You all know the routine. In the first frame the scruffy, shipwrecked wretch sits on the beach scrawling on the back of a soup can label with a charcoal point from his fire pit. In the next frame he watches the note drift out to sea in an empty glass bottle scrounged from the debris of a previous disaster. The third frame is variable. Perhaps the bottle is coming back it, or maybe he sits, waiting, staring out at an empty ocean. What if there's no final frame? Imagine the angst.
Since I'm a bird columnist and this is about birds, let me slip into an avian analogy. You're a bird bander, and every autumn you band local migrants ready to embark on their fantastic journey. How many years do you wait for someone to find one of your bands, your hope waning, your dark side reminding you that if the band is found and returned, your messenger has died. Is it really citizen science if no human citizen ever completes or corroborates your work, or is it the sound in the empty forest?
Writing a birding column for a metro newspaper is kind of like that. You throw a lot of things out there--interesting aspects of your subjects' natural history, preservation of specific habitats or the environment in general, personal experiences from a lifetime of birding, even a little controversy now and then, say hunting or cats, to see if anyone is paying attention--and then hope you're not preaching just to the choir and that maybe even some choir member will respond in some way. In any way. Is anyone out there? Will the bottle ever come back or are the ripples it creates enough?
Of course it's copacetic if your editor has your back, but don't count on that in a day and age when birding hasn't really gone mainstream, "bird" isn't really a verb in the popular vernacular, and newspapers really are a breed dying out faster than anything with feathers on the endangered species list. My first clue came in my very first column. In suggesting a connection between the post-modern birder and the prehistoric hunter I mentioned the atlatl, an ancient weapon marrying the principles of the slingshot and the javelin.
Even now, as I type these lines, my computer's spellchecker balks at the word and underlines it in red, but it never occurred to me that my original editor, having unexpectedly and belatedly (she sat on my sample column for six months before getting back to me) seen some interest and value in a birding column and being older and presumably at least as well educated in liberal arts as I, would have no clue what an atlatl was. So she and several copy editors googled the word, or so she claimed, and could find no reference to it there either.
One inexperienced with the ways of newspapers, such as I was then, would assume any self-respecting editor would pick up her phone or log on to her computer and inquire of the columnist just what the devil this strange looking word meant. Wrong! I'm going to have to google the word "editor," but these people masquerading as editors assumed "atlatl" was a typo and changed it to "atlas," as in a large book of maps. Yeah, I'm pretty sure every prehistoric hunter walked around with an atlas stuffed inside his loincloth. If you guessed that changed the meaning of the column's point, and if you also guessed anyone calling themselves an editor should have figured something was amiss just from the context of what they were editing, then you would have been twice right.
The next battle took place shortly thereafter when I realized a newspaper columnist (at least this one) has no control over the headline of his column. When I questioned this and suggested to my editor that I be allowed to headline it myself, her comment was "Do you know how hard it is to make up a headline? It is not an easy thing to do!" Well, of course. Silly me. Imagine being tasked with headlining another person's piece of work, getting inside their head, divining their innermost emotions, understanding the direction of their thought processes and the intention of their language. A daunting task indeed!
I soon learned that my editor was told in journalism class that a good and proper journalist dealt only in information and was not to inject into his writing any of his own feelings or personality. Having skipped formal journalistic training for the adventurous and edgy creative writing side of articulation, this knowledge was key to my growing understanding of how it was going to be between me and editors.
When she happily (for me, and I'm sure for her for entirely different reasons) retired, I figured things would get better, but as you can see, I'm not a quick study in the ways of journalism and newspapers. My next editor, also obviously a product of a school of journalism, admitted to me over lunch one day that she was much happier editing other people's writing than writing her own stuff. This was, indeed, my second "Aha!" moment. What's the old aphorism? Those that can't do, teach. I know it's a widely embraced concept in athletics, this notion that if you have failed a lot, you better understand what it takes to succeed and can thus translate this to the performance of those seeking your advice.
My print media heroes are Garry Trudeau and Dave Barry, and if I column (sure, if "bird" is a verb now, why can't "column" be one?) long enough I hope someday to have an editor like they must have. My second editor wasn't it. With apologies to Dave Barry, I am not making up this next story. To introduce a column about odd bird behavior, I opened with the line "Remember birds have the same three basic instincts we do: eat, sleep, etc." The column appeared with the word "three" left out.
Stick with me here for a minute. The "etc." in the opening line obviously referred to sex, so I'm figuring my editor or the copy editors left out the word "three" for one of two reasons--either they didn't get my subtle attempt at humor, or they got it but deemed it too risque for a family newspaper. Here's the part I swear I'm not making up. The column appeared on the same day as an article in another part of the paper about a sheriff's deputy who was arrested, with his pants down, in the back of his pick-up truck with a pig. Where's Dave Barry when you need him?
When I called my editor to see which of the two reasons was the cause of the deletion, she said she had no idea and had no control over the copy editors final cuts because they made them in the dark of night just before the final copy went to press, but she'd be happy to leave them a note apprising them of my "concerns." And, no, there was no way for me to communicate directly with the copy editors--my third "Aha!" moment.
My next editor (I've had five in three years. The reason newspapers change page and section editors more often than birds fly south might be the subject of my next field notes. Or Dave Barry's next book.) was a little more receptive and communicative, and she seemed willing to allow bits and pieces of my personality and personal experiences to occasionally seep into a column without freaking out about the "information only" dictum. She backed up pretty quickly, though, when I mentioned I was getting some very positive email from readers who enjoyed most the columns with the personal touches. There was nothing in J school, I'm sure, about any "cult of the personality."
It is my humble opinion that newspaper readers want anecdotes and life experiences to which they can relate, not hard (read "bad") news (any news is bad news) that has no relevance to their daily lives or that they don't want to hear because it stokes the anxieties of their daily lives. When I mentioned this to my third editor I could see her turn white over the phone. The pregnant silence lasted so long I was sure my cell phone had dropped the call, and I flipped it shut.
I knew this had been a wise decision several columns later when I attempted to define for readers a term serious birders talk about all the time and use on a daily basis. The term is "jizz," and it is a bastardized acronym for the concept of "general impression, size and shape" used by plane spotters in World War II Britain to distinguish at a glance whether incoming aircraft were allies or enemies. Experienced birders typically use jizz to identify a bird with a quick glance in situations where there is not enough time or light to thoroughly study multiple field marks.
In the birding literature the term is alternately spelled "giss," but I see it written "jizz" much more frequently, most likely a reflection of the fact that the "z" sound comes out of the mouth more easily and is, quite frankly, just more fun to say than the "s" sound. The column explaining jizz did not appear in its usual Friday spot, but I had an email awaiting me from my editor. It seems that "jizz" is slang, in the world of pornography, for human sperm. What?! They couldn't google "atlatl," but they could google "jizz." I have to admit that between my job in the real world and my interest in birds, I don't have time for pornography. I emailed back and told my editor I thought one of us was hanging around with the wrong crowd. She didn't answer that email. I'm thinking she didn't see the humor in it.
I'm on my fifth editor now. Daily metro newspapers are on the endangered species list right along with Polar Bears and Whooping Cranes, and my column has migrated from the Environmental Page in the Valley & State section to the Outdoor Page in the Sports section. My new editor seems nice enough, but I'm pretty sure he's not a "bird guy," and when I talk with him I read between the lines and hear that he didn't particularly want me but I was "given" to him and he's stuck with me for now.
The weekly Outdoor Page is primarily a hunting and fishing round up. Long time readers of my column know I am not a hunter but that I also am not anti-hunting. I know many birders are anti-hunting, some fanatically so. So . . . I'm pretty sure many readers are cringing at the seemingly incongruent juxtaposition of birding column with hunting news, does, and don'ts. Do you think it gave me a little pause when the first column after its migration was next to an article about an area where outdoorsmen could combine fishing and hunting on the same day and the author of that article, a woman by the way, used the phrase "cast and blast?"
I have written more than one column explaining that hunters and birders enjoy the outdoors for some of the same reasons (peace, solitude, sunsets), have some of the same needs (habitat preservation), and share some of the same feelings (a kinship with their "prey"). Nonetheless, a reader recently suggested the column might best be served by another migration--to the Exploring Arizona Section--things to do, places to go, interesting historical information.
I'll probably wait and see how I get along with my new editor. With the loss of readership and the consequent loss of advertising revenue, I feel strangely akin to those avian species threatened by loss of habitat. Remember what the marketing director for the home developer in Tucson asked when birders wanted to stop the bulldozers in a wash known to be used by the nearly-extirpated-in-Arizona Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl--"Can't the owls just move?"
Maybe the column will migrate to one of the Valley Audubon Society newsletters--preaching to the choir there for sure. Or maybe I'll start a birdblog--supposedly lots of ripples outward from something like that.. Or I could take my marbles and go home and just spend time in the woods enjoying the birds which is where this all began. Still, if I hook just one person, maybe I've given something back. I figure a birder writing a birding column is both a hunter and a fisherman. It would be cool to have that bottle come bobbing back in sometime or see that banded messenger return.
My immediate problem though, since I always pick an image to go with these field notes, is that I don't have a shot of an ostrich with its head in the sand to honor editors, and developers, everywhere.