Deez Interviews: Conor Gearin, on great science journalism rabbitholes + the best readings for connecting w/your ecological community

This week’s interview is with science writer Conor Gearin, whose work has appeared in spots like The Atlantic and New Scientist. He also helps edit The New Territory, which just put out a new print issue AND currently writes about the landscapes and wildlife surrounding his home in Massachusetts via his Possum Notes newsletter. We talked about the 50/50 indoors vs. outdoors process for researching the book he’s working on, misconceptions around science messaging, and the best apps for getting in touch with your inner naturalist! Enjoy.

First, how did you get into science writing and especially writing about nature? 

Early on, I remember two main influences: The Magic School Bus on PBS and, a little later, a sixth grade science teacher who had us read essays by the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould. Those essays blew my mind because he was cracking jokes about intricate science concepts. I didn’t know you could write about science and also be funny. 

Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was another big one — this was some point in college. She pulled out apocalyptic drama from things as small as a frog having its insides sucked out by a giant water bug — or more pleasantly, the way light flickered through a cedar tree. The book affirmed something I wanted to believe, which was that landscapes we think of as familiar and understood are strange and wild on closer look. You can approach this idea through science — detailing what species are there and what they’re doing — and through creative writing by processing what a place means to you.

You're also working on a book about "the wildlife of the untended fence-line." What kind of research process does that involve in terms of like, time spent on a computer vs. time spent out in nature?

Part of the inspiration was my research into bird conservation in developed landscapes and seeing how places we don’t think of as wilderness can still be essential habitat for certain species. Then there were the little trips to urban trails and parks that helped me stay sane while moving around for school and being apart from loved ones. As well as the writers I admire: Dillard, Lauret Savoy, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Robert Macfarlane, Helen Macdonald, many others.

For me, this kind of writing has to start with going outside — a walk, birding, or swimming — and taking notes. Even if that writing doesn’t end up in the manuscript, I need it to get started. Sitting at my computer and waiting for something to happen doesn’t work. But 50/50 outside vs. computer is probably close. 

Once I get back, I’ll look up articles on an animal’s behavior or the history of a place. Trips outside sometimes cause old memories to pop up. The time of day and light might ring a bell with something that happened 15 years ago. Forests, grasslands, and other ecosystems have a way of rhyming with their counterparts in different regions that helps me reconnect with where I’ve been.

By day, you work in comms for a research institute by day, and I'm curious about any unique challenges, from a communications professional’s point of view, that work poses.

The main challenge is finding ways that new research relates to a reader without specialized interest in the topic. But as someone who trained and worked as a reporter, what stands out is how much of the skillset is the same: interviewing, evaluating evidence, understanding a beat and seeing news brewing before it happens. Ledes, nutgrafs, all that. 

I work at the same place as my sources, so that’s obviously a different ethical situation than reporting. And certainly there are incremental or technical developments that have a more specialized audience. But all the science writers I know want to make their audience as broad as possible. We use a similar writing toolbox to a city hall reporter for that. Every beat comes with insider knowledge and jargon, but if you understand your readers, and consider what insights could help a journalist covering new research write their own article, you can do your best to make that story come alive with the materials at hand.

In your experience, what is the biggest misconception people have about being a science writer?

Maybe that science writing is solely a specialized interest, that it’s set apart from the rest of media because of how it’s tied to reporting on new peer-reviewed research. 

That said, when there’s a crisis involving science like COVID-19, it’s even more essential to hire staff and freelancers specialized in science journalism and equipped to cover these stories effectively. But I guess my point is that so many investigations and features weave in a little science. I love reading great science journalism by people who might not see themselves as science journalists — at local newspapers and public radio stations, for example, where a metro reporter writing on segregation ends up delving into pollution, cancer clusters and Superfund sites. Reporting on schools might lead you to call up psychologists and sociologists. 

Plenty of amazing science journalists start on other beats and fall down research rabbit holes. While many on the science beat are focused on new research papers, which can have niche audiences, it’s not the only kind of science journalism — just as sports journalism is more than reporting on individual games.

Finally, what books or resources do you recommend (you know, besides your own upcoming one!) for people who want to become more aware of their own local wildlife and landscapes?

I’m reading Elizabeth-Jane Burnett’s The Grassling, in which she has transformative encounters with the land such as making a pot with clay dug from an area where her ancestors lived, staying outside all night looking for deer, or swimming in a town stream. These actions aren’t accomplishing something conventional — climbing a mountain or hiking a major trail. But they could reveal something about a nearby place that stays hidden when just walking by. 

I’m interested in those types of transformative interactions — the kinds possible with smaller-scale manifestations of nature. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi nation and plant ecologist, writes about incorporating sustainable foraging and art-making with plant materials in her science teaching, and how that can help students recognize themselves as part of an ecological community.

For socially-distanced wildlife watching, I can recommend the apps iNaturalist for help with identifying plants and bugs and Merlin Bird ID for the birds. And there’s nothing like talking to people about your wildlife sightings and benefiting from their knowledge. My local bird club has started doing “virtual bird walks” where we stay in touch in a group chat while birding in separate locations. That has helped me continue my birding apprenticeship virtually.

Don’t forget to follow @conorgearin, and have a great weekend! god doesn’t this q&a make you wanna go commune with nature all day now??