Journalist Mac McClelland has reported from hazardous locations around the world. She spent three years as a human-rights reporter for Mother Jones magazine. She hunted down a warlord in the Congo. She lived with Burmese refugees in Thailand, embedded with men and women warring against their country’s dictatorship and its acts of genocide. She reported on rape gangs and profiteers from the violent and lawless tent cities that arose in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, after the 2010 earthquake—an assignment that provoked a case of PTSD she still struggles with. (She later wrote a book, Irritable Hearts: A PTSD Love Story, about the experience.)
So when her editor at Audubon asked her to tag along to Cuba with a couple of birdwatchers, she agreed. She figured that following a couple of on-the-hunt birders should be a walk in the park compared to some of her earlier assignments. Or, at least, a walk in the park with binoculars. But McClelland was in for a rude awakening. The Cuba-bound researchers—Tim Gallagher and Martjan Lammertink—were mounting a search for the elusive, likely extinct, ivory-billed woodpecker in some of the most remote corners of the island. Extreme birding, she discovered, is not for the faint of heart:
At breakfast the writer again expressed her wish that there were seatbelts, which she generally tries to secure on work trips when she is in charge of logistics; while the photographer kindly validated her feelings by saying this was a normal human desire…. Now, as they prepared to drive the first three of the many, many hours they’d spend on Cuban roads over two weeks, Lammertink invited the writer to cram herself into the only place she would fit, between him and the driver. ‘It’ll just be much more fatal in an accident,’ he said of sitting in the front, then laughed, the fact that car accidents cause the most American deaths abroad being funny.
But of course, this is birding. Go dangerous or go home.
In “Delusion Is the Thing with Feathers,” (published online as “Can the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker Be Found in Cuba?”) which appeared in the May-June 2016 issue of Audubon, McClelland takes readers on a journey through the steep mountain jungles of the island, which she traversed while stuffed, along with the researchers and a photographer, into an ancient jeep with no seatbelts. She relates torrential rainstorms, a dying pack mule, the ornithologists’ indefatigable compulsions to press ever onward, and even her own severe diarrhea with a self-deprecating humor that makes the most cringe-worthy details (botfly infections, contaminated drinking water, unidentified plants that cause blisters and scarring) compelling while urging her readers forward at breakneck pace.
Last week, McClelland’s story was listed as a finalist for the 2017 National Magazine Awards in the Feature Writing category. Here, she tells Lauren Gravitz about how she kept her sense of humor while writing about a trip during which she feared for her life. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
How did you find this story?
Will Bourne reached out to me from Audubon, when he was the executive editor there. He sent me an email saying, “Hi, I’m a fan of your work. If you have any ideas, keep me in mind. We’re doing an issue on climate change, so if you find anything….” I wrote back to say that I doubt I have anything, but I’ll let you know. So then, as it happened, I had an idea about the North Carolina coast and I did a piece for them. And then Will emailed me a year-and-a-half later and asked, “Do you want to go to Cuba? We have something in the works and, if this happens, you’d be just the person for it.”
Did you have any idea what to expect?
Zero. I had no idea. They told me, “Listen, there are these crazy birders. They’re going to look for this bird, they’re probably not going to find it, but we want to know what this looks like.”
Tim said we would camp for five days and the rest of the time we’d be staying in B&Bs. “B&Bs” was the word that he used. I’ll be honest: I’m used to being uncomfortable. Being on assignment is almost always uncomfortable in a myriad of ways, but not the camping way. That’s not my jam. But I was like, “Five days. Sure.” But it turned out to be a lie. Everything turned out to be a lie. I didn’t understand the extent of their recklessness or that I, personally, was going to be really uncomfortable.
I thought it was going to be low-level uncomfortable. Because hiking and hiking and hiking, whatever, that’s fine. I am pretty comfortable with that sort of thing. But by my standards these guys don’t care about basic safety precautions at all.
It sounds as though, from the beginning, this wasn’t a story so much about a woodpecker as it was about the people obsessed with it?
Yes. It wasn’t pitched to me so much as being about the process as it was about the humans. Although at no point was it described to me as absolute hell. And as I’m talking about it now, I’m like, “Oh my god, it sounds so dramatic.” You know, nobody died. It wasn’t dramatic. It just kind of sucked.
But birding is not my passion in life. I don’t know that I even have any passion in my life that would totally transcend my own well-being.
Did you ever think there was a chance that these guys might actually find the bird?
I thought there was a chance. I’m not a famous accomplished and degreed birder. So if [Lammertink and Gallagher] thought here was some chance, who am I to be like, “No. It’s impossible.”
I did talk to a couple of other birders before I left. And one of them was like, “You know, if it’s anywhere, it’s there.” He thought there was an infinitesimally small chance. So whatever, why not, maybe?
When you were writing, were you worried about how to create tension when the outcome was essentially known? Because even though I knew that I would have heard about it if they’d found the woodpecker, I was still somehow riveted to the story in the hopes that I was wrong.
I know what you mean and I was aware of that. But somehow it didn’t seem like it mattered. Even if they had [found it] and had made this announcement, my assignment was to profile these men, not to create a narrative around their finding or not finding the bird. No matter what happened, my assignment was the same, which was to talk about what they were like.
So I talk about what the search is like, because those things are very, very related. The way [the researchers] conduct it says a lot about them. And those guys: You can see, even after all hope is lost, they have this rallying moment where they’ve been crushed and they’re like, “Wait a minute. We’re going to go talk to this person and this person is going to give us this thing, and we’re going to run back into the jungle and this is going to be how we find it.” Even when it’s clear the search is over, they were like, “No, it’s not over, there’s still a chance.”
And yet there’s still tension. The way you describe their use of the wooden knocker to try and coax the birds out …
When we were sitting there, just waiting, you’re literally just waiting for something to happen. You are waiting and hoping that this bird is miraculously going to burst out of the trees behind you.
Is there a fine line between tension and boredom? Because we were bored just sitting there and that was the only thing we were waiting for. And like them, I was looking around and waiting and hoping. Because otherwise, what are you doing with your life?
You’ve taken some pretty intense reporting trips. How did this compare?
I was in Kenya in August 2015—for some reason, this comes to mind. There was this one day when we were way, way outside of Nairobi. There were no roads. So we were driving this van through the desert to this super-remote location because we were [meeting] this nomadic tribe that lived out there and we needed to turn back by a certain time in order to make it back to the paved roads by dark. Not just because if you get into some sort of accident in the desert nobody will come help you, but that’s also when the bandits come out.
And then we left and we were late and so we were still driving trying to get out of the desert when it was dark. But that was an accident. I was flipping out the hardest in the car, but I wasn’t the only one who was stressed about it. The Kenyans were like, “We really gotta get out of this desert because of the bandits.”
Whereas these birders! We’re in a jeep that’s just sliding backwards down this mountain. At no point were they like, “We should stop.” We only stopped because the driver was like, “It’s not working.” We have no choice but to stop because the car won’t do it and it keeps dying.
So would you say that of all the reporting trips you’ve taken, this was the one that made you most fear for your own safety?
Yes. Well. Haiti is different. I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. I was super traumatized, so for the rest of that trip I did feel like my life was in serious danger. But while a little bit of that was valid, it was also super magnified by my psychological state. But I wasn’t personally putting myself in harm’s way at every turn, which is what I feel like we were doing [in Cuba.]
Did the birding trip trigger any of the PTSD?
Oh yeah. It really did. I mean, with reporting you always take risks. But I try to mitigate those risks. You do the best that you can. And if you’re going to be in a dangerous place you take security, for example. Or, you know, you rent vans that have seatbelts.
So it was a combination of not feeling safe, because in fact we probably weren’t being very safe, but also having no control over it. Everything I was doing I was just doing because I was following these people.
Did you ever seriously question whether you should continue?
We still had a week left in the trip but it had become very clear to me by then how reckless, for my taste, these guys were. And if they didn’t really care about what happened to themselves they sure as shit didn’t care what was going to happen to me or the photographer.
So I was like, I’m leaving. And so I told [Lammertink, who was acting as translator], “You need to tell one of these guys to get me back down the mountain, and into town and from town I’ll pay a driver. I’ll find someone to drive me to Guantanamo.” And he was like, “You can’t leave because the trip is just in the middle and you need to see all these amazing things we’re doing.” And I was like, “Listen, I’m not going to die for this story. And I’m not going to die for this bird, and I’m not going to die for you.”
We had this huge fight. This is not a thing that usually happens on assignments. We had this big disagreement because I was like, “I don’t feel safe with you. And this is what we have to do for me to go forward, otherwise I’m leaving right now.”
A reporter’s job is usually to watch rather than interfere with the process. That must have been a difficult conversation.
Totally. And he thought that I was being such an asshole. And I thought he was being such an asshole, and it’s not that I was trying to interfere. But at the same time, when you’re covering a conference and your job is to watch, the worst thing that can happen is that you’re kind of bored and sometimes it feels like a real slog.
But it’s a different thing when what you’re watching also means you have to be doing 100 percent of what the other people are doing. It’s like being embedded. On the one hand, we are reporters. We were just watching. On the other hand, it did involve our life and health and safety. And so we weren’t just reporters. We also were humans who were involved in the process.
How did you get the researchers to keep talking to you when there was obviously so much friction?
In my experience, it’s not difficult to get humans—particularly men, particularly certain breeds of men—to talk about themselves when you ask them questions. There’s no trick in getting people, particularly obsessive ones, to talk about themselves and their own work.
I will say that in my work it’s extremely uncommon that people refuse to answer. I think sexism has something to do with it: Because I’m a woman, they don’t really respond with guardedness. It felt very traditionally gendered. He was making comments about women and women’s looks, and it was really old-timey.
So we were stuck and isolated and we didn’t like each other. But it sort of didn’t matter. Everyone was there with a job to do. It was my job to ask him questions. And he knew the deal. It was not as though he was reluctant to talk about his work. I didn’t even think about that at all when it was happening. It does sound like a super weird social dynamic. But we were in the woods. And we had to be following them because that was our job.
He wasn’t as excited to answer personal questions as he was questions about science. I felt that. But even if he hated me, which I felt that he did, he was still game to answer. But I was also persistent with some of those things, the more personal things.
The story itself has a distinct voice, one that’s simultaneously self-deprecating, informative, and humorous—which is impressive, given that you felt as though your life was on the line. How did you decide what overall tone to take?
I don’t feel like it was a decision so much as something that just came to me. When I got back, I had an idea of how this was going to go.
I know that [Martjan] thought I was being a dramatic crybaby. From my perspective, maybe I was being totally reasonable in wanting to be safer, but at the same time I can see their point of view. And because nobody died, it was fine. They were right. Everything is fine—so what was the point in worrying?
So even while I stand by my sense that we were being unnecessarily reckless I still recognize that, at the end of the day, we were four white people in a forest looking for an extinct bird. I think I deserved that self-deprecation. I certainly don’t think I’m a hero for following these guys around.
How did you come to the decision to put yourself in the story?
It definitely could have just been about these two guys. But I have to confess that I never considered doing it that way. That seems more serious to me. It’s less funny, I think. Me and the photographer are there for me to make fun of, basically. At the same time that I’m making fun a little bit of these guys—they’re crazy—[I’m making fun of us], we’re pussies.
Nobody’s right but nobody’s wrong. People are just different. I think humans are the most interesting thing of anything, so I guess that’s why I put us all in. But the photographer and I also sort of represented “normal” people. Not that either of us is normal in any sense, but people who aren’t extreme birders. Because I think most people would be looking at this and being like, “What are they doing?!” And so we were sort of echoing this, like, “Why are we doing this? What is the idea? What is the point?” I think we represent your general audience.
Your voice in this piece is fun—a raucous combination of dark and light-hearted humor and a reluctant willingness to go along for the ride. Did you have to think about where to draw the line, humor-wise?
The short answer is no, I wasn’t thinking “I’m going too far.” But that’s because I’ve been taught at this point that if you go too far, it’s your editor’s job to worry about reining that in. I write something the way I’m going to write it—that’s always been true. And as my career progressed, people would even say to me: If you’re going to go too far or not far enough, choose too far. Because we can always dial it back in the edits.
If this were a piece about sexual assault, I’d be like, “How do we want to handle it. What’s too much?” But this is a piece about birding. Not to say birding isn’t important, and ecologists do super important work, but the stakes of doing harm to the people involved seem very low.
If I hadn’t included myself in the silliness, that would have been a concern. Because then if I were mocking them—and I do think they’re insane—but if I were just writing a hit piece about how I think these guys are crazy idiots, that’s not good or right or decent journalism. If I had not been including myself in that, I would have had to have pulled way back on the attitude and the tone I was taking around them. But we were all ridiculous.
What were the biggest challenges in writing this? And was there anything about it that just came easily?
For the most part, I feel like this was the fastest and easiest thing I ever wrote. This story was like a fire in my blood. Not to be dramatic, but I could not wait to get home and start writing it. And when I was writing it, I couldn’t wait to keep going. And every time I had to stop because I was tired, or my brain stopped working, or I had to sleep or eat, I couldn’t wait to get back to it. It happened very, very fast. Me and the writing in this story got along really, really well.
I was so moved by it. I don’t know why, I just felt like—it did feel totally inspired, and there’s something else that I just can’t articulate. But I knew the whole time. From the second I got home. Maybe it was just a perfect storm. It was the perfect storm of freedom and total creative control and of voice and style and of a narrative that just worked really well with all of those things.
How much did it change from the first draft to the last?
Hardly at all. It got a tiny bit shorter because we had to cut for space. And Mark [Jannot], my editor, did an awesome job. I write very long sentences, and I will be the first to say they get way out of control. And Mark was like: In the places where I feel like you’re totally out of control I’m gonna suggest some tweaks that I think will get across what you’re saying clearer. And he did that in a bunch of places. And I think they were awesome, awesome tweaks. But that was pretty much it.
Looking back, knowing what you know, would you do it all again?
I’ve wondered that! I can’t tell you how much time I’ve spent wondering that. When I got back I was inclined to say that, if I had known exactly what it was going to be like, I wouldn’t have gone. I really was struggling when I got back. But that was months ago, and I’m like, “Whatever. That was actually terrible, but everybody lived.” Now I don’t believe I’ve been suffering any repercussions for that. So you just have to decide how much suffering is worth it. Which is the same calculus that those guys are doing at all times, just that their threshold is a million times higher than mine.
Lauren Gravitz is a science writer and editor based in Pennsylvania. Her writing has been published in Aeon, Discover, O Magazine, Technology Review, Nature, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter @lyrebard.