Joyce Kilmer famously wrote: “I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree.” And despite many criticisms of both poem and poet, it remains to this day one of the best-known pieces of poetry. People who know nothing else about poetry can often recite at least that line if not the entire poem. One of the reasons for its longevity is the fact that so many people for so many years made fun of it.
But another reason, I think, is that trees really are beautiful. The more we study them, the more we discover the amazing things they can do. A wild fig tree in South Africa, for example, was found to have tree roots that went 400 feet down. Tree roots work symbiotically with the rhizosphere, exchanging nutrients with the soil so that both tree and soil around it are healthier.
Trees can lift as much as 100 gallons of water a day out of the ground and discharge it into the atmosphere, making them fantastic partners in reducing storm water runoff. Trees filter air pollution, water pollution and toxic waste in the soil.
Trees properly placed around buildings can reduce air conditioning needs by as much as 30 percent and save 30-40 percent in heating costs as well. Not to mention that trees are great at absorbing carbon dioxide, collecting as much as a ton of carbon dioxide by the time they’re 40 years old. And what do they do with it? They supply oxygen to us.
We now know that some trees release aerosols that attract pollinators and repel threats. For example, evergreens emit trillions of pounds of terpenes (a terpene is a kind of isoprene that acts as a natural pesticide) a year. The world’s forests emit 500 million tons of isoprenes annually, many of which act as a natural sunscreen for the planet.
Studies have shown that people who spend time among trees have lower concentrations of cortisol (a stress chemical) as well as lower pulse rates and lower blood pressure. In addition, green space – not just trees but other plants as well – has been shown to be helpful for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Conversely, the loss of trees has had a detrimental effect on the world. Floods have become far more frequent lately, partly because of deforestation, because when there are fewer trees to soak up the water, it rushes along the surface of the ground, causing much more damage than it otherwise might.
More than 90 percent of America’s old growth forest is gone. 80 percent of the world’s old growth forest is gone. And we’re still cutting more trees every day, perhaps as many as 3-6 billion a year out of forests (not counting the cutting of trees from plantations).
What does that mean for us? Certainly not good things. Increased droughts, increased floods, more diseases, increased warming of the planet.
The good news is that it’s not irreversible. We can stop the cutting; we can replant. We just have to want to do it. The first step is understanding how important trees are … and how beautiful – lovelier than poems even.
The loner as hero is not a uniquely American concept, but it’s an idea that Americans have embraced as distinctly ours. It began, for us, as the image of the cowboy conquering the West, taking on all comers as he fought for freedom and justice and the American way.
Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman: all loners. They all work outside the system doing what the system can’t do as they bring order and civility to the rest of the country/world. But it isn’t just comic books and movies that promote the idea of the loner.
Look at literature. The Great Gatsby – while largely devoted to an exploration of the American dream and the decadence that arises from its overzealous pursuit – also presents Gatsby as a loner, a man outside the system, looking in, trying to find a path to the metaphorical riches of Daisy Buchanan.
Huck Finn and Atticus Finch are loners, as are Augie March and Holden Caulfield. And don’t forget Shane, who takes being a loner to a new level. We celebrate these loners, these individuals who make their way in the world without the help of, and often despite the obstacles placed by, the world at large.
We come to see loners as a special kind of American, a special kind of hero. We embrace the notion that they are smarter, tougher, stronger, better than the rest of the people who populate their universe.
But it’s important to point out that the loner mythology is just that – mythology. No one lives in a vacuum. And great literature does not always define reality accurately. It presents a slice of life, a temporary image, and at times we all row upstream. Yet we can’t only row against the current. We can’t refuse to go along with the crowd every moment of every day.
We rely on others for roads, food, clothing, shelter, medicine, safety or … (well, you get the idea). Everything we accomplish, we accomplish in part because of the efforts of others who have come before us. We are creatures of society and we are far more dependent on that society than we are often willing to admit.
The loner mythology even colors our politics. We want the candidate who will buck the system. The maverick. The outsider. The loner who will ride into town and whip the nasty politicians into shape.
However, true outsiders rarely make it to the inner chambers of our political system and when they do, they struggle against the entrenched special interests who run things. What does that mean for us? It means we need to recognize that it takes more than one loner to change our world. It takes a community of us, working together, to achieve the change we desire.
Loners can’t help us. Only we can help us.
Hope – We think of it fondly, considering it a positive emotion, and often it is. Look, for example, at the frenzy that surrounds a large Powerball jackpot, when millions of people who don’t normally play suddenly decide to buy a ticket for a chance to win $500 million or more.
The odds of winning don’t change: only the amount awarded to the winner. So even though the chance of taking home the big prize remains constant (at around 1 in 292 million), our minds make a determination that we now ought to play because the increased payoff is worth the risk.
We buy a ticket or two and then we dream of a new house or a round-the-world vacation, new cars and boats and parties for friends and families. We dream of retirement and fancy clothes and spur-of-the-moment decisions to fly to Hawaii or Tahiti. It’s fun, at least for most of us, because we haven’t invested too much into those dreams – a few dollars at most.
But there is a darker side to hope. Consider the compulsive gambler or the delusional player who somehow becomes convinced that he is going to win and raids his retirement account to buy 5,000 tickets. The odds for him now become 5,000 in 292 million – still pretty damn slim.
We see this in other aspects of life as well. We hope for a better future all the time. Sometimes that hope is justified (not necessarily because the future is going to get better, but because it’s reasonable to believe it will). And sometimes that hope is unrealistic. A short 60-year-old man should not have hope that he can become an Olympic volleyball player.
If he does, we say that he’s suffering from a delusion. But where does hope end and delusion begin? There’s the problem. Many things that seemed impossible have come to pass – like the 72-year-old woman in India who gave birth to her first child after receiving IVF treatments (and donor eggs, most likely).
It clearly wasn’t wrong for her to hope for that result despite her inability to have children at a younger age because she ultimately succeeded. So we look at something like that and say it’s never too late to hope. It’s never time to give up.
And yet, sometimes we should. Sometimes giving up hope is the best thing we can do for ourselves. I’m not saying we should do it quickly or before the realistic opportunity for success becomes delusional, but we have to know when hope is harming us, when continuing to pursue a goal that the rest of the world sees as silly is in fact silly.
For example, I used to get extremely frustrated at my golf game. I played a fair amount and thought I should be better than I was. I screamed and cursed and threw my clubs over my inability to execute a shot I knew I ought to be able to hit. The game began to eat away at me, making me unhappy.
I knew I had to either quit playing or change my attitude completely and stop caring about my score and my more-than-occasional bad shots. I decided that I liked playing golf with certain friends and family members and that I would rather do that badly than not do it at all. I changed. I gave up hope.
And the result?
I actually became a better golfer. No, I’ll never win any awards for my golf, but my game improved because I stopped putting so much pressure on myself to be perfect. I instead just enjoyed the game and being outside. I played for years afterwards with much more enjoyment as a result of giving up hope. I still play occasionally.
My point is that hope can be both good and bad, and only you can determine whether hope is justified in any specific situation. But you can’t rely exclusively on hope. You also have to consider the odds, do a cost-benefit analysis, or contemplate alternative scenarios to determine how much longer you should hold onto that feeling.
I’m not saying that one should ever give up all hope – just be prepared to give up hope about certain things. It’s okay to still be hopeful of being happy, for example. It’s okay to still hope to be loved until your dying day. But some hopes, some dreams, one must discard before they harm us.
Because when hope dies, it can be an ugly thing if you’re not prepared for it.
Well, some of it is, but some of it – like solar and hydroelectric – is relatively clean. Some of it, however, is just less dirty. Look, for example, at natural gas as a substitute for coal. All things being equal, natural gas is far cleaner than coal, producing about half as much carbon dioxide as coal, which theoretically makes it a better choice for now as a “bridge fuel” to cleaner options.
However, there are a couple problems with natural gas:
1) it is composed mainly of methane, which is a powerful greenhouse gas (much worse than carbon dioxide), so if methane leaks during production, that wipes out all the gains that would have been realized by using natural gas over coal;
2) the oil industry often burns off the natural gas released during the fracking process because the companies don’t have in place a cost-effective system for containing and transporting the natural gas – e.g., a pipeline to carry the gas to a storage facility.
So if natural gas were captured in a careful (i.e., more expensive) way, if we were willing to pay more for it to ensure its greater environmental benefits, it would be a far superior option to coal. It still is slightly better, but not by as much as it could be.
Okay, so natural gas isn’t as clean as we hoped. What about wind?
Wind turbines purport to be clean energy and, again, compared to coal, they are. However, they’re not as clean as many believe. For example, the energy cost to make one of those large turbines we see out in the fields is huge – mining the steel, constructing the blades and towers, refining the plastics needed – all this costs energy.
In addition, wind turbines have a tendency to kill large numbers of birds and bats in the vortices that are created by their spinning blades. So even though there’s a net gain with respect to carbon dioxide and a decrease in CO2 emissions by using wind, it’s not all chocolate and roses.
Ethanol, another purportedly cleaner fuel source, costs almost as much energy to produce as plain old gasoline when you factor in the total CO2 emissions (i.e., adding in the energy cost of creating the ethanol to add to the gas).
So that leaves us with solar, geothermal and hydroelectric (particularly wave energy). All three of these are far superior to the choices above. All of them tap into natural processes that don’t require the kinds of manipulation of the environment of the former options to achieve their ends. But we’ve been slow to adopt them because doing so would cost more than we’re willing to spend.
We’re getting there, but for now our culture of consumption has prevented us from fully embracing the best possible solutions. We don’t want to slow down business for any amount of time. We don’t want to stop, take a breath, figure out the best solution and then proceed with that.
Instead, we wish to keep going as we’ve been going, slowly integrating better systems into the mix, hoping we’re moving fast enough, trusting that we have time to pull it off before our physical world rebels.
I hope we’re right.
Multi-employer pension plans have been in the news lately, with the actions by the Treasury Department on whether truckers, retirees and their families can have their benefits sharply reduced because the multi-employer plans are short on money.
The Kline-Miller Multiemployer Pension Reform Act of 2014 established a new process for ensuring the financial stability of these multi-employer plans by allowing them, with the approval of the government, to cut benefits to retirees where doing so would improve the solvency of the fund.
These cuts have become necessary for certain employees (and retirees) because the multi-employer pension plans simply don’t have enough money to pay all the promised benefits. But how did we get to this point?
Here’s how: We allowed employers to recoup excess funds from plans they decided to terminate in favor of 401k plans many years ago.
Those earlier plans had made tremendous gains from a booming stock market, and employers decided they didn’t want to pass those gains off to their employees or retirees. So they sought ways to recoup those monies. The solution they came up with was to stop offering defined benefit (pension) plans in lieu of defined contribution (401k) plans.
This allowed all the future rewards and all the future risk to go to employees and retirees rather than the company – seems okay so far, right? Maybe not nice, but not unethical. However, there was still the unanswered question of what to do with all the lovely money that had been made in the past. Employers couldn’t have those gains go to their workers.
So they used IRS rules (which they had fought to implement) to terminate their involvement in multi-employer plans, instead offer 401k plans, and then collect the excess investment profits from their earlier participation. This, they claimed, was only fair. After all, they were the ones who invested the money in the plans in the first place. Never mind that the reasons for doing so included offering lower pay or other benefits to employees to offset the wonderful pensions that would inevitably flow from these generous plans. And never mind that the work of employees built the profits all these companies enjoyed via the stock market.
Once the really rich multi-employer pension plans had been terminated and their profits absorbed by employers, what remained were the weaker companies and plans. Then, once the great recession hit, and even prior to that, companies that couldn’t meet their funding obligations were often allowed to pay only part of what was owed. In other cases, they simply declared bankruptcy and walked away, leaving the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (meaning the US taxpayers) on the hook for unpaid contributions.
Now, with these pension plans in desperate straits, with all those obscene profits from the past long gone into executives’ pockets, some of the plans that remain want to cut benefits to retirees in order to survive.
So the bottom line is the pension plans will survive, but the benefits that workers counted on receiving, planned their retirements around, will not survive to the extent promised. Too bad, suckers. You believed us. You really should learn to stop trusting that what we tell you is true.
Genetically modified organisms remain part of the national debate. Are they safe? Are they not? What’s the truth? Unfortunately, a lot of the answers are not yet knowable because the long-term consequences of genetic manipulation of foodstuffs cannot be learned until enough time has passed and not enough time has passed to allow us to definitively say whether we’re harming ourselves by consuming such products.
However, we do know a few things.
For example, the range of GMOs has increased dramatically over the past decade. We’re no longer altering goats, for example, with genes that come from other goats or even other cows to obtain better milk. We’re now altering goats with genes from spiders so that goats can deliver milk that makes silk.
We want tomatoes that resist frost burn and apples that don’t bruise and corn that won’t succumb to disease. Fine. But how are we achieving those ends? We’re not just using tomatoes that show greater resistance to frost and selectively breeding them. We’re not just using corn that withstands a greater range of insects or pests. We’re creating Frankenfoods by inserting bacteria and genes that alter the original species far more than simple interbreeding did in the past.
For example, 90 percent of agricultural corn, cotton, soy, canola and sugar beets have been genetically engineered. The bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), when used to modify crops, helps those plants resist insect pests, thus reducing the need for insecticides.
That seems to be a good thing. However, some studies have shown that GMOs cause toxins and tumors and allergic reactions in lab animals. This seems likely due to the extreme modification of crops and farm animals by genetic material that is so dissimilar to what these species started with.
Most developed nations consider GMOs to be unsafe while the American Association for the Advancement of Science says that crop improvement by modern molecular biotechnology is safe. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Unfortunately, we don’t really know for sure. Both sides have made outrageous claims.
And new technology – like CRISPR, which works on the immune systems of plants or animals – means that the kind of genetic engineering done in the past may become obsolete in the near future. But for now, there’s a lot we don’t know.
Monsanto, for example, says the studies showing toxicity in rat livers and kidneys as a result of eating GMO corn are flawed. They said there was no real difference between the group getting GMOs and the control group with respect to toxicity and tumors. However, what they don’t admit is that the control groups in most of those studies was fed corn that had been contaminated with Roundup, GMOs and other toxins, so of course the control groups also got tumors and toxins.
More accurate studies by researchers like G.E. Seralini show that GMO foods can be a serious problem. Professor Seralini made certain his control group had non-GMO corn and the difference he found was astronomical. Up to 80 percent of his GMO-corn-eating rats got tumors – four times as many as the control group.
If these results are duplicated in other studies and if the results translate to people (and not just rats), we could be talking about massive sickness and death from GMO products. Of course, Monsanto and its allies attacked Seralini’s research, but all they really produced was a lot of noise. He even won a defamation case, and his chief critic was convicted of forgery in his efforts to discredit Seralini’s work.
On the other side, the anti-GMO people have also spread misinformation, like stating that the Zika virus was caused by GMO mosquitoes when in fact the Zika virus was discovered in Africa in 1947 and has been around a long time. It may be evolving into something more dangerous but the blame cannot be placed entirely on GMO mosquitoes.
So what’s the takeaway?
We need more time to study this and we need scientists other than researchers at Monsanto and in the fertilizer industry to do the testing. We need GMO foods to be labeled so that people have a choice about what to put into their bodies. If GMOs are safe, what’s the problem with putting a label on foods explaining which ones contain GMOs? Why, it’s money, of course. Big companies are afraid we won’t buy their products if they tell us our corn flakes are made with GMO corn.
They don’t say that, of course. Instead they claim that the labels will confuse us, that we won’t understand the complexities of the situation. And they may be right because we know they don’t understand the complexities of the situation. They don’t care. All they want is to get rich and they want us to not get in the way.
I’ve long loved the science fiction classics, like Dune, Foundation, Rendezvous with Rama and Fahrenheit 451. But I didn’t start out writing science fiction. I began with fantasies, westerns, mysteries, thrillers and literary fiction, none of which I published. I’ve also written legal books, newsletters and articles for many years. Those pay the bills but don’t provide the sort of comfort a good piece of fiction does.
My first sci-fi novel, The Devereaux Dilemma, didn’t start as science fiction, but as a philosophical work. I was curious about what would happen if someone proved there was no God. I thought that a fascinating question to explore. However, most people I discussed it with hated the idea, so I was forced to re-think the concept and eventually I transformed it into a futuristic story about the nature of religion and its place in our society.
I thought at first that The Devereaux Dilemma would be a single book exploring the question of faith, but I realized as I was writing it that I had a much deeper story to tell, something that required at least a trilogy. And I wanted to write it as science fiction because the very best science fiction serves as a commentary on the present and provides us with a warning of where we’re headed, showing us possible futures if we don’t change direction.
I also wanted to write realistic science fiction. Hyper drive and aliens and space battles don’t really interest me. I’d much rather explore where humanity is going, what we will be in fifty or a hundred years. We may be less than a century from the point where we can create humans of any sort we like. Already many of us have non-human parts in us or genetically enhanced parts. When do we stop becoming human and become something else, something new? When will our growing understanding of how the brain works allow for unscrupulous people in positions of power to manipulate our minds?
With my background in legal writing, it would be natural for me to warn of what we might become in an essay or article that is grounded in facts and predictions, based on our collective history.
But one thing I’ve learned through all my years of writing is that it’s characters who make the story what it is. Detailed descriptions of technology are meaningless without the connection to what is human in all of us. Reading statistics about the holocaust, for example, one can easily fall into a jaded mindset. The numbers are too vast, the deprivations too horrifying to fully grasp. Yet when you put that into the context of a few well-defined lives, you understand it much more completely.
Think about how deaths in faraway places hit us compared to the loss of a loved one. It’s never the same. Yes, it’s terrible that all those people were killed by terrorists in Syria or Iraq or New York City, but if you don’t live there, if you don’t have friends or family there, it doesn’t have the same impact as the tragic death of someone close to you.
That’s where fiction generates its power. That’s why a science fiction novel with great characters can have a much greater impact than gloom-and-doom predictions from some physicist or social scientist. We grow attached to those characters and root for them, agonize with their defeats and cheer their victories.
So my work, though occasionally dark, also offers hope. The future is not completely dystopic in my writing. It is firmly grounded in a world much like the one we live in today, with good and bad elements. I want to show readers my vision because I want them to think about where we’re headed and if we should be moving in that direction. Forewarned is forearmed.
Freedom carries the burden of maintaining it. The trite saying that freedom isn’t free holds a lot of truth. To keep freedom, one must battle constantly against the forces that seek to defeat it. I’m not speaking here about external forces entirely but also forces from within. The external forces are easy to identify – the internal ones, not so much.
For example, it is easier to go along with the crowd than to separate and travel one’s own path. All our friends are going to Misty’s for dinner. Do we want to go along even though we don’t really care for Misty? If we don’t go along we’ll be forced to come up with our own alternative action plan and we don’t want to be alone tonight.
Assume we’re all Germans in the 1930s, prior to the atrocities committed by its leaders, and we have a certain amount of unease at what Hitler seems to be saying. How far do we break from the mainstream, not knowing how bad things are going to get? Do we fight against him, only suspecting what he might unleash, or do we wait until it gets really bad and we finally see the horrors? And when we finally see the truth, do we act, knowing we’re likely to be imprisoned or killed by those who run the country?
That’s an over-the-top example, but the point is that every situation calls for us to make a decision that we believe we are free to make. Sartre might say that we always get to choose our actions, whatever our situation, and therefore we are free to do as we wish and make of ourselves what we wish to be.
Neuroscientists, on the other hand, might say our choices are predetermined by chemical reactions in our brains, that when we think we’re freely choosing to raise our hands, our bodies are preparing for the movement and initiating it before we actually experience the conscious thought, so what we believe to be free will is actually an emotional or mental response to a physical condition.
I think it doesn’t really matter whether we have true freedom or not as long as we believe we do, as long as we understand that we can change for the better, because no matter how good we are, we can always be better.
Wait a second. What the heck are you talking about?
I’m talking about freedom – and I’m talking about change – because in many ways, freedom is change. Whatever thought pattern we’re experiencing, whatever routine we’re engaged in, whatever choices we selected in the past, they needn’t define our future. We can choose to step outside our comfort zones and do things that make us squirm a little if we know they’re for the betterment of ourselves, our species or our planet.
I myself am an introvert by nature, but I decided (partly to further my career as a writer) to become a volunteer host of a radio show that interviews authors. This terrified me at first, putting myself out there for people to criticize, and there was lots to criticize early on. But I stuck with it and I’m not bad at it anymore.
This change freed me to grow into something better than I was. I overcame my almost pathological shyness by working at it every day for many years. Now a crowded room doesn’t frighten me anymore. I don’t dread attending parties any longer. They may not be at the top of my list of favorite activities, but I enjoy them much more than I would have thought possible a decade or so ago.
It took a lot of work to become “free” in this regard and I still have to work at it every time I attend some social function, but afterwards I almost always feel better for having gone, for having tried, for having put myself out there.
The point is, getting stuck in routine or with the mob isn’t true freedom. Going along with others or with our comfortable ways isn’t freedom. It’s habit; it’s tradition; it’s what makes us feel good in the moment. But it isn’t freedom. Freedom is constantly pushing the envelope, observing where we are and understanding where we want to be and having the courage to try to go there, no matter what obstacles stand in our way.
Tuesday, March 22nd, I not only host a visit with debut science fiction novelist Steve Toutonghi (author of Join), but also submit to questioning from my colleague Ian Graham Leask about my series of Sci Fi novels, The Devereaux Dilemma, The Devereaux Disaster (both of which were named Finalists for the International Book Award) and The Devereaux Decision, which was recently named a Finalist for a Minnesota Book Award.
I’ll chat with Steve Toutonghi from 7-7:30 and then step to the other side of the microphone, figuratively, for a conversation about science fiction and my body of work.
I squandered a week in Arizona recently, writing nothing, instead hiking the desert Southwest, ogling the cacti and lizards who populate the area, climbing toward the peaks of the foothills of the Rockies, descending to valleys that harbored mansions and pools and wealth that spat their defiance at the barren landscape, proclaiming the superiority of man over nature.
I sat in the early morning with friends and relatives as the sun eased itself over the horizon, painting the sky with a palette of red and gold as it emerged from a night of chilled slumber, teasing the heat to come, the lag of Sol as it bathed the sand flirting with me for more than an hour before delivering any actual warmth.
I reclined in the evening, gazing out at the mountains edging toward pinkness on their way to puce, sipping my margarita or Mexican beer, interrupting my conversation every few minutes to glory in the scenery one cannot find in Minnesota.
The sun’s rays, not nearly as hindered by ice or water crystals in the air as they are in the Northland, pelted me during the hot days, attacking the sunscreen I lathered upon my white flesh in the hope of avoiding further bouts of skin cancer. The heat, the precious heat of the desert, serenaded me – a siren call nearly impossible to resist.
At night, even in close proximity to the city, to the lights that advertised the presence of people who spend their days in a kind of friendly antagonism to the harshness of the elements, I saw stars I hadn’t seen in years. The dryness of the air eroded the clouds, denuded the atmosphere to the point where it could hardly interfere with my view of Cassiopeia and Orion and Ursus Major and a host of constellations I no longer know.
I became convinced I spotted Jupiter or Saturn or possibly Mercury though my sister told me the “planet” I was seeing was likely a star that only seemed to burn brighter here, that delivered a light less obstructed by water. Having no binoculars, not thinking far enough ahead to prepare for such a visual treat, I could not argue the point even had I wished to. I merely delighted in the luminance.
When my visit came to its inevitable conclusion, when I found myself back above the earth on my journey home, while I contemplated the loveliness I had seen in the scarcity I beheld, I came to realize again that beauty is an ever-changing mystery, sometimes accentuated by familiarity and other times accelerated by the absence of what we know, by the lack of the everyday.
I told myself to look again at my narrow world, my familiar turf, and see it as if I were a stranger, coming from an alien landscape and delighting in the commonalities I take for granted, the plentiful water, the lush growth, the overflowing wildlife, even the mosquitoes (okay, maybe not the mosquitoes).
But life and even the absence of life can be beautiful when looked at in the right way. So I squandered a week in Arizona recently and I’m ever so grateful I did.