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Straight, No Chaser -- As I Walked Down Beale Street

Higgins, Jonathan 11/21/2011

As I walked down Beale Street in Memphis during last month’s All-Science Conference (held in sort-of-nearby Olive Branch, Mississippi), I passed the larger clubs, where I would have heard familiar, often solid but generally overworked tunes played to audiences who are easily pleased or don’t care and wanted to drink and talk with their friends. I instead went to smaller, funkier clubs, where non-headliners and bands that looked like nothing you would see on a main stage pumped out soul music genius and tore some new and exciting riffs to small appreciative audiences that shook their stuff. The floors trembled and the walls shook. These musicians provided the Memphis sounds that grew out of Stax records, soul music that captured a new audience and changed how people moved.

To me, the different rewards between main-stage Beale Street and small-club Beale Street mirrored the conference. The plenary and symposia sessions addressed a range of topics from the familiar to some developing aspects of our work. Some were thought-provoking. They were important and generally well done; we all need to be part of the conversations around what was presented. There were the occasional brilliant lines thrown in, mostly from outsiders who were brought in to bend the chords — so to speak — to get a different sound moving in the room, to change the conversation a bit, to show new perspectives. The 90-second iMovie on Development by Design produced by Bruce McKenny’s young daughter is a must-see. Such things caught my ear. I’ve been at the Conservancy long enough to be tired of the same drumbeats.

Then came the late hours of Wednesday afternoon, which held close to 40 short talks and dozens of posters that presented the conference’s non-headliners in small and hard to find venues — and provided many of the gems that should have been heard by a wider audience. Exciting ideas and actual data were shown by individuals, representing everything from projects to global programs. Just some of the things I loved: Evaluations of costs and potential outcomes from alternative interventions; adaptive management decisions based on innovative data-driven risk models; a variety of measures needs and frameworks and ways to communicate them; and of course, all of the freshwater work which is dear to my heart.  And these were the few things I was able to see from the many venues active at once in a period of time that added up to less than one morning plenary session.

Many of these presentations offered new beats, chords, and orchestration and got the dance floor started. I saw people engaged, enlightened and enthralled.

There is a lot of great music being made in the world — and at The Nature Conservancy, especially off the main stage. The question is: Are we listening, or do we just want to talk with our friends?

Image credit: Thomas Hawk/Flickr

‘Straight, No Chaser’ is an irregular (if not downright odd) column exclusive to Chronicles by Jonathan Higgins.