Hal Herring, host of the Freeflow Institute’s upcoming 2018 Literature of Wild Journalism course, talks here about complexity, collaboration, and connection in the process of finding and telling good stories.
I have been extraordinarily lucky to have been able to cover some of the stories in our country that most fascinated me long before I started reporting on them. This is an economic choice – I have never taken a full-time job that would prevent me from taking on subjects as they appeared, or as I learned about them. My family has paid a price for this freedom of mine, without a doubt. Every one of these stories fit the criteria of “you simply won’t believe what I’m about to tell you,” even though – especially though – some of them seem rather dull at first glance (geomorphology? sugar cane subsidies? federal public lands policy?). The perception of dullness, or of near-impossible complexity requiring time-eating research, is the shell that keeps more well-funded and very talented writers and reporters from taking these stories, peeling the onion, and running away with them.
Last May, I stayed in an old Jensen Beach, Florida fish camp for more than a week, following a story that I’ve been obsessed with for the past five years or so. I made a deal with Field and Stream for plenty of room to tell it- a moderate piece for the print magazine, and a series that would run under the Conservationist blog that I co-write with the Pulitzer-Prize winning environmental reporter Bob Marshall of Louisiana. I had access to the experts on the disaster unfolding in south Florida, with planes to take us over the vast expanses of sugar plantations that had once been the northern Everglades (once called the custard apple forest), with boats and guides, a car to travel to the hard-luck towns of Belle Glade and Pahokee and Lake Okeechobee itself. The disaster is entirely man-made, and it is imminently fixable, and the fix has been understood for more than fifty years – simply let the monster Lake Okeechobee (called Lake O) overflow southward and replenish the Everglades, the Biscayne Aquifer, and Florida Bay through a floodway that will clean up its polluted water with wetland vegetation. Our failure to accomplish this relatively simple bit of bio-re-engineering, with so much at stake – Florida Bay, the Biscayne Aquifer, Everglades Nat’l Park, the Indian River Lagoon, the Pine Island Sound, and billions of dollars-worth of businesses and real estate inundated with polluted waters on both coasts – is perhaps the single-most depressing revelation of fouled US politics that I have ever had to look at. It is inexcusable. It is an example of the unholy marriage of disaster capitalism and politics at its nastiest.
10.4.17 Field and Stream
In 2010, I went back to New Orleans – I’d gone to college at Tulane for a while in the 1980’s – to cover the Deepwater Horizon oil spill for Field and Stream. It was a dream assignment: photographer Tim Romano of Colorado and I were tasked with trying to cover the spill’s effect on fishermen and fishing guides and tackle shops in real time, posting stories, video and photos on Field and Stream’s website every afternoon or night. We were out at sea, in the mouth of the Mississippi River at Southwest Pass, in the city, exhausted, at night, and in the marshes and small communities all day. While we were there, everyone was talking not just about the spill but about the fate of the Louisiana Delta itself – the fastest disappearing land mass on earth, with grave consequences for everything from the Port of New Orleans (this was five years after Katrina) to the mega-energy hub of Port Fourchon, which, once deep inland and protected by vast marshes, was already almost in the open Gulf. And everybody I met told me there was a template for a solution, and it was an accident, and it lay deep in the lower Atchafalaya River swamps, where sediment was building new land so fast that cartographers could not keep up with it. Some of the best people I’ve ever traveled with took me there to see it, and this story was what came out of the trip.
6.6.12 Conservation magazine
I’ve covered the public lands beat for almost twenty years now, ever since I stumbled upon a paper written by Bozeman, Montana “economist” Terry Anderson, called “How and Why to Privatize Federal Lands” in 1999. I’ve hunted and fished and wandered my whole life on America’s public lands – I consider them one of the last and most powerful redoubts of our Republic, the source of our ecosystem services that underlies all economy, and perhaps the best idea we ever had as a people. When the Bundy family of Nevada took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, arguing that all federal lands must be “returned to the people,” I knew I had to go and meet them. I have what I consider a healthy distrust of the federal government, and have lived most of my life in the rural South and the rural West. I thought I understood the so-called “patriot movement” and the rural hatred of intrusive government. What I could not understand was what these militants hoped to accomplish with their armed insurrection – what would happen to our (theirs, too) federal lands if they got what they wanted, and what was it, exactly, that they did want? I did not get exact answers to my questions, and I am still following and writing about this insurrection.
2.12.16 High Country News
I needed to file a column, and I was in a hotel room in Washington, D.C. just after the summer solstice, on some of the hottest days of 2010. I was with a group of reporters and activists meeting with members of Congress and with then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar to talk about how to reduce the impact of energy development on public lands in the West. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill was raging, and had been raging for weeks – I’d spent part of May reporting from there, and I was feeling like the world was coming apart just as my children were getting old enough to experience its wonders. The world wasn’t coming apart, and I wrote a piece that simply celebrated summer and family, fish and dogs, and one of the most powerful places in the life of our family – the mouth of the Marias River where it pours into the Missouri.
6.23.10 Field and Stream
Read more about Hal and his work here.
Work, read, and write with Hal while exploring the Upper Missouri River with this June. Register for the 2018 Literature of Wild Journalism course today.