Friday, August 27, 2010

Write on

I work in an office where a lot of economic analysis is done by people with very advanced degrees. I spend most of my time reading and writing god-awful technical papers about economic opportunities and trade-offs and production practices and blah blah blah. My technical writing is terrible. I think the only reason they hired me was because they thought I could write (I certainly can’t do statistics very well!), but pretty much everything I’ve written for them has been edited and rewritten until I don’t recognize it anymore. It has made me forget that I am a writer. It has made me dislike writing.

But recently, I’ve received kudos from a couple of people for my non-economics writing. I’m tempted to blow off my mother’s compliments, because whose mother doesn’t love everything they do, but her comments were more than just “you’re a good writer”. She complimented my style in a your-blog-post-reminded-me-again-that-you’re-a-good-writer kind of way. Anyway, it meant something to me. Then, my professor thanked me for writing an exemplary research paper and asked if he could use it as an example for future classes, and it reminded me of other professors who made similar remarks, including my eighth-grade English teacher whose recommendation to become a journalist sent me on the path I eventually took. Maybe some of those comments were offered following exasperation at the lack of writing ability my classmates have exhibited. Some people are just really bad writers; I certainly have no right to judge them, because I am horrible at math in the same way that some people absolutely mangle full paragraphs. But I’ll acknowledge that perhaps I have a way with words, and I definitely enjoyed writing all of those papers.

So I take back some of the harsh words I’ve said to myself recently about how I followed my English teacher’s advice to become a writer, the seemingly easy way forward, rather than push myself to become a scientist, just because no one ever told me I was good at biology. The fact is that I love both writing and science. Even though the only science I currently write about is informative but boring as hell due to the style requirements of the reports I write, I feel connected to the science writing community. I don’t have to give up on writing just because I’m trying to become a scientist. Rachel Carson was a journalist and a writer, and even though she didn’t have a PhD, her work spurred on the eventual ban on domestic use of DDT and led to other environmental research and activism in this country. She was just the first of a really long list of people who have found ways to effectively communicate with the masses on scientific topics. For evidence, head to the blogosphere and marvel at the vast array of sites where scientists write about the latest news and research in their field. Then take to Twitter and Facebook and watch scientists and non-scientists alike share those ideas with everyone they know (or don’t know).

I kick myself often for getting a degree in journalism instead of biology. (What I should kick myself for is not taking enough science classes in college.) But that’s the past, and now I’m taking science classes, so it’s all good. The point of all my rambling is that my goal from day one has been to make a difference in this world. I avoided jobs in journalism because I thought that being an environmental scientist or a policy maker would have a bigger impact. I think I still have that bias, but I’m realizing that with all of the ways to communicate that didn’t exist eight years ago when I finished college, it doesn’t have to be either/or. The combination of the ClimateGate discussion, the global climate change dialogue overall, and working with a bunch of mathematicians has made me realize that we really need more people who have a science background and can effectively communicate information of a scientific nature to people without any scientific training at all. I don’t know that I can dedicate my life to sitting in front of a computer typing articles and reports - I’d rather be in the field restoring wildlife habitat or otherwise making place-based natural resource management decisions - but I promise to put my communication skills to good use in this blog and in other ways that educate people about the natural world and inspire them to protect the plants, animals, soil, water, and air on this rock we call home.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Close encounters with wildlife

Today I hiked a portion of the Appalachian Trail in Virginia. I parked along Virginia State Road 601, picked up a blue-blazed connector trail, and hopped on the AT into Shenandoah National Park and up to Compton Peak.  I've read "A Walk in the Woods" by Bill Bryson a couple of times, so it was fun to actually step onto the trail. According to the trail markers, I hiked about 10.5 miles, but I think some of the markers was wrong - according to them, it's one mile from the trail head at VA-601 to the park boundary. I beg to differ. No way is it really just one mile. It's definitely 0.7 miles from the trail head to the point where the connector trail meets the AT, and I think the distance from that point to the park boundary is more like 1.5 or 2 miles. So by my count, my hike was more like 12 miles, which would make it my longest hike ever.

And what a hike it was. It was great - not-too-hot, not-too-muggy weather, all shaded, not too buggy. The connector trail is narrow and countless spiders have spun webs between trees and across the trail, so I grabbed a long stick and waved it in front of me to avoid getting facefulls of web and spider. Anyone watching me from afar might have questioned my mental fitness, but it worked pretty well. I was able to get within 15 or twenty feet of three deer, which was pretty neat - deer may be pretty commonplace around here, but there's still something wild about meeting them face-to-face. I'm a little concerned about the fact that they weren't the least bit afraid of me, but perhaps that's what happens when humans and wildlife live in such close proximity. I also spied a number of swallowtail butterflies and one luna moth that had been dealt a fatal blow to its wing. It was huge and looked like its features has been painted onto delicate silk.

Luna moth
I also had one close encounter that left me briefly shaken. As I was trekking along, I came across a coiled black streak next to the trail. It rattled. I quickly took many paces backward. Some people are terrified of meeting a bear in the woods. I'm not one of those people, maybe because I've only seen a wild bear from my car window, or maybe because bears cannot really sneak up on you. If a bear wants to attack, you know it way ahead of time. Snakes are different. They're fascinating animals, and without the prospect of an injection of deadly neurotoxin, I would have sauntered closer for a better look. Thank goodness for the warning rattle. Regardless of my fascination, my big hiking fear is coming across a venomous snake and getting bitten before I have time to realize what's going on.

Thus was my dilemma today - tempt a timber rattlesnake by trying to zoom past it on the other side of the trail, risk serious poison ivy by detouring through the dense woods, or wait it out. I took a couple steps into the woods and decided not to attempt a detour. I tossed rocks and large branches toward the snake, hoping to spook it into slithering off into the woods. I took a few steps up the trail to assess whether a pass was possible, and the snake rattled again and coiled back. Crap. (Note to self: take some wilderness training courses.) After a few minutes, I decided on a fourth approach: pile some big sticks and branches in the middle of the trail, so if the snake attacks it would have to get past the branches. I tossed a few branches into the middle of the trail, took a deep breath, and walked very quickly past the snake, as far away from it as possible. It made a racket as I passed, but it didn't strike. Whew.

I may not have been bitten by the rattler, but I was bitten by the AT bug. I would never dream of attempting the full trail, but the little thought in the back of my mind about maybe backpacking a couple of sections one day has turned into a bigger "I think I'll start trying to plan an AT weekend for this fall" kind of thought. We'll see.

On the way back to the highway, I stopped at The Apple House for a pork BBQ sandwich and a sample of their homemade apple cinnamon doughnuts. Pretty tasty. They smoke the meat right there, but I have to say I was a little disappointed at its lack of real smokiness. But with a pickle spear, some coleslaw, potato chips, and a bit of bubbly root beer, it made for a restorative post-hike meal.

But yeah, I'll be sore tomorrow.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Everything is broken

In true Ikea-furniture form, my dresser, on the decline for many months, gave up the fight recently. The bottom of the top drawer has fallen and my clothes have slid into the drawer below, which independently fell off its tracks, an unfixable plight. The middle drawer hangs off-kilter, as if an earthquake had jostled the whole unit. The contents of the middle drawer are folded in a cardboard box across the room. The contents of the top drawer just slide down the broken drawer bottom, and every time I want an article of clothing, I have to pick through the debris.

My iPod, which doesn't hold a battery charge for more than a day or two, also refuses to play newly added music when on shuffle. It just plays a random mix of songs from the same 5 or 6 albums, mostly the ones I've owned the longest. My digital camera often forgets the date, and when I use the digital viewfinder, the batteries drain quickly. Our Internet fizzles out at least one day a week, and sometimes it's out all weekend, thanks to bad wiring in the apartment.

Last summer, someone put a dent in my car. Not an oops-I-bumped-your-car kind of dent, but an I-whacked-your-car-with-a-baseball-bat kind of dent. The perils of street parking. I haven't gotten it fixed yet, and I worry that people judge me. I'm the girl with the rusted dent, because I don't have the cash to fix it, and therefore I am less cool or grown-up or something.

I've had my bed for fully half of my entire life, and over time, it has accrued a canal down the middle, where my singular body has worn it down. No amount of mattress flipping or foam padding will remedy the problem, and I often get out of bed in the morning just because I'm too uncomfortable to lie there any longer. Some of the knives in the set I bought a few years ago have lost their handles. My plates and mugs and bowls are chipped. My favorite wine glass set has been reduced to one sad glass.

In my mind, I have a nice life, with nice things. My dishes match, and I cook yummy food with good utensils and sharp knives. My car is admired for being in great shape despite being eight years old, and its color is lovely. My camera takes beautiful pictures, my iPod broadens my musical horizons, my bed cradles me to sleep each night and I wake feeling rested.

I made a choice to live in a newly renovated unit in a convenient location, thinking that I would have a nice life. But all it has meant is that my money goes to my rent, not to fixing or replacing all of the broken things in my life. I know that having nice things doesn't necessarily lead to true happiness. I know that they're just things, and that I'm fortunate to have them at all. But having old, broken things is not inspiring. I love entertaining but I don't want to serve my guests on my chipped, mismatched dishes. I'm embarrassed to show anyone my room, or God forbid, have them sleep in my bed. It comes down to quality of life. There is no shame in liking nice things, especially if having them makes it easier to spend more time enjoying the things that really matter, like dinner parties with friends, great shots of wildlife on a hike, music that makes a moment, or a personal space that just makes living more comfortable.