Blue Planet | Michelle Nijhuis

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In the magazine’s March 24, 2022 issue, Michelle Nijhuis reviews A cure for the dark by Alex Riley, an investigation into the checkered history of treating depression inspired by Riley’s own struggles with the condition. The topic was a bit different for Nijhuis, who writes more frequently about climate change and conservation; his last article on our pages was a romp through the science of animal communication, but he has always had diverse interests.

Nijhuis studied biology in college, with a focus on ecology and conservation, and after graduation 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. Nevada. But he found academic research suffocating. “I loved those jobs,” she told me this week by email, “and I was absolutely interested in science and scientists, but I didn’t have the patience or passion to spend decades looking for answers to just one set of questions. . She wanted to ask a lot of different questions, and science journalism gave me the opportunity to do that.”

Nijhuis got an internship and then a job at High Country News, a magazine covering rural communities and public lands in the western states. While he is still a contributing editor there, as well as a project editor at the atlantichas written for numerous media outlets and last year published beloved beasts, an acclaimed history of the conservation movement. He has also co-edited The Science Writer’s Handbook and wrote a companion manual on the craft of the scientific essay, both indispensable resources for journalists working in the genre, which present particular challenges.

“Science journalists have always had to find ways to ‘translate’ complicated concepts without sacrificing accuracy, but even throughout my career, the job has become much more difficult,” he said.

The problems have become more complex and urgent, and disinformation has accelerated. Climate change, global health, species loss and habitat destruction – these are no longer just scientific stories, if they ever were. They are stories about politics and economics and history and, above all, about life and death. Therefore, all science journalists must be multidisciplinary to some degree: they must not only translate research into understandable language, but also show how science affects and is affected by the societies in which it exists.

Disciplinary rigidity is a problem not only of scientific journalism but of scientific research itself. As Nijhuis explains in his review of A cure for the darkThere has long been disagreement over whether depression is primarily a psychological or biological condition, resulting in markedly different approaches to understanding and treating a complex ailment. “I see a lot of parallels between the history of psychiatry and the history of the conservation movement,” he told me.

Both began in elite circles in wealthy societies, and for decades both largely ignored the importance of lived experience: psychiatrists ignored or dismissed the insights of their patients, while the conservation establishment ignored the experience of the communities they lived in. they had been practicing conservation at the local level for a long time. millennia. Both have been and still are hampered by sectarianism.

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 supposedly on the same side, about answers to very fundamental questions. questions—why a particular species should be protected, or who should be responsible for protecting it”.

After I became a journalist and started writing about conservation conflicts, I began to think about telling the story of the modern conservation movement as a single narrative, one that looked at both the successes and failures of the movement and how it had developed responses to it. those. fundamental questions.

Unexpectedly, he finished writing. beloved beasts feeling more optimistic than when he started, “although the history of the conservation movement is full of losses and terrible decisions.” She acknowledges that there are successes to celebrate in protecting species and advancing scientific understanding of their needs, “and the movement is belatedly recognizing the importance of indigenous and other traditional conservation practices, which have been ignored and disturbed by conservation establishment for generations.”

She was also encouraged by Riley’s book, in which she writes that a collaborative approach combining drug treatments and other forms of therapy seems to be gaining ground in psychiatry.

Progress is not guaranteed to continue, of course, and both fields still have a long way to go, but as someone who experiences depression and as someone who cares about the fate of all species, including our own, I’m grateful to live in a a time when both psychiatry and conservation seem to be learning from their own histories.

Nijhuis grew up in Poughkeepsie, New York, but lives out west, where he began his career and has written so much about. Today, she and her family live in a small town in Washington, but for fifteen years before that, they lived off the grid in western Colorado. “Living off the grid was much less exotic than it might seem, we had the most modern conveniences, but because we lived outside the city we were often visited by coyotes, occasionally bobcats and once, late at night, a very confused stray. cow.”

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