Why I Became a Science Writer Instead of a Scientist

The author doing field work for the Brown University Department of Geology in 1988

On a hot, oppressive day in 1988, an ecologist’s Chesapeake Bay retriever named Muddy made off with my socks. The ecologist shouted at his poor dog, ordering her to return along the tree trunk that had brought her out to the edge of a pond. But all that didn’t make much sense to Muddy. She whined and swiveled her head between ecologist and pond. Finally, she chose pond, and with a splash, doomed me to a day of counting trees in wet socks.

I lowered my head and looked out across Little Howard Pond, one of a dozen Adirondack puddles I’d be surveying that summer. An arc of birch and maple ringed the pond — spindly, sad trees I would have to count in the afternoon ahead. Muddy had had the right idea. What was the point of this endless tabulation of nature? I’d been counting things for so long that all the data points blurred together into a number cloud of random digits. True enough, Muddy. Might as well jump in a lake.

I never figured myself for a professional counter. I’m a terrible counter. A virtual numerical dyslexic. Sometimes I get mixed up counting out the years of a decade when starting from zero. Is that a sequence of 10 or 11? I still don’t quite know. I only signed on to the counting racket out of desperation. A few years before my work with Muddy and the ecologist in the Adirondacks, my mother undercounted the money in her savings account and failed to pay my college tuition. On matriculation day we found ourselves at the university bursar’s office literally counting out coins and shoving them through the payment slot. Whether we actually hit the mark or whether the bursar took pity and decided to stamp P-A-I-D on my papers just to stop the pathetic flurry of small change, I’ll never know. But what I did know is that I never wanted to experience the humiliation of live debt collection ever again. I would work. And the job I would get would be inextricably bound up with both my desire to become an environmental scientist and my horror of counting.

The work, located at the Brown University Geology Department, was microscopically small and fantastically tedious. I was seated in a sterile room called The Pollen Lab and given the task of entering reams of data gathered from mud samples mined from the beds of Adirondack lakes. Two Betula papyriferae, four Quercus alba, six Acer rubrum. And so on. Next to me a graduate student stared into a microscope at pollen grains swimming on slides that had been sliced from the lakebed cores. Once she’d identified each grain by tree species she would enter the tallies on a spreadsheet and hand them to me for entry into the university mainframe. Occasionally she would rise and put a hand on her stomach as if pregnant.

“I gotta take a break. I’m seasick.”

It all felt like a flat punchline to a mirthless joke. “Time to count the pollen,” I would say, in an echo of an old Dunkin’ Donuts ad of the time. I’d say this when I left a lover’s bed or a lunch companion’s table; whenever I rose from whatever non-repetitive, non-counting pleasure I was experiencing to head back to the dungeon of The Pollen Lab. Seven Tsuga canadensis, four Carya ovata, 18 Picea rubens. And so on. For two years.

At a certain point I came to realize that none of this was bringing me any closer to the kind of truth I wanted to discover about the natural world or the state of the environment I wanted to save. I decided that I had to get out of The Pollen Lab and make some decent money to avoid the annual coin shove through the bursar slot.

I took a leave of absence and settled in the Pacific Northwest, where a bitter environmental battle was raging. America’s largest timber companies were laying waste to Oregon’s last large stands of old-growth Douglas fir forest in a fury of Reagan-era destructive glee. Sluices of mud and timber tailings were washing into the rivers of the Coast Range, taking with them the remnants of what had been some of the mightiest salmon runs in the world. A bird called the northern spotted owl was all that stood between the forest and total destruction. The owl was on the verge of being listed as a threatened species and forest protection was part of the plan to save it. I took a job with the Bureau of Land Management ready to do battle with the forces that were oppressing both fish and fowl. But what I ended up doing, again, was counting.

Every day I would meet a retirement-ready government hack who had listed on his employee self-evaluation that his greatest fears in life were falling down a steep slope and drowning in a river. Every day we would walk down a steep slope and wade into a river to count salmon. All day long I would click a metal clicker of the type a bouncer might use at a nightclub. A click for every footstep. I’d pause occasionally when I saw a salmon redd and count that on a separate spreadsheet. Some days I was required to do a “habitat inventory” — a stupendously tedious assignment where I would stand in the center of the current and literally try to count everything within eyeshot. The number of pebbles, the number of cobbles, the angle of the river on either side, and, yes, the trees. Five Pseudotsuga menziesii, three Acer circinatum, eight Thuja plicata. And so on.

Some days we were sent to monitor a “timber sale” — a stand of trees that the Federal Bureau of Land Management had sold off to a private timber company and which that company had then promptly “harvested.” Upon arriving I’d clamber over the mangled, twisted landscape of devastation. By the terms of the sale, the timber company was supposed to have left a certain number of trees for the owls and the salmon.

These were easy to count. Usually you could count them on one hand.

When I returned to my university with enough money in my bank account to write the bursar a check instead of shoving coins through a slot, the powers that be at The Pollen Lab welcomed me back and decided I had accrued enough field experience to go beyond just counting pollen. I would be given the chance to actually collect it and count the trees that produced it. My last year in college I would travel with the aforementioned ecologist and his dog Muddy to remote lakes in the Adirondacks, dragging an inflatable boat over hill and dale, and then scoop up mud from the bottoms of lakes. Then, once the mud had been scooped, I would make a slow circle around the lake and one by one we would count the trees. Two Fagus grandifolia, seven Acer saccharum, 15 Pinus strobus. And so on.

Day after day we humped it over logs and rocks, gathering mud and counting trees. At night the ecologist, Muddy and I shared a sweaty little box in a complex of cabins in Ray Brook now known as The Tail o’ the Pup. And it was there by the side of Route 86, in the glare of passing headlights, that something finally struck me that made sense. The ecologist had packed with him a stack of Harpers magazines, 40 or so back issues, rich in reporting of every stripe. Many of the articles were about science and nature and the things humans were doing to the natural world. By night I’d read and read, by day I would count and count.

Eventually, the two activities started to merge in my head. And I began to imagine myself a Harpers reporter asking the ecologist the kinds of questions someone who wasn’t a counter by nature might want to know. What would all these data points add up to? Well, they would produce maps of vegetation. What kind of vegetation? Vegetation of the past, stratified into discrete periods of time. Were these different periods different? Yes, very different. Did the conditions that vegetation grew in vary significantly from what we experience now? Evidently. Did this mean something about the way the weather worked many years ago? Indeed, it seemed it did.

Slowly it dawned on me that what these numbers all added up to was climate change.

Many years later I would track down the ecologist and ask him for his impressions of that summer together. I would share with him how pointless it all seemed at the time. But the ecologist being a scientist, who, unlike me, was a true counter of the world, a veritable Buddha of the bush, turned the whole thing on its head. “I get what you’re saying,” he told me. “I get that feeling of smallness. So here we were — two little creatures out in this massive forest, taking these samples from which we were going to infer the composition of the forest over a vast, vast area and scope of time. Ideally I’d have liked to have had a God’s-eye-view that would take in everything. But of course being these puny little mortals we didn’t have the capacity to do that. Instead we had to do the sampling. To do science you have to put in a lot of time somewhere. What was most important to the study where the accuracy was critical was up close to the lake. We were trying to find out at what scale is this pollen assemblage reading the landscape? To find that out we measured every tree within 20 meters of every lake. That’s a lot of trees.”

As I reflect back on it now, I see the hazy outline of a road I veered away from. If I’d continued to count I would have graduated to become a junior scientist who would count and count and count; count to the exclusion of all other deeds. And then, at a certain point, I would have been able to hire an extra counter or two to help me count. I would have toyed around with the numbers gleaned, but probably I would have decided that more education (and more counting) was necessary to bring some coherence to it all. And, eventually, after bumping around from this research institution to that, accruing letters of degrees after my name like fallen leaves, maybe in my 50s or 60s I’d get to take all the counting and pull it together into a refined theory — a grand summation of counting, not unlike the pattern a Buddhist monk would see after days and days of pouring fine-colored grains of sand until it made the pattern of a mandala.

And I would have been crushed.

It’s not that I didn’t want to make a mandala of my own. In the years since, I have spent thousands of hours parsing sentences, talking to scientists, observing while they count, trying to listen and figure out where the signal lies and what’s just noise. Sometimes I feel unserious, like the dog Muddy. Sometimes I feel like I’m just splashing in a lake. But other times I feel no less attentive to the whisper of the natural world than any scientist. It’s just that fractals of my understanding are made out of words. Not trees. Realizing this was the most important data point I ever collected.

Just before hanging up with the ecologist, I asked him whatever became of all the trees we counted. Those reams and reams of tree counts, recorded on mud-spackled sheets of paper on clipboards that have all by now rotted away. At this he gave an ironic chuckle. “Believe it or not, I’m still working with the data we collected that summer. In fact, I’ve got a grad student crunching those numbers as we speak.”

This story originally appeared in Adirondack Life Magazine in 2020 as “By the Numbers”

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