Michelle Nijhuis is a science writer and editor who covers conservation and climate change. The author of Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction, she is a project editor at the Atlantic and long-time contributing editor at High Country News. Before speaking at a Zócalo/Natural History Museum of L.A. County event, “Can We All Become Conservationists?,” Nijhuis spoke in the green room about tortoise chasing, the luxury of a hairdryer, and her soft spot for frogs.
What did you have for breakfast?
I had a bowl of Grape-Nuts. Fortunately, the critical shortage of Grape-Nuts that was occurring through the winter is now over, and once again, the world can buy Grape-Nuts off the shelf.
When in your life have you experienced the most culture shock?
Traveling with my husband in Turkey—my husband, who’s American, lived in Turkey for a long time and is a Turkish speaker—I got an unexpected dose of culture shock because the Turks are so incredibly hospitable, especially to foreigners who happen to speak Turkish fluently.
So we found ourselves invited into people's homes—[even] into people's showers—in a way that was almost disconcertingly friendly. I found myself often thinking, 'Oh my gosh, I'm going to treat strangers with so much more care and attention than I have in the past after this experience.'
We were on our bicycles part of the time, and people would literally just walk out in the street, and offer us tea, and want to talk politics, and want to talk about what was going on in our country and their country. That was many years ago now, but I've never forgotten it.
You studied biology as an undergrad before becoming a journalist. How has the science journalism field and community changed since you started out?
When I started out in 1998, there were not any well-developed graduate programs in science journalism. I started writing about science, almost without realizing that it was a field unto itself. I was a reporter working in Colorado for High Country News, and I happened to write about the environment, and because I had something of a science background, I started writing a lot about science. But I didn't identify myself as something called a science journalist until years later. Now there's a community and a well-established field of science journalism that I really benefited from, but I certainly didn't start out with knowing that that was a label that I could put on myself.
What's the weirdest job you've ever had?
Definitely the couple of years I spent as an assistant on wildlife research projects. After college, I made a living for about three years helping out in the field on various projects. In the course of that, I chased tortoises in Southwestern Utah, in the desert. I was part of a study where I was taking notes on what the tortoises ate—they ate lots of flowers and grass—and I counted cacti in Southern Arizona, and I also spent a lot of time waiting around in streams in Northern California looking for endangered frogs.
Those are some great titles to have on one's resume…
Yeah, frog catcher and tortoise chaser.
What's the longest it's ever taken you to get from point A to point B?
Well, I used to live in a pretty rural part of Western Colorado, so I would always have to fly out of a small regional airport and then usually to the hub in Denver. I wrote a story for National Geographic about the hydro-power development on the Mekong River, which took me on two trips to Southeast Asia, which were amazing but also reminded me that the world is still a very big place, because I think it ended up taking me 36 hours to get from where I lived to Laos.
Do you have a favorite animal?
I've always had a soft spot for frogs, ever since I was a little kid. Which is not to say I grew up a naturalist—I think I built little towns for my paper frogs out of shoe boxes and things. But I have always been just fascinated by the process of metamorphosis and the idea that these animals can live in such different habitats in the course of their lives.
Have you had any particularly harrowing animal encounters in the field?
My experiences with dangerous animals have fortunately been at something of a distance, but I do have a very clear memory of hanging out with my fellow biologists in Southern Arizona before I became a journalist. One thing that biologists and wildlife aficionados like to do in Southern Arizona in the summertime is, when the monsoon rains come, they tend to draw out all this wildlife. So people will just go driving up and down isolated roads in Southern Arizona to see what's come out to play.
Often, frogs and then reptiles will come out to warm themselves up during the night on the asphalt, whether it's raining or not. I have a very clear memory one night of doing this with some friends and coming upon a rattlesnake that was coiled on the asphalt, warming itself up, and my friends jumping out of the truck that we were in and gathering around. One of them had a stick and was trying to get the rattlesnake to strike at the stick so they could take a photograph. I was standing back and watching them and thinking, ‘I really appreciate the beauty of that snake but I am not going to get any closer to it.’
I am almost as fascinated with the people—and why they're doing what they're doing—as I am with the snake itself. That's one of the experiences that made me realize I wasn't meant to be a scientist myself; that I was meant to write about scientists and why they did what they did. I still am very interested in what makes scientists tick and what drives their connection with other species.
What smell brings back the most memories for you?
I lived in a desert for a long time. I love desert landscapes. But I went to college in Portland, Oregon, and when my family and I moved back to the Pacific Northwest in 2013, and spring rolled around, I remember coming out of the door one morning and the smell of the green and the moisture in the air was so evocative for me. I couldn't place it at first, and then I thought, it smells like final exams!
We're used to the smell of rain in the desert because it's so rare, but just the springtime smell of moisture and new growth was so distinct. I hadn't realized that it had been out of my smell vocabulary for many years.
You lived off-grid in Western Colorado for 15 years. What was your greatest extravagance or luxury during that time?
Living off the grid was really quite comfortable. We had almost all of the modern conveniences, but the things that we had to be very careful about were anything with a heating element. We couldn't have a toaster oven; we couldn't have a dryer, because those things just used a ton of energy. So a hairdryer was on that list. But I did own a hairdryer, and I would—when it was the depths of winter, and my hair was wet, and I had to go somewhere—occasionally shut the door of the bathroom, turn on the hairdryer, and wait until my husband came to the bathroom door and banged on it and said, ‘Have you checked the battery?’ Because the meter for how much power we had left in our house batteries was also in the bathroom. So that was the luxury that I got away with sometimes—and sometimes not.
How have you been decompressing in quarantine?
My daughter is 12, and she and I started a tradition when lockdown first started of daily walks, and we have continued that. I have a little pedometer on my phone, and I noticed the other day that we've walked about 400 miles in short little walks all around our neighborhood in the last 12 months. I hope that's a tradition that will survive the pandemic. Then, like everyone else, I've been watching a lot of TV. My daughter and I just watched Bridgerton—with a lot of judicious fast-forwarding. But we both fully enjoying it for the delightful nonsense that it is, and we're still laughing about it.
What was the first story you reported that you were really, really proud of?
Almost 20 years ago now, I wrote a series about climate change for High Country News. I was really proud of that series of stories because it was some of the first reporting on visible changes in the American West that scientists were willing to attribute to climate change.
Scientists can, understandably, be very reluctant to make the link between any single phenomenon and what's happening to the planet as far as the loading of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. But there were things at the time—that we are now all too familiar with—that were new phenomenon, like beetle kill in the forests, and more intense wildfires, and loss of snowpack in the high mountains.
I was sobered by that series. It made a huge impression on me as far as the gravity and the scale of the changes we were experiencing. But I was also really proud that, at High Country News, we were able to bring together those changes that scientists were starting to be able to attribute to climate change and show what was happening to the region as a whole because of those interlinked phenomena.