Selected Essays and Articles
Silent Spring at 60
Before all that she gave us in Silent Spring, before she demonstrated that one person and a book can change the world, Rachel Carson gave us the sea. A marine zoologist, Carson wrote a trilogy of books about ocean life and ecology. For research on the third, The Edge of the Sea, she used to visit a tide pool on Maine’s midcoast, to think among the periwinkles and barnacles, the herring gulls and knotted wrack. Sixty-seven years later, I have come to the very same pool, now the Rachel Carson Salt Pond Preserve, so that I might sit where she sat, see what she saw, and consider a question that has bothered me for years.
War and Nature
On Feb. 24, the day Russia invaded, Mute Swans were moving in to ice-free lakes and ponds for the breeding season near Kyiv. As rockets struck a train station in Kramatorsk on April 8, killing scores of people, European Peacock Butterflies were on the wing, flashing orange hues and blue eyespots. And during the siege of Mariupol this week, Sweet Violets were blooming through crusty earth across much of Ukraine.
While most of us witness this war in news reports from the front lines, I have also been watching a poignant spring unfold in photographs of nature that Ukrainians are sharing online.
Fallout: Pandemic Masks
Whether it is a token of virtue, a symbol of acquiescence or an expression of common sense, the pandemic mask is also a new form of litter. Yet rarely do we pick one up — not in the same way we might take a plastic bottle from the trail or a candy wrapper off our front lawn. The mask we avoid like … well … you know.
My Fading Serenade
From his perch high in a red spruce, a Blackburnian warbler reminds me of my age. This has nothing to do with the fact that every June for 30 years — nearly half of my life — I have bushwhacked the same route through woods in northern Vermont, stopping at the same five trees for exactly 10 minutes apiece to count every bird I see or hear. Nor does it have anything to do with my diminishing ability to see a Blackburnian warbler, whose face, throat, and upper breast glow like fire. This is instead about my aging as a field biologist, coming to terms with it — and finding new ways to save wildlife and wild places on a damaged planet. Read it at The Globe »
The Extinction of Meaning
One of the most imperiled animals in North America isn’t big and furry like a polar bear. It has neither the charisma of an ivory-billed woodpecker nor the elegance of a prairie fringed orchid. It has incited no eco-wars like those over the gray wolf or the spotted owl. It is not even a tool in the machinery now gearing up to weaken the Endangered Species Act. No, this endangered animal is only a butterfly named Poweshiek skipperling. And when it's gone for good, who will even care? After all, what good is a butterfly that doesn't tweet, titillate or turn a profit? Read my essay on Medium »
Ghosts and Tiny Treasures
Ten years ago this spring, in the darkness before dawn, I switched on my headlamp, dialed in my compass, and set forth into a chilly Arkansas swamp. Dressed head to toe in camouflage and lugging an arsenal of camera gear, I wandered alone that day through lowlands of oak, cypress and sycamore, through muck and icy water, and through my own hopeful apparitions. After about 10 miles of this, in the golden hour before sunset, I found a dry rise in the land, propped myself against a fallen tree, and waited for a resurrection. On this final evening in the swamp, like every other, I waited for an ivory-billed woodpecker to return from the dead. And on this day, like every other, the woodpecker never came. Read this essay on AEON's website. »
On my way to work in Peacham Bog I am blood walking. Black flies swarm in a frenzy at my ears. Deer flies turn my right hand into a lobster claw. Mosquitoes are rendered quaint by comparison. But this is the least of my problems. At age 55, here in the woods of Vermont, I now need eyeglasses to read my compass. And I fall more often while bushwhacking. It’s a matter of my clinging to a pace I kept in these forests three decades ago. My brain wills me forward faster than my legs can respond. Read on »
Snowy Owls and Us
Perched on a rocky point along the Maine coast, the snowy owl is languid, a predator without country or concern. The wind and the sleet don’t matter. Crashing waves don’t matter. You don’t matter either. The snowy owl doesn’t care that you’ve driven halfway across winter to see a bird on a rock. The snowy owl doesn’t even know you exist. So you peer through binoculars and watery eyes at a creature from a place painfully colder than Maine or Ohio or Minnesota, or anywhere else in the US that these Arctic owls are showing up in huge numbers this winter. As it rests, or naps, the owl ignores its role in the Harry Potter legend or even in the drama of a warming planet. Then you cough or curse the wind chill, and the owl spins its head your way. From a snowy owl’s eyes, the Arctic speaks. Read it on AEON's website. »
Hillary and Me
Hillary Clinton’s secret service agents were on to me. I knew it the moment one of them began talking into a microphone hidden in his sleeve. As I maneuvered through a crowd toward Hillary, two agents advanced on me. “If you don’t leave now,” one of them, the tall one, said politely, “we’ll take you out of here.” And so ended my chance to interview First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton in Woodstock, Vermont, on June 18, 1993. Or so I had thought. Read on »
Killing My Kindle
Not long ago, Ruth and I were browsing at Bear Pond Books when she came upon Carl Safina’s latest masterpiece, The View from Lazy Point, still in hardbound. “Well, I guess I’ll read your copy,” she said. I looked back with a sheepish grin. And then Ruth announced: “Oh, right … it’s on your Kindle." Shoppers stopped shopping. Employees stopped working. Their looks were like arrows through my heart. I withered. I shriveled. Right there in non-fiction. It was as if Ruth had announced at a PBS party that I watched Fox news. Yeah, it’s true. I own a Kindle. And it’s finally weighing on my conscience. Read or listen on VPR's website »
Blackbirds do it. Chickadees do it. Even educated emus do it. Some birds are cheaters. Their trysts, dalliances, one-morning stands, and other infidelities would constitute a racy script for a wildlife soap opera. Among the rest (or the restless, as the case may be), polygamy, or “many marriages,” ranges from casual to calculating. Read on »
The Breakup: A Very Short Story
Our ending had a beginning, a night fixed in my memory like every other event in our life together. On that night he didn’t reach for me, didn’t wake me with the caress that had always made us glow. This is an essay about love and distractions. Read on »