, special to mongabay.com
February 13, 2012
Morgan Erickson-Davis: How did you get your start as a writer?
Margaret Southern: I was a voracious reader as a child, and writing was just the natural next step. I loved creative writing. I would write poems , short stories, anything that came to mind. One of my favorite memories from childhood is the time I got a standing ovation from my classmates for a scary Halloween story I wrote and read aloud in fourth grade. I would give anything to be able to remember what that story was about!
The older I got the more interested I became in writing about real topics. Then I majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina and learned firsthand that reporting takes a lot of work and a lot of drive. I also studied copy editing, which is something that I think every writer should be required to do.
Morgan Erickson-Davis: What conservation issues most interest you?
Margaret Southern and coworkers in the Brazilian Amazon
People often also feel paralyzed by the enormity of the challenges we face and that their actions don’t matter. We just launched a new campaign called All Hands on Earth that promotes the idea that together, all of our small actions can add up to make a big difference.
I’m also a serious animal person. I grew up in a pretty hardcore bird-watching family, and waking up at 5 a.m. on our vacations in birding hotspots was the norm. As I imagine is the case for many people, most of the awe-inspiring moments I’ve experienced in nature have involved seeing a particular animal up close.
Morgan Erickson-Davis: All Hands on Earth's a great site! How did it come about?
Margaret Southern snorkeling in Papua New Guinea
Morgan Erickson-Davis: Do you still bird-watch? What are your favorite spots and species?
Margaret Southern: It's sad to say that I was a much more proficient birder when I was 10 years old than I am today (sorry, mom and dad!). I've become a very opportunistic birder -- mostly just breaking out the binoculars when I'm traveling and could see some exotic species. My favorite sightings from the past few years: Scarlet Macaws and Hoatzin in Brazil; Keel-Billed Toucans and Pale-Billed Woodpeckers in Costa Rica; and four species of Bird of Paradise in Papua New Guinea. On the birding bucket list: a Shoebill (native to East Africa) and a Quetzal (Central America).
Morgan Erickson-Davis: What would you say is the most important thing you've learned about environmental writing?
Margaret Southern: It’s really all about the people. It’s human nature to connect and empathize with other people. A story about destruction of a watershed is not nearly as powerful as a story about the woman downstream who now has a hard time accessing clean water.
Morgan Erickson-Davis: I've been hearing a lot about the human side of conservation recently. What are some of the most striking examples you have observed?
Margaret Southern birdwatching in Papua New Guinea
When I visited in 2008, four villages had just received massive rainwater collection tanks through a grant the Conservancy helped to secure. These tanks would ensure that everyone had access to drinking water through the dry season, and kept women from having to walk long distances for water year-round. It was just a really striking example for me of how conservation can be a win-win for people and nature: The communities were able to keep their forests and natural resources intact for themselves and future generations, and they were able to improve their quality of life.
Morgan Erickson-Davis: Any advice for aspiring environmental writers?
Margaret Southern: A background in science is obviously a plus for almost every topic in the environmental world. But being able to explain the science involved to a layperson in as few words as possible is where the magic happens.
Read more about Margaret Southern and her pursuits by checking out her twitter, All Hands on Earth's twitter, and The Nature Conservancy's Facebook page and twitter