Spring 2020: tales of science and rebirth

Friday, May 8, 2020

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.

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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:

Can ‘Carbon Smart’ Farming Play a Key Role in the Climate Fight?

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.

Don’t cancel the outdoors. We need them to stay sane.

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.

Green Revolution 2.0

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.

Germany’s Ruhr valley beckons with converted coal mines and a unique industrial heritage

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.

The Green Miles

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.

Catchy findings have propelled this young ecologist to fame—and enraged his critics

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.

I also wrote my own local take on the balance between tree planting and tree care for the Washington Post: We don’t need to just plant trees. We also need to take care of them.

Waiting for the Quantum Simulation Revolution

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.

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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.