This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Reviewcontributors; read the previous ones here and sign up for our email newsletter to receive them weekly in your inbox.
In the March 24, 2022 issue of the magazine, Michelle Nijhuis reviews A cure for darkness by Alex Riley, an investigation into the turbulent history of depression treatment inspired by Riley’s own struggle with the disease. The topic was a bit of a departure for Nijhuis, who writes most often about climate change and conservation — her last article in our pages was a romp through the science of animal communication — but she’s always had diverse interests.
Nijhuis studied biology in college, with a focus on ecology and conservation, and after graduating spent several years as a field assistant on wildlife research projects in the southwest, tracking desert tortoises in Utah and Arizona and counting frogs in the Sierra Nevada. But she found academic research stifling. “I loved those jobs,” she told me this week via email, “and I was absolutely interested in science and scientists, but I didn’t have the patience or the passion to spending decades looking for answers to a single set of questions.. I wanted to ask a lot of different questions, and science journalism gave me the chance to do that.
Nijhuis landed an internship and then a job at High Country News, a magazine covering rural communities and public lands in the western states. While still a Contributing Editor there as well as a Project Editor at Atlanticshe wrote for many outlets and published last year beloved beasts, an acclaimed history of the conservation movement. She also co-edited The Science Writer’s Handbook and wrote a companion manual on the craft of scientific essay – two indispensable resources for journalists working in the genre, which presents particular challenges.
“Science journalists have always had to find ways to ‘translate’ complicated concepts without sacrificing accuracy, but even during my career the work has become so much more difficult,” she said.
Issues have become both more complex and more urgent, and misinformation has accelerated. Climate change, global health, species loss and habitat destruction – these are no longer just science stories, if they ever were. They are stories about politics, economics and history and, above all, about life and death. Thus, all science journalists must be multidisciplinary to some degree – they must not only translate research into understandable language, but show how science affects and is affected by the societies in which it exists.
Disciplinary rigidity is a problem not only in science journalism but in scientific research itself. As Nijhuis explains in his review of A cure for darkness, there has long been disagreement over whether depression is primarily a psychological or biological condition, resulting in radically different approaches to understanding and treating a complex illness. “I see a lot of parallels between the history of psychiatry and the history of the conservation movement,” she told me.
Both began in the elite circles of wealthy societies, and for decades largely ignored the importance of lived experience – psychiatrists ignored or dismissed their patients’ ideas, while the establishment of conservation ignored the expertise of communities that had practiced conservation at the local level for years. millennia. Both have been and still are hampered by bigotry.
While working as a field biologist early in her career, she observed the “bitter and sometimes violent politics surrounding vulnerable species” in which “there was almost no agreement, even between people who were supposed to be on the same side, on the answers to very fundamental questions. questions – why a particular species should be protected, or who should be responsible for its protection.
After becoming a journalist and starting to write about conservation conflicts, I began to think of telling the story of the modern conservation movement as a single narrative, which examined both the successes and failures of the movement and how he had developed answers to these problems. fundamental questions.
Unexpectedly, she finished writing beloved beasts feeling more optimistic than when he started, “even though the history of the conservation movement is full of terrible losses and decisions”. She recognizes that there are successes to be celebrated in protecting species and advancing scientific understanding of their needs, “and the movement belatedly recognizes the importance of indigenous and traditional conservation practices, which have been ignored and disrupted by the conservation establishment for generations”.
She was also encouraged by Riley’s book, in which he writes that a collaborative approach combining pharmacological treatments and other forms of therapy seems to be gaining ground in psychiatry.
Progress isn’t guaranteed to continue, of course, and both areas still have a ways to go, but as someone who suffers from depression – and as someone who cares about the fate of all species, including ours – I am grateful to live in a time when psychiatry and conservation seem to be learning from their own history.
Nijhuis grew up in Poughkeepsie, New York, but lives in the West, where she began her career and has written so much about. Currently, she and her family live in a small town in Washington, but for fifteen years prior they lived off the power grid in western Colorado. “Living off the grid was a lot less exotic than it looks – we had the most modern conveniences – but because we lived out of town we were often visited by coyotes, sometimes bobcats, and once, late at night, by a very confused stray cow.”