This post originally appeared on The Sieve.

We’ve all heard about the dangers of non-native plants: they outcompete natives; they carpet forest floors and smother roadsides; they cost us billions of dollars a year in control efforts. They’ve colonized huge swaths of the mid-Atlantic, where I live; I’ve written about them on this very blog. But is it possible that some introduced plants could prove beneficial in their new environments?

Palm fruit in El Yunque National Forest

That’s certainly what Ariel Lugo thinks. Lugo, the director of the US Forest Service’s International Institute of Tropical Forestry, has long promoted a more catholic attitude toward plants of diverse origin. I recently visited him at the University of Puerto Rico’s Agriculture Experimentation Station in San Juan, where his office sits among groves of eucalyptus and bamboo—both of which humans introduced to the island. According to Lugo, the immigrant vegetation reflects the welcoming Puerto Rican spirit. “Here, we don’t persecute trees,” he says. “The federal government is the only one that persecutes trees.”

As far as Lugo is concerned, any species that can help his island recover from past environmental devastation—near complete deforestation, large-scale cultivation of sugarcane and other crops—is welcome. In 1992 he published a paper comparing the understories of pine and mahogany plantations with those in regrowing native forests. Lugo found that similar numbers of species were growing in both places, and that many of the understory plants in the plantations were native. Moreover, he found the older plantations were starting to give way to native overstory trees. “The study challenges the conventional dogma…and underscores the dangers of generalizing about all tropical tree plantations or all natural tropical forests,” he wrote. According to science writer Emma Marris, it took Lugo almost a decade to get his paper accepted.

And when he did publish it, the backlash was fierce. “He almost got hung,” says Dov Sax, an ecologist at Brown University. A 1991 letter in the journal Conservation Biology accused Lugo of “rais[ing] the dangerous specter of legitimacy for exotic organisms in natural environments.” But since then, more ecologists have come to accept that exotic trees can be useful for restoring highly disturbed ecosystems. “That view was unpopular at the time, but it’s been born out,” Sax says. “It’s not true everywhere, but it’s true lots of places.”

To explain where he got his unconventional ideas, Lugo told me a story from his graduate student days. He was studying the tabonuco, a beautiful, blotchy-barked tree native to Puerto Rico’s rain forest. But Lugo noticed he didn’t find tabonucos sprouting from the abandoned farm fields that make up most of the island. Instead, he saw guava trees, native to the American mainland. He didn’t mind, though: “I love guavas,” he says. “I ate tons of guavas in the 1970s.”

Two decades later, those same fields were dominated by the African tulip tree, another exotic (as the name suggests), and now the most common tree on the island. Lugo realized at this point that he was seeing forest communities that were new to science: “novel systems,” he calls them. He also realized that all-native forests weren’t coming back—now or ever. “The oldest of these systems that we can surmise are 80 years old, and there’s no indication they will revert back to native systems,” he says. That’s because he’s seen them survive “the ultimate test for the Caribbean”—hurricanes. “If you don’t survive hurricanes you don’t belong here,” says Lugo. “These species have seen hurricanes and they lose branches like everybody else. I don’t think they’ll ever go.”

But novel systems don’t discriminate against native species either. They’re more like a neighborhood in Queens where long-time residents and fresh-off-the-boat newcomers go about their lives in dynamic harmony. And Lugo, for one, celebrates his island’s cosmopolitanism. “We have introduced rats in the native El Yunque forest; and we have African bees in the native palm forests; and we have endemic birds [birds unique to the island] in plantations constructed by people,” he says. “The species don’t see the distinction. They are now all engaged in a new order.”

Puerto Rico, often called the gateway to the Caribbean, has long been a place where people and species mix. It was settled at various times by groups from both North and South America, and eventually became dominated by the Taino people from the Orinoco River basin in present-day Venezuela. In 1493, Christopher Columbus encountered the Tainos, setting the course for colonization, exploitation, and an often brutal mixing of people and culture.

But, as environmental historian Alfred Crosby has pointed out, colonization has always been about ecology as well as culture. As early as 1509, the Spanish introduced cattle and other livestock to the island. They also introduced and grew crops from other parts of the tropics: coffee (originally from Africa), ginger (from Asia), tobacco (from mainland North America), rice, cacao, and tropical fruits from all over. Above all, though, Puerto Rico produced sugar (from south Asia); by the early 20th century island was practically one large sugar plantation. Only in the past 80 years have forests been allowed to regrow; a little over half the island is now reforested.

Non-native bamboo: invasive pest or carbon storage virtuoso?

Puerto Rico today is a stew of Spanish, African, and (in smaller proportions) Native American ancestry, and its flora is no less varied. So does it matter if part of the species diversity is imported? That depends who you ask. Many ecologists fear that introduced species will inevitably cause extinctions of native species, on the theory that there are only so many ecological niches to go around. This concern is especially pertinent on islands, which tend to be small and have large numbers of endemic species that occur nowhere else.

“That’s what first got me into trouble with my colleagues,” Lugo says when I bring this argument up, and he offers another story. In 1986, the famous evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson invited Lugo to speak about tropical extinctions at the National Forum on BioDiversity (the term “biodiversity” was coined in connection with this forum). “So for the first time I examined extinctions in Puerto Rico,” Lugo says, “and to my horror I found there were hardly any. So that’s what I said there.” For sharing this unexpectedly positive finding, Lugo reportedly got yelled at in the Smithsonian cafeteria.

Lugo also rejects–for Puerto Rico at least–the argument that exotic species are less good than natives at providing vital “ecosystem services”: filtering water, providing food for insects, or moving or holding onto nutrients. “The services that El Yunque provides with its native species composition are the same services as we get from other mountains that have introduced forests,” he says. “The water is not different coming out of an introduced species forest or a native forest. The productivity, the carbon sequestration, the support of native species—we’ve written a lot about this.”

Lugo and 18 other scientists recently threw some new fuel on this long-simmering debate with an article in Nature entitled “Don’t Judge Species on Their Origins.” The authors were challenging what they view as an outdated orthodoxy, according to which native species are preferred to non-native ones for no reason other than that they are native. “Nearly two centuries on from the introduction of the concept of native­ness, it is time for conservationists to focus much more on the functions of species, and much less on where they originated,” the authors wrote.

Dan Simberloff, a University of Tennessee biologist and prominent invasive species researcher, fired back. In a response signed by 140 other scientists, Simberloff accused Lugo and his colleagues of “assailing two straw men”—the notion that invasion biologists oppose all exotic species, and the notion that they ignore the benefits of these species. In Simberloff’s view, Lugo and his coauthors are representing a fringe position that can “lead to bad decisions” in managing natural areas.

But Lugo defends the article; in fact he says the opinion he and his colleagues put forth was mild. “We’re more radical than what we showed there,” he told me. “We wrote something people could take.”

After talking to numerous people on both sides of the debate, I have to come to feel these rhetorical volleys may shed more heat than light on the ecological value of non-native plants. In fact, I suspect that Lugo and Simberloff—both first-rate scientists—would actually agree on most points of fact. But I also suspect that beneath the scientific debate are divergent—and passionately held—views about what kind of world these scientists want to live in. The Lugos of the world find novel species mixtures scientifically interesting and ecologically useful; the Simberloffs worry about unique species and communities being irrevocably lost. Both, it would seem, have a point.

In the end, though, what kind of world we want may not matter. We’re not going to turn back the ecological clock. Indeed, the rate of change is increasing: human population growth is putting tremendous pressure on every ecosystem in the world, while global trade is mixing species at never-before-seen rates. On top of that, we’re in the midst of the most profound ecological disturbance in human history—climate change—which may make the whole concept of native species obsolete. What difference does it make if something is native to a place where it can no longer survive?

In the future, we’re probably going to need all the help we can get. So if non-native plants can help stabilize disturbed ecosystems, let them, says Lugo. “To me, it’s good news that nature reacts to us by remixing and reforming and reshaping and restructuring,” he says. “Novel systems that are a reflection of our activities—I love those. They’re saving our ass.”

* * *

What do you think? Should we be holding the line against non-native species, or is it time to ditch the “native vs. non-native” paradigm? Is there a way to find a middle ground?

Kentucky’s Red River Gorge is a giant sandstone layer cake hollowed out by water and covered in life. On its ridges and slopes grow the mixed hardwoods of the eastern U.S.—oaks, maples, tulip poplars—along with hardy pines, mountain laurels, and an occasional bigleaf magnolia. But in the Gorge’s stream-carved ravines, plants from a colder time still find a home. Descend into one of these valleys on a hot summer day and you may find yourself suddenly wrapped in a cave’s chilly breath and a hemlock grove’s dusky shade.

Hemlocks by a stream in the Red River Gorge

A hemlock-lined stream in Red River Gorge

Since before I can remember, I have been hiking the Gorge. As a child, a hike was pure bounding adventure, and it was only thanks to the adults that we eventually settled down in some beautiful spot to eat our sandwiches. As a teenager with friends, a hike was freedom, a chance to expand from our city selves. We would lace our boots and set out full of spirit and chatter, eager to rack up miles, scramble up boulder piles, run full speed down slopes in the rain yelling. We gazed up at the huge cliffs and arches and allowed ourselves to be awed.

But of the millions of trees we passed on these hikes, I don’t think we even stopped to look at one. We were too restless, too hungry for challenge and too in thrall to the grandeur of rock. If we had paused for a moment in a quiet valley, we might have seen the hemlocks full of life. We might have enjoyed their light green fringes of new growth, and felt their downy needles.

In Kentucky, the eastern hemlock is one of those species left over from a colder time. As the last ice age ended and glaciers receded poleward, trees and other plants moved across the landscape, tracking their ideal climates. The hemlock, perhaps a slower migrater than most trees, eventually found its way to the understories of cool Appalachian river valleys. As it grew, its thick needles, which fan out in dense, overlapping branches, cast a shade so deep that few other species could grow in it. Thus the hemlock created its own preferred conditions, and perpetuated itself in its new home.

As the hemlock grew on the banks of streams, its perpetual shade also cooled the flowing water. Trout, dace, and salamanders thrived. The trees dropped needles into the streams, and stoneflies arrived to eat them. Spiders arrived to eat the stoneflies. Over time, a community of life grew up around the hemlock. Ecologists call it a keystone species.

Hemlock needles in a stream

Hemlock needles

Today, I offer a lament for the Red River Gorge hemlocks, which shaded my childhood hikes without my knowing it. They shade less now because their lower branches are mostly bare. In a few years they may not shade at all. A tiny insect is extracting these trees one by one from the forest.

The hemlock’s struggle is, on one level, simply biology. But it is biology made tragedy by our careless shuttling of species around the globe. The eastern hemlock has cousins in Asia and the West Coast, separated by eons of evolution. In that time, a sucking insect called the hemlock woolly adelgid evolved to live on the Asian hemlocks’ sap. Various predatory beetles evolved to eat the adelgid, and the ecosystem maintained a kind of dynamic balance.

So it went for countless millennia; so it still goes for the hemlocks of China and Japan. But in 1951, a shipment of ornamental Japanese hemlock carrying adelgids arrived at a nursery in Richmond, Virginia. Soon thereafter, an insect and a tree that had never met were united, and by an unfortunate quirk of biology, the eastern hemlock proved both edible and defenseless. The adelgids pierce the sap conduits at the base of the hemlock’s needles, and the tree starves to death.

The adelgid's woolly egg sacs

The adelgid’s woolly egg sacs

The adelgid also proved to be an almost ideal invader. A female adult can, without even mating, lay up to 300 eggs at a time, and the insect has two generations in a year. The tiny nymphs don’t fly, but they are easily given wing by wind or birds. Nevertheless, the adelgid did not immediately sweep across the eastern forest. For several decades it spread slowly, perhaps as it evolved ways to better exploit the vast resources in its new and predatorless environment. In the 1980s, a hurricane that swept adelgids from Virginia up to Long Island and Connecticut seems to have triggered a faster expansion. Since then the bug has been spreading north, south, and west at up to 15 miles per year, devastating hemlock stands from Georgia to Maine.

Mostly dead hemlock

A dying hemlock in Red River Gorge

The hemlock woolly adelgid is a relative newcomer to Kentucky; it was first found in the far southeastern part of the state in 2006. Now it occupies about a fifth of the state’s counties, including Powell, Wolfe, and Menifee, where the Red River carved its gorge. On trees where the adelgid has taken up residence, the lower branches go first, but the insect can take several years to reach the higher ones. It may not be too late for Kentucky’s hemlocks—but they need help, and fast.

Scientists have found two ways to protect hemlocks. One is to inject or drench trees in an insecticide like imidacloprid (the same class of chemical implicated in honeybee colony collapse disorder) every few years. This method has the obvious drawback that it introduces a dangerous pesticide into a potentially vulnerable ecosystem. It’s also far too expensive to save even a sizable fraction of the trees in a forest. But it can temporarily preserve trees deemed particularly valuable for aesthetic or ecological reasons.

Most forest managers believe only long-term solution to the hemlock woolly adelgid invasion is to replicate the natural systems that keep the insect in check in its native Asia. That means establishing populations of adelgid predators—a process known as biocontrol. Throughout the east, scientists are breeding, screening, and releasing several different species of predatory beetles in places with heavy adelgid outbreaks. Ironically, getting a desirable exotic species to take hold in a new area can be a real challenge. And in the South, where warm winters allow the adelgid to spread faster and more virulently than further north, trees are often too far gone by the time beetles build up enough population to make a dent in the bug’s numbers. Biocontrol may not be able to stop the adelgid invasion, but it will be a critical piece of any future efforts to restore hemlocks to the eastern U.S.

Kentucky foresters and scientists can at least piggyback on the experiences of states where the adelgid hit earlier. But these places tell a mostly sorry tale. Despite millions of dollars and many smart scientists devoted to saving the mighty hemlocks of North Carolina, the trees there have mostly succumbed. In the valleys of the Great Smoky Mountains, grey skeletons line the riverbanks. In Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, a rare remnant of eastern old-growth, giant leafless trunks point skyward as mushrooms pock their decaying bark. Forest managers even took the extraordinary step of felling some of the dead trees with dynamite so they would not endanger hikers.

Two hemlock trunks in Blanton Forest

Two huge hemlock trunks in Blanton Forest

Sadly, a similar story is now playing out in Kentucky. And because it lacks world-famous sites like the Smokies and Joyce Kilmer to focus public attention and donations, the state seems to have far fewer resources to devote to its trees. As far as I can tell, only one Kentucky state employee works full-time on the hemlock. Forest managers are forced to triage, directing limited insecticide and biocontrol budgets to save select populations along streams or in heavily visited areas. And scientists doing adelgid research are stretched thin. Of those scientists, University of Kentucky forest entomologist Lynne Rieske-Kinney probably spends the most time on the insect. She has studied a variety of questions: what stream insects depend on hemlock; why are some hemlocks more resistant to the adelgid than others; what will happen to Kentucky forests if the hemlock disappears? Nevertheless, she told me the adelgid accounts for only a little more than a quarter of her research effort.

It’s impossible to know whether Kentucky, with more money, could be the place where the hemlock makes a stand. But it does seem clear that without more resources and greater public urgency, most of the state’s 70 million-plus hemlocks will soon be lost.

A hemlock graveyard in Virginia's Shenandoah National Park

A hemlock graveyard in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park

I admit I’m a latecomer to the hemlock’s fan club. I learned of the adelgid less than two years ago, from scientists in Wisconsin who worry that warming winters will allow the adelgid to reach their magnificent forests (for now, cold winters limit the insect’s northern expansion). Since then, I have seen too many hemlock graveyards—in North Carolina, in Georgia, in Virginia and Maryland, where I now live. I have also hiked among the gorgeous, still living hemlocks of Red River Gorge and Blanton Forest in eastern Kentucky. I have felt their cool shade on a hot June day. I don’t want to come back to Kentucky in a few years and find more graveyards.

Will future Kentucky teenagers romp through hemlock-shaded valleys? Or will their Gorge hold only skeletons and a few scraggly survivors of the adelgid invasion? The next few years will likely tell. And I hope that in Kentucky, scientists will be able to give this story a different ending.

This post originally appeared on The Sieve.

In 1987, Wendell Berry complained in a delightfully grumpy essay that “a number of people” were advising him to buy a computer. This new machine would, his friends and colleagues surely believed, free the great writer from the drudgery of composing by hand. It could save his drafts, allow him to cut and paste, and maybe even spell-check. So did Berry join his colleagues and leap into the digital age?

Absolutely not. He could write just fine with pencil and paper, he explained. When he finished a draft, his wife Tanya typed—and edited—his manuscript on a Royal standard typewriter (a practice that did not sit well with some feminists). A computer would disrupt the Berrys’ finely tuned “literary cottage industry”—a highly productive industry that has led to over 50 (and counting) books and collections of poems and essays. It’s easy to see why Berry would be wary.

Writing before computers

Writing before computers

I think today’s writer has far more to be wary about than Berry did, back when computers were little more than glorified typewriters. Today’s machines are spigots at the end of a pipeline delivering an endless stream of information from the outside world. Each news update and email and tweet has the potential to derail a writer’s train of thought—and yet we let them in. Do we really believe this has no effect on our ability to write?

In fact, scientists are amassing a mountain of evidence that computer-based distractions can devastate mental performance. In a recent New York Times article, journalist Bob Sullivan and scientist Hugh Thompson described a study in which they gave subjects an exam and then told some participants they would be interrupted by an instant message. The subjects who were interrupted performed 20% worse than uninterrupted test-takers. “The results,” the authors wrote, “were truly dismal.”

And it’s not just exam-taking that’s affected—it’s all kinds of mental activity. Last week on the radio program Science Friday, Stanford University psychologist Clifford Nass told host Ira Flatow that constant multitaskers are worse at focusing, thinking creatively, and even multitasking itself. “The research is almost unanimous…that people who chronically multitask show an enormous range of deficits,” Nass said. “They’re pretty much mental wrecks.”

More worrisome, these distractions also seem to have the power to make our brains want more of them. A growing body of literature suggests Internet applications harness the same neurological reward pathways that addictive drugs have long exploited. Scientists have recently identified a phenomenon known as “phantom vibration”—the feeling that a cell phone is vibrating in response to an incoming message, even when it isn’t. As someone who compulsively looks for the little parenthetical “(1)” after the word “Inbox” on my web browser, I have to say this kind of research is confirming what I know all too well from experience.

Yet despite the mounting evidence, science writers—and probably many others—face increasing pressure to embrace every new social media platform. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a writers’ conference that didn’t include, in some form, a panel of writers selling their colleagues on the glories of Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus and the like. If we don’t expose ourselves to the endless volley of information bomblets, we’re told we’ll miss out on the all-important “conversation.” I sometimes wonder if I’m the only one who finds this a rather poor substitute for what we now must call “in-person” conversation.

I see from Berry’s essay that this pushing of addictive Internet technologies by their users is nothing new. Strangely, it reminds me of the peer pressure teenagers supposedly exert on each other to try cigarettes, booze, or other substances—right down to the “everybody’s doing it” message. Given the known risks, I would suggest we approach addictive technologies with some of the same caution we apply to those drugs. Perhaps we need a new DARE for the Internet age.

The author at work on his computer, ca 1987. Photo by Beate Popkin

The author at work on his computer, ca 1987. Photo by Beate Popkin

That said, I am not about to leave behind the Internet and its attendant technologies. Indeed, for a relatively new (hopefully up-and-coming) writer like me, shunning email, blogs, and social media would be professional suicide. And I appreciate that these technologies allow me to share work, like this essay, with colleagues, editors, and readers around the world. (Even Berry has lately admitted borrowing a friend’s computer to send his work to publishers.) I can’t imagine going back to pencil and paper and snail mail, nor do I wish to. I’d do as well trying to get around by horse.

But I do reject what Berry calls “technological fundamentalism”: the uncritical belief that every new technology will improve our lives. I would argue that a device or service should be judged not by whether it’s novel or whether everybody else is using it, but by whether it actually helps us do our jobs better. While social networking sites may aid writers in publishing and promoting themselves, which are certainly necessary parts of the business, they seem to be detrimental to the writer’s most fundamental task, which, I would argue, is thinking. Deep, uninterrupted thinking.

Despite all scientists have learned about the brain, thinking remains mysterious and idiosyncratic. It seems to resist being forced or hurried. But clearly it can be easily sabotaged. Let’s take a stand against the proliferating technologies that fragment our time and our thoughts. Let’s recognize that our most important tool is not the digital computer or the wireless router but the analog brain.

What do you think—have we let Internet technologies intrude too much in our lives? How do you manage the distraction deluge? Leave a comment—or better yet, tell me in person!

This post originally appeared on The Sieve.

As my devoted readers no doubt realize by now, I’m on a bit of a Rachel Carson kick. I wrote a blog post and produced a radio show about her last fall, and I’m working on an article about her for Johns Hopkins magazine (Carson got her master’s degree at Hopkins). Why this slight Carson obsession? It started with the 50th anniversary of Silent Spring, which got me wondering, as a science writer, how someone armed only with scientific knowledge and words could have such influence. I believe we science writers sometimes sell ourselves short in terms of what we can accomplish, especially in this age of disposable Web writing. Carson can remind us of the potential of writing for impact, not just for mouse clicks.

In 1953, Rachel Carson spoke at a symposium at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting. The topic was the sea frontier. Unlike the other eight panel members with whom she shared a stage, Carson was not a research scientist; she had until recently worked as a staff writer for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. (She was also the only woman on the panel). the conference she talked about the book she was writing, The Edge of the Sea, which would be based mainly on her observations, and less on the work of other scientists, as her previous books had been. Carson had scientific training, but it was her writing that earned her the speaking slot: her 1951 book The Sea Around Us had made her the nation’s most famous writer about the oceans and perhaps about all of science.

Although Rachel Carson spent almost her entire career writing about the sea, she is remembered today for her one book about things that happen on land. That book, Silent Spring, awoke the American public to the dangers of many common pesticides, and launched the environmental movement. But while the birth of environmentalism would not have happened exactly when it did and how it did without Carson’s advocacy, it would have happened: Americans would not have tolerated smoggy cities, burning rivers, and toxic chemical clouds for much longer. “I suspect that the audience [of Silent Spring] was close to an environmental awakening,” said Jane Lubchenco, a marine biologist and past head of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, at a symposium dedicated to Carson at this year’s AAAS meeting. “No doubt [Carson] catalyzed it, but the ground was fertile.”

Carson built her more enduring message around themes of ecological connection and interdependence, Lubchenco and her fellow speakers argued. Jane Maienschein, director of the Center for Biology and Society at Arizona State University and organizer of the 2013 session, noted that this motif permeated Carson’s AAAS talk, as she drew connections between what happens on land and in the oceans, as well as what happens in nature and in the human sphere. Nancy Langston, an environmental historian at the University of Wisconsin (who was not on the AAAS panel), told me that bringing this burgeoning ecological awareness to the public was, in her opinion, “probably [Carson’s] greatest legacy.”

Sharon Kingsland, a historian of science at Johns Hopkins University, took the idea of Carson as connector a step further. In her talk, she made the case that Carson united science and the humanities—the “two cultures” made famous in a 1959 lecture by British scientist and writer C. P. Snow. Specifically, Carson saw in the natural world more than just scientific facts—she saw “clues to a deeper meaning of life” that required pulling in knowledge from the realms of literature and religion as well as science. Moreover, the humanistic perspective provided a check on what Carson saw as the arrogance of scientists who thought they could dismiss the idea of the balance of nature. “This higher truth is revealed to us by contemplating ecological relationships,” Kingsland said. “The concept of the balance of nature functioned for Carson as the link between the two cultures of science and the humanities.”

That these ideas may seem obvious today is a testament to Carson’s enduring influence. But they also suggest a way in which her impact has been limited, because while we may largely accept the premises of ecological interconnectedness and the limitations of science, our actions suggest we don’t accept the conclusions. We continue to fill our environment with carcinogens, neurotoxins, and endocrine disruptors; and we continue to hope for technological solutions to environmental problems, rather than ask how we might restrain the activities that cause the problems in the first place. When I asked Langston’s UW colleague Warren Porter, an environmental toxicologist, what has changed since Carson’s time, he bluntly told me “not much.”

To me this doesn’t diminish Carson in the least. I think she accomplished as much one can with words: she changed the conversation both at the grass-roots level and at the highest ranks of government. But I would like to consider another dimension of her legacy, which is what she has given to my chosen field, science writing. Carson became a full-time science writer in 1934, at a time when no specialized training programs existed in the field, and when the National Association of Science Writers, which formed that same year, consisted of twelve members. Thus, Carson was very much a pioneer in forging a career out of writing about, rather than conducting, scientific research. UW Rachel Carson Professor of English Rob Nixon credits her with “establishing the model of the radical generalist” who “doesn’t necessarily contribute original research, but does read the research and assemble it into powerful images and story forms.” Moreover, Carson set the bar so high that no one has done it better since.

The AAAS 2013 speakers argued that Carson provides a valuable model of a writer who developed a deep subject matter expertise and an ability to write about it both precisely and lyrically. In Lubchenco’s words, she was “an honest broker” of science. Gregg Zachary, a professor of journalism at Arizona State University, said Carson was a member of a rare species: “journalists who seriously endeavor to write about complexity.” Writing has never been an easy vocation, but times are especially tough today; Zachary warned the audience that the financial support Carson had while developing her expertise and writing voice is no longer available to today’s science and environmental journalists. “They don’t have the support to put in the thousands of hours that she put in,” he said. Be that as it may, we at least have Carson as a beacon to strive towards.


Rachel Carson at microscope, 1951, Brooks Studio. Courtesy of the Rachel Carson Council

I want to contribute a related but less tangible answer to the title question. I believe that Carson matters because she gives us a model for seeing. This may seem odd, since we all know Carson for her writing; shouldn’t the skill we hope to learn from her be how to write? Well, yes. But putting words on page is merely the writer’s final act of translation. Most of what Carson did throughout her life, I would argue, was seeing. Even during her scientific training at Johns Hopkins, she spent painstaking weeks sectioning fish embryos, looking at them with a now obsolete optical device called a camera lucida, and drawing them; these drawings make a sizable fraction of her master’s thesis.

Indeed, science is essentially a process of seeing ever farther and deeper; this theme echoes from the ancient Greek philosophers through Copernicus and Galileo to deep-sea explorers to modern physicists who build enormous colliders in order to peer at the tiniest particles imaginable. But writing is also largely a process of seeing. Flannery O’Connor noted that many writers paint, “not because they’re any good at painting, but because it helps their writing. It forces them to look at things.” Annie Dillard, who indeed paints, is downright obsessed with seeing: she devotes a chapter to it in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and then, for good measure, another in Teaching a Stone to Talk. Several of the most common photos of Carson show her with either binoculars or a microscope, and I don’t think this is accidental. If she achieved more—if her words went farther than those of others—it is mainly because she saw the world more precisely and penetratingly.

This theme resonates for me because I too have lately been trying to learn to see. And in doing so, I’ve realized I’ve been living half-blind. Only in the past year or so can I look at a tree in my neighborhood and have any clue what it is. I’m still all but hopeless with flowers or birds, not to even mention the insects. Even harder to see is what is not there but should be. Warren Porter told me the air used to teem with insects, before we doused our environment with pesticides and let deer and invasive species devastate the native plants that insects eat. I still can’t see the lack of them—the insects or the plants. When I look at the night sky I recognize only a few obvious shapes. And more to the point, I don’t see the missingness of the stars that earlier astronomers saw, stars that are now invisible due to light pollution.

Rachel Carson spent much of her time reading and writing, but she also went to estuaries and marshes and took rides on fishing vessels to study firsthand what was going on with the ocean. From these observations, she developed the motifs of interconnectedness and balance of nature that permeate her work, from her earliest newspaper articles to her magnum opus. If we who are writing about environmental problems today wish to learn from her, we might do well to step away from our computers for a moment, go outside, and practice seeing.

“Nature’s silence is its one remark…” –Annie Dillard [1]

The high plateau known as Dolly Sods, in Appalachian country, is a good place to consider Dillard’s statement—especially in winter.

Where's the snow?

Where’s the snow?

My friend and I hiked the Sods on a recent January day. We had come to West Virginia to ski, but a few days’ rain had washed away the season’s accumulated snow, leaving only miserable little icy patches clinging to tree roots and shady hollows. So instead we walked through a sodden world of mosses, ferns, and bogs. Water flowed from time to time down the paths, forcing us to either hop from wet rock to wet rock, or skirt the muddy edge. On our first attempt at a trail, we came to a place where water apparently flowing from both directions made a wide, foam-flecked pool, blocking the way forward. We looked for a bypass, but the rhododendron on either side was too thick. So we retreated downhill and chose a different route, which set us toward a creek two and a half miles distant.

Our new route took us through woods, across meadows, over streams, and around trees that had been knocked over like dominoes by Hurricane Sandy, blocking the path at intervals and forcing detours. The landscapes seemed scattered, random: here a grove of young beeches, there a pine plantation, a spruce forest, a blueberry meadow or a limestone outcrop. The brown leaves on the ground were frozen and matted, making a pretty papier mache earth. The ground itself was springy and crunchy, pleasant to walk on. At times we found ourselves stepping on pink and green mosses, soaked through like sponges. A low cold sky hung over us, grey as if reflecting the stones below.

It was a world of water up in the Sods, soaking ground, moss, boots, socks, pant legs. Water flowed every which way, sometimes seemingly both ways at once, turning trails into rivulets, streams, and occasional ponds. It became hard to remember one waterlogged piece of trail from another, or whether the last stream we crossed flowed left to right or right to left. Finally we came to the Red Creek, running fast and brown with tannins. The water tumbled and roared mindlessly, endlessly down a steep gorge, always changing, always the same. We stood on the wet rock next to it, struck by the display of raw, pointless power.

Amazing ice


Then there was the ice: nature’s answer to the monotony of water. We walked over ice that had frozen on the ground in paper-thin sheets, sometimes forming concentric rings like topo lines on a map. We saw ice that seemed to grow vertically from the ground, like silver hairs fixed with gel. We marveled at combs of icicles formed by waterfall spray that then froze. We saw ice deposited on trees as supercooled water in an ice storm, smoothly sheathing branches. At one point we came across an inexplicable three-inch ice stalagmite. Later on our walk back we saw it again, comforting us that we were on the right path. That tiny unexpected sliver of ice was more distinct, and thus more memorable, than any of the much larger visual clues in our vast landscape.

For me, ice in the temperate zone is precious and should be treated like fine glassware. But my friend enjoyed breaking the thin veneers of ice that formed over depressions in the trail, figuring, I suppose, that nature would do the same in a day or two.

We shared the place with no one and no creature that I saw, save, briefly, one bird. Besides him (or her), we were the only audience in this cold theater. Others were living there; we could tell because we saw what they left behind on the trail. But they didn’t care to put in an appearance that day. Where were they—and what secret scenes were we not witnessing?

And what were we doing there, anyway? Unlike the animals, we had no food to find there, no vital purpose driving us. Indeed, there was precious little up there we could have eaten: moss, maybe? Not much shelter either, nor creature comforts. We ate peanut butter-jelly sandwiches and trail mix on a cold rock and didn’t linger: only movement kept the blood flowing. Were we there to “keep an eye on things,” as Dillard suggests? Why not let the scene play to an empty house? The players don’t care—the beeches would have shivered; the spruces would have whispered; the water would have seeped, trickled, and spilled all the same without us.

I admit I don’t have a better answer, beyond the meeting of eye and sky, ear and torrent, face and chilled air. In short, we went there for sensations and unexpected things.

* * *

It’s awfully lonely, isn’t it, having only ourselves to talk to? The rest of nature seems to speak a language we’ve forgotten: one of scents, chemicals, magnetic cues, photoperiods, and subtle sounds beneath our threshold of hearing. We sense these things too, vestigially, but we’ve become so enthralled with our pretty speech, like babies practicing nonsense words, we practically refuse to listen to anything else. Nature has become a foreign country, we need to relearn the language.

Sometimes I wonder about our frantic activity on this planet. Is it just a palliative for some deeper loneliness, a loneliness we brought upon ourselves by deciding to speak only to each other? Otherwise why do we expend so much effort to constantly gather together, when it rarely brings us food, shelter, or any of the other necessities of life? And why do the world’s religions seem to agree on at least one thing: humans should couple and create more of themselves?

As we’ve ballooned to seven billion and beyond, we’ve had a collective impact on this planet at once superficial and profound. We’ve rearranged most of the land surface, except for those places that are truly inhospitable. We appropriate nearly half the planet’s biological productivity—we, who are only one species out of 10 million or more! And we have taken it upon ourselves to liberate from the ground, in a couple of centuries, quantities of carbon the earth has been storing for millions of years. We may dominate earth’s ecosystems, as a group of prominent ecologists has suggested, and yet, I can imagine the other members of those ecosystems laughing ruefully at our absorbed self-importance. All of humanity has become like that annoying American abroad who can’t understand why the people around him don’t understand English, and thinks maybe if he just talks louder… Meanwhile, our atmospheric carbon blanket thickens, the extinctions pile up, and we careen ever faster toward our strange and unknowable future.

* * *

Once I realized we wouldn’t be skiing, I wanted to write another piece about the death of winter. But Chip Chase, the owner of the Whitegrass cross-country ski “resort,” complicated things for me. He told me that bare ground in winter is not unusual for him—in West Virginia you’re always on the edge of good snow, and even in January you’re prone to warm spells. In fact, Chip said some of the past few years—which have been some of the warmest on record globally—have also been some of his best. This season, for example, Sandy dumped two feet of snow in late October, and the season was off and running.

So much for easy narratives.

[1] Dillard, A. “Teaching a Stone to Talk.” Harper & Row, 1982.


An olive tree from Ithaca, Odysseus’s home

This post originally appeared on The Sieve.

If you’re a writer looking for a good symbol, consider the tree. The author of Genesis did, twice: he placed the tree of life and the tree of knowledge front and center in the Garden of Eden. Homer did, too: When his hero Odysseus returned home after twenty years of war and travel, needing to prove his identity to his skeptical wife, Penelope, he used a tree. “Move our bed into the hallway,” Penelope told her servant, laying a trap. (I’m paraphrasing here.) “It can’t be done,” Odysseus protested. “I carved a post of that bed from a living olive tree.” Only then did Penelope believe the strange man was really her husband, as steady as that post.

Trees have long impressed us with their steadfastness; in fact, some trees from Biblical times are still with us today. But a new story I read recently casts trees in a different role. I first came across a version of this story in a paper published in the journal BioScience in 2007. The authors looked at where trees live using what a tool known as a “climate envelope,” which is a line drawn on a map around the entire range where a given species is able to survive. The scientists compared climate envelopes for 130 trees under 2007 conditions to those predicted for the end of the century, using the same computer models that the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change bases its forecasts on. On average, they found that trees’ envelopes moved 700 kilometers north, nearly the distance from Memphis to Chicago.

So does that mean our trees will be moving north as things get warmer? Traveling trees can make great stories: Shakespeare’s Macbeth was vanquished when Birnam Wood moved a few miles to his fortress at Dunsinane Hill. And it would be dramatic indeed if future northern woodsmen and women hunt deer among sprawling live oaks and big-leaf magnolias instead of spruce and pine trees. But the scientists who wrote the BioScience paper noted that actual trees are unlikely to track their climate envelopes’ northward migration in the coming years, at least if unassisted by humans. Trees can “move” up to a few miles in a generation, by setting their seeds aloft in the wind or encasing them in a shell so they can survive a trip in the gut of an animal. But tree generations are long, and most seeds land close to home. Sugar maples, for example, lead a chaste adolescence, and don’t start making seeds until the age of 22 or so. They then send out seeds attached to little helicopters, which spin and float at most the length of a football field before touching down. Scientists estimate trees’ maximum migration rate to be around 50 kilometers per century, with many traveling far slower—a tortoise’s pace in this race.

Read on »

This post originally appeared on The Sieve.

Invasive plants are the ones that don’t play well with others. They steal their neighbors’ food and water, and they refuse to share. And you’ll see them all around the Baltimore area: vines smothering stream banks and blanketing entire trees; the brambles tangling and choking the understory; the annuals carpeting the forest floor. They’re the botanical version of an alien invasion.

Or, they can make nice additions to our gardens. Vanessa Beauchamp, an invasive plant ecologist, tells me about a hiker who came upon her research team in a park outside Baltimore. “She asked us what we’re doing, and we explained we’re studying this invasive grass that we think is a really big problem, and we’re trying to understand more about its ecology. And she says, ‘Oh my gosh that stuff is so pretty, I dug up a bunch and planted it in my yard.’”


A wavyleaf basketgrass carpet

The plant was wavyleaf basketgrass, a native of Europe and Asia. It sounds innocent enough, like a prairie grass that might rustle softly in a summer breeze. And it’s pretty enough, too, with intensely green leaves that unfurl on either side of a central shoot, and a head of spiky seeds that sticks up a foot or so above the ground. The seeds are the problem, though—they hitch rides on pant legs, animals, basically anything that comes by—and disperse to new locations that way. The plant can grow just fine even in the deep shade of a mature forest. In Patapsco Valley State Park, where it was discovered in the mid-1990s, it now carpets acres of forest floor. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources launched a war on it but lost, due to lack of funding. Now the plant has spread to other parks in the area, and experts like Beauchamp fear there may be no containing it.


The seed head

But if it’s green and pretty, what’s the worry? Beauchamp says it’s all about the community of life in the forest. Exotic plants like basketgrass are newcomers to this community, so nothing has evolved to eat them—a lesson Beauchamp has learned firsthand. “When we worked on wavyleaf basketgrass, we literally spent the summer crawling around on the forest floor. I figured we would just be tick city,” she says. Instead, of the half dozen people on her crew, “We got one tick between all of us. I mean, that’s insane.”

Few of us would be sad to see the ticks disappear. But without the thousands of insects, worms, mites, and spiders that make their living in the forest understory, the woods would be a vastly different—and less lively—place. “Nobody’s looked at how insects are able to use this grass…We see very little insect damage on the grass at all. We see no deer damage,” says Beauchamp. “If there’s no insects eating them, there’s no birds eating those insects, and up and up and up.”

A wavyleaf basketgrass army

Beauchamp moved to Towson University in Baltimore from Arizona five years ago. For an invasive species expert, the move meant more than packing and unpacking boxes—it meant abandoning one biome and learning a new one. Luckily for Beauchamp, Maryland has no shortage of invasive plants, and it didn’t take her long to find one she could claim as her own. “I came across this wavyleaf basketgrass that nobody knew anything about, and I said ‘All right. That’s mine.’”

One of the questions Beauchamp is asking is how aggressive the grass actually is. Many writers on the Web claim it crowds out other plant species, but Beauchamp wonders whether it might just take advantage of openings on the forest floor, especially those created by Maryland’s massive plant-munching deer population. To test how competitive wavyleaf basketgrass is, her research team is growing the grass in a greenhouse alongside other native and invasive grasses, and seeing which puts on the most weight. They hope to have results soon.


Beauchamp’s dog, with seeds

Beauchamp is also trying to figure out how the seeds disperse. And she thinks she’s found a suspect: pet dogs. When hikers let their dogs run through a basketgrass patch, they “come out looking like a chia pet,” says Beauchamp. Fore more precision, she had her students count the number of seeds sticking to a dog. “We found that a single dog going through this grass for 30 seconds can get over 2000 seeds on it,” she says.

Dogs may not be the only culprit, though; Beauchamp also has her eye on deer. She and her team tested this hypothesis in a rather macabre way: they got severed deer legs from a meat processor, and “walked” the legs through a basketgrass patch. Again, the legs came out covered in seeds.

But Beauchamp admits she can’t answer the most important questions: how much wavyleaf basketgrass is there, and where? “I have absolutely no number to tell you in terms of how many acres this grass covers in Maryland,” she say. “None.” Unfortunately, when she wrote a grant to fund a project that would get at such a number, she got caught in a chicken-and-egg situation: the review panel rejected the proposal, saying Beauchamp and colleagues hadn’t demonstrated how much of a threat the grass poses. “But if I don’t have any money to study it, how can I demonstrate that?” she asks.


“Walking” the deer legs

So like any good scientist, she’s gotten creative. She mustered a “wavyleaf basketgrass army” of undergraduates and high school teachers to go out and count plants in different locations. She’s also teaming with a Catonsville Community College professor who’s developing a smartphone app that will allow anybody to report a basketgrass sighting, along with GPS coordinates. Beauchamp is hoping the data her team and concerned citizens collect will convince funders and policymakers that the grass is worth studying on a larger scale.

Beauchamp vs. basketgrass

Beauchamp versus basketgrass is the latest chapter in a long saga of human battles against invasive plants. And so far the invaders have scored most of the victories. Here in Maryland, English ivy, Japanese stilt-grass, mile-a-minute weed (an Asian species known as “kudzu of the north”), and other exotics have become far more familiar sights in our parks and forests than most of our native plants. Will wavyleaf basketgrass join this list of dubious characters, or could this be the time we outsmart the weed?

(All photos courtesy of Vanessa Beauchamp)

This post originally appeared on The Sieve.

The 2010 US census workers had a tough job, but at least they were on land, counting residents with home addresses. 2010 was also the year a group of marine biologists completed a much tougher assignment: a global canvass of ocean residents who don’t fill out forms, live in some of the most remote places on the planet, and often move thousands of miles in a single year. The first study of its scope, the Census of Marine Life has added thousands of new species to the books, and has shown, in the words of project director Jesse Ausubel, that “the ocean’s even richer in diversity than anybody had known.”

The newly discovered Kiwa hirsuta, also known as the Yeti crab. Image courtesy of Chris Allen and the Encyclopedia of Life.

Census scientists collected over 6,000 new species, and have already described 1,200 of them in detail. They discovered deep-sea jellyfish, 500-year-old tubeworms, bejeweled copepods and isopods, and a hairy white crab that lives near sulfurous vents on the ocean floor. They found a mat of filamentous bacteria the size of Greece off the coast of Chile, and located a squid previously believed to have gone extinct in the Jurassic. The Census uncovered new life forms even in some of the world’s most studied and heavily trafficked ocean regions, said Ausubel, Census co-founder and program director at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, who described the results in a talk in Washington, DC last Thursday.

Each newly discovered species now has its own web page in the online Encyclopedia of Life, which will eventually catalog every known life form on Earth. Pages in the encyclopedia include physical descriptions of the species, scientific information like where the creature is found and how common it is, and, of course, color photos. “It’s like facebook,” Ausubel said. In addition, scientists gathered DNA from every creature found, new or not, for a project called the International Barcode of Life. The iBOL is a reference library made of segments of specific genes that are shared among many forms of life, but whose precise sequence varies in an identifiable way from species to species.

Scientists also learned that many familiar marine animals make long-distance trips across the ocean, “commuting like jetset businessmen” in Ausubel’s words. Census researchers attached acoustic tags to various creatures and released them; the tags then emitted sounds that were picked up by receivers on the ocean floor as the animals passed by. Scientists watched bluefin tuna swim from Mexico to Japan and back in a year, and tracked seals fishing from underwater mountains off the Antarctic coast. They monitored salmon swimming up the west coast of Canada, and learned that many of them don’t make it back to rivers to spawn the next year. And they used the tags to collect data beyond just the animals’ locations; for example, they enlisted leatherback turtles to collect ocean temperature readings during their journeys around the South Pacific. “Animals connect the ocean in incredible ways,” said Ausubel.

Surveying the astounding diversity of marine habitats—coastlines, continental shelves, deep-sea trenches and mountain ranges, the vast open ocean—required a correspondingly varied array of exploratory techniques: “a concerto of technologies,” said Ausubel. To explore the ocean surface and shallow waters, scientists worked from submarines, airplanes, and massive research vessels. For probing the deep ocean, they turned to robotic and remotely controlled vehicles that could operate at depth without risk to human life. In total, the project cost $650 million spread over a decade, and involved almost 3,000 scientists. “Marine biology hasn’t had a tradition of big science” like physics has, said Ausubel, but with the Census of Marine Life, that may be starting to change.

Although Ausubel noted that “extinction is rare in the ocean,” scientists found ample evidence of humans’ effects on life in the sea, few of them good. Overharvesting has depleted the populations of various fish, mammals, and reptiles since the time of the Romans, and in recent times has led to explosions of less desirable creatures, like jellyfish. Modern scourges like the huge floating garbage patches in the Atlantic and Pacific are also harming aquatic life, particularly island-nesting birds that are often found dead with plastic in their stomachs. But the greatest impacts may be yet to come, as humans increase shipping, oil drilling, and underwater communication, and as rising greenhouse gas emissions continue to warm the ocean and make it more acidic. The Census has given scientists a valuable baseline against which to measure future changes to the abundance and distribution of ocean dwellers.

Despite their impressive findings, marine biologists have just begun the hard part of counting every creature in the sea. They believe the ocean could contain a million or more undiscovered species, most of which are likely to be small, rare, and hard to find. And those are just the relatively well-studied multi-cellular ocean dwellers; the number of microbial species in the ocean is far larger, perhaps as many as a billion. Ausubel also noted that few people study most marine life forms, besides the well-known ones like fish and mammals (a hint to any young scientists out there searching for a specialty.)

The seas have long fascinated and mystified us. Over 60 years ago, Rachel Carson’s best-selling book The Sea Around Us told the public about the stunning discoveries in marine biology made possible by World War 2-era innovations in sonar and submarine technology. Since then we have learned much about what lives in the deep sea, and we now know the ocean floor is not barren but in fact teems with strange and wonderful life. But the Census of Marine Life also reaffirms the lure of the unknown that Carson described in her 1951 masterpiece: “We can only sense that in the deep and turbulent recesses of the sea are hidden mysteries far greater than any we have solved.”

This post originally appeared on The Sieve.

Last week, I along with millions of people took off work and went 25 hours without food or water. No, we weren’t orchestrating a spontaneous hunger strike; we were observing Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. The instruction to fast comes from the Bible, but the Bible also tells us to do all kinds of other things—sacrifice animals, stone adulterers—that even the most pious ignore today. So why do we continue to find this one relevant? I believe the answer can be sought not just in religious texts, of which I confess to being almost entirely ignorant, but also in science.

Maurycy Gottlieb’s “Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur”

Physiologically, fasting sets off a chain of chemical and electrical signals in the body. After the stomach empties the last bits of a meal into the small intestine, it releases a hormone called ghrelin, which activates a region deep in the brain known as the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus then sends out a nerve signal that manifests as hunger, and we feel an unpleasant sensation in our stomach. That meal we ate also provided a surge in glucose, a simple sugar that fuels the brain, and when the surge ends we feel weak, tired, and sluggish until our next meal.

I’m familiar with the bodily effects of hunger, but I also notice changes in my mental state when I fast. The hyperactive part of my brain that normally wants to execute plans and think a million things—what Buddhists sometimes call the “monkey mind”—seems to shut down, or at least quiet down. I feel grumpy and pessimistic; I become contemplative; I write; if I go to services, I feel more like praying than I normally would. I also notice a heightened sense of connection to others. In an intangible but distinct and sometimes powerful way, I feel linked to people in other places who are also fasting now, as well as to people who have fasted in other times.

I began wondering this year if there was a connection between fasting and what was happening in my brain. If I were a neuroscientist, I could put some fasting people in MRI machines, like what Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin does with meditating monks. But I’m a writer, not a scientist, so I did the unscientific thing and called a few friends.

For Rhea Kennedy, who has fasted on Yom Kippur for many years, going without food doesn’t necessarily lead to turning inward (“I’m usually pretty introverted anyway,” she observes), but she does find herself feeling profound empathy with “other people who can’t eat for some reason.” Rhea also feels herself linked with people who lived in the past. “It affects the way I relate to my Jewish ancestors and survivors of the Holocaust,” she says. “A lot of [their experiences] had to do with food deprivation.”

Laura Bellows, another friend with a long history of fasting, echoes Rhea’s experience of empathy with those for whom going without food may not be a choice. “It makes me feel like this is a little taste of what it’s like to be hungry,” she says. Laura also finds that fasting enhances the intensity of her prayers, and creates a sense of bonding with her community. “I feel very connected to those with whom I’ve fasted,” she says. “It’s as if we’ve been through this communal hardship together.”

Muslims also report feeling empathy during fasting for Ramadan. Here are a couple of examples:

“At one point he [a Washington, DC taxi driver] said that Ramadan and fasting have a broader social impact because they are ‘a reminder of people who cannot eat,’ and how lucky we are.” (from the blog No Kid Hungry)

“When [Emad Meerza, a Muslim community leader in Bakersfield, CA] fasts, he thinks about others around the world who are also fasting — not by choice, but because of famine, war or political strife. Through our own suffering, he says, empathy is born.

‘The only way to feel that is to feel a little bit of that pain,’ he says.”

(from the Bakersfield Californian)

These are anecdotes, not even close to the kind of data that would be needed to approach this question scientifically. Unfortunately, from what I can tell, scientists haven’t sought the answer either. I conducted article database searches on various combinations of terms like “Yom Kippur,” “fasting,” “psychology,” “science,” “empathy,” “mental states,” “hunger,” and “food deprivation,” but turned up little that seemed to address a link between religious fasting and the brain. Maybe I’m missing it—if you know of such a study, please drop me a line; I’d love to know about it.

Might Jews, Muslims, Mormons, Hindus, and others have developed and maintained fasting practices in part because they understood a mind-body connection that scientists have yet to make? Empathy is a near universal human experience, and has also been observed in rats and monkeys. But it has been a puzzle for neuroscience to figure out how one brain can share an experience occurring in another, entirely distinct brain.

Recently, some scientists have looked to systems of nerve cells known as mirror neurons, which are thought to fire in ways that mimic what we believe to be happening in the brains of others. V. S. Ramachandran, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego and a prominent mirror neuron proponent, has even called them “empathy neurons.” Other scientists question this link, and some doubt whether humans truly have neurons dedicated to mimicking others’ brain activity. But whether due to mirror neurons or not, I do find it suggestive that our processing centers for emotions like empathy seem to be located not in the thought-processing and decision-executing regions of the brain—the frontal lobes—but in deeper regions of the brains. Our understanding of the neurological basis of empathy is described in a paper by psychologists Stephanie Preston of the University of California at Berkeley) and Frans de Waal of Emory University.

Which lobe contains empathy?

Does that mean thinking and deciding require more fuel than emoting? Many times I have become extremely hungry after doing sustained, mentally demanding work, suggesting to me that concentrating hard and long might demand more energy than, say, sitting by a stream. But while some studies have shown that people do better on certain difficult mental tasks when supplied with a sugary drink, it seems that in general the brain consumes a nearly constant amount of fuel no matter what it’s doing. Ferris Jabr wrote a good review of some of this research for Scientific American recently.

Regardless, hunger does seem to make it hard to concentrate on the kinds of tasks we normally think of as “work.” I’ve had that experience, Rhea and Laura both reported it, and so did Jonah Lehrer. It happens to millions of office workers every day; it’s why schools provide free breakfast to students. Perhaps it’s mainly because we get distracted by hunger, but for some reason we can’t seem to concentrate and think well without food in our stomachs. On the other hand, we can contemplate, pray, and feel connected.

My naïve hypothesis, then, is that fasting may quiet the noisy thought-processing and decision-making brain regions, and give us a chance to listen to a softer, less pushy voice—one that has less to say about the day-to-day that consumes us most of the time, but a lot to say about the longer and deeper currents that run under our lives. And one of those currents seems to be a sense of connection to other living beings on our planet. Fasting is not sufficient to hear this voice—we also need to choose to listen, perhaps by going to a prayer service, or by spending time in a quiet place. (Lehrer in his blog post described a fast not leading to a religious state of mind.) But maybe fasting makes the listening easier.

Many in the popular press continue to write about the supposed rift between science and religion. (See a Time article, a Discover blog post, and a 2010 book for some examples.) Ritual fasting seems to me like a perfect meeting place, where science can help elucidate the value of religious traditions, and religion can stimulate scientific investigation. I’d love to see scientists take on this kind of research.

This post originally appeared on The Sieve.

Is the pen mightier than the sword? Fifty years ago this month, one of those rare books was published that seems to have proven the famous saying true. Powerful industries opposed the book, but only succeeded in increasing its renown. President Kennedy appointed a commission to investigate; the commission reported that the author’s findings were correct. The book galvanized an environmental movement, led to laws and regulations that protected the country’s air and water, and brought treasured species like the bald eagle back from the edge of extinction.

The book, as you might have guessed, was Silent Spring, and the author Rachel Carson. Today we might wonder how such an influential writer could ever have emerged, but in the 1950s and ’60s Carson was a celebrity. And it wasn’t for writing scary books about pesticides; her main beat was the ocean. Carson became most famous for The Sea Around Us, which told the public about the stunning advances in scientists’ understanding of marine life. “With that book Carson not only became an international superstar, she became the most trusted voice in public science,” says Linda Lear, who wrote a biography of Carson. “She never wrote any article for the academic community. She wrote for the public, because she wanted the public to understand the world they lived in, the natural world.”

Carson was able to write authoritatively about science in part because she came from the academic science community; she earned a master’s degree in zoology from Johns Hopkins University in 1932. Today she might have moved naturally over to that university’s science writing program (where my co-bloggers and I now reside) and launched her career that way, but in her day she was forced to blaze her own trail. She attempted freelancing, which was apparently no easier then than it is today, but also got herself noticed by the Bureau of Fisheries (now the US Fish and Wildlife Service), where she was hired to translate marine science into accessible prose. Though she excelled at this job and moved up through the government bureaucracy, she was also setting herself up for an independent writing career. “What she really wanted to do is publish her way out of government,” says Lear.

So Carson was a science writer who started out, like many, as a celebrator of science. But because of her scientific training, she recognized the dangers that certain scientific advances—especially those in atomic physics and chemistry—posed to the ecosystems she loved. However, Silent Spring is not anti-science; rather it uses science to questions humans’ use of scientific knowledge in the post-World War 2 period. In answering these questions, Carson makes full use of her prodigious writing skills, eloquently synthesizing the best government and academic science of her time.

It would be nice if we could say Carson’s pen had vanquished the overuse and misuse of toxic pesticides, but with a few notable exceptions like DDT, most of them are still around. And as anyone who reads the news knows, the world is awash in all kinds environmental threats—endocrine disruptors, farm runoff, greenhouse gases. So where are the next generation (or two) of Rachel Carsons—writers who bring a scientific issue to the public’s attention and inspire citizens and politicians to act? Nancy Langston, environmental historian and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says part of the problem is the sheer amount being written. “Every time another book comes out such as…Our Stolen Future—that was the first really popular account of endocrine disruptors—people say, ‘Oh, it’s the next Silent Spring,’ but there are dozens of these each year. And I think a lot of people get overwhelmed.”

I’m particularly curious what Carson would have done with climate change, the most pervasive environmental threat today. After all, many talented science writers have taken up their pens (or more likely their computer keyboards) in the hope of overcoming the ignorance and inertia surrounding this issue. One who stands out for me is Elizabeth Kolbert, whose brilliant book Field Notes from a Catastrophe (which, like Silent Spring, was first serialized in the New Yorker) places climate change in its terrifying, civilization-destroying historical context. But did Field Notes lead to a presidential commission? Has legislation been passed? Have most Americans even heard of this book? Unfortunately, the answer to all three of these questions seems to be no.

It isn’t the fault of Kolbert or any other writer. The industries and groups opposing action on climate change are far more organized and sophisticated than those Carson was up against. “With climate change this isn’t just a debate, there’s a well-oiled machinery that actively propagates doubt, and is invested in that, and is tied up in the fossil fuel industries, and in making sure that legislative inaction is perpetuated,” says Rob Nixon, an environmental writer and Rachel Carson Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Nixon does point to Bill McKibben’s recent Rolling Stone article “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” where he writes that enough fossil fuel reserves are already on the books of major oil companies to warm the planet far beyond 2 degrees Celsius, the limit of what scientists believe might not be catastrophic. McKibben “has committed himself very squarely to this topic, very single-mindedly, so I think he’s the closest we come” to Carson today, says Nixon. Without question, McKibben’s article earned a lot of attention; for a week or two I found myself in conversations about it almost daily. But only for a week or two. The article also has the danger of doing exactly the opposite of what he probably intended: making the problem look so massive, and the industries driving climate change so mighty, that there is nothing we who have only our pens can do.

So can we still earnestly go around saying, “The pen is mightier than the sword.”? This famous line, from a now-obscure 19th-century play, encapsulates a sentiment that has probably given succor to many an idealistic writer, perhaps even Carson. And it would seem to follow that with the rise of the Internet and self-publishing, the daily avalanche of words would be enough to overpower any opposing force. But the opposite is true: with more words published than at any time before, each one seems to matter less. It’s hard to break through, and even harder to last: trending today, gone tomorrow. Will anyone recapture Carson’s gift for cutting through the fog? I don’t know, but for the sake of all members of the community of life, I certainly hope so.

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Postscript: for my own amusement, I decided to try updating the famous line for the bureaucratic age. Let’s see if this proverb catches on: “Writing is a more effective means of advancing change than military action.”