On column #200, a personal reflection

“There’s less motivation to protect a stream if you’ve never explored it and don’t know what lives in it. We love best what we know best,” Colleen Kelley, Hitchcock Center Education Director REBECCA REID

For the Gazette

Friday, December 02, 2016

Amazed as I am to say it, this is the 200th Earth Matters column.

Something about having 10 fingers and 10 toes seems to make us like numbers ending in zero — the more the merrier. And somehow, reaching 200 feels more significant than the fact that in March we’ll be celebrating eight years of publishing this column every two weeks, under the aegis of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment. Both of these are especially remarkable to me, as I’ve been coordinating and co-editing it since we began in 2009.

How to sum up all these years and all these columns? First, for me and my co-editors, it’s been great fun to work with a great group of authors contributing a hugely diverse collection of essays. Added to that is the enjoyable task of offering up some fine photographs, mostly by local photographers, and delightful drawings by Hitchcock board member Elizabeth Farnsworth.

Another pleasure for me is how much I’ve learned about so many fascinating topics. I’ve also had the opportunity to write occasionally, a chance to express ideas that I’ve mulled over but not had a forum in which to express them before.

When we agreed to produce this column, we knew it couldn’t be the work of one person. The subject — literally, the whole world (and beyond) — was too vast, even if we focused primarily on our local area. So we asked Hitchcock staff and board members (past and current), volunteers, presenters at Hitchcock programs, plus any number of knowledgeable friends and colleagues, to write columns. The response has been something of a miracle: nearly 50 people have volunteered their time, energy and thinking over the years to write essays covering a seemingly endless variety of topics.

This milestone also offers a moment to reflect on what it means to write and edit a column on nature and the environment. Essay after essay, month after month, our authors have provided insight into how the other species that inhabit this planet make their lives and shape ours, and how what we do affects the lives and very existence of the myriad organisms who share with us this wondrous “pale blue dot.” We’ve been able to inform you not only with facts but with also stories, opinions, reflections and meditations.

What emerges from all these bits of knowledge and thought is a glimpse into the totality of the world around us, and our place in it — no mean task, to be sure.

By calling on a wide range of authors with a broad array of backgrounds and interests, we also offer an element of surprise to our readers. Consider just the last few columns: wild turkeys, inspired by a close and surprising encounter; a “bioblitz” survey of species around the new Hitchcock Center building; new parents using the swap economy for their baby’s things; newly overwintering birds as a clue to climate change; observing resilience and recovery in nature; reflections on the death of a tree; and unraveling the mystery of strangely shaped trees at Hampshire College.

I hope that all this diversity, and all these gems of information and ideas, contribute to your appreciation of the intricacy of life. Of course, no amount of words can substitute for your direct experience of nature, but words can add depth to that experience and to your connection to what we are privileged to call our home — valley, region, continent, planet.

As Colleen Kelley, Hitchcock’s education director wrote in a 2010 column, “There’s less motivation to protect a stream if you’ve never explored it and don’t know what lives in it. We love best what we know best.”

Finally, what makes this column so intriguing to me is you, our readers — the challenge of writing and editing for an audience of thousands whom I will never know or even meet. This is a welcome challenge for me, in that my previous writing has always been directed toward people whose interests and backgrounds I either know or can surmise: scientists, policy makers and others like them.

Not knowing just who is reading the column makes us pay attention not only to what each column is conveying, but how it’s said. Are we using too many scientific terms or too few? Are we assuming too much knowledge of a subject or too little? Have we left too much to interpretation or have we covered the subject as well as we could within word limits? And, of course, are we providing subject matter that engages and maybe even entertains you — are we sustaining your interest?

Only you know the answers to these questions, and we’re happy to get feedback. But 200 columns into this journey, it feels like we’re on the right track. In what may be difficult times ahead, we’ll keep on doing our best for our readers — and for our Earth.

Michael Dover is a former Hitchcock Center board member and a retired environmental scientist. He wishes to thank co-editors: Rebecca Reid, former Hitchcock photographer; Katie Koerten, Hitchcock educator; and Elizabeth Farnsworth, board member. Thanks also to former co-editor Caroline Hanna. A complete archive of Earth Matters columns is available on the Hitchcock Center website. The book, “Earth Matters: Essays on the Nature of the Pioneer Valley,” containing columns from 2009 through 2012, is available here and at Collective Copies in Amherst and Florence. We welcome your ideas for future Earth Matters topics.

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 525 South Pleasant St., Amherst, appears every other week in the Daily Hampshire Gazette. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.

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