wish you were asked.

But they are human beings, so I try to treat them with the same kind of human dignity in writing about them. For another RS piece on Tongass National Forest in Alaska, I interviewed Mark Rey, who was an agriculture undersecretary for the National Forest Service under Bush. I just asked him straightforward questions. Actually, we joked around a bit, which I try to do to get them to be more forthcoming. Just try pushing them, and if they evade your questions, work around that.

You chimed in on the comments online for the wildfire piece. Do you feel like it was worth wading into the fray, particularly with readers like the guy declaring upfront that RS is a “liberal rag”?

I like the give-and-take in the comments section and almost always participate. I won’t debate the existence of anthropogenic climate change, however. It’s a waste of time and bandwidth analogous to debating creationism. I have no regrets about the conversation you mentioned. The writer’s view that RS is a liberal rag was irrelevant. If the comments are merely name-calling, I ignore them. If they raise an issue, I try to respond to that.

You recently liveblogged the GEO-X Conference, the largest assembly of Earth Observation researchers in the decade since they began sharing international data on the Earth’s climate. This was the year they renewed their mandate and decided the next steps to help answer questions about climate change. How did you get the opportunity to cover the conference?

It came about last-minute. I’ve done those things before, but each time [laughing] is exhausting, but in a really great way. First, I love traveling anyway, that’s one of the reasons to be a journalist, to get someone to pay for you to go somewhere you’d like to go.

I had interviewed the head of the Group on Earth Observations for an article for Earthzine about a week and a half before this conference. I thought, “We should cover this.” I wrote my editor and laid out a plan: how I’d cover it, why it’s important to cover, and what I would do when I got there.

He agreed instantly that we should do it, but to come up with funding at the last minute was kind of crazy. I was amazed that it was so under-covered. I wanted to make the most of it. I slept a few hours each night, then made my way back over to the conference center.

You covered a lot of great material during that time. How much was planned before you started reporting versus serendipitous interactions?

I worked with people involved with GEO itself and Earthzine and one of the sponsoring organizations of Earthzine, IEEE [the world’s largest professional association dedicated to advancing technological innovation and excellence for the benefit of humanity]. Some people from IEEE were also helping out by setting up things for me. I got an email while I was in one session saying, “Do you have time to interview the director of UNEP?” That’s the United Nations Environment Program. I was like, “Are you kidding, of course!”

I wrote out questions before the interview. I didn’t want to waste his time. I quickly read up on what UNEP was doing, but the interview was focused on a new web platform, called UNEP Live. And he had his talking points down. It’s always helpful when people have things they want to tell you that you want to hear. With politicians, it’s a very different game. They have their talking points and you want to get them away from those talking points as quickly as possible.

When not skirting politicians skirting his questions, or wowing readers with insightful narratives, Osha also blogs about renewable energy and the environment in the Southwest at The Phoenix Sun. He’s also been known to tweet profound thoughts about the nuance of public policy.


(Meanwhile, I simply tweet triceratops cartoons and Noel Gallagher making fun of Oasis. You can’t be profound all the time.)

Thanks for reading, and check back soon for part 2!

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