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Tracking interpretations of Nature
Im pig-headed, says Rik Scarce, tugging his ball cap on tighter. With important things, I can be pretty determinedenough, in fact, to do jail time in defense of his scholarly principles.
A journalist turned sociologist, Scarce had extensively researched Eco-Warriors, his 1990 book about radical environmental activism. When one of his sources became the chief suspect in a laboratory break-in, Scarce was interrogated about him. He refused to answer certain questions, citing his vow to protect the confidentiality of his sources, and a judge tossed him in jail for contempt of court. Scarce stayed mum, and incarcerated, for a headline-making 159 days, until the judge gave up and let him go.
Im an absolutist about confidentiality, Scarce avers. Journalists and scholars are fact-finders for society. When people trust them and speak frankly to them, they can elucidate public policy and its effectsand that can bring insights that could even help prevent future crimes. (Scarce readily stipulates that foreknowledge of a criminal act would oblige him to warn the police; but after the fact, loyalty to his source comes first.) In attacking the code of confidentiality, the authorities worked to stifle knowledge, to continue their own ignorance, about the activist groups they were trying to investigate, he says. One positive outcome: he recently completed a book about his jail experience, to be published this spring.
After teaching at large state campuses in Montana and then Michigan, Scarce came to Skidmore (my dream school) in 2003. And he brought a long-term project with him: a study of the people affected by wolf protection and reintroduction policies around Yellowstone National Park and Michigans Upper Peninsula. After ten years of research, hes begun publishing articles in sociology journalsa systematic way of preparing a full-scale book.
Scarce uses social constructivism to study how people construethat is, develop and apply meanings forthings in their lives. (His 2000 book, Fishy Business, explored social constructions of salmon: as wildlife, as income source, as bio-engineered farm animal.) Wolves, he says, are often a stand-in for nature, with a capital N. Thus they can mean wilderness and purity, or disaster and pestilence. As one interviewee told me, We dont bring back smallpox just because weve driven it to extinction, so why reintroduce wolves? But otherseven ranchers whod lost livestock to wolf predationsaw wolves as a completion of a healthy ecosystem. With wolves back, their world made more sense to them.
Upon analyzing his data, Scarce was surprised to find how much chaos had been generated by a law. Laws are supposed to correct chaos. Because of endangered-species restrictions and reintroduction measures, for example, ranchers feel prevented from protecting their livestock, while wildlife managers feel prevented from making the best decisions for problem wolves, such as euthanizing them rather than having to transport them elsewhere to face territorial battles and other trauma.
In the Yellowstone area, Scarce found a strong divide between traditional ranching folk and incoming parvenus just looking for an escape from urban stresses. He reports, Most ranchers lead a hardscrabble existence; they barely get by. I could sympathize with their plight: If losses to wolves put them out of business, that would mean a loss of their whole way of life. These traditionalists gave Scarce a message for the vacation-home set: You New Yorkers want more wolves? Fine. Lets put some in Central Park.
Fascinating tensions! says Scarce. And hes already planning his next inquiry into societal conflicts over natural resources: a social history of the Hudson River. The rivers early role as
a route into the wilderness, its crucial supply of water for metropolitan development, its pollution and recent cleanup controversiesthat should give an indefatigable researcher and critical analyst like Scarce plenty to sink his teeth into. SR