Sunday, May 25, 2014

Why I Write Nature/Science Books

People ask me why I write nonfiction – nature/science books in particular. I didn’t plan it that way but after some 30 years making my living as a science writer of books, magazine articles and television shows, I figure I must not be too bad at it. I knew I wanted to be a writer from around age 8. I loved reading more than anything in the world – fairy tales, Nancy Drew mysteries, Hardy Boy mysteries, and Book-of-the-Month-Club novels that an adult cousin passed on to me after she finished reading them. I thought I would write fiction, but life takes many unexpected twists and turns. The adventure of life is to follow them and see where they lead.

The first twist for me was an opportunity to write a book about scientific discoveries that were made by chance or error. I had to work really hard to write that book because I had no background in science. I was a literature major with a minor in creative writing. The year I worked on that book was grueling. I had a full-time job but spent weekends in the New York Public Library doing research for the book. I did get a book, Discovery By Chance, written, and after it was published, other science writing jobs on television documentaries came my way. To write one of those films, which was about tropical rainforests, I traveled to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s field station on Barro Colorado Island, Panama, to do research. Being in the rainforest and meeting a bunch of field biologists hooked me on science, especially evolutionary biology, the science that deals with life on Earth, who we are, and how we evolved.

I don’t know anything more fascinating than the fact that life evolved on this fortunate planet, and that of all the directions life could have taken, creatures like us evolved. Chance figured in our evolution as well. We wouldn’t be here had it not been for a cataclysmic accident that wiped out the dinosaurs. Some 65 million years ago, an enormous asteroid (6 miles across) hit the Earth, sending up dense dust clouds that blocked the sun’s rays and darkened the skies. Without sunlight, plants couldn’t carry out photosynthesis and manufacture food that is the base of all food chains. Without their plant food, the vegetarian dinosaurs and many other species died of starvation along with the carnivorous beasts like T. Rex that fed on them. Without the sun’s warmth, the Earth also experienced cold winter conditions. Scientists think the fallout from this asteroid killed up to 70 percent of all plants and animals on Earth at that time – a mass extinction.

It was a fortunate extinction for us, because living in the shadow of the gigantic beasts was a small shrew-like insect-eating mammal that may be the ancestor of modern placental mammals. A specimen 160 million years old has been found. Over time, following the extinction of the dinosaurs, numerous mammals evolved, including primates and the great apes that are our ancestors.

I find it exciting to learn what we share in common with our closest primate relatives – the chimpanzees – and how we differ. Our modern human species, Homo sapiens, first appeared in Africa about 200,000 years ago -- only a flicker of evolutionary time. DNA analysis shows that all of us who are alive today are descended from those early humans who lived in Africa. At the deepest level of our cells, our genetic blueprint, we are all African. What is more profound or exciting than that?

I write about nature and science because they form our knowledge base, provide evidence for what we know, and point toward solutions if our leaders are wise enough to embrace evidence. Sadly, today too many people in positions of power deny science and embrace superstition. I write science because I cherish life and hope in some small way to contribute to the education needed so desperately to protect our planet and save humanity from its self-destructive ways. Think of this: Dinosaurs ruled the Earth some 135 million years; our species hasn’t been around even a quarter of a million years. We are babies, and some of our grown-ups act like toddlers having tantrums. At the current rate of willful destruction of the planet’s resources, we won’t need an asteroid to wipe us out. We’re doing it to ourselves.

Is there hope? I like to think so. We’re a resilient, hardy species with huge brainpower. If we use our intelligence, creativity, compassion and ability to cooperate with each other and solve problems, we could protect our home planet and improve the quality of life for everyone. But it's a big IF.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Looking Back and Moving Forward

Today, May 17th, is the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. I was a junior in an all-white Virginia high school (there were no racially integrated schools in the South at this time) when the decision was announced. In my naivete, I thought there should be a celebration.

But there was no celebration. Instead Virginia politicians turned to fear-mongering against “mongrelization” and mounted a policy known as “massive resistance” to implementing the court’s decision. Using every political tactic at their disposal, including closing schools to prevent desegregation, Virginia’s politicians succeeded in delaying school integration until the late 1960s. One entire county, Prince Edward County, closed its public schools for five years rather than integrate. Here and in other areas of the state, private academies for white children sprang up but black children sometimes had no education at all. It was an ugly time in our history. Looking back now, I wonder how grown people could have acted so hatefully against children and against people they had known all their lives.

Even when I was a child, segregation never made sense to me. It went against everything my parents, my school, and my church taught me: love your neighbor as yourself, all men are created equal, respect everyone, liberty and justice for all. An old Sunday school song depicted a world quite different from the one in which I was living: “Jesus loves the little children, all the children in the world. Red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in his sight.” I felt I was getting mixed signals from these institutions and my community. When I asked why, nobody seemed to be able to give me an answer that made any sense. I felt I was getting simultaneous stop and go signals about how life should be lived.

Growing up on a farm, my brother and I played with the children of our black neighbors. We were friends. It was okay to play together in our yard, but we couldn’t express that friendship in public. We couldn’t go to school together; we couldn’t go to church together; we couldn’t go to the movies together.

The cultural mantra was “separate but equal,” but there was no equality in separation. I remember the “White Only” and “Colored Only” signs next to water fountains and on waiting room doors; the “White Only” and “Colored Only” sections of the local movie theater. Blacks weren’t allowed to sit at tables in the local drugstore/soda shop. Even the cemeteries were segregated. Did this mean heaven and hell were segregated? I felt that segregation made victims of both blacks and whites, that it limited freedom for all of us, though I knew I wasn’t humiliated and discriminated against as black people were. By the luck of the genetic draw, I was born white, but I would be no less me if I were black. Skin color was just another feature like eye or hair color. But segregation exploited skin color as an inborn badge of superiority or inferiority. Segregation said being black diminished a person's humanity, relegated a person to second-class status. But whites had done nothing to deserve their superior status. It didn't make any sense.

I didn’t understand how anybody calling themselves Christian could embrace segregation. Throughout my teenage years, I argued with my father, who was a devout Christian, on this point. Neither he nor my mother were racists. Like many other decent, well-meaning white southerners, they were born into the system of racial segregation, but they harbored no hatred of blacks. Indeed, there were some genuinely loving friendships between blacks and whites, especially between black and white women. But they were emotionally shackled by a system that required holding back feelings and avoiding openly embracing each other’s humanity. So there was intimacy and denial of intimacy – a system of wounded love. Always you had to be aware of how far you could go. The social taboo – the line that must never be crossed, on fear of death for black men – was interracial mixing – the great sexual bugaboo. Until 1967 when the Supreme Court struck down Virginia’s law against interracial marriage as unconstitutional, mixed marriage was a felony in the state of Virginia and other southern states.

We’ve come a long way since 1954. Interracial marriage is no longer taboo, we have an interracial president who was raised by a single white mother and his white grandparents, and schools throughout the country are racially integrated though still segregated in many areas because of housing patterns. But we’re not in a post-racial society yet. Blacks still experience discrimination in job opportunities, housing, educational opportunity, access to medical treatment, and administration of justice. Black male children are especially at risk of racial hatred, such as the wanton murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, whose murderer was acquitted. Black male students in grades K-12 are nearly two-and-a-half times more likely to be suspended from school than white students. Young black men are stigmatized as criminals or potential criminals. According to the Center for American Progress, people of color are “ disproportionately incarcerated, policed, and sentenced to death at significantly higher rates than their white counterparts.”

So segregation is no longer legal but America still suffers from racism. Indeed, since President Obama’s election, racism seems to have surged particularly in the Republican Party. Legislation to hinder and limit the voting rights of African-Americans and other non-white minorities has been passed in various Republican-led states. Jim Crow has resurfaced under the guise of preventing so-called voter fraud. The journey to get beyond racial segregation that began 60 years ago with the Brown v. Board of Education decision hasn’t been completed yet. But I choose to believe we can overcome racism if enough people of good will speak out and remain vigilant. In some small pockets of the country, including many in the South, it has already happened quietly and peacefully.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

It's Okay to be a Voyeur in the Nonhuman World

If Freud had known more about the birds and bees, he might never have fantasized his theory of penis envy. In fact, a lot of theories about what sex is or ought to be might be vastly different if they were more firmly grounded in biology than in romance. The truth is: What passes for the story of the birds and the bees is a bedtime tale for innocents that leaves out more than it tells. In the reality of the wild, birds, bees, butterflies, snails—even orchids and avocados—“do it” in ways that would make the erotic Hindu sculptures at Konarak blush all the way down to their stone toenails. A tableau of nonhuman sexual strategies includes cannibals, transvestites, hermaphrodites, homosexual rapists, males with two penises, and plants that deceive, seduce, and kill. When it comes to mixing genes—and biologically, that’s what sex is all about—anything and everything goes.

There are almost as many ways and positions for “doing it” as they are creatures on the face of the Earth. Our human repertoire of seduction techniques seems unimaginative by comparison. Some animals and plants change sex as blithely as humans slip into evening clothes. Others resort to trickery—the biological equivalent of our sexual con games. A few animals even give up their lives for sex, but unlike us humans, they don’t have any choice in the matter. In the nonhuman world, sexual behavior is genetically programmed. Here, sex is straight and unadulterated. Nobody worries about who’s on top or who comes first or whether orgasms are clitoral or vaginal. There are no value judgments attached—no “crimes against nature,” sexual deviates, “unnatural” sex acts. Evolution favors whatever strategy best enables an animal or plant to pass along its genes and leave successful offspring.

It’s fun to be a voyeur in the world of nonhuman sex, but there’s a more serious reason for paying close attention to the birds and the bees. Training binoculars on nonhuman erotic windows can provide new biological perspectives on human sexual behavior—particularly taboos and discrimination, rape, wife-beating, and possibly other forms of sexual aggression. First, however, it’s necessary to give up some of our human chauvinist ideas. Excerpted from my book "How To Have Sex If You're Not Human"

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Ignorance Is Not Bliss

Scientific illiteracy will kill us all. It's not a nuclear blast we have to fear but the blast of ignorance that characterizes the Republican Tea Party and the religious right. Scientific ignorance is the greatest threat to national security, global security and personal security. Yet, we have members of Congress celebrating such ignorance and trying to pass it off as public policy. Some of the statements coming out of politicians' mouths are so stupid, a fiction writer could hardly make them up. In recent months, Congresspersons, ex-Congresspersons and political candidates have made statements that are downright scary. Here's a sampling:

On Rape and Women's Bodies "From what I understand from doctors [pregnancy from rape] is really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down," proclaimed Rep. Todd Akin (R-Missouri), the 2012 Republican Senate nominee from Missouri. Thankfully, the voters in Missouri shut down Akin's bid and reelected Senator Claire McCaskill.

On Wind Energy and Climate Change "Wind is God's way of balancing heat. Wind is the way you shift heat from areas where it's hotter to areas where it's cooler. That's what wind is. Wouldn't it be ironic if in the interest of global warming we mandated massive switches to energy, which is a finite resource, which slows the winds down, which causes the temperature to go up? Now, I'm not saying that's going to happen, Mr. Chairman, but that is definitely something on the massive scale. I mean, it does make some sense. You stop something, you can't transfer that heat, and the heat goes up. It's just something to think about." This came out of the mouth of Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas)

This same Congressman told a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee: "I would point out that people like me who support hydrocarbon development don't deny that climate is changing. "I think you can have an honest difference of opinion of what's causing that change without automatically being either all in that's all because of mankind or it's all just natural. I think there's a divergence of evidence. . . I would point out that if you're a believer in the Bible, one would have to say the Great Flood is an example of climate change and that certainly wasn't because mankind had overdeveloped hydrocarbon energy."

Jim Sensenbrenner (R=WI) called research on climate change "an international conspiracy." Sensenbrenner is on House Science Committee.

On Science

Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA) said: “All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and the Big Bang Theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of Hell. And it’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who were taught that from understanding that they need a savior.” In the same speech, Broun claimed “I don’t believe that the Earth’s but about 9,000 years old. I believe it was created in six days as we know them. That’s what the Bible says.” This shining light of knowledge is also on the House Science Committee.

Just so I don't leave you in this muddle of negativity, here's a smart comment from astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, Director of Hayden Planetarium, Museum of Natural History, New York City.

“Recognize that the very molecules that make up your body, the atoms that construct the molecules, are traceable to the crucibles that were once the centers of high mass stars that exploded their chemically rich guts into the galaxy, enriching pristine gas clouds with the chemistry of life. So that we are all connected to each other biologically, to the earth chemically and to the rest of the universe atomically. That’s kinda cool! That makes me smile and I actually feel quite large at the end of that. It’s not that we are better than the universe, we are part of the universe. We are in the universe and the universe is in us.”

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Peace on Earth or Blood in the Classroom?

This is the season when people give lip service in talk and song to “peace on Earth,” yet we live in a society that promotes violence. From video games to the NRA, the gunslinger as hero is promoted in thousands of ways, some subtle, some blatant. On December 13, 2013, the day before the first anniversary of the massacre of 20 first-graders and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, Bill Moyers interviewed Richard Slotkin, former professor at Wesleyan University and author of “The Fatal Environment,” “Regeneration Through Violence,” “Gunslinger Nation,” and his most recent book, “The Long Road to Antietam.” Discussing the Newtown shooter, Adam Lanza, Professor Slotkin pointed out that Lanza was obsessed with violent video games and used them, in effect, to train himself for his deadly attack on children and teachers. He also shot his mother and himself. Violent video games like “Grand Theft Auto,” -- of which there are now five versions -- can act as “training films” for criminality similar to the way the military uses video games to train soldiers. Moyers showed an excerpt from a video game that has even been developed about the Newtown massacre. The game allows the viewer to follow and actively shoot students in a classroom. Greed and exploitation know neither good taste nor compassion.

Since the Newtown massacre there have been 26 more school shootings with 200 children killed. It’s possible to look at violence as a disease epidemic in the U.S. Indeed, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), in 2010 alone (the latest year for which the CDC has records), a total of 31,672 Americans were killed by guns; 2694 were children or teens. “We produce the lone killer . . . [who’s] trying to validate himself or herself in terms of our society,” Slotkin said. But the school shooters are all men, Moyers pointed out, asking why that is. Slotkin replied that white men “feel their position is imperiled” and turn to the “mystique of weapons.” Guns are symbols of “productive violence,” Slotkin said. Yet the only thing produced is dead bodies, heartbreak and grief.

Incredibly, following the Newtown shootings, the NRA campaigned for more guns, arming teachers, rather than accepting even the weakest, most basic, of gun control measures such as background checks. I have no quarrel with hunting. I grew up on a farm. My father and all the other farmers in our neighborhood had guns for hunting. Daddy shot rabbits and squirrels, and Mother cooked them, and we ate them. I learned to shoot but unlike my brother, was never interested in hunting. In rural environments where populations of some animals, such as deer, have exploded because they have no predators, a hunting season makes sense. But the hunting argument can’t be used to support military assault weapons in city streets. You don’t hunt deer with AK-47s. People are the only prey in urban environments.

Peace on Earth is just another dream unless we begin teaching peace as fervently as we teach war. The reality of school shootings is the nightmare we currently inhabit.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Global Revolution

Blasting off to outer space in my rocket ship
I'm not on drugs but I'm high from the trip.
My mission is to find another place,
a planet or a moon where the human race
can start a new world when ours is destroyed
by leaders who treat lethal weapons like toys.

As I orbit the Earth, tears come to my eyes
'Cause it's the only living planet in these pitch black skies.
The only one that shines with a deep blue sea,
The only one that breathes life's chemistry,
The only one to harbor life's amazing evolution
But to keep it going, we need a revolution,
not the kind that's fought with weapons of terror
but with intelligence to admit human error.

From the windows of my ship in the vacuum of space
Earth looks as small as one human face,
And I think of all the people as one and the same,
The same human species with one human name.
Underneath the different languages and different colored skins,
We're all the same -- just women and men.
All living together on this one cosmic ball
where survival will depend on the efforts of us all.

The view is very different when you go out far.
You can see the total folly of any kind of war.
You can see our leaders acting out with their primitive brains
Ancient battles that took place on Africa's plains.
But the weapons are no longer sticks and stones.
It's high technology with nuclear bombs.

And if that's not enough hanging over our heads,
Radioactive wastes may kill us all dead.
Or destruction of the ozone can let in deadly rays
of that blazing solar furnace that lights all our days.

The dolphins are dying, and they say it's from pollution,
But the leaders of the world haven't found a solution.
Maybe they're dumb or just too lazy
Or maybe they're just downright crazy.

From my vantage point in my rocket ship,
It seems like a shame to let things slip
right out of our hands when we have the power
to protect the Earth and make it flower.

I am coming home because my mission is over.
There is nowhere to go for this interplanetary rover.
No other place in the whole Milky Way
Where human beings could possibly stay,
No other planet, no asteroid or rock
Where human beings could set up shop.
If we start anew, it will have to be down there
On our planet with water and breathable air.

I make my last orbit and tears come to my eyes
'Cause Earth's the only planet in these pitch black skies.
The only one that shines with a deep blue sea,
The only one that breathes life's chemistry.
The only one that harbors life's amazing evolution,
But to keep it going, we need a global revolution,
Not the kind fought with weapons of terror,
But with intelligence to admit human error,
A change that comes within the heart and mind,
Achieving peace for humankind.

This was written several years before 9/11.

Monday, February 25, 2013

CNU Writers Conference -- A Nourishing Two Days

This past weekend (Feb. 22-23, 2013) I attended Christopher Newport University’s annual Writers Conference--the 32nd, in fact. This one honored my dear friend and wonderful writer Doris Gwaltney, author of HOMEFRONT. See Doris’ Facebook page. Doris Gwaltney became coordinator of the conference in its fifth year and served in that capacity for eight years. She teaches a Lifelong Learning class in creative writing, and has been a mentor and inspiration to many local writers. She also serves on the Advisory Council for the CNU Writers Conference.

I always find this writers conference nourishing, and this year’s was no exception. Humans rights was the theme of the conference and the opening day’s panel discussed human rights issues, including rape, violence against women and children, and human trafficking in sexual and other forms of slavery.

Novelist and attorney Corban Addison gave an outstanding presentation about his novel, A WALK ACROSS THE SUN, and his involvement with international justice movements to combat human trafficking, which he called “the fastest growing criminal industry in the world.” Trafficking for sexual and other forms of slavery is not just something that happens in other countries. Addison pointed out that in the United States some 100,000 American children are trafficked every year. “It’s as easy to order a girl on the Internet as it is to order a pizza.,” he said, adding that “We spend more on military marching bands than on liberating slaves.” Globally about 2 million children are trafficked every year. The average American sex buyer is male, as are sex tourists that go to Thailand, which is known for an active sex trade in young girls. Until the grassroots rises and demands an end to this kind of slavery, “dollars will continue to fuel the trade,” Addison said. He advocated an educational campaign on human trafficking similar to drug trafficking education.

Rosemary Trible, wife of CNU President Paul Trible, talked about her book, FEAR TO FREEDOM, about her rape experience when she was in her twenties. Since then she has become an advocate for rape victims and founded the nonprofit organization, Fear 2 Freedom, which provides aid to victims of sexual abuse. “I don’t believe anybody eight-years-old says, ‘I’d like to be a prostitute when I grow up,’” Trible said.

Tina Kempin Reuter, CNU assistant professor of international politics and law, presented the policy angle on human rights, pointing out that the concept of human rights is only about 70 years old, and because of communications technology, more people than ever before are aware of human trafficking. With increased awareness, there is a greater chance that more laws against this practice will be passed and implemented.

In a panel on “The Facts about Fiction,” novelist Michael Farmer said a writer needs to know three things: the truth, the subject and the trade. A writer of Western novels, Farmer described the rigorous research that goes into each of his books and the need for authentic details to bring a story alive. Farmer is a member of the Isle of Wight, Virginia, writers group. His novel, HOMBRECITO’S WAR, was a 2006 Spur Finalist and a 2007 New Mexico Finalist for Best Historical Fiction. Other members of this panel were mystery writer Maria Hudgins and poet Nathan Richardson.

Saturday’s keynote speaker Lucinda Roy, Alumni Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech University, talked about her memoir, NO RIGHT TO REMAIN SILENT, about the 2007 shooting that killed 32 people and wounded 17 others at Tech. Roy had taught the student, Seung-Hui Cho, who opened fire on students and faculty and then killed himself. She said she had recognized he was a troubled kid and tried to obtain some help for him but none was forthcoming. The experience, which affected her deeply, is the subject of her memoir.

Steve Watkins, author of the novels DOWN SAND MOUNTAIN (winner of the 2009 Golden Kite Award for Fiction) and WHAT COMES AFTER, presented a lively, humorous discussion on “Why Write YA.” Books for this age group -- 14 up -- find a ready market that continually renews itself as children from the middle grade readership grow up the literary ladder. Watkins pointed out that girls are the primary readers of fiction in the YA category and that they like to read books in which the protagonist is at least one year older than they are. YA novels these days deal with adult topics, including rape, pregnancy, drugs, crime, homelessness, etc., and many are read by adults.

There were many other fine panels and presenters but impossible to attend them all. It’s always refreshing to mingle with other writers, listen to accomplished authors talk about how they work and reenergize the creative batteries for the projects at hand and those on the drawing board.

Congratulations to Cindy Halliday, Conference Coordinator, poet Ann Falcone Shalaski, President of the Advisory Council for the CNU Writers Conference, Joanne Dingus, and all the other council members and those from the Lifelong Learning Society who were involved in organizing this wonderful conference.