Last fall, I followed a wildlife expert into the woods of Pennsylvania to look for rattlesnakes, using radio telemetry equipment. Here’s how it worked: weeks earlier, the expert had caught snakes and surgically implanted devices inside them before releasing them back into the wild. The day I was with him, he held up an antenna, rotated his body, and listened. Then he adjusted some knobs and tried again. Sounds of static emanated from the device attached to the antennae — that is, until a marked snake was within range. Then the device chirped continuously, and we attempted to home in on the snake’s exact location.
I was eager. I had never seen a rattlesnake, and only recently learned that they lived in Pennsylvania. So we followed the chirping device and tiptoed through knee-deep ferns to a beautiful spot, where sunlight dappled the forest floor and the leaves of the trees just barely moved in the breeze. At that moment, I froze. What if a snake bit me out here?
Now, if you don’t like snakes, this thought probably would have occurred to you much sooner. But not me. It wasn’t until I was in their territory that I began to worry. And just because we knew from the radio telemetry equipment where one snake was, plenty of others could have lurked nearby. A snake bite is nothing to mess around with.
At this point, I want to pause the snake story and back up. When I started freelancing in Berkeley in 2004, my goal was to make a living. I took just about any legitimate, paying assignment that came my way. And it worked.
Then, when my husband and I started a family and moved to upstate New York, I had a chance to reevaluate my career. I wanted to work part time while my kids were young, so I decided to shift my focus. I redirected my energy toward storytelling, and I made my backyard my beat.
That’s what brought me to the woods of Pennsylvania, just a couple hours from my house, contemplating death by snakebite.
Was this story worth dying for? Not exactly (and the true risk was low, since I wore jeans and boots and these snakes are reluctant to strike). But it does represent the type of story that truly matters to me, one that’s worth going out on a limb for. That fern-filled spot — although beautiful visually — was just a small hill away from an active, noisy hydraulic fracturing rig, and a faint gas smell lingered in the air there. That’s why the expert I followed that day was studying the rattlesnakes, to study whether or not the drilling activity affects them. And that’s an issue that matters to my neighbors, and to me.
So I offer this rattlesnake vignette as an example of how a career can shift over time — for me, from making money to storytelling — and also to emphasize that rich stories abound, right in our own backyards.
Photo credit: Elizabeth Young