Writing the Earth: SEJ in ROA

In 1962 Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring sparked popular concern for issues in the environment. Early warnings of those times made us acknowledge that mankind’s activities were having far-reaching and unintended effects on vast but degradable systems like oceans and weather, agricultural soils and groundwater. The terms ecology and environment were certainly buzzwords when I entered graduate school in Zoology in 1970. It was an era in which many believed that the greening of America and the world had begun in earnest.

But sadly almost a half-century later, nations still bicker about how our generation should guide the future of the commons that belong to both humans and other life forms.

As the consequences of mankind’s interaction with the planet become more grave in an age of spin and special interests,  the public increasingly must have broad, objective and trustworthy accounting of the facts. More than that, today’s magazine or newspaper reader or television viewer deserves reportage that makes these complex environmental issues relevant and comprehensible to the non-scientist.

According to Bill Kovarik of the School of Communications at Radford University, “there is absolutely nothing more important at this moment in history than making sure that journalists are well educated in science and technology and environmental issues.”  The Society of Environmental Journalists  (SEJ) functions specifically to meet that need.

Since its founding in 1990, SEJ has worked to “advance public understanding of environmental issues by improving the quality, accuracy, and visibility of environmental reporting.” This month (Oct 15-19) the national organization hosted by Virginia Tech will meet in Roanoke for its annual conference that includes a slate of notable speakers, a wealth of informational sessions and regional field trips.

Governors Tim Kaine (VA) and Joe Manchin (WV) will welcome more than 500 SEJ members and registered guests at the Wednesday night reception and dinner at Hotel Roanoke. Entertainment will be provided by singer Kathy Mattea. For that evening’s awards gala, plaques will be presented by Philippe and Alexandra Cousteau, grandchildren of the legendary ocean explorer. A new recognition of excellence in the field this year will be the Rachel Carson Book Award.

On Thursday, attendees from around the country will venture out into our region to explore eight different landscapes and related issues. Field destinations will include a West Virginia mountaintop removal site; an Appalachian forest management area; a sustainable organic farm; the Blue Ridge Parkway; the Appalachian Trail; floats on the New River and the James River; and “the U.S’s first uranium mine outside the Southwest.”

Notable local authorities Cara Modisett, Rupert Cutler, Tom Denton, Dan Smith and Floyd’s Billy Weitzenfeld will offer their expertise and perspective as tour  speakers for the Parkway trip. Local officials and experts will be heard at stops along the way to and from each trip destination. Virginia Tech’s research and teaching faculty will provide relevant science and technical grounding for all of the excursions.

Friday’s plenary session is entitled “Old King Coal: What’s His Role in America’s Energy Future?” and Saturday’s plenary, “Election 2008 and the Environment.” Concurrent sessions Friday and Saturday will cover coal, energy, climate, water, land, environmental health, infrastructure, and the craft of reporting. An afternoon keynote address will be presented by Noble Peace Prize winner Dr. R. K. Pachauri, Chairman of the International Panel on Climate Change.

Finally, Sunday morning’s events center around environmentally-oriented books and authors, with discussions and readings by Wendell Berry, Ann Pancake and Denise Giardina. The central focus will be Appalachian community and culture related to coal and coal mining.

The choice of breakout sessions later on Sunday morning will include presentations on sense of place in environmental writing, natural history and travel writing, and writing about science and the environment. That will not be an easy choice for me to make!

I will be attending the SEJ conference as a new member this year. On Thursday by the time you read this column, I’ll be on a field excursion to Polyface Farm featured in Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma. The focus of discussion will center around the choices we must make for feeding the planet’s growing population.

In a future column I’ll share with you what I see and hear and learn during five information-dense mid-October days with environmental writers from across the country.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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