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Diapause: The Retreat of an eNaturalist
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Fifteen years ago I left journalism for nature. I swapped a necktie for binoculars and a reporter’s notepad for a field book. As a self-employed field naturalist, my income sank to levels of voluntary poverty. Yet I inherited wealth in a new currency: a dawn chorus of warblers, an orchid’s purple glow, the ancient tenacity of dragonflies.
Although I often work alone, this life outside I am eager to share. Coded into my DNA is a drive to bring nature and people together. It gives me purpose. So in addition to my field work, I launched a one-man eco-tourism business. I hosted a radio show about birds, spoke to garden clubs and Audubon chapters, and appeared on television. Over time my enterprise grew. I was guiding, writing and doing field work. Mostly, I was outside. The pace was perfect. Then came the internet.
If I couldn’t get people outdoors finding flycatchers or savoring serviceberries, I would gather them to social media and my blog, The Daily Wing, where I reported about wildlife and wild places. The web’s megaphone grew my enterprise even more, bringing new people to nature. I suppose that my online strategy was no different than working at a newspaper. If the free trade of facts and knowledge are essential to a functioning society, then so too is expanding the discovery and enjoyment of nature critical to its future. And to our own.
But along this electronic path something went wrong. To my world, my blend of news and nature, the internet certainly has the potential to improve the flow of ideas, the fundamental rights of people and the fate of the planet. But our mass migration online has run a dubious course. Never before have so many seen so much wild while seated indoors. And I am complicit. So vast and diverse is my own adoption of the web that I now claim no fewer than nine working email addresses. I devote more time to nature online than I do outside. This is frightening (and not very natural).
So now this experiment will rest. My blend of the wild and the wired will enter diapause, nature’s state of dormancy. I’m dimming the lights and heading for the woods with a notebook and pencil.
This essay is no polemic on technology. This retreat of mine is no grand statement on our fate with nature in the digital epoch. Rare is it for any of us to witness the rise of a new mass medium. This one certainly offers benefits online. The Vermont Atlas of Life, eBird, Odonata Central, BugGuide.net and many web sites like them represent a potent blend of data and citizen naturalists working together toward conservation and biointegrity. Going digital has allowed me to reach neighbors in new ways and nature seekers from far away. Yet while riding these electrons I have come into a troubled country.
“Bryan Pfeiffer Enterprises Inc.” now comprises The Daily Wing, Vermont Bird Tours, Wings Photography, Wings Environmental, For the Birds, Maple Corner Media, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, 500px, Vermont Public Television, Vermont Public Radio and a few other electronic adventures I’ve tried and abandoned over the years. The Social Media Industrial Complex informs me that now, in this new landscape, to scrape together my income, to begin the sales of my next book, I must engage in relentless self-promotion. Blog regularly. Boost your page views. Optimize yourself in search engines. Make more Facebook friends. Amass Twitter followers. And this doesn’t include the daily sandstorm of emails and those worthy online projects I mentioned above.
What’s frightening is the ease and breadth of our migration to the new country of the glowing screen. For many of us, the easy target was the television. So we got rid of our televisions. But the brain-rotting has a new screen. Well, actually, many screens. To be sure, flowing toward me from around the globe and through this Macbook and my iPhone is brilliant prose, elegant imagery, nature’s serenades, and genuine human connection. Yes, on this path there are treasures. But more than anything, there is too much time online, even too much time with too much worthwhile information. My eyes have grown old before this screen.
The inimitable John Hartford, in his plaintive song “In Tall Buildings,” warned us about conformity in career.
So it’s goodbye to the sunshine
goodbye to the dew
goodbye to the flowers
and goodbye to you
I’m off to the subway
I must not be late
I’m going to work in tall buildings
As a field naturalist my office is outdoors. Still, I so easily find myself trapped in tall buildings. Mine are now digital. I am too often locked inside this computer.
I have a book to write about evolution and nature expressed in the life of an extraordinary animal, Pantala flavescens, a golden, globe-trotting dragonfly that goes by the common name Wandering Glider. My new appointment to teach writing in the Field Naturalist and Ecological Planning programs at the University of Vermont is a new passion and mission. What’s left of my brain is bequeathed to the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, where I do a bit of writing and editing. This is enough time indoors.
I will not unplug. I will instead beat a path ever more determined toward nature. My blog posts and other online dispatches will become infrequent. From June 1 to August 15, I will shut down my email. To find me in 2013, you must visit Vermont peaks at sunrise, remote peatlands in Saskatchewan, alpine meadows in Wyoming, or the diners and coffee shops of Montpelier, where I live simply in an apartment measuring 15 feet by 23 feet, rent an “office” 6.5 feet by 6.5 feet, walk to every local merchant, and can even get myself into the woods in 10 minutes flat. I shall hasten my pace of giving away belongings and shrinking my footprint.
I will most certainly miss my online community. From time to time, I’ll resurface to guide a few bird walks or teach digital photography. I’ll consolidate my digital life here at bryanpfeiffer.com. Mostly, I will write my book, write with my students and live outside. We need not reject the digital epoch. I won’t. But now and then let’s escape our tall buildings.