Sierra Murdoch, Writing the Gritty Truth

First in a Series on my Mesa Refuge Cohorts

Here’s a young writer to watch: Sierra Murdoch.

I met Sierra at Mesa Refuge, where we shared meals, stories, laughs, and a love of tea trays. We commiserated about the perils of writing, and encouraged each other to keep going. She inspired me with her focus and stamina—often the first one to get to work in the morning and last one still at it after supper.

Sierra Murdoch. Photo taken at writing residency, Banff Centre for the Arts, 2012.

Sierra Murdoch. Photo taken at writing residency, Banff Centre for the Arts, 2012.

Her project was a long article about a childhood cancer cluster in a small Nevada town. She conducted extensive research in the months leading up to our time at Mesa Refuge.

Sierra’s first foray into journalism was as a 2009-10 Middlebury Fellow in Environmental Journalism. For a little over a year, she lived in Wise County, VA, where more than a third of the county had been stripped by mountaintop removal coal mining. Sierra wrote about retired union coal miners fighting mountaintop removal, which was polluting wells, causing flooding, and destroying forests and streams.

Mountaintop Removal, Wise County, VA, via flickr Commons. Photo by David Hoffman

Mountaintop Removal, Wise County, VA, via flickr Commons. Photo by David Hoffman

Since 2011, she’s been on staff at High Country News, a well-respected magazine about the environment of the American West. Her biggest project there, and also for The Atlantic, chronicled the economic and social impacts of oil development on a Native American tribe living in the middle of the Bakken oil field—and a growing culture of violence against women there.

“I’m most drawn to communities living in extracted landscapes,” she says.

We had many conversations, but one in particular stands out. I told Sierra how much I admire activists who hold the line against things like mountaintop removal. The same goes for journalists like her who write about tough stuff, the gritty truth.

I sometimes feel guilty that I write feel-good stories of people building the new world while corporate giants prey on vulnerable communities and ecosystems. Aren’t I sort of slacking, happily profiling what’s going right, when there are so many wrongdoings to be exposed? Do I need to spend more time on a bullhorn instead of a cozy little blog?

But Sierra had a different take on it. She pointed out that the feel-good stories are nourishing not only to “the movement,” but also to people deeply invested in the status quo. These folks are usually turned off by angry protests. They might associate corporate actions with jobs and a way of life. So they feel threatened by protesters, disgusted with media attention.

Photo by D.D. Meighen, via flickr Commons

Photo by D.D. Meighen, via flickr Commons

“But the coal miner’s wife might like to go to the farmers market,” Sierra said. “She might want to garden, and she might like to be involved in community projects too.” Perhaps hearing about a group quietly working toward greater community resilience will bring her into the tribe. (Surely we need all stripes of people in this tribe now.)

This made me feel better.

Sierra is thoughtful, disciplined, kind, and curious—traits that make an excellent journalist. She radiates integrity. I can imagine that her subjects would trust her implicitly.

I look forward to watching her accomplish great things in years to come.

2 thoughts on “Sierra Murdoch, Writing the Gritty Truth

  1. Shawndra, you are one of the many ‘torch-bearers” – showing the way forward…yeah, we’ve got to have a balance between the smile and the frown though. It’s all inspiring though, isn’t it – and there are many ‘fronts’ in this transitional time.

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