City Paper is not for tourists
In the winter of 2001, Mike Tidwell sat in Dupont Circle’s Tabard Inn feeling a bit out of place. The power-lunch crowd was a far cry from the barefoot inhabitants of Louisiana with whom Tidwell had spent the summer doing research for his most recent book. Amid the civilized tinkle of wine glasses and silverware, the author listened to the man sitting across the table, a senior editor from National Geographic Books who was wondering if Tidwell would like to write something about Sicily. Content and compensation were open to discussion.
For Tidwell, the moment was the culmination of a long career. Behind him lay almost 20 years of professional writing, spanning five books, regular stories in the Washington Post travel section, and trips to just about every part of the globe; before him, tuna tataki and an opportunity to write for perhaps the most prestigious travel society in the world. Tidwell thanked the man from National Geographic—and then politely turned him down. As other editors called during the following weeks, he turned them down, as well.
Three years later, Tidwell, 41, sits at his desk in a one-room backyard cottage at the end of a back-alley driveway in Takoma Park, Md. A small sign taped to the door reads “Chesapeake Climate Action Network” (CCAN). Old temperature charts are stashed in a corner, and files and papers have been crammed into every available space in an organization scheme that only a teenager could love. Stickers decorate the cabinets: “I’d rather be fighting global warming”; “Clean Air Now!” Above a coffee maker and a model wind turbine, a plaque leans against the windowsill: the Audubon Naturalist Society’s 2003 Conservation Award, presented to Tidwell for “innovative activism to protect the regional environment.”
Press clippings piled on top of a scanner document some of that activism: Tidwell’s dumping one ton of coal on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol in protest of President Bush’s proposed energy bill; Tidwell’s building a silo in the middle of Takoma Park to store fuel for the clean-burning corn stoves he has persuaded his neighbors to buy; Tidwell and CCAN volunteers’ “ticketing” of more than 15,000 SUVs in the Washington area, educating drivers of the environmental impact of their vehicles and urging them to write Detroit demanding cleaner, more fuel-efficient models.
Tucked into the toe of the L-shaped room, Tidwell talks on the phone over the clacking computer keys of his two officemates, who, with Tidwell, constitute CCAN’s full-time staff. As the director, Tidwell takes calls from all kinds of people: representatives for utility companies, an ornithologist with new data on the effect of wind farms on bird habitats, someone wishing to donate his car to CCAN’s hybrid-car rally, a guest for Tidwell’s weekly environmental radio show, the odd journalist seeking sources for a story on wind power—everyone, it seems, but editors. They rarely call anymore.
Growing up in Marietta, Ga., the Memphis-born Tidwell always wanted to become a writer, penning stories as early as the second grade. At the University of Georgia, where he studied political science and philosophy, he edited the school newspaper and freelanced for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
After graduating in 1984, he joined the Peace Corps and spent the next two years in what was then south-central Zaire, teaching villagers how to raise tilapia as a sustainable cash crop. “It was the most formative period of my life,” Tidwell says. “I had more intense, life-changing experiences in two years than most people have in a lifetime. I left with an understanding of what’s important, how the world works, and how people live.”
He also left with a determination to write a book about his experience, and he started writing as soon as he returned to the United States, in 1987. After a couple of frustrating semesters of graduate classes at the University of South Carolina, Tidwell moved to Takoma Park, following his Peace Corps girlfriend and pursuing the quixotic goal of finishing his book. “It was against all rational advice from my parents,” he says, “but it was becoming clear that my one true, abiding purpose was to write.”
For the next year, Tidwell lived hand to mouth, carving out time to write while working nights and weekends counseling homeless drug addicts. He finished his book, The Ponds of Kalambayi, in 1989 and quickly found an agent. The first bunch of publishing houses passed on the manuscript, as did the next. And the next. Finally, the Lyons Press, a small publisher specializing in sports and fishing books, accepted the manuscript. Tidwell received a grand total of $1,500. Yet, he says, “it’s the book I’m most proud of, the story of a seminaive 22-year-old Southerner having to grow up in a hurry amid the wonders and perils of a completely foreign land.”
Two books (and significantly more dollars) later, a Peace Corps friend put Tidwell in touch with Craig Stoltz, editor of the Post travel section. Soon, Tidwell was contributing regular features to the paper and racking up Lowell Thomas Awards, the top prize for travel journalism. “Mike was a rare talent,” says Stoltz, “absolutely top of the class. He wrote some of the great stories we’ve run.”
Tidwell’s most successful book, Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana’s Cajun Coast, published last May and now in its third printing, began as an assignment for the Post. A lifelong hydrophile (“When I go on vacation, it usually involves doing nothing next to water”), Tidwell first went to Louisiana in the summer of 1999 to write a story about hitchhiking through the bayou on shrimp boats.
He came back with a disturbing revelation: The Louisiana bayou is disappearing at an astonishing rate. When the Army Corps of Engineers built levees along the banks of the Mississippi in the ’50s, it tamed the river’s flooding but also robbed the bayou of its lifeblood. The river can no longer create new land by depositing silt, so the ocean swallows up an area the size of Manhattan every 10 months. The entire Cajun coast, along with the various cultures it sustains, is drowning.
Even worse, when Tidwell came back to Washington, he couldn’t find anyone aware of the problem, even among conservationists. As he recounts in Bayou Farewell, “these were mostly smart, well-read people, several of them professional environmentalists or volunteer activists who could cite chapter and verse the details of wetlands loss in the Everglades….But Louisiana? Blank stares.”
Soon after his hitchhiking story ran in the Post, Tidwell got a call from Mark Davis, head of a Baton Rouge–based organization called the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana. Davis had happened to read the story while in D.C. on business. When Tidwell asked why so few people knew about the bayou’s plight, Davis’ answer was chilling: “Mike,” he said, “this is the greatest untold story in America.”
Tidwell vowed to change that. His proposal for Bayou Farewell, based mostly on the Lowell Thomas–winning piece he wrote for the Post, attracted bids from three publishers. Tidwell signed with Pantheon and headed back to the bayou.
While working on his manuscript, Tidwell read a front-page story in the Post about new findings from global-warming studies. Tidwell had been interested in the subject for years, and he had even developed the habit of asking locals about the weather wherever he traveled. From Palermo, Sicily, to Golden Meadow, La., Tidwell had heard anecdotal evidence that confirmed what the Post reported: The world was getting warmer, and the environmental consequences were dramatic.
“January 2001 was a huge creative predicament for me,” says Tidwell. “After 20 years of building my career, calling editors for work, they were finally calling me. But then I got hit by this new salvo of indisputable science, and I freaked out. I felt like I had completely lost control. I went though a long period of shock and fear, and I got really angry at the world, like, Why did I get stuck with this problem? Climate change is fundamentally unfair, and I had a lot of trouble facing it.”
As Tidwell grew increasingly alarmed about global warming, he struggled to find meaning in what he did best. He floated through his days feeling as if he were the only one who clearly saw what mattered. “I’d go into Kramerbooks and look at what all these great writers were writing about and think it was utterly frivolous,” he says.
Edward Kastenmeier, Tidwell’s editor at Pantheon, watched the changes. “Mike is one of those people who will take on the weight of the world,” he says. “Writing Bayou Farewell was a real awakening for him. It opened his eyes to environmental issues on a larger scale.”
“The utter calamity of the bayou was made possible by a staggering capacity for humans to deny what they were seeing,” says Tidwell. “I became convinced that if Louisiana was any indication, catastrophic climate change could happen in my lifetime.”
In July 2001, a few months after rebuffing National Geographic, Tidwell gave up his writing career and founded CCAN. His last Post story, a piece reworked from part of Bayou Farewell, was published in March 2002. “I sacrificed the most meaningful thing in my life,” he says, “but I didn’t really feel like I had a choice. It was horrifying at first. If I had seen someone a few years earlier giving up the same things I was to go off and fight this impossible battle, I would have thought he was crazy.”
Tidwell’s editors aren’t quite so hard on him. “I never think people are crazy for being selfless,” says Kastenmeier. “But while I encourage his activism, I also encourage him to keep writing. He’s such a talented writer, and he’s a loss to the literary world. I think he still has books in him.”
Tidwell still contributes environmental op-eds to local papers, but as far as becoming a full-blown author again, he says, “That’s a long way off. It’s my first calling, but it has lost its meaning. Fighting global climate change is the most meaningful thing I can do right now, and I’ll keep doing it until we start moving toward a global clean-energy community or until it’s too late. I just hope I’ll be able to work myself out of a job sooner than later.”
Last week, Tidwell finally cleaned out his home writing office, a small room in the attic where geologic layers of notes and papers and photos from old projects had accumulated around the computer on which he had written several of his books. “I kept putting it off,” he says. But his wife, a holistic nutritionist, needed the room for her own work, so Tidwell spent the weekend boxing up the flotsam of a life left behind.
“I miss writing terribly,” he says, “and I enjoy what I do now enormously less than what I did before. When I cleaned out my office, I couldn’t help thinking, My God, what an incredibly interesting and rewarding life.
“Writers and editors are my tribe. When I’m advocating, I feel like I’m lost in a wilderness with people who I can talk to and work with, but they aren’t my people. Writing is what I’m supposed to do….Every day I’m directing CCAN and all the things along with it, I’m just a writer who isn’t writing.” CP