From Washington, D.C.: Far Off Voices

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Once upon a time I worked in Washington, D.C. For two years I was on the staff of the National Research Council—the “operating arm” (as we would say) of the National Academy of Sciences—preparing a series of reports on biodiversity conservation, international development, and sustainable agriculture. It was a great job, especially as Washington D.C. assignments go. The work was relatively free of partisan politics, yielded actual useful reports, and allowed one to connect with some of the world’s leading scientific experts.

After a year, however, the intense wonkishness of Washington policy life was beginning to get to me. I had a tiny window-less office, embedded deep within a Georgetown building. Every morning at eight o’clock I entered my little work cave; at noon I emerged. A stroll down to the shore of the Potomac, or along the C&O canal path, relieved the stress and allowed one to connect with the world’s plants and animals and flowing waters. I took my power lunch with kingfishers and herons.

One of the most stressful aspects of Washington life was the constant assault of “policy-makers” on the English language. And I began to realize that I too was becoming, in my own low-level way, a maker of policy and a manager of language. Troubled by this, I had a stretch when, every morning, before launching into my official business for the day, I would take a few moments to write a poem, just to keep official Washington at bay a little and renew my right-left brain connections.

In this case, my little ritual was also a way of refreshing myself for the work at hand. Being a conservationist in Washington is a tough gig. Good policy work is essential, but it can seem so removed from the reality of the creatures and communities and places that one is making policy for. One morning, in that dark, quiet office, before the other humans arrived, before the loud chatter of the policy-makers commenced, I found myself listening to the calls of distant voices…. 

From Washington DC:  Far Off Voices

I rumble like rock
For all to bear,

I crack like fire
For the critical mass,

I lap like water
In amniotic wonder,

I gasp like wind
An exhilaration of breath,

I resound like whale
Over hidden realms,

I blurt like frog
Orders for the night,

I sing like thrush
In livening woods,

I complain like crow
Of the field’s food,

I blare like goose
The gathering of companions,

I crackle like blackbird
For the community… the community,

I warn like owl
Of my predations,

I sigh like dove
A lingering world,

I laugh like loon
For no good reason,

I chatter like otter
Against all adversity,

I huff like buck
For a mate’s adventure,

I snuffle like bear
For caches of delight,

I scream like cougar
For my own stand,

I lift like wolf
My head in song.

I speak like human
For the mute.

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  • Curt Meine

    Curt Meine is a conservation biologist, historian, and writer who serves as a senior fellow with both the Aldo Leopold Foundation and the Center for Humans and Nature, and as associate adjunct professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has written several books, including Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work (University of Wisconsin Press, 1988).

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