Posts by Gabe

I did it again. I waited, and spring has sprung; it’s racing away from me now, every day slipping closer to the dreary green monotony of summer. I try to grasp what’s left of this precious period of potential not yet tainted, but it slips like sand through fingers. But have I really tried? I’ve made feints, pausing to view a wildflower here or a tree bud there, but then I’ve gotten distracted, pulled back into the seasonless world of the Internet and the crush of coronavirus news and commentary. And now I’ve missed so much.

This problem predates the pandemic, or the Internet. “It is spring,” Annie Dillard wrote in 1974 in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. “I plan to try to control myself, to watch the progress of the season in a calm and orderly fashion.” Even the great Annie Dillard failed. “In April I walked to the Adams’ woods. The grass had greened one morning when I blinked; I missed it again.”

It started with the maples, or so it seemed to me, refusing to respect winter and decorating themselves with red flowers even in January, when I wasn’t ready. By March, still precocious in the extreme, they were making seeds. From up close the seed pods take on the helicopter-blade shapes familiar to children, but from afar they blend into poofs of radical color in an otherwise dun forest. I’ve been struck this year by the maples’ expansive palette, as though providing color strips for the rest of the woods to emulate. When we learn trees, we learn species: around here, maples are mainly red, with some silver mixed in. But embedded in those seemingly monolithic biological categories is an ocean of genetic variation, further enhanced by the horticulture industry with its Autumn Blaze, Red Sunset and so on. Moreover, apparently, red and silver maple can—and do—interbreed. Thanks to this genetic melange, maple seed coats’ hues smear right across the warm half of the color palette, from pale yellow through ochre, salmon and ruby to a deep, dark magenta. Driving these days, with maples shouting from every roadside, you could forget yourself and think it were fall.

We must seek variety where we can these days. Look at the beeches right now. Some have fully leafed out; others are clad in pastel leaflets delicate as a child’s peach fuzz—charming, naïve impressions of the real thing. Still others (though few now) cling to last year’s brittle leaves like so much tissue paper. I saw a beech the other day that was half leaves and flowers, and half still buds. Truly, the right hand seemed to know not what the left was doing. (That tree has since joined the fully leafed.)

There’s a redbud out back that some thoughtful past owner or landscaper made the centerpiece of my yard. I’m not sure I’ve seen a more perfect tree more perfectly placed. A few weeks ago, as it does every year, it exploded purply. Producing flowers from outer limbs isn’t enough; it adorns its main branches down to the trunk. I learned a few years ago that these flowers are edible; every year my yard makes me a salad bar. I nibble a few in moments of whimsy. Now they’re all but gone, replaced by tiny twinned heart-shaped leaflets that will soon broaden into the summer canopy. The flowering was almost a total waste. Not really, of course; the bees got their snack and took it somewhere, and I suppose the tree got what it needed from the bees and will later drape itself in bean-shaped seed pods, though I never see redbud sprouts in my yard or elsewhere in the urban landscape; why not?

Have you noticed how red is all around us? Leaves of oaks and cherries, serviceberries and blueberries, Virginia creeper and poison ivy, arrive on the scene as tiny, blood-hued versions of their future selves. The plants, apparently, have not been dormant as they seemed; they’ve been busy manufacturing pigments: red anthocyanins; yellow and orange carotenoids.

Red revealed: poison ivy and oak

Protection from external threats is the topic of the day. Plants go about their self-protective business with less fanfare. You may recognize their protective pigments chemicals as those immune-boosting antioxidants we’re told to consume in the form of cabbages, beets and carrots, or, if you prefer, supplement pills. Whether they actually survive digestion and are distributed to our cells is debatable, but for plants their utility is clear: they shelter leaves’ DNA from the sun’s high-energy UV rays. Not all plants produce anthocyanins, but all produce carotenoids, hence why so many leaves come in and go out gold, as Robert Frost noted, bracketing the long months of chlorophyllous green.

Speaking of which, outside my bedroom/office is a curious sight. The Spanish oak that’s actually rooted in the neighboring yard, but that drapes a limb nonchalantly near my window, has completed its drab flowering (oaks are wind pollinated, so need not bedazzle insects nor us) and the spent catkins hang like crusty beards needing a trim. Sperm and egg have met and retreated to some secret place to build acorns. Meanwhile, pale yellow leaves have emerged and droop flaccidly. The tree looks positively sick, though I know it will soon right itself and take on a robust summer green.

Dillard noted the excess of trees’ yearly orgy of production and destruction. “Nature is, above all, profligate. Don’t believe them when they tell you how economical and thrifty nature is, whose leaves return to the soil. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to leave them on the tree in the first place? This deciduous business alone is a radical scheme, the brainchild of a deranged manic-depressive with limitless capital. Extravagance!”

Green leaves are everywhere now; I feel personally insulted. How dare trees decide that spring is finished? I wasn’t consulted. I would have ordered a halt, so I could observe all its parts. If human life is frozen, why should nature get a pass? I need a week at least to take in each emergence, each blossoming. Instead, while I was lying on the ground watching bees play in bluebells or fragile may apples sway, my maple dumped its seeds and unfurled its leaves, which now wave in the air, green as June, taunting me.

A few trees are indulging my delinquency, offering a reprieve. My front yard walnut’s bulging buds foretell almost unspeakable possibilities, but it’s being coy for now—always the last to emerge in spring and the first to shed in fall, yet managing an almost unequaled growth spurt within that short window. I still don’t understand how the huge compound leaves I know are coming could be bundled so tightly. The persimmons still hibernate, as does the elm out front. (Larger elms already made and shed seeds, but this one is still a juvenile.) Red oaks race ahead but white oaks linger, except when it’s the opposite.

Why don’t all leaves appear at once? Apparently part of the answer is that leafing out too early can be dangerous. Leaves require water, so trees run pipes from soil to canopy. Some trees, such as oaks, have big pipes that can rupture if frozen. So they tend to wait until the danger of a deep freeze has passed. Others, like maples, have smaller, less fragile pipes, so they get going earlier. I oversimplify, obviously—among the oaks alone I see weeks of variability—but the point is, trees have evolved different solutions to the biophysical problems of living that allow—or force them into—different strategies.

The little beech sapling I planted last fall under the old maple, to take the crusty giant’s place someday (I claim, as if I am really so far-sighted), has finally rid itself of the last of its pale leaves. But its buds are still wrapped tight in spearlike brown sheaths, just pale green tips visible, poised between old year and new, as we are now wrapped inside our walls, fearing danger if we emerge too soon.

* * *

I am, of course, writing this under the pall of coronavirus. I usually make observations of plants during springtime, but furtively and rushed, amid all the busy-ness of work, social engagements and so on. This spring, much of the busy-ness has been lifted. Yet I’m not sure my observations have become any more numerous, or more profound.

That’s, I suppose, because I’m not a pure naturalist. Observing plants gets me only halfway to where I need to be. The other half requires sharing. “I’ve never kept a diary or a journal,” Peter Schjeldahl, the New Yorker art critic, recently wrote, “because I get spooked by addressing no one. When I write, it’s to connect.” Well, when I naturalize, it’s, in large part, to connect. If I’m opening my own eyes only, not others’, I’m not fulfilled. Others will always be better at secreting out nature’s fine details, perhaps because they don’t care about humans and can devote their full attention to plants, or perhaps because their brains are better tuned to botanical detail. My job in this world, as far as I can tell, is to be a conduit from nature to people. And now, I’m kept away from people. I can’t organize my usual tree walks; for attempting to conduct, I’d be arrested or fined.

I’m not really complaining. I still have work, a home and food; everyone in my life, as far as I know, is safe and healthy. Elsewhere, I know, millions are out of work, billions of plans have been scuttled; countless desires atrophy amid lockdowns. Lives that were going places are now trapped in amber. Young people who had been enjoying fledgling experiences of adulthood and independence have been grounded to childhood bedrooms or parents’ basements. The jobs and hustles they would have found or invented; the innovations and the mistakes they would have made—all on hold, or gone forever. The metrics by which we measure the coronavirus response’s success are lives saved, hospitalizations avoided, curves flattened—all vitally important, obviously. But what about youths lost? Lives overturned? College friendships aborted? Hugs neither given nor received? Hungry stomachs and delayed or foregone educations? Is anyone measuring those?

Amid all this, the closures of many parks and outdoor areas, where one might ordinarily go to encounter the botanical world, may seem trifling. But the outdoors seems among the least necessary casualties of the pandemic. I’ve scoured the news for reports that people are catching the coronavirus outdoors—I want to avoid it as much as you do—and, so far, I’ve come up mostly empty, except for a few specific situations where crowds of people were in very close proximity for long periods. It makes sense: Wind disperses pathogens; sunlight disinfects and builds immunity; people move around outdoors. Park closures seem mainly to be piling a mental health crisis and a chronic illness crisis onto the coronavirus crisis. Not to mention, those who are most at risk—the poor, who often live in apartments—are those least likely to have alternatives for outdoor access, like the private yards that provide outlets to us more privileged.

It has always seemed obvious to me that we exit our doors at some risk. In normal times, we don’t sequester ourselves indoors, but seek to balance risk against the goods gained by engaging in society: economy, liberty, pursuit of human desires. The outdoors in particular is a place to take (reasonable) risks, test limits, in short, to be all the parts of ourselves that cannot be contained within four walls—to unfurl our leaves. Now we’re losing that, too.

If I may make a modest proposal: Each of us knows only our own interiors, and our own needs. Some can be happy indoors; great. Some need to walk among trees, smell the woods. Some need to run or bike long distances; some need to fish. Before criticizing someone’s choices, ask yourself: do you really know the world they inhabit? Might it be more constrained, less privileged than yours? Might they live with 10 people in a cramped apartment? It’s a stressful time; give the benefit of the doubt generously. I would venture there’s enough outdoors in the country for all of us to occupy in a physically distant kind of way, if we don’t rope too much of it off.

This is a cry in the wilderness, I realize. Park managers and public officials surely fear being seen as responsible for overwhelming our health system, which despite being by far the most expensive on Earth, has proven itself unprepared for this pandemic and is now on the verge of collapse. (If not preparedness for a predictable medical challenge, what have all those thousands of dollars we’ve each shoveled yearly into the health system gotten us, I have to wonder?) They can’t risk having their park be the next one called out on Twitter by the self-appointed social distancing enforcement squad. The park closures, I fear, will continue.

In my darker moments, my thoughts turn resentful, self-pitying, petulant. Bear with me here. I’m not one to engage in activities I believe to be excessively risky; I don’t climb rocks or trees or much of anything, I don’t ride motorcycles or use drugs. But I do bike on roads; I’ve done so for most of my life. Do I and my fellow bikers not deserve the same concern now afforded those vulnerable to coronavirus? Every few seconds, a vehicle that could crush me to death, piloted by a person of unknown competence, nears. So far, every time, death has passed me by. (I have been hit twice, once by a right-turning driver who didn’t see me, and once by a driver who didn’t realize I was merging into her lane, possibly because I didn’t signal—it happened so fast I can’t be sure. Both were frightening, but I got away with bruises. I haven’t been hit in 13 years. I hope this means I’ve gotten more savvy about biking on roads, but I’m not naïve enough to think it couldn’t happen again.) If everyone stopped driving cars, my risk of death from biking would vanish. More importantly, so would 38,000 yearly deaths and 4.4 million injuries.

But even to suggest this feels absurd. We accept all the traffic deaths and injuries and trauma, because of some sort of implicit calculation that society as a whole is better off when people can travel long distances quickly in whatever manner they choose. Now that more people are driving trucks and SUVs, our roads are becoming even deadlier—not to mention, we are accelerating toward climate catastrophe, the largest public health threat of all. Yet no one is pressured or expected or even nicely requested to consider anyone other than themselves when making a car-buying or personal transportation choice. Instead, I receive advice from well-meaning friends to stop biking and stop driving my small, fuel-efficient car.

I reluctantly accept the restrictions placed on our lives; I’m not a rebel by nature (except in my head), and I understand and appreciate their value for preventing illness and saving lives, especially given the absence of adequate testing. But I wonder, will this newfound passion for public health, and for shaming strangers for “selfish” behavior, extend beyond the current circumstances? Now that we’ve learned to view groups of human bodies as dangers to ourselves (one neighbor on Facebook recently deemed a group of guys playing soccer “awful people”), will we take the same view of 5,000-pound death machines zooming along within a few feet of bikers, pedestrians and children? I would like to believe so, but truth be told, I highly doubt it.

And yet. I never thought I would write this, but I actually miss the traffic, the noise, the smell, the human commotion, and, yes, the danger I used to bike through. It meant lives were being led, dreams were being pursued, hustles were being hustled, friendships and loves were being forged and lost. It meant bad things were happening, too, obviously, but those bad things are probably still going on, just out of sight now. City streets are heart-breaking when empty, as though someone opened a drain and sucked the people away. Oddly, I don’t even feel safer; what drivers remain on the roads seem empowered to go faster, drive more unpredictably; people are stressed, impatient.

A commonly expressed sentiment is that we’re learning through this crisis what’s really important. If so, I conclude that everything was important. I miss every bit of the life I was leading—the tree walks, the dancing, the music, the sports, the enjoyment of shopping for food, the dinner parties that filled my house with friends and food and laughter, the observing of the human drama, the accidental connections, all of it. I wasn’t wasting time, except on the Internet, which I do more than ever now. Bring it all back, all of it!

I do, however, completely share sentiments recently expressed by Robert Musil, president of the Rachel Carson Council, that we’re realizing, as a society, who is important, and it’s definitely not the people who spend their days trumpeting their own importance.

* * *

Last week we observed the annual ritual of springtime and renewal, Passover. A rabbi friend with whom I shared one Zoom seder asked, how are we feeling free this year? My first reaction was, not at all; we are constrained, in a narrow place like the one the Jews found themselves in in Egypt, according to the Exodus story. But, it turns out, I do feel newly free in a few small ways. I feel free to work on what I want to work on, what I find important.

I also feel liberated from some of the cognitive load of living in the city—of having to constantly choose between social options, and the attendant guilt and FOMO. Now I have no such choices to make, no missing out to fear. Some part of my brain has been freed, though I’m probably just using it to obsessively read coronavirus articles. Ordinarily I would be anxiously making summer travel plans. This year, travel seems unappealing, unnecessary and downright irresponsible. I feel content to explore nearby trails, wetlands and rivers, and grateful to live near so many little wild places, and a population that perhaps doesn’t wholly appreciate them, leaving them mostly untrammeled enough to remain open (for now, at least). I also feel fortunate, bordering on unfairly so, that my partner and I planned our trip to New Mexico the week before the shutdowns really started in earnest, affording us a final binge of big spaces to tide us over until such things become possible again.

Interesting to me, during seder discussions, those who seemed most anguished by the new restrictions were the elderly—the very ones whom the restrictions are supposed to protect. They spoke of feeling trapped in their homes, isolated from friends and family, cut off from what made life meaningful. None, that I recall, bothered to caveat that they were grateful for the newfound societal concern for their health.

In conclusion. I could try to tie this all together and write that I feel free from the guilt of failing to make the most of spring because I recognize the cycle of seasons, that all will be renewed again next year, that I’ll get another chance at redemption. But I would be lying by at least half. This spring is the only this spring I will ever get—that any of us will get. It is—was—a precious, unique thing.

Coronavirus will be a blip in the book of humanity. We’ll eventually beat it with a vaccine and move on to new challenges; I have no doubt in our ultimate resilience. I have every reason—relative youth, good health, what I believe to be good health care (though I’ve never really tested it)—to believe I will survive it, and I try to be grateful for that daily. But I know my springs are numbered; perhaps I will get lucky and have another 40 good ones. I would be naïve to think that will be enough.

Probably few people are yearning for a review of The Overstory a year and a half after it was published and four months after it won the Pulitzer Prize. But I just finished the book, after considerable struggle. And I think the many fawning reviews the book has gotten (Barbara Kingsolver’s in the New York Times for starters) could use some balance from more critical voices, even if mine will reach only a small fraction of Kingsolver’s readers. So here goes.

First, a bit about how I approached this book. When I was younger, I read a lot of fiction, but lately I’ve been immersed in nonfiction. The Overstory is, I’m ashamed to admit, the first novel I’ve read cover to cover in several years. I read it because it was about trees, a topic I’ve devoted a sizable amount of my own professional life to, and because everybody was talking about it. I understand through other reviews that the author, Richard Powers, is well-known and has been showered in awards, but I had never heard of him. But a novel (or any work) needs to reach readers where they are. So I write this review from where I am.

I will credit Powers with impressive ambition in attempting to create nine independent characters and weave a narrative that would bring them all together in a meaningful way. And in attempting to build a novel of action around trees, often thought to be static and passive.

But the book’s problems mushroom quickly. The characters are, mostly, not believable as flesh-and-blood humans in the world that I live in. Their actions seem driven not by the sorts of internal desires and fears that animate me and the people I know, but by the plot requirements of the story and the larger didactic imperatives of the book. Powers develops them not by putting them in situations and allowing them to respond, but by simply giving us, for each, a fairly tedious back-story of family history, childhood drama and essential character traits, violating one of the basic rules of writing: “show, don’t tell.”

The dialogue is bizarre. Here’s just one of innumerable examples, between a rough-around-the-edges Vietnam vet who gets a job planting trees and some guy he’s playing pool with in a bar:

“Who’re you planting for?”
“Whoever pays me.”
“Lotta new oxygen out there, because of you. Lotta greenhouse gases put to bed.”

I’ve never met a real-life person who speaks in this clipped, awkward manner, casually dropping obscure scientific concepts into barroom banter. Not even scientists speak this way! Amazingly, Powers bestows the same verbal tics onto almost all his characters, major and minor. Partly as a result, beyond their differing roles in the story, it would be hard to tell them apart by behavior or demeanor; they seem like slightly altered versions of the same Ur-person, presumably Powers himself.

All that said, a few of the characters I was finally able to accept as being complex or conflicted enough to achieve some distinction and verisimilitude. The over-achieving, world-traveling, never-at-peace, hard-shelled yet passionate Mimi Ma evokes a kind of character who inhabits real-life Washington, DC, where I live. Adam Appich, the successful but cynical psychology professor, resembles some academics I’ve met — trapped in a system that forces them to perform a role they know is ultimately hollow.

Other characters never develop beyond stereotypes. Patricia Westerford, the dismissed-then-celebrated scientist who reveals the hidden world of trees to clueless humans, is entirely virtuous, without a character flaw of any kind except perhaps propensities toward solitude and suicidal thoughts, which Powers seems to view as positive traits. Her dramatic denouement is totally out of character and not believable.

There is a particularly frustrating character named Ray Brinkman, a self-sacrificing lawyer whose development of a novel theory that trees have legal standing is interrupted by an incapacitating stroke. His theory could have been brought to bear on Appich’s eventual eco-terrorism trial, yet it isn’t, despite a supposed narrative structure wherein the individual characters’ lives intertwine via their relationships with trees. Brinkman instead spends the second half of the novel doing almost nothing except discovering how to identify trees with his long-suffering wife, who eventually takes the radical step of no longer mowing their suburban lawn and letting trees regrow there. Seriously? Why Powers spent dozens of pages setting up such an obvious connection between his characters, failed to capitalize on it, and settled instead for such a meager payoff is baffling.

Many reviewers have celebrated Powers for his ability to make trees into characters in the book. I call bullshit. With a few exceptions — a chestnut tree whose centuries-long life anchors the novel’s first chapter and returns later in the book, for example — actual trees make only brief cameo appearances and contribute little to the action. They are often described using all-too-common clichés rather than the nuance and depth I would expect from a decorated novelist. Again, just one of countless examples:

There are trees that flower and fruit directly from the trunk. Bizarre kapoks forty feet around with branches that run from spiky to shiny to smooth, all from the same trunk. Myrtles scattered throughout the forest that all flower on a single day. Bertholletia that grow piñata cannonballs filled with nuts. Trees that make rain, that tell time, that predict the weather. Seeds in obscene shapes and colors. Pods like daggers and scimitars. Stilt roots and snaking roots and buttresses like sculpture and roots that breathe air. Solutions run amok. The biomass is mad.

I would challenge any reader or reviewer to recall from memory even five individual trees that appear in this book. They come and go without making an impression. There is a difference between flash-bang, adjective-heavy writing and precise language born of close, patient observation, and Powers’ prose lands on the wrong side of this divide.

There is one other notable exception, Mimas, a massive redwood in whose canopy several characters spend time around the middle of the story. The tree gets a full, rich characterization before its inevitable demise at the hands of loggers. But I’m not sure Powers deserves all the credit here, because his description of Mimas is strikingly similar to those of another redwood describer named Richard (Preston) who actually followed scientists into the redwood canopy for his book The Wild Trees. Is it possible that Powers captures the essence of a tree only when another writer has blazed a path for him?

Ultimately I feel as though I viewed this whole story through a scrim, or at great remove. I never felt part of the action, feeling what the characters felt, if they felt anything at all. (Sometimes it seems like Powers’ humans are bug-ridden analytical machines tossing off cynical one-liners.) Scenes that should have been dramatic, like the tree sitters’ faceoff with the loggers or Appich’s trial, weren’t. Even when a principal character died, it seemed perfunctory. Little tension was built; never did I feel strongly invested in the characters’ fates.

About halfway through the book, I stopped reading it as realism and switched to reading it as allegory. In the Bible, larger-than-life characters such as Abraham and Job may not feel entirely believable, but we accept them for embodying timeless and profound lessons. Perhaps The Overstory‘s characters need to be read this way.

In that case, Powers had better have some damn profound ideas to deliver. Here I give a mixed grade. Powers does powerfully evoke the role of time — that our misapprehension of trees owes in large part to the differing paces and lengths of their lives and ours. It’s not a new observation, but in how he places his frenetic humans amid long-lived, patient trees, Powers brings it to life perhaps better than any other writer I’ve read.

But Powers’ view of human-tree relations ultimately proves stunted. He builds the story around the timber wars of the 1990s, when radical activists attempted to prevent logging of some of the remaining old-growth out West. Everything is conflict; there’s no moral ambiguity: activists and scientists are the good guys and gals; cartoonishly evil loggers, cops and bankers appear and vanish as needed. This is especially odd because many of today’s environmentalists see promise in sustainable logging, as practiced, for example, by the Menominee of Wisconsin. Powers’ all-or-nothing take feels simplistic and outdated.

In the end, Powers bestows the possibility of redemption onto a crippled Indian-American computer programmer, who, I guess, finds a way to use big data and artificial intelligence to reveal nature’s truths. I say “I guess” because the conclusion is so sketchy and hasty that it’s hard to tell what’s really going on.
I gather that Powers has previously written about computers and tech. Perhaps that explains his turning back to this world to escape the narrative and conceptual thickets he’s wandered into. But to me, it seems lazy. There are alternative narratives about humans and trees besides conflict and the vague hope that tech might help us find a way out. Powers should have known about one of these, because his author bio states that he lives at the foothills of the Great Smokies, among the largest protected forests in the East. Even during the boom days of logging, enough humans recognized the noncommercial value of these trees to cordon off hundreds of thousands of acres. Yet such truths obviously complicate Powers’ narrative of conflict and human blindness toward nature.

There’s a much more profound and powerful alternative narrative even than that of federal protection. Before white people arrived in America, when the great forests Powers’ characters yearn for grew widely, the continent wasn’t unpeopled. In fact, it was heavily peopled. But these people had a relationship with trees and forests that allowed both to thrive — in fact, they had the kind of relationship Powers seems to want us to have. The descendants of these people are still here, and in many cases, they are trying to reclaim their ancestral relationships with other species. If the rest of us were to listen to them today, it could go a long way toward healing our fractured relationship with the natural world. Yet Powers does not seem to be listening too closely. Exactly one Native American makes an appearance in The Overstory, on page 492 of 502 (in the paperback). He doesn’t get a name or dialogue. He’s just a helper to a white male artist who has apparently figured out what nature is trying to say.

If The Overstory is today’s great novel, I found myself wondering what has happened to the novel. In Anna Karenina, to cite just one example from literature, Tolstoy created believable characteristics, put them in ordinary situations and crafted an enduring masterpiece. Here Powers creates unbelievable characters, puts them in extraordinary situations and accomplishes significantly less.

There’s another book lurking in the background: The Hidden Life of Trees. (My review here.) The author of that work, Peter Wohlleben, even shares initials with Powers’ fictional scientist (hat tip to a commenter on this Guardian review for this observation, which I hadn’t noticed.) That book too presented a simplistic view of trees, yet earned wide plaudits and massive sales. It makes me wonder if it’s become all too easy for authors to spoon-feed us simple ideas of human-nature conflict and environmental beneficence — and trees. Powers has previously won a Macarthur and a pile of other awards. He presumably has what most writers can only dream of: freedom from the pressure of having to hit deadlines and earn paychecks. That this artistic liberation didn’t generate a better book is disappointing.

When I think of books that achieve a more nuanced look at the relationship between people and the environment — that engage the complexities and the ways in which relationships in nature are just as fraught as those of our human society — my thoughts turn instead to Annie Dillard’s celebrated Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, a book that deserves at least the same recognition as Powers’ and Wohlleben’s.

Lastly, a word about the writing. I found it often clunky, awkward and inelegant. There’s no question that Powers feels strongly about his subject. What he seems to struggle with is molding those feelings into effective language that will help us feel what we need to feel to do the difficult, society-changing, Earth-saving internal and external work Powers clearly wants us to do.

As a writer whose own work is often driven by ideas more than characters, I do sympathize with Powers. It’s a tough trick to get humans (real or imagined) to embody ideas as cleanly as we would like. And it was a thrill to see a mainstream fiction author take trees seriously.

The Overstory, as the Guardian reviewer writes, contains ideas that are interesting and important. But the novelist’s job is to use the tools of fiction — characters, plot, dramatic tension — to animate ideas. In this, The Overstory mostly fails.

And yet: It’s easy to critique another person’s effort. It’s far harder to produce something better. In The Overstory, Powers has attempted something big, brave and risky. Though he falls short of greatness, the world is still surely better for having this book in it. Enough readers have said it moved them and changed their view of trees that I must acknowledge it has succeeded in important ways, even if it did not succeed for me.

I have yet to write anything half so ambitious, or half so impactful. If I’m dissatisfied with what’s out there, then, to paraphrase Toni Morrison, it’s my duty to produce the work I wish to see in the world. I’m writing this partly to hold myself accountable. The ultimate success of this review will be not whether it persuades anyone of my view of The Overstory, but whether it leads me to think bigger and aim higher.

What a wild five months it’s been since I last wrote on this  blog! I’ll admit, there are days when I envy political reporters uncovering the latest White House shockers that keep us refreshing our browsers hourly (or more often?) and writing the first draft of a remarkable and troubling period in our country’s history. But most days I’m grateful to be able to range farther afield and explore the great world of science and its impacts on us — and perhaps provide a glimmer of hope that we will move beyond this dark moment into a saner future. With that in mind, here’s an update on what I’ve been up to so far in 2017.

This February I traveled to Panama — the farthest south I’ve ever ranged — to report for Smithsonian Magazine on scientists teaming up with indigenous groups to protect forests and the climate. Most scientists operate out of a pretty standard playbook — they come up with their own research agendas, and work and publish papers with other scientists. Catherine Potvin and Javier Mateo-Vega, the McGill University-based scientists I profiled in this piece, turn this upside-down. They ask indigenous communities what research they would like to pursue, find funding to support it, include community members as collaborators and coauthors, and return results to communities. I don’t know anyone else who does science this way, and it was a privilege to tell their story.

Following Javier Mateo-Vega up a forested mountainside in Ipeti, Panama

On an earlier trip south, I visited Mayan farmers in Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula who are pioneering techniques that could help save milpa, one of the world’s most ancient farming practices, in the era of climate change. My story on their efforts to spread the practice was published in February on NPR’s food blog.

Hanging with milperos Gualberto Casanova and Dionisio Yam Moo in the Yucatán

At the other extreme, I didn’t even have to leave my house here in Mount Rainier, Maryland for a front-row seat to the development and construction of four of the country’s greenest homes. Literally outside my office window, two young, ambitious developers constructed homes that are as energy efficient and environmentally friendly as any in the DC area and perhaps the nation. Not everything went smoothly, as you might expect, and whether the homes will launch a green building movement in the DC area or nationally remains to be seen. I told their story for the Washington Post Magazine.

Developers John Miller and Jessica Pitts planting their green roof

Though these three stories are unrelated, on a day when Donald Trump has pulled the U.S. out of the Paris accord, it strikes me that we’ll need a lot more of these kinds of grass-roots efforts if we as a global society are going to avert dangerous climate change. If you know of climate optimism stories that aren’t being told, please send them my way!

Moving on to less weighty subjects for a moment.. If you follow my writing long enough, you will learn that I have a perhaps uncommon fascination with how physics, the subject I studied in college and remain intrigued by, is shedding light on the incredibly complex world of biology and ecology. This spring, I had several chances to delve into aspects of this topic: I wrote about how physicists are explaining the strange and wondrous world of bacteria; how chaos theory may help predict red tides; and how a simple measurement could predict ecosystem collapse.

And I got to indulge in one of the purest joys of science writing: geeking out on amazing new/future technology. In a recent story for Nature I reported on private satellite companies breaking into sophisticated technologies that so far have been the sole purview of government agencies such as NASA. And early this year I wrote, also for Nature, about an effort to send tiny space probes 4.2 light-years to the nearest star — which some days doesn’t sound like such a bad place to go!

Any time I’m not tied to my computer working on a story, I try to get outside to interesting and beautiful places. This spring I went to Germany for a family reunion and vacation, and spent time in my beautiful, green (and yes, also red) home state of Kentucky. Here are a couple photos from those trips.

The Neisse River separating Germany and Poland (note the Polish marker on the east bank). No wall here!

A monster oak tree in Griffith Woods, one of Kentucky’s most amazing and least visited places

The narrative arc of this email demands, of course, that we return to where we began, indeed where everything seems to begin and end these days, namely politics. Shortly after the inauguration, I was invited to write an op-ed for Scientific American on a serious and growing problem: increasing impediments to speaking with scientists working in the federal government. While this might seem like small potatoes compared to much of what we’ve seen from this administration, such barriers are in fact a tried-and-true method for making citizens less informed and less effective at holding their government accountable, and, over time, for eroding democracy. Trump is hardly alone in wanting to keep the media at arm’s length, but his anti-press rhetoric and actions go far beyond what we’ve seen from any recent president, and it’s incumbent on all of us to resist attempts to quash press freedom. As a small piece of this effort, a group of us science writers, under with support from the National Association of Science Writers, are now organizing a meeting to bring together journalists and government public affairs officers, to try to open more channels of communication between government scientists and the public. We will likely meet in late summer or fall; please let me know if you’d like to be involved in the effort.

My end-of-year message

Once again I find myself arriving at the end of the year having lagged in sending email announcements. This year, in addition to the usual busy-ness and general discomfort with promoting myself, I have another excuse: I haven’t felt particularly inspired to tout my own little accomplishments when much larger things are going wrong in the world.

Still, it would be remiss to let the year change without writing something. So I want to take the opportunity to do something a little different this time: before sharing a few of what I feel are my most important stories from 2016, I want to first ask for your help. I became a science writer in part because I thought it would be a fun and interesting career (which it is), and in part because I felt that building bridges between the technical world of science and the non-scientist public would be a worthwhile thing to do. I still believe that, but when our country just elected an anti-science president, I find my belief in the inherent value and impact of science writing somewhat shaken. Clearly we science writers are failing to connect with large swaths of the public we aim to serve — a public that increasingly views science at best as something esoteric and irrelevant to their lives, and at worst as a political tool used by elitists in Washington and elsewhere to manipulate them and restrict their freedoms.

I want to find ways to change that. I want to find and tell stories that will connect with all kinds of readers, not just those who share my basic assumptions about the value and importance of science. I want to tell stories that will make clear what role science plays in our world, and that will hold both scientists and science deniers or manipulators accountable. I am always on the lookout for such stories, of course, but I can only see, hear and read so much. So I would like to ask you to be on the lookout too, and let me know when you come across them. (For those of you who are also writers, I might tweak this appeal a bit: let me know if you find a story you’re unable to do yourself — or if you ever want a collaborator.)

Now to turn to my regularly scheduled update. When I look back on 2016, two pieces that stand out were published within a day of each other in early October. The first was my third New York Times op-ed, Update the Nobel Prizes. I have long marveled at how the Nobel organization has set itself apart as the world’s scientific king (and, not frequently enough, queen) maker. All too often, science writers and others use “Nobel laureate” as a sort of shorthand for genius. But this is problematic, because the Nobel glory is far from equally available to everyone. I and others have documented the prize’s long-standing gender inequality problem, but this year I looked at a different kind of inequality: the fact that scientists of many disciplines are completely shut out of Nobel contention simply because there is no prize recognizing their field. Now we’ll have to wait til next October to see if the organization takes my advice!

The second was a profile in Nature of Matt Hansen, a geographer at the University of Maryland. I first heard of Hansen in late 2013 when he published a set of global forest cover change maps based on satellite data. From then on, it seemed that everyone I talked to who was working on forests inevitably mentioned the “Hansen maps”. So one day I biked over to the university (literally down the road from me) to find out what made his work so unique and high-impact. I found that Hansen is truly the anti-ivory tower academic — everything he does is with an eye toward making a difference in the real world. And like everyone doing high-profile work, he has his critics. I hope I was able to present both sides fairly.

Another story that started with a chat with a local scientist was my feature in Science on progress on quantum computers. Quantum computing is a challenging topic to cover, because while there are always new papers being published (and promoted), any commercial technology still seems a long way off. But there is reason to think this could be changing: major private companies like Google and Intel, as well as venture capital firms, are getting into the field in a big way. Private funders, like governments, can of course take long-shot bets on new technologies just to make sure they don’t miss out on a big payday, and this flurry of interest could be an example of that, but I do think it represents a sizable step forward in seriousness for the field. Don’t be surprised if you start to see quantum technology seeping into our world in the coming years.

Speaking of physics, I continue to be interested in how this sometimes cloistered field, which I long ago studied in school, intersects with other parts of science, especially biology. This year that took the form of a story on physicists taking an unconventional approach to studying cancer, for the online magazine Quanta.

I have also started looking more deeply into how science interacts with parts of society that it has historically excluded. I wrote this summer for Nature about collaborations between scientists and indigenous communities, and recently wrote for Smithsonian about how protected areas — the kinds of places we in America love to visit on family road trips — can sometimes be counterproductive both for forests and people who live in them. I have every intention of continuing to pursue these kinds of stories, and welcome any leads.

Lastly, I took a brave stand against tree anthropomorphism, in a book review for Science and an essay for Aeon. I love trees, as anybody who has ever stepped outside with me knows. But I don’t think we need to pretend they are like people. We should strive to understand them on their own terms.

I will also strive, again, to use this email list more regularly in 2017. But for those who might want up-to-the-minute news of my latest work, I post almost everything I write on Twitter (@gabrielpopkin) and Facebook, and of course on this website.

I will close with something out of character: a political message. Whatever you think about the result of the presidential election, I think we can all agree it was a loss for democracy. Donald Trump is about to become president despite receiving almost three million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton. More than 40% of eligible voters — far more than voted for Clinton, much less Trump — didn’t vote at all. And I am hardly the first to observe that many democratic norms that we have always taken for granted in this country — respecting the legitimacy of opposition parties and politicians, upholding the universal right to vote, respecting the sanctity of basic rights and freedoms — are being eroded.

Folks, democracy is not a spectator sport; it is a participatory sport. If we don’t participate, it will go away. There are many ways to participate — through our votes, through our work, through our involvement in our communities, through how we spend our time and our money, and, if necessary, through nonviolent protest. I know I have been doing some soul-searching about how I can more actively and effectively participate. If you are too, I would like to highlight one way: support independent media organizations, the kinds of places that employ people like me. It’s expensive to produce high-quality journalistic stories. It requires paying writers and editors (and believe me, we are not overpaid), paying computer programmers and web designers and artists, paying audio and video producers, and, unless a place is going to abstain from publishing anything that challenges any powerful person or institution, paying lawyers to defend against attempts to stifle press freedom.

I realize this will not be news for some of you, but the main revenue source for media historically — advertising — has been eaten away for two decades by the Internet, and more recently by social media platforms like Facebook. The other revenue source (other than the occasional magnanimous billionaire) is people like us. I know it can seem pointless to spend money on subscriptions and donations when an endless deluge of free media is available 24/7. And I know the media stumbled badly with the election. Support them anyway. Otherwise, there will be nobody to hold the Trump administration and all the private interests that stand to benefit from it accountable, and we will stumble further down the road toward an undemocratic society.

This is hardly an exclusive list, but places I find to be doing the kind of tough journalism that we need to support include the New Yorker, New York Times, Washington Post, the Guardian, NPR and the Intercept. You may have your own favorites, and that’s fine. I just ask you to set aside whatever you can afford to support a healthy independent media, as you would for other causes you feel strongly about.

And lest this message end on too dire a note, I want to say that not every story and not every publication needs to be devoted exclusively to challenging the powerful and fighting for democracy. There is still room for stories that are fun, stories that are interesting, and stories that are beautiful. And publications that specialize in those kinds of stories. I hope to do some of all of the above in the coming year.

Thanks for hearing me out, please let me hear from you, and I hope you have a great end to a not-so-great year.

I recently wrote an op-ed for the New York Times, about the Bradford pear tree. The Bradford pear is not my favorite tree or even a tree I particularly like, but I thought it needed a defender, because it has, in my opinion, been unfairly made a scapegoat for all kinds of problems not of its own making.

Riverdale pear

Though it is a tree, and therefore ostensibly part of “nature,” the Bradford pear is unquestionably a human creation. It was brought into being by scientists, promoted by a first lady and countless nursery companies, disseminated in what must have been a veritable orgy of street planting, and now hacked into awful shapes by utility crews trying to keep it from dropping branches onto power lines. Birds spread its seeds to parks and stream banks and other “natural areas,” where it offends people who want to see only native plants.

But I don’t think it’s the pear we should be offended by. We should be offended by ourselves. The pear thrives precisely where we have abused nature, which is to say almost everywhere. (In the interest of accuracy, I should note that it’s the Callery pear that is ubiquitous. Bradford is a specific cultivar of Callery pear that comes from nurseries, but that can hybridize with other pear varieties to produce viable seed.) Where I live, in Maryland near the Anacostia River—the sad, channelized, silted-up sidekick of the Potomac—the abuses have been piled on top of abuses so we can’t see them anymore. In the past four centuries, what was once forested wetland has been drained, cleared, plowed, planted in tobacco and other crops, perhaps grazed after the soil eroded and wore out, dumped on and then abandoned by industries whose skeletons still populate the landscape, and now carved into a million suburban lots. The Callery pear, which loves disturbed soil, forest edges and sunny areas, does wonderfully here.

When you write about some piece of the world, you become sensitized to it. Annie Dillard described this as being like a bell, ready to be rung. This spring, I am being rung by the Callery pear. I have never noticed before how ubiquitous it is. Now I see the trees everywhere, rising from the land like puffy white clouds.

It baffles me that people walk out of their houses, get into their cars, drive on four-lane highways past strip malls to little patches of green, and see non-native plants as the piece of the landscape that is out of whack. Yes, Callery pear may compete with native species for resources, but I highly doubt it has ever driven anything extinct. In fact, I wonder if any plant has ever been responsible for an extinction*. Our houses and cars and roads and strip malls eradicate native plants for more effectively than any introduced plant ever will.

I am not arguing, by the way, that we should just open our borders and let in all species. Introduced species can cause huge problems. One species of fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, has driven more then 100 amphibians to extinction—mostly in the tropics so far, but it could arrive here. The fungus that causes white nose disease has reduced populations of some of our native bats by more than 90%. Chestnut blight (a fungus) and Dutch elm disease (a fungus spread by an insect) have all but wiped out two of our great native trees, and hemlock woolly adelgid (an insect) and emerald ash borer (another insect) are currently destroying two more. What do all of the above scourges have in common? They’re not caused by plants. And yet, it’s the introduced plants that get people all worked up. See here and here and here for examples of fury toward the Bradford pear. Just try to find anything approaching this level of anger directed toward a fungus or an insect!

If we care about native plants, cutting down pear trees is not the answer. Instead, we should better fund our port inspection service, so it can effectively screen cargo entering the country for plants that could be carrying new diseases or pests. We should also jackhammer up most of our streets and demolish the strip malls and box stores. We should all move into tiny apartments and become vegetarians and get rid of our cars and do everything we can to minimize the amount of land we need to sustain ourselves, as E. O. Wilson seems to be suggesting in his latest book. The native plants don’t need us to spend weekend mornings ripping out weeds; they mostly just need unfragmented, undisturbed land and relief from diseases and pests.

Of course we’re not going to give them that, because we’re doing quite well with our cities and suburbs and exurbs and farms and our global trade, thank you very much. In fact, we’ve never had it better; we are the wealthiest and most comfortable society the planet has ever been home to, and that’s largely a result of how we’ve exploited land and moved species around. What we call “invasive plants” are really a byproduct of our own behavior.

They’re also a quintessential first-world problem. They’re what we worry about when we don’t need to worry about having enough food to eat, or being sick, or being killed in a war, or working three jobs to get by, or breathing dirty air or drinking polluted water. In a world with so many urgent problems to solve, we should question the impulse to tidy up little pieces of nature. What else could we be doing with our time and energy? Maybe fighting inequality? Saving our remaining old-growth forest? Saving lives?

It’s time to get over the Bradford pear. There are far more important things to worry about.

*Originally this sentence ended with “…or even an extirpation.” My biologist friends have convinced me that extirpations have been documented where invasive plants are widespread. I would still argue that the question of responsibility (human versus plant) should be further explored, but will leave that for another time.

Snow — in enough quantity — changes almost everything. It shrinks the accessible world to a few blocks. It makes many things impossible (driving, biking, flying) and other things possible that weren’t before (skiing, snowmen, snow angels). It buries unsightly trash, clothes bare tree limbs, and records the otherwise mysterious motions of animals.

Snow quiets for a few hours the ceaseless movement of people, stills restless cities.

Snow is the great equalizer. It obscures human boundaries and ambitions and renders them temporarily meaningless. It turns fancy cars and aging clunkers alike into shapeless, useless lumps. It mocks plans, even those of the powerful.


There’s something irresistibly comic about snow — its slipperiness, its softness, its absurd, almost indecent voluminousness. It makes children and full-grown professional adults alike want to flop and roll on the ground, hurl things at each other and hurl themselves down hills on bits of plastic, laughing.

Snow casts its spell on us writers as well. Poets and would-be poets can’t resist it. Reporters can’t either, though perhaps they should; surely everything that could ever be written about a snowstorm has been written by now. But the public wants to know, so a predictable stream of tired adjectives pours forth from probably equally tired politicians and newspaper reporters. “Crippling,” “paralyzing,” “epic,” and, of course, “historic.”

And as those politicians and newspapers never tire of reminding us, snow can cause deaths. It can supposedly also cause babies.

Snow shows us what our world could be like. For three straight nights this past weekend, a group of friends, robbed of whatever plans we may have had for the weekend by the rather inelegantly named Snowzilla, gathered, ate, drank, told stories and played music late into the night. The morning after the storm, people — young and old, women and men, black, white and Latino — were out shoveling off sidewalks and cars. They laughed and joked in the startlingly bright sunshine. Neighbors helped each other, pushing stuck cars, digging each other out. In the seven years I’ve lived in my current hometown, with the possible exception of the line I stood in to vote for Obama in 2008, I have never seen so many residents outside at one time.

Yet, how quickly snow wears out its welcome. The 17.8 inches (or more) that fell last weekend haven’t yet melted, and won’t for some time, but already they’ve been pushed aside, piled haphazardly on the curb like so much old furniture. People have returned indoors and inward, working and griping about impassable roadways. I mourn this return to normalcy, which to a large extent means the return of the car and the return to work. Couldn’t we have held on to our shrunken, snowbound world just a little longer?

Snow is, in the end, ephemeral, and so is its power to cover up the world’s ugliness. As two friends and I skied on the half-plowed streets yesterday, we had to step aside for a car attempting to climb an icy hill. It was an older car, with front-wheel drive, clearly no match for the conditions. A piece of plastic that shields the engine compartment had partially broken off and was dragging on the ground. The car’s tires spun uselessly and water vapor belched from the tailpipe. “Why try to drive a car like this on a day like this,” we wondered, but the driver was clearly not out for a joy-ride. He had on a private security guard uniform, and his employer probably didn’t care if roads were unplowed and Metro was shut down. A business or government building can be broken into whether open or closed. And a person can lose their job for not showing up to that building.

It was an important reminder: Snow may fall indiscriminately, but it doesn’t distribute its joy equally. For that to happen, we all still have work to do.

This blog has been pretty inactive in 2015, but I figured I could at least post my 2015 roundup. Enjoy!

It’s been, among other things, a year of trees and forests. In June, for my first feature story in Nature, I reported on scientists’ efforts to measure how much carbon the world’s forests store, and how much more (or less) they’re likely to store in the future as the climate continues to warm. Despite decades of measuring trees with tapes and peering at forest canopies from airplanes and satellites, scientists are still grappling with a lot of uncertainty around this question, which is vital to efforts to predict and slow climate change. In a related story, I reported on an analysis released at last month’s climate talks showing that at least 20% of tropical forest carbon is in territories managed by indigenous people. And I recently profiled for APS News (incidentally the first publication I ever wrote science for) three physicists who are advancing the science of studying forests from the sky.

Moving closer to home… if you’ve hung out with me in the last three years, especially outdoors, you’ve probably heard me talk about the eastern hemlock tree, which is threatened by a tiny but deadly invasive insect called the hemlock woolly adelgid. I wrote a feature story for Science about efforts to control the adelgid and save some of the last old-growth forests in the eastern U.S. This was the culmination of more than two years of reporting and research, including visiting forests and scientists from Georgia to Massachusetts. While it was gratifying to write this story, the battle to save the hemlock is far from over, and I continue to look for ways to bring attention to this and other threats to our beautiful forests.

Among the hemlocks at Cook Forest, PA. Photo Emily Townsend

Along those lines, I will share some of what I’ve learned about trees and forests at an upcoming D.C. Science Café, probably on Tuesday, March 2, at Busboys and Poets’ 5th and K Street location in downtown Washington. I hope that some of you who are local will be able to attend. Matthew Hansen of the University of Maryland and Earl Eutsler of D.C.’s Urban Forestry Administration will also speak, and it should be a fascinating evening.When I wasn’t exploring forests, I might have been on the coast. This fall I wrote a feature story for Science on living shorelines, a strategy for preventing erosion while restoring rather than destroying coastal ecosystems. I also wrote my first story for Quanta magazine about marine ecologist George Sugihara, who uses chaos theory to predict the future of fisheries and other complex systems. (OK, I didn’t actually go anywhere other than the Ecological Society of America meeting in Baltimore for that story, but it was still a fun one.)

Speaking of water, despite living less than an hour from it, I haven’t spent nearly enough time on it lately. A fantastic outfit called the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources helped correct this, by inviting me to travel up and down the Bay from Baltimore to Tangiers Island and learn about environmental issues that could lead to future stories. On the way I put on my first hazmat suit and set foot in my first chicken factory farm. (Chicken farming on Maryland’s Eastern Shore is one of the reasons the Bay is so polluted.) And lest the West Coast feel left out, I also fulfilled a long-held dream and hiked with a friend in the rainforest and along the beach in Olympic National Park—a beautiful park that has both 300-foot trees and beach! Highly recommended.

Eating crabs with IJRN colleagues on the Chesapeake Bay. Photo Tristan Baurick

Me and a big tree in Olympic National Park, WA. Photo Naomi Goldenson

When I decided to become a science writer, one of my goals was to combine two areas of science that can seem far apart: physics, which I got my degree in, and biology, ecology and the environment, which I also find fascinating and care a lot about. Stories that do this have been among my favorite to report and write, as well as among those that generate the most interest from readers. This year I wrote two stories about physics and cancer (coincidentally published on the same day)—one for Nature on a research program that some say has lost its ambition, and one for Inside Science on the perhaps surprising health legacy of the atomic bombs.My latest exploration of the physics-biology interface is a hot-off-the-presses Nature feature story on “active matter,” a new class of materials that are based on biological building blocks and behave surprisingly like living cells, despite not having DNA and other components that define life as we know it. As far as I can tell, this is the first feature-length story that has been written on this topic, but I’m sure it won’t be the last.

I continue to stay connected with the universities where I studied, writing for Johns Hopkins Magazine about an oncologist who made a surprising connection between genetics and lung disease, and for Wesleyan Magazine about a world-class kayaker-turned-educator and the director of the Joint Quantum Institute (just down the road from me at the University of Maryland).

Once in a while I even write a blog post! My last one was on the last day we got any real snow around here. It’s about winter and where I live.

If you’ve ever read a description of a writer’s life, you know that much of it is spent at a desk, doing glamorous things like deleting words and poring over notes to get the exact wording of a quote. I can confirm that such descriptions are basically accurate. That said, I did get to travel a lot for work this past year, including Boston (twice) for conferences, North Carolina (twice) for stories, Texas, as well as Washington state (see above) and Europe for pleasure and to visit friends and family. I also took my first international reporting trip, to the Yucatán peninsula in Mexico, funded by a grant from the Society for Environmental Journalists. I will have a story coming out later this spring on an effort to use the Yucatán’s carbon-dense tropical forests as a bulwark against climate change. While I was there I took the opportunity to visit the ruins at Calakmul, smack in the middle of Latin America’s largest protected forest reserve outside the Amazon!

Sweating in the rainforest, Calakmul, Mexico. Photo by me!


Reporting on the scene in Mexico! Photo Peter Ellis

Being president of the D.C. Science Writers Association has also kept me busy—sometimes a bit too busy. Since I took the post this past April, we’ve organized dozens of tours, workshops and social events, and launched a new website. And we have a big few months ahead, with a huge science writer party planned during the upcoming AAAS meeting in February as well as our annual Professional Development Day on April 2. (The D.C. Science Café mentioned above is also a DCSWA event.) It has been a real honor to lead this nearly 30-year-old organization, which is run entirely by hard-working volunteers, and I look forward to seeing it continue to thrive after I hand over the ceremonial duck (get it, Duck-swa?) to the next president in April.

I know these year-end messages are supposed to be all positive and chipper, and there is indeed a lot to celebrate over the past year. But it doesn’t feel right to not mention some of the challenges as well. On a personal level, while being a freelance writer comes with enviable freedom, it also comes with no small amount of isolation, job insecurity, rejected or ignored pitches, and time spent wondering if my ideas are any good. It’s easy to feel alone in this, until I talk to any other writer and am reminded that we’re actually all in it together. I would really like to spend more time with people and less time in front of my computer screen in 2016, so whether you’re a writer or not, please be in touch!

I also want to say something about the challenges that face science writing, as well as independent journalism more broadly. I won’t belabor the well-documented reasons for these challenges, except to say that from a business standpoint newspapers and magazines have adapted poorly to the Internet era, which is why you probably pay more for your cell phone service than for all your print and online subscriptions combined. Even though some publications are getting by—for now—on Internet ads or backing from moneyed foundations or benefactors, I believe that in the long run, journalism needs to be valued and sustained primarily by readers, listeners and viewers—in other words, by you and me. My plea to you is, when you’re considering how to spend your discretionary income, please support journalism as much as you can. Of course I have a special interest in science and environmental journalism, which I think is vastly underfunded, to the detriment of our democracy and our society. But many other important parts of our world are also hidden in shadows, and will continue to be unless journalists are able to shed light on them.

OK, stepping down from my soapbox now. I really do plan to send more updates this year. For one thing, I’m contemplating launching a new science/environmental journalistic venture, and if I decide it’s worth pursuing, I will certainly announce it. I will also send an update when the science café details are confirmed. Thank you for reading all the way through, and I hope 2016 is off to a good start for you!

geeseI live, I’ve come to realize, in a strange place—a forgotten pocket of inner-ring DC suburb, a sleepy suburb forever believing itself on the brink of becoming something else, but that may have already had its big moment, more than 200 years ago during the War of 1812, when the British army defeated the Americans and crossed a nearby bridge to reach Washington. The bridge goes over a river now so silted and shallow that an army could just wade across, a river of no commercial or navigational importance but of plenty of importance to geese, which congregate by the hundreds on its flood plain to talk and shit.

This river, the meek Anacostia, meanders between industrial rust and railroad tracks and restored wetland, wetland whose reedy grasses poke up next to a bike trail that promises connection to the nearby capital but instead dead ends at the state line. Trails and tracks. Tracks that separate too-clean wannabe-urban development from dirty auto shops and junkyards run by gap-toothed old men who tape vile, racist cartoons to the walls. Such relics hang on in a county that prides itself on being the wealthiest majority-minority county in the nation, indeed one of the wealthiest counties of any demography in the nation, yet forever a poor stepchild next to its gilded neighbors.

This is a place of paradoxes. The longer I live here the more confusing the paradoxes seem. Maybe it is a fitting place for me, also a paradox, the son of a Jewish father who teaches Holocaust studies and a German mother whose father had been drafted into the Nazi army. And raised in Kentucky, of all places, known for basketball and bourbon and tobacco and coal and none of the liberal ideals that fiercely inhabit me. And yet Kentucky is an inextricable part of me, at least in my discomfort in dense urban spaces and my wish for a bit of open ground to do as I please on.

On top of this mess the sky dumps a few inches of snow that sparkles white in the morning sun, and I dig my skis out of the basement and haul them down to the river, which is frozen over and covered in geese, and I ski along the levee, past white and black and brown parents pushing their children down the small hill on sleds—one activity that seemingly unites all people—and I follow the levee into one of our little parks, and turn onto a side trail, and suddenly I can almost forget that I live among dying industry and struggling suburb, and my skis cut sharp lines through flat snow disturbed so far only by deer hooves, and a shadow passes overhead and I look up to see a line of geese flying and calling. And I fall at the bottom of a small hill, because I ski badly (because no one grows up skiing in Kentucky), and I decide to lie in the snow for a bit even though I should be getting on with it because it is a weekday and I have things to do.

We have to steal these moments, I tell myself; we have to turn away from the pressing world and let ourselves be a little strange sometimes.

(Thanks, xkcd, for the geese.)

Photo by Phillip Sauerbeck

Photo by Phillip Sauerbeck

A version of this post was published February 20, 2014 on The Sieve.

I suspect no other relationship is more complex and fraught than that between humans and trees. I’ve been wanting for a long time to write something about it, but every time I try, I get overwhelmed. Where to begin?

For us humans, it indeed goes back to the beginning: Adam and Eve learned of their own humanity from a tree. Or if you prefer more scientific stories, our ancestors took a crucial step in speciating from other apes by descending from the trees. Since then we haven’t gone far from the tree, so to speak. We have eaten from trees, climbed trees, lived in trees, worshiped trees, studied trees, planted trees, hugged trees, and saved trees. We have also, at various times, cut trees down for fuel, for lumber, to make paper, to make weapons, to clear farmland, to create subdivisions, because they threatened our infrastructure, because we didn’t like where they were growing, and for no reason whatsoever.

After hundreds of thousands of years of shared history, have we and trees come to understand each other better? Three stories I have come across recently suggest the answer is, it’s still complicated.

A local tale

The first story is from my own neighborhood of Mount Rainier, a small city just northeast of Washington, DC in the watershed of a minor river called the Anacostia. The Anacostia River, which flows into the better-known Potomac, was once a commercially significant waterway. But as generations of people felled surrounding trees, bare soil eroded, silting up the water and reducing the clear-flowing river to a shallow muddy creek. One of the many things trees do for us—one of their ecosystem services, to use the fashionable term—is hold our land in place.

The Anacostia may be a trickle of its past self, but it can still flood. And as people have understood for a long time, when you deforest a watershed, rain washes more quickly into waterways, and flooding gets worse. Cities along the river responded to the elevated flood risk by building a levee.

Now, ostensibly to protect the levee, several hundred trees near a channelized tributary of the Anacostia going through Mount Rainier are about to be cut down. The byzantine reasoning is as follows: After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Army Corps of Engineers strengthened its requirements for levee certification, which is supposed to guarantee that a levee will stand up to a 100-year flood. People who want to insure property behind a levee have to buy flood insurance unless their levee is certified, so the Army Corps’ rules affect a lot of people. The new rules, in addition to raising the minimum levee height, require that trees growing within 15 feet of a levee be removed, because the Corps believes tree roots could compromise the levee’s integrity. This means that more than 200 trees in Mount Rainier, from small, scraggly things no one is likely to miss to 100-or-more-year-old sweetgums and tulip poplars, are destined for the chainsaw.

A view from the levee. The trees on the far side of the concrete wall are on the chopping block.

A view from the levee. The trees on the far side of the concrete wall are on the chopping block.

(Quick pause for disclosure: I am on Mount Rainier’s Tree Commission, which is advising the city on the levee issue. But all opinions expressed here are mine, and all the facts I’m reporting were presented at a public city council meeting. For a further perspective on the urban forest, check out council member Jesse Christopherson’s blog post.)

In the grand scheme, the number of sizable trees we stand to lose is small. And the county has agreed to give the city two new trees for every one that is cut down, so Mount Rainier could emerge in a few decades with more tree cover than it had before. But I’m struck by the perverse logic of the situation: People cause a problem (increased flooding) by cutting down trees and building in floodplains, and then pursue a technological solution that leads to cutting down more trees.

And for what? The new levee may protect against the current 100-year flood, but what about the 100-year flood 50 years from now, when climate change has loaded the dice in favor of stronger storms? We can’t keep building levees higher forever. A better strategy would be to reduce the peak flows that levees have to deal with, which would mean increasing tree cover and, perhaps, giving the river back some of its historic floodplain.

It’s unrealistic to hope tree cover will make a full comeback in an area as densely settled as the DC suburbs. But there’s plenty of room for improvement over the current 25 percent, the number reported by the Anacostia Watershed Society. The nearby city of Takoma Park, which has long protected its trees, stands out in satellite images for its dense foliage compared to neighboring areas. Other municipalities, including Mount Rainier, are now taking steps in that direction with laws that protect large trees on public and private land. Trees are our allies, and the loss of a healthy tree anywhere in the watershed makes all of us more vulnerable.

Tree-friendly Takoma Park, MD from the sky. From google maps.

Tree-friendly Takoma Park, MD from the sky. From google maps.

The global view

Flooding is a local problem, and the number of trees in the Anacostia watershed will probably always be of concern mostly to the people living in the watershed. But in another important sense, we are all united in our dependence on every tree everywhere. That is because trees store carbon in their tissues. This fact that was perhaps almost incidental until people began putting way too much fossilized carbon into the atmosphere; now, our collective future could depend on it. The world’s forests have become crucial reservoirs of carbon and sponges for some—though far from all—the carbon spewing from our cars and factories.

A new map made by a team of researchers at the University of Maryland gives us a global view of how well this global carbon sponge is working. Unfortunately, the picture, which combines over 650,000 satellite images, is troubling. Major areas of tree loss show up angry red both in tropical South America and the boreal forests of Alaska, Canada, and Russia. Things are more mixed in the U.S. South and Indonesia, and a few pockets of tree gain are sprinkled here and there. But the big picture, which the authors reported in Science, is that the world lost around 1.5 million square kilometers of forest between 2000 and 2012. As Peter Ellis, a forest carbon scientist at the Nature Conservancy (and incidentally a Mount Rainier neighbor) observes on his blog, “we are losing forests a lot faster than they can grow themselves.”

Credit: NASA Goddard, based on data from Hansen et al., 2013.

But there are reasons for hope. Forests in much of the U.S. have staged a major comeback in the past century, and are making small but significant dents in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. And a recent study published in Nature showed that even old trees keep growing, soaking up more and more carbon the larger they get. Forests can buy us some time to deal with climate change before the worst impacts hit—but only if we leave trees standing.

The specter haunting this whole discussion is the possibility that if temperatures get warm enough, forests could start to release more carbon than they pack away. This could happen through increased respiration (in addition to consuming carbon, trees breathe out carbon dioxide just like we do) as well as increases in decomposition rates and forest fires. Forests as carbon sources would be an unmitigated global disaster, dramatically amplifying global warming and potentially making parts of the world simply hellish. Should this happen, the authors of another recent Nature article recommend that we harvest our forests and turn them into buildings and other structures that won’t decay and release their carbon. If we get to the point where we are cutting forests to save the climate, I don’t think I want to be around for it.

I find it wonderful that trees, which I love anyway, also store carbon, and have the potential to blunt the full impacts of our carbon pollution (though this borrowed time is worth nothing if we don’t use it to reduce that pollution as fast as possible). But I worry about the implications of viewing trees as big sticks of solid carbon—what one might call the widgetization of nature. The Nature authors manage to write a whole article about trees without mentioning a single actual species. That kind of abstract view makes it easy to imagine harvesting those trees if they become carbon sources, regardless of the other benefits they may confer to people or other living things. It’s a view that may see the forest, but misses the trees.

Losing a loved one

As anyone who has been to a forest knows, there is no such thing as a generic tree. There are only white oaks, sugar maples, pitch pines, and so on. And each tree is the basis of a unique food web, many of which contain organisms not yet known to science. Trees of different species are not interchangeable with each other, nor with other things we might discover that do an equally good job of holding carbon. We have only barely begun to learn how the system works. To paraphrase Aldo Leopold, this is not the time to be throwing pieces of the machine away because we think we don’t need them.

This brings me to my third story, in which a particular tree native to my part of the world is disappearing, not because anyone wants it to, but nevertheless for an entirely human-caused reason. As my friends and family know, I have become fairly obsessed with this tree, the eastern hemlock, or Tsuga canadensis. I point it out on hikes and turn branches over to look for the fluffy white egg sacs of the hemlock woolly adelgid. I have written about this invasive insect, which is destroying nearly all the hemlocks in the eastern U.S. The adelgid was apparently introduced to the U.S. in or around 1951, by accident, on a shipment of Japanese hemlocks to a Richmond, VA nursery (the insect is native to Asia and hemlock species there tolerate it just fine). That such a catastrophe could originate from so trivial an incident is part of what makes the whole thing so spooky.


Hemlocks lining a stream in western Maryland

Hemlock bark was once used to tan leather, but otherwise the tree has never been of much value economically. The wood splinters easily, and except up north, the tree lives mostly in river valleys where few people go. In terms of ecosystem services, the trees’ perpetual shade keeps trout streams cool, and its evergreen canopy captures rain and snow all year round. These are not trivial benefits, but they are not the kinds of impacts likely to inspire a national conservation movement. So it is hard to imagine cash-strapped governments spending a bunch of money to save a tree whose loss will cost few, if any, jobs. Indeed, as Richard Preston reported in 2007 in the New Yorker, governments pretty much haven’t.

But viewed another way, the costs if the hemlock disappears will be immense—literally incalculable. For what is the value of a species? A species lost is lost forever, so one could argue its value is infinite.

To be clear, the eastern hemlock itself is unlikely to go extinct, at least in the near future. Insecticides can protect individual trees if applied regularly, and winters in the upper Midwest and Canada, where many hemlocks live, are too cold for the adelgid to survive (though global warming could eventually remove that protection). But far more than the tree is at stake. Entomologist Louise Rieske-Kinney and her students at the University of Kentucky have studied the organisms living in hemlock-shaded valleys. The scientists have found that certain aquatic flies eat hemlock needles that fall into the streams. Certain spiders eat those flies, and fish eat those spiders. Removing the hemlock is like pulling the bottom block from a toy tower—the rest of the blocks come crashing down too.

Changes in streams may just be the beginning. Preston described in his article climbing (now-dead) hemlocks in North Carolina and seeing a whole world living just in the trees’ canopies. “There were small hummocks of aerial moss, spiderwebs, insects associated with hemlock habitat,” he wrote in 2007. “There were mites living in patches of moss and soil on the tree, many of which probably had never been classified by biologists. The hemlock forest consists in large part of an aerial region that remains a mystery, even as it is being swept into oblivion.”

A hemlock graveyard in Shenandoah National Park

A hemlock graveyard in Shenandoah National Park

Since 2007, scientists have shed some light on this mystery. Talbot Trotter, an ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service in Connecticut, told me he and his students have discovered hundreds of insects, mites, and spiders that seem to live on hemlock branches and nowhere else. The researchers would know more, except there is hardly anyone in the world with the expertise needed to classify the species they are finding.

Meanwhile, forest managers up and down the Appalachians lead small armies of insecticide sprayers into the woods. Their goal is to hold off the adelgid, at least from the largest and most visible trees, while biocontrol researchers try to breed and release an effective adelgid predator. But it is an uphill battle; predatory beetles that have been released often consume all the adelgids in a small area and then disappear. No one to my knowledge has gotten a permanent population established.

The extraordinary effort and care of these scientists and forest managers is the flip-side of the carelessness with which the adelgid was released onto this continent. Hundreds of people are now dedicating careers to understanding the insect and the hemlock, and to slowing—and perhaps eventually reversing—the damage. They’re not doing this because it pays well or because it’s glamorous work, or even because we as a society need the eastern hemlock. They’re doing it because they love this tree.

What mysterious forms live in the canopy?

A tale of survival

It’s not just the hemlocks that need love. The emerald ash borer is destroying the nation’s ashes. Asian longhorned beetles are attacking the great maple forests of the north. A fungal disease spread by a scale insect threatens the beech (another one of my favorites). The mountain pine beetle has brought down millions of pine trees out west and could do even more damage if it makes its way east. Already the American chestnut and American elm have largely succumbed to their own introduced pathogens. Invasive species amped up on climate change are doing what humans with their saws and axes could not—excising whole tree species from the landscape.

And yet, I suspect most trees will come through even this latest round of insults, as they have countless times before. The eastern hemlock was once far more abundant, but pollen studies show that it declined dramatically somewhere between five and six thousand years ago. No one quite knows why, but climate change and disease have been suggested. Still, the eastern hemlock is far from rare, and even in places where the adelgid has ravaged the older trees, new green shoots push their way up. Perhaps thousands of years from now, hemlocks will once again find conditions favorable and spread out over the land.

It is tempting to see trees as passive players in this drama, merely reacting to climate shifts, disease, and now humans and their invasives. But I have come to think of trees as playing the long game. They spread themselves far and wide, bank their seeds for decades or longer, and reproduce both sexually and asexually. For all the clear-cutting and species shlepping we have done on this continent, we have only driven two of its native tree species extinct in the wild, according to USDA plant geneticist Richard Olsen. (And at least one of these, Franklinia alatamaha, is still in wide cultivation). In short, trees know how to survive.

Yes, it’s not the trees I worry about. It’s the overconfident, impulsive, short-lived primates.

Writer’s note: this post was amended to reflect the fact that the Anacostia levee was not built in response to 1972’s Hurricane Agnes (it was actually constructed in the 1950s).