“Teaming up with Thoreau”

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The Story

“Teaming up with Thoreau”
by Michelle Nijhuis
Smithsonian, October 2007

The Pitch

[Nijhuis notes: This was the first feature pitch I sold to Smithsonian. I’d written a couple of front-of-the-book pieces and had sent at least a half-dozen feature pitches during the previous couple of years. I already knew my editor reasonably well, so unlike a cold pitch, it’s fairly informal and doesn’t include the usual graf listing my credentials.]

Hi Laura, how are you? I have a new feature idea for your consideration. Henry David Thoreau was a student of spring. When he tried out the simple life on Walden Pond in the 1840s, he spent long hours observing the natural world, and his voluminous journals detail the blooming, nesting, and migrating he saw around him. Today, as the global climate warms, spring is changing, and Thoreau is helping modern researchers chart the future of the season.

Boston University conservation biologist Richard Primack has spent several years deciphering Thoreau’s notebooks, and collecting data from the generations of devoted amateur naturalists who followed in the philosopher’s footsteps. Thanks to the farmers, gardeners, accountants and others who study Thoreau’s former haunts, the flora and fauna of western Massachusetts are among the best-documented in North America.

Primack and doctoral student Abraham Miller-Rushing have now assembled a chain of observations that stretches back to Thoreau’s reflective afternoons on Walden Pond, and the data document a host of disturbing changes. Blueberries and other common plants in the area flower more than three weeks earlier, wood ducks arrive a month earlier, and long-distance migrants such as flycatchers often land in the neighborhood too late to feed on emerging insects. Thoreau and his successors show that not every species is responding to global warming in the same way, and that their changing relationships are key to future conservation.

I’m excited about this story for a several reasons. It sheds new light on a famous historical figure; it brings global warming out of the Arctic and home to the Eastern seaboard; and it shows how the passions and obsessions of ordinary citizens can contribute to significant scientific discoveries.
Primack recently received a Guggenheim for his work, and would be a lively, articulate guide to this project and its global implications. Miller-Rushing is young and enthusiastic, and appreciates the human stories involved in his research. Several of the amateur naturalists would make great characters, including a sheep farmer who’s kept a daily record of natural phenomena on her land since the 1950s, and an accountant whose morning ritual is to count and identify the birds in his local cemetery.

My plan would be to visit Concord in the spring, and spend several days in the field with Primack, Miller-Rushing, and longtime area naturalists. I’d also interview the numerous historians who can bring Thoreau and his times to life.

Thanks for giving this a read – always happy to answer questions or send more information, including clips of my previous narrative work on climate change.

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