Last week, I hit a wall with the writing. I found myself up against a self-imposed deadline, stressed out, and despising my writing process. It wasn’t the first week that the writing wasn’t easy, but it was by far the worst yet. I had lost track of the inspiration that makes my writing meaningful to me.

It’s not entirely surprising. Since before I began this blog in June, I have known that there’s something supremely ironic about this format. I write because I love the natural world, its patterns, and its mysteries. These stories fascinate me – and I love sharing them with people. But currently, my writing process involves two days a week of sitting in front of a screen: writing, editing, resizing and uploading photos, sending out email updates, doing social media, and dealing with spam. All of that so that you, my readers, can spend a few precious hours of your week sitting in front of a screen, too, reading this – when really, we’d both rather be outside.

At best, it’s a bit convoluted.

If this work is going to be meaningful – if it’s going to inspire you, be enjoyable for me, and provide a service to our communities – then I’ve realized that something needs to change. In fact, several somethings need to change.

Time to reflect

Kelly Island, near Missoula, Montana.
One of the side channels at Kelly Island, near Missoula, Montana.

Last weekend, in need of some time to reflect, I went to one of my favorite places in Missoula: Kelly Island, near the confluence of the Clark Fork and Bitterroot Rivers. For me, it’s a place where it’s easy to remember the awe I feel at the vastness and beauty of the world. Even in August, the water is cold and the current is powerful. It eddies and pulses and always flows past, bound for the Pacific. Cottonwoods cast patches of shade over the wild mint and sneezeweed that grow on the smooth gravels at the water’s edge. 

It’s a naturalist’s paradise. There are beaver dams in the side channels, Lewis’s woodpeckers and eastern kingbirds flycatching overhead. There are massive ponderosa pines and full-grown cottonwoods. All of these trees have stood rooted here for more years than I’ve been alive on this planet.

I watched a deer come down to the water where the common mergansers were fishing, a well-organized squadron of frothy white splashes. But on this day I wasn’t documenting. No voice notes to transcribe for a blog post. I didn’t take hundreds of photos to sort through later. I didn’t even write down the birds I saw. And gradually, I could feel my love for this place bubbling up again as I sat here along the riverbank, not as a scientist but just as an imperfect human, asking what I could do differently.

Less of a production

I realized a few things from this day. First, I’ve been treating each week’s blog post like a production. I’ve been trying to capture the full, present-tense experience of a day in the field, trying to share that with you as if you’re there. And I think that’s been good, but I’m starting to get burned out. I’m losing sight of the inspiration that motivated me in the first place.

So this fall, I’m going to be trying to spend more time in the field each week, wondering – and less time sitting in front of a screen, trying to capture every minute detail of it. Many of these weekly posts are going to transition from full-length, intensive productions to shorter vignettes: stories that catch my imagination, inspire me, and hopefully do the same for you.

I’m not going to abandon the feature-length pieces entirely – I think they’re valuable, too. But I’ll no longer be writing one of them every single week.

Reconnecting with place

Second, my day at Kelly Island reminded me how much I love being a place-based naturalist. If I lived in Missoula, I would try to revisit Kelly Island every week. To get to know an area like the back of my hand, to see it changing from week to week: it’s a deep source of wonder and joy for me. I love getting familiar with the animals that live in a place, their dens and trails. I love seeing the plants and their flowering cycles, the migrations of the birds, the way that every day something is different. When I have a spot like this in nature that I can visit again and again, I feel grounded in the place where I live.

For the past five and a half years, Sevenmile Creek has been this sort of place for me. And I’ll continue to maintain a connection with this spot. But I’ve realized that, if I am going to write about a place like this regularly, it needs to be somewhere with public access: where you, my readers, can also be part of the conversation and story. It needs to be somewhere close to where I live, so that I won’t be burning extra gas to visit it regularly. And in this dry climate, the presence of water is essential for so many plants and animals – so I’d like my naturalist spot to be near water.

Spokane Bay?

 Spokane Creek just upstream of Spokane Bay.
Spokane Creek just upstream of Spokane Bay. I took this photo on September 20, 2020.

Where? I considered the Helena Valley Regulating Reservoir, but I don’t think I can stand the mid-summer mosquitoes. That makes the Regulating Reservoir not-so-ideal for year-round revisits. The Upper Prickly Pear Fishing Access Site is another option, and I drive past it frequently, but it’s a rather small site without a wide diversity of habitats.

At this point, the place I’m thinking of is Spokane Bay, an extensive patch of BLM land near where Spokane Creek flows into Hauser Lake. Near the eastern edge of the Helena Valley, it’s already an eBird hotspot, but it’s under-birded compared to many popular locations around Helena. In fact, it appears that no one has looked at birds here during September and October, when such a flood of migrant songbirds are passing through our area on their way south. During the warm season, I’ll be able to get here by kayak. And there’s a steep trail in need of maintenance that I can use for access when the lake is too cold for kayaking.

I’m excited, once again, to ground my naturalist observations in getting to know one place. This grounding is something that I haven’t felt this summer as I’ve jumped to a different site each week for my writing. Don’t worry – I’ll still be featuring a variety of places in the blog. But from now on, expect to start hearing more about life through the seasons in one special place near me – and most likely, that place will be Spokane Bay.

Starting a podcast

I’ve also been thinking about you, my readers. I keep asking myself: of those who might enjoy these stories, how many people actually have time to sit down in front of a screen each week and read through them? I know you all are busy. And as I’ve discussed with many of you, we’re flooded with information. I barely find time to stay current on the most-pressing world news – and yet, I’m spending a large portion of each week adding more stories to this overwhelm, hoping that you’ll somehow have time to read and enjoy them.

I’ve been asking myself, What if people could access these stories without having to stare at a screen? That’s why I’m starting a podcast to go along with this blog. It’s going to be very simple, minimally produced: just me reading these stories out loud, so that you can listen to them instead of reading them.

Earlier this week, I figured out the details and recorded the first episode. The What’s Going On Out There? podcast is now available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and most other listening platforms. (Once an article is podcasted, I’ll also embed the audio at the top of the post for easy access.) Over the next few weeks, I’ll be recording all of this summer’s blog posts and getting caught up to the present. Once I’m there, expect a new podcast weekly. I’m hoping that this format will make these stories accessible to more people and give you options to reduce your weekly screen time. Meanwhile, once I’m caught up, I’m hoping it will only add another hour to my computer time each week.

Why I write

The two best things about writing this summer have been the amazing experiences in nature and the wonderful conversations with all of you. All of this – the blog, the podcast, the naturalist work in the community – is an experiment. If it continues in the long term, it’s going to be because I’m reaching people, sharing inspiration, and starting conversations – and because I’m enjoying the process. Writing is a solo endeavor, but the only reason it’s meaningful is because people are reading it and benefitting from it. Through this year, I’ll keep reflecting and making adjustments in hopes of finding a process that works for me and works for you.

As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts and ideas – either via the comments here, or even better, in person. Thanks again for being part of this adventure. And if you think of folks who don’t have time to read a blog about nature but who might love the podcast, please pass it on to them.

– Shane Sater

8 Replies to “Changes in the air: confronting burnout, starting a podcast”

  1. I sure can relate to the burnout on the writing part. And if you are not feeling connected to the outside the writing part suffers too. Best of luck restoring that balance. Looking forward to seeing how the new format works. I’m really enjoying what you have done so far.

    1. Thank you, Scot! Very glad you’re enjoying it – I’m also looking forward to seeing how these changes with the writing go. As you say, hopefully they’ll give me better balance with it.

  2. I have been very aware of how much work you must be putting in to your writing every week. I have enjoyed it immensely, even though I don’t always comment. I think you should do whatever it takes to make it enjoyable for you. I would be just as happy to read shorter articles. If you are enjoying what you are doing, it will be reflected in your work, just as if you are burned out. You are truly a gifted writer and you have a wonderful ability to teach. That was one of the first things I noticed about you. When I ask you questions, you are able to explain things to me in terms I understand, but without making me feel stupid for asking. Your posts help us realize there is a lot going on right here around us, not just “out there somewhere.”
    Thank you for educating people and bringing awareness about the bigger picture all around us. Your blog posts have made me more aware of the life all around me when I’ve been out in my garden. I can’t thank you enough for being a part of the solution.

    1. Shanna, thanks so much for your kind and supportive words. I’m so happy that this writing is inspiring you in that way – that’s everything I hope it will do! It’s such a joy to be able to share a wonder at the world around us. Thanks for being part of that.

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