Bindi Irwin's Essay On Wildlife. Conservation as the art of editing

clip_image002MANILA: A teenage girl from Australia has just taught the US State Department a lesson in conservation of wildlife - importantly, along with the conservation of the thoughts of those who speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.

As love covers a multitude of sins, so must conservation.

From my perspective of 37+ years being several times writer for and Editor in Chief of both technical and popular publications in the Philippines, a believer in conservation since 50+ years ago, and today thinking of the forest as the first and last bastion of plant and animal life in their natural habitats, let me tell you about what just entered my mind today:

The art of editing is the art of conservation.

The US State Department had invited Bindi Irwin, 14 years old, Wildlife Warrior, daughter of much-admired conservationist Steve Irwin, who died promoting wildlife conservation, a budding author herself, to write a 1,000-word essay on wildlife conservation for the State Department's e-journal (ANN, 25 January 2013, ph.news.yahoo.com). She did. She wholeheartedly submitted her essay.

After a while, the editors sent Bindi a final draft for approval. They had wholeheartedly rewrote her one continuous essay and shortened it from 987 words into 582 words, including giving it a journalistic title Give Wildlife a Fighting Chance, along with pedestrian subtitles "Facing the Elephant," "Creatures, not Commodities." And "Kids Are Capable."

I can assure the editors of that e-journal that kids are capable of being angered. Furious, Bindi withdrew her essay from publication. They didn't see that was the elephant in the editorial room. The elephant was a creature, not a commodity.

"When I got the essay back after they edited it," Bindi said, "it was completely different. I hadn't said anything they had put in … my words were twisted and altered and changed. I was a little bit shocked, to tell you the truth" (ANN, 25 January 2013, channellnewsasia.com).

(If you want to compare the two versions yourself, the original & unedited and the e-journal's version, you can read them here in my blog, Frank A Hilario, 29 January 2013, blogspot.com.)

And Bindi was right. The new version was completely different from the old; they had revised it so much it came out as a new species!

As Editor in Chief, I must say the editors of the US State Department's e-journal knew how to think globally about conservation but did not know how to act locally when it came to allowing a young girl to express herself in a fervent essay on wildlife conservation. No wonder they made her mad.

I understand but do not approve of the wild attitude of most English editors, especially those who have had literature or creative writing courses:

The English editors are always right. Young girl, they have a way with words and you don't. In the Age of the Computer, if they think you're out of your topic, they happily press the Del key and revise. After that, they give you the choice of between the devil and the deep blue sea.

As I write this, I just finished conducting a workshop on how to conduct meetings using parliamentary procedures, and now I think I'll conduct a little lecture on the metaphor of the art of conservation as the art of editing, right here and now. After all, I have had 37 years of formal practice editing thousands of pages of technical papers and popular articles in science, and have written and uploaded to my blogs and the American Chronicle about 2 million words myself on topics ranging from Africa to Creative Writing to IQ to Organisms to Vit C to Wellness to Zero.

In the last few months, I've been editing the essays of 2 older girls in Manila who are bloggers, volunteering my expertise gratis et amore, and I never thought of revising extensively as those e-journal editors did to Bindi's essay. The most drastic revision that I have done was change the title, and yet I got the new title from the text itself, so that it was still the author expressing herself in her own words. A few times, I have deleted a sentence, or inserted one, but still following the flow of the story or the rhythm of the paragraphs. I have corrected the grammar but I never rewrite the girls because I know better.

As a Filipino who taught himself writing and editing in the language of American and British literature, and taught himself conservation in the language of the agriculturists, aquaculturists and foresters even as I worked as Chief Information Officer of the Forest Research Institute in the mid-1970s when conservation was a babe walking in the woods, if a forest were to stand as metaphor for conservation, I can say these:

In conservation as in editing, you must preserve as much of the original as possible. If you don't, you're altering the composition of what you find there.

Just as you don't decimate entire hills of trees and wildlife, so you don't delete entire sections of an essay and replace them with your own specimens.

Just as you don't reforest a mountain because you don't like the species growing there, so you don't rewrite in your own language if you don't agree with what the author is saying.

Just as a forest is an entirety, and therefore you have to take it or leave it, so an essay is a totality, and therefore you have to take it or leave it alone, except for grammar.

Just as a forest is Mother Nature's statement of unity in diversity, so an essay is an author's statement of unity in its own diversity, and both should be accepted and respected.

Just as you have favorite creatures in a forest and yet you cannot, should not eliminate those you do not favor, so an author has favored thoughts within her essay, and you cannot eliminate them simply because you do not think highly of them.

Just as a forest is the result of growth of many species of plants and animals, so an essay is the result of growth of many kinds of ideas and facts. If you don't understand the dynamics of either, you can destroy not only that growth but the whole entity itself.

You cannot renew a forest for the forest; it must renew itself. If you want to revise an essay in a major manner, you cannot do that except to ask permission first from the author and, even then, the best way to do it to ask the author to do it herself in the lines that you suggest - if she wishes to. Either you accept the essay in (almost) its entirety or you don't accept it at all.

Bindi's mother Terri said, "It's interesting that she was asked to write an essay about the environment and (she) included the consideration of population, and they returned her essay edited and completely edited that out" (ANN, 24 January 2013, news.sky.com).

"What happened to freedom of speech?" Bindi Irwin asked the US State Department, rhetorically. She did not wait for an answer and simply withdrew her essay from publication. "This is my opinion and I don't want that edited out."

Bindi said, "I was really sad and I think it was more frustration because I'm trying so hard to get the message across and I guess some people don't want to listen."

Actually, Bindi Irwin had 2 messages in her essay: one, over-population of humans and two, conservation of wildlife.

One, on over-population: Bindi cited the figure of 7+ billion people on the planet, and asked, rhetorically, "I must ask the question, how is it possible that our fragile planet can sustain these masses of people?" Farther down her essay, she says, "These are alarming figures as Earth only has so (much) resources and cannot keep up with our ever-growing population."

I myself don't agree with Bindi Irwin about over-population, so either I let it stand like that, or I reject her essay totally. That portion on over-population cannot be deleted because her theory is that conservation is people: "Often people hear the word 'conservation' they think of little woodland creatures. Actually, conservation is ultimately about us: people." Actually, that was Sentence #2 in her essay, a very important point.

The editors erred in revising Bindi Irwin's essay, and I can think of so many whys for what they did:

(1) The editors believed, as I do, that there is no such thing as human over-population, only human greed. So? Delete!

(2) Or, the editors believed that human over-population, while it may be true, was not part of wildlife conservation and so did not belong in Bindi's essay. So? Delete!

(3) The editors were not paying attention to what she was saying. In Sentence #15 of her essay, Bindi said, loud and clear, "Now, I'm not saying that there is any one answer. This is an extremely delicate topic and one certainly not to be taken lightly. I'm just suggesting that perhaps this is an issue we should start discussing as a society."

After her beautiful analogy on preparing a party for only 15 of her friends and 70 showing up, a metaphor for 1.5 billion people being invited to Mother Earth's party and 7 billion people showing up, Bindi was saying she didn't have a closed mind on this one. The editors did!

Two, on conservation: When her anger had died down, I can imagine Bindi Irwin pleasantly talking to her green snake saying, "They don't understand us, do they?"

Bindi's essay was going to appear in the December 2012 issue of the US State Department's e-journal with the theme, "Go Wild: Coming Together For Conservation" (cited, news.sky.com).

Going wild, they would allow only 15 people to come to the party; they would not be bothered with 70. That would have been over-population.

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