Between the Lines: ‘Epic Journey’ for Shorebird ... and Writer
For the latest installment of SEJournal Online’s Between the Lines Q&A, author Deborah Cramer gives BookShelf Editor Tom Henry insight into her motivation for writing “The Narrow Edge: A Tiny Bird, An Ancient Crab & An Epic Journey.” The book follows the 19,000-mile migration path of an endangered shorebird called the red knot, which depends on horseshoe crab eggs for survival — as do humans, believe it or not, because the blood in those eggs helps detect bacteria in human vaccines, heart stents and more.
SEJournal Online: What led you to the red knot?
Deborah Cramer: Watching them racing frantically across the beach, eating as many horseshoe crab eggs as they could, as fast as they could, I wondered where they’d come from, [why] they were famished and where they were going in such a hurry. That curiosity led me to accompany these tiny birds along their extraordinary migration from the tip of South America up into the Arctic.
SEJournal Online: Why, ultimately, did you believe it would be a good species to help explain the problem of climate change?
Cramer: I didn’t set out to use the red knot to illustrate the problem of global warming. My initial questions were broader: What does it take for a small bird to fly 19,000 miles each year? And why have its numbers dropped so precipitously? And what, if anything, does this loss mean? The reasons for the bird’s decline are many, and global warming is not central among them, but those reasons, including loss of their homes through coastal development, loss of prey through overfishing, etc., must be fully addressed if the population is to be restored.
'Epic Journey' Author Deborah Cramer. Photo © Jean Iron
Looking forward, though, addressing global warming is also critical to the bird’s future. Because the bird migrates along the edge of two continents, practically from one end of the Earth to the other, it’s possible to see firsthand along the route a multitude of specific, concrete and varied risks from global warming: beaches where the birds refuel for long nonstop flights eroded by rising seas; tiny shellfish central to their diet jeopardized by increasingly corrosive waters; and a warming Arctic altering the balance of predators and prey.
Just as importantly, I could also see firsthand places where the birds might be able to adjust. As the book went to press, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the rufa red knot, the subspecies of red knot whose story is in “The Narrow Edge,” as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, the first U.S. bird to receive this listing because global warming imperils its future. That listing is a strong reason why the knot is a good species to illustrate the challenges of global warming.
SEJournal Online: What are pitfalls to avoid, but also the advantages writers can reap, explaining climate change through the plight of one or two species?
Cramer: Global warming is still abstract, still theoretical to many people. The science literature is crystal clear. But out in the world, not everyone experiences it. Writing about a particular animal and particular challenges it faces in its homes — for example, using writing to witness birds clustered on barrier islands being flooded by rising water — provides details that make the problem real.
The risk is that the experience of one animal may not be the experience of others. In this case, there is gorgeous research suggesting that global warming increases the risk of extinction for almost 90 percent of shorebirds. The red knot’s story is the story of millions of shorebirds.
‘Uneasy moral terrain’ of species survival
SEJournal Online: You raised the following question in your book: Must every bird prove its financial worth? Could you answer that here?
Cramer: There’s been substantial, powerful research calculating the value of nature and ecosystems. The value of coral reefs, for example, and protecting the shore, bees pollinating crops, wetlands reducing nitrogen pollution from fertilizers. As regulators in environmental agencies are increasingly required to undertake cost benefit analysis of new rules, will we need to prove the financial benefit of birds in order to protect them?
For me, this presents an ethical question. In “The Narrow Edge,” I also asked “And what kind of uneasy moral terrain do we inhabit when, on the basis of financial expediency, we choose which species will live and which will die?” We’re not infallible doing these financial calculations. When, in 2011, Robert Costanza reexamined his 1977 study of the value of Earth’s ecosystems, he found that coral reefs are 42 times more valuable now, not because the reefs are suddenly doing more, but because we better understand their worth. We may never understand the “value” of shorebirds. Does that mean it’s OK to let millions of them go?
SEJournal Online: What other thoughts about biodiversity do you have?
Cramer: Sometimes it’s hard to see the “value” of biodiversity until it disappears. In the book, I tell stories about the consequences of loss, of how, for example, in India, use of an anti-inflammatory drug for arthritic cattle almost wiped out two species of vultures, with unanticipated consequences of $2.5 billion a year. There’s redundancy in nature: Large mammals and birds, for example, disperse seeds. We’ve killed lots of the large mammals. What happens if we lose the birds too?
SEJournal Online: The red knot is dependent on the horseshoe crab, but so are people. Most people don't know that. How are people dependent on it — and how is that three-way relationship an example of how we're all dependent on nature, whether we know it or not?
Cramer: The blue blood of horseshoe crabs safeguards human health, constituting the only FDA-approved test for endotoxin contamination in vaccines, IV drugs and solutions, and implanted medical devices like heart stents or hip replacements. There’s almost no one whose health and well-being has not been enhanced by the horseshoe crab. Yet, like the red knot, their numbers, too, have plummeted. Ornithologists, figuring out that red knots in Delaware Bay haven’t been getting enough to eat, advocated, and are still advocating, for greater protection of horseshoe crabs. In protecting the birds, they are protecting us as well. For almost my entire career, I’ve been writing about the many stunning ways Earth sustains us, ways we don’t realize and take for granted, and lose at our peril.
SEJournal Online: If society has this much trouble embracing climate change, how can it embrace biodiversity?
: Great stories that highlight the specific impacts help. Time
Magazine’s photographs of a burning Cuyahoga River
delivered a searing image of pollution to a national audience, helping to pass the Clean Water Act. Elizabeth Kolbert’s New Yorker article about flooding in Miami
offers a graphic portrayal of the consequences of global warming. The stories about the meaning of the loss of biodiversity are there. The term biodiversity, like climate change, is a general, abstract term: It needs stories, like the story I told of vultures in India, whose rich details bring it life. SEJ’s own Dan Fagin, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation,” is writing a book about biodiversity. This may be the book that opens everyone’s eyes.
Messy process of turning research into writing
SEJournal Online: The eloquence of your writing stood out with judges for SEJ’s awards. How do you balance prose and science to get the maximum impact?
Cramer: I wrote parts of “The Narrow Edge” in the first person, to take readers on the migration with the birds and me, into bug- and alligator-infested swamps, into the desolate and freezing tundra. I gathered a firsthand account of how the scientists did their work, and what it’s taking to give the birds safe passage at the edge of the sea. What I had was a firsthand account of the perseverance of both people and birds, filling many notebooks. I didn’t use everything. I chose stories for the book that reflected and were rooted in the science. The science is critical, but reading it in professional science journals, it can be dry. I tried to provide a context — places, people, birds, that give the numbers immediate and visceral meaning. The science makes the case, the stories illustrate the science, but in the writing, the stories come first, to provide context for the science.
SEJournal Online: Several books have come out about the simple act of migration itself being under attack. One that made a big impression on me was David Wilcove's “No Way Home: The Decline of the World's Great Animal Migrations,” in which he writes about how nature's superhighways are being impacted by humans for any species from wildebeest to salmon. Given the amount of time and travel you spent following the 19,000-mile migration of the red knot, what fascinates you about the act of migration itself? Why is it important to keep a species on a pathway that was hard-wired into the DNA of its ancestors — and what does that say about us if we are indifferent?
Cramer: In “The Narrow Edge,” the “Epic Journey” of the subtitle is the journey of the birds, flying thousands of miles from one end of the Earth to the other, for days at a time, making their homes in some of the most difficult, inhospitable places on Earth. And I saw how inhospitable — while they were in the freezing cold, warmed only by their fat and feathers, I was wearing every piece of cold weather clothing I owned, and I was still cold. The “Epic Journey” is also the epic journey of horseshoe crabs, who travel, not across space, like the birds, but across time. They are among Earth’s oldest animals, surviving mass extinctions, including the great one that killed 97 percent of life in the sea.
Who are we, such late arrivals here, to say who shall stay and who shall go? I am a realist. We are experiencing grievous loss. And yet, as the wind turns, and a flock of shorebirds rises in the night sky, responding to a distant call I cannot hear, or as thousands of horseshoe crabs converge on a moonlit beach in a rising tide, it’s as if I can feel the Earth breathing. Inspired by the many people I met along the flyway — people who’ve dedicated their lives to repairing the fraying coast — I have faith that we can still leave our children a world where wildlife will have a home, a good home, at the edge of the sea.
SEJournal Online: Finally, what advice do you have for aspiring authors about the process of writing a book?
Cramer: Writing a book is hard for me. I love researching. There are so many interesting questions to ask, scientific research to explore, journals to reach, archives to uncover and people to interview. It’s rewarding and risky: Casting a wide net can yield an exciting mix of material or a disorganized hodgepodge of irrelevant vignettes leading nowhere. And, with so much information available now, it’s nonetheless important at some point to stop, and leave enough time to actually write the book.
Writing, for me, takes as long as research: It’s OK, and for me, often necessary, to admit a narrative isn’t working and to restructure it — a messy process. I rewrite each chapter at least five or six times. With the freedom, sometimes daunting, to write 90,000 or 100,000 words, it can be easy to be too wordy. I cut, with regret, but mercilessly. Lastly, I wish I knew how putting together a cogent narrative actually happens. I try to understand the subject well before I begin writing, but every time I seem to discover the essence of the story while writing it, by means I don’t really understand and can’t reliably call upon. It’s unnerving. For me writing a book means living with fear. That’s OK.
Correction: Due to an editing error that occurred during preparation of this story for online publication, an earlier published version mistakenly characterized the risk of extinction for shorebirds due to global warming. The story has now been corrected to note that global warming increases the risk of extinction for almost 90 percent of shorebirds.