Environmental journalists often feel married to the tragic narrative. Pollution, extinction, invasion: The stories are endless, and endlessly the same. Our editors see the pattern and bury us in the back pages; our readers see it and abandon us on the subway or in the dentist’s office.
Sometimes we’re no fun. But assuming the value of breathable air, drinkable water and a livable climate – heck, let’s just say life itself – we have to tell stories about what Rob Nixon has aptly described as “slow violence,” violence in which humanity stars as both victim and perpetrator. So for environmental journalism and the tragic narrative, it seems to be till death do us part.
Ian Frazier, thank goodness, knows this is a load of bull. In almost four decades of reporting for The New Yorker, Frazier has written hundreds of stories, ranging from a three-part exploration of Siberia to his classic “Cursing Mommy” columns for Shouts and Murmurs to a profile of Ponce Cruse Evans, the daughter of Heloise of “Hints from Heloise” fame. But Frazier returns over and over to environmental stories, finding them in Manhattan and the Great Plains and beyond, and he manages to make them … funny.
In his 2005 story “Hogs Wild,” Frazier takes on feral hogs. Oh, no, you might think – an invasive species story. We’ll hear about an inexorable threat to some beloved and irreplaceable ecosystem, and a heroic but ultimately doomed effort to head it off.
Not so fast. Frazier does spend four introductory paragraphs recounting the inexorable global spread of feral hogs, but with the head-shaking admiration of a sports profile. (“The wild hog is an infestation machine.”) And then, just after he sets up the reader for what appears to be a David-and-Goliath story, Frazier interrupts himself.
Well and good, or (more likely) not; but what you really want to know is “What about Hogzilla?” I understand your concern. The question comes up whenever one mentions the subject of feral hogs. People don’t pronounce the name neutrally, either. There’s always a pause, a kind of awed emphasis: “But what about this … Hog-zilla?!”
I may never have heard a word about Hogzilla, but OK, yes, please do tell me all about it. Frazier obliges, whisking us into the hilarious tale of Hogzilla, the probably mythical 1,000-pound hog turned Internet sensation. After dumping us back in the hoggy present, he continues his irresistible journey. Frazier spares no detail in describing the mischief done by feral hogs (“And the diseases! The parasites!”), delivering the bad news with enthusiasm and genial wonder. Those darn hogs really are amazing, aren’t they?
Frazier also knows when to ease off, entertaining us not only with Hogzilla but also with pithy observations of feral hog success in red vs. blue states, and the surprisingly high-minded religious literature available at Southern supermarkets. His humor is dry but generous – rarely does he make fun of a character without also making fun of himself.
Frazier’s so clever that when the kick comes, we’re caught by surprise, laughing even as we hit the dirt. Frazier visits the Ocmulgee Wild Hog Festival in Georgia, where wild hogs are “bayed” by dogs in a tumbledown arena. Frazier stands next to a man and his 4- or 5-year-old daughter, who, he writes, “did not give promise of growing up to be beautiful.” The girl, sitting on her father’s shoulders, watches as the dogs are freed into the arena, and the hog is let out of its chute.
Then, in a tone of the greatest emergency, with an authority that cut through every noise and rang above the assembly, the little girl cried, “Run, pig! Run!” Some people laughed … Some people said “Aww…,” in sympathy. The little girl, seeing that the pig had nowhere to run to, began to cry … A woman standing nearby excitedly took up the girl’s cause, saying, “She’s right! What are they doing!” and so on, until her neighbors shushed her. For a moment we all hesitated, uneasy and off balance; then we returned to the business at hand.
The genius of this ending, I think, is that the heart breaks not just for the serious little girl, but also for the crowd, the dogs, the pigs, and everything trampled by the pigs the world over – the entire mess at once. Our cleverness allowed the pig to take advantage of us, and the pig’s cleverness, in a roundabout way, landed it in a muddy arena filled with dogs. Everyone, and no one, is to blame.
I recently interviewed psychologist and conservationist John Fraser, who suggests that one alternative to the tragic environmental narrative is the comedy of errors, which exposes and punctures human hubris. There is tragedy in Frazier’s story, surely – he doesn’t even bother to hold out conventional hope of restoration. But the tragedy rises out of comedy, and the charm and surprise of the comedy allows us – maybe even forces us – to absorb the whole complicated story. Instead of abandoning the story with a jaded sigh, we take the trip, and end up looking those recurring dual roles, victim and perpetrator, full in the face.
Yes, serious environmental journalism can be funny. Funny and tragic, tragic and readable, and ultimately impossible to forget.
Michelle Nijhuis is an environmental journalist and a 2011 Alicia Patterson fellow. A contributing editor for High Country News, she has also written for Smithsonian, National Geographic, and the Atlantic.
For more “Why’s this so good?” stories, check out the previous posts in the series. And stay tuned for a new shot of inspiration and insight every week.