What you see is only part of what you get
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By Eric Freedman
One of the joys of journalism — environmental journalism in particular — is getting out of the office or other writing space and going somewhere, especially outdoors. Not only do we get to interview people face to face but we also become eyewitnesses to events.
And that provides an opportunity to bring audiences with us in words as well as visually and aurally.
Here’s an example from a recent article I wrote for the magazine Earth Island Journal:
On arrival, Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge is, frankly, uninviting. A bevy of heavy trucks heading to and from the adjacent aggregates mining site churn up clouds of dust as they pass the multi-padlocked refuge gate. A faded sign with the US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) logo announces “AREA BEYOND THIS SIGN CLOSED. All public entry prohibited.” Just outside the refuge entrance, RVs are crowded into a storage area at the edge of an underground natural gas pipeline. Six white wind turbines tower incongruously nearby.
Or these excerpts (in quote marks) and commentary (by the reviewer) about a book by Robert Sullivan about the Meadowlands in New Jersey:
There is a place in the Meadowlands called Walden Swamp, a difficult-to-reach spot that
demonstrates how an area can be polluted yet unexplored. Sullivan’s canoe trip to Walden Swamp is arduous. Describing the place, he deploys in especially concentrated form the verbal pattern whereby he describes the detritus of civilization with a vocabulary we associate with ‘naturalist’ writing; correspondingly, he applies an industrial vocabulary to wildlife. Thus, near an egret with feathers ”the color of Styrofoam” he notes ”waterlogged cigarette butts . . . bloated and curled as if impersonating shrimp.” Similarly, he notes ”a small school of plastic soda bottles” and mentions ”the migratory patterns of the cars.” Despite the ”sewery smell” of the swamp, it is full of muskrats and wildfowl, and the splashes of spawning carp: ”Thrashing around in the foul-smelling muck, the carp, each approximately two feet long, did not seem at all out of place beneath the New Jersey Turnpike; the scales on their backs were gross and coarse in the pattern of worn-down radial tires.”
So to bring our audiences to the scene effectively requires us as journalists to be observers. Thus we must work to weave description into our narrative and facts.
Journalists develop their individual ways of doing that with what I call the process of interviewing the setting.
I ask myself: What do I see? That’s the easiest. But I also ask: What do I hear? What do I smell? What do I feel? What do I taste?
At the recent Society of Environmental Journalists conference in Sacramento, I went on a field excursion called “Kayaking California’s Inland Sea” to learn about environmental problems, progress and conflicts in the watershed that produces half of California’s fresh water and irrigates 30 percent of its crops.
With Mount Diablo in the distance, we kayaked by towering pampas grass — an unwanted invader — in the 8,000-year-old delta where the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers dump their sediment. We saw expanses of water primrose — also an invader — undulate as waves rippled along the San Joaquin River. We snagged our paddles on tangles of water hyacinth — another invader. We paddled next to the remnants of a wooden boat — probably a barge, scow or floating dock abandoned sometime after 1939.
A cormorant flew low over the water. Hawks soared above. An egret took off from the marsh.
Later on the excursion, we walked along the dark brown wooden boardwalk at Cosumnes River Preserve, the last natural floodplain in California’s Central Valley. Coots. Glassy-faced ibis. Black-necked stilts. A Swainson’s hawk. A flight of sandhill cranes. A Nuttle’s cottontail bunny quivering slightly alongside the trail but not fleeing us.
Those are some of the things I saw.
But I also heard. The sounds of birds hidden in the tall grasses and standing in the low waters of the marsh. The sounds of unseen traffic passing nearby. The sounds of dried reeds rustling in the wind.
I also smelled. The exhaust from our idling bus. And a whiff of something unpleasant and unidentifiable rising from the water — decaying vegetation perhaps– leading one journalist to remark, “I bet there are some people who like this smell.”
I also felt: Water dripping off my paddle and running down my arms. Slimy green algae on the deteriorating wood of the abandoned boat’s skeleton. Wind on my face. Mid-day sun on the pack of my neck.
I also tasted. The organic chocolate-walnut brownie energy bar I brought in the kayak.
And I took lots of notes from my interview with the setting, as well as from what Mike Moran, our naturalist guide from Big Break Regional Shoreline, told the kayaking journalists about the ecosystem we were exploring.
Two of my Knight Center colleagues described things they observed while interviewing the setting on their separate field excursion.
”Algae removal from canals is a smelly business,” said research director Bruno Takahashi, who went on the “Water Is for Fighting: Drought, Water Supply and Climate Change” excursion.
“The trip showcased a highly contrasting landscape, from super-dry fields (so brown due to the drought), green and lush farmlands, the uniqueness of the delta including the subsiding islands and the wind turbines everywhere,” he said.
Interviewing your setting — using your senses — may reveal surprises to take back to your audience. Here’s Takahashi’s: “I’d never imagined I would see sea lions in the Sacramento-San Juoquin rivers delta.”
And after returning from the “Mercury Pollution, Wildfire and Fault Line Impacts on Lake Berryessa” excursion, environmental journalism master’s student Marie Orttenburger said the serpentine her group saw “looks like snakeskin. So cool.”
How can we imbue our journalism students with the importance of using all our senses to observe — to interview the setting?
I recently assigned my environmental reporting class to find an interesting—possibly scenic– outdoor spot anyplace on campus – whether well-known, such as the Horticultural Gardens and the shoreline of the Red Cedar River— or less obvious – such as the corn fields on the south side of campus or outside the power plant.
They were told to go alone, take notes, observe and take their time there. I suggested they also take photos as a form of visual notes. Or sketch if they have the talent.
Then they had to assume an editor had assigned them to write an article about something that happened or is happening at that place. They had to describe it to their audience. Depending on the overall story and context, it could be done in a sentence, a couple of sentences (in a row or scattered through the story) or a couple of paragraphs (in a row or scattered through the story.)
And I warned them: “No gushy, meaningless or overused words such as beautiful, breath-taking, scenic, incredible, incomparable and others of their ilk. Those words don’t SHOW readers what you want them to see through your eyes.”