It’s easy for me to relate to Andy Revkin’s twin passions — music and the environment — because I have the same pair. I satisfy the musical itch by doing a radio show and hosting live bands, and recently had Andy on playing songs from his new folk album, "A Very Fine Line."
Most likely you know Revkin’s work from the New York Times, where he served as an environmental and science news reporter from 1995 to 2009, and as a popular blogger (Dot Earth) from 2007 to now. He’s one of the great interpreters of often-difficult peer-reviewed science, and the blog has continued now that he’s left the Times for a position teaching at Pace University in Westchester County, New York.
I asked Revkin why he left the Times when the environment beat was hot and his timely stories on climate change were often making the front page. “Through the mid-2000s," he said, "I became increasingly aware of the limits of what I could do in journalism, and I saw that ways of communicating outside of journalism were hugely expanding. So I looked ahead and asked myself if I wanted to spend the next 25 years writing valid articles about important issues, and I decided I didn’t.”
Revkin went in and talked about his plans with then-Executive Editor Bill Keller (who’s now leaving the Times himself), but kept it fairly vague. It’s lucky he did, because a day later the Times announced a generous buyout offer he wouldn’t have gotten had he already resigned.
The continuing mission of the Dot Earth blog, Revkin said, is, “How do we head into [the likely world population of] 9 billion people by mid-century with the fewest regrets.” Rather than focusing simply on goals — an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, for instance — he’s identified traits we’ll need to survive as a species. “Resilience is a good trait; it’s overused but very real,” he said. “It means, for instance, not having a rigid approach to risk management. Flexibility is also a good trait, and so is transparency — maintaining the ability to clarify what is happening.” He sums up his approach as “Bend, stretch, reach, teach, reveal, reflect, rejoice, repeat.”
Revkin, author of "The Burning Season" (about Amazon activist Chico Mendes) and, for young readers, "The North Pole Was Here," might have written the two books he talked about when he left the Times, but his plans were thrown into disarray by a life-changing event. In 2011, he had a potentially life-threatening “brain attack” stroke that among other things lost him the use of his right hand for weeks.
It led to a re-evaluation. Revkin promised himself he would:
Write a hard-hitting print article about stroke care.
Start working out.
Stop taking red-eye flights (to save his neck and carotid arteries).
Get serious about the guitar he’d been playing since he was 17 and start playing scales.
And that led to the album "A Very Fine Line," recorded near his home in Beacon, N.Y. As you may know, Beacon was also the long-term home of Pete Seeger, and the two were friends. They played together now and then, and Seeger even helped him with lyrics for “Arlington,” a song about the growing space problem at our national cemetery. “I used some of the suggestions, not all of them,” Revkin said.
Other musician friends helping out on the album include singer/songwriter Dar Williams (another neighbor), mandolin virtuoso Mike Marshall and multi-instrumentalist Bruce Molsky, probably the best old-time interpreter around.
Revkin describes reporting and music as “a natural dual track, given that journalism and ballads have an intertwined history.” Indeed they do, and being a trained reporter also helps you in something most musicians are clueless about — record promotion. Revkin was recently in Atlanta for a climate change forum, and he didn’t waste the opportunity. He visited the offices of MNN and stopped by a local radio station and performed “Breakneck Ridge” (a song about the Hudson Highlands, “from Breakneck Ridge to the Bear Mountain Bridge.”)
The song (which I played on WPKN on Thursday afternoon) references “a billion years of time and toil” that are “etched in these old hills,” and Revkin told me he’d looked it up, to make sure that the “billion years” was accurate. Once a journalist, always a journalist. Here's "Breakneck Ridge" on video:
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