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The Buffalo Bull is the Quarterly Newsletter of the Heartland Region (R5) of the National Association for Interpretation. Posted here are some of the articles published there under the Curmudeon's Corner banner.

Wildlife Crisis in the Suburbs

Curmudgeon in Training


Sound Bites - Its the Message, Not the Messenger

Are You in the Game? - Bird Listing

Wildlife Crisis in the Suburbs

By John M. Elliott  


I recently read with considerable sympathy and some dismay an account of a fawn killed on the street in my home town. The story in the local press (Oak Leaves, June 30) was not as hysterical as the headline--"Deer Fawn Killed by Predator"--hinted, and presented both the anguish of concerned residents and a naturalist's explanation of the reality of living with urban wildlife.


The story lead was a resident's account of watching a man "unleash a pit bull" on a doe and fawn that had been in the neighborhood for several weeks. The fawn was found dead a few days later. The fawn probably was killed by a dog or a coyote, or by a vehicle and then scavenged. Coyotes are common here. Dogs allowed to run are a serious threat to wildlife and people. Vehicles are a constant threat to animals that live around streets and roads, whether in our villages or in forest preserves. Those are facts of life for animals that otherwise find the living easy near humans.


Living in leafy suburbs near parks and forest preserves comes with the great benefit that we can frequently see wildlife up close. That experience includes the unfortunate, to some, encounters with the reality of illness, injury, and death. The newspaper story on the fawn included an impassioned plea for help: "All we wanted was for ... someone to relocate it... We couldn't take care of the fawn when it was alive."


It is a very positive part of human nature for us to develop bonds with wildlife and nature, an idea expressed by eminent biologist E.O. Wilson in Biophilia. Wilson argues that it is part of our evolutionary make-up to seek this bond with a wilder world, and that many of us suffer from separation from the environment in which we as humans evolved. Our suburb may be far from the wilderness, but we do live in close proximity to forest preserves where wildlife is still abundant, and with critters who find our own yards to their liking. Isn't that wonderful?


It is, and we should do our best to live well with wildlife. We have some control over vehicles. Dogs should be under owner's control at all times. It's the law, and its the only way to respect neighbors and wildlife.


We should not, though, imagine that we have or should have control over natural predator-prey relationships. I sympathize with the plea of some folks to "help deer;" that compassion indicates a healthy feeling for wild animals that should be cultivated by all of us. But don't forget the larger ecological picture. Naturalists and interpreters get this. Why have we not done a better job in getting the message to wider audiences?


I suspect that part--perhaps a small part--of our shortcoming is in the attitude we as interpreters or naturalists present when answering the seemingly endless pleas for help in "rescuing" young or injured wildlife. Does condescension creep into our explanations, despite a surface empathy? I fear we send some people away from our centers feeling like they have been dismissed as foolish and ignorant.


A foundation of interpretation, especially in dealing with difficult issues, is to look for a genuine connection with our audience. The person who approaches you with an injured squirrel or an "orphaned" raccoon may well be in an emotional state that makes communication difficult. It might be a new experience for that person, while we might be jaded and frustrated with the umpteenth incident in the past month. It's our job to meet these sincere folks on their ground. We can't expect emotionally involved people to understand and accept our oh-so-logical explanations without first greeting them with sincere, not superficial, empathy and understanding. It may be a very subtle difference in patience and attitude.


Remember that these are folks who want the same thing we do: healthy wildlife populations that we can relate to and even bond with. Let's make the effort to meet them more than half way.

Buffalo Bull, Fall 2011

Quarterly Newletter of
Region 5
National Association for Interpretation

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Curmudgeon in Training, 

    or The World Belongs to the Young


My recent college graduate son brought his strong opinions over for dinner last night. Like many young people throughout history he struggles to find a place to fit in the world. Like most of the newly graduated here and now, he struggles even to make a decent living and no doubt wonders about the worth of years of working for good grades and a respectable insight into domestic and international history and politics,.

            A quick summary of those opinions, at least as of last night: our society is in a downward spiral, where only the privileged few (acknowledging that as a white male he is in that class) reap benefits while the majority faces ever greater difficulty. 

            This bout of cynicism came from tax season and the dreadful condition of our public finances, especially here in the Land of Lincoln. Public service is slashed while our elected officials continue to duck hard questions but guard their perks. Public employees in education and interpretation should be afraid, very afraid.

            The acorns don’t fall far from the tree, some say. My son has been shaped by terrorist attacks, wars of dubious merit, climate change, and now economic recession. My generation grew up as the cold war (remember “duck and cover”?) became the hot war of Viet Nam, accompanied by a recession in my first job hunting years. I suspect my adult cynicism has been strongly influenced by the subconscious belief that we really never expected to survive. I can’t explain to him that his opinions aren’t much different from mine at that age, and yet, somehow we are still here.

            In spite of all, youth still gives me hope. As we baby boomers reluctantly start to shuffle off the stage, we pass along the burden of caring for the earth and our fellow travelers on it. It is indeed a battered and flawed world we bequeath. My generation can’t deny our responsibility for many of its ills. At the same time there are accomplishments of which we can be proud, and lessons both negative and positive we also pass along to the next generation of caretakers.

Not too long ago I attended a high school production of a classic Shakespeare comedy, performed with a delightfully modern and youthful twist and all the joy of discovery and creativity of its young cast. Even an old cynic like me has to concede there is hope therein.

I have the great honor of working with some bright, creative, young interpreters. I hope they, and all of you, always remember how lucky you are to have been given the opportunity to help shape yet another generation of earth keepers.

Youthful enthusiasm helps me remember why we are in this business, and helps me continue to get up and go to work when my immediate urge is to pack it in, take my tiny share of honor, if any, into retirement and enjoy my own privilege, whether earned or not. I can only hope that my experience is of some value to the young people I have the pleasure of working with. Thank you.

Buffalo Bull, Spring 2010

Quarterly Newletter of
Region 5
National Association for Interpretation

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So announces the screen at the self-checkout lane at the local supermarket. The unexpected item: my own small backpack, into which I wish to bag my purchase, instead of using their plastic bag, which would be wasted as I’ll need to use the pack to continue on my bike. But I am prompted to remove this unexpected item before I can continue. Now what? The screen is not particularly helpful.

            Ok, now I’ve got a scan screen again – but if I don’t put it in a plastic bag I get another warning, to which I have to reply, I don’t want to bag this item, even though I DO want to. Or I guess “packing” it is not the same as “bagging” it? Fruit? I have to either find a number code or look through all the kinds of apples the store offers to find the right button to push. At least since I’m on my way to work I won’t have the problem of needing a real person to verify my age for purchase of beer.

            Why don’t I go through a live-person check out? Because at 7:30 in the morning the one such line open really has a person, there will be several people waiting. This is the cost of “low” prices and “convenience.” And its only one small episode in what has become a daily routine of dealing more with machines than people.

            By now you may be asking what, even though this is clearly a curmudgeon’s rant, this has to do with interpretation?

            How often have you found computers in a museum or visitor center non functioning? I find almost nothing worse than a visitor center where machinery stands in for human beings, and the machinery doesn’t work.

As communicators we want to do all we can to reach as many people as we can, and in this computer age that means a lot of electronic devices. We face the same economic realities as the retailer, in balancing the cost of a live person with the ready availability of electronics. I will concede that devices have a useful place. They may be effective for simple wayfinding, and other short, straightforward information. I have seen creative uses of cell phone messages, and other audio interpretation.

            I do wonder how effective these electronic messages are. (This brings up a future curmudgeon topic: how do we evaluate our messages anyway?)

            Informational messages are not interpretation. As much as I may concede to some electronics, even though I personally do not like to use them, I abhor them as interpretation.

            Electronics are not going away, that’s for sure. You may argue that people expect them, that we have to reach people in ways they are used to. But what’s a nature center for? To get people into nature. A video or computer simulation that may be very effective at home has little place in a building surrounded by the real thing. A microphone that brings bird calls inside, or a remote video feed from an inaccessible nest or protected location may well serve to entice people to go outside. A game that keeps them fixed on a screen probably has the opposite effect.

 The machine has no voice – no matter how it speaks. To communicate ideas we must have a voice – poetry, essay, wayside, exhibit label, live program – the writer or speaker must find a voice. Where is the voice in the machine?

Winter 2009-10

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It's the Message, Not the Messenger

 Sound bites are "communication on the dark side." So says Chris Mayer (Commentary, Legacy Magazine, May-June 2008). He goes on to say "... it's a shame that genuine political rhetoric has given way to the focus group-driven sound bite," and decries the loss of context and nuance, and the "...broadest emotional appeal and minimal intellectual processing."

            What is a sound bite? It is intended to grab attenntion, make an immediate connection, and trigger a response in the listener. As interpreters, we often must capture attention, make a connection, and trigger a response in a few words on a wayside or exhibit label, a brochure, or announcement, or short answer to a question. A way we do that, says our NAI interpreter's training, is by making an emotional connection to as broad an audience as possible, with no time for much intellectual processing.

            What is a short, appealing label or other interpretive message, but a sort of sound bite?

            If you have read the commentary you know Mayer's focus is political rhetoric, not interpretive messages, in an essay on great oratory. My less critical reaction is largely attributable to having just read Words That Work (Hyperion Books, 2007) by Dr. Frank Luntz, a book that is about clear writing, effective sound bites, and other short, simple forms of communication. Luntz's mantra throughout is "it's not what you say, it's what people hear," - good for interpreters to keep in mind.

            Luntz's resume is full of crafting political messages, mostly for conservative Republican campaigns. He may in fact be responsible for some of the sins that Mayer points out, but his book maintains that honesty and credibility are essential for effective communication. Luntz refers extensively to George Orwell, coiner of the term "doublespeak," and Orwell's 1946 essay, "Politics and the English Language." Like Luntz I implore you to immediately go read that short essay, and memorize its six rules of effective language.

            So, there are sound bites, and then there are sound bites.

            I had a lot of trouble getting focused on a theme and approach to write on this topic. There is an awful lot here to chew on, and my mind was all over the place, until I got on a train, and as I sat down watched a cottonwood fluff float down in front of me. That triggered an instant picture of the afternoon before, where I was in a blizzard of fluffy cottonwood seeds along a river. Every season the extravagance of cottonwood seed dispersal triggers emotions and memories, and it popped into my head that here was a sort of "sight bite" that clearly makes a connection between me and the environment and my career as an interpreter.

            Could there be sound bites that have no words, or aroma bites, or sight bites? Aromas, bits of sound and sights, can all trigger strong responses and convey messages. It's the message, not the messenger.

            Simplicity, brevity, credibility, consistency, novelty, sound, aspiration, visualization, questioning, and context - these ten words summarize Luntz's ten rules of effective communication. There will always be a place and need for well reasoned arguments based on themes and subthemes, when we have an audience's attention. First we have to get their attention Shouldn't we do our best to use whatever tools we have to bring attention to our messages? Don't dismiss the sound bite, if that's what works.

            Sound bites garner much of their unsavory reputation from the way they are used and misused in politics and the media. Twisting of words into bites of catchy euphemisms and Orwellian doublespeak is perhaps more the rule than exception. Still, as Luntz repeats, much of the public is conditioned to respond to the short catchy phrase.

            Don’t be afraid of effective sound, sight, or aroma bites. Use all the tools - use them carefully, with integrity. Death to euphemism and doublespeak. Long live honest communication.

Summer 2008

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Are you in the game?

 You watch birds, right? Most of us reading this, whatever our special interest or expertise, enjoy birds. Birds are an important part of the story at many of our sites, so many of us take a greater interest in them, and a few of us might even be “birders.”

            Birders are listers.

            A birder is very different from a naturalist who knows the birds, certainly from an ornithologist, and good heavens, WAY different from a mere “bird watcher.” If you are a birder, you know it. You keep lists. You have a life list, of course, and you may well keep year lists and state, county or site lists.

            If you are really and truly a birder, your lists comply with the rules laid down by the American Birding Association. Not long ago while talking about “big years” with a respected birder, I got into a bit of a debate about what counts and doesn’t on a list. I put forth that I have whooping crane on my life list, twice enjoying delightful views of a couple of the Midwestern captive reared birds that now fly freely with sandhills. Banded, captive reared birds do not count by ABA rules, and of course I hope to see “truly wild” whoopers, though I haven’t yet had the pleasure.

            “That’s like seeing a bird in a zoo.” my friend exclaimed. What difference does it make? I countered. I know exactly what I saw, and I’m not trying to prove anything to anybody.

“Are you in the game?” he said, and compared birding to basketball. You can play park pick up basketball and bend the rules all you want, but in the NBA, rules and standings matter.

            I am not in the game. Despite my (somewhat meager) life and year lists, I have no intention of doing a “big year” of any kind, competitively or otherwise.

            Sometimes this list mania is only amusing. My favorite absurd example of over the top listing is the bird that’s on one side of state line road between Willow Slough, Indiana, and Iroquois Conservation Area, Illinois. The gung ho state lister checks off the bird in one state, then chases it across the line to check it off in the other. As if the bird cared what state it was in, or there was any other real world difference! Yes, this really happened.

More seriously, we must debate the ethics of listing, and especially the big year. What is the environmental cost to global warming and its impact on bird habitat of chasing after list birds? For what purpose? For the love of the game!

For an entertaining account of the game at its highest level, read The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession, by Mark Obmascik. That this is a big game should have been obvious to me when a hockey fan handed me a Sports Illustrated excerpt.

A more meaningful exploration is To See Every Bird on Earth: A Father, a Son, and a Lifelong Obsession, by Dan Koeppel. That “obsession” is in both subtitles is significant. Listing at this level is not very much about birds at all. It is about competition and personalities, sensitively covered by Koeppel. He also includes one of the best summaries I’ve seen of the constant debate between splitter and lumper taxonomists, and what it means to be a species.

Games do have useful purpose. They help to raise interest and awareness by the excitement of challenge and chase. But traveling thousands of miles a year to pad a list is an obsessive contribution to global warming.

An Audubon chapter officer and excellent birder told me, “I don’t keep lists, I watch behavior.” Most of us with a passion for birds will find a place in the middle. Listing is fun and a great way to keep our memories and accumulating knowledge in order. Learning habitat, behavior, and the place of birds in fragile ecosystems is far more useful for an interpreter.

The bottom line is, our migratory birds decline in numbers year after year. They need our support through education and understanding, before they become only check marks on historical life lists.


Spring, 2009

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