The Berkeley Ecology Center killed Terrain a couple years ago. I visited the office a year ago and the one remaining staff person that remembered me apologized profusely, as if I’d be offended that they axed the journal I’d walked away from 16 years earlier. Honestly, I think it was inevitable. I’m surprised it didn’t happen a whole lot sooner. The center never really knew what to make of the publication, at least while I was editing the thing.
They didn’t kill the publication while I was working there, so I win.
Terrain was the monthly publication of the Ecology Center, at least during my tenure. When I left in October 1997 the Center’s Board of Directors voted, at my urging, to make the magazine a quarterly, thus cutting my successor’s duties by two-thirds. I think they also paid him more and hired an assistant.
But it was a monthly while I was there, which means that from June 1992 through that last issue in October ’97, I put out 62 issues of Terrain. (For those of you inclined to do the math, I took a month off in May 1995 to get married, and another in July 1996 for a vacation.)
It was a hellacious amount of work for almost no pay in a larger organization that was remarkably dysfunctional at the time, so my outward reminiscences since leaving have tended toward the gripe end of the spectrum. It was kind of like boot camp. Or one of those apprenticeships in Tibetan mythology where the supplicant gets told to build a master’s stone house with no tools, and then on its completion is told to tear it down and rebuild it a foot to the left.
When I left the job in 1997 I went to the desert. I took along one copy of every issue of Terrain I’d ever edited. On my first night out, in a campsite in the headwaters of the Owens River, I fed them one at a time into my campfire, in reverse chronological order. Three months later I was working at a similar publication put out by a more prominent organization, and there my boss (with whom I’ve reconciled since) was one of the worst I’ve ever had, to the point where I gave notice a month into the gig which is a whole separate story to tell sometime, and that job was still better in many respects than my job editing Terrain.
And lately I realize that I could not be doing what I’m doing now if I hadn’t had that bad job. I can’t imagine having had a better bad job. I walked away from it, but — to fall prey to the predictable chiasmus — it never walked away from me.
I was supremely unqualified for the job when I took it. I’d written a column monthly or so for for the previous editor for a couple years, and helped with editing from time to time. And then that editor burned out rather dramatically, announced to the rest of the Center staff that she had hired me as her replacement, and then left. The next printer’s deadline was three weeks away. The process for producing Terrain involved editing the material, then printing it out in 12 point Times New Roman in 3.25-inch columns in Microsoft Word, then hand-waxing a paragraph or two at a time and pasting them onto big tabloid-sized cardboard flats.
My first issue was ready to go to the printer in an hour, and I noticed a prominent typo in the hand-drawn front page artwork’s headline. The artist had omitted a letter. After a moment’s panic, I improvised a solution.
That’s kind of what the job was like for the next five years: last-minute panic fixes with X-Acto knives.
Feature, not bug. I had to figure out how to make everything easier. I moved to page layout software from manual pasteup. I revolutionized the article submission process by telling people they needed to use email. I scrounged a copy of Photoshop 2.0. I found articles on Usenet and persuaded the authors to let me reprint them on treeflesh.
I also made every mistake possible. I misattributed articles. (The authors are mainly still speaking to me, thankfully.) I engaged in ransom note page design and typography. I took a very long time to figure out how to account for “dot gain,” the spreading of ink into paper, when preparing photos for printing. On newsprint, the beautiful photos I’d get of old-growth redwood forests would become muddy messes, hardly suitable to persuade readers that the old growth deserved not to be chopped down. (The issue was hot at the time.) I came up with some of the ugliest cover art in world history without meaning to.
I learned, in other words.
Not by myself, I hasten to add. A few months after I started a classmate of mine from the Landscape Horticulture school I’d gone to a few years earlier wandered in with a piece about horse manure. My garden columnist had just quit. I offered her the gig. She grinned fiendishly. Before long she’d taken the 1/4-time assistant editor job, which had previously been spent putting together a monthly calendar. Ron Sullivan took on that job and a whole lot else besides. There were months she worked full time on that 1/4-time pay. I’m pretty sure that was her idea. She saved Terrain from making more embarrassing mistakes in the editing department than I could possibly count. The writing in the rag got better. As did mine, from watching her work.
She brought in her husband, Joe Eaton, one of the best natural history writers I’ve ever read. He started devoting untold hours of volunteer time writing, editing, and fact-checking Terrain’s science. He also drew editorial cartoons worthy of Herblock or Feiffer. My (now ex-) wife Becky proofread and provided impromptu artwork. More volunteers joined. I was still working 50-60 hours most weeks, but the work I was doing in that time was better.
Within a few months we had the makings of an editorial board of five or six people. We met once a month to review the issue that had just come out and plan the next three. Though there were occasionally unpleasant politics on the ed board, and though some of those unpleasant politics were magnified by my increasing burnout as 1995 became 1996, the board was a core group of people committed to bettering environmental writing and reporting in Northern California. It was one of the best groups of people I’ve ever worked with.
In January 1996 we changed format from a free tabloid newspaper distributed in the Central Bay Area to a 40-page magazine, which we intended to sell for $3.00 a copy throughout California. The goal was to become the leading source of environmental news and ideas for Northern Californians. In retrospect, that was probably ambitious. We’d been planning it since 1994. Had I known then what I know now, I might have kept the free tabloid and expanded onto the early Web, just then coalescing. Terrain might have been much more influential if we’d staked out early turf online.
Then again, I was just barely able to check email in the office: I had to share a landline with the office manager.
We did good, though. We reported on Redwood Summer, on the ecocidal 104th Congress, on the aftermath of the 1991 Oakland fire and the 1995 floods in the Central Valley. We ran stories by Gary Nabhan, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Winona La Duke. We reported on methyl bromide poisoning in Santa Cruz County schoolkids, and on the backlash against protection for the Delhi Sands flower-loving fly. One afternoon having a meeting at the Missouri Lounge next door, Ron and I decided the house style included diereses wherever possible. Terrain blossomed with coöperatives, preëmptions, and microörganisms.
The 60-hour weeks took their toll, and I took that toll out on those around me. I drank too much coffee in the morning, then drank too much alcohol as I worked at home at night, waiting for my Quadra 610 to crank though sharpening one 500K Tiff file after another. Eventually I just couldn’t do it anymore, and in summer 1997 I told the Ed Board, which told the Ecology Center’s Board of Directors. By October I was sitting by that fire in the headwaters of the Owens River.
It took me a long time to let go of what we’d planned for Terrain: my old site Faultline.org was intended as Terrain’s heir, expanded to all of California, and it took a few years to admit to myself it wasn’t going to work.
It’s so clear now. All that work, all that thought and planning, all those illustrative mistakes and good habits forged almost accidentally? They make it possible for me to do the work I’m doing now. It’s not so much X-Acto knives and hand waxers and last-minute panic now.
This past week I saw a story I’d worked to break open since 2012 take the global stage. I didn’t get credit, and that would have been nice in some ways. But the story broke. The conversation changed. A place I care about got a bit more attention, and that attention was a bit more informed than it had been. And it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t spent that time in Boot Camp.
Imagine that someone you love is dying needlessly. You make one plea for help after another, but to no avail. Instead, the health care providers you consult tell you that your loved one’s completely curable illness doesn’t exist. Or that her health is a lower priority than the other things they’re working on. Or even that she needs to be allowed to die so that her illness doesn’t spread to other, more important people.
That’s what it’s like these days for environmentally concerned people who love the desert.
Once upon a time there was a six-legged beast with two heads that ambled around the hills. One head was arguably smarter. The other head, as all who knew the beast agreed, was wiser and far kinder.
One day the beast split in two. Only a lesser part was left, and it tried to wander the hills as before. Eventually, after a few months of practice, it no longer seemed completely wrong to stagger around on two feet instead of six. It wasn’t the same, though, and the two-legged fragment knew it never would be.
Seven years on, the lesser portion of the beast that had been went out at night to walk in the desert. Its too-clever, too-stupid head tried to imagine how the wiser, kinder head lost seven years earlier would see the night, moon two days new behind a distant cloud, patches of stars shining faintly. Orion and Canis Major showed to the south.
The half-beast had never expected to live so long after the amputation. A mile into the desert it turned off its light, made its way home by scent and starlight the way it thought its lost better half would have done.
My project on Beacon is funded, and I’ll be writing a story a week for the joint on issues affecting the desert from Idaho to Sinaloa and Texas to Gorman, California. (You’ll need to subscribe to read them if you haven’t already, but the subscription rate — $5 a month — is dirt cheap, and it brings you everything by 65+ other writers as well.)
But because there is more than a week left in the campaign, my colleagues at Beacon have added another hurdle for us all to jump. And frankly, it’s a pretty cool hurdle. Here’s the update text from the campaign page:
We hit our goal with more than a week to spare. Thanks for your support.
Here’s my stretch goal.
At 85 subscribers I’ll be able to produce a series on the Owens River watershed, to note the 100th anniversary of the completion of the LA Aqueduct. Each piece will be shared on BEACON, and when the series is done, we’ll produce it as a small ebook and send it to subscribers as thanks.
I’ll need about 20 more backers to make this a reality. Eight days and a few hours to reach that level: I think that’s doable. Because really, you’ll want to subscribe anyway. Might as well do it now.
I’m working with the startup Beacon to launch a desert journalism campaign, and we need your help.
Executive summary? If at least
50 48 47 people chip in $5 a month by February 8, I get to dig up more important, unreported stories about the North American deserts.
Beacon’s an interesting platform. It’s a subscription-funded journalism project. Subscribers choose a Beacon writer to fund, with subscriptions starting at $5 a month (with lower monthly prices if you buy more than a few months at once). The writer gets the bulk of that money: about 3/4s, after overhead. And when you fund a writer, you can read everything else on Beacon as part of your subscription.
Right now that means that if you back me, you can also read the work of 65 reporters writing on topics ranging from environmental health to Somalian piracy. (I’ll be in good company. Great journos already onboard include science writer Arikia Millikan, envirojourno Amy Westervelt from the SF Bay Area, and my old colleague Molly McCluskey.)
In exchange for your support, I’ll write a story a week on issues affecting the North American deserts, from Idaho to Sinaloa to Texas to my backyard here in the Mojave. There are some opportunities for interactivity I’m still learning about which may be fun. And Beacon has put together some tastefully designed t-shirts for people who subscribe at the highest support levels.
So read the pitch, watch the video, subscribe if you are inclined (and thank you), and please feel free to share this with people you think may find it of interest. Thanks!