Like many journalists I’ve met, I entered the profession because I wanted to make a difference — by exposing waste, fraud, mismanagement, abuses of power and political farce. When I left journalism school at UC Berkeley to work for Newsweek in Washington, D.C. more than 25 years ago, I sought the advice of the late Nelson Polsby, one of the great political scientists of his day. What do I need to take with me to the capital, I asked him, besides a healthy dose of skepticism? “What you need,” he told me sternly, wagging a plump finger in my face, “is an un-healthy dose of skepticism.”
For the past quarter century, I have wandered the world, from Southern Sudan to Borneo, from Alaska to Algeria, from Florida’s Everglades to Wyoming’s Red Desert, trying to marry that un-healthy dose of skepticism with captivating storytelling about stories that both inform and delight. I’ve tried to observe and chronicle how humans work, fight, play, and live together on this startling planet.
Writing has also allowed me to share some very personal stories. After 13 years at Newsweek, many of my friends thought I had lost my mind when I announced plans to drag my two kids around the world for nearly half a year after their mom and I divorced, she moved a thousand miles away — and my brother died of cancer. Maybe I had. But after a rough couple years, I imagined that a heroic adventure might bring some clarity and healing to my otherwise shaken existence as a newsmagazine journalist. It wasn’t as if I thought the kids and I could escape our losses by going to Borneo and beyond. But it was arguably a little more distracting to obsess about pythons and leeches than it was to stay home watching Grounded for Life. By the time my children and I broke into a frenzied “monkey dance” on a wilderness island in northern Australia the third week of our trip, I knew a psychic convalescence had begun — for all of us. We had, as I wrote, “forged a family of three, using adventure as our crucible.”
Gratefully, I received dozens of notes from readers, expressing how Monkey Dancing had helped them through a rough patch, or inspired them to reconcile with their kids or their spouses, or simply to realize that they were not alone in their difficult journeys. I thank all of you who have written to me to share your stories, and hope that somehow, my writing has made a little difference along the way.
These days, finding ways to make a difference, rising above the cacophany of Tweets and Pokes and iPads and the just plain ADD-edness of modern life, is a damnably difficult thing to do. Over the years I have tried to choose topics to write about that might help illuminate an injustice or a political subterfuge, but I confess that I have also fallen prey to the relatively easy money of writing a travel piece or gear review. (If you had a chance to go helicopter skiing in Alaska with big-surf guru Laird Hamilton, would you turn it down?) In the current New Media environment, driven by celebrity profiles and scandal, or practiced by anybody with a laptop and access to to a server, serious journalism has become an increasingly rare commodity. Muckraker A. J. Lieblieng’s fabled words that journalists should “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted” are, as far as I’m concerned, the benchmark by which all our work should still be judged.
In 2006, I spent four months in Algeria as a Knight International Press Fellow, working with Algerian newspaper journalists. A Lebanese colleague showed me two startling charts: one, by Transparency International, ranked countries according to their governance practices; the other, by Reporters Without Borders, ranked countries according to press freedoms. The charts were, not surprisingly, almost identical.
In other words, journalism still matters, and I am not ready to give up on it. By writing or contributing to the books described here, as well as in much of my magazine work, I have tried to shine a beam of light on our increasingly disturbing relationship with the natural world. In Powder Burn, I try to show how the indiscriminate corporate drive to grow and increase profits has serious social and environmental costs — even in small towns in the Rocky Mountains. In Monkey Dancing, I seized a time of deep personal transition as an opportunity to show my children some of the world’s vanishing wonders — and hopefully, to show a universal path towards reclaiming our connection to the natural world, and to each other.
I thank you for visiting and welcome your comments, rants and suggestions. Just click on the appropriate link at the top of the page and set off on your own monkey tour.