The Chickahominy Report

News about Earth, Atmosphere, Water, and Life

Editorial reflection: Why this Blog?

I'm pressing a milkweed I collected near El Cerrito, N.M., in the fall of 1983

I’m press­ing a milk­weed I col­lect­ed near El Cer­ri­to, N.M., in the fall of 1983. (Copy­right © 1983 Richard L. Nos­trand)

MECHANICSVILLE, Va. — Every now and then a news pub­li­ca­tion (in the tra­di­tion­al and 21st cen­tu­ry sens­es) should rethink its mis­sion. Why does it exist? What audi­ence does it serve? Does it serve that audi­ence well?

The time for such reflec­tion (per­son­al inven­to­ry for those of you famil­iar with 12-step pro­grams) has come to The Chick­a­hominy Report.

The top­ic — the envi­ron­ment — aris­es from a long per­son­al evo­lu­tion. I began as a youth with a strong inter­est in the nature and the nat­ur­al sci­ences. Raised a Roman Catholic, I chose St. Fran­cis of Assisi as my con­fir­ma­tion saint for a rea­son. While I no longer prac­tice that reli­gion, I stand by my ven­er­a­tion of the man Roman Catholics regard as the patron saint of ani­mals and the envi­ron­ment.

Because of my curios­i­ty about the nat­ur­al world, I chose to major in biol­o­gy while an under­grad­u­ate at Louisiana State Uni­ver­si­ty in Shreve­port. My train­ing began in a clas­si­cal vein: tax­on­o­my (What is it?), anato­my and mor­phol­o­gy (How is it put togeth­er?), phys­i­ol­o­gy (How does it func­tion?) and evo­lu­tion (How did it orig­i­nate?).

Ini­tial­ly, I want­ed to study ani­mals, but — as is appro­pri­ate for some­one influ­enced by St. Fran­cis — I found the require­ment to col­lect and pre­serve spec­i­mens caught in the wild dis­com­fort­ing. When I dis­cov­ered geog­ra­phy (Where is it and why?), and that I could com­bine the two dis­ci­plines into one career — bio­geog­ra­phy — I found one of the rails that would deter­mine much of the course of my pro­fes­sion­al life.

The sec­ond rail I found by acci­dent. Although I grew up in a news­pa­per fam­i­ly, I had no plans for a career in jour­nal­ism. Nev­er­the­less, I repeat­ed­ly found myself need­ing extra cash and found that I could usu­al­ly get work in the sports depart­ment of a news­pa­per.

For more than a decade, I tried to keep sci­ence and jour­nal­ism sep­a­rate, but in the ear­ly 1990s, while a frus­trat­ed Ph.D. stu­dent in envi­ron­men­tal Sci­ences at The Uni­ver­si­ty of Vir­ginia, I met Kevin Car­mody, an edi­tor at The Dai­ly Progress in Char­lottesville, Va. Car­mody was also a found­ing board mem­ber of the Soci­ety of Envi­ron­men­tal Jour­nal­ists. He encour­aged me to com­bine the two inter­ests and become a sci­ence and envi­ron­men­tal jour­nal­ist.

In 1996, when I was work­ing for the Tree-Ring Lab at Colum­bia University’s Lam­ont-Doher­ty Earth Obser­va­to­ry, I final­ly lis­tened. I applied for and was accept­ed into the part-time pro­gram at Columbia’s Grad­u­ate School of Jour­nal­ism. I final­ly trod the path to my real career — a sci­ence and envi­ron­men­tal jour­nal­ist.

In the years since I start­ed my time at Colum­bia, I got kicked out of their sci­ence and envi­ron­men­tal jour­nal­ism con­cen­tra­tion because I want­ed to take Sam Freedman’s book sem­i­nar — a good move on my part, as it led direct­ly to the pub­li­ca­tion of my first book, Upheaval from the Abyss: Ocean Floor Map­ping and the Earth Sci­ence Rev­o­lu­tion in 2002. I’ve worked in jour­nal­ism as a news copy edi­tor and a sports­writer, and in sci­ence as a gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tor and a uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sor.

What­ev­er side of the science/journalism line I’ve been on since 1996, my pri­ma­ry goal has been to help oth­ers learn about the liv­ing world around them, for I have one irrev­o­ca­ble bias: that a healthy envi­ron­ment is vital to the sur­vival of our species as much as of any oth­er. We can­not ade­quate­ly pro­tect what we do not under­stand.

So far this Blog has been a fee­ble effort toward achiev­ing that goal. Like many blog­gers, I have yet to find the bal­ance between the work I love and the work that pays. Cir­cum­stances are com­pli­cat­ed by the fact that I am now writ­ing my third book, Time Detec­tives: Cli­mate Change and Sci­en­tists’ Quest to Know Earth’s Future from Its Past,  and have begun a Ph.D. pro­gram in Media, Art, and Text at Vir­ginia Com­mon­wealth Uni­ver­si­ty. Both of these lat­est “dis­trac­tions” fur­ther my long-term goal, but they take time away from the Blog you see here.

Nev­er­the­less, I hope that — despite my divid­ed atten­tion, idio­syn­crat­ic choic­es of top­ics, and pro­fessed bias — it con­tin­ues to serve its pur­pose in pro­vid­ing news about envi­ron­men­tal research and pol­i­cy devel­op­ments in the Mid-Atlantic region.

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