In Florida Scrub-Jay: Field Notes on a Vanishing Bird, Mark Jerome Walters—a journalist and veterinarian—travels the state to report on the natural history and current predicament of Florida’s flagship bird. Released this spring, Florida Scrub-Jay is a thoughtful reflection on the ethical and emotional weight of protecting a species in an age of catastrophe.
Stephanye Hunter, the acquiring editor for Florida Scrub-Jay at the University Press of Florida, recently met with Mark Walters to chat about his writing process and the extensive research behind the book. Below is a transcript of their conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.
Stephanye Hunter (SH): You’ve written several books on birds—one on the ʻalalā in Hawaii, the dusky seaside sparrow in Florida, and now the Florida scrub-jay. Why birds? Why do you choose to write about them?
Mark Walters (MW): That’s a question I sometimes ask myself, but I don’t ask it too hard because I would probably spend my time trying to answer that in a million books. So maybe writing my books is an answer to that. It was funny because I suddenly just did the math a while ago and said “Wait, I’ve written a trilogy about birds.”
Birds—like butterflies in a way, or things that fly—are so symbolic of hope, and of fragility and of beauty. I think the message of a bird becoming extinct is powerful. You know, birds are mentioned in Genesis; birds fly across the vault of the sky. And they have such mythic symbolism, biblical symbolism, that if you really want to feel a momentous crime of humanity against nature, just look at what people have done to birds. And I always feel bad about all the other species, butterflies and all that, but there’s just something particularly poignant about what’s happened to birds.
SH: Early in the writing process you had a different structure for the book. I think you were going to organize it by elements, if I’m remembering correctly. Do you remember?
MW: I do remember that it was very different. You know, I think that our natural tendency is to organize life chronologically. And great stories oftentimes are told chronologically; it’s the easiest way to organize a book. But that didn’t work out in this case because the birds were in different regions; it made this a real challenge. Here’s a bird that’s in four different regions of Florida. How do you bring the narratives together? How do you bring four stories into one narrative? That was a real challenge. But I do remember you and I talked about different structures early on, and ultimately I come to these kinds of decisions not academically, but just intuitively. It’s not the fastest way to write but it’s the least engineered way to write, and to my way of thinking it’s the most organic way to write. So, the key here was to find enough commonalities between the four areas where the birds lived.
SH: You say it pretty early in the book that you can’t talk to knowledgeable people about the scrub-jay without talking about fire. I remember very early on in our conversations that scrub-jays, the scrub, and fire are all inseparable.
MW: Yes, that’s exactly right. It would be like talking about fish without talking about water. So that was very interesting, because people see fire as being destructive. But to the scrub-jay, and the many other species in Florida, fire is common. It is one of the few things that control the incredible growth that occurs in this kind of subtropical, seasonally wet, environment. It’s nature’s best friend, but human’s worst enemy.
SH: And the other part of that is the scrub. In the book you talk to Reed Bowman at Archbold about why the scrub gets such a bad rap, and how it’s not aesthetically pleasing but still necessary.
MW: Yeah, and it’s so interesting how people, I guess by our natures, are probably the only species that can go into a habitat and define it not by what’s there but by our own kind of projections. We are, as they say, human centered or anthropocentric. If we see a kind of thorny, hot environment, we immediately project our notions of suffering and scarcity and hell and all this stuff on it. But that’s only what we bring to it. We look at mountains and we think how beautiful they are, how they reach to heaven. We don’t see the mountains, we don’t see the scrub. The world now though is moving towards a more biocentric kind of perspective, where it’s not all about what we project onto an environment. And I think the beauty of what’s happening with this is that people are now beginning to realize nature isn’t about what I project onto it, it has a life and meaning in and of itself. It has a right in and of itself to be there. It’s an interesting thing because it’s a battle against misperception, and I find that a lot more interesting to write about.
SH: And the scrub-jay has been a marketer for the scrub for a while, right? People don’t find the scrub aesthetically pleasing. Fire is something they see as destructive. But the scrub-jay is beloved, right?
MW: Oh, yeah. And, you know, I wonder where the scrub would be without the scrub-jay. I mean, people would know even less about it than they already do. So, it’s just really fortunate that there’s an envoy. It’s a spirit from the other side that’s telling people “This is not a bad place and I love it and I live here.” And it brings people to the scrub and they begin to think how does a bird live in such an awful place? Well, it’s got lots of food and it builds its nest there. It raises a family and just thrives. The scrub-jay helps to change people’s perception about the scrub, and I think that’s a key part of why it’s so important to have written about the scrub-jay. You never write about just the animal. You can’t write about it without writing about where it lives, no matter what species you’re talking about.
SH: There’s a section early in the book where you were looking not for the scrub-jay, but for scrub. You were driving through a neighborhood, I think. And Paul Schmalzer said, “They’re right at the corner of that lot, that little bit of land is scrub.” You saw the environment itself as an endangered species.
MW: Yeah. It’s hard to imagine how much of our county and all along the Florida Atlantic Ridge was all scrub interspersed with pine and all. Change is so hard to appreciate. It’s just so difficult, because we grow up with what we grow up with; we have no markers. But then you see some place that’s changed so quickly, like Brevard County. The way it really got driven home for me was to spend a couple of hours looking for a place that was once covered with scrub. We drove up one street and down another. And Schmalzer said, “I know it’s around here somewhere.” Then suddenly, it was in somebody’s yard, and he said, “You know, they’ll plant a lawn there soon.” That was such a sad revelation about how much has been lost. Especially for someone who remembers when there was so much more there.
SH: So, you’re describing the scrub-jay, and it’s a beloved bird. It’s on birders’ life lists, right? People come from everywhere to come see the Florida scrub-jay. What is so special about this bird? Why does the bird resonate with people?
MW: Well, I think the fact that it’s rare, unfortunately, makes it more valuable. And, you know, I’m not formally a birder; I don’t keep a life list because I don’t enjoy that sort of, I guess you would call it almost a competitive spirit of trying to add to the “list.” In fact, I don’t tend to bring binoculars because I just want to be there, seeing with the eyes that I have all the subtleties of the scrub. To see a bird that I don’t know means as much to me as knowing that it’s a particular type of bird.
SH: I was struck by a quote from Dave Breininger at Cape Canaveral Launch Complex 40. He’s getting so excited to see a scrub-jay, and you’re like, “He’s already seen these, he must have seen thousands, but it’s like this is his first one.” I find it just remarkable that this little bird can evoke such joy and excitement.
MW: It’s so amazing that people spend their lives happily studying one species. And that really becomes the story in many ways. You find these people and they have amazing relationships with the scrub-jay. It means so much to these people for many different reasons. It’s the same with the scrub and it’s interesting to know what those reasons are. Paul Schmalzer could wander through the scrub all day long just in wonderment and Dave Breininger could follow a family of scrub-jays all day long and never lose the wonder of it. I don’t know what it is that separates those people from the rest of humanity, but we’d really be lost without them. I really tried to capture that because when they’re gone, that’s a generation that I call the end of living memory. They will be the last to have a relationship with the species on Earth. And again, the scrub-jay was a more hopeful story than the dusky seaside sparrow or the ʻalalā in Hawaii, which made it more fun to write in a way. It’s less of a sad look, but still has that intensity of the relationship of the researchers. They may be scientists, but underneath they have a very emotional connection with the topics of their study; it is a primary relationship in their life. I find that so wonderful to write about.
SH: You have all of these people who are volunteering. A lot of them are doing this because they love it; it’s something that they care about and not because they’re getting paid. Several of them were retired, I think.
MW: It’s almost a fun challenge, because scientists are so trained to just talk about the science. They don’t like to talk about the emotion in the science. And so, there’s always the challenge of getting past that formal “No, I’m a scientist, this is what I talk about.” But after you get to know somebody—and you need to get to know them—they begin to get past that scientific veneer. They talk about what’s really this deep well of emotion that they have for what’s happening. They get angry about it or they get just extraordinarily happy about it. And that, to me, is the important part of the story. You can get the facts anywhere. But it’s getting beyond that façade of “I’m a hardcore scientist” when the world opens up. And I wanted to spend as much time as I could in that world to create a book that’s more than just a compilation of the latest studies.
SH: The book is also a story of a family, but your family. This family motif is echoed with the scrub-jays themselves. You start with Freddie, right? You start with your grandfather.
MW: That’s right. And it’s always a challenge in the book, because there are conventions, there are traditions, there are do’s and don’ts, and they change through time. But the balance between the first person and the third person is always a tricky dynamic. You know, first person can very easily become a writer talking about his own feelings. But the third person can also kind of miss all the emotion between the writer and the topic. So, I felt it was important to have a context for the story, a personal framework that meant something to me.
In the case of Florida, I was born there, and my family lived there for several generations. I inherited some of these stories. Not a lot, but enough to recreate Freddie’s trip through there. It also explained why I would write the book, because in writing about the bird it was also writing about family—the loss of family, the loss of the past—which is shown through the loss of the bird. They are very similar stories. Fortunately, the scrub-jay isn’t a thing of the past, in the same way that that Freddie or my father is, but they are part of the same story, just not very explicitly connected. You talk about one, and it brings out that chime of the nearest other tone.
SH: The Florida scrub-jay has one of the most remarkable senses of place. And by place, I mean a global positioning system that says “This is where I’m supposed to be. This is where my father lived. This is where my grandfather was.” And I loved that line because this is where your father and your grandfather were.
MW: Yeah, and Florida is a tough case study in the sense of place. There are some places in the world you can go and the places haven’t changed. But Florida, for the most part, isn’t one of them. There is almost nothing left. It’s not a present story. Anything living has a story that goes back in time with evolution and how it disappeared. It’s a three-dimensional story. And to me, if that dimension of time isn’t captured, then it’s a flat painting. Not necessarily as a matter of conscious technique, but a matter of intuitive writing.
SH: That leads right into my next question, which I am very curious about. Why did you decide to start with dinosaurs?
MW: That’s the question I asked myself. I think it was a strategic decision that needed to be done, but it wasn’t a natural place for me to begin. I think every story has to have a certain factor of “Wow, this is interesting.” I’m not big on doing this, but every journalist learns how to find something intriguing that will keep people asking the question “Can this be true?” or “How is that?” And I think that was the question: “Are you sure? But dinosaurs went extinct, right?” And so, it’s more than a hook, but it was an intriguing piece of information that I thought was really captivating. It captivated me, the thought that a bird looks very much like a dinosaur if it doesn’t have feathers.
I think the larger reason was to say that the world is rarely what we think it is. The natural world has these connections and these histories that we know nothing about, and here it is that dinosaurs are among us when they are usually the leading symbol of stupidity and extinction. So, I guess the irony was just too delicious to pass up.
SH: I realize it’s not effortless, that you worked very hard on this. But you move through time so effortlessly throughout the book. By starting with dinosaurs, you gave this dimensionality that we wouldn’t have gotten in any other way. I don’t know that you could have accomplished that without dinosaurs, without having something to measure it against.
MW: Yeah, that was definitely the z-axis in the book. And there’s also the interesting fact that scrub-jays were kind of born in a crucible fire. They have some genetic memory that enabled them to thrive in burned habitats. They came from fire; they survived conflagration and here they are. So they just can’t get enough of fire. And in protecting people, we take that ancient element away from them.
SH: I didn’t think of that. That’s really interesting.
MW: Yeah, and scrub isn’t a thing; it’s a process. It’s not like, “Okay, this is the kind of place the jay lives.” It’s just an age of a certain growth. They can’t live in scrub that’s too young, and they can’t live in scrub that’s too old. So, they live in this window of a succession. I find that very interesting, because they’re threading the needle every day of existence. They always have to have part of that window open. The less scrub and fire there is, the narrower that window becomes. And once one closes, scrub-jays have to have another window that’s open. And that’s all about enabling enough fire.
SH: And that’s something that scientists and conservationists are just now learning how to regulate, right? They’re creating these plans of affirming certain segments at the Ocala National Forest to allow for the eye of the needle to be available for the birds.
MW: It’s so interesting how we grew up with Smokey the Bear being our best friend. We learned about him in school and—sorry, Smokey, but you are our worst enemy. In many cases that’s true, especially in Florida. Scrub-jays hate Smokey.
SH: I thought of the Aldo Leopold quote that you have early in the book, “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering,” and how much effort it takes for us to put back together the cog and the wheel of the fire. This irregular fire, that’s been synchronized in such a way that creates the habitat for this project. It all works so intricately together.
MW: It’s like the synchronization of bird migrations. Ocala was a good example of where they had not been keeping all the pieces, they had not been keeping all the cogs in there. They simply kept a couple. They planted the trees; they grew them as fast as possible. They cut trees down and they planted again. That’s not intelligent tinkering. It should not have just been a grow-and-cut mentality. But it was for generations.
We saw the first burns coming back to that area. Kind of a Renaissance. That’s going to be an amazing place in 20 or 30 years, but of course it will have grown up and then burned again. But it’d be much richer for having been through that cycle again, after missing it who knows how many generations.
SH: That ending in Ocala where there are these efforts of intelligent tinkering to regenerate the population. We talked about the epilogue and how optimistic should it be, because if it dies it matters a lot what happens next, right?
MW: Yeah. The book started in one of the worst places: Brevard County. But it ended in the place where there is ultimately the most hope. I remember conversations about the epilogue. My first draft was a downer. I think that’s a habit when you write about these things. But when you look at the scrub-jay, there actually is reason to think that it will survive well into the future. I hope it will be more than just Ocala taking these steps. There are thousands of birds there now, and they’re recovering something like 50,000 acres to put back that cycle. Could they possibly double the number of burns there? Yeah. This shows that change is possible. Conservation can succeed. It’s really a matter of the choices that people make, and when they make those choices. In this case, they’re doing it early enough to make a difference. I found that really, really encouraging.
SH: And I think this is where it comes back to the people again, the community. There are varying degrees of hopefulness among the people that you talked to, but still some hope that the scrub-jay will continue to exist, right?
MW: This was a book about people who are doing the best they could, whereas my other books tended to focus a large part on the people who are doing the worst. This was a chance to show that there are people on the other side. I think it was the right way to approach it because it’s the bad guys who tend to get all the publicity. All the efforts of these people working are often overlooked.
SH: I had one last question. I wanted to know, since this is your third book on birds, what was unexpectedly challenging about this book, or different from the previous two?
MW: Two things. I think the hardest thing we mentioned was about how to weave together four distinctly different geographical areas into a coherent story. I think the other was, how do you make the scrub beautiful when people just see it as ugly? There’s no way they’re going to think it’s beautiful on the outside so how do you find the inner beauty? It was a challenge. The only way to do that, I found, was to talk about the details. The intricacy of the flowers; bugs that would fly out and circle around my head that spring, their colors. That’s where Paul was so helpful. He was so into the details of the sudden sound of the sandhill cranes, the distance. It’s all in the details. It’s the little things that run the world. It was a challenge to get into that level of detail on such a sweeping framework, but it’s where the magic of the book is. I think people couldn’t have appreciated the scrub without seeing the details.
For more information about Florida Scrub-Jay, click here.