by Whit Gibbons

April 26, 2009

I have two environmental suggestions for this week. As almost everyone who likes to breathe clean air knows, Earth Day was April 22. But one day is not enough. We should celebrate Earth Day year-round, from the time we wake up until we go to sleep, all day, every day. After all, we want a clean, healthy, and enjoyable environment all the time, not just one day a year. So my first suggestion is that we start celebrating Earth Year and make Earth Day something we did last century.

Many people already have the Earth Year attitude and contribute to making our environment safe, healthy, and pleasant in myriad ways. One of my favorite activities, which I hope is a contribution, is to answer questions that help people become familiar with the intriguing array of life forms and ecological interactions that exist in the world. The complexity of both exotic and everyday plants and animals is fascinating, and I applaud everyone who wants to learn more about the natural world. So my contribution to Earth Year is to answer questions and respond to opinions related to environmental awareness and appreciation.

I am not able to check my email account every day but I do try to respond to all queries eventually. Of course, if your question is like this one--"I have a copperhead coiled up on my front porch. Should I let the dog and children play in the yard?"--my answer may be too late to help you. Sorry.

But the timeliness of my responses is not the issue. My point is that the basic elements of any email from a polite and reasonably intelligent person should include who you are and where you are. So my next suggestion, which I have made before, is that people who have environmental queries exercise at least minimal email etiquette.

I like to be responsive to the people who write me. But how much time should I invest in an email that says, in its entirety, "I would like to know how to raise catfish. Please respond as soon as possible." I did send the anonymous writer from an anonymous place the URL for a Web site on catfish. Should I have done even that? Another one that is more frequent than I care to remember runs something like this: "I am doing a report for class and would like for you to send everything you can about ecology and the environment. My report is due tomorrow. Sparky." These are the kinds of emails I like to open a day late.

And how should I respond to "I saw a black snake crossing the street. What is it?" No herpetologist could give a definitive answer without knowing--at the very least--what continent you live on. The list of problematic emails I have received goes on and on. But it's time to bring this rant to a close and offer some simple guidelines for composing an email in which you are asking someone for information or advice.

1. First rule: Give your name and, if appropriate, your affiliation with a school or organization.

2. Indicate where you live. Remember that with most emails someone only knows what planet you live on. An important clue for identifying some plants and animals is specific location. If you are requesting information about a topic for an academic project, identify the course you are taking and where you go to school.

3. Plan for the possibility that you may have to wait a few days for a response.

4. Write your message in English, not Internet acronyms, and take time to proofread it before you press "send."

So, those are my two suggestions. First, one day is not enough to honor the earth and all its glories. Let's celebrate Earth Year, each day, all day long. Second, I commend everyone who wants to learn about animals, plants, and ecology. Just remember to follow the simple rules of email etiquette outlined above to ensure that you get a helpful answer in a timely fashion.

If you have an environmental question or comment, email

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