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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