Let's Not Sell Out The Places We Love
By Todd Wilkinson
Editor's Note: We at Free Range Writers are pleased to offer occasional guest posts. We are deeply honored that Todd Wilkinson has agreed to be our first guest author.
Todd has been a journalist for thirty-five years and is best known for his environmental reporting. He started his career as a violent crime reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and today serves as a Bozeman, Montana-based correspondent in the West for National Geographic and The Guardian. In 2017, he founded the non-profit, public-interest journalism site, Mountain Journal (mountainjournal.org) that today has more Facebook followers than any other media entity between Denver and the North Pole. He has written a number of books including critically-acclaimed explorations of scientific whistleblowers, media-mogul-turned-bison baron Ted Turner and the story of famous Jackson Hole Grizzly 399.
Todd asserts that now with his kids graduated from college, he can attempt to indulge himself in writing fiction. He says he stands in admiration of those affiliated with Free Range Writers. We at Free Range Writers equally admire Todd and his highly principled work in defense of all things wild.
Early in my career as a freelance writer, before I became focused on the environment, I did things I look back upon now as having committed a sin.
One of Todd's secret spots (left).
To make money in order to pay the bills, I took some assignments writing what I would call shameless travel stories. A few of the pieces that appeared in print under my byline had headlines attached to them, such as (these aren’t literal): “Your Guide to Five Undiscovered Trails in Yellowstone” and “The Top Ten Fishing Rivers Where You Can Escape the Crowds” and “Bozeman, Montana—Outdoor Mecca: A True American Diamond In the Rough.”
Although they were published long ago, they do not represent my proudest days as a journalist and I admit to feeling a sense of shame today.
Soon the five “undiscovered” trails certainly weren’t any more and the fishing holes I mentioned came under a lot more pressure. The net effect was that I helped call attention to some really cool places that did not need touting or more people pouring into them. In fact, quite the opposite.
As writers, what is our obligation and responsibility, if any, to protect the places that figure in our storytelling? Whether setting is a main protagonist or mere backdrop, I would argue that the ethic we adhere to ought to be comparable to the oath medical doctors take: “do no harm.”
Up front, I admit that this makes me a hypocrite because I’ve already violated the rule I am now advancing. But isn’t that as it always happens?
Think of the old man who once was an ardent trophy hunter and who mentored generations into loving the great outdoors. Eventually, he ages to the point where he stands in front of the elusive bull elk with epic antlers and decides not to pull the trigger.
Know that I’m not judging any of you because the decisions we make are personal and need to pass muster with our own consciences. But many of us realize, when there’s more years accumulated behind us than ahead that the prize is worth more alive than having a head mounted on our wall where we alone come to possess “the quarry” in death.
What I am wrestling with most these days, on a planet with 7.5 billion souls—headed toward 10 billion later in this century—is how can we writers convert “users” into advocates for protecting nature? We’re fast realizing that the mantra of modern commercial society—“all growth is good”—can have severe consequences and it includes the culpable role we play as writers promoting industrial strength tourism. It’s happening everywhere. Humankind is consuming wildness at a rate faster than we’re holding the line protecting it.
I’m certainly not saying don’t write about special places or use them in plots, nor am I suggesting you shouldn’t divulge how certain settings have an effect on you or your characters. What I’m recommending is don’t write about the fragile ones. If you must base them on real locations, don’t identity them by name and don’t make it obvious what you are referencing.
In other words, don’t give them away. We as writers, non-fiction journalists and inventors of fictional potboilers, hold a lot of power. Our influence increases exponentially if one is well known and has the good fortune of achieving best sellers.
Before the days of the internet, before the notion of “going viral” on social media became a modern phenomenon, I experienced the soul-crushing downside of a parallel version. One of the things I savor doing in the fall is hunting mountain grouse. “Blues,” as the birds are called, tend to inhabit ridgelines and finding them requires a lot of high steep hiking. I didn’t write about my favorite spots but I did take a friend there.
In this case, consider the friend as a surrogate for one of your faithful readers. The place I’m referencing was truly extraordinary and out of the way. The source of my adoration for it wasn’t just that it had a regular healthy population of grouse but I saw bears there, moose, herds of elk, mule deer and enjoyed other aspects of solitude. Often, I would climb up on an afternoon, set my shotgun aside and just sit there, soaking it in.
My friend and I had a couple of memorable outings together. After he swore on the Bible that he wouldn’t tell anyone, I learned later that he, in fact, wanted to demonstrate to another acquaintance that he possessed good knowledge of the forest, and so he shared the whereabouts of the secret spot, along with the words: “I’m gonna take you to a place no one else knows about, that has a great population of grouse but you have to promise me you won’t tell anyone.”
A few years later, the grouse are largely gone, hunted out. Guys with bird dogs swarm it every year and vacuum it of blues. I offer this as a metaphor of what our writing can do. I’ve heard of places that have been written about—where there were undisturbed pictographs and petroglyphs that, after a story appeared suffered from vandalism.
For places that already are being inundated and possess the infrastructure to handle high volumes, it’s not an issue. But our special places need safeguarding.
The social media age advantages most the unimaginative, the lazy and the ecologically uninformed who, with a little bit of inside dope, can wreak havoc.
So, how does this translate to those of us writing the next great ecological potboiler? It’s the same premise. You can create a place inspired by another real one but don’t sell it out for money. Create a treasure map without pinpointing where “X” marks the spot.