Woodard, Colin 1968–
Woodard, Colin 1968–
Woodard, Colin 1968–
Freelance writer and journalist. Chronicle of Higher Education, foreign correspondent, 1990—; Christian Science Monitor, foreign correspondent. Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe, Budapest, Hungary, fellow, 1994-95; Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Washington, DC, Pew Fellow in international journalism, 1999.
Tides Foundation, Jane Bagley Lehman Award, 2004, for public advocacy.
Ocean's End: Travels through Endangered Seas, Basic Books (New York, NY), 2000.
The Lobster Coast: Rebels, Rusticators, and the Struggle for a Forgotten Frontier, Viking (New York, NY), 2004.
The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down, Harcourt (Orlando, FL), 2007.
Contributor to periodicals, including San Francisco Chronicle, Economist, Miami Herald, Los Angeles Times, Providence Journal, Business Central Europe, Congressional Quarterly, On Earth, Nature Conservancy, E: The Environmental Magazine, Down East, Chronicle of Philanthropy, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and Christian Science Monitor.
Colin Woodard is a freelance writer and journalist who has contributed articles and stories to a number of journals and periodicals, and has been a foreign correspondent for the Chronicle of Higher Education and Christian Science Monitor.
For his first book, Ocean's End: Travels through Endangered Seas, Woodard traveled around the world's oceans and coastal areas interviewing fishermen, scientists, and sailors and collecting their stories and perspectives on the state of the oceans, and offers solutions for what can be done to help solve some of the problems we face. Reviews for his first book were mostly positive. Margaret Rioux, writing in Library Journal, opened by saying that Ocean's End ‘is a very disturbing book—and it's meant to be,’ adding that ‘Woodard has done his part’ to help the oceans. A contributor to Publishers Weekly called the account ‘somewhat one-sided,’ but noted that ‘it is a sobering call to action for those interested in the plight of the world's oceans."
The Lobster Coast: Rebels, Rusticators, and the Struggle for a Forgotten Frontier continues Woodard's theme of writing about the oceans, but this time from the coastal communities of Maine. He delineates how suburbanization threatens to destroy the coastal villages and their tradition of commercial fishing. E contributor Elizabeth Gartshore noted that The Lobster Coast ‘champions the efforts of small communities.’ Writing in the National Fisherman, Linc Bedrosian described the book as ‘especially interesting and very timely and rewarding reading."
The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down, Woodard's third book, was published in 2007. In this work Woodard describes pirates not as criminals, but as social revolutionaries made up of a varied bunch of men. Settling in New Providence, in the Bahamas, the pirates of eighteenth-century Caribbean lore were defeated by colonial governors, among them, former privateer Woodes Rogers. Jay Freeman, writing in Booklist, remarked that ‘this breezy, fast-moving book is filled with exciting action and colorful characters.’ A contributor to Publishers Weekly called the story ‘a fast-paced narrative,’ adding that it ‘will be especially attractive to lovers of pirate lore and to vacationers who are Bahamas-bound."
Colin Woodard contributed the following autobiographical essay to CA in 2007:
For generations, my father's people had projected their ambitions westward, only to return—broken and bankrupt—to New England. One branch of his family tree is heavily laden with founding figures—Puritan divines, early Rhode Island merchants, veterans of Massachusetts's genocidal Indian Wars—a legacy discovered when I was in my early thirties, and from which I absorbed the twin illusions of being rooted history and responsible for it. My tenth great-grandmother, Anna Hooker, was the sister of the man who founded Connecticut, while her husband, George Alcock, a gentleman and graduate of Cambridge University, was a charter member of the Massachusetts elite. Tenth great-grandfather Roger Clap, an indentured servant, was the first author in the family, having written a detailed account of the founding of Dorchester in 1630. ("Alas, had [the Indians] come upon us, how soon they might have destroyed us,’ he wrote of their first days ashore, ‘but God caused [them] to help us with fish at very cheap rates.") Another tenth great-grandfather, Thomas Hewitt, a merchant captain in Stonington, Connecticut, vanished without a trace in an early trading voyage to the West Indies in 1662. A third, Richard Palgrave, carried the inbred bloodline of the Plantagenet Kings of England across the Atlantic in 1629, passing its questionable properties on to his descendents: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, George H.W. Bush and (most obviously) George W. Bush.
Thankfully, my father's ancestors had the good sense to intermarry with a motley assortment of early American immigrants: descendents of Marguerite Hedouin, a woman who immigrated to Quebec City in 1671 to marry a man, sight unseen, in exchange for a modest, state-sponsored dowry; a hotheaded grandson of eighteenth-century Scots-Irish immigrants who shot a Confederate cavalryman off his horse and ran his sword through a would-be deserter, only to have his head blown off leading a charge at the siege of Petersburg; the daughter of penniless Irish Catholics compelled mine iron in the frigid northern fringe of nineteenth-century Wisconsin. By the middle of the last century my great-grandfather had accumulated a considerable fortune at the expense of the coal miners of Butte, Montana, and, later, those mining copper in Chile. He lived in the Waldorf-Astoria in New York and rode his Arabian thoroughbreds through Central Park, while his wife took round-the-world cruises with other men. When their eldest and favored son drowned in a sailing accident at age seventeen, they literally made my grandfather wear his clothes and tried to get him to adopt his dead brother's name. Instead he married the Catholic miner's daughter, fled Montana, and devoted much of his life to squandering his appreciable inheritance, most successfully by buying a failing ski resort at the top of California's Donner Pass, where the party of the same name ate one other. There my father and uncles grew up, while my grandfather presided over the lodge's bar and, far less frequently, the slopes and lifts. Finally, the money ran out, and the family was compelled to seek the support of Great-Grandmother Woodard—by now widowed and taking a break from Cunard—prompting them to return East and into a detached ranch in Wilton, Connecticut.
My mother's family were immigrant settlers out of Hollywood central casting. In 1839, my third great-grandmother, Jane Young, journeyed to the Illinois frontier with her parents and siblings in a pair of covered wagons, and on arrival lived in one log cabin while she taught local children in another. Her granddaughter married Arthur Andersen, the son of a Danish immigrant from a quiet farming village on the island of Funnen, who brought electricity to Primghar, Iowa, where my grandfather grew up amidst the barracked cacophony of the family chicken farm. Adolf Hitler brought my grandparents together: he was drafted and sent to England with the Army Air Forces; she spent her teen years hiding from German bombs and rockets until they met in a London dancehall and he insisted they finish their dance despite the plaintive wail of the air-raid sirens. They married with wartime expediency and, not long thereafter, were expecting my mother. Only after she became pregnant, my grandmother once said, did the bombings truly frighten her.
The war ended ten days before my mother's birth and, after a stormy crossing in the bowels of an aircraft carrier, the young family found their way to Southport, an out-of-the-way island on the coast of Maine. They lived in a rambling farmhouse, the parents making ceramics in the swallow-infested barn by day, their children sometimes bitten by rats in the night. My grandmother was striking, glamorous, foreign, and dramatic, channeling Greta Garbo on trips to the market and prompting the other children at the island's one-room schoolhouse to tie my mother and aunts to the playground's trees before denouncing them as ‘redcoats.’ Rachel Carson and other influential people summered on the island, but my grandparents' poverty ensured they did not cross paths, beyond perhaps transacting sales of hand-painted chickadees, harbor seals, or salad bowls.
My parents met at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, an old mill town a hundred miles inland, and it's no coincidence that I was born there. It was the end of the sixties, and interior Maine was attracting its refugees, drawn by the promise of a simple, honest, pre-industrial life far from Vietnam, Watergate, and race riots. Young couples from big urban centers were building homes out in the woods, growing their own food in garden plots, cutting their firewood, and electing to do without electricity or running water. Of course, a great many local people were living the same way, but not by choice, and generally looked on the back-to-the-landers as completely out of their minds. My parents weren't hippies or back-to-the-landers, but after graduating, they too were drawn to Maine's unspoiled hills, lakes, forests, and streams, and its hamlets, peaceful and at one with themselves in a way only a remote backwater can be.
My father, pleased to have escaped the ranch in Wilton, moved us to a farmhouse deep in the foothills and set about writing a novel. The house was technically off-the-grid, but was lit and powered by a diesel generator, rather than kerosene lamps and hand pumps. Two of my earliest memories are of my father marching out to the generator shed in a winter blizzard to get us back into the twentieth century, and walking with my mother in the nearby pine forest, and being afraid of fallen pine cones, which I suspected were really a form of vicious insect waiting to ambush the next toddler who came along. By the time I turned five, the novel wasn't finished, but my parents' marriage was. My father moved to the coast to work for, strangely enough, my maternal grandfather's ceramics business. My mother ultimately became involved with a college acquaintance, a sculptor and self-declared Renaissance man with a penchant for vodka, prescription drugs, and violence. He spent the evenings beating large sheets of lead into sculptured reliefs with mallets fashioned from artificial ball-and-socket joints stolen from a crematorium oven by his pregnant model's husband. The rest of the unconventional household—which included his wife and children—tended to the animals, orchards, gardens, and fields of his rambling mountaintop farm. He had something of a split personality—think Forrest Whitaker in ‘The Last King of Scotland"—and, when motivated, charmed famous people into coming up to his mountaintop farm, buying his art, or simply being his friend. We lived there for eight years.
From age ten, when we first moved there, he regularly reminded me that I was never to write about him. Instead I dabbled in journalism. I'd started my first newspaper at a hippie school I attended in first and second grade, one that had no electricity but did have a manual typewriter and a mimeograph machine. The Sandy River Journal was a four-page newssheet in the eighteenth-century mold: poorly spelled, inventively punctuated, a jarring combination of international dispatches transcribed from other papers and local news pertaining to the thirty-student school and the hundred acres of forests and abandoned farms surrounding it. While later I edited my junior high school's first newspaper, it was in high school where I discovered that the administration would permit no discussion of their policies—or anything else of substance—in their official paper. My homelife being an Orwellian dystopia, I had no patience for authoritarianism elsewhere. I confronted the principal with Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent School District, in
which the Supreme Court ruled that schools could not censor student journalism, which left him unmoved. Instead, I got three friends together and started an independent biweekly. We wrote obnoxious satires of administrative bungling and features on what the students thought, which the principal didn't like but, because we created, photocopied, and distributed it off school property, there was little he could do about it. Our reporting didn't change anything, but I loved the notion that the principal could be held to account, even if the Renaissance man could not.
Not that it was all bad. The farm was in a beautiful hilltop location and working on it gave me an added appreciation for the virtuosity of the old economic model, when most of us raised our own food, built our own homes, and knew where everything came from, understanding the true costs of its production. We kept bees to pollinate the apple orchard which was fertilized and weeded by our sheep and goats and produced apples appreciated by pigs, even after they'd been chopped up and pressed for their juice. There were gardens to till, fertilize and tend, animals to breed, birth, feed, and butcher, fields to mow, maples to tap, pine and cedar to saw into lumber, birch and ash to split into fuel. Had the situation not been so exploitative, I might be farming today, instead of growing a few herbs in the little yard behind my urban bungalow.
Each summer I escaped to the coast where my father and maternal grandparents lived and where I cultivated my love of the sea. My father had owned a rotting 1898 Hereshoff sloop when I was a preschooler and in my teens had replaced it with a 1969 Pearson Ensign, a wee twenty-two-foot fiberglass sloop with the lines and integrity of the previous century. In this boat my father and I explored the coast, camping out in the anchorages of uninhabited island coves, remote fishing harbors, and the tasteful retreats of the summer cottagers. When I was eighteen, he let my best friend and me take the boat on a two-week cruise down east, where we perfected dead reckoning, small engine repair, and storm anchoring techniques. On all of those cruises, there were moments that stick with me to this day: stars above, phosphorescence in the sea all around, the occasional sound of a whale or porpoise snatching a breath above the surface of the sea. I'd always intended to scrape together enough money to buy a sturdy sailboat and explore the world but, like most of travelers these days, I would wind up using airplanes instead.
I went to college in metropolitan Boston, and gravitated towards Soviet and East European Studies. I identified with all those ordinary people on the other side of the Iron Curtain, trapped in police states, subject to brainwashing and toilet paper shortages. It was the end of the eighties, the height of perestroika and glasnost, the world wondering if Mikhail Gorbachev might usher in the end of the Cold War so we could all stop worrying that a software glitch, a flight of geese, or a malfunctioning submarine might trigger the end of the world. I studied Russian and read everything I could get my hands on about that Other World and, in my junior year, went over the wall myself as an exchange student at the Karl Marx University of Economics in Budapest.
I crossed the Austro-Hungarian border on the afternoon of September 10th. The train rolled through flat fields, past a row of watchtowers and onto a railroad siding outside Hegyeshalom station, where a detachment of Hungarian soldiers with rifles was already in position, surrounding the train. Border guards and customs officials came through the carriage, while other soldiers examined its underbody. After a half hour's wait we continued on for Budapest as the sun slowly set behind us. A few hours later, Hungary announced it would no longer prevent East Germans from crossing into Austria. By the following morning, Hegyeshalom was choked with East German tourists and refugees who, after being waved through by smiling border guards, broke out champagne, broke down crying, usually at the same time; 7,000 fled the first day and, over the coming weeks, upwards of 100,000 made the crossing, encouraged by the knowledge that, at the time, the West German constitution guaranteed them instant citizenship. The Iron Curtain had divided Europe my entire life, but I had crossed it for the first time just hours before it began to come apart.
East Germans were very much in evidence in Budapest—tens of thousands had traveled to Hungary that summer in the hopes of getting to the West—and some scored travel money from my fellow exchange students. At the time, there was an enormous incentive for western visitors to exchange money on the street, where blackmarket changers—almost any citizen wanting hard currency—would give two to three times the official exchange rate. There were some important rules to follow, one being not to hand your money over until you had received, counted, and pocketed theirs. Two American guys who lived next door to me at the concrete-and-linoleum Kinizsi street dormitory didn't know this and, after trading with an East German man, found themselves holding a wad of rolled newspaper wrapped in a small denomination banknote. Within a few weeks, most of us built relationships with reliable changers—mine was a refugee from Ceausescu's Romania—and were soon taking advantage of ten-cent carafes of Bull's Blood, three-dollar restaurant meals, and taking round-trip, first-class sleeper trains around the Warsaw Pact for ten to twenty dollars. I'd grown up poor and was literally counting pennies in college; ironically, I first experienced middle-class security by breaking the currency regulations of the Hungarian Socialist Worker's Party.
My first impression was that Budapest was comparable to a reasonably affluent city from about 1972, minus the youth movement, cultural revolution, and violent crime. The Soviet Empire never had an equivalent of the Clean Air or Clean Water Act and it showed. Clouds of blue, lead-laden exhaust fumes choked the grand boulevards, while half of the city's sewage flowed into the turbid brown Danube untreated. Telephones were a luxury, most households did without, and were, in any case, rotary dial, and linked to a crackling network that sometimes only delivered a dial tone after many, many solicitations; this made buying train tickets particularly excruciating because the window agent had to call a central office and speak to someone to see which seats were still available for assignment, there being no computers. Still, Hungarians could joke that they lived in the Warsaw Pact's ‘happiest barracks,’ with plenty of food, easy access to basic goods, and freedom to travel abroad to the extent they could afford to. It was telling that, while East Germans were fleeing over Hungary's borders, Hungarians themselves were content to remain at home.
At Karl Marx, some of our professors were among the leaders of Hungary's democratic opposition, and proudly gave us daily updates on their negotiations with the Communist leadership. Geza Jeszenszky, who taught us history, became the first post-Communist foreign minister, which was disturbing given his nationalistic interpretation of the country's history (Hungarians—good, Romanians—very bad.) Our economics professor, Peter Akos Bod, would later serve as the head of the central Bank. While the Hungarians could see where the events of '89 were going, our American professor and chaperone, an old school Sovietologist, was unable to understand that her world was coming to an end. In November, I wrote a term paper arguing that the two Germanys would soon reunite, she laughed at my naiveté, rattling off various reasons why this would never happen. (They merged ten months later.)
We had classes only four days a week, allowing three-day weekends to explore the region, which was the greatest education of all. It was impossible to go anywhere outside of Hungary on a whim; it took days to apply for visas to other socialist nations, for transit visas to cross the territory of others, and to acquire international train tickets and sleeper reservations. So it was just luck that, as I traveled to a different place each week, its citizens decided to hold some Earth-shattering event.
I planned a trip to Berlin. The wall came down six days before my arrival. Under the terms of my East
German transit visa, as soon as the train pulled into East Berlin's Lichtenberg station, I was to proceed directly to West Berlin. That was fortunate, because from the moment I stepped off the train I was caught in a river of humanity flowing towards the West. It seemed that every man, woman, and child in East Germany was headed for the checkpoints. People poured from packed trains, filling the platforms and spilling over onto the tracks and down into the bowels of the city. Soldiers and police did their best to control the crowds, stopping the flow every few minutes so that nobody was pushed off the platform and into the path of an incoming train. At Friedrichstrasse Station you could go through customs and transfer to the western subway system. A week earlier this would have been a quiet, dour place, where a trickle of western day-trippers and elderly East Berliners crossed the continental divide. Instead, a human flood flowed through the tunnels, so densely packed that people were lifting strangers' children over their heads to ensure they weren't trampled. Guards waved people through, glancing at ID cards, until I came along carrying a passport that had to be stamped. It took the efforts of three guards to hold the flow back long enough to shift me to the right border-control lane, take down the necessary information, and stamp my visa. Then I was released, fish-like, into the westbound flow of Easterners. That night I joined West Berliners in chiseling off my own piece of the wall, and spent hours with the crowds at the Brandenburg Gate, watching easterners cross into West Berlin for the first time. It's the only time I've ever been to Berlin.
I spent one sleep-deprived day in Prague at the height of Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution, arriving so early in the morning that all of the million-or-so democracy demonstrators had gone home for a nap, leaving their possessions behind to save their spot; walking into Old Town Square for the first time, the predawn light revealed a great cobblestone expanse covered in flags, coats, blankets, lit candles, portable radios, and protest signs. By ten in the morning heavy snowflakes slowly fell from the sky as hundreds of thousands of Czechs filled the squares, well on their way to bringing the regime to an end. Much of the arrestingly beautiful city seemed sleepy, tranquil, and timeless that day, but in the main squares, history was clearly on the move.
I also made multiple visits to Poland and Yugoslavia—and was in Budapest on October 23, when they, in effect, declared their independence from Moscow—but it was Ceausescu's Romania that left the greatest impression. His was a dictatorship straight out of 1984. Few foreigners were allowed in, outside of carefully controlled package tours, but a member of the Karl Marx staff had influence at the Romanian embassy and with his assistance, three of us got visas. At the border, the train's heat was cut off and drunk, abusive customs officials marched through the cars screaming threats at passengers. Outside somebody was laughing diabolically over the public address system, perhaps just to set the tone. Border guards rifled through bags and bedding, searched for contraband under the seat cushions, and seized anything printed in Hungarian: newspapers, books, and magazines. Later we arrived in Brasov, Romania's second-largest city, which had no heat or electricity. The train station was overrun with grimy orphans who begged for change or candy. At the bus stop, twenty-five people stood and stared at us for nearly ten minutes, mute and unblinking, until, all of a sudden, they converged on us as if by some unheard signal, begging for handouts of any kind; moments later, they suddenly sprung away and back into total silence. A man walked by, looking them over. Then the bus arrived, a rusting hulk dragging itself along on three flat tires. In the town center, the bookshop was full of volumes of Ceausescu's writings, but the butcher's shop was completely empty, except for a single tray, from which several morbid customers were picking the best pig snouts. The dictator was exporting virtually all of the country's food and energy to pay off the debt on his sumptuous new palace, a thousand-room, 3.7 million square foot monstrosity built over what had been the heart of old Bucharest. Policemen with submachine guns and attack dogs stood on the street corners, glowering at passersby, while plain-clothes agents followed us everywhere we went. At night, the only lights were those at the police station or illuminating the giant billboards advertising Ceausescu's greatness. One read: ‘Ceausescu—The Epoch of Light.’
Eight weeks later, Ceausescu was dead, the victim of a palace coup organized behind the backdrop of a mass uprising. I'd first seen the images of the fighting in Bucharest on a television in the departure lounge of Vienna airport, and by the time his corpse was shown—he and his wife had been summarily executed in a courtyard—I was home in Maine. I'd come away from Romania with the feeling that a popular uprising was impossible—people seemed completely terrorized and dejected, the police and secret service all pervasive, ready to arrest anyone who so much as complained. I returned to Boston to finish my junior year, but really I wanted to be back East to see what would happen next. I had no money but learned that the university gave a 1,000-dollar research grant to one undergraduate to pursue a summer research project. I was the first to receive the award for an overseas project—to explore the Romanian Revolution—and, as soon as classes were out, I flew back to Budapest to begin a shoestring adventure.
My journalism career began that summer, when the Communist retreads who'd taken control of Romania decided to snuff out popular protests against their hijacking of the revolution. They did this by transporting thousands of miners halfway across the country on special trains—people who looked as if they had been living underground for the past four decades, replete with work clothes, helmet lights, crowbars, clubs, and axes. On arrival in Bucharest they were shown around by plainclothes government agents who directed them who to attack: the unarmed protestors, who were camped out in tents in the central square; the headquarters of the opposition parties that planned to run against the Commie retreads in the coming elections; university students and their classrooms; and anyone else who looked intellectual. Plumes of smoke filled Bucharest's squares, while people were afraid to go out in the streets. In my trips into the center, I stuck close to the Intercontinental Hotel, which the miners had apparently been instructed was off limits. You could see groups of them wandering around outside, sometimes pressing their grimy faces against the plate glass of the hotel lobby, gazing with wonder at the modern, late 1960s décor, the western package tourists and the more numerous hotel prostitutes. I covered the story for the trade publication of academe, The Chronicle of Higher Education, interviewing and
photographing students who'd been beaten by the miners, and chronicling their sacking of university facilities. I've been a foreign correspondent of that newspaper ever since.
Ironically, studying in Eastern Europe derailed my Soviet-East European Studies program, the Hungarian staff being unwilling to teach me the requisite Russian, and I graduated with a degree in history. I'd also contemplated English, biology, political science and international relations and, to this day, am a product of a liberal arts education, a generalist, not a specialist. That's not in fashion in these times, where everyone is supposed to be, first and foremost, an economic being, but I'd argue that at the rate the world is changing, you're going to have multiple careers and might as well start out with a broad foundation. If you're self-employed as I am, you may find yourself wearing several hats at once. (In my case: Eastern Europe correspondent, science reporter, photographer, historian, environmental journalist, and, for want of a less pomp- ous expression, a public intellectual for Maine, and an environmental journalist.)
After graduation, I moved back to Budapest, renting a telephone-less suburban apartment with two college friends and making ends meet by writing for the Chronicle, Budapest Week (an English language paper run by other young foreign residents), and, later, the Christian Science Monitor. The first year I communicated with my U.S. editors by pay phone and fax messages sent back and forth from a copy shop in the center, thirty minutes away. I concentrated on environmental issues—the region was stupendously polluted—and on ethnic tensions between Hungarians and Romanians, Slovaks, and Serbs. Ultimately it was Yugoslavia, not Romania, Hungary, or Slovakia, whose political leaders were willing to kill tens of thousands to consolidate their own power base. A number of my friends covered the Yugoslav Wars—one was nearly killed doing so—but in my trips there, I stuck to places where people had, by-and-large, stopped shooting. It was still disturbing: visiting neighborhoods and villages reduced to rubble, skirting tank traps and mine fields, interviewing refugees, soldiers, and probable war criminals. A particularly vivid memory was of a child's drawing pinned up to the wall of a artillery-damaged family apartment in Osijek, Croatia: two small stick-children, a medium-sized stick-mom, a great big dad with a helmet, and a lot of bodies outside in pools of Crayola red.
But it was the environmental reporting that would ultimately lead to my first book. There had never been a Clean Air or Clean Water Act in Eastern Europe, and it showed. I visited a town in Romania where fallout from an industrial facility had dyed everything black: houses, trees, fields, and children. I nearly lost consciousness one night in a Slovak industrial town walking through a block-wide cloud of toxic gas. In Krakow, my hosts advised me never to go outside at night (the worst substances were released then) and not to brush my teeth from the tap, as the water was so acidic it rapidly corroded metal fixtures. In Budapest, my eyes were often red and itchy on account of all the leaded automobile exhaust. For forty years, people had been dumping toxic wastes and untreated sewage in streams, rivers, and open pits, and had operated everything from cement plants to nuclear power plants without adequate environmental safeguards. The Danube, which ran through Budapest, had become an open sewer to which half a continent's sewage, agricultural run-off, and industrial effluents were destined. I covered the Danube crisis—a metaphor for the region's social and diplomatic problems—but, like everyone else, missed the bigger story: where did all this pollution end up? The answer, as we all learned, was the Black Sea, a nearly enclosed body of water the size of California whose marine resources had sustained humanity for thousands of years. In the early 1990s the sea experienced a near-total ecological collapse, reduced to algae and jellyfish-like creatures, the result of sewage, agricultural runoff, and the accidental introduction of a North American comb jelly. Meanwhile, the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, perhaps the greatest fishery the world had ever known, were closed for lack of fish, followed shortly thereafter by many of the most productive fishing grounds of my native New England. I started wondering, while covering the fight to learn the truth about the Romanian Revolution or the unraveling social crisis in Russia, if these and other marine crises might be related, if the oceans themselves were in trouble. It would be several years, however, before I would concentrate on this issue.
My time in Eastern Europe deepened my appreciation for the importance of history. In those days, one could hardly speak with a Hungarian intellectual, factory worker, taxi driver, street sweeper, or government official for more than five minutes before being treated to a lecture on the injustices of the Treaty of Trianon (which, after World War I, partitioned the Hungarian Empire) and the absurdity of the Daco-Romanian Continuity Theory (the assertion that Romanians are descended from the Bronze Age inhabitants of Transylvania and their Roman overlords and, therefore, the indigenous inhabitants of the region.) While delivering these lectures, the speaker would invariably grab the nearest napkin, notebook, or newspaper and begin drawing a detailed map of Greater Hungary, circa 1490, long before the Trianon carve-up. Slovaks, by contrast, regaled foreigners with stories of their glorious medieval kingdom, but tended to skip over the last time Slovakia was independent, as a Nazi puppet state ruled by an aged, anti-Semitic Catholic priest. Throughout the Balkans, people talked about the decades or centuries they spent under the ‘Ottoman Yoke’ as if it happened to them personally, as opposed to their sixteenth- or early-nineteenth century ancestors. While my own country forgets most everything that happened more than fifteen or twenty years ago, Eastern Europe was practically drowning its own past. Covering most any issue there required a through understanding of events long past, an approach I've since applied to issues closer to home.
I interviewed a fascinating range of people. I was received by Russian nationalist Sergei Baburin at
Moscow's White House or Parliament just weeks before it was shelled by tanks during a standoff with President Boris Yeltstin; he answered each question in the long, circular Soviet style which always began with ‘X is true’ and ended with ‘So, as you can see, the opposite of X is true,’ leaving you with no clear answers whatsoever. I had cigarette smoke blown into my face at short range by Grigore Zanc, head of a country government in impoverished Transylvania, after asking a fairly innocuous question about his government's policies towards its sizeable Hungarian minority; he worked in a place even more opulently decorated than the one Ceausescu had lived in, a structure I later visited for an audience with Romanian President Emil Constantinescu. I accidentally crossed paths with Prince Charles in Dubrovnik, Croatia, and had a peculiar conversation with a member of his entourage named Reinhard Rade, who I later learned had been a far-right German politician and was alleged to have provided arms to the Croats during their war with Serbia.
In 1995, after four years in the region, I enrolled in an international relations master's degree program at the University of Chicago. The program was rigorous, the students sharp, and the courses challenging and provocative, but the academic climate was dominated by a neoconservative worldview. That the United States should impose its will on the rest of the world by any means necessary went almost without saying. In a required seminar, a teaching assistant asked us if, hypothetically, we had been in charge of U.S. bombing policy in 1944 and knew of the existence of Auschwitz, if we would try to disable the facility; the correct answer was no, because doing so was ‘not in our national interest.’ Most of the class accepted this line of reasoning, as well as the argument that the reason we needed to keep inflation in check was ‘to avoid bad stuff like the New Deal.’ Only myself and one other student argued that perhaps some of the B-17s could have been diverted from firebombing Dresden to destroy the rails to and from an industrial death camp; we're still good friends today. Ethnic conflict, Chicago proclaimed, was caused by ‘nations’ feeling ‘insecure,’ a theory one could only come up with if one removed the personal interests of individuals (e.g., Slobodan Milosevic, Ion Iliescu, Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler) from the equation. I argued as much in my thesis and, to my surprise, was awarded a prize for my work. Unlike the neoconservatives who would later run the Bush administration, the political scientists at Chicago were capable of considering other views.
While I was finishing my thesis, the Bosnia war ended, and the Christian Science Monitor asked if I would be willing to cover the Balkans. I rented a flat in Zagreb, Croatia, and, in early September, 1996, boarded a NATO C-130 bound for Sarajevo. Apart from a doctor with the World Food Program, I was the only person on the plane not wearing fatigues and taking an assault rifle as carry-on. The pilots threw all the engines into reverse as soon as the wheels hit the tarmac because the last third of the runway had been cut off by the recent collapse of a tunnel Sarajevo's citizens had dug, in secret, under the airport and Serb lines. People snuck through, hunched over, carrying supplies to keep a city of half a million from being ethnically cleansed.
As you'd expect, Sarajevo was in shambles: burned out husks of skyscrapers presiding over stores, apartment buildings, and city squares pocked by snipers, splashed by mortars, or blown into rubble by artillery shells. There was hardly a pane of glass in the city—UNHCR plastic sheeting was being substituted. Electricity was intermittent, water came for only a couple of hours each day, and the airport was under military control. The family I boarded with had just spent four years without heat, electricity, running water, while their neighborhood was regularly bombarded by the Serb mortars and artillery on the surrounding hills. You could sit in a café and have a squad of French soldiers pass by, rifles at the ready, enough space between each soldier to ensure that a grenade attack killed only one. There were ski resorts in the hills built for the 1984 Olympic Games, but Sarajevans didn't dare drive up the road to them as they were in Serbian turf. I made the trip to Pale, the little mountain resort from which the Serbs directed their assault on Sarajevo, while covering the postwar election. Mistaking me for a member of a Slovenian camera crew, a large man with a military haircut crew whispered death threats in my ear. Another man, a fellow who had been living in Switzerland for the duration of the war, denied that the Serbs had killed 7,000 men and boys at Srebrenica. ‘They killed themselves to make us look bad,’ he explained. There were similar sentiments on the west bank of Mostar, the capital of the Bosnian Croats' ‘republic,’ which had been forcibly cleansed of non-Croats. Covering postwar Bosnia
was one of the most rewarding experiences of my career, a valuable lesson in how thin civilization's veneer really is, and how frighteningly easy it is to brainwash people into supporting or participating in torture, rape, murder, and the erosion of their own civil liberties.
Sadly, by the midwinter of 1997, it was clear that, while the Bosnian story was far from over, American interest in it was. After seven grueling months shuttling back and forth between Bosnia and the six other countries I was covering, I felt I needed a break from Eastern Europe and its problems. I moved back to the U.S. and turned my attention to the oceans.
I spent much of the next two years traveling the world's oceans from bases in Maine and Washington, DC, to produce Ocean's End: Travels through Endangered Seas (Basic, 2000), a narrative nonfiction account of the reasons behind the collapse of marine ecosystems and the effect it was having on human societies ashore. I spent two weeks on a ship on the Black Sea in the company of many of the world's leading marine scientists, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Orthodox Christianity, and a bevy of journalists, cardinals, metropolitans, princes, knights, and environmentalists. I went diving with coral scientists on the Belize Barrier Reef, visited refugees from U.S. atomic testing on a tiny island in the Central Pacific, fishermen suffering for want of fish in Newfoundland, and New Orleans disaster planners fearing what would happen if a hurricane were to hit their city. At one point I went from a tiny Pacific island on the equator (where it felt like summer), to Washington, DC (where it was fall), to southernmost Chile (spring), to Antarctica (where it felt like winter) in a two-week period. I spent six weeks altogether in the Antarctic, where 10,000-year-old mountains of ice were retreating across the landscape at a shocking speed as penguins and other cold-weather species were fleeing southwards to escape a changing climate. It felt like visiting another planet, one which was essentially uninhabited and uninhabitable by humans, but teeming with wildlife—whales, seals, penguins, diatoms—that regarded our species with innocent indifference. I'd been looking forward to seeing a completely different pattern of stars in the night sky but was foiled by the fact that it never really got dark. One had to wear sun screen at all times, as the ozone hole—then at its record size—had stripped that part of the planet of most ultraviolet protection.
After completing Ocean's End, I began receiving more and more magazine assignments related to ocean policy, the environment, and climate change. I returned to the central Pacific, dove with whale sharks off Belize, explored the retreating glaciers of Iceland, the levees defending the Netherlands, and the wind farms of Denmark. But while traveling all over the world—often a different continent every month—I found myself thinking more and more about the coast of my native Maine. Its communities and people were being profoundly affected by the collapse of the marine ecosystem on which it depended and the rapid erosion and displacement of its homegrown culture in the face of a mass influx of wealthy people ‘from away’ and attendant suburbanization, gentrification, and homogenization. I was also in my mid-thirties, a time when we Mainers tend to return to our home state, salmon-like, to start our families or save them from what we perceive to be the foolishness and poor priorities of the rest of the country. Maine, it is said, is a special place, with a distinct people, culture, and values, and yet nobody had ever defined any of these concepts. What is special about it? What are the distinct features of its culture and what were the historical experiences that shaped them? What, indeed, does this mean for the coast's future and for the debates over what shape it should take? These were the questions I tackled in The Lobster Coast: Rebels, Rusticators, and the Struggle for a Forgotten Frontier (Viking, 2004), an exploration of the past, present, and future of coastal Maine that became a New England best seller and remains, three years later, an enormously popular book in Maine itself. The book also occasioned my move to Portland, Maine's largest city (population 65,000), where I met my future wife and where I am still living today.
Plumbing Maine's identity required that I delve into the colonial history of North America, a period I found
bizarre and compelling; it was completely unlike what I'd been taught in school, and spoke volumes about the way the United States evolved and the cultural and political divisions that afflict it to this day. The colonies, I learned, were, from the beginning, completely at odds with one another, founded by people from completely different strata of English (or French or Dutch) society, and whose leaders were pursuing contradictory agendas. These original divisions poisoned not only relations between Maine and Massachusetts (strained to this day), but between New England and the southern colonies, Catholic Maryland and Protestant Virginia, pacifist, Quaker Pennsylvania and the combative Scots-Irish families who poured into the colony's interior and, ultimately populated much of Appalachia and the interior South. I fantasized about writing a book about the colonial period that would somehow appeal to a mass audience and, in flailing around for vehicles, hit on the Golden Age pirates. They seemed a perfect vehicle: the subject of widespread popular interest, they operated in the early 1700s—smack in the middle of the colonial era—and their stories linked Europe, Africa, Mesoamerica, the Caribbean, and eastern North America. As I started researching their story, however, I found that their own story was as bizarre, surprising, and misunderstood as the times they lived in. Far from simple bandits, the pirates of 1715-1720—Blackbeard, Sam Bellamy, Charles Vane, and Anne Bonney to name but a few—were engaged in a social revolt against the ship-owning classes, one admired by perhaps the majority of common people on both sides of the Atlantic. Further, some were engaged in the great political struggle of the time, the effort to restore the House of Stuart to the British throne. From their base in the Bahamas, they governed themselves democratically, electing and deposing their captains by a popular vote, sharing their plunder equally, and welcoming runaway African and Indian slaves as equal members of their crews. Some referred to themselves as ‘Robin Hood's men."
It took two years to properly research their story. Most accounts one hears originate with the last comprehensive account of their activities, A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, published in London in 1724, while some of them were still alive. I soon found that the author—who was not Daniel Defoe, as asserted by generations of well-meaning librarians—had privileged access to diplomatic and military records and, while generally accurate, often embellished his accounts and made regular errors, confusing actions committed by one pirate crew with another, the sequence of events, and even the locations where they occurred. The effort to fact check A General History led me first to the voluminous (but often sloppy) scholarship that followed, then to the microfilms of period British and American newspapers, the published summaries of diplomatic and state papers held in the British National Archives, and, finally, to the archives themselves, now housed in Kew, outside London. There, with the help of a laptop and a digital camera, I found thousands of pages of Royal Navy logbooks, customs house registries, trial records, legal depositions, and the letters of military officers, governors, and other colonial officials. I did deep genealogical work on the pirates and (more fruitfully) those they came into contact with and traveled to London, Bristol, the Bahamas, Charleston, Cape Cod, Boston, and the North Carolina coast in search of experts, records, and settings. It was a treasure hunt or, more accurately, an effort to complete a very large jigsaw puzzle, only one that was shattered nearly three hundred years ago, its pieces lost or scattered about the world. I enjoyed the chase immensely and would probably still be at work on it, had there not been the publisher's deadlines to meet. The result was The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down (Harcourt, 2007) which, at this writing, is still on the ‘new non-fiction’ displays at the nation's bookstores.
I continue to work as a reporter, both here and abroad, and look forward to future book projects—historical, current events, perhaps even a novel—and what I hope will be a long and productive career.
Portland, Maine; July 2007.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, April 1, 2000, Donna Seaman, review of Ocean's End: Travels through Endangered Seas, p. 1418; May 1, 2004, Gilbert Taylor, review of The Lobster Coast: Rebels, Rusticators, and the Struggle for a Forgotten Frontier, p. 1539; April 15, 2007, Jay Freeman, review of The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down, p. 20.
Choice, November, 2000, review of Ocean's End, p. 563.
Christian Science Monitor, April 20, 2000, review of Ocean's End, p. 21.
E: The Environmental Magazine, July, 2000, review of Ocean's End, p. 60; July 1, 2004, Elizabeth Gartshore, review of The Lobster Coast, p. 59.
Economist, July 3, 2004, review of The Lobster Coast, p. 71.
Foreign Affairs, November, 2000, review of Ocean's End, p. 175.
Kirkus Reviews, March 1, 2007, review of The Republic of Pirates, p. 214.
Library Journal, April 15, 2000, Margaret Rioux, review of Ocean's End, p. 120; June 1, 2004, Duncan Stewart, review of The Lobster Coast, p. 155.
National Fisherman, April 20, 2000, Linc Bedrosian, review of The Lobster Coast, p. 21; June, 2001, Amanda Morgan, review of Ocean's End, p. 9.
New York Times Book Review, June 3, 2007, Stephan Talty, review of The Republic of Pirates, p. 28.
Publishers Weekly, April 3, 2000, review of Ocean's End, p. 74; April 19, 2004, review of The Lobster Coast, p. 55; March 5, 2007, review of The Republic of Pirates, p. 48.
Reference & Research Book News, August, 2007, review of The Republic of Pirates.
Sacramento Bee, May 30, 2007, Allen Pierleoni, review of The Republic of Pirates.
SciTech Book News, June, 2000, review of Ocean's End, p. 7.
Skin Diver, August, 2000, Michelle Danner, review of Ocean's End, p. 41.
Colin Woodard Home Page,http://www.colinwoodard.com (August 27, 2007), author biography.