Two-Minute Interview: My Dad

A shelf in my office. Like father, like daughter....

Welcome to the first installment of “Two-Minute Interview,” which I hope will be a weekly feature here.

Don’t you sometimes just want to ask someone a single question? I do. I decided to start close to home, with my father, Bernie Rosner. All my life, my dad devoured books. But not just any books; they were on the most wide-ranging and often obscure topics you could think of. Centuries and Styles of the American Chair, 1640-1970. England’s Thousand Best Churches. The Rise and Fall of Maya Civilization. It became something of a family joke at holidays to see who could come up with the most outrageously esoteric book for him. Lately, though, the bulk of the books piled on various tables around his apartment are about science. I wondered about the allure.

Q: Why do you read so many books about science?

A: I guess it’s an extension of my interests as a teenager. When I was growing up, science fiction was just starting to emerge in a serious way. The science fiction greats like Ray Bradbury and A. E. van Voght were writing amazing, mind-stretching things. Even L. Ron Hubbard was interesting.

I started out in science as a college student, then wandered off into the arts, then the dark arts of advertising. I guess I’m trying to re-connect to my science roots.

If you’re interested in science, it’s necessary to keep up with the latest books, because science is a field that keeps obsoleting itself.

The history of France, for instance, while interesting, is not likely to change from year to year. But astrophysics is. History is fixed, more or less. Science is in flux. Even something as rock-solid as evolutionary theory keeps evolving.

Also, since there’s generally not a plot involved [editor's note: GASP!], or a host of characters to follow [editor's note: DOUBLE GASP!], you can dabble in science books by reading a few at a time. Right now I’m reading Adventures Among Ants by Mark Moffett, The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins, The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics by James Kakalios and The Beekeepers Lament by Hannah Nordhaus, which you gave me.

I’ve just finished two interesting books on early humans, one about Cro Magnons (us) and the other about Neanderthals (not us).

One of my big interests is cave art. It’s mind-boggling to think that our immediate ancestors, some 30,000 years ago, worked their way into the remotest corners of caves, with flimsy torches, to leave their mark upon the walls. This ability to think symbolically led to computers and putting a man on the moon. The first five million years of human evolution didn’t produce very much except crude stone tools, but the last 30,000 years or so were off the charts.

I’m also fascinated by fossilization. I used to think that fossils were just old bones. Then I learned that fossils were bones that had been converted to stone, through minerals in the sediment replacing the organic matter in the bones. A stone replica. How can you not be amazed at that?

Every time you pick up the newspaper (or view it online), there’s another new scientific discovery to read about. I don’t mean to keep picking on France–but when was the last time you read about a new discovery in French history?

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Streams, Bugs, and the Future of Species: An Interview with Chris Funk

On an unseasonably hot day last week in Fort Collins, Colorado, I sat down with Chris Funk, assistant professor of biology at Colorado State University, to learn about a new research project aimed at predicting species’ vulnerability to climate change. Called Evotrac, the project, led by eight investigators from three universities, is focused on insects—and to a lesser extent fish and frogs—that live in headwater streams in the Colorado Rockies and the Ecuadorian Andes.

(WARNING: For ecology wonks only!)

HR: What’s Evotrac all about?

Chris Funk: A lot of the limitations on predicting the effects of climate change have to do with our limited basic ecological and evolutionary understanding. So you have to step back and ask some bigger, basic questions in the field. Our premise is that the historical selection pressures that these species have experienced wherever they live are going to influence how vulnerable they are to climate change.

Our idea is that the type of variability in temperature and stream flow that an organism experiences is going have an important effect on its traits, and those traits will determine how vulnerable it is to changes in temperature and changes in disturbance. So, for example, if a species experiences lots of variability in temperature throughout the year, you’d predict it has a high tolerance to changes in temperature. In Colorado, a species that lives here all year round has to be pre-adapted to a lot of variation in temperature. So if temperature rises, or becomes more variable with climate change, then those organisms would be less vulnerable.

We’re also looking in Ecuador. An organism at a given altitude in cloud forest in the Andes throughout the year experiences a relatively small range of temperatures. At the same elevation in Ecuador as in Colorado, it’s a relatively constant temperature all year round. And because those organisms in the tropics don’t experience much variability in temperature, we predict that they have relatively narrow thermal tolerances.

HR: What would that mean for tropical species?

CF: It suggests some tropical species might be more vulnerable to climate change. Even if the absolute temperature changes very little in the tropics compared to the temperate zone, because those species are very sensitive to changes of temperature, just a small amount can throw them over the edge.

This idea is known as the climactic variability hypothesis. It’s been attributed to Dan Janzen, from a paper titled, “Why mountain passes are higher in the tropics.” The idea is, say you’re in the middle of a mountain range in the tropics. There’s a greater cost to going over it than there is in the temperate zone, because you have to go into a climate that you’re not adapted to.

HR: Has this hypothesis been tested?

CF: There’s been some testing of it, but not so much in freshwater systems. And there are all sorts of predictions based on this hypothesis. One is narrower thermal tolerance in the tropics. Another is that you’re going to have narrow elevational ranges in the tropics—so that if you looked at the species’ distributions, you’d predict that they’d have narrow bands corresponding to elevation, kind of like those Jell-o cakes where you’ve got different flavors at different levels, to use a friend’s analogy. Whereas in the temperate zone, it’s all one flavor of Jell-o.

You can also make predictions about dispersal. Because it’s costly to move in the tropics, species will have lower dispersal abilities. This is something else that will determine vulnerability to climate change, because it’s important to be able to move and track suitable habitat when that habitat is changing in space. You want to be able to move from your currently suitable habitat to one that becomes suitable in the future.

HR: What else are you hoping to accomplish, besides testing that hypothesis?

CF: Another thing we’re trying to do is link the changes that occur because of climate change to predicted effects on ecosystem processes. Evolutionary history affects the traits of species that you find in a given spot. Now we’ve got this new rapid climate change, and the traits an organism has are going to affect whether they persist in the system. And then you have a new set of species that persist, and those will affect the ecosystem processes—say, nutrient cycling. And those changes will in turn feed back on the kind of organisms that can live there.

HR: You’re planning to compare related species from each area. So you would take, say, a mayfly in both these places and look at how it’s physiologically different? How do you measure the differences?

CF: In general, we’re finding one mayfly species in a given family in Colorado and a similar one in the same family in Ecuador, and then we’ll look at their thermal tolerances. The most basic standard way of doing it is stick them in a little container and heat up the water and see at what point they have a hard time functioning. That’s the physiological measurement. For dispersal, we’re using population genetic techniques to look at gene flow between populations. If there’s more gene flow—if the populations are more homogenous—there’s more dispersal. And if they have greater dispersal ability, you’d predict that species would be more resistant, less vulnerable to climate change.

HR: What’s the ultimate goal? Just because we can make predictions doesn’t mean we’re going to do something about it. Does this change the way we might think about conservation?

CF: In the broadest sense, our job is to help predict where there will be certain areas that are hotspots of vulnerability, so we can focus our management and policy in those areas, because obviously there are limited resources. Up until recently, people have been more worried about the temperate zone and the Arctic/Antarctic than the tropics. But the problem is that you don’t know anything about the sensitivity of organisms to a given unit change in temperature, or a given change to the flow regime of a stream.

Potentially we might be able to imagine some sort of vulnerability map of the western hemisphere, and red means you’re very vulnerable to climate change and blue means you’re not. And maybe, if these hypotheses are right, then the tropics would show up very red.

There also might be differences between groups of organisms. Some family of stonefly might have a really low dispersal ability. There are some stoneflies that have no wings. So we might say not just that these regions are vulnerable, but these organisms in these regions. And, say a particular organism has a very important functional role in ecosystem processes—say it’s very important in nitrogen cycling, which is an important process in these headwater streams. We could say, then, that it’s gonna really change how these streams work at a bigger level if the organism disappears.

So you could argue whether you care about one individual species of stonefly or not. But if you say that this whole functional group is really vulnerable, and that its absence changes the ecosystem processes, and all these headwater streams connect to rivers, and these rivers are used extensively by people… There’s an easy argument about the importance of headwater streams, and freshwater in general, for human welfare.

Photo credit: Jeanne Robertson

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The Evolution Solution

WILLOW WARBLER

Now that I’ve recovered from Austin’s 107-degree days—and the shock of shuttling in and out of an overly air-conditioned convention center—I’m trying to process the takeaways from the Ecological Society of America’s annual meeting. There were some great sessions, including one on the nascent Urban Long-Term Research Area (ULTRA) network, which I wrote about at the NYT’s Green blog. It’s yielding some fascinating insights into how cities function as ecosystems, and the unintended consequences of seemingly innocuous policies.

Environmental trade-offs are going to become increasingly common. How can we encourage smarter water use without stripping away vital backyard habitat for native birds? How can we plant trees—for shade, biodiversity, carbon storage, soil stability, etc—without sucking up scarce water supplies? How can we power cities with renewable electricity without destroying fragile landscapes in the process? These are the sorts of questions we need to answer, and the more we can measure and understand urban systems, the better we’ll be at making informed decisions.

Of course, this is true for all ecosystems, not just urban ones. Which is why I was surprised there wasn’t more talk of evolution at ESA. There were a few sessions and a smattering of presentations that sought to bring evolution into ecological thinking, but for the most part they were marginalized or lost in the overwhelming crush of traditional ecology. Not that I’ve got anything against traditional ecology. But I think it’s time to recognize that establishing priorities and setting sound environmental policies in the face of global change means understanding how species adapt. As Andrew Gonzalez, a biologist at McGill University, told me over enchiladas and mole, “We don’t know how to fix an ecosystem, so we have to encourage it to fix itself.” The only way to do this is to bring evolution to bear on ecology. (Which is just one reason I’m excited about Kevin Zelnio’s new blog, EvoEcoLab, over at Scientific American.)

One of the best talks I saw at ESA was by Kristen Ruegg of UC Santa Cruz, who’s combining DNA sequencing and stable isotope measurements to try to solve the mystery of songbird decline. Half of all migratory songbird populations in North America are shrinking, but it’s not clear whether the problem is happening at their breeding grounds, their wintering grounds, or both. Understanding songbird migration—linking a population’s temperate mating area with its tropical getaway—is essential to honing in on what’s killing them. So Ruegg is using feathers—more than 150,000 of them, collected since 1992 and stored at UCLA’s Center for Tropical Research. She’s using isotopic signatures from hydrogen to identify the birds’ wintering locations, and then using single nucleotide polymorphisms or SNPs (sorry for the crappy, human-focused link) to create a fine-scale genetic map of which birds summer where.

Employing new genetic techniques in the service of understanding nature is an important step forward. I’ll be delving into this topic, here and elsewhere, over the coming months. Evolution happens before our eyes, not just at the glacial pace at which new species arise–and we can no longer afford to ignore it when it’s relevant to environmental decisions. The planet is changing, and species will change with it. We need to understand how. Stay tuned.

Photo via Flickr/Duncan Brown

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From the Archives, 1998

Okay, so this has nothing to do with teeth or claws. Or, for that matter, with nature. Though it does have to do with evolution—specifically, the evolution of the internet, and our relationship to it. I was reminiscing about this story recently with my old friend Austin Bunn, and I’m hereby dusting it off for a little summertime nostalgia trip.

Back in the late ’90s, when I edited the Village Voice’s coverage of the emerging culture of the internet, I commissioned an experiment. Austin, my lead writer, would hide out in his Brooklyn apartment and see how long he could survive using only the internet as his portal to the world—for sustenance, companionship, entertainment, information. Today, when trying to avoid the internet is a far bigger challenge, it’s hard to fathom that this piece ran just 13 years ago.

One Wednesday, I holed up in my apartment– no radio, no television, no phone, no contact. Just me, my ThinkPad, and a 28.8 connection.

You kind of have to read the whole piece. It’s in diary format, a time machine to an era full of promise but not yet delivering much beyond email and porn.

12:55. I’m at fitNOW, an exercise site. I have to get another plug-in first to watch a clip of “Abs of Steel.” I spend 15 minutes getting the player. Then, in a tiny, jittery box, Tamilee Webb (M.A., Exercise Science) tells me about her career. I can’t hear a word.

Bizarrely, you can’t access the piece on the Village Voice website (perfect)—though you can read my absurd introduction, in which I mention “the scores of homegrown start-up companies that have dictated the development of the Web— and are now household names: Amazon, N2K, Salon. . .” (Anyone have a clue what N2K was?)

Here’s another gem from the intro:

Aimless surfing has been all but obliterated; the bulk of Internet usage is for pragmatic concerns. (A survey released last month by PricewaterhouseCoopers revealed that 44 percent of Americans use the Net most often “for research or getting information,” 27 percent for e-mail, 6 percent for online banking, and 5 percent for reading magazines and newspapers; 11 percent use it mainly for “entertainment.”)

Reading Austin’s article is kind of like picking up that awesome old dial controller for the original Atari version of Pong. Or like hearing your grandmother talk about the days of party lines.

3:45. The Starr report is posted online. CNN.com is down. MSNBC.com is also full. NYTimes.com bounces me, but I keep pounding until I get through.

Was 1998 really that long ago? Apparently, it was.

9:05. I’m going to have to order food. I cruise the delivery sites: Netgrocer, NYCdelivery, NYC Grocer. Nobody will deliver to Brooklyn.

Read the full story here (perhaps accompanied by Massive Attack’s Mezzanine.)

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On Assignment in Heart City

Nebraska sandhills--not a bad place for fieldwork

I’ve been in Valentine, Nebraska all week with a group of Harvard evolutionary biologists, being repeatedly reminded that 1) my job is awesome and 2) I’d never cut it as a scientist. These guys are in the field from before 7 am til after 9 pm, day after day. Right now, for instance, I’m typing away while three of them are processing samples in the garage and another two are out in the blazing-hot prairie sun wielding shovels and hauling bags of concrete. Okay, there are sometimes margaritas involved. But still.

Neither rain nor rattlesnakes nor the threat of hantavirus nor mishaps requiring emergency-room visits keeps these enthusiastic researchers from their appointed rounds. The only things I’ve seen slow them down are bad coffee and overly chatty locals (especially those bearing gifts: rhubarb cake, homemade pickles, beaver pelts). They’re fired up by repetitive tasks–whether tagging mice or making egg sandwiches–and seem happiest when confronting the biggest potential setbacks. Oh, these huge structures I just spent two weeks building have structural flaws? Let’s jerry-rig a solution! Crank up the techno tunes and hand me a shovel!

Of course, reporting is a repetitive task, too, and sometimes you simply have to do that final interview even if you can’t stand to listen to one more person talk about the topic. At a Nieman Conference a couple of years ago, Jon Lee Anderson told of interviewing scores of mid-level bureaucrats in the hope of trying to uncover one small but key piece of information for his book on Che Guevara. He had a final interview scheduled and almost canceled it, burned out and certain that this guy would prove just as useless as the rest. But he soldiered on–and the guy turned out to be the guy, instrumental to the reporting.

Still, in general the beauty of reporting is that it’s so variable. Here in Valentine, I can observe the local environment while walking along the Cowboy Trail, a 195-mile bike path that winds across the state. I’d be remiss in my attempt to gather local color if I didn’t wander down the street to the Cherry County Historical Society Museum, which among other things holds an impressive collection of spittoons and a truly garish beauty parlor device from the 1920s, made of dozens of metal binder clips dangling from fabric-coated electrical wires. (You had to really want curly hair.) They’ve even got teeth and bones from mammoths and rhinoceroses, discovered locally–a clear evolutionary biology connection! And I better pop into the western store–who knows what I might learn in there.

Unlike the biologists, though, my work will yield results in a flash. In this case, I’ll write a story next week. I don’t think I could stick it out for the months and years required to produce solid results in a field study like the one in Valentine. That project (which you can read about soon in the NYT) will require site visits every couple months for potentially years to come, and an overwhelming (to me, not the scientists) amount of painstaking data collection and analysis. My job seems a bit cushy by comparison: I can show up, shadow them in the field, delve into the backstory over tacos and beer, and transcribe my interviews indoors during the hottest part of the day.

Not that my job is cushy. I’ve gotten dirty and sunburned and bitten by a red ant—causing me to more or less drop my pants in the middle of an alfalfa field, my generous contribution to the lab’s field-lore canon. All in a day’s work.

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Masai Mara’s Vanishing Animals

In April, I visited Kenya’s Masai Mara reserve and wrote about my concern that it was being loved to death. Now, unfortunately, a new study seems to back up my fear that wildlife in the park are faring badly–though according to the research, the culprit isn’t tourism but expansive livestock grazing in the larger Mara ecosystem.

Joseph O. Ogutu of the University of Hohenheim and colleagues from Kenya and South Africa analyzed aerial data that the Kenyan government collected from 1977 through 2009 in the Masai Mara reserve and the surrounding areas, which are home mainly to Maasai cattle-grazing communities. Overall, wildlife numbers plummeted by at least 70 percent during that period–with giraffes, zebras, warthogs, Thompson’s gazelles, impalas and more than a half dozen others all in decline.

Animals inside the park appeared to be no better off than those outside its boundaries (which aren’t fenced)–which calls into question a decade’s worth of beefed-up conservation efforts inside the reserve.

Here’s a sample from the paper, from the Journal of Zoology:

Most wildlife species have declined toward a third or less of their previous abundance within the overall Mara region between 1977 and 2009, with these decreases being almost as severe within the reserve as in the adjoining ranches. Hence, the earlier downward population trends of most wildlife species (Broten & Said, 1995; Ogutu, 2000; Ottichilo et al., 2000, 2001; Serneels & Lambin, 2001) have continued. Not only have resident populations decreased, but the numbers of migratory wildebeest and zebra entering the Mara region during the dry season have also shrunk, although no change in the source populations in the Serengeti ecosystems has been recorded (Sinclair et al., 2007). The biomass of livestock as a per cent of total livestock and wildlife biomass recorded within the reserve boundaries increased from an average of 2% in the 1970s to 23% in the 2000s and now greatly exceeds that of any resident wildlife species, except buffalo.

Ogutu told the BBC he was stunned by what he found, and that he’d expected to discover wildlife numbers in the park were on the rise. ”But to our great surprise, the extreme wildlife declines have continued unabated in the Mara,” he said.

In the paper, the researchers finger “expanding human population” and “livestock influences” in the neighboring areas. But in the BBC interview, Ogutu was more specific, saying cattle numbers have tripled inside the reserve. He also said poaching is a constant problem.

When I visited the Mara, a Maasai warrior I met told me his friends often graze their animals inside the park boundaries. (He also revealed that they regularly hunt lions.)

In the Journal of Zoology paper, the scientists conclude that the future of the whole Mara region’s wildlife now rests on the success of conservation efforts outside the park–a worrisome state of affairs. This is increasingly true of protected areas around the world, including the U.S.: take, for instance, Yellowstone National Park, where the fate of the West’s iconic bison hinges on what happens to them when they roam across borders invisible to them. (I wrote about this last spring.) As difficult as it is to protect species and ecosystems on official conservation land (from, for instance, the off-road tourism I witnessed), it’s even harder to do so outside those arbitrary lines.

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Reality Bites

I’ve turned in a feature, scheduled lunches with editors, emailed to say I still exist. I’ve panicked, at 4 am, about whether I can line up enough work to pay the bills. I’ve fretted over health insurance and worried about how I’ll access journal articles. I’ve weighed the pros and cons of a conference in Mexico—just how much airfare are those geneticists’ PowerPoints worth?—and another in Oklahoma. I’ve used packing as an excuse to put off pitching.

I can’t hide from the truth anymore. The writing on the wall is as clear as a Chauvet Cave bison painting in Herzog-narrated 3-D: I’m officially a freelancer again. My lovely, once-in-a-lifetime year as a Knight Science Journalism Fellow is over, and now I’ll have to earn my living like everyone else. It feels a bit like I’m emerging from the past, from a time when journalism was a thriving profession, back into the present and its harsher realities.

I don’t mean that journalism fellowships are stuck in the past. The Knight fellowship offered training in every aspect of multimedia reporting, from audio and video production to data visualization. Surrounded by MIT’s future-makers, we had access to all areas of cutting-edge science. The emphasis was very much on looking ahead.

But let’s face it: Journalism fellowships are a bit of an anachronism, and an irony-laced one at that. As newspapers across the country scramble to make ends meet, foundations built by newspaper empires are thriving. Fellows are doted on, pampered, given access to vast university resources—yet our overriding concern is how we’ll make use of these gifts in the real world given shrinking newsrooms, shrinking word counts, shrinking salaries. A growing proportion of applicants for journalism fellowships are freelancers, a telling sign of the times. (Is it pure math, a reflection of freelancers’ growing ranks? Or are staff reporters worried their jobs aren’t secure enough to withstand a nine-month leave? A little of both, I think.)

These fellowships, though, have always been opportunities for mid-career reflection. Am I proud of the work I’m doing? (Sometimes.) How can I make it better? (Data-driven reporting, for one.) Am I happy in my job? (Yes, if you call it a “job.”) Should I be doing a different kind of reporting? (Don’t think so.) Or a different kind of work entirely? (Heavens, no!) Many fellows change jobs or beats or media afterward. Others return to their lives reinvigorated. I fall into that latter group. After nine months away from freelance journalism, I miss it. So the good news is I’m doing what I love. The bad news, of course, is that I can’t pay my mortgage with happiness tokens.

So I’m also rattled. What if I can no longer earn enough money? In my early years as a freelancer, there was always a safety net—at least a mental one. If I couldn’t make it work, I could always get a staff job someplace. But now that safety net seems full of very large holes. So here I go, back at it. I’m available for work, starting June 3.

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So You Want “overall good karma”? Try Paying for It.

I know, you’re all sick of hearing about how The Huffington Post got rich by stiffing its writers, and how now that Arianna scored the big deal she’s still asking journalists to write for free. You’re sick of hearing us writers whine about it. But the thing is, it’s not just HuffPo. Not by a long shot. You’d be shocked–SHOCKED–at how many outlets are asking professional journalists to write for free. And not just asking, but making it sound like it’s the greatest opportunity ever, ZOMG!

These offers to write for no pay come from companies large and small, established and scrappy. The other day, a friend politely declined an offer to pen a story sans compensation for the web site of a highly influential and well-read monthly magazine that pays its print writers upwards of $2 a word.

But more often, these flattering offers come from web sites we’ve never heard of and wouldn’t consider writing for even if they were throwing money at us. This is one of my favorites, received yesterday by a freelance science writer friend. Who, by the way, does not have a blog. Or a “message.”

Hey XXXX-
My name is XXXX and I am the assistant producer of a television show called XXXXX. I am following you on Twitter and I am thoroughly impressed by your blog. I find your articles to be very knowledgeable and your writing style is unique and offers a great perspective on green issues.

We are in the process of redesigning the website for XXXX, and are looking to create a community of worldwide leaders who are making a difference in for our planet. We are very interested in sustainability, green issues, the environment and creating overall good karma! My production staff here is in the process of contacting people from all over the world, who we think have a voice that needs to be heard. I have really enjoyed your message and what you stand for, and would like to include you as one of our professional contributors on our redesigned site.

We would be looking for you to contribute a couple of content pieces per month (articles, vlogs, blogs, podcasts…..whatever you would like to contribute). In return, we would give you a professional profile page on our site, and note you as one of our professional contributors. This would provide you with a place that you can expose you personal/business online presence.

Let me know if you are interested. And if so, I will send you over the professional contributor guidelines. We would love to have you on board!

Thanks!

OMFG, I LOVE good karma!

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The Curse of Masai Mara


I just returned from Masai Mara, one of Africa’s most iconic reserves. Sitting outside my tent on the edge of the Talek river, watching evening creep in and listening to the mingling sounds of daytime birds and nighttime creepy-crawly things, I felt awestruck and blissed-out and kind of devastated, all at the same time. “Dream of Africa,” my Lonely Planet guide book says, “and you dream of the Masai Mara.”

It’s true—up to a point. I’ve tromped through rainforests on three continents, but I’d never seen African wildlife outside of a zoo. Fields of impala and gazelles grazing among wildebeest and warthogs, elephants and zebras and giraffes; a pride of lazing lions; a leopard surveying his terrain from atop a boulder: I did dream of these, I almost can’t believe that I really saw them. But the cheetah sleeping off the hot Kenyan sun beneath a bush? I bet he really wished the safari vans would leave him alone.


My driver saw them from across the savannah—three white vans parked together. He took a hard right off the dirt track and drove straight across the grass, not wanting to miss the chance to show me whatever it was they were looking at. All around us you could see car tracks in the grass—not ruts, yet, but clearly visible tracks. We reached the cluster of vans, with their tops popped just like ours and tourists standing up like prom-night revelers with the limo moonroof open. Fifteen feet away, the cheetah was trying to nap. New vans arrived, the drivers jostling for space so the passengers could glimpse their quarry. Each time an engine stopped or started, the cheetah lifted his head, flicked his ears, and then lay back down determined to get some rest. A British woman in the van next to mine whistled at the animal. “Here, beautiful, just look over here for a moment, you gorgeous thing.”

In my mind I saw a New Yorker-style cartoon, with this cheetah telling his buddy, “I liked it better when they’d just come and shoot us.”

Where once there were distinct dirt tracks through the park, now there are rows of them, sometimes several car lengths wide, all going roughly the same place. Tire tracks cut through the savannah everywhere, and many of them are rutted. Safari guides avoid the ruts and instead drive around them, carving new tracks which will soon become rutted too. On a delicate hillside covered in rocks and low, spindly trees, at least eight vans forged their own paths to reach the snoozing lionesses—which one driver had somehow spotted and then broadcast over the radio. There was no road, nor even any well-worn tracks, nearby, so each van crushed untold acres of plants. Those plants are the foundation of the fragile Mara ecosystem; they’re what feeds the herbivores on which those lions rely. But no one seems to be making that connection.

In South Africa’s Kruger National Park, rules prevent more than two vans at a time from viewing certain animals in close proximity. After a few minutes, the van must give way to someone else. I’m not sure how effective they are at policing this; in Masai Mara, though, there seemed to be no one on watch at all. The only rangers I saw at all were stationed along the Mara river to take tourists on a hippo-watching walk. I watched Maasai graze herds of several hundred cattle within the park (which used to belong to them until the government evicted them to form the reserve); why not, if no one is watching?

It’s the low season in the Mara. In my tent camp, only three of 18 tents were occupied (until the final night, when a dozen Russians descended, downing champagne and rum by the bottle); there were just seven guests around, including me. During an all-day safari, we drove for what seemed like hours, skirting the Tanzania border, without passing more than a handful of cars. Yet you could see them on every road and rise during an evening drive in the park—safari rush hour. During the high season, which runs nearly half the year, 5,000 visitors sometimes crowd the park in a single day; at four people per van, that’s more than 1200 vehicles each day.

I’m used to feeling that mix of euphoria and sadness when I visit places chock full of charismatic megafauna. It’s news to no one that the world’s most spectacular ecosystems are increasingly under threat. But usually the threat is development: rainforests slashed and burned to grow palm oil, river valleys flooded for hydropower. In Masai Mara, the threat is people like me. And all I can think about, now that I’ve returned to the chaos of Nairobi, is how to get back to the Mara.

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On Having a Field Day–and Taking Notes

There’s something about being “in the field” that’s exhilarating beyond any other experience. It’s why many scientists do what they do. For certain types of science, it’s where the data collection happens, and what makes all those countless hours spent churning out grant proposals worthwhile.

It also has an analog in journalism: being “on assignment.” This is different than being “on deadline,” which merely means someone is waiting for you to turn in copy. Being on assignment is about leaving your desk and discovering the world. It’s what produces the best stories, what makes all the other hassles of the job melt away, what’s most in danger of succumbing to shrinking budgets. Like going to the field, being on assignment carries an aura of mystique and possibility; trust me, nothing makes a journalist feel cooler than starting a sentence, “Once, when I was on assignment in Mozambique.…”

What is it about this amorphous non-place that scientists and journalists go? What is “the field,” exactly? “The field has no geographical or physical bounds, but is defined by those who go there to investigate, study, or commune with nature,” writes Michael R. Canfield, a lecturer in Harvard’s department of organismic and evolutionary biology, in the introduction to his upcoming book, Field Notes on Science and Nature. Canfield convinced an assortment of eminent field scientists to open their notebooks and reveal how they keep notes in the field—about birds, bugs, mammals, fossils–and why.

To a young naturalist, the field may come to life with unbounded imagination in an undeveloped lot. Others may find the field after long hours in a dugout canoe, dangerous river crossings, or battles with tropical diseases. Given the diversity of people and concepts of the field, there is no rigid formula for documenting the discoveries and adventures that happen there. However, a genre of record keeping—field notes—exists as a critical component of the study and experience of the field.

When Canfield spoke at our Knight Fellows seminar at MIT earlier this week, I was struck by this common preoccupation of both scientists and journalists, to record what we observe. Canfield wants to understand what encourages good observation. Does drawing a plant or animal while you’re watching it etch it in your mind better than photographing it? He argues that it does. It’s not necessarily a question of high- versus low-tech. It’s more about the amount and type of attention you pay. To sketch a lizard you have to really look at it, notice its shape and texture and shading. Good photography requires its own type of attention and is obviously important for all kinds of other reasons. But for a scientist in the field, snapping a photo of a flower or beetle just isn’t the same as rendering it in pencil on paper.

Reporting from the field requires the same sort of presence in the moment. You want to record with all your senses: What does this place, at this particular point in time, look like, feel like, smell like? Even if we’re on assignment in someone’s bland corporate office, we’re observing it like E.O. Wilson watching ants in a forest. What’s on this person’s desk? What is she wearing? What’s the view from the window that doesn’t open? You, the interview subject, might be chattering away, not noticing that you’ve digressed far from the matter at hand because I’m still furiously taking notes; and I might be indulging you because it gives me a chance to describe the contents of your bookcase.

So I’m left wondering: How different are the types of things that scientists and journalists write down? What would we find if we compared their field notes from the same expedition? How do Wildlife Conservation Society biologist and National Geographic Explorer Mike Fay’s notes from his Africa “mega-transect” (a 2,000-km walk across the Congo Basin) differ from those of David Quammen, the writer who accompanied him? (Fay, it turns out, published his field notes from the journey; Amazon has them for sale, used versions only, for $48.35. I haven’t seen Quammen’s available anywhere.) Anyone want to volunteer their notebooks so we can find out?

Category: Conservation, Journalism, Tooth and Claw | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments