Health reporting that made a difference
Over the past several years, I wrote environmental health stories for the Connecticut Health Investigative Team. C-hit.org’s founder and editor Lynne Delucia decided to stop publishing new material as 2022 came to a close. Delucia edited and inspired journalists at the Hartford Courant, New Haven Register, and c-hit over her distinguished career. She pulled some of my best work out of me. Thank you, Lynne.
With the assistance of a grant from the Society of Environmental Journalists, c-hit worked with me on my three-part series on legal sewage overflows in Bridgeport, Connecticut’s largest city. The stories in “Legal but Tainted” won two journalism awards and may have inspired the progress the city, state, and federal government have made to upgrade the aging plant and its pipes.
My other stories for c-hit covered a wide range of environmental health troubles, from how easy it is to drown in unguarded public swimming areas to mosquito-borne illnesses, Lyme disease, obesity, and testing sewage for signs of Covid-19.
The stories will remain posted at c-hit indefinitely. March on over and read some of them! Here are mine.
Morning person? No. Night owl.
This morning, I tried solving the daily Wordle puzzle before I got out of bed. It took me three times as long, and I almost didn’t get it. I actually had predicted this might be true. I wake up slowly. My brain just seems less flexible until a few hours after I wake up. Is that true for you? Or are you at your best the moment you open your eyes and it’s all downhill throughout the day? That’s my husband’s assessment of his productivity pattern.
He is a morning person. I’m a night owl. We converge during the evening hours to connect in conversation. As the years have gone by, though, I’m not the same kind of night owl I used to be. I will sit up doing some work or reading after my husband goes to bed. But only for a few hours. I need to get seven hours of sleep. I don’t try to stay up all night the way I could back in the early days.
But I am very productive mentally from about 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. I try most work days to be sitting at my desk between those hours so I will receive the magic.
On days I decide to stop writing or editing before 7:30, I do so by choice. I need a good reason. Otherwise, I know I can complete drafts during that time. I know I can edit stories for Appalachia journal with a clear head then. It doesn’t feel hard.
I won’t push anymore through periods my mental focus goes fuzzy. Like 3 p.m. My father-in-law used to say that in hell it is always 3 o’clock in the afternoon. I do not work well at 3 p.m. Everything takes twice as long then. I might instead get up and take a walk. For years I used to push through those times. No more.
Understanding one’s productive times and fuzzy-brain times can open many doors to moving happily through new writing projects. Not feeling bad that I’m not a machine has helped me relax into the kind of work I feel truly called to do.
Writing below a mountain
A birch and a pine grow next to each other below Mount Cardigan, Alexandria, New Hampshire.
I just returned from leading a writing workshop for the Appalachian Mountain Club. The AMC and I began Writing from the Mountains in 2016. The year before, we had brainstormed the workshop but had to cancel with too few signups. That changed dramatically from 2016 onward. The only year we didn’t run it was during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. In 2021 I ran the workshop at the Highland Center; we wore masks inside. This year we returned to the workshop’s roots at Cardigan Lodge.
Our group included men and women of all ages—poets, novelists, nonfiction writers, those just beginning their writing journeys and those who have published books and pieces. Everyone came with an open heart and mind.
Saturday everyone took a solo ramble, without notebooks or camera, on one of the many trails that begin adjacent to the lodge. After about two hours they returned, and I guided them in three writing excercises. First they created a kind of timeline of the morning’s evolution, in four stages. Next they made a free-range list of every detail they could recall. Third, each drafted a letter to a difficult person, telling the person about the morning.
Saturday afternoon we discussed two essays, one by the writer Sandy Stott about bushwhacking around Cardigan. He has explored that ridge his whole life. Sandy is a former Appalachia journal editor and the current editor of the journal’s Accidents section. The next essay was one of my favorites for this workshop, “Reconnaissance,” by Colin Fletcher, about a failed river crossing in the Grand Canyon. After this writer Elissa Ely, who was assistant workshop leader this year, led us in an exercise: we went back out to our morning routes for 10 minutes and explored our peripheral vision. What had we missed to the right and left of the trail?
Saturday evening, writers read some of their new work from the day’s writing. Sharing first drafts is an act of trust and courage, and the sentences were beautiful and inspiring. The positive energy of the group provides the impetus to keep going with a work. These are the moments that can make or destroy a writer.
I know we made a lot of new beginnings here.
Sunday morning we took short field trips. I instructed everyone to find one place, sit or stand there and observe. Write, sketch, photograph, and listen. Inside, we reported sightings of barred owls, salamanders, river otters, birches growing next to conifers, ice crystals on bridges, and more.
New fiction in next year’s Running Wild Press Anthology
My short story, “Pumping Station Road,” about a trail runner whose ambition to run the entire width of Connecticut from east to west causes havoc with people he loves, will appear in the seventh Running Wild Press Anthology of Stories coming out in October 2023 from this California-based publisher. I am more than a little excited about publishing short fiction.
A year may seem like a long time to wait, but in the world of good books, it isn’t. Meanwhile, consider getting hold of Running Wild Press’s sixth Anthology of Stories. That one just came out this month.
Pre-order the sixth anthology here while you wait with me for the seventh to come out next year.
Update, early spring 2022
Above: Annie Gribbins with some of her husband’s emergency rescue gear, which has inspired us to think of new coping strategies as the pandemic winds down.
My sister Anne Woodside Gribbins and I have published a new essay about coping strategies in the pandemic age. Find it here.
Climate activists and researchers say disaster planning fails to consider a community that is often marginalized and vulnerable, gay people. Read my interviews with Leo Goldsmith and Adrian Huq here.
Two weeks ago, as thin ice layers melted on the newly fallen leaves in New Hampshire’s Crawford Notch, I said goodbye to a group of writers who’d spent the weekend with me for another Writing from the Mountains. These creatives were at varying stages of ideas and projects. They hiked on newly frozen paths, wrote new thoughts and memories back inside, read and discussed essays on landscape, and shared their work. Sunday we practiced close observation of trees, ice, dirt, fungi. Thank you, writers! I learn so much from you. Thanks also to the Appalachian Mountain Club for running all the practical parts of this workshop: lodging, food, and our terrific guide and writer, Clare.
Symbols in a personal history
The forgotten Swiss Army knife is a character in my next book.
I am writing a wilderness memoir. Appalachian Mountain Club Books will publish this book in a year. Writing personal history means I must do research on my own life. This story involves my two daughters, who were children, teenagers, and finally young adults as this story of my metamorphosis unfolded. My husband Nat appears a great deal, too: he was a gearhound who guided me in my early backpacking trips. And he has been my best mountain partner when I still want a partner. Friends I no longer see or even talk to played huge roles. A friend named Peter organized my first multi-day mountain traverse. Hiking partners: Bob, Skip, Steve, and Ellen.
Objects are characters in my story: Swiss Army knives. Sleeping bags. A particular hat. The old Coleman Peak 1 stove. The old pot. A headlamp.
Writer Tim Bascom led a memoir workshop in June and July through the University of Iowa Summer Writing Festival. Tim reminded me that I come from a family and a family culture—a big family, a dynamic family culture—but my book is about me, not them. My perceptions, which will differ from theirs. But that original family played a huge role, too. Tim reminded me I must be honest with myself about my own foibles.
I am so grateful that AMC Books has given me the freedom to write this story.
From endurance to hope
The last year and a half felt a little like an endurance race without the trail. Mentally I knew how to hold on and keep going, but physically, between the masks and atrial fibrillation—a common affliction of lifelong athletes (and a lot of other people) but which felt like my loneliest problem—I felt constrained. Not free. Stuck.
As it happened, just around the time the country was preparing to open up again, in late May I went through a cardiac ablation at the hands of some amazing doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital. I have gotten a lovely medical tuneup. I now feel like a new woman. I have been handed back energy for the next, oh, three decades at least.
And so I’m looking at maps again and planning to hitch up some inclines. Eventually.
Meanwhile, our daughter got married in Las Vegas. She has a wonderful wife now. And we have a new daughter-in-law. Then our other daughter announced that she and her boyfriend will be getting married. Our family is expanding. Everything has moved from endurance to hope!
Tuesday, April 20: How to start a freelance career, 5-6 p.m.
If you have thought of working as a freelance journalist and want to hear how my 21-year freelance career has gone, join me for a free online talk sponsored by the University of Connecticut Journalism Department, where I am a visiting assistant professor this year.
How to find an editor who will hire you. How to pitch. How to cultivate connections and when not to worry about that. How to manage your time and figure out money. How to keep your creativity — a freelancer’s asset — alive.
Click here to sign up. Journalism students and recent graduates, welcome. I will call on young journalists first when questions start. But don’t worry: I’ll leave plenty of time for all questions.
Beginning my visiting professor year at UConn
During my teaching year I will continue as editor-in-chief of Appalachia, the mountaineering and conservation journal. When school is in break, I’ll keep working on my next book proposal about struggling farmers in southern New Jersey and other writing projects.
During this time of the new coronavirus, I will teach both online—my journalism history lecture class—and in person. I’m looking forward to the challenges of helping students through this history-making year.
Appalachia’s Accidents report here. Click on link at the bottom.
Testing Poop is the Future
Above, from the Yale study: The red line represents the rise and fall of the COVID-19 outbreaks as detected in New Haven sewage. The darker line, seven days later, represents a similar curve of the outbreak as tracked in human testing.
A new study by Yale University of the COVID-19 virus in New Haven’s sewage sludge has found that testing human feces is a quicker and broader way to understand the pandemic in communities—a week faster than human testing and including even cases where people didn’t feel sick.
The study published Friday as a preprint (before peer review) compared sludge results from the settling tank at the East Shore Water Pollution Abatement Facility on New Haven Harbor to human testing and hospitalization rates for the New Haven area between March 19 and May 1. It found that the so-called curve of the epidemic’s rise and fall tracked each other but that the sludge results could be determined more quickly.
Testing continues daily.
Another outbreak going forward could be predicted through sewage testing seven days earlier than human testing and three days ahead of results on hospital admissions, said the lead author, Jordan Peccia, a professor of chemical and environmental engineering at Yale University.
Sewage testing has been used for years to understand drug use, eating habits, genetics, and diseases. Lead author Jordan Peccia’s past research has tested sewage for viruses including herpes, adeno virus, HIV, norovirus, and other coronaviruses like SARS and MERS. Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Eric Alm started a study of Cambridge, Mass. sewage in 2015 called Underworlds, and the Somerville, Mass.-based sewage testing company Biobot Analytics is now looking for COVID-19 in samples from sewage plants in 42 states.
The way to test people without symptoms
Sewage doesn’t lie. “When you test people,” he said, “you’re testing only the symptomatic people. You’re missing the asymptomatic fraction, which is significant. Meanwhile, they are giving their samples to the sewage treatment plant: samples from everyone served by the New Haven plant — 200,000 people. “We can do this for about $20 per test.” The East Shore sewage treatment plant serves New Haven, Hamden, East Haven, and parts of Woodbridge.
In the first weeks of the New Haven study, the Yale team froze sludge samples while they perfected methods to detect the virus. People who are infected—whether they show symptoms or not—shed RNA (ribonucleic acid) from the centers of COVID-19 molecules into their feces.
The sludge testing method involves the turning of the virus’s RNA (a single-stranded molecule) into DNA in the lab, which allows them to detect the virus at the molecular level.
In March when the team began, the sludge results weren’t available in real time. “We were figuring out how to do the analysis. We were storing it and checking,” Peccia said.
Peccia’s 11 co-authors are affiliated with Yale’s schools of public health, management, medicine, and nursing; its Institute for Global Health; and the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station.
“The city has been really remarkable in allowing us to continue to sample and taking any interest at all in our results,” Peccia said.
He said he hoped that widespread sewage testing could be a valuable nationwide method to understand the pandemic because 250 million people in the United States are served by municipal sewage plants.
“It’s certainly not going to replace (human) COVID testing,” Peccia said. “I want to be really clear: as an individual you know you are positive or negative and you can do contact tracing and quarantine yourself. That’s the gold standard.”
“There are two important things we get out of this testing,” Peccia said. “It’s another thing for cities, public health officials, municipalities, to look at as they’re making a decision about whether they’ve had 14 days of decrease in a row. The second one is it can be earlier than the testing data. It can answer this critical question we have right now: Are things going to go back up?”
Peccia said virus levels in New Haven sewage were so low by late May that “in the next set of analyses we will get some non-detects.”
What about combined sewage overflows and swimming?
It’s not known yet whether coronavirus can live in the diluted combined sewage overflow (CSO) discharges (untreated sewage mixed with rain) that still sometimes pour into water bodies in New Haven and five other cities. Peter A. Raymond, a professor of ecosystem ecology at Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, is sampling CSOs in the area. His results are not yet available.
Amy Kirby, a senior service fellow in the Waterborne Disease Prevention Branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in an April 27 webinar, “We think it is unlikely to present a substantial infection risk in wastewater.”
Jennifer Perry, assistant director of infrastructure management in the water bureau of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said DEEP has no evidence of how long the coronavirus can live in untreated wastewater. “So we recommend not swimming, bathing, drinking, or fishing next to or downstream of a combined sewer overflow for at least 48 hours after any storm.”
Peccia said, “I don’t want to go swimming in a water body that gets a CSO, but if I did, I wouldn’t worry about catching COVID. I’d be much more worried if on my way back from taking a sample, I stopped in the grocery store. It’s a disease that definitely goes from person to person, and the evidence suggests it’s much harder to be transmitted in the environment.”
Manage public outdoor spaces the way we manage grocery stores: like essential spaces that should never close
People need to get outside, breathe fresh air, move around, and fix their eyes on some actual distant shore.
The coronavirus pandemic is rising toward its peak in the Northeast. Cities, towns, states, and the federal government are closing access to public parks across the United States. They are closing them because people were flocking to the popular areas. The theory goes that by going to parks they risk passing on or contracting the virus.
I speak for only myself here. I ask that we look carefully at the logic of this. If society realizes people need food, medicine, and gasoline, why would it not consider the outdoor areas as just as vital?
If people are trusted to wear masks, wash hands, and remain distant inside a grocery store, why can’t they be encouraged, taught, or forced to behave that way outdoors? Perhaps it would take a few staff members and signs to herd people into following protocols.
Why is food vital and outdoor exercise considered expendable?
That’s what I’m asking myself today.
Mountains in a pandemic: a call for submissions
I am the editor of Appalachia journal, the country’s oldest journal of mountaineering and conservation. We take a literary approach to wilderness and adventure.
We are living through an unprecedented pandemic, something no one alive today has ever seen. This will go into the history books. Those who read and write for Appalachia journal find their true selves in the backcountry and wilderness areas around the world—but especially in the Northeast. And within the Northeast, the White Mountains of New Hampshire and wild areas of Maine especially call to us.
Appalachia journal is looking for thoughtful essays between now and May 20 in the range of 1,000 to 2,000 words on the COVID-19 pandemic. What has getting onto trails and cliffs and hills meant during this terrifying period? Do you see mountains more as life itself and less as recreation now? What is it like going to the backcountry and finding that facilities are closed and people must stay away from each other? Submit drafts on Submittable.