This piece is so far from my usual fare as a science and environmental writer, part of me feels the need to explain why I wrote this story. It’s also personal in ways that most of my writing isn’t. So for anyone interested, here’s the back story.
Last summer I spent two months in Berlin as an Arthur F. Burns fellow. On a rainy Sunday in September, I made my way to the Jewish Museum. The weather matched my mood. I had been in Berlin for almost a month and a half, and things weren’t going particularly well. I was there on a journalism fellowship, but I didn’t feel like I was doing much journalism. The stories I was pursuing didn’t seem to be coming together. I was also feeling lonely and isolated in a city I had hoped would feel more like a second home.
The museum offered an escape—something to dive into for a few hours. I also hoped it could help me think about my own identity. Although the Jewish half of my family is from eastern Europe, not Germany, I’ve long been intrigued by the key role that Germany played as the birthplace of Ashkenazi Jews. Obviously the history is dominated in the public perception by the Holocaust, but I was eager to explore the rest of it, in hopes it could help illuminate what, exactly, a half-Jewish, half-German identity means.
The exhibit traced the history of Germany’s Jews from their obscure beginnings along the Rhine—coincidentally, where much of my German family lives now. Though the broad outlines were familiar, the museum helped me fill in details. I was particularly struck this time by the Jewish enlightenment—how Germany, a country usually thought of as being disastrous for Jews, was also a place where Jews made great strides and innovations, not least of all the birth of the Reform movement, and where thinkers like Moses Mendelssohn flourished.
I was less impressed with a section devoted to Richard Wagner, a non-Jew with well-known anti-Semitic attitudes who later became a favorite of Hitler. Maybe contemporary Jews’ conflicted feelings about Wagner (many loved his music despite his odious views) are worth a mention, but an entire room? Please.
Shortly after that I came to a tiny exhibit devoted to women rabbis, and the first was someone named Regina Jonas, who had been ordained in 1935. I was shocked that I had never heard of Jonas and, moreover, that the entire world’s female rabbinical tradition could have been born in Nazi-era Germany.
It hit me. Germany had been the world center of liberal Jewish progress for a century and a half. And here was a woman who decided to launch perhaps the boldest experiment of all: to become a rabbi. She could not have known that her achievement would mark the end of this period of Jewish flourishing, rather than the opening of a new phase. Had history gone differently, she could have been the matriarch of a great tradition of women rabbis. Instead, she perished in Auschwitz and ended up with one small photo and a couple paragraphs in a corner of the museum, in the shadow of Wagner.
The enormity of what had been lost—the 6 million—became personified, and yes, I wept in the middle of the museum. Luckily, with my covid mask on, I had complete anonymity.
When I got home I immediately went online to see what more I could learn about Jonas. I read articles and talked to my long-time friend, Laura Bellows, who told me that Jonas was well known among her community of American women rabbis. But clearly she was not known more widely, especially on our side of the Atlantic. The New York Times had barely mentioned her in a story on the second woman rabbi—Sally Priesand, ordained in 1972—and few other American outlets (outside of Jewish ones) did either.
I knew of the Times’ Overlooked series, which features women and others who by today’s standards deserve a Times obituary, but didn’t get one at the time of their death. If ever there was someone fit for this series, it was the first woman rabbi in all of history. So I thought, at least. By the end of that afternoon, I had figured out who edited the series and sent a pitch. It took some following up, but she eventually accepted the piece.
It’s funny that I felt so compelled to write about Jonas, given that we are clearly not like-minded souls. She was far more conservative and religious than I am and probably would have found my half-hearted approach toward practicing Judaism disappointing. But we do share the experience of trying to merge Jewish and German identities. She pushed for German Jews to hold onto their identities at a time when Germany was casting Jews as outsiders, despite all attempts to assimilate. I find myself asking how to embody these two identities—one from my father, the other from my mother—and to reconcile my desire for Germany to be once again a safe and fruitful home for Jews with the obvious evidence that the country is not there yet, and may never fully be. Perhaps there was also a shared feeling of being an outsider.
And I deeply admire Jonas’s determination, perseverance and ultimate triumph. But there’s something more than that: I felt that Jonas’s obscurity was an injustice—one perpetrated first and foremost by the Nazis, but then perpetuated by people who knew her story yet refused to share it, and ultimately by an indifferent world. I felt myself pushed forward by a feeling that I was in a position to help make things right.
I want to be clear about what I did not do. I did not discover Jonas; that was done by the German religion scholar Katharina von Kellenbach, from whose archival work in the early 1990s all other scholarship on Jonas follows. I did not write the definitive version of her life; that accomplishment belongs to rabbi Elisa Klapheck. I also want to be clear that Jonas’s story in no way diminishes Priesand’s achievement; she had to overcome many of the same barriers when getting ordained in the early 1970s in Cincinnati. And many other women rabbis have overcome barriers as well.
It’s also important to note that a lot of progress has been made. Women now occupy some of the most prominent rabbinical roles. I was excited to hear from my friend Laura that women rabbis are now so common, especially among the more liberal denominations, that young boys can be heard asking whether men can also become rabbis. At the same time, we have to ask how many more women did not get the opportunity because of the Holocaust, and because Jonas’s barrier-breaking story was suppressed for so long.
I view my role less as discoverer or documenter than connector. I saw an opportunity to connect Jonas with a much larger, 21st-century audience. Now that the story is published, it’s out of my hands. I hope it will inspire people to pursue their dreams even when broader society tells them no. I hope it can also serve as a statement that Jews have always had a place in Germany, and still do. Yes, Germany was where unspeakable crimes were committed, and that must never be forgotten. But it was also the one place in the world that was just open and modern enough to enable a poor Jewish girl to have a dream and make that dream reality. The world can be paradoxical. In our own troubled times, I think that is a point worth pondering.
Climate change can be a dreary and disempowering topic. When we take climate action or donate to climate-related causes, we often don’t feel as if we’re creating a more positive world, but rather making a probably futile effort to avert planetary catastrophe. A lot of the discourse around climate change feels scolding and off-putting, and we’re often told that nothing we do as individuals matters. (See Don’t Look Up for a recent commentary on all of this.) But during a talk last night, my good friend Rabbi Laura Bellows put a fresh spin on climate action that I find much more inspiring: She described climate action as an expression of love for our fellow humans.
Climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe, who is also willing to talk about love, recently said that most people want to do something about climate change but don’t know what to do. I’ve often felt that way myself. But I’ve lately realized, a lot of things I do in my life do, in small ways, address climate change. I’m fully aware that individual actions alone will not stop the climate crisis. But I think individual actions are more significant than they’re often given credit for. They can improve the world in small but concrete ways that provide a sense of self-efficacy. Moreover, climate stewardship is a practice, and the more we practice it, the better we become at it. We go from being amateurs to experts; eventually, it becomes second nature. We become the change we want to see in the world, and that feels empowering. Climate stewardship also creates a foundation for authentic advocacy. If enough of us individuals express our preference for a stable climate through our actions, including consumer decisions, the corporations largely driving climate change will respond. And if shared visibly and publicly, it can inspire others. It’s in that spirit that I’m writing this.
To be clear, I’m neither an expert on climate-smart living nor an extreme off-the-grid hippie. Many know far more and have done far more than I have. But I can offer my experience as an “ordinary person” feeling and sometimes fumbling my way toward a lifestyle that I feel is reasonably environmentally and climate friendly, within the constraints of the American consumer economy. I’m also not claiming to be any sort of environmental or climate savior – see the section on all the things I’m not doing. I’m hoping to help people think about what they can do in their own lives, and to spark conversations that may help me enhance my own environmental and climate stewardship further. Please feel free to reach out to discuss anything you read here.
What I do and have done for the climate
I walk and bike as much as possible. If I can make a trip on bike or foot rather than by car, I almost always do. Obviously biking is a zero-emission way to get around, plus it eliminates the need for a Peloton or gym membership! I own a steel-frame Bianchi road bike and two sturdy Ortlieb panniers that have hauled many loads of groceries over the years. One caution – get panniers in a color other than red, or be prepared to endure endless jokes about pizza delivery.
I believe the main more people don’t bike is that they don’t feel safe, which I understand – I don’t feel as safe as I would like when I bike either. I don’t think this will change until we drastically reduce speed limits and put (ideally protected) bike lanes on most of our streets, as has been done in many European cities. I don’t understand why we didn’t do this yesterday (well actually I do, but that’s for another post), and I hope we will do it as soon as possible.
I drive a reasonably fuel-efficient car. Until very recently that was a beloved 1994 Honda Civic, which got between 30 to 40 miles per gallon. Sadly this wonderful machine has finally reached the end of its life. It wasn’t as fuel-efficient as a modern hybrid; on the other hand, it didn’t have a resource-intensive hybrid battery that needed to be replaced every 7 to 10 years. I will most likely replace it with a similarly fuel-efficient car such as a Honda Fit.
I grow trees in my yard and throughout my city. If you walk down my street, you will see a bunch of houses and a small forest with a house peeking through. That’s my house. I was fortunate to be able to buy a property with several large trees already established, and I’ve allowed many smaller trees to keep growing and planted new ones, each of which removes carbon dioxide from the air through photosynthesis. My lot is only an eighth of an acre and it’s not going to sequester a huge amount of carbon dioxide, but I’m doing what I can and hope it will inspire others.
I’ve also worked with the city’s tree commission to plant hundreds of trees in public space around town. My two proudest accomplishments are (1) facilitating the planting of a dozen or more large trees on the block north of me, one of the few blocks in town with a tree strip wide enough to comfortably accommodate large species like oak and tulip poplar, and (2) catalyzing the creation of a food forest in an underutilized city park. These trees will provide shade, cooling, wildlife habitat, food and carbon sequestration for decades to come, improving the lives not just of today’s residents but many future ones, some of whom aren’t even born yet.
I’m now learning to prune trees. It’s easy to plant a tree, but if that tree doesn’t last at least several decades, and preferably 50 years or more, it will do little good. Cities often plant trees and then neglect them. This frustrates me, but unless we’re willing to pay much higher taxes, most cities will probably never able to employ enough skilled arborists to take care of all their trees. So it largely falls to civil society and volunteers to actually try to keep trees thriving. Fortunately, I’ve discovered I enjoy pruning trees and getting them started on a long and healthy life. Especially now that most of Mount Rainier’s available public space has trees growing in it, keeping those trees thriving has started to seem like a more important use of time than planting new ones.
I eat very little meat, especially red meat. Red meat is by far the most resource-intensive and carbon-emitting category of food. The average American eats more than a half pound of meat per day and roughly five servings of red meat per week. I eat meat once every week or two, and red meat probably less than once a month. I buy it almost exclusively from local farmers who treat their animals humanely. I do like meat and I feel better when I eat it occasionally, and I’m not above indulging in the occasional grass-fed burger. But I feel better knowing that most of my meals aren’t contributing to animal suffering or the environmental impacts of meat production.
(I recognize that almost all animals that end up on dinner plates pass through slaughterhouses and that dairy production typically requires the sacrifice of male calves, and there’s a strong moral argument for a fully vegetarian or even vegan diet. On the other hand, I think there’s a lot of often unrecognized cultural value in maintaining small-scale grass-based animal husbandry as part of a diversified agricultural economy. It’s a complex issue – something I didn’t appreciate during my days as a college animal rights activist!)
I try to reduce and reuse. I may hate shopping, but like anyone else, I can be tempted by desires for new things. I try to stop and ask, do I really need it, or if not, will this item really enhance my life enough that it should be one of the few items I buy because I want rather than need it. I buy most of my clothes from thrift stores. I buy as much of my food as I can in bulk and take jars and reusable bags with me when I go shopping: plastic bags for produce and canvas bags for the full load. I try to never let a new plastic bag enter this house (except for items that come prepackaged like bread and dried fruit). Sometimes I buy milk in glass bottles that can be returned, but unfortunately not all stores consistently offer this option.
I’ve come to recognize that recycling, for the most part, is not an environmentally friendly practice. Recycling was sold to us as a way to assuage environmental guilt without making meaningful lifestyle or economic changes. Recycling metal and paper does make sense because there are robust markets for these materials. My understanding is that none of the glass and very little of the plastic we put in the recycling system are actually recycled into other products.
Probably the most important thing we waste very little of in our house is food. When we waste food, we also waste the energy, land, water and labor that was used to grow and transport it. Food is also unlike most other things we throw away: When it goes to the landfill, it doesn’t just sit there. It decomposes anaerobically and produces methane, which is an extremely powerful greenhouse gas, many times more warming per molecule than carbon dioxide. Reducing the amount of food we send to the landfill is one of the simplest and most powerful things we can all do to help the climate.
We buy only what we know we will use and remain aware of what’s in the fridge that needs to be eaten. That’s not to say nothing ever goes bad in our fridge, but it’s rare. And nearly all our food scraps go into either a backyard or worm compost bin. That way, instead of producing methane, we produce an amazing soil amendment! Eating little meat helps with this, because animal scraps cannot go in backyard compost.
I am trying to make my house as energy efficient as possible. This has proven to be a tough and complex undertaking. My house was built in 1939, a time when it seems that little thought was given to conserving energy. When I bought the house in 2017, there was almost no insulation, the original metal windows (half of which are still here) were paper thin and supremely conductive of heat and cold, and the house was riddled with tiny air leaks. No owner before me seems to have cared much about addressing any of these problems and in fact, some of their renovations made the problems worse. At the same time, the house is solidly built, fully functional and (in my opinion) somewhat beautiful, and tearing it down to replace it with a more efficient structure would be enormously wasteful. Instead I’m trying to make the house as efficient as I can afford to make it.
Unfortunately this isn’t easy. Partly this is because energy efficiency requires a bunch of different improvements, each of which on its own has marginal benefit. Energy efficiency is also expensive, and I can’t replace every window or appliance at once. Here are some things I do or have done:
set programmable thermostats to the coldest and warmest temperatures at which we feel comfortable
wash most laundry on cold
hang most laundry to dry, taking advantage of the second law of thermodynamics. I’ve probably used the dryer less than five times since I bought the house in 2017!
replaced incandescent and fluorescent bulbs with LEDs
installed low-flow shower heads provided for free by Washington Gas
added cellulose insulation to my attic to try to bring it up or close to the current code of R-49. (See above photo.) While I could have paid several thousand dollars to have a contractor do this (and gotten a modest rebate), I did it myself for about $300 in materials and one very dusty day crawling around in my attic, with thanks also to the gracious help of my partner who stood outside and fed insulation into our rented blower machine.
added insulating foam and weather stripping to attic hatch
had insulation added to exterior walls that were being repaired for other reasons (thanks Pete McAvoy!)
added weather stripping, sweeps and caulk to exterior doors and old windows
plugged leaks in my basement walls and a few places in the kitchen with spray foam (doing an admittedly amateurish job)
insulated some radiator and hot water pipes, with plans to do the rest soon
replaced my aging gas-powered water heater with a highly efficient heat pump water heater (partially offset by a Maryland state rebate program). This has been a mixed bag so far, and I would recommend it only if you can put the water heater in a large space that you don’t use as living space AND that’s sonically isolated from the rest of the house. Happy to talk more about this.
You might wonder, or at least I wonder, whether any of these actions have actually reduced energy use (and thus greenhouse gas emissions). The short answer is, I don’t know. So many factors determine a home’s energy use that it’s hard to tell the impact of any particular change. I can say that my electricity company, Pepco, tells me every month that I’m using less electricity than similar “efficient” homes in my neighborhood, which is gratifying. But Washington Gas, the gas company, has told me my home uses more gas than the average nearby home. For someone who hates wasting both money and energy, this is pretty alarming. I hope the recent moves I’ve made, in particular the attic insulation, air sealing and switch to an efficient water heater, will at least make me no worse than the “average” gas consumer.
For those inclined to think this way, it seems to me the relevant unit for assessing the benefits of weatherization is therms per heating-degree-day. I’ve learned that heating-degree-days is not a straightforward unit, and I also didn’t set up a well-controlled experiment, because we’ve futzed with our thermostat settings at the same as we made improvements. So I’m afraid I will never know exactly how much good I did, but if Washington Gas sends me fewer scolding messages, I will consider that a win!
Here are some things I hope to do in the future:
install a high-efficiency boiler and air conditioner
replace remaining single-pane metal windows with double-pane modern windows (while this would help, I’ve learned that the energy savings benefits of replacing windows are low relative to the cost)
replace old, stuck radiator valves to allow more control over the heating system
remove kitchen cabinets and patch exterior wall penetrations that make a corner of the kitchen very cold. This is one of the most frustrating issues in my house because it clearly indicates a shoddy renovation that could have been avoided, and repairing it would require an expensive cabinet replacement. I happen to hate my (cheap IKEA) cabinets and would be happy to replace them for that reason as well, but it’s just not in the budget right now.
get an induction stove.
This is the year I’ve gotten serious about energy efficiency. I’ve pondered why it’s taken me almost five years to make most of the improvements in the first list (other than the first four), and why so many other people also struggle to take these kinds of steps. It’s partly because energy efficiency is expensive and requires some degree of technical know-how, dealing with contractors is a headache and government programs pay only a fraction of the cost. As a specific example, when I bought the house, trying to be a good green homeowner, I got an energy audit. The company estimated around $4,700 for a suite of improvements, of which government rebates would cover $1,000, leaving me to pay $3,700 out of pocket. Having just depleted my bank account to buy the house, I wasn’t in a position to spend that kind of money, especially knowing that it would be many years before I recouped it through savings on my utility bills (more on that below).
It’s also because most people who build and work on houses don’t give a shit about energy efficiency and sometimes actively discourage it. So we’re largely on our own to figure this stuff out. And at no point in our lives are we actually taught how to take care of a house, much less about energy efficiency! I’ve now finally gotten around to educating myself to at least an amateur level on some things and doing most of the recommended improvements myself, motivated perhaps by the cold winter we’re having, perhaps by having become even more aware of the gravity of the climate crisis, perhaps by watching Don’t Look Up, perhaps by some combination of guilt, stubbornness, thriftiness and force of will – who knows. I guess the lesson is that we all have a lot of demands on our time, attention and money, and the more complex and expensive energy efficiency is, the more we are inclined to put it off. On the positive side, I’ve learned a lot about my house and about houses in general, and that has been interesting and fun.
The other side of the coin is that while energy efficiency is expensive, energy in the U.S. is extremely cheap. We pay about a third as much per kilowatt-hour of electricity as do Germans, for example. That creates far less economic incentive to conserve energy, and unsurprisingly, our huge, wasteful houses use about three times as much energy as do German houses per capita. The main reason I’m trying to save energy is my conscience: I feel terrible knowing that my lifestyle wastes energy, causes carbon emissions and inches us closer to climate catastrophe. It feels like anti-social behavior, toward both my fellow humans and the rest of life on Earth. But even that only gets me (or any of us) so far. As harsh as it is to say, neither I nor anyone else is going to impoverish ourselves to save the planet.
If we really care about climate change but don’t want to raise energy prices, which I think is basically a political impossibility in America, the government will need to simply pay to educate people and businesses about energy efficiency and pay close to the full cost of energy efficiency improvements, perhaps even create a CCC-like work force to go in and weatherize structures across America. My understanding is that the Build Back Better bill contains significant funding for energy efficiency programs. It just makes so much more sense to stop wasting energy than to continue to spew carbon powering millions of inefficient buildings. And we simply cannot afford to waste any more time in addressing the climate crisis.
Lastly, I am an environmental and climate journalist. I hope that what I write helps people better understand the world they live in and make better decisions. But my professional career choice is not relevant to actions most people are going to take in their personal lives, so I won’t say anything else about that here.
Some things I have not done for the climate
Installed solar panels. I looked into it semi-seriously a few years ago, and discovered that the shape and orientation of my roof and the presence of several tall trees that block most afternoon sun makes my house a poor fit for solar. It’s also a big expense that involves some risk, and I discovered that I’m more risk-averse than I perhaps realized. My current thinking is that installing solar will make more sense if and when the big tree in the southwest corner of my yard dies and I need to get my roof replaced anyway. But it bothers me that I’m still reliant on our standard energy mix, which last I checked is about two-thirds fossil fuel.
Stop flying. One can attempt to justify any trip, but the
fact is I still have a desire to visit places and family that are too far to
drive to. I believe these things enhance my life and make me a more complete
and worldly person, but I admit that’s a somewhat self-serving argument. Given
that half of my family lives in Germany, I don’t envision stopping flying
entirely in the foreseeable future, but I am trying to not fly frivolously,
recognizing that frivolousness is relative. I have prioritized writing stories
that can be reported close to home, reducing my flying for work.
Stop driving. My environmental conscience says we should all
live densely in inner-city apartments, but I greatly prefer living in a house
with a yard, which because of how American cities are designed makes going
car-free virtually impossible. I also like canoeing, hiking and camping, which
are all but impossible without a car. And my work often takes me to places that
are only reachable by car.
Go entirely vegetarian or vegan. I was both at various points in my life. When I was vegan, I was constantly hungry and could not stay full for more than a few hours. Nowadays I eat eggs and dairy daily, and meat or fish once or twice a week. Certainly this gives my diet a higher carbon footprint than if I were vegan.
Not own a cat. Cats are marvelous and endlessly entertaining
creatures, but their carnivorous, litter box-filling lifestyles are
unquestionably bad for the climate and the environment.
Political work. I live in a deep blue pocket of the bluest county in the United States. Nobody who represents me at any level denies the reality of climate change. Some might argue that our local and state politicians could be doing more, and I would probably agree, but let’s face it: Mount Rainier, Prince George’s County and Maryland are not going to solve global climate change. I also feel that my time and energy are better spent getting my own climate house in order and using it to educate and inspire others, and doing the best climate and environmental writing and journalism that I can. I know many others who have more energy and appetite for political fights, so I leave those to them. (An excuse? Perhaps.)
A final thought
I would rate my actual choice of dwelling as somewhere in the middle of the climate friendliness spectrum. The house is listed as 1,446 square feet. Whether that’s accurate or not, it’s certainly more than two people need; at the same time, it’s much smaller than the monstrous “single-family” houses being built in my neighborhood today. While it would probably be most efficient to live in a one-bedroom apartment in the city, there is more to a good life than being as energy efficient as possible. I feel vastly happier and more human when I can see trees from every window, step outside directly into greenery, and put my hands directly in the dirt. I am turning my little yard into a native-plant dominated wildlife habitat and participating in community efforts to create a “native plant network.” I will admit, I’ve bought into the American homeowner dream.
At the end of the day, we need to keep ourselves reasonably happy to be effective. A bunch of depressed people are not going to save the planet.
This story, like all good stories, has a backstory. Some years ago I began hearing that trees in the South were being chopped down, turned into pellets and shipped to Europe to produce electricity that was supposedly carbon neutral. It seemed like a bizarre case of climate policy gone haywire, but I didn’t start looking into it in earnest until about a year ago. Once I did, I found several environmental groups that are very outspoken and easy to reach and that tell a compelling story about a massive expansion of logging in ecologically sensitive forests to feed European power plants. So that’s what I expected to see a few weeks ago when I traveled to eastern North Carolina.
But the reality on the ground is rather different. First of all, forests and forestry are far more complex than how they’re often described. There’s a persistent idea, dating perhaps to the early romantics, that “real” forests exist in some ahistorical space outside of human influence. This idea is pretty much nonsense. In the eastern United States, forests have been managed and manipulated by humans for more than 10,000 years. If we could go back to, say, the year 1400, we would probably be shocked by the amount of smoke in the air from fires Native people set to manage their forests for hunting, food production and other purposes. That we have all but eliminated fire from most eastern forests is not an example of returning forests to “nature” but actually a management choice with wide-ranging, and often negative, effects.
Today, most forests in my part of the world are owned by individuals, families or corporations. And most forest owners are going to have them logged at some point, whether to pay land taxes, to fund their retirements or kids’ educations or for some other reason. The pellet industry did not create that situation – it’s a legacy of colonialism, Indigenous displacement and the privatization of most land in the East before the federal government got into the land acquisition business. It is definitely open to questioning – scientists have pointed out a dramatic mismatch between where large amounts of land are protected, mostly out West, and areas that have high biodiversity, many of which are in the Southeast. (Here’s a good piece on that issue.) But like it or not, it is the reality right now.
Logging is also more complex than environmentalists often make it sound. Wood pellet makers, at least the ones I reported on, do not own forests or logging crews; they contract out to third parties, like much of the forest products industry. For any given cut, loggers send the best stuff to sawmills, which pay the highest prices and cut wood for the increasingly large houses we all want to live in and the solid-wood furniture we all want to buy. The smaller or more crooked pieces are divided among other buyers – paper mills (think all those Amazon boxes), fluff mills (did you know that diaper makers are a big user of pulpwood?) and pellet mills. The pellet industry has not grown large enough to single-handedly deplete forests or biodiversity at a landscape scale, as some environmentalists imply. That’s not to say it couldn’t grow that large in the future, especially if big countries like the U.S. or China start to rely heavily on wood energy.
Some advocates want forests to be left alone to accumulate carbon and host wildlife. That’s a noble idea that I can understand the appeal of; there is nothing joyful about the sight of a clearcut. But there are several problems with this idea. One, who is going to compensate the millions of people who expect to earn money from having their forests logged at some point? It’s hard to imagine anyone endorsing a program to ship huge amounts of public money to private forest owners.
And two, what materials are we going to make things out of, if not wood? Steel? Concrete? Petrochemicals? Those are all far less environmentally friendly than wood. One remarkable thing about forestry today is that it produces huge amounts of lumber from forests that, at least from a carbon point of view, are growing, not shrinking. This does mean that a lot of land is devoted to growing pine trees as a crop. I don’t know about you, but a pine plantation doesn’t inspire in me the kind of awe I might feel in, say, an old, diverse hardwood forest. But if we accept that some land needs to be devoted to food crops to feed us, is there anything worse about putting some land into tree plantations to provide us materials, especially if it takes pressure off of other forests?
Environmental groups are correct about some things. Pellet mills have real, negative impacts on people who live near them – we chose to lead our story with someone who has had a mill plopped basically in her backyard. And while the industry claims to provide an incentive for land owners to grow forests, this mostly means pine plantations, even if the original forest was diverse hardwood. If you can grow pine trees and cut them in 14 years or grow hardwood trees and cut them in 80 years, it’s pretty obvious which you are going to choose.
Perhaps the most questionable claim is that wood pellets provide carbon-neutral energy. It’s odd that so much of Europe, which has a reputation (not always deserved) of being an environmental leader, has taken such a naive approach to this aspect of climate policy, while US policy makers have been much more rigorous and skeptical. On one of many long drives I took for this story, it occurred to me that if, as a society, we really wanted to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, we would have already expanded the one reliable, carbon-free, 24/7 energy source that’s ready to use at scale today: nuclear power. That we’re instead trying to convince ourselves that cutting trees in one place and burning them in another is somehow tackling climate change is one indication – certainly not the only one – that we are not really taking the climate problem seriously and making the hard choices that need to be made.
Pellets are certainly not wiping out forests, and they’re also certainly not saving the climate. They are creating a lot of confusion and generating a lot of emotions. I hope my story was able to cut through some of the fog and move the conversation forward.
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Early March is a time of waiting, of nature being poised, pregnant with an entire season ready to be birthed. I feel both excited and terrified. I know the green season is almost upon us. I crave the warmth, the long days, the growth and change, the fruits and vegetables and, this year especially, the ability to see friends and family outdoors. But I also know I’m about to lose control: I will try to swim with the green current but ultimately I will be washed over, carried along and deposited on a new shore, downstream on the river of time, closer to the endless, featureless ocean that’s waiting for all of us. In winter, when nature is dormant, static (or at least so it feels from my vantage point) I feel I can stop, too, that the passage of time almost stops. But I waste the moment, spend almost the entire winter indoors, (because: cold!), tell myself I still have time, and then boom, it’s March, 70 degrees, I fling open my office window for the first time to let in volatiles from the plants in my yard, the precocious crocuses are up, the shy hellebores are bending upward to face the sun, the hopeful daffodil tips are poking above the soil, the fuzzy magnolia buds look like so many green candle flames and the coy camellia is teasing me with pink hints of what’s to come…
This winter I’ve been thinking about the grizzled, disheveled old red maple tree that rules the southwestern corner of my property. I haven’t told anybody this because it feels silly, but in my head, I’ve been calling this tree The Beast. It’s not a huge tree in the global tree scheme, but for a red maple—an early/mid-succession live-fast-die-young sort of tree—it’s pretty impressive. A massive limb calved from it a couple years ago on a beautiful, windless morning, scraping the gutter off my house and leaving a scene of leafy chaos. Fortunately it was dawn and we were all in bed. Since then The Beast been quiet, but as with a nearby volcano, I wonder if it will erupt again.
The thing is, trees are both like us and not like us. One way they are not like us is in how they age. The older they are, the better they are at being trees. The Beast sloughed off a quarter or so of itself, which for a human would be a bodily catastrophe, but the tree just diverted its growth upward into its rangy limbs and kept on going. Its branches are presently festooned with what look from the ground like little red bumps, rock candies perhaps, neatly symmetrical because the maple, unlike most trees, branches oppositely. Those bumps are flower and leaf buds. Their existence tells me something vital: Nearly the entire tree, static though it may appear now, is pulsing with life. Then again, so was the limb that thudded down two years ago.
It’s interesting to compare The Beast to its neighbor, a sprite of a beech tree I planted last winter. If one were to anthropomorphize, which one shouldn’t, one might imagine the scrubby beech sapling looking enviously up at the wizened old maple hogging space and sunlight, while perhaps the maple has not even noticed the diminutive beech moving into the neighborhood below its outer branches. The maple, by turn, could envy the beech its long future, while the maple, much as I hate to think about it, has probably been through many more seasons than it has left.
Even as it goes dormant for winter, the maple seems to surge almost into the next season, putting out tight clusters of promiscuous red buds that leave little to the imagination. It will flower before almost everything; indeed, it’s already starting to. March winds will blow its pollen around, and before long, helicopter-like samaras will appear, elongate, then flutter to the ground in enormous numbers. By the time leaves fully emerge, red maple sex is over and the tree has entered a long green post-coital somnolence.
The beech is on the opposite schedule. For it, fall has yet to end; failing to complete the corky abscission layer where leaf stalk meets branch, its brown, papery leaves stay attached, shivering all winter—a trait called marcescence. Why? Nobody seems to know for sure, but hypotheses include that the leaves protect fragile buds from wind or being eaten, or that spring-falling leaves nourish the tree during the growing season. (But if so, why aren’t all trees marcescent? What’s the benefit of dropping leaves earlier?)
Scientists seem to think marcescence is in some sense a juvenile trait: a behavior of trees that haven’t fully grown up, evolutionarily speaking. That sounds judgy; truth be told, I like thinking of beeches as the overgrown adolescents of the woods. The beech, like all flowering trees, wraps its next-year flowers and leaves in a tight sheath, and eventually those flowers will emerge, pollinate each other and, by late summer, produce little triangular beech nuts (though my little tree is not yet at the flowering stage). But with those spearlike buds it’s currently being coy, hiding them behind gaudy leaves, which will tumble only moments before the buds open.
* * *
Despite their differences, I’ve recently learned that red maple and beech conspire to tell a story about our modern world. Before this area was filled with farms, then houses, it was filled with forests. Those forests burned about once every 10 years, according to studies of fire scars in old trees and other evidence hidden in the landscape. Some of those fires might have been due to lightning, but most were probably set by people. Those people weren’t arsonists: Quite the opposite, they were improvers. When it comes to trees, they wanted ones that would feed them. Maples and beeches were less valued than oaks, hickories and chestnuts with their rich, ample nuts. Conveniently, the thin bark of maples and beeches doesn’t resist flames well; applying fire to the land selected for a more nourishing forest. Brilliant.
We “modern” folks have separated our food-getting from our
trees; the non-productivity of maples and beeches is thus irrelevant to us. We’ve
also forgotten how to use fire—an intentional forgetting, perhaps. So our woods
are filling up with maple and beech at the expense of oak, hickory and pine.
(Chestnut was, of course, taken out by blight.) Red maple is now the most
common tree in both Maryland and Virginia. In fall this makes the woods more
beautiful than the dull duns of oak leaves would. Red maple in particular has
benefited from breeders’ attention, and in cities, Autumn Flame, Red Sunset and
October Glory compete for our lusty attention each fall.
Beech isn’t as widely planted—in fact, mine is the only one I know of in my small town—but zoom out a bit and one finds that it, too, is ubiquitous. Beech is the most common tree in Washington, D.C.—red maple is second—and among the top 10 in both Maryland and Virginia. In addition to lack of fire, the fact that deer don’t prefer beech is also boosting its fortunes. The present-day dominance of maple and beech isn’t any kind of natural situation; in fact, it’s as much a symptom of humanity’s hand on the land as are houses and highways.
An ecologist recently told me that in her opinion, the disappearance of fire-adapted oak-hickory-pine forests in the eastern U.S. has reached crisis stage. I have to admit that amid all the other crises—political, economic, covid, climate, environmental justice, racial justice—I’m finding it hard to really feel, in my body, the urgency of this one. I struggle to see my maple and my beech as symbols of ecological disaster.
I directly control only about an eighth of an acre, so I don’t feel personally responsible for rescuing our woods; my maple and beech can stay put. But as a writer I do feel responsible for figuring out how to feel—and to convey—the urgency of this slow-moving, mostly unheeded crisis. Perhaps with this last bit of suspended time before spring washes over us all, we can peel back a layer of illusion, shed some of our innocence and learn to better see our woods as they are—beautiful but troubled, and, like us, in need of healing.
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More than a year and a half in the making, my first New York Times Magazine story is finally out! It’s about an attempt to rescue the American chestnut, once one of the great trees of my part of the world but laid low a century ago by a deadly fungus, through genetic engineering. Obviously pandemics were not on my mind when I started this project, but it has occurred to me that chestnut blight was the first major tree epidemic of modern times. After nearly a century, scientists have created a tree that is nearly identical to the original but can resist the blight. There is a long way to go, but the scientists behind the project have a plan for restoring the chestnut to the American landscape — if the U.S. government approves their tree.
That’s my name, rotated and tiny.
I was attracted to this story for several reasons. Most obviously, it’s about a tree — a type of being that, as anyone reading this probably knows, is close to my heart. It’s also about fixing nature, a theme I find increasingly fascinating. The idea that humans have the wisdom or the right to fix the very same nature we’ve messed up is one that is, and will probably always be, controversial and debated. For better or worse, the scientists who I wrote about have taken a very definite stance on this question: Yes, it is both wise and our right to attempt to do so. And lastly, the characters in this story are normal, non-celebrity people. They’re not backed by enormous industry or foundation funding (though they recently, for the first time, got a sizable private grant that is still peanuts compared to what defense or medical researchers get showered with every day), or installed with fancy titles at fancy universities, or familiar figures on the self-promotion circuit. Stories about those kinds of people are a bit too easy to find, and therefore a bit too often told, in my opinion. I look for the folks working outside the spotlight.
It’s not just the idea of fixing nature; genetic engineering has been controversial since its inception, and this project has not escaped the controversy. In the 20 or so years I’ve been aware of genetic engineering, it has seemed like the vast majority of voices, or least the loudest voices, were polarized in one of two positions: GMOs are environmentally destructive and tools for corporate takeover of our food supply, or we need GMOs to feed a growing population. I think there are aspects of truth in both positions, but neither is the whole story — something rarely acknowledged by people in either camp. What struck me in reporting this story is that most scientists I spoke with seemed to find it difficult to understand why many people feel viscerally uncomfortable about genetic engineering. Meanwhile, activists I spoke with seemed to find it impossible to consider that something genetically engineered could be environmentally beneficial and not simply another Monsanto-hatched scheme to control nature. The issue can’t be resolved with platitudes like “follow the science”; both the geneticists and the activists appeal to science to support their cases. Similar to many aspects of the coronavirus pandemic, what “science” tells us is the best choice is not clearcut, and inevitably we must make value judgements that transcend scientific considerations alone.
It seems to me, in looking back on what I learned and heard while reporting this story, that the chestnut could provide a middle ground, a meeting place of sorts between GMO proponents and opponents. Indeed, one of the sources in my story, Neil Patterson, a professor of indigenous studies at the university where the chestnut is being engineered, ends up being the character who may be showing a way to this middle place, if only everyone were willing to expand their ideological frames a bit — and, I might add, give indigenous ways of knowledge a more serious hearing than they’ve typically gotten in the past.
In any case, clearly this story is not over. It will be years if not decades before the fully blight-resistant chestnut begins its slow march onto the landscape. New generations of chestnut champions will need to carry on the project. I’ll be interested to continue following the story.
I’m also interested in what reactions you might have to this use of genetic engineering technology, for ecological restoration rather than farm crop enhancement. Or about any other aspect of this story. The most gratifying thing about publishing a long story in a visible place is the smart, thoughtful feedback I get from readers, who often raise perspectives that I’d never thought of, and that enhance my understanding even of a topic I’ve spent many hours thinking about. (There can also be less thoughtful feedback, but that’s just an occupational hazard of writing.) Especially when I’m immersed in a topic for so long, it can be easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees, no pun intended. Reader feedback helps restore that larger view, so please, be in touch.
Of course, if you like the story, and feel moved to share it with others, I encourage that as well.
* * *
Not since 2017 have I written a proper update. I could say I was too busy, but really, it’s because I always find diving into the next story more interesting and gratifying than the inevitably narcissistic task of promoting myself. You can find an exhaustive list of what I’ve written since 2017 on my website, if you really want. Here a few highlights that, in my admittedly biased opinion, either stand the test of time, or are relevant to what’s happening today:
This was my first piece for an outlet whose environmental reporting I’ve long respected, Yale E360. It examines an idea — fighting climate change by storing carbon in soils — that’s getting a lot of hype and money from companies, governments and nonprofits. But enough scientists were publishing skeptical views on the idea that I felt it deserved a closer look. My conclusion, as articulated by one scientist at the end of the story, is that regenerative agriculture may have many benefits for farmers and the environment alike, but if the goal is to stop climate change, counting on soils may be “risky business.”
This story also represents my first collaboration with the Food and Environment Reporting Network, a small but mighty journalism nonprofit that’s now doing some of the best reporting on the coronavirus’s impact on farm workers and the food supply. They published it with a cheekier headline: Is carbon farming a climate boon, or boondoggle? It was also republished by Grist.
Parks and natural spaces provide a crucial, health-enhancing outlet at a stressful time, and I’ve been alarmed to see them shut down at a rapid clip as part of the coronavirus pandemic response. Since my piece was published in the Washington Post, the message has been amplified several times by more famous writers, so I guess I was onto something. It’s hard to say whether we are collectively having an impact — though I did hear from a friend in Portland, Maine of a local official using my piece (which was republished in the Portland paper) to support his arguments for keeping parks open. Media photographs of people on lawns or beaches — even if most of those people are actually, if you look closely, social distancing — have an emotional impact right now and make it harder for politicians to give people the opportunity to exercise and recreate outdoors. Personally, from all the evidence I’ve seen, I continue to believe that coronavirus is not spreading outdoors to a great extent, and the outdoors remains one of the healthiest places to be during this time.
My first foray into professional science writing, and one that I’m still proud of, was as a sort of editor, ghostwriter and book doctor for a book conceived by a friend from Kentucky, Billy Woodward, called Scientists Greater than Einstein. The idea was to feature 10 scientists who had saved the most lives, and of the ones we came up with, probably the most compelling was Normal Borlaug, an agronomist who developed high-yielding crops that vastly improved nutrition and possibly staved off famine in much of the non-wealthy world, an event often referred to as the Green Revolution. I haven’t written much on the topic since, but I recently had a chance to revisit it as part of the Moonshot Catalog, a cool project headed up by another friend and science writer, Ivan Amato. The challenge facing today’s crop researchers is feeding an ever-growing human population as the climate becomes less friendly to agriculture, which will require crops that are more productive, hardier, and more diverse than ever. I wrote about how scientists around the world are using modern tools to try to spark Green Revolution 2.0.
This is my first travel story, about the Ruhr, or “Germany’s Appalachia.” It’s also about a place that I’ve been going my whole life, because my mom grew up there and much of my family still lives there. The Ruhr is a region that was once industrial and heavily polluted, but it has made a remarkable transition to a cleaner, greener economy over the past few decades as coal mines and factories have shut down. I’ve had a chance to see this transition unfold over 15+ visits to family from literally 6 months old through last December. The irony of publishing a travel story just before international travel shut down indefinitely is not lost on me, and at this point it may need to be read more as escapism than for tips on where to go and what to see. But travel will be possible again someday, and the Ruhr is as fascinating as anywhere I’ve been. As a bonus, the lead photo, snapped by yours truly on a very fancy Samsung Galaxy S5, features my uncle and aunt, who have spent countless hours showing me the highlights of their home region.
Eastern Kentucky was devastated for decades by mountaintop removal. Now scientists have figured out a way to undo the damage — one tree at a time. As many of you know, I grew up in Kentucky, though not in the mountainous eastern part of the state. In 2003, I was shocked when I for the first time flew over some of the hideous moonscapes created by coal mining, courtesy of an organization called Kentuckians for the Commonwealth. The message I always heard was that these places were ruined not just temporarily but forever. So when in late 2018 I met a federal scientist from those same mountains who was planting trees on those mines, it seemed like a surprising and compelling story, and a small gift that I could give to the state where I grew up.
One of the treats of doing this piece was getting to work with a talented photographer from the Post, Jahi Chikwendiu, who, in an amazing coincidence, also grew up in Lexington, KY. I think we both enjoyed the opportunity to explore a fascinating and too often misrepresented or stereotyped part of our home state. The multimedia treatment he and the Post art team put together probably got as many compliments as my words, and certainly helped amplify the impact of this story. I recently heard that the tree planting is mostly continuing despite the pandemic, which is one of the best pieces of news I’ve heard lately.
Last summer you probably heard that tree planting is the world’s best climate solution — it’s an optimistic message that spread around the world and eventually even made its way to President Trump. For Science Magazine, I wrote a profile story of the young, bold and sometimes reckless scientist behind the message, ecologist Tom Crowther. It started out as a fairly normal profile, but events that occurred while I was reporting turned it into one of strangest stories I’ve written. Suffice it to say, the consensus is that tree planting is not going to save us from climate change: the reality, as usual, is far more complicated.
Once upon a time I studied physics, and even though my writing career has taken me far from where I began, I still like to keep a toe in the field. For whatever reason, I’ve especially found myself drawn to quantum computing, an area that, like soil carbon storage and tree planting, has seen a lot of recent hype. For this story, I spoke with chemists and materials scientists who are supposed to use quantum computers to make amazing discoveries, not just profit from developing them. The bottom line: quantum computers have transformational potential but also a ways to go before becoming useful, and much of the hype that has come from their promoters is overblown.
* * *
It feels strange to compose a post, in the midst of the most severe global public health emergency of any of our lives, trumpeting my own minor accomplishments in writing. Nothing I’ve written will feed anyone or save a single life. It won’t hasten the end of the pandemic. But I hope it can at least provide a distraction, an escape and a bit of hope that a world worth living in is waiting for us on the other side.
For a final note, I know we’re all beset by fundraising pleas from every cause under the sun, most of them probably worthy. I would just add this one: support your media outlets as much as you can. The stories I’ve written, and that my fellow writers are writing, would have no impact without the editors, photographers, fact-checkers, lawyers and all the other -ers who work behind the scenes. All of that costs money, and none of us are getting rich. And it hopefully goes without saying by now that without a robust, well-funded independent press, we would have very little access to good information about the coronavirus pandemic and how to stay safe.
I hope you and yours are staying safe and healthy.
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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.
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.
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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!
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.
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.
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.
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