A Conversation with Naturalist Writer Scott Weidensaul
March 25, 2021 § Leave a comment
Twenty years ago, when I worked at a small newspaper in northwest Pennsylvania, the local Audubon chapter asked if I would interview naturalist Scott Weidensaul to publicize his upcoming lecture. They gave me a copy of his book, Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds (North Point Press, 1999), a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction. Although impressed by the Pulitzer nod, I was skeptical about the topic. I liked birds and all, but four hundred pages of them?
I decided I would skim a few chapters so I could ask a few reasonably informed questions. But from the first paragraph, I was drawn into a world I’d never really seen, although it was all around me.
Sitting in the Pennsylvania sun…a redstart sings. I open my eyes and he’s right in front of me, in a low willow thicket that was half-flattened by the winter ice floes. He is no bigger than my thumb, all black except for the colorful patches on his wings, flanks and tail – the same pink-orange color, it occurs to me, as the meat of the native brook trout that still live in the small headwater streams hereabouts, the same color as a monarch butterfly’s wings, and the wild turk’s-cap lilies that bloom here in summer. That symmetry feels proper, somehow, almost pre-ordained.
Scott and I spoke again recently about his writing and about how, and why, it reflects his compassion for nature and passion for conservation.
Growing up in the shadow of Ashland Mountain in central Pennsylvania, his mother each year noted in a journal when the juncos, white-throated sparrows, and geese returned to their yard. It was there, on the Kittatinny Ridge, where he first witnessed raptor migration. It was also where he witnessed the destruction of their habitat.
“I was all over that ridge as a kid,” he said. “A powerline crossed the top of the mountain, and I could look south into the valley where we lived, a quiet, Pennsylvania Dutch farming valley, or north toward the town of Girardville, where the anthracite seams were close enough to the surface to deep mine and strip mine — to my eye, a hellscape wasteland of stripping pits and culm banks and dead streams. The impact was profound, and I remember making a very clear decision: I don’t want a world that looks like that.”
The heart of Weidensaul’s writing is inspired by authors such as American naturalist John Burroughs, environmentalist Aldo Leopold, and J.A. Baker, Henry Beston and Carl Sofina. He strives to bridge the world between science and lay knowledge, and takes us with him to places we might never go and invites us to consider questions we might never have asked.
“I’ve often chosen topics about which I knew a little, but wanted to know much more,” he said. “And while publishers require a fairly detailed sense of what the book will say and the narrative framework in which I’ll say it, there’s definitely a great deal of let’s-see-where-this-leads, and simple serendipity.”
Weidensaul’s new book, A World on the Wing: The Global Odyssey of Migratory Birds (W.W. Norton, 2021), expands on his research from Living on the Wind, and while the poetics are similar, his writing is more personal. Whether he’s comparing the diets and physiology of godwits to humans, describing the plight of spoon-billed sandpipers along the Yellow Sea coastline or his encounter with a grizzly bear while banding thrushes in Denali National Park, his descriptions are breathtaking and at times urgent, in the vein of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.
When he began working on A World on the Wing, Weidensaul thought his job would be to document the destruction of migratory bird populations. In the prologue, upon spying a grey-cheeked thrush in his own backyard, he writes:
It was an utterly ordinary, extraordinary bird – as is every migrant that makes the leap into the void, guided by instinct, shaped by millions of generations of toil and savage selection, crossing the vaults of space through dangers we cannot comprehend, by lucky chance and near-calamity and great endurance, on the strength of its own muscle and wings. For eons uncounted, that has always been enough. But no longer. Now their future, for good or ill, lies in our hands.
Further along in the book, his storytelling pivots a bit and reflects a cautious hope that, while there is widespread loss of habitat in many places around the world, conservation efforts are succeeding in others. He keeps readers close to his side and asks – without lecturing – for us, like him, to view this other world through the lens of appreciation, awe, and reverence, and to own our culpability and responsibility for the world we inhabit.
Lynn Haraldson is a writer from rural western Pennsylvania. She is a writing mentor at State Correction Institution – Pine Grove and is the editor of the inmate-written newsletter The Grove. Her book, Common Ground: Writings on Family, Change, Loss & Resilience, is a collection of more than twenty years of her columns and blogs. She writes at ZenBagLady.com.