Nature and trout: Computer science prof embraces outdoor writing

BRISTOL — A cabin on a lake in Montana in a national park. No cell phone. No Internet. Little company for most of the 25 days he’ll be there, except a solar-powered laptop and a mountain of research.
For some that might sound like punishment.
But Middlebury College computer science professor — and outdoors and nature writer — Matthew Dickerson considered it a prize to be sought.
Dickerson will spend June 6 through July 1 at Glacier National Park, surrounded by the Rocky Mountains as well as the metaphorical mountain of work of two book projects he plans to complete while staying in that cabin on picturesque Lake McDonald.
That’s because Glacier National Park picked Dickerson — for the past 20 years an Addison Independent outdoors columnist — as one of five of this year’s official park artists in residence. Those five were chosen out of 150 applicants, he said.
Dickerson, a 53-year-old Bristol resident, applied for four other residencies this summer, three in Alaska and another in Maine’s Acadia National Park; he has been turned down for two and is waiting to hear back on the others.
“I really didn’t expect to get any of them. They’re very competitive,” he said. “I’m delighted to get one.”
As well as working on the two books, Dickerson will make presentations to park staff and visitors and lead a public workshop.
But the books are central to his residency: His proposal was well received because it had a concrete outcome as well as being relevant to the park and the National Park Service mission.  
“One of the things the person in charge at GNP (Glacier National Park) said she appreciated about my application was that it had a really specific plan,” Dickerson said.
 One book, Dickerson said, will bring together in-progress works that focus on the preservation and importance of sites that include Glacier National Park and other national parks and forests in Alaska and Wyoming — and the Green Mountain National Forest.
 “It will be collection of essays, each set in a different place, about what I observed, what’s there,” Dickerson said. “What lives there? What are the threats in the place? What’s the beauty of the place? How is it fragile and how is it resilient? How have humans impacted it? How have they threatened it? How have they protected it?”
That book is as yet untitled.
“For me, writing is very much a process of learning,” he said. “I have to enter it with wonder, expectation, curiosity and be willing to be changed in the course of writing the book. I have to see how I’m changed before I pick a title.”
The second project focuses on cutthroat trout, a native Rocky Mountain species threatened by human encroachment.
“The second book will address some of the same issues, but with a much narrower lens,” he said. “It will be about where cutthroat trout live, where they have been extirpated, what the current threats are, places where they’re being restored, where there are hopeful stories, places where there are less hopeful stories.”
Essentially, Dickerson said, anglers have introduced preferred fish that have damaged the cutthroat population: Lake trout eat cutthroat trout, brook trout out-compete them, and rainbow trout interbreed with cutthroats, weakening their gene pool. Climate change and habitat loss are also threats, he added.
It’s a problem that goes beyond the trout species. For example, Dickerson said, osprey, grizzly bear and mink populations around Yellowstone Lake are suffering because of the introduction of lake trout, which have devastated the cutthroat numbers, but are not as suitable prey for those other species.
That book with a ready-made title — “Cutthroat Competition” — will target a different demographic, Dickerson said.
“People who might not read Thoreau, but might read a trout writer or a fly-fishing writer. Fishermen might pick this book up, but catch the same vision (of man’s impact on nature),” he said.
That Dickerson would end up at a national park writing about environmental issues almost seems inevitable. A Bolton, Mass., native, his love of the outdoors began at the age of 8 with a five-day journey with his father to northern Maine’s Allagash waterway. A family trip at the age of 15 to fish and hike in Colorado and New Mexico cemented his fascination with nature.
Dickerson recalled the Maine trip.
“It was just the beauty of being outdoors and not seeing other people, except one or two for five or six days, and seeing my first moose, eagles and osprey, and hearing a loon for the first time, hearing a bittern for the first time,” he said.  
Even though his academic aptitude pushed him toward math and science, books were never far away.
“I grew up doing a lot of reading. My mom was a literature teacher, and my dad ran a book store,” he said.
Dickerson attended Dartmouth College as a computer science major, but also took English classes.
“I had a phenomenal writing teacher,” he said. “I’d always been a reader, but I fell in love with writing about literature.”  
In graduate school at Cornell for computer science, he met a professor who had studied with J.R.R. Tolkien. Dickerson took classes and also taught a literature course with him. Environmental threads in the works of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis remain an inspiration, and in 1991 Dickerson wrote and had published a historical novel set in 7th-century Europe.
In 1997, the Independent recruited Dickerson to write a few fishing columns, and it became a regular twice-monthly gig. Dickerson said it broadened his writing horizon.
“I thought if I could expand it into an outdoor column I could write about camping, hunting, anything,” he recalled. “At about the same time I was getting interested in environmental literature in my computer science career. I was also moving more specifically toward work in environmental issues. So what began as a more traditional outdoor column, just writing about outdoor sports, took a little bit more of a turn toward nature writing and environmental writing.”
In 2008, he co-wrote with former student David O’Hara, “Downstream: Reflections on Brook Trout, Fly Fishing and the Waters of Appalachia.” That work wove the thoughts of C.S. Lewis into the years of observations made by both men on the state of Appalachian waterways from Georgia to Maine.
“That was my first work of creative nonfiction that bridged the gap between outdoor writing and also more traditional nature and environmental writing,” Dickerson said, adding, “That very much grew out of my outdoor writing for the Addison Independent.”
Dickerson has also written about 15 articles for eight magazines, work that increasingly trends toward an environmental take on outdoors writing as he becomes increasingly concerned about what he calls troubling trends.
 “(The administration) is not just threatening to get rid of things that have been so important for decades now, the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act, but it’s threatening to either sell off public lands or open them up for exploitation,” he said.  
The work for his Glacier National Park residency ties together all these elements, Dickerson said. 
“I’m getting to bring together some science and biology (and)… the creative aspect of being a narrative writer. There’s outdoor writing about something I really love, trout and fishing. And a lot of the writing is set in places that are just really beautiful and really inspiring to be,” Dickerson said. “It’s really nice to see all the different threads be woven together in one narrative.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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