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Between Bombs and Butterflies
Discursive Thoughts on Journalism, Extinction and Substack
AS SOME OF YOU KNOW, in a former life I was a print journalist reporting on everything from health care to the environment to Bernie Sanders. Although the news was noble work, I gave it up in 1998 to go outside for a living as a birdwatching guide and field biologist. Little did I know at the time was that as I would watch decline and extinction in the natural world I would also witness decline and extinction in journalism.
This is no polemic on the rise of cable news, social media and the algorithm — how they have undermined print journalism and addled our brains for controversy, distress and distraction. I still believe in newspapers. I write occasionally for The Boston Globe, after all, and read from a half-dozen newspapers and news sites every day. And yet I find myself weary of the daily news — its feeding tribalism in politics, its speculation masquerading as news, its blow-by-blow gossip, its detachment from the lives or ordinary people.
News is essential, of course, and yet exhausting. Expertise in daily journalism most certainly has its rightful place in a democracy: the veteran White House correspondent with a bullshit detector, the science writer who can tell good research from bad, the investigative reporter. Yet of even venerable reporting there will always be too much foisted upon us, too much to absorb.
That’s why I read news far more judiciously and now find meaning from selected independent thinkers and writers, including a corps of writers here on Substack. As a result, the world is making more sense (and my brain doesn’t hurt so much either). Any of us can now curate our own newsroom of writers, including those with whom we disagree. Is Substack salvation? Hardly. You’ll find lousy writing on this platform as well (spoiler alert: even the best writers are capable of lousy writing; and we all need editors).
Yet here on Substack we travel a new frontier — writers and readers together. Mine is the intersection of wild nature and human nature. And I recognize the contradiction in my asking you for screen time for reading and thinking about our place in nature. It isn’t very natural.
Yet I believe that nature is our most honest place to be and to think. Like love and art and literature, nature is more genuine and worthy of our time that anything online. And so, admitting the paradox, I express that for you here in writing.
More troubling to me, however, is a concern that my actual and written adventures in the natural world are somehow disrespectful to injustice and suffering in the human world. I want somehow to reconcile and respect both.
The world is bombs killing people in Ukraine and snow falling on bobcats in winter. It is the demagoguery of politicians and the honesty of butterflies. The world is the hated and bigotry of humanity and it is the force and beauty of poetry.
“The end of man is knowledge, but there is one thing he can't know,” Robert Penn Warren wrote in All the King’s Men. “He can't know whether knowledge will save him or kill him.”
Of late it seems that knowledge is killing us, including many of the newspapers that were among our pillars of civic life. In the emptiness of glowing screens, knowledge can be toxic, intelligence an endangered species.
Extinction may indeed be inevitable in nature, but perhaps not in our landscape of public discourse. In the forces of good ideas and the written word, and in the refuge of nature, maybe there can be resurrection. Here on Chasing Nature, I’ll be writing from somewhere between the bombs and the butterflies.
By the way, Chasing Nature, which launched only this month, has already cracked the top 20 in Substack’s “Climate and Environment” category. I do not write for rankings. But it’s been gratifying to see so many of you here with me — and so many new readers. If you haven’t done so already, I hope you’ll join us. It’s free, although paying subscribers make Chasing Nature possible and receive perks like nature workshops and extra essays. Thanks!
Postscript: You’ll find on Substack plenty of writers covering the littered terrain of public discourse and the news media. Among the best arewriting at . If you know of others, please suggest them in comments below. Thanks.