Michael Riordon

the view from where I live

Inside Bold Scientists, more…

When the river roared
(from chapter 1, about Henry Lickers, Seneca First Nation biologist)

At Kawehno:ke the leaves have fallen. The air is crisp, the sky laden with dark cloud, winter pending. Traffic whines overhead, crossing the steel-grate bridge between Canada and the United States. Linking the two countries, the bridge crosses Akwesasne Mohawk land.

Off the island’s south shore, the bulk freighter Maccoa glides east. The freighter, registered in Cyprus, rides low in the water, its passage through the St. Lawrence Seaway marked by a deep throb.

Flowing around Kawehno:ke, named Cornwall Island by English invaders, the St. Lawrence River—so named by French invaders—licks at manicured shores and wetlands bustling with invisible life. On a windless day the river flows deep and flat, slate grey, silent. It wasn’t always so docile.

At his office at the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, Environmental Science Officer Henry Lickers takes me back a few millennia. “Some of our earliest stories about this area talk about a time when the river roared. Now, as a scientist I know that the last ice age occurred about fifteen thousand years ago, when a glacier came down and covered this area. Five thousand years or so later, a fault in the land shifted and split that tongue of ice. The ice had functioned like a dam, holding back an inland sea that covered the whole area of the present Great Lakes. When the dam gave way, this enormous volume of water flowed out to create the river. That’s when the river roared. As a biologist, I look at stories like this not as myths, but as sometimes really accurate accounts of how things were.”

In my initial approach to Henry Lickers, I mentioned that I’d like to explore with him the deepening fault lines between nature, science, and power. What did he think, could we talk?

Henry replied, “This question is most intriguing and has occupied much of my thoughts for many years. I’d say nature, science, and power can co-exist if they are viewed through a lens of peace. But used as engines of greed or commerce, science and power can easily become unbridled and destructive. Yes, I think we should talk.”

He opened his reply with She:kon (How goes the way with you?), and closed with Sken:nen (May you go in peace). These, he tells me later, are elemental courtesies. Refreshing, I’d say, in this age of texting.…


Digging thistles
(from chapter 2, about Ann Clark, plant physiologist, professor (now retired), and farmer

Industrial agriculture generates almost a quarter of the continuing increase of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2007.

In fading light, we stand by Ann’s vegetable garden, orderly beds now put to sleep for winter.

Sheltered from the biting wind, we scan the fields below: her laboratory, where the scientist-farmer experiments season by season. Now she can do research on her own for which she could never get funding at the university, since her experiments produce neither profit nor any process that can be patented (for profit), only useful techniques for survival in the post-oil near-future.

From the beginning Ann decided to forego costly, gas-gulping machines that sit most of their lives in the shed. When she needs a farm task done, she hires a local farmer—to seed a crop, Bush Hog a field, or make hay. Instead of mowing the sides of lanes, she incorporates them into paddocks so the cows can mow, eat, and fertilize as they go.

Ann tells me she plans to “stack enterprises in order to capture ecological and economic synergies.” Delivering this manifesto, over my head, she has the grace to smile, then translates: “Each crop or activity is selected to foster other functions.” For example, the stony land here is low in fertility, lacking especially potassium and phosphorus. This being an organic, post-oil farm, Ann doesn’t want to bring in synthetic fertilizers. However, poultry manure happens to be rich in NPK, the essential nutrients nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. So Ann plans to raise organic turkeys. Today she went looking for an old hay wagon to convert into a turkeymobile, a movable shelter for hot days and cold, dangerous nights—the woods beyond her house are a haven for bears, coyotes, and fishers, all effective hunters.

Though complex to realize, Ann’s experiment has a kind of elegance that scientists prize. “Instead of bringing in oil-based fertilizer,” she explains, “I bring in organic feed, which a supplier in the nearby village can provide. Then by gradually moving the turkeys through the fields that are lowest in nutrients, in time I can build fertility across the whole farm. This in turn enhances the nutrients in grasses that the cattle will eat in the following years.”

I suspect that some of her technology-driven former students might find her approach backward, even primitive. “Probably some would,” she says crisply. “But if you accept that the days of easy oil are numbered—and what sane person can still deny it?—then really this farm isn’t backward at all. On the contrary, it’s future-oriented.”…


A dialogue with the world
(from Chapter 3, about Craig Holdrege, Goethean scientist)

On a given body, to generate and superinduce a new nature or new natures is the work and aim of human power.
—Francis Bacon, Novum Organum, book 2, 1620

Through the contemplating of an ever creating nature, we should make ourselves worthy of conscious participation in her production.
—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Judgment through Intuitive Perception, c 1770

On a hot day in late June, sky blue to infinity, we walk up a gravel road into the May Hill Nature Preserve, near the New York–Massachusetts border. Students from the nearby Hawthorne Valley Waldorf School worked with Henrike Holdrege of the Nature Institute to build the meandering trail. A generous canopy of oaks and sugar maples filters the light and cools the air.

The tallest trees are survivors from an earlier time, biologist Craig Holdrege explains, when most of this land was razed for sheep pasture. He points out wild calla lilies—blooms spent, they show early fruit. Deeper in the woods, we skirt ranks of lush ferns gesturing in airy arcs. “Rich, moist soil here,” says Craig. “Perfect for them.”

We enter the core of the preserve, a nine-acre wetland, on a boardwalk meant to minimize harm from trampling feet. Made of rot-resistant black locust wood from the region, it was built by Craig, Henrike, and their son Martin, with help from students. The muffled hum of traffic infiltrates the sanctuary; the Taconic Parkway lurks beyond the wetland.

“This,” says Craig, “is the skunk cabbage.” Named for its pungent aroma, the plant features in Craig’s research. He breaks off a leaf for me to smell. Rather mild, as skunk stink goes. With broad, veined leaves on short stems, on first encounter the plant seems unremarkable to me.

Craig scans the wetland. “I want to show you one of its flowers,” he says. “But a lot of them seem to have been eaten, probably by turkeys. It’s the first flower to emerge here, often when they’re still under snow. It sits in a big leaf like this”— he cups his hands to form a grotto—“and remarkably, it generates its own heat, enough to melt the snow and ice around it. That’s what got me fascinated with it.”

Craig’s fascination drives his long quest to understand our co-inhabitants on earth, not for their mechanics or usefulness to us but for their inherent qualities and their place in the larger community of life. This whole-organism approach to biology is rooted in the science philosophy of eighteenth-century German writer, politician, scientist, and philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Although the more aggressive scientific method proposed by Francis Bacon has come to rule Western science, Goethe offers a reflective way of seeing, possible grounds for a truce in our increasingly catastrophic war on nature. It’s this vision that drew me to the Nature Institute.…


Blood on my hands
(from chapter 4, about gardening and our tangled relationship with nature)

Michael Riordon, writer and gardener

I welcomed the wild grass for its airy dance among the hollyhocks. But when the grass grew tall and thick enough to obscure them, it had to go. Cutting it close to the ground with shears, by accident I slice into a green frog, hidden there. It sits immobile, wide-eyed, as innards bulge from its back.

Casually transcending the border between tended garden and wilderness beyond, frogs and snakes belong in the cloistered gardens my partner and I have created behind our house in Prince Edward County. But not knowing they are welcome, these co-inhabitants sensibly hide when we approach. This frog must have assumed it was safely hidden, and sadly it was, unseen by me until the indifferent blades close on its back. Its blood, like yours and mine, is red.

There being no recovery from such a wound, I find a rock, take a breath, and swing the rock down hard. My eyes close on impact. Then to my horror, the frog moves—more than a dying twitch, it somehow manages a quarter turn to face me. I strike again, twice. Then I bury the small, mangled body where it died, among the hollyhocks.

Gardening is an act of will. The more alien to its surroundings a garden is, the more forcefully human will must be applied to control it. The frog is collateral damage in my quest for control.

“God Almighty first planted a garden,” Sir Francis Bacon wrote in 1625 (The Essays: Of Gardens). “And indeed it is the purest of human pleasures, the greatest refreshment to the spirits of man.” In writing this book, I’ve visited now and then with Sir Francis, often in the garden. He loved a well-made garden.

The precisely designed gardens on his own estate gave elegant form to the central maxim of Novum Organum, one of his most enduring works: “By art and the hand of man,” he wrote, “Nature is forced out of her natural state and squeezed and molded.” Novum Organum translates as the new instrument, by which Bacon meant a new way of thinking. By art he meant applied knowledge, the new science that he championed. The coercive metaphors spilled over from his day job, in which from time to time he would interrogate people accused of disloyalty to the king. Like nature, these subjects were unlikely to yield up their secrets without some “squeezing,” or what torture advocates now prefer to call “enhanced interrogation techniques.”…


Stolen children

Dr Patricia del Carmen Vásques Marías, forensic geneticist, Pro-Búsqueda (For the Search), El Salvador

In 2012, Patricia experienced one of the rarest, most thrilling aspects of her job: a cold hit. In other words, after long, meticulous investigation, a lucky break.

In the case of three siblings who disappeared in 1982 during a military attack on their village, Pro-Búsqueda had already tracked down one, a girl, but there the trail ended. Then someone in the same village speculated to a Pro-Búsqueda investigator that a young man they had met might be one of the children who had disappeared. The investigators take careful note of any such clues, no matter how vague. They managed to locate the young man, interviewed him, and he consented to donate a DNA sample, which was sent to the lab for analysis.

On one of her late night work sessions, Patricia imported the resulting profile into DNA-View, and as usual scanned hundreds of family profiles for comparison. This time the program indicated a match, a strong one, with one particular family. “So then I checked the file of this young man for the circumstances of his disappearance, and – (she lets out a little gasp) –the match was possible! It was very late, but immediately I called Margarita (Zamora, a Pro-Búsqueda investigator) – she holds many cases in her head – and I asked her, Margarita, is it possible he could be associated with this family? She said, Yes, it’s possible. And it was!” A cold hit. Here Patricia laughed happily, as if it had just happened.

She clicks to another screen, an official looking document in Spanish. “Here is the report I wrote from that case. This boy was one year and eight months old when the soldiers took him. In the beginning, a soldier took care of him for a full year, then he gave the child to an aunt (of the soldier). We know now that in all those years this boy actually lived not far from the home of his biological family.”

The reaction of adoptive families to these inquiries can vary from help to active resistance. In this case, undoubtedly complicated by military involvement, the adoptive mother, the soldier’s aunt, neither helped nor hindered. Perhaps she realized that whatever she did, the young man, now 30, would make his own decision.

In August 2012, thirty years after the child was taken, the young man was reunited with his biological mother and father. Did Patricia go to the rencuentro? “Yes, yes,” she says. “It was very exciting. I like this case. I like many cases, but this was our last cold hit. Now we need to find the other sister.”


The Cloud
(from Chapter 6, about David Lyon, sociologist and international authority on surveillance)

I didn’t want to change society. I wanted to give society a chance to determine if it should change itself.
—Edward Snowden, interview with The Washington Post, December 23, 2013

In a quiet Canadian way, Transparent Lives shocks and awes. Like more sensational U.S. and British exposés of the national security state by Edward Snowden, Wikileaks, Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning, and others, the report tracks the global shroud of state/corporate surveillance that’s rapidly tightening over and among us. Transparent Lives: Surveillance in Canada was published in April 2014. Predictably, some power-holders reacted with denial and spin. Others may have calculated that no one would care, at least no one that matters.

Distilled from seven years of meticulous research, the report was co-authored by Dr. David Lyon and a team of graduate students at the Surveillance Studies Centre, in the sociology department at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario. Given the pervasive, creeping security regime the report describes, its authors have surely been under particular scrutiny, so the surveillants should not have been surprised by their work.

David’s office has just enough room for a desk, two chairs, and a shamble of books and papers. Grey November morning fills the window. David’s salt-and-pepper beard and monkish arc of receded grey hair strike me as suiting a scholar. But the orange pants are a surprise.

Normally David rides his bicycle to work, but on the day we meet, he and his wife would play music for the Wednesday service at St. James’, their Anglican church, and he needed the car to carry the instruments. Church, he says. From an international authority on the murky world of surveillance, this is unexpected. I file it away for later inquiry.

Since the mid-1980s, David has been studying an elemental human struggle, usually hidden but recently exposed. In a world of perpetual inequities, surveillance is nothing new, but in our time it’s assuming new shapes, a vast new scale, and new urgency. As global elites gobble earth’s dwindling resources, and the rest of us get hungrier and more desperate, the battle for justice and freedom is bound to escalate. It is being waged on many fronts, in streets and squares, across the internet and social media, and ultimately in our heads. Given that the constant companions of state surveillance are repression and violence, each of us has a vital stake in the outcome, regardless of how much we know or care. This is the complex, intangible, rapidly shifting realm that David Lyon explores.…


(from chapter 7, about Bruce Levine, clinical psychologist, writer, and mental health activist)

Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.
—George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1949

For my appointment with clinical psychologist Bruce Levine, I fly to Cincinnati, Ohio, rent a car, and navigate my way across the Ohio River to a tiny loop of street impressively named Dragon Way. Bruce’s small office contains a desk crowded with papers, two chairs, a rumpled couch. To talk, he wheels his chair to sit beside the desk—no barriers here.

I’m nervous, primitively, enough to generate a dry mouth and a fine line of sweat down the spine. I haven’t entered a psychiatrist or psychologist’s office since 1968: Dr. John Jameson worked in an elegant townhouse in downtown Toronto. His office was cool, tasteful, austere. In a 1975 essay for The Body Politic, a gay liberation paper, I wrote:

Behind the desk a dark silky panel rose to the ceiling, so that the psychiatrist–high priest seemed to sit in a night sky. He jotted something in the file, folded his long, fine hands. His voice floated, hardly moving the air. “How are you today?” he said.

It was a trick question. In this room the encounter had not been about trust, but about punishment. In a tumultuous year when millions of my contemporaries took to the streets in exultant rebellion, the year before homosexuality between consenting adults was decriminalized in Canada, I’d consented to be the subject of a psychiatric experiment.…

Four decades later, I scan Bruce Levine’s face. It’s open, animated, eyes alert, grin incipient. He seems present, not withheld. The cool sweat and dry mouth recede. After all, this is just an interview.

I found him through his writing: a blog, books, articles. I’m inclined to be suspicious of people who assume the right to tinker with other people’s minds, but here was a renegade, a heretic who puts out fierce, eloquent critiques of his own profession. For a psychiatric survivor writing a book on the deepening fault lines between nature, science and power, a trip to Dragon Way was irresistible….


Pesky data
(from chapter 9, about John Smol, paleolimnologist and university professor)

In October 2013, a team of five research scientists, John Smol among them, released a study on ecological changes in lowland lakes west of Hudson Bay, in northern Canada. Using paleolimnology techniques, the team analyzed sediment cores from freshwater lakes of varying size and depth. These cores act as natural archives. By looking at diatoms, researchers can compile an ecological life history for each lake.

While other scientists have revealed how rapidly the rest of the circumpolar Arctic has been warming since the mid-1990s, with equivalent loss of sea ice, the rim of Hudson Bay has consistently remained an exception, a strange anomaly. Apparently the persistence of ice on the vast inland sea has allowed it to function as a giant cooling unit for the surrounding regions.

According to the new study, after relatively little change in two hundred years, suddenly the Hudson Bay lowlands are no longer immune to global warming. The sea ice is thinning and receding. Ice reflects the sun’s heat, but dark water absorbs it, so a disastrous feedback loop drives further loss of ice and further rise in temperature. The study’s lead author, Dr. Kathleen Rühland of Queen’s University, concluded: “Our findings suggest that ecological tipping points have been crossed and that, sadly, we are witnessing the loss of Arctic ecosystems as we know them.”

As soon as the university press office released the study, reporters across Canada and the United States began calling for interviews with the scientist listed as contact, John Smol. On the CBC radio program As It Happens, he explained that the study was sparked by research from Laurentian University on massive die-offs of brook char in Sutton River, which drains into Hudson Bay. This species of fish lives in the salt water of Hudson Bay but migrates up freshwater rivers to spawn, like salmon. Fish biologists concluded that the fish had very likely died from heat stress due to river water warming too fast for them to adapt. The logical next research step would be for paleolimnologists to track ecological changes in freshwater lakes that feed these rivers. In the Hudson Bay muskeg they witnessed early stages of what they had already seen elsewhere in the Arctic—shallow ponds starting to dry up, threatening the habitat of shore birds and other organisms, and vast expanses of peat land beginning to dehydrate.

“Peat lands store a lot of greenhouse gases,” John told As It Happens host Carol Off. “Carbon dioxide, for example, which they take in as part of their photosynthesis process. But as we’ve seen in high-Arctic research sites, when the peat dries up it starts releasing all that stored carbon dioxide, which accelerates global warming.” The same is true of methane, also massively stored in northern peat bogs.

Wrapping up, the As It Happens host asked her closing question: “If there isn’t a radical change in the production of greenhouse gases, what’s the future look like for Hudson Bay?”

“The future is grim,” John Smol replied. “Very grim. All the predictions we’ve been making, they’re coming true faster than we expected. It’s a difficult, wicked problem, and we’re seeing very little action on dealing with it. After finishing each of these studies, I do wonder why we aren’t all out screaming in the streets: We need more action on climate change, now! For too many people it still seems far away. But it’s getting closer all the time, and no one is immune. Our children and our grandchildren, they’re the ones who’ll have to suffer for our environmental sins. That’s not a good way to be remembered.”…


The unsolved problem
(from Chapter 10, about Anthony Ingraffea, engineer, consultant, university professor, and advocate)

The natural gas boom has led to cleaner power and greater energy independence. That’s why my administration will keep cutting red tape and speeding up new oil and gas permits.
—President Barack Obama, Washington, DC, February 12, 2013

3.6% to 7.9% of the methane from shale-gas production escapes to the atmosphere in venting and leaks over the life-time of a well. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, with a global warming potential that is far greater than that of carbon dioxide.
—Robert W. Howarth, Renee Santoro, and Tony Ingraffea, Cornell University, in Climatic Change, April 2011

The study concluded:

…the uncertainty in the magnitude of fugitive emissions is large. Given the importance of methane in global warming, these emissions deserve far greater study than has occurred in the past. We urge both more direct measurements and more refined accounting to better quantify lost and unaccounted-for gas….

The large GHG footprint of shale gas undercuts the logic of its use as a bridging fuel over coming decades, if the goal is to reduce global warming. We do not intend that our study be used to justify the continued use of either oil or coal, but rather to demonstrate that substituting shale gas for these other fossil fuels may not have the desired effect of mitigating climate warming.

To the oil and gas industry, this measured statement was tantamount to a declaration of war.

Forbes, a major business magazine, called Robert Howarth “a once-obscure professor from academic nowhere.” Of Tony and an organization he, Howarth, and others started—Physicians, Scientists and Engineers for Healthy Energy—Forbes ranted: “Its board of directors naturally includes Cornell Prof. Anthony Ingraffea, whose own absurdly flawed work in the realm of methane emissions has been debunked so broadly by so many credible sources that it borders on being considered rank crackpottery by anyone outside of the anti-Fracking activist segment of society.”

Like others in a similar position, the targets had a choice: They could back down, mute or qualify their work, recant as the Italian astronomer Galileo famously did when threatened with torture by the Catholic Church, or they could meet the attacks head on. Here Tony interrupts—“and become an advocate.” In his late sixties, enjoying a successful career and a relatively comfortable life, why did he choose the latter?

“I’m glad you asked that question,” Tony Ingraffea replies. “Mostly for two reasons which really boil down to one: professional pride. The two are veracity and education—I’m an educator first; more than half my life I’ve worked as a professor, and I abhor when people misuse education to tell lies, expecting the rest of us to listen to them and absorb what are essentially untruths. I find that abhorrent. The point of teaching is to discover, test, and convey truth. Then too, there’s professional pride as a researcher—I’ve spent some twenty years working with the oil and gas industry, helping them to understand and develop. Now I see them using the same science, technology, and engineering to do something so irresponsible that it’s an abomination. I felt that research I’d done in good faith for the industry was being perverted.”….


No time for cowardice
(from Chapter 12, about Diane Orihel, marine biologist and founder of Save ELA

On Thursday, May 17, 2012, Diane went to work at the Freshwater Institute on the Winnipeg campus of the University of Manitoba. As usual, she would continue working on her PhD thesis, on toxins in prairie lakes. Heading upstairs to her office, she ran into a member of the Experimental Lakes science team, who told her that in a closed meeting just concluded, all seventeen ELA scientists and support staff were informed that the federal government would shut down the research facility within the year. Their work at the world-renowned research facility was no longer aligned with the mandate of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and therefore their jobs were now “surplus to Canada’s needs.” They were told to go to the research station and remove their equipment from the labs. They were also warned not to communicate any of this to the media or to any member of the public.

Fortunately, one of them communicated it to the first member of the public they met. By chance or by fate, that member of the public was Diane Orihel.

Thursday afternoon, Diane sent out the first press release. On Friday she gave a series of media interviews, another first for her. People suggested that an organization was needed. Diane sent text messages to several friends, PhD students in various cities, to ask if they’d co-lead a new entity, the Coalition to Save ELA. A few said they were too busy, but two consented. That weekend, http://www.SaveELA.org hit the internet. Requests for interviews, talks, and information flooded Diane’s voicemail.

Next step: a national petition. A colleague urged caution: What if no one signed—wouldn’t it look worse than not having a petition at all? “If I had listened,” says Diane, “we wouldn’t have had twenty-five thousand Canadian signatures to bring into the House of Commons. I do ask people’s advice, and do consider it, but I’m not looking for approval to proceed.” As she said, a little stubborn. Page after page of signatures flowed in from across the country, and off they went in bundles to the House of Commons to be presented in more than fifty separate tablings by supportive members of Parliament.

Social media: more new learning. Diane confesses, “I never had a blog, I was never on Facebook, never watched a YouTube video, and I didn’t even know what Twitter was.” But with a little coaching she became a prolific tweeter. “It’s remarkably effective,” she says. “When you tweet something to people, let’s say members of Parliament, and they retweet, it’s amazing how fast and wide your message can go.”

By September 2012, more than four hundred stories on the ELA had appeared in local, national, and international media. Most of them were sparked by a press release or a call from Diane Orihel.

A blizzard of press releases, breakfast meetings with senators, open letters, petitions, rallies, press conferences, articles in science journals, website posts, endless tweets—amazing what a disciplined and passionate mind can generate, working full-time, seven days a week, without pay…


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