Friday, September 21, 2018

3028. Luigi Cavalli-Sforza, 96, Who Tracked Genes Through History, Dies

By Denise Grady, The New York Times, September 19, 2018
Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza in 2006. He was a pioneer in using genetic information to help trace human evolution, history, and patterns of migration.CreditCredit Photo: Basso Cannarsa/Agence Opale, via Alamy

Millions of people in recent years have sent off samples of their saliva to DNA-testing companies like 23andMe and Ancestry.com hoping to find out where their forebears came from and whether they have mystery relatives in some distant land, or even around the corner.

The trend itself can be traced to an Italian physician and geneticist, Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, who died on Aug. 31 at his home in Belluno, Italy, at 96. He laid the foundation for such testing, having honed his skills more than 60 years ago using blood types and 300 years of church records to study heredity in the villagers of his own country.

Dr. Cavalli-Sforza was a pioneer in using genetic information to help trace human evolution, history and patterns of migration. The founder of a field that he called genetic geography, he was renowned for synthesizing information from diverse disciplines — genetics, archaeology, linguistics, anthropology and statistics — to explain how human populations fanned out over the earth from their original home in Africa.

David Reich, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, said in an interview that Dr. Cavalli-Sforza was the first scientist to predict that there would be “enough information in genes to determine where people came from in the world and who they’re most closely related to.

“A fair number of reasonable people,” he added, “thought it wouldn’t be possible.”

Dr. Cavalli-Sforza was a professor at Stanford University from 1970 to 1992 and continued to do research for more than a decade after retiring.

Described by colleagues as endlessly curious and fearless about venturing into unexplored zones, he studied fruit flies, bacteria, Italian marriage records, human blood groups, African Pygmies and the political and religious views of American college students and their parents, analyzing his own findings with merciless statistical rigor. Cultural traits and how they spread fascinated him, and late in life he began to study variations in hand gestures in different parts of Italy.

With Marcus Feldman, a biologist and colleague at Stanford, he founded a field called cultural evolution, which treats language, values, customs and other social phenomena as traits that evolved, just as physical traits do.

One major question their work answered concerned the spread of agriculture about 10,000 years ago as populations shifted from hunting and gathering to farming. Did people in one region visit an area with farming and then take the skills home? Apparently not. Overall, the genetic studies revealed, it was the farmers themselves who moved, taking their knowledge of agriculture with them.

Cultural evolution “exploded into a legitimate discipline,” Dr. Feldman said in a telephone interview. “There’s now a cultural evolution society.”

Dr. Cavalli-Sforza also studied genetic changes in the Y chromosome, the determinant of male gender, which is passed from fathers to sons. He traced the changes to one male ancestor, who lived in Africa 70,000 to 100,000 years ago.

His work, along with that of colleagues, indicated that genetically there is no such thing as race: Individuals within a population group differ genetically from one another just as much as they differ from people in other groups. He denounced efforts to suggest that superficial traits like skin color or hair texture had any underlying connection to intelligence, behavior or character.

In 1973, Dr. Cavalli-Sforza publicly debated William B. Shockley, a Stanford engineering professor who had shared the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics for inventing the transistor and who had become notorious for declaring that blacks were less intelligent than whites.

Dr. Cavalli-Sforza came under fire from some quarters after proposing, in the 1990s, what he called a Human Genome Diversity Project. The plan was to collect blood, hair or saliva to provide DNA from populations all over the world, including aboriginal groups that were declining in numbers. The project would create cell lines that could be stored and used later by researchers.

Although many scientists favored the plan, opponents said it smacked of colonialism, racism and “biopiracy” — meaning that if the samples led to medical or pharmaceutical breakthroughs, the people who donated their DNA would never see the health benefits or the profits.

Some critics even maintained that the samples could be used to create biological weapons that might target specific ethnic groups.

But Dr. Cavalli-Sforza stuck to his guns. The project went on, though not on the scale that he had planned. He had hoped for 10,000 samples but wound up with about 1,000 samples from some 50 populations; the samples are stored in Paris at the Center for the Study of Human Polymorphisms.

“That group of samples has been an incredible resource that has been studied in many, many ways,” Dr. Reich said.

Luigi Luca Cavalli was born in Genoa, Italy, on Jan. 25, 1922, the only child of Pio Cavalli and Attilia (Manacorda) Cavalli. His father represented American companies that sold washing machines and dishwashers in Europe; he also wrote a book on advertising, “La Spada dell’America” (“America’s Sword”), published in 1919.

Luigi Cavalli added Sforza to his surname as an adult after his father had died, taking it from his maternal step-grandfather, who had adopted him.

He earned a medical degree from the University of Pavia in 1944. Studying medicine during World War II might have saved his life, he later told colleagues: Italy did not draft medical students.

Dr. Cavalli-Sforza worked as a physician in Italy for two years. Medicine then was not advanced, antibiotics were unavailable, and the work “was really more a job for a priest,” he told Dr. Feldman in a videotaped interview in 2006.
“You couldn’t help anybody,” he said. “You just saw people dying, and you couldn’t do anything to help them.”

The experience prompted him to move away from clinical medicine toward microbiology and then genetics.

In 1946 he married Alba Ramazzotti, a niece of one of his professors. She had studied biology but did not pursue a career in it.

Dr. Cavalli-Sforza became an assistant professor at the University of Cambridge in Britain in 1948 and worked with Ronald Fisher, a top expert on bacterial genetics and statistics. It was a turning point. Trained in clinical medicine, not basic science, Dr. Cavalli-Sforza seized the opportunity to learn what he needed to know to forge ahead in research.

“He loved working with numbers,” Dr. Feldman said in the telephone interview. “He was strongly influenced by the period he spent with Fisher at Cambridge. That period led him to have this feel for numbers, and their use in revealing patterns.”

From 1951 to 1970 Dr. Cavalli-Sforza taught at the University of Parma as well as at the University of Pavia, where he led the genetics department.

In the early 1950s, he was part of a team that helped explain the mechanics of a phenomenon that was newly discovered at the time: sex between bacteria — that is, their ability to swap genetic material. The finding was important because it helped explain the spread of genes that enable bacteria to resist antibiotics.

But humans interested him more than bacteria did. A student of his, a priest named Antonio Moroni, told him that Roman Catholic parishes in Italy kept detailed marriage records that went back generations; some included notations of marriages between cousins. Dr. Cavalli-Sforza realized that the records, compiled in books, could be a gold mine. For one thing, the marriages between relatives could reveal the effects of inbreeding.

DNA testing was not available then, but tests for A, B and O blood groups — an inherited trait — could be done. He began collecting blood samples from people all over the country. Pairing blood types and information from the books going back 300 years enabled him and his research partners to show that random genetic changes — known as genetic drift — played a bigger role in human evolution than scientists had realized.

Dr. Cavalli-Sforza moved to Stanford University in 1970, but only after being assured that he would not have to head a department.

From 1966 to 1985 he made 11 trips to Africa to study Pygmies, who were still hunter-gatherers at the time. He later edited and wrote part of a book about them and their culture.
“These people are exactly like me — brothers, really,” he told Dr. Feldman in the video interview. “And yet they were living in such a completely different way.”

His experience with the Pygmies had a profound effect on his thinking, igniting a determination to “understand why cultures can be so different,” he said.

“He was adopted into a Pygmy extended family and was very proud of it,” said Mary-Claire King, a geneticist at the University of Washington. “They gave him a name. He told me it translated as ‘Great White Elephant.’ He just loved living with the Pygmies.”

Dr. Cavalli-Sforza was the author or co-author of hundreds of scientific articles and nine books. His masterwork was “The History and Geography of Human Genes,” a 1,000-page account of where humans originated and where they went, based on his tracking of various genetic traits around the world.

His wife died in 2015. He is survived by a daughter, Violetta Cavalli-Sforza; three sons, Tommaso, Francesco and Matteo, who confirmed the death; and three grandchildren.

“He embodied the idea of the scientist as a citizen of the world,” Dr. King said. “He was very comfortable everywhere. He’d be in Africa, all over Europe, in Asia. He had a real sensitivity to cultures, and he picked up languages. He had the capacity to think very well and bring you into his thinking and make you feel like you were part of his understanding, in so many fields.”

The ability to sequence DNA gives geneticists far more power today than they had when Dr. Cavalli-Sforza did much of his research.

“He did so much just with blood groups,” Dr. King said. “Suppose people like Luca had the kinds of modern tools we have now?”

3027. Ehsan Yarshater, Iran Scholar With a Monumental Vision, Dies at 98

By Amir-Hussein radjy, The New York Times, September 18, 2018 
Ehsan Yarshater in 2011. Photo: Marcus Yam for The New York Times. 

Ehsan Yarshater, an eminent Iranian historian who founded and edited the Encyclopedia Iranica, a magnum opus of Iranian history and culture that helped transform the modern understanding of Persian civilization, died on Sept. 2 in Fresno, Calif. He was 98.

His death was confirmed by his niece Mojdeh Yarshater.
Professor Yarshater’s encyclopedia cast Iran as a global civilization in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution in 1979 and the seizure of United States Embassy hostages, when the country appeared isolated on the world stage and he was forced to suspend the project by the new Islamic regime.

“I had this ideal in my mind,” he told NPR in 2011, “that there would be an encyclopedia which would respond to all possible legitimate questions about Iran and its history and its civilization.”

The encyclopedia includes entries on everything from ancient Persian philosophy to cabbage. It documents Iran’s relationship with other world cultures, like those of Greece and India, expanding the notion of Persian civilization beyond Iran’s modern borders.

“He reminded a lot of people in different disciplines — classics, philosophy, you name it — that there is an Iranian facet to what falls within their field,” said Elton Daniel, who took over as the editor in chief of the encyclopedia in January 2017.

Professor Yarshater started his project at 52 and worked for 12 hours a day until his mid-90s, retiring last year at the letter K. His last entry was on Sandor Kegl, the 19th-century Hungarian Orientalist who devoted much of his life to Persian literature.

The encyclopedia continues to be a work in progress under Mr. Daniel. Today it has, so far, some 7,300 entries by 1,600 authors.

Professor Yarshater started his encyclopedia when he was 52 and worked for 12 hours a day until his mid-90s, stopping at the letter K.

“He was generally referred to during his own lifetime as the doyen of Iranian studies,” said Ali Banuazizi, a professor at Boston College and a former president of the Middle East Studies Association of North America.

“Iranica was the major undertaking of his life in every sense of the term,” he added.

Ehsan Ollah Yarshater (pronounced YAR-shah-ter) was born on April 3, 1920, in the northwest city of Hamadan, Iran, to Hashem, a merchant who was born Jewish and converted to the Baha’i faith, and Rowhanieh (Misaghieh) Yarshater, a homemaker who was born to a prominent family of physicians in Kashan, also in the north.

Professor Yarshater studied at the Alliance Israélite, a French-language school in the western city of Kermanshah, before moving with his family to Tehran, where he attended the elite Tarbiyat School, which was founded by Iranian Baha’is in 1897.

As a student at the University of Tehran, which was founded by the monarchy, Yarshater became disengaged from his deeply religious upbringing. He was inspired by Iranian thinkers of his generation who promoted a spirit of rational inquiry in the study of Persian history and literature following the Constitutional Revolution of 1905, whose leaders sought secular, political and educational reforms.

He received a doctorate in 15th-century Persian poetry from the University of Tehran and then studied ancient Iranian languages under the German philologist Walter Bruno Henning at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, where Professor Yarshater completed a second doctorate.

In a groundbreaking linguistics study, published in 1970, he documented disappearing dialects among the villages of Iran’s northeastern provinces.

Professor Yarshater brought Western classics to his compatriots in the 1950s by establishing a translation and publishing institute, a reflection of his belief that embracing Western culture would not cause Iran to lose its authenticity, as some feared.

In 1958 he became a visiting professor of Indo-Iranian languages and religions at Columbia University. Three years later he was named Columbia’s first chairman of Iranian Studies. With the appointment, he moved to New York City with his wife, Latifeh Alavieh, whom he had met in 1956 when she was cultural adviser to the United States Information Agency in Tehran. They married in 1960. She died in 1999.

The couple had no children, and Professor Yarshater leaves no immediate survivors.

At Columbia, in 1968, Professor Yarshater founded the Center for Iranian Studies, which is to be renamed in his honor in October, the university said.

His vision for the encyclopedia grew out of an exchange he had in the 1960s with Bernard Lewis, the eminent historian of Islam who was editing the Encyclopedia of Islam. (Mr. Lewis died in May.) Professor Yarshater expressed a wish to publish a Persian translation of the Encyclopedia of Islam, with supplementary articles on Iran.

In a letter to Mr. Lewis, Professor Yarshater wrote that the encyclopedia, which emphasized Arab and Sunni Islam, diminished the Iranian contribution to Eastern civilizations. He decided that Iranians needed an encyclopedia that would focus on that contribution and also take into account Shiism, the dominant strain of Islam in Iran, not to mention the many other religions that had contributed to their civilization, among them Judaism, Zoroastrianism and the pre-Islamic faiths.

Abbas Amanat, a professor of history at Yale, said Professor Yarshater’s philosophy was “to show the complexity of this culture and fuse pre-Islamic with Islamic Iran to see a sense of continuity, without a naïve glorification of ancient Iran.”

In 1972, splitting his time between New York and Tehran, Professor Yarshater embarked on putting together his encyclopedia and publishing it through his institute, but his work was cut short on the letter A by the 1979 revolution; the new Islamic regime suspended his institute’s work.

Professor Yarshater, who never visited Iran after the revolution, restarted his Encyclopedia Iranica at Columbia with a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities in the early 1980s.

“The encyclopedia’s impartiality does not please the current Persian government,” he told The New York Times in 2011.

In 1983 Professor Yarshater established the Persian Heritage Foundation to support his work on the encyclopedia and to publish scholarly works in the field. He raised a separate endowment of more than $15 million in 1990 to ensure the encyclopedia’s continued publication.

He was the editor of a 40-volume translation of the scholar al-Tabari’s 10th-century history of the world, and the founding editor of a classic multivolume series of Persian literature.

“For me,” he told the BBC Persian service in 2009, “the Persian language, Persian literature and poetry, and Iranian culture is my true homeland.”

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

3026. Everett Hamner interviews Richard Powers

By Everett Hammer, Los Angeles Review of Books, April 7, 2018
Sandhill cranes
EVERETT HAMNER: One of my favorite aspects of your National Book Award–winning The Echo Maker, published a dozen years ago now, is the way its birds are not anthropomorphized so much as its human characters are zoomorphized: we find the public “banking and wheeling in such perfect synchrony,” a man who has “grown as placid as a bottom feeder,” and another dancing like a “clumsy, autumn-honking fledgling.” In short, there is no humanism here without an even larger biocentrism. How was this relationship evolving as you began to imagine The Overstory, and how did it matter — or not — that the interspecies tie is not just to other animals, but to trees?
RICHARD POWERS: If anything, the intervening dozen years have deepened my desire to close the gap between people and other living things. The Echo Makerdealt in the strange intelligence of birds, an intelligence deep and foreign enough to be invisible to many of us. But it was also a story of forgotten kinship with creatures who have stunning navigational and problem-solving skills, who keep a complex and shared calendar, who gather in great communities and dance together and mate for life and sacrifice themselves for their young. 
The Overstory may present an even greater challenge to the sense of exceptionalism we humans carry around inside us. It’s the story of immense, long-lived creatures whom many people think of as little more than simple automatons, but who, in fact, communicate and synchronize with each other both over the air and through complex underground networks, who trade with and protect and sustain their own and other species. It’s about immensely social beings with memory and agency who migrate and transform the soil and regulate the weather and create a breathable atmosphere. As the great Le Guin put it, the word for world is forest.
Our kinship with trees seems, at face value, much more distant and abstract, but we share a considerable amount of our genes with them, and they (trees come from many different families in their own right) represent several large branches of the single, ramifying experiment called life on earth, a big-boled thing on which we humans occupy just one small and remote branch. Trees exhibit a flexibility in the face of change and challenge that we used to think was exclusively animal in nature. We have depended on trees not just for the invention of civilization but for our very existence. Without them, no us.
If I could have managed it, I would have tried to write a novel where all the main characters were trees! But such an act of identification was beyond my power as a novelist, and it probably would have been beyond the imaginative power of identification of most readers. As one of the characters in the book laments, we are all “plant blind. Adam’s curse. We only see things that look like us.” My compromise was to tell a story about nine very different human beings who, for wildly varying reasons, come to take trees seriously. Between them, they learn to invest trees with the same sacred value that humans typically invest only in themselves. And in doing so, they violate one of individual-centered capitalism’s greatest taboos.
As it is, individual trees still play large supporting roles in the novel — a giant threatened redwood in northern California, a lone American chestnut planted by an Iowa homesteader, a sprawling Thai banyan that saves the life of one of the human characters and sets him on an impossible search, a mulberry whose decline shatters a woman’s family and primes her for future acts of wildness. The book also features communities of trees — forests and doomed stands and ghost groves that are more than mere setting. They are themselves the living habitation that we’re going to have to learn all over again how to accommodate, if we mean to stick around.
EH: Like Ents, but in fully realist terms.
RP: The Ents were a real inspiration to me. Slow to anger, slow to act. But when they get going, you’d better be on their side!
EH: What about nonliterary sources of inspiration? Was there any moment akin to your glimpse of the massive spring staging of sandhill cranes in Nebraska alongside Interstate 80 (which set in motion The Echo Maker)?
RP: There was. I was teaching at Stanford, in Palo Alto. Along a narrow strip to one side of me was the heart of Silicon Valley, one of the greatest concentrations of wealth, power, and transformative human ingenuity ever assembled: the headquarters of Google, Apple, Intel, Facebook, eBay, HP, Netflix, Cisco, Tesla, Oracle, Adobe, Electronic Arts, and countless more. Just to the other side were the many thousands of set-aside acres spread across the Santa Cruz mountains. When I needed to escape the digital-utopian future, I’d head up into the hills. I was not, then, particularly attuned to the magic of trees. But it doesn’t take great sensitivity to be stunned into silence by redwoods — the sight, sound, and smell of those forests, which feel to so many people like holy places.
One day, up near Skyline Road, I came across a tree the width of a house and the length of a football field. I would learn later that this single living thing was almost as old as Christianity. It dwarfed every other trunk on that ridge. As I looked at it, I began to realize that all the trees I’d been walking through were in fact no more than a hundred years old. This one tree had escaped the clearcutting that had built and rebuilt San Francisco. And the forest that it came from must have been, compared to the one I was standing in, as the OED is to a pocket dictionary. When I went back down to Silicon Valley that evening, I had the seed for a story.
EH: What might surprise some who have only glimpsed this novel’s gorgeous cover is that the digital entities birthed in that valley feature nearly as profoundly as that mountainous tree. Gesturing back to Galatea 2.2, this is almost as much a work about coding and AI as it is about ecology and dendrology — just as The Gold Bug Variations and Orfeo are as much about music as genetics. Indeed much of your work thrives on such unconventional imbrications. Where in the process did you find this story especially resisting and/or welcoming that harmony? What sparked your comparison of the “branching” in tree growth and in lines of code, or the “gift economies” of forests and open-source software?
RP: Well, the woody trees that feature in the story still heavily outnumber the decision trees! But yes: the book tries to give a glimpse of the entire, spreading, evolving, interconnected intelligence of life in all its “endless forms most beautiful,” as Darwin put it.
One of our great errors in thinking — another aspect of that unfortunate idea of human exceptionalism that makes it so hard for us to be at home in this world — is that the natural and the man-made are distinct entities. Like all other parts of the branching experiment, we make and are made by the living environment, and we have done so since before we were us. Without the forests of the Santa Cruz mountains, there would be no Silicon Valley. But Silicon Valley will make or unmake the forests of the future. No nature story, no account of environmental struggle would be complete without bringing on-stage all the human technologies that are to us what the invention of flowers and nuts and chlorophyll and mycorrhizal networks are to the forest superorganism.
Just as the emergence of tree intelligence forever changed the planet, so the emergence of consciousness (which long predated humans) forever changed the nature of evolution. Cultural transmission is orders of magnitude faster than genetic transmission, and digital transmission has accelerated the speed of culture a hundredfold or more. We may soon seem, to our artificial intelligence offspring, as motionless and insentient as trees seem to us. And here we live, trying to make a home between our predecessors and our descendants.
Will we double down on the great migration into symbol space, our decampment into Facebook and Instagram and Netflix and World of Warcraft, the road that we have already traveled so far down? Or will Big Data and Deep Learning allow us to grasp and rejoin the staggeringly complex processes of the living world? The two possibilities are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, they’re inseparable aspects of the new ecology of digital life.
It’s surprising to realize that the rise of ecological and environmental consciousness was made possible by the advent of the Information Age. Life is simply too complex and interdependent for us to wrap our heads around without the help of our machine prosthetics. And now those prosthetics allow us to assemble, generate, contemplate, and interpret the hockey-stick graphs that prophesy our future. We came into being by the grace of trees. Now the fate of trees, and of the whole world forest, is squarely in our machine-amplified hands.
The question is what those machines are doing to our hearts, because without the heart and mind, the hands will get up to all kinds of things.
EH: You’re illustrating in this conversation something I regard as a defining characteristic of your novels: in both forms, you are unreservedly and unapologetically fascinated with life’s dynamism, tenacity, and unpredictability. Twenty-first-century Americans’ increasingly sterilized, digitized existences often seem distant from Darwin’s endless forms or Hopkins’s dappled things, but your narrators exhort readers to greater attentiveness, presence, awe. How and why does such reverence matter, whatever may be the entity that is evolving? What would you say to those who might dismiss this habit of wonder as childish, naïve, romantic, or mystical?
RP: An urgent question! Think of it this way: fiction is about transformation through conflict. By my count, there are three general levels of dramatic conflict: the battle within a person (psychological), the battle between people (social or political), and the battle between people and non-people (environmental). A conflict can exist on more than one level, and most good stories involve at least some elements of all three. But when I think of the literary fiction published in, say, the last 30 years, it feels overwhelmingly dominated by the psychological. When it does cross over into the social and political, the personal and psychological still dominate the foreground of the story (the Doctor Zhivago effect). Every time that writers like Don DeLillo or Lydia Millet or Kim Stanley Robinson burst out of the merely private and domestic, the effect is exhilarating. Oh, there’s something bigger at stake out there!
There’s a paradox here. While the challenge to our continued existence on Earth has never been greater or clearer, literary fiction seems to be retrenching into an obsession with the challenges of private hopes, fears, and desires. Granted, those challenges lie at the heart of everything we try to do, but a retreat into belles-lettres when human activity is unraveling the climate, exhausting the soil, and killing off 40 percent of the world’s other species is simply reactionary solipsism. We need level-three stories and myths, and we need lots of them fast, in all kinds of forms and flavors.
If we don’t (or can’t) tell level-three stories, it’s because we believe that all conflict between humans and nonhumans has long ago been decided in favor of omnipotent humanity. Now that our omnipotence is crumbling in the face of the whirlwind it has sewn, we are so dazed and out of the habit of taking the nonhuman seriously that we can’t even accept the reality of what is happening. Climate-change denial may be just a manifestation of Fredric Jameson’s famous observation that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.
I believe the reason for that retrenchment into the personal is that we have all completely habituated to the first tenet of commodity-individualism: meaning is entirely something we make for ourselves. We have absorbed that belief so completely it is impossible for most of us even to imagine that there might be other possibilities. But there is, of course, a meaning of and for trees, a meaning to the hugely interconnected living world that cares very little for human meaning. And if we don’t begin to understand and accommodate that meaning, ours will come to mean very little. Awe and wonder are the first, most basic tools involved in turning toward and becoming attentive to that meaning above and beyond our own.
When a person says, “I live in the real world,” they generally mean that they live in the artificially created social world, the human-made world that is hurtling toward a brick wall of its own making. This is what I’d ask the critics of the literature of extra-human awe: Which is more childish, naïve, romantic, or mystical: the belief that we can get away with making Earth revolve around our personal appetites and fantasies, or the belief that a vast, multi-million-pronged project four and a half billion years old deserves a little reverent humility?
EH: That sounds familiar! Here’s the dialogue in the novel that sparked the question: “What’s crazier? Believing there might be nearby presences we don’t know about? Or cutting down the last few ancient redwoods on Earth for decking and shingles?”
RP: The whole book keeps turning on this question of what is reasonable, practical, inevitable, or sheer nuts. I like the etymological sense of the word bewilder — to be made wild. My nine bewildered characters in The Overstory each must discover, to their own amazement, that there comes a point when you need to take a forest as seriously as a city, and a tree as seriously as a human being.
EH: You mentioned Kim Stanley Robinson: in his novel from last year, New York 2140, he weaves 10 focal characters into an ensemble piece that shares with The Overstory a profound awareness of the inseparability of climate change — or “global weirding,” a term I like even better — from global capitalism, consumerism, and larger sociopolitical structures. In facing these sticky problems, Robinson has recently called himself an “angry optimist.” I tell students that I aim to be “soberly hopeful,” because given the seriousness of our situation, there will be no reason for hope if we do not first risk it. How would you describe your outlook during this project’s years of gestation, which have been so tumultuous in US politics? Where did the novel articulate an inner scream, and where a whisper?
RP: This is the question that the core group of would-be tree-savers in my novel must stare down, both on the ground, in the face of bulldozers and feller-bunchers, and two hundred feet in the air, camped out in the incredible canopy ecosystem of the giant coastal redwood, Mimas. How much are we compelled to give to a cause that may already be lost? Does it matter that you save the last few acres of virgin forest, if 98 percent of it is already cut? When does practicality and reason start becoming the enemy of sanity, and vice versa? What is the use of resorting to tactics that are likely to lose the hearts and minds of the public without doing much more than annoy the clear-cutters and cause them to speed up the project of human mastery over everything else alive?
I like Robinson’s “angry optimism.” I’ve also always been fond of Gramsci’s “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” Back at the beginning of my career, I put it this way: What we can’t bring about in no way changes what we must bring about.
Of course, the real question about optimism and hopefulness is: Hopeful for what? I have zero hope that our current culture of consumer individualism will survive. How could it? Its basic principles are at war with real real life, and fantasy can’t defeat inexorable biological truths. There is no place for a system predicated on endless growth in a world of finite resources being infinitely recycled. Anyone who can’t conceive of a way for humans to exist other than capitalism will find herself pinned under overwhelming despair.
But hopeful for life? It’s a pretty good long-term bet. The planet has several times come back from the brink of nothing, even from perturbations in the planetary systems as violent as the one we have set in motion. That kind of hope, though, requires thinking on the scale and time frame of forests, not people.
This book has changed my life profoundly, including changing where I live. Following the trees while writing The Overstory, I moved to the Smokies, and I will go on living here, in one of the most biologically diverse areas on Earth, now that the book is done. In fact, I hope to hike all the 800-plus miles of trails down here while writing this same book all over again! These mountains are an object lesson in what can happen when land is rescued from the hopes of human dominance and returned to the hopeless passivity of leaving things alone. The place still faces unbelievable pressures from acid rain, introduced blights, insect parasites that are no longer killed by winters, and warming seasons that drive endangered creatures to the tops of mountains until they’re perched at the peak with nowhere further to retreat. But over the course of a mere century, on half a million acres, life has come roaring back. It might take another half a millennium of being left alone for the six different kinds of forests here to rebuild all their broken networks. But half a millennium is a heartbeat, for such things.
Natural selection does its work, no matter the failings of any local wrong turn. The Anthropocene is as tenuous as any other era, in the far greater, older, larger, self-regulating experiment. As more than one of the characters in The Overstorydiscovers, it’s not the world that needs saving, it’s us. For us to be saved, as a lot of the very old myths say, we’ll have to come home and be born again.
EH: I’m struck that instead of answering in terms of what you needed art to “express,” your focus is in the opposite direction. If Rilke’s poem demands, “change your life,” you indicate that the author is not exempt. In Generosity, in fact, I interpret your narrator as seeking to live by myth, to write breath back into being even when a suicide’s lungs have fallen silent. 
On one hand, you’ve been clear that this potential of storytelling is not about literal wish fulfillment. In a relatively dark moment in The Overstory, an older woman sees a forest she loves engulfed by second homes and fears this is a war humanity will “lose by winning.” On the other hand, two hundred pages later, a younger woman doubles down on the value of fiction, holding together intellect and will as she asserts, “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.” 
How do you imagine a good (level-three) story can change minds — and perhaps also hearts and hands?
RP: The challenge is that a “good story” often seems to mean one that makes us feel good about ourselves by privileging individual choices and fates and reinforcing the illusion of human centrism. But I am a sucker for another kind of story, one where people must lose themselves and their private narratives in an unseen network of connections that runs far beyond their own small selves, even beyond their own species.
The Greek myths often revolved around the ultimate value of xenia: generosity, openness, guest-friendship. In the myth of Baucis and Philemon, the gods, disguised as beggars, knock on the doors of everyone in the city and are turned away by all except one old couple. In reward for opening their door to the unknown strangers, the old couple are turned into an oak and a linden. This is the myth that runs throughout all the characters’ fates in The Overstory, from the terrorist-turned-psychologist who accepts his jail sentence without a legal fight to the compulsive environmental artist, making designs out of fallen logs in a forest readable only by observation satellites. It’s the myth we need now, more than any other. Four billion years of blind tinkering has produced consciousness. We can open that consciousness to the knocks of strangers so very unlike us, or we can close the doors and go back inside. Either way, as the old Ovidian song says, a change is gonna come.
EH: A phrase one of my favorite characters in your novel tattoos on her scapula! Yet change is discomfiting, like stories about failures of hospitality. Your Greek tale brought to mind a similar Hebrew one, the Genesis 19 narrative in which the neglected angels are already inside Lot’s house and the strangers at the door are would-be rapists. Too often this narrative becomes a weapon by which to justify treating LGBTQ people like the Sodomites wanted to treat Lot’s guests, rather than motivating the graciousness you’re describing, but the implications could expand more positively to our present ecological crisis — were we to seriously consider how consumerism also relies upon exploitation of unseen others.
I raise this Biblical passage for another reason: during our conversation, as in your fiction, you’ve alluded to Adam’s curse, the “sacred value” and the “grace” of trees, and the call to “come home and be born again.” You’ve been an astute critic of simplistic, coercive religiosity across your career — in The Overstory, you juxtapose the senses against doctrine — but I also hear you inviting richer treatments of ancient wisdom, and not just from theologians. Without question, we must expand our literary diets beyond the traditional Western canon, but how might such works also be redeployed in contemporary fiction? (I must say: I loved asides like Olivia’s vision of “Jesus the Communist, the crazed shop-trasher, the friend of deadbeats.”)
RP: The book is indeed filled with what Bron Taylor would call dark green religion. But in most cases, it’s a religion without metaphysics, which is something that even the religion of humanism can’t always claim! Tree-consciousness is a religion of life, a kind of bio-pantheism. My characters are willing to entertain a telos in living things that scientific empiricism shies away from. Life wants something from us. The trees say to each of these people: There’s something you need to hear.
Karen Armstrong has a brilliant book called A Short History of Myth. In it, she describes the history of civilization as a concurrent rise of human technological power and fall of old pantheisms, first to a control-model monotheism, then to the unchallengeable authority of human-centered rationalism. In her vision, the damaged present results from this utter loss of all the old spiritual guideposts. When there is no authority but collective mastery and might, and no purpose but the feeding of individual appetite, the human spirit turns vicious. It will blithely destroy, without thought to the consequences. Armstrong ends her book with a plea to artists to take up the fallen mantle of meaning-making that the old myths and the discredited religions once wore:
A novel, like a myth, teaches us to see the world differently; it shows us how to look into our own hearts and to see our world from a perspective that goes beyond our own self-interest. If professional religious leaders cannot instruct us in mythical lore, our artists and creative writers can perhaps step into this priestly role and bring fresh insight to our lost and damaged world.
That’s why The Overstory is swarming with Greek and Egyptian and pagan European and Indian and Chinese and Indigenous American myths about trees. It’s trying to resurrect a very old form of tree consciousness, a religion of attention and accommodation, a pantheism of sorts that credits other forms of life — indeed, the life-process as a whole — with wanting something.
EH: The resulting polyphony stands in stark contrast to the cacophony of so much public discourse, which does not teach us to see the world differently, but drives us further and further into lonely enclaves of endlessly harmful self-interest, where our desires drown out everything but the murmurs and shouts we could mistake for our own. The first novel my climate fiction students read this semester was Ashley Shelby’s South Pole Station, and when she joined us for a videoconference, we considered whether the protagonist’s brother’s suicide might be a warning against his whole species’s direction. Similarly, in several of your novels, major characters nearly commit suicide, but abstain or are thwarted. Walker Percy, a self-described “bad Catholic” whose novels’ roots must entwine somewhere with your own, distinguished between the “ex-suicide” who can actively choose life — rather than simply floating along by default — and the “non-suicide” who remains controlled by fear of death. How close is that to your thinking about self-destruction and transformation? What alternative does The Overstory’s neologism, “unsuicide,” offer to a culture overwhelmed by demagoguery, machismo, fear of the other, and “alternative facts”?
RP: It may be neither hyperbolic nor rhetorical to call the current turn in American politics a collective suicide. Premature deaths, damage to human health, dislocation of populations, destruction of coastal and storm-belt property, disruption of essential components of the food supply: climate change casualties are mounting rapidly, and coping with, let alone trying to reduce them will require one of the greatest concerted public efforts in history. (Incidentally, deforestation contributes more greenhouse gasses than all the world’s trucks and cars, and climate change contributes massively to deforestation, a most vicious positive feedback loop.)
Instead, the current, proudly suicidal administration is backing out of climate agreements, crippling the solar power industry, subsidizing “beautiful, clean coal,” opening national monuments to drilling, and revoking or rescinding protections of air, water, and land that took half a century of massive political effort to put in place. Cynical appointments have destroyed guardian agencies from the Department of the Interior to the EPA, killing them from the inside out. History is filled with moments when doomed regimes redouble their own insanity by speeding up self-destruction rather than capitulating to accountability. We are in one such moment, perhaps the most catastrophic one ever.
No one should be fooled: the motive behind all of this “deregulation” is not primarily economic. Any reasonable accounting reveals that the sum of these measures carries external costs far greater than the hoped-for benefits. (Did you know that the number-one killer in the world is pollution? And that doesn’t even include premature deaths from climate change.) The push to remove all environmental safety strikes me as mostly psychological. It’s driven by a will to total dominance, underwritten by the hierarchy of values that George Lakoff calls “stern paternalism,” putting men above women, whites above minorities, Americans above all other countries, and humans above all other living things. Trumpism calls it a return to greatness (a.k.a., “Grab ’em by the…”). It might better be called a tantrum in the face of a crumbling control fantasy.
Near the climax of my book, my dendrologist Patricia Westerford (whose personal history qualifies her as a Walker Percy “non-suicide”) must stand in front of an auditorium of technocrats who share something of that fantasy of control and human dominance, while answering the question, “What is the single best thing a person can do for a sustainable future?” Her lecture-demonstration on one very plausible answer — kill yourself — takes a turn toward a startling gesture, a toast to unsuicide. That is the gesture behind the entire novel: the active, even violent effort to oppose a way of life that would gladly bring itself and all else down with it, rather than capitulate to even the mildest forms of reconciliation to the rest of the living world.
I find it interesting to take this analogy of “suicide” literally. If the most common causes of individual suicide are depression and psychic isolation, the cause of our accelerating and collectively willed suicide may be despair over the failed system of capitalism and commodity-driven meaning, as well as the crippling condition that psychologists call “species loneliness.”
We will always be parasites on plants. But that parasitism can be turned into something better — a mutualism. One of my radicalized activists makes this proposal: We should cut trees like they are a gift, not like they are something we a priori deserve. Such a shift in consciousness might have the effect of slowing down deforestation, since we tend to care for gifts better than we do for freebies. But it would also go a long way toward treating the suicidal impulse in people caused by species loneliness. Many indigenous people knew this for millennia: thanking a living thing and asking for its pardon before using it goes a long way toward exonerating the guilt that leads to violence against the self and others.
As a friend of mine likes to put it: How little we would need if we knew how much we already had.
EH: Let’s conclude with a scene featuring two of the characters who most fully grasp the potential of such mutualism. Olivia and Nick spend much of the novel lodged in a redwood like the ancient tree above Silicon Valley you described earlier — or as you put it more mythically, Maidenhair and Watchman rest in Mimas’s arms. From their perch, they inform clear-cutters below that contra the dominant religion of capitalist efficiency, “It might not be so bad, to destroy a little productivity.” And in the ensuing quiet, they ask each other, “Can you feel it lift and disappear? That standing wave of constant static. The distraction so ubiquitous you never even knew you were wrapped in it. Human certainty. The thing that blinds you to what’s right here — gone.
Of course productivity can be healthy if it stems from dedication, not exploitation; certainty may be a reward of rigorous study, when held loosely and in the awareness that new data might always appear. But The Overstorysuggests how these values have been perverted beyond all recognition. Nodding to Greek’s distinction between chronos and kairos, what steps strike you as most crucial if we are to redefine our role on Earth and think about time not just according to human quantities and scales, but also qualitatively, in light of larger ecologies?
RP: The first step is for each of us to commit unsuicide.
At the end of the book, Nick is engaged in an enormous environmental art project, arranging downed tree trunks in a boreal forest to spell out a word on the forest floor. The word he spells out is “Still.” To hold still is to shift postures from dominant to accommodating, to trade use and mastery for looking and receiving. And when a person holds still and looks, all the agents and emissaries of the meaning out there begin to look back and start talking.
Thoreau puts this beautifully: “Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, resign yourself to the influence of the earth.” Resignation will not come easily, to us masters of reality. But nothing else will come at all, if we can’t master ourselves enough to simply hold still and see. We cannot save the world; the world will go on well enough, long after it shrugs us off. But we might just be able to save ourselves, by coming home to the world’s influence and living in its seasons, not our own.
A friend came to visit me here in my home in the Smokies. Despite the winter turbulence that whipped the jet stream around like a jump rope, making for 80-degree days in February and polar-vortex March nights 20 degrees colder than average, spring was creeping back in. The first ephemerals were rising everywhere through last year’s leaf litter: hepatica, trailing arbutus, star chickweed, spring beauties. I stopped on the trail where we were walking and pointed out the crown of a maple infused in red, like a blurry watercolor.
My friend, who’d grown up surrounded by these trees, was astonished. “Maples have flowers?”
Yes. They’ve been flowering every spring, for the last hundred million years. They flowered in every year you’ve been alive. And with luck, they’ll flower for a few years yet to come.