Writing the Earth: SEJ in ROA

In 1962 Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring sparked popular concern for issues in the environment. Early warnings of those times made us acknowledge that mankind’s activities were having far-reaching and unintended effects on vast but degradable systems like oceans and weather, agricultural soils and groundwater. The terms ecology and environment were certainly buzzwords when I entered graduate school in Zoology in 1970. It was an era in which many believed that the greening of America and the world had begun in earnest.

But sadly almost a half-century later, nations still bicker about how our generation should guide the future of the commons that belong to both humans and other life forms.

As the consequences of mankind’s interaction with the planet become more grave in an age of spin and special interests,  the public increasingly must have broad, objective and trustworthy accounting of the facts. More than that, today’s magazine or newspaper reader or television viewer deserves reportage that makes these complex environmental issues relevant and comprehensible to the non-scientist.

According to Bill Kovarik of the School of Communications at Radford University, “there is absolutely nothing more important at this moment in history than making sure that journalists are well educated in science and technology and environmental issues.”  The Society of Environmental Journalists  (SEJ) functions specifically to meet that need.

Since its founding in 1990, SEJ has worked to “advance public understanding of environmental issues by improving the quality, accuracy, and visibility of environmental reporting.” This month (Oct 15-19) the national organization hosted by Virginia Tech will meet in Roanoke for its annual conference that includes a slate of notable speakers, a wealth of informational sessions and regional field trips.

Governors Tim Kaine (VA) and Joe Manchin (WV) will welcome more than 500 SEJ members and registered guests at the Wednesday night reception and dinner at Hotel Roanoke. Entertainment will be provided by singer Kathy Mattea. For that evening’s awards gala, plaques will be presented by Philippe and Alexandra Cousteau, grandchildren of the legendary ocean explorer. A new recognition of excellence in the field this year will be the Rachel Carson Book Award.

On Thursday, attendees from around the country will venture out into our region to explore eight different landscapes and related issues. Field destinations will include a West Virginia mountaintop removal site; an Appalachian forest management area; a sustainable organic farm; the Blue Ridge Parkway; the Appalachian Trail; floats on the New River and the James River; and “the U.S’s first uranium mine outside the Southwest.”

Notable local authorities Cara Modisett, Rupert Cutler, Tom Denton, Dan Smith and Floyd’s Billy Weitzenfeld will offer their expertise and perspective as tour  speakers for the Parkway trip. Local officials and experts will be heard at stops along the way to and from each trip destination. Virginia Tech’s research and teaching faculty will provide relevant science and technical grounding for all of the excursions.

Friday’s plenary session is entitled “Old King Coal: What’s His Role in America’s Energy Future?” and Saturday’s plenary, “Election 2008 and the Environment.” Concurrent sessions Friday and Saturday will cover coal, energy, climate, water, land, environmental health, infrastructure, and the craft of reporting. An afternoon keynote address will be presented by Noble Peace Prize winner Dr. R. K. Pachauri, Chairman of the International Panel on Climate Change.

Finally, Sunday morning’s events center around environmentally-oriented books and authors, with discussions and readings by Wendell Berry, Ann Pancake and Denise Giardina. The central focus will be Appalachian community and culture related to coal and coal mining.

The choice of breakout sessions later on Sunday morning will include presentations on sense of place in environmental writing, natural history and travel writing, and writing about science and the environment. That will not be an easy choice for me to make!

I will be attending the SEJ conference as a new member this year. On Thursday by the time you read this column, I’ll be on a field excursion to Polyface Farm featured in Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma. The focus of discussion will center around the choices we must make for feeding the planet’s growing population.

In a future column I’ll share with you what I see and hear and learn during five information-dense mid-October days with environmental writers from across the country.

Storm Home


Almost all the leaves are gone from the maples today, this image from a week ago. Abscission seems to have come so quickly this year, in a rush to get on with it–toward what end, we cannot know.

Like every winter, this one is supposed to be “a bad one” which, if that means lots of snow, praise be. We need it badly to soak into the water table, to enrich the soil with nitrogen (I heard that was the case but will have to fact check.)

And at the same time, I dread the prospect of ice storms in the dark on a work day, especially for Ann who leaves before first light or returns on isolated black-ice roads a midnight.

But sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof, or however that verse goes, meaning don’t borrow trouble as you have enough already in your account to draw from.

And when trouble comes, we have, as Garrison Keillor calls it, our Storm Home.

If any of you are familiar with (or even have) Slow Road Home, the book cover was taken at just this time of year but from about the same distance from the mailbox looking from down the road, exactly opposite of this view.

As I’m writing now, you’ll see me at my cluttered oak desk if you peek into the window just left of the front porch (where golden maple and yellow poplar leaves have swirled into an eddy and found rest on our porch swing.)

This is a morning shot, the floor lamp in the window says I’d been sitting on the loveseat reading just moments before the light lured me outdoors. It was in the low 40s that morning, and it’s amazing how supercooled a metal tripod can become to bare fingers. It all comes back to me as I step into this image–the wonder of an image plus image-ination.

Yes We Can

There are a lot of good reasons to eat less meat. I offer the following.

There are 20 billion head of livestock on Earth, more than triple the number of people. According to the Worldwatch Institute, global livestock population has increased 60 percent since 1961, and the number of fowl being raised for food has nearly quadrupled in the same time period, from 4.2 billion to 15.7 billion.

The 4.8 pounds of grain fed to cattle to make one pound of beef represents a colossal waste of resources in a world teeming with hungry and malnourished people. According to Vegfam, a 10-acre farm can support 60 people growing soy, 24 people growing wheat, 10 people growing corn—but only two raising cattle.

Food First’s Frances Moore Lappé says to imagine sitting down to an eight-ounce steak. “Then imagine the room filled with 45 to 50 people with empty bowls … For the feed cost of your steak, each of their bowls could be filled with a full cup of cooked cereal grains.” Harvard nutritionist Jean Mayer says that reducing U.S. meat production 10 percent would free grain to feed 60 million people.

We’re not meatless but we eat less by far than we once did. We prefer it to be well-known animal protein from locally grown pastures. So we’ve been buying it to save for longer than next week’s table.

In the absence of a freezer (that keeps the e-meter spinning) Ann has returned again this year to the notion of canning meat (we use propane, wondering how we’d do it over an open pit fire as wood just keeps on growing, gas on the other hand…. Hmmm.)

We have pork chunks, beef chunks and sausage patties in pint jars upstairs on the canning shelves among this years tomatoes, green beans and pumpkin.

I’ll admit glass-canned pork looks a bit like goulish belljar specimens from the Museum of Meat (I keep looking for the two-headed piglet) but it’s good to know it’s up there and that we can buy meat when it’s on sale and keep it in this lower energy fashion. And we’ll think more and more highly of beans and plant the garden accordingly.

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NeitherNor of Autumn


Regarding yesterday’s contention that we are in Autumnal NeitherNor, Exhibit B. I rest my case–here, the most verdent summer greens, moreso with yesterday’s rain, even while some trees are already conspicuously strutting their very finest show of fall color and others (the walnuts like this one) lost their garments entirely.

It promises to be a high-volume weekend for the leaf-peepers who will come up-mountain to enjoy the pageantry of high places.

On Sunday, I will be tending a book table offering Slow Road Home at Mabry Mill (guess I should have used an image from there for this post; I’ll do that for Friday instead.) If you aren’t familiar with it, the mill is the most heavily photographed manmade object along the 400+ miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Typically on fall weekends, there will be some music being made on the grounds, sometimes apple butter making and other such local-cultural goings-on as well. The parking lot–even in these uncertain times–is likely to be filled and into the overflow space come a glorious mid-October weekend as this one promises to be.

I’ve heard a few people say (and I concur) that the season is peaking early this year, but of course that varies by elevation and location. Our poplars missed yellow and went straight to brown; places with more rainfall, the color is better.

I’ll have books to sell and sign and notecards to show but can’t sell the cards as the concession there doesn’t carry them. I can give out order forms for them though for mail order. Maybe I’ll see a few of you there?

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Prophetic: Toward a New Nobility?

I wondered aloud in passing to Ann, in the other room reading this morning, if given the end of the Bush Regime so close at hand, we might dare look toward a return to our former good name among the nations, to be a country once more with virtues to aspire to. She read back from Isaiah open, it turns out, to this very passage:

Isaiah 32: The Kingdom of Righteousness

1 See, a king will reign in righteousness
and rulers will rule with justice. 2 Each man will be like a shelter from the wind
and a refuge from the storm,
like streams of water in the desert
and the shadow of a great rock in a thirsty land.

3 Then the eyes of those who see will no longer be closed,
and the ears of those who hear will listen.

4 The mind of the rash will know and understand,
and the stammering tongue will be fluent and clear.

5 No longer will the fool be called noble
nor the scoundrel be highly respected.

6 For the fool speaks folly,
his mind is busy with evil:
He practices ungodliness
and spreads error concerning the LORD;
the hungry he leaves empty
and from the thirsty he withholds water.

7 The scoundrel’s methods are wicked,
he makes up evil schemes
to destroy the poor with lies,
even when the plea of the needy is just.

8 But the noble man makes noble plans,
and by noble deeds he stands.