Email Auto-Replies: Bring Your ‘A’ Game

Yesterday, Tim Herrera of the New York Times posted an article about email auto replies which, after soliciting submissions, included a number of reader entries.

That this simple article elicited enough of a reaction for me to write a rebuttal of sorts is somewhat surprising: we’re talking about email auto replies here. But my point is that an opportunity was missed. Most submissions were, quite frankly, banal.  Auto replies are inherently boring and mechanical–why not inject a little creativity into them?

I’m not saying everybody should do it–auto replies would become tedious very quickly if the quirky autoreply became the norm–but I do think it’s a shame that New York Times readers whiffed on the opportunity to display some ingenuity.

Find below a sample of my email auto-replies from the past few years. My key points are  places and dates–those have to be included and factual. Any other details are at the mercy of whatever comes into my brain as I stare at the blank auto reply screen.


May 21-June 6, 2015: I will be leading an ethnographic expedition to the southern Russian Far East from May 21-June 6, 2015 to explore patterns of Dutch colonization and seek the lost city of Hotte. Please accept my apologies for any delays in correspondence that result.

July 21-August 4, 2015: Jonathan Slaght got on the wrong plane and ended up on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. Given his lack of local savvy and an impeding series of cultural misunderstandings, it is likely he will not find his way out until August 4th. Thank you for your patience.

Feb 11-March 10, 2016: Jonathan Slaght, sweaty, tired, and not paying attention, is probably about to fall into a river while looking for fish owls in Russia. Email access between now and the middle of March will be spotty, at best, and he will likely be wet and cold. Thank you for your understanding.

Jan 7-Jan 23, 2017: Jonathan Slaght, in the middle of a Jan 04-23 trip that includes the Bronx Zoo, a conference in Singapore, and inter-tidal mudflats in Myanmar, is trying to understand why he thought he could fit all he needed into a single carry on.

Feb 14-March 01, 2017: Jonathan Slaght, having decoded a mysterious message engraved on a ring bequeathed to him by a wealthy stranger, is following the clues. His journey will take him to the exotic Russian Far East where, between February 14th and March 1st, he will face grave dangers unlike any he has ever seen. Obviously, his replies to your emails may be delayed.


So come on! Have a little fun every now and then. Your bored co-workers will thank you.

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Fish Owl Book: Forthcoming!

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A baffled fish owl, just before release, in the hands of Sergei Avdeyuk with me looking on.

I’m excited to announce that I’ve accepted an offer from the publishing house Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (FSG) to work on a book about my experiences with fish owls in Russia. FSG is a highly respected publisher with giants such as John McPhee, Tom Wolfe, Jonathan Franzen, and TS Eliot listed among their authors. I’ll be working on this with FSG editor Amanda Moon and literary agent Diana Finch.

The book will focus on my first five years of working with Russian colleagues to study Blakiston’s fish owls, from knowing nothing about this cryptic species to unlocking the secrets needed to protected them. The book will be told in the same vein as my East of Siberia series at Scientific American: driven by wildlife encounters and conservation, but rich with descriptions of the places I visited, the people I worked with, and the colorful characters I encountered along the way.

Stay tuned! A lot more to come….

For Fans of the Home Team

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Discussing “Across the Ussuri Kray” in Vladimir Arsenyev’s dining room.

I was in Vladivostok, Primorye earlier this week where I had the pleasure to conduct a pair of interviews with local television stations about Vladimir Arsenyev and my translation of his 1921 classic “Across the Ussuri Kray.”

The first interview took place at Arsenyev’s home in Vladivostok–now a museum–and was conducted at his dining room table. It was a humbling experience to be talking about this influential figure, among his belongings, in the house where he died in 1930.

The second interview was a few blocks away, at the natural history museum where Arsenyev worked, a place that has been called the Arsenyev Museum since 1945.

People in Vladivostok (and across all of Primorye) are fiercely proud of Arsenyev and his contributions to understanding the cultural and natural histories of the region. He is a hometown hero, someone whose name is synonymous with Primorye’s wilderness and identity.

My translation is not for sale in Russia, so my purpose with these interviews was not to sell books. Rather, I sought to show Primorye residents that Arsenyev’s influence reaches beyond the Russian Far East. That the hometown hero has fans abroad.

Full video is here, both in Russian: (1) Interview 1: OTV; (2) Interview 2: VestiPrimorye