I grew up in Dover-Foxcroft, Maine, on a back-to-the-land farm. We heated our house with wood and for a time we used a horse to pull the logs out of the woods. Later we got an old tractor with a PTO that could be connected to a hydraulic wood splitter. My sister Becky and I had flocks of sheep and a small business selling yarn, among other schemes to make money. I left the farm for Yale, then for Africa, Asia, and finally–from 1993-2012–San Francisco and Oakland, California. Over the years I did construction, waited on tables, cleaned fish, and taught English.
I started doing journalism in 1993 as an intern at Pacific News Service, and for several years I did a lot of work on oral histories of immigrant kids and the Pacific Rim. I also used oral histories as a way of writing about internet start ups for POV, how technology would change the culture of San Francisco for San Francisco Magazine, women’s rights for Jane, and Hungarian filmmakers for a fellowship from the Sundance Institute.
While writing for Jane I went to Saddam’s birthday in Iraq and almost immediately afterwards I went to Alaska, where I visited the Gwich’in town of Arctic Village and then went to Prudhoe Bay. Both Iraq and Alaska were dominated by oil, and I started to think about how my life in the Bay Area, where buying gas for my pickup truck was a nuisance, connected via pipeline to people in Iraq and the north of Alaska. That lead me to write Oil On the Brain, for which I hung out along the oil supply chain from a local gas station to an Iranian oil platform near the Straits of Hormuz, and everywhere in between. Including the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
Seeing the destructive unfairness of our oil supply chain–and the passivity of American consumers–made me want to understand and influence the policies that keep us from changing. From 2006 through 2012 I was with the New America Foundation, first as an Irvine Fellow, and then as the director of their energy initiative.
In 2007 I met some scientists studying termites, which started me on almost a decade of following these crazy bugs and the people who study them. I now live in Maine, and I am deputy editor at Zocalo Public Square, an Arizona State University magazine of ideas that is based in LA. Underbug: An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Technology, will come out on August 21, 2018.
I took the photo above while I was standing the first of three lines at the Brooklyn DMV–before I moved to Maine. I wish I had bought a pen but I was very goal-oriented that day.
On Twitter I’m @lisamargonelli.
You can contact me here.
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