StoryCorps in the Valley: An Environmental Writing Career

Jun 28, 2021

Chris Bolgiano and Janet Wright
Credit StoryCorps

As part of WMRA’s partnership with StoryCorps in the Shenandoah Valley and Central Virginia, we’re sharing a conversation today between environmental writer and advocate Chris Bolgiano and her friend, Janet Wright.

The conversation begins with Chris Bolgiano discussing how she began her writing career.

CHRIS: I was a faculty member at what became James Madison University. Library were faculty there, and there was publisher or perish pressure. And I started writing library articles. I wrote four or five, got them published, and I really enjoyed it. I really enjoyed the research. I really enjoyed the writing, and boy I really enjoyed getting published. So after 7 years, I did get tenure and I immediately resigned.

JANET: [Laugh]

CHRIS: When I quite my full-time job, JMU very graciously hired me part time, and that's what kept me from starving, being the typical starving writer, was I worked part-time for 25 years. But I never made any real writing connections and the only reason I got a book published was ‘cause an editor wrote me out of the blue.

JANET: And yet you're one of the best writers that I know.

CHRIS: That’s ‘cause you're my friend, dear.

JANET: No. No. No way, huh-uh.

CHRIS: You know, I got a letter in the mail one day. I had written about cougars, mountain lions, pumas… they're all the same animal. And I had written some articles. And I got a letter one day from an editor at Stackpole Books, it's now Rowman and Littlefield. And she said, “I read your articles would you be interested in writing a book?” Well let me tell you, that doesn't happen very often… I don't know any other writer that’s ever happened to. I hadn't even thought about writing a book.

JANET: So your first book was about mountain lions…

CHRIS: Yes, An Unnatural History of Pumas and People. And then my second book was called the, The Appalachian Forest, ‘cause I live in Appalachia. My husband and I by that time had bought this 112 acres we live on now, way out in rural Appalachia. And I being a history major and unable to understand anything unless I know how it got to be that way, I started looking at the history of the forest. And so that got me into my second book. Then my third book was, Living in the Appalachian Forest, which was about sustainable forestry. Because at that time, we were faced with, well how are we going to manage this land? What does it mean to be a good steward? What does it mean to be sustainable? And what was my fourth book… Oh, the fourth book was the photography book with James Valentine, a really very fine photographer. And then there were two books I edited. One on the American chestnut for the American Chestnut Foundation. And the other on the Eastern Cougar. Not just sightings, you know, actual scientific evidence. So I guess those are the six books.

JANET: So what are you working on right now?

CHRIS: Well, you know, I did this talk for my watershed group. It was a talk about forest history and how that history affects us today. We would have friends come out, and we'd walk into the forest. And we do adjoin the George Washington National Forest, which is the biggest national forest in the east, 1.1 million acres right out our back door. And we'd go walking and people would look around and see it had been logged, and burned, and grazed, and eroded. Which is the reason that we have National Forests. Because the land was so badly degraded that the floods were killing thousands of people… all that dirt that was eroded away went down river. First it was trapped in Mill Dams… 65,000 Mill Dams minimum in 1840 in the Eastern United States. The sediment ended up there. Well those Mill Dams are long gone. So that sediment is traveling downstream today. It is the single worst problem for the Chesapeake Bay. Sediment, which carries nitrogen and phosphorus, those are the three biggest problems in the Chesapeake Bay today. And the vast majority of that problem is because of what happened 100 and 200 years ago. Very few people in this country realize that.

JANET: I didn't realize it, and probably would have still never heard about it, if it had been for your writings. What about your writing… where do you see it going from here?

CHRIS: Well, at 72 you know, I um… I don't have the energy or drive I used to. I guess I would like to write another book. And it would be about the commons, and the title would be, We Have Everything in Common, Except Ideas. Because everything we breathe, everything we eat, everything a human being does is part of the commons. Except what's in the brain, you know.

JANET: How… I can ask this since we're both now in our seventies and have had time to think about some of these things. How would you like to be remembered?

CHRIS: Uhh… gosh. Someone who tried I guess.

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Learn More about Sediment Issues in the Chesapeake Bay

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