On Canoes, Pine Trees, and Volcanoes: The Importance of Eyewitness Observation in Environmental Journalism

By: Mark Neužil

There are three critical components of environmental journalism: observation, research, and description. Of the three, in my experience as a journalist and journalism teacher, eyewitness observation is the piece that is most likely undervalued and, in some cases, ignored altogether.

Most journalists, by the time they get to a level in their careers where they can specialize in a topic like the environment, have developed skills in research (reporting out the facts) and description (the ability to write well). Indeed, it is nearly impossible to advance in the business without those two attributes. The same could be said for scholars in history, the humanities, and the sciences. My former PhD adviser memorably referred to the field of sociology as “slow journalism.”

Eyewitness reporting, it seems to me, is a different skill than research and description but is no less important. Dave Barry, the humor columnist, and a former Associated Press editor, was not entirely kidding when he wrote of covering a typical news event: “Generally there will not be any journalists present unless the event occurs inside a newspaper building, which is where we modern journalists must spend all of our time so that we can remain linked, via our computer terminals, to a sophisticated worldwide electronic information network, which we use to transmit late-breaking developments to each other.”[1]

Thus my advice to students is to leave the newsroom as much as possible. Get out in the field—and in environmental reporting, it often is literally a field—and watch, look, and listen. Talk to people in person. Get your shoes dirty. Gay Talese, the New Journalism pioneer and author of classic articles on Frank Sinatra and Joe DiMaggio, called it “the art of hanging out.”

“Shortly after I became a reporter at The New York Times, at 24, in the autumn of 1956, a venerated old-timer on the staff named Peter Kihss told me one day: ‘Young man, stay off the telephone. Show up in person. No matter how inconvenient it may be, always meet face-to-face with the person or people you’re interviewing. Stay off the phone. Show up. Look people in the eye. Observe everything first-hand. Be there!’ That advice was received more than 60 years ago, and I’ve followed it ever since.”[2]

Talese’s work was mostly conducted in urban areas, but his point is well-taken.

Neužil - Pic 2 - frog ©Mark Neužil
A gray tree frog, Hyla chrysoscellis,  has toe pads for climbing trees, rocks and, in some cases, homes. The frog is sometimes seen on buildings near or on windows, where it keeps a lookout for insects to eat. Photo: ©Mark Neužil

None does it outdoors better than John McPhee, who joined Talese at The New Yorker in the 1960s and remains a master of observation. In 2016, Norman Sims and I asked McPhee to contribute a foreword to our book on canoes and the canoe culture in North America. We collaborated in selecting the best of McPhee’s writing on the life of a canoeist; he agreed to write an introductory text and transitions between the selections. Sims and I wanted tales from the field—in an earlier time, it was called outdoor adventure writing—and we began to compile vignettes from the great author about paddling and what the water rat from Wind in the Willows called “simply messing about in boats.”

In one of his outdoor adventures in Maine, McPhee wrote not only of what he observed but what he did not: “We saw no white pines, very long gone as the masts of ships. Or spruce, for that matter. We saw deciduous trees. In fall, the river’s walls would be afire in oranges and reds, but now, in summer, the leaves seemed too bright, too light for Maine.”[3] In a very short passage, McPhee’s point here illustrates the importance of observation to historians of the environment as well as those in the humanities and sciences. Consider McPhee’s observation, while on a canoe trip, that the New World was a source of natural resources for its colonizers—the old-growth white pines and spruce, which grow straight as a string, are now absent from the Maine landscape, hundreds of years later. Scholars in multiple fields may think about this absence and what it means, or meant, then and now. Research questions could range from how did the use of the coniferous forest and its resources contribute to the effectiveness of the British Navy to what was the effect of deforestation on the Indigenous peoples and ecosystem?

As McPhee well knows, environmental reporting from the field is not without its dangers. An extreme example comes from the life and death of Pliny the Elder (d. 79 AD), a proto-journalist who lived in Rome in the first century. The only example of Pliny’s work that survives today is Historia Naturalis (Natural History), a 37-volume encyclopedia of the ancient world. Agriculture, animals, plants, weather, erosion, endangered and invasive species, and several other sections fit into what we now consider environmental topics.

Neužil - Pic 3 - Leopards at Prague Zoo 2017 ©Mark Neužil
Amur leopards play at the Prague Zoo. The big cat is one of the world’s most endangered animals and is seen rarely in the wild. Zoos are a mediated environment in which visitors learn about animals through the lens of the curators. Photo: ©Mark Neužil.

Curiosity killed him. A sister came to him with news of the impending eruption of the volcano at Vesuvius; Pliny chartered a ship to investigate. The mountain exploded shortly after his arrival; he died on the Stabiae beach, possibly from inhaling sulfurous fumes. His nephew, Pliny the Younger, wrote: “My uncle lay down on a sail that had been spread for him, and called twice for some cold water, which he drank. Then a rush of flame, with the reek of sulfur, made everyone scatter, and made him get up. He stood with the help of his servants, but at once fell down dead, suffocated, as I suppose, by some potent, noxious vapor.”[4]

The Younger was not at the scene; he relied on the eyewitness accounts of servants and others to relay the details of his uncle’s death. Today’s journalists face no fewer dangers than Pliny— perhaps more from people than natural disasters—in their observation of environmental crimes around the world. In 2018, globally, 80 journalists of all specialties were killed in connection with their work. Thirty-one were killed while reporting. The deaths are not broken down by story topics, but the overall point, in 79 AD as well as today, remains valid.


*Featured image: Two sisters explore Moon Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota, USA, near the Canadian border. The BWCA, a water-based park, stretches over more than 400,000 hectares but only averages about 5,000 visitors per day in the summer months. Photo: ©Mark Neužil

[1] Dave Barry, “Exclusive: All the Trade Secrets Fit to Print,” Chicago Tribune, Feb. 28. 1988.

[2] Adeshina Emmanuel and Justin Ray, “Top Journalists Reveal the Best Reporting Advice They Have Received,” Columbia Journalism Review, August 14, 2017.

[3] Excerpt from “Farewell to the Nineteenth Century,” in The New Yorker, September 27, 1999.

[4] Pliny the Younger. (1963). The Letters of the Younger Pliny (B. Radice, Trans.). New York, NY: Penguin. Letter 6.16.


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