Last weekend, I stood atop Arizona’s highest peak. Summiting Humphreys required a nine-mile hike, during which I gained (and, even tougher on the knees, lost) about 3,300 feet elevation.
I’ve aspired to reach that peak since moving to Flagstaff in 2010. Humphreys is the tallest of the San Francisco Peaks, the distinctive mountains that give our town its flavor. I didn’t just hike Humphreys to bag the peak, though. I joined a group hike to represent my employer, the Arizona Game and Fish Department. The hike was sponsored by Arizona Highways magazine and led by its editor, Robert Stieve, and managing editor, Kelly Kramer. They wanted a wildlife expert to come along. Instead, they got me.
Thanks to working on Arizona Wildlife Views magazine, I know a little bit about a lot of wildlife subjects, but that doesn’t make me an expert. Undaunted, for days before the hike I brushed up on local field guides. I planned to enrich everyone’s experience with bird and mammal sightings and general information about the habitats we hiked through; a latter-day John Muir, Arizona-style. But Humphreys is a popular hike on a Saturday in August, and the trail was lively with human voices. That meant the wildlife sightings were few.
We did see mountain chickadees and dark-eyed juncos in busy flocks, gray-and-white Clark’s nutcrackers swooping from tree to tree, common ravens soaring along the ridgeline, and red squirrels feeding on pine cones. No elk, no deer, certainly no bears or mountain lions — animals one sees by chance and by sitting silently for a long period of time, not by hiking with a big goal in mind.
On the way to achieving that goal, we talked about the hike’s central theme: wilderness. Arizona Highways organized this and a few other hikes to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, which is September 3. It may not sound like it, given the crowded trail, but we were in a wilderness area much of the time (Kachina Peaks Wilderness).
Wildlife sightings or no, it was a treat to hike that area in such good company. I was proud to wear the quail logo and represent Game and Fish. And, four days later, my legs have (almost) recovered!
Here’s a word challenge for people who write about wildlife:
Let’s say you’re describing the coloration of hog-nosed skunks. Which is correct: “They have a white back,” or, “They have white backs”?
Depending on how you like to solve puzzles, you might suggest rewording this as, “It has a white back,” avoiding the question altogether. Reframing the sentence with a singular subject is a fine solution, but let’s say you can’t do it for some reason. Suppose, for example, that the piece you’re working on otherwise describes hog-nosed skunks in the plural. It would sound odd, now, to switch to a singular subject.
This brings us back to the original question: Do hog-nosed skunks have white backs, or a white back?
Our style at Arizona Wildlife Views is to say, “Hog-nosed skunks have a white back.” We made the choice because when we describe the coloration of an animal, we envision that animal as a single creature. This is true even if we are using “hog-nosed skunks” as the subject. It looks plural, but we treat it as singular and use words that describe a single example of the species. An animal has one back, and the back of a hog-nosed skunk is white.
However, the same animal has two ears and four paws, so to continue the description we might say, “They have black ears and black paws” (with “ears” and “paws” in the plural). Again, we’re describing the coloration of a single animal, but now we’re using plural terms to describe it accurately.
A full description might sound like this: “Hog-nosed skunks have a black body with a white stripe down the back, a white tail, a white stripe down the nose, black ears and black paws.” I think that sounds natural to the reader, whereas “Hog-nosed skunks have black bodies with white stripes down their backs …” sounds odd.
You may also notice a potential miscue: If hog-nosed skunks have white stripes down their backs, does each skunk have one stripe, or more than one? Avoiding potential confusion is another reason why our style choice is to describe a single animal, even when the subject sounds plural.
I attended a conference last week in Nebraska and was thrilled to meet Chris Helzer, of “The Prairie Ecologist.” I’ve followed this blog for several years, even though I don’t live in a prairie state, just because I admire his skill with words and pictures. Finding “words for wildlife” seems to come easily to Helzer, so I didn’t know what to say when he told me he’s “not a writer, just a biologist with a camera.” This humble guy is definitely a writer. In this post, for example, he conveys technical material in an approachable way. I also like his thought-provoking conclusion. Oh, to be as good at this as Helzer is …
Originally posted on The Prairie Ecologist:
I spotted an upland sandpiper on top of a power pole last week. In central Nebraska, that’s not really noteworthy – upland sandpipers are pretty common across much of the state. They tend to nest in large open grasslands with short vegetation structure, and Nebraska has an abundance of that kind of habitat. This particular sandpiper, however, was perched on a pole surrounded by what looked to be miles of contiguous cropland. Seeing the sandpiper in that context got me thinking about how conservation scientists deal with patterns in data and, more particularly, the outliers that don’t fit those patterns.
My graduate research focused on grassland birds in fragmented prairies. I categorized bird species by the size of prairie…
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We use the AP Stylebook to help us maintain consistency in Arizona Wildlife Views. I just received a new version, an update of the reference that’s been on my desk at Arizona Game and Fish since 2004.
Leaping nearly a decade of style changes means re-reading the manual, always a mind-awakening exercise. It’s not a book of rules. There are helpful reminders about the differences between words such as “affect” and “effect.” Reading it stimulates my word-loving brain.
To edit books, we use the Chicago Manual of Style. The AP Stylebook of 2004 had 378 pages; the 2013 edition holds 483. Chicago beats them both: the 16th edition is more than 1,000 pages long. No, I have not read it cover to cover.
I don’t refer to the Chicago Manual often unless I’m editing a book. There’s another style manual I call on much more frequently. The Outdoor Reference Manual is published by the Outdoor Writers Association of America, a professional association I belong to. In this slender volume lives a lexicon for boating, fishing, hunting, and other outdoor sports. From “aback” (a type of sail) to “zooplankton” (aquatic animals that feed on algae), it’s all in the manual.
If you write about outdoor recreation, I highly recommend this book as an essential reference. It’s available in the store at owaa.org.
As I was researching an article on the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act a few weeks back, I overheard an interesting conversation in the checkout line at our local grocery store.
Lamenting the smoky air Flagstaff was experiencing due to the Slide Fire, a wildfire burning to the southwest of us, the lady said, “I hope they get it under control soon.”
“That’s going to be hard,” the man replied. “It’s burning in a Wilderness area, and you know how that goes.” When the lady indicated she didn’t know how that goes, he went on, “No motors. They can’t fight the fire in there very well because they can’t go in with chain saws. There are all these rules to deal with.”
Once I got over being thrilled at the coincidence that something I was writing about was a subject of public discussion, I started thinking about wilderness and fire. Can the Forest Service fight fire in designated Wilderness? Are there restrictions on the tools and methods they can use? Does the extra planning and analysis slow things down? Basically, I wanted to know how the fact that a wildfire is burning in a Wilderness area might change how or when that fire is fought, as the man had said.
Jennifer Hensiek, deputy district ranger on the Flagstaff Ranger District, took the time to answer my questions.
“Basically, we use the same process for considering firefighting tools to be used in Wilderness as for other projects in Wilderness, but it happens more quickly, and I have more discretion at a lower level,” she said.
As the deputy district ranger, normally she wouldn’t have the authority to approve use of mechanized or motorized equipment in a Wilderness. But when it comes to firefighting, she’s earned that level of authority by taking a series of training courses. From the national Wilderness Stewardship Training, she learned the processes of managing Wilderness, including suppression techniques for fighting fires.
“If you fight fires, you need approval from someone with this training in order to use motorized equipment in Wilderness,” she told me.
I was glad to know that when fires in Wilderness must be fought, they can be fought smartly and swiftly. Next time I’m in the checkout line and someone brings this up, I’ll know what to say.
On my desk sits a spiral-bound sheaf of papers. If they look time-worn and dusty, it’s because they spent weeks in a backpack, getting carried up mountains during a youthful summer I spent in Montana. That they survived all the moves I’ve made since then, and still find a place on my bookshelf, is a testament to my packrat’s temperament.
“Backpacking for Credit” was not the official name of the college course that brought this reading material into my life, but that’s what we called it, the half-dozen of us who earned credits together that summer. Along with some old slides and memories, this spiral-bound document is all that remains of my time studying areas in Montana to see whether they should be recommended for Wilderness designation. That’s “Wilderness” with a capital “W” because the designations being sought required an act of Congress.
I pulled these old materials off the shelf a few weeks back, when I was invited to write an article for Arizona Wildlife Views magazine about the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. Those making the assignment had no idea about my early brush with Wilderness. That I possess my own copy of the act, underlined and annotated as one does in earnest college days, might surprise them. That I’ve read Roderick Nash’s classic work “Wilderness and the American Mind” cover to cover would blow them away.
I love assignments like this. It’s a privilege to write about something that has mattered in my life, as well as in the world. My first draft weighed in at about double the assigned word count, partly because I had so much to say and partly because I wanted to recognize all the wise people (from Henry David Thoreau through Aldo Leopold to Wallace Stegner) who have written about wilderness, producing prose that echoes through the ages.
Much of that had to be cut, given the context and desired word count, but I still like the draft I produced. I wanted to convey something about why the Wilderness Act matters, which has to do with why wilderness itself matters. But in this case, oddly, I believe Congress said it best, in the Wilderness Act itself:
“In order to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition, it is hereby declared to be the policy of the Congress to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.” Wilderness Act of 1964, Sec. 2 (a)
An “enduring resource of wilderness.” For something written by Congress, it’s lovely, isn’t it?
The Wilderness Act turns 50 on Sept. 3. My article, currently titled “Theater of the Wild: Celebrating 50 years of the Wilderness Act,” is scheduled for publication in the September/October issue.
If you want to improve your writing or produce the best work you’re capable of, and you have your choice of editors, look for one who will tell you the truth — even when she thinks you won’t be happy to hear it.
When you hand a draft to someone else to read, tell that person what you need, and be honest. If you say, “Be critical,” listen with an open mind when they are. If you say, “My ego needs a boost, so be nice,” they should hear that message and respect it as well, though it probably won’t improve your writing.
Be clear about the level of editing needed. If your work requires conceptual development to reach its audience, the right editor should be able to give useful feedback. The editor who copyedits or rewrites instead of helping you develop your concept to reach your audience is not the right editor for the task.
The most important thing is to choose an editor you trust. Do it for the sake of your writing.