Fifteen years ago I left journalism for nature. I swapped a necktie for binoculars, a reporter’s notepad for a naturalist’s field book. Although my income sank to levels of voluntary poverty, I inherited wealth in a new currency: a dawn chorus of warblers, an orchid’s purple glow, the ancient tenacity of dragonflies. This life outside I have been eager to share. Coded into my DNA is a drive to bring nature and people together. It is how I’ve made my living. It has given me purpose. I suppose it’s no different than journalism. If the free trade of facts and knowledge are essential to a functioning society, then so too is the discovery and enjoyment of nature critical to its future. And to our own.
If I couldn’t get you outside, your ears tuned to a mink frog, your nose tingling with balsam poplar, your mouth savoring serviceberries, or your feet wet in a spruce bog, then here at The Daily Wing I ventured to unite your senses with wildlife and wild places. For three years this blog, with all due humility, has been our intersection of nature and journalism.
Now it will rest.
My blend of the wild and the wired will enter diapause, nature’s state of dormancy. Not only will this blog rest, but so will my fling with Facebook, Twitter, digital photography, radio television broadcasts, PowerPointing and other electronic communications. I’m dimming the lights and heading for the woods with a notebook and pencil.
During the past 15 years a revolution has set upon journalism and nature: the digital epoch. Rare is it for any of us to witness the rise of a new mass medium. To my world, my blend of news and nature, the internet brings tremendous potential for the flow of ideas, the fundamental rights of people and the fate of the planet. But our mass migration online has run a dubious course. Never before have so many seen so much wild while seated indoors.
This essay is no polemic on technology. This metamorphosis of mine is no grand statement on nature in the digital epoch. This new medium of ours certainly offers absolute benefits. The Vermont Atlas of Life, eBird, Odonata Central, BugGuide and many others like them represent a potent blend of the internet, data and citizen naturalists working together toward conservation and biointegrity. As a naturalist and field guide, I myself have hoisted the web’s loudspeaker. Going digital, mostly for my guiding business (Vermont Bird Tours), has allowed me to reach neighbors in new ways and nature seekers from far away. Joining me on outings around the continent are wonderful people from as far as California, Missouri, Texas, Canada and beyond. For these gifts, this personal growth, I am grateful. Yet while riding these electrons I have come into a troubled country.
“Bryan Pfeiffer Enterprises Inc.” comprises The Daily Wing, Vermont Bird Tours, Wings Photography, Wings Environmental, For the Birds, Maple Corner Media, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, 500px, Vermont Public Television, Vermont Public Radio and a few other electronic adventures I’ve tried and abandoned over the years. The Social Media Industrial Complex informs me that now, in this new landscape, to scrape together my income, to begin the sales of my next book, I must engage in relentless self-promotion. Blog regularly. Boost your page views. Optimize yourself in search engines. Make more Facebook friends. Amass Twitter followers. And this doesn’t include the daily sandstorm of emails and those worthy online projects I mentioned above. I devote more time to nature online than I do outside. This is frightening (and not very natural).
Also frightening is the ease and breadth of our migration to the new country of the glowing screen. For many of us, television was the easy target. John Prine advised us to “Blow up your TV; throw away your paper; Go to the country; build you a home.” I don’t own a TV. Haven’t for a while. (I watch my ice hockey at the local pub.) But the brain rotting has a new screen. Well, actually, many screens. To be sure, flowing toward me from around the globe and through this Macbook and my iPhone is brilliant prose, elegant imagery, nature’s serenades, and genuine human connection. But in my joining the flow, in sending and receiving, I find myself, an easily distracted soul, wandering too often a wasteland. Yes, on this path there are treasures; there is also fool’s gold. But more than anything, there is too much time online, even too much time with too much worthwhile information. When is there enough? My eyes have grown old before this screen.
Another musician, the inimitable John Hartford, in his plaintive song “In Tall Buildings,” warned us about conformity in career.
So it’s goodbye to the sunshine
goodbye to the dew
goodbye to the flowers
and goodbye to you
I’m off to the subway
I must not be late
I’m going to work in tall buildings
My necktie and the grind of daily journalism are still gone. I regret not a moment of journalism’s calling, not a second of my synthesis of nature and the electronic frontier. I am beyond grateful for this life in large part outdoors. Still, in this electronic epoch, we so easily find ourselves trapped in tall buildings. Mine are now digital. I am too often locked inside this computer.
I have a book to write about evolution and nature expressed in the life of an extraordinary animal, Pantala flavescens, a golden, globe-trotting dragonfly that goes by the common name Wandering Glider. I shall follow this insect to other continents. My appointment to teach writing to gifted ecologists and conservationists at the University of Vermont is a new passion and mission. What’s left of my brain is bequeathed to an innovative conservation group, the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, for which I am now doing a bit of writing and editing. The rest of me will be outside somewhere, where I hope to find many of you.
I will not unplug. I will instead beat a path ever more determined toward nature. My blog posts and other online dispatches will become infrequent. Most days you will not find me online until after lunchtime, until after about six hours of walking, reading or writing. If you’re looking for wisdom online, I’ll recommend: Orion Magazine; the corps of writers at National Geographic’s Phenomena blog; my friends at the Vermont Center for Ecostudies and the North Branch Nature Center; the Natural History Network; and Carl Safina’s views on nature, including his remarkable book on the shared fate of humans and the planet, The View From Lazy Point. Safina is, at long last, our new Thoreau.
To find me in 2013, you must visit Vermont peaks at sunrise, untrailed sections of the Grand Canyon, remote peatlands in Saskatchewan, alpine meadows in Wyoming, or the diners and coffee shops of Montpelier, Vermont, where I live simply in an apartment measuring 15 feet by 23 feet, rent an “office” 6.5 feet by 6.5 feet, can walk to every merchant, and can even get myself into the woods in 10 minutes. I shall hasten my pace of giving away belongings and shrinking my footprint. At some point in the next couple of months, this blog, Vermont Bird Tours, and what remains of my digital life will coalesce into something sparse. From time to time, I’ll resurface to guide a few bird walks or teach digital photography. Mostly, I will write my book and write with my students.
I will most certainly miss all of you and our routine encounters here at The Daily Wing. I will post here occasionally, when I have something worthy to share. (Your best bet for staying informed is the “Subscribe” option over there to the right.) Thanks for visiting, for sharing, for caring. You need not leave the digital epoch. I won’t. But, now and then, do leave your tall buildings.