These posts are written by Bill Chaisson, a freelance editor and writer and a bookseller at Bunch of Grapes Bookstore on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. Until October 2016 Chaisson was the managing editor of the Ithaca Times, the weekly newspaper in the eponymous small city/collegetown in upstate New York. He formerly worked as a reporter and arts editor for the Times, and before that was a reporter and editor for the Finger Lakes Community Newspapers, which includes the Trumansburg Free Press and eight other small-town newspapers. The newspaper staff have a radio show called “Shin Hollow Radio” on 93.5 WVBR-FM in Ithaca on the first and third Sundays of each month at 6 p.m. Chaisson has a weekly radio program on WRFI-FM (wrfi.org) called Land & People, which covers a lot of the same ground as this blog.
Chaisson has also volunteered as a docent at the Laboratory of Ornithology of Cornell University, leading bird walks about twice a month. He was on the board of the Cayuga Nature Center, a local non-profit that runs natural history camps and educational programs, until it merged with the Paleontological Research Institution.
Chaisson first became interested in natural history at age 11 when his family moved into an old house in Dutchess County, New York. In a pile of trash discarded by the previous owners, he found a worn copy of Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to Birds. The house overlooked the Hudson River and much of the land between the hilltop property and the river consisted of abandoned industrial and residential lots. He spent much of his adolescence roaming that area, learning his birds and trees and the rhythms of seasonal change.
He selected the colleges to apply to based on whether or not they had an ornithology course. At St. Lawrence University he majored in both biology and English writing. Although his advisor was biology professor Ken Crowell and he was the teaching assistant to several courses in that department, he graduated with a degree in English. He had skipped a number of prerequisites for the biology degree while taking liberal arts courses and spending a semester abroad in Copenhagen.
After college he worked as an interpreter and “island manager” on Great Brewster Island in what was then Boston Harbor Islands State Park. His time on the island was a constant alternation between being Robinson Crusoe and a traffic cop. He stayed on in Boston, working for Greenpeace and taking the prerequisites in physics and chemistry that he had skipped as an undergrad.
After an abortive attempt at a Ph.D. program in biology at BU, he moved to New York and entered a Ph.D program at NYU. After finishing his required coursework in a major (evolution and ecology) and a minor (biochemistry and microbiology), he left to start a Ph.D. in geology at UMass Amherst.
During his first two years at UMass he passed his comprehensive exams at NYU and was awarded his master’s degree, worked in a wetland mapping unit in the forestry department, spent a summer counting anadromous fish on the Connecticut River and began hosting music radio programs on the university station, WMUA-FM.
Chaisson’s advisor at UMass, Mark Leckie, is an expert in planktonic foraminifera, and as a basis for his dissertation, Chaisson began going out to sea to collect oceanic mud, which is filled with these sand-sized shells. His interest in natural history lay dormant for several years, as it was regarded as of no importance to paleoceanographic or paleontologic work.
Funding for research came fitfully and dried up entirely at one point. Chaisson spent 1993 working in a bank office and the receiving unit of a hospital in Rochester, New York. Then in February 1994 he got a berth on a research cruise to the tropical Atlantic (Ocean Drilling Program Leg 154). This experience and funding precipitated a series of events that led to his finishing his degree in 1996.
After a brief spell at the Paleontological Research Institution in Ithaca, New York, he got a year long post-doctoral appointment at UC Santa Cruz. Unfortunately (for him) his advisor followed her husband on an research appointment in Israel for the year and his planned research did not materialize. He moved back to Rochester and landed a non-tenure track position at the University of Rochester. He received a half-salary for teaching a full load and was required to raise the other half of his salary in grant money. After five years of limited success, he quit academia.
Looking for an investment, he and his wife purchased a large old house in Trumansburg, New York and opened a bed and breakfast in November 2003. The business opened in February 2004. He began writing free-lance pieces for the local newspapers and in 2006 became a full time reporter. In 2007 he became the managing editor.
In March 2008, in a misguided attempt to make more money and bring science back into his life, he became a technical writer for a pharmaceutical testing lab. The climate controlled building put his heretofore unidentified mold allergies into overdrive and the worker-bee mentality rapidly became oppressive. After eight months he returned to journalism.