The Passing of Two Trees

Yesterday I'm walking home from school and I look up to see some strange guy in a hard hat at the far end of the block waving at me with his arm. I look around for a minute and see that there's some kind of construction going on and I realize he wants me to cross to the other side of the street. So I do. But it miffs me a bit, because I dislike it when anyone assumes authority over me that's not clearly theirs.

As I get near my condo, at 2529 Rio Grande, I realize what's going on: They're knocking down trees, and not little ones either. Just inside the stone wall which is all that remains of the seedy block of furnished apartments that used to occupy the lot immediately north of my building, stood these two proud 40-ft. oak trees, just to either side of the main gate. I don't know how old they might have been, but I bet they predated the complex that was demolished around them. The workers have to clear the sidewalks because the branches are large and heavy and overhang them to some extent.

Now, I don't know if it was because I was already a bit grumpy with these guys, or solely because I was offended at the casual destruction of the beautiful old trees in my neighborhood, but I decided I was going to make a hard time for these workers, if possible, and in the best situation maybe stop them from killing the trees. I'm not such a radical (or maybe brave) person as to strap myself to one of the trunks, and it didn't really look like there would be time to make it to the hardware store and buy chain and a padlock for that purpose before they were finished, anyway.

So I did the only thing I knew to do, which was call the city. I know Austin has fairly tough municipal regulations regarding the felling of trees inside the city limits. I thought maybe I could at least verify that they had a permit to cut down these trees and get them stopped or at least fined if they didn't. The woman who answered the city information line was confused by my request at first: "There's a tree you want to cut down?" she said. "No," I explained, "I'm concerned that I'm witnessing the illegal felling of a protected tree." There was a pause, and then she said, "Hold on, I'll have to ask about that one." So I get the hold muzak, which is an impossibly banal counterpoint to the scene of arboreal slaughter outside my window. While I'm waiting on hold, the destruction of the first tree is completed and the excavator starts filling in the hole left by the torn-out roots.

Eventually the woman returns to the phone, and it's clear that she now understands and appreciates my situation. "You need to speak to the City Arborist," she tells me, and gives his name (which I never figured out how to spell, and hence will not include here), and his number, which is 512-974-1876. "I'm sorry it took so long for me to figure that out," she says. I tell her it's OK, and she thanks me for calling. It's obvious at this point that she's on my side.

I call the Arborist and get his answering machine. The excavator is now rumbling toward the second tree. I leave a rambling message about who and where I am and how they sure are beautiful trees and I just wanna make sure the workers are within their legal rights cutting them down. I am conflicted. A large part of me wants to go down and confront the workers, but I realize that will only make them defensive and will not stop them from doing what they're doing. I pace back and forth for awhile and figure the only thing to do is take pictures so I can make sure they get punished if it turns out they're breaking the law. So I snap a frame or two and turn back to the computer to work.

There's a loud CRACK a minute or two later and I go back to the window and see that the excavator has broken a large limb off the second tree. About then the phone rings, and it's the arborist, who, to my pleasure, sounds concerned and gets right to the point: "Tell me what you're seeing," he says. And I do. As I'm talking, the excavator repositions itself and strikes downward into the tree's crotch, splitting the trunk, and I realize that there's no stopping them at this point. I tell the arborist as much. "But I took pictures," I explain, "in case it turns out that what they've done is illegal."

"Where are you again?" he asks. "West Campus," I tell him. "Do you know the neighborhood?" He doesn't. "Do you have an address?" Apparently he's got a database of some sort that lists permit-holders. I don't know the exact address, but I can extrapolate from mine and take a guess: "Try 2601." A minute later he comes back and says, "Yes, there's a permit to develop that property," which I understand from his disappointed tone to mean that there's nothing to be done. Apparently the rule in Austin is that private homeowners need a permit to fell any tree with a diameter of 19 inches or greater, but that developers have more flexibility. The arborist can't tell me what the specific site plan calls for with respect to these particular trees, but he can tell me that there is a plan and it's been approved, so in all likelihood these guys are acting in accordance with it and hence within the bounds of law. I thank him and he thanks me, and before we hang up he asks me to call again any time I'm suspicious of tree-related crime, because his office depends almost completely on concerned citizens/nosy neighbors like me to catch and prevent the illegal destruction of trees. I assure him that I will.

And that's where the story peters out. I wanted to do something but I didn't, basically, and although I got some sympathetic voices on the phone none of it changes the basic fact of the matter, which is that there are now two muddy holes in the ground where there were once two live, beautiful, healthy trees. And I stood to one side and watched as a man with a machine tore them up. Should I have tried, physically, to intervene? Should I have obeyed that impulse to chain myself to the trunk? I don't know the spirit of a tree, but I know how hard it was to watch them be destroyed. It was like a crime was happening out on the street, in broad daylight, and everyone was just walking by indifferently. I didn't want to be the apathetic one; I wanted to be the one who gave a shit. But I tried to be a civilized adult about the whole thing and now I regret it. Even if I hadn't, ultimately, saved those particular trees, a show of strength might've brought some attention to the subject, might've made the developers or the city authorities or whoever think twice the next time they decided to hire out that kind of a dirty job. But in the end I was just like everyone else: Too busy with my own concerns to take hours out of my day to worry about something as simple as the killing of a tree.


Medicine Mosaics

This is a mosaic made from various pills--vitamins, OTC, and prescription medications--presented to me by my beautiful and talented friend Jennifer. This medium is under-used, in my opinion. This example from a catalog background is the only other real instance I know of. This mosaic of Rush Limbaugh executed in prescription pain-pills exists as an image only; it was never really assembled.


The Abuse of Fire in Warfare

What follows is in response to an article on the use of white phosphorus (WP) by US marines during the siege of Fallujah that appeared in the North County Times.

As a chemist, I find the debate about WP as a "chemical weapon" sort of amusing. One might as well claim that we're engaged in "chemical warfare" because the lead we use to make bullets is toxic.

It's like that question they ask me sometimes at the post office: "Does your package contain any chemicals?" Well, OF COURSE IT DOES, because the universe is made of chemicals and if there's any damn thing at all in the package, there's chemicals in it. In that sense, any weapon that EXISTS is a "chemical weapon," and the word becomes totally useless. The chemistry of WP is simply oxidation/combustion, which is the same chemistry that propels bullets and shells down gun barrels and causes fire in general, and the use of fire in warfare is as old as warfare itself. It just so happens that WP burns very hot and is self-igniting in air.

If "chemical weapons" is to remain a useable term, it's best reserved for toxic compounds which are employed primarily to exploit their toxicology.

That being said, it seems likely to me that in the future, as war continues to be "humanized," we will begin to see moral and eventually legal proscription of the use of burning as a means of offensive war. Destruction of uninhabited materiel or facilities is one thing, but the deliberate destruction of live human beings by combustion is pretty appalling. Think of the little Vietnamese napalm girl, or the fire-bombing of Dresden or Tokyo, or of the use of the flamethrower in trench warfare. Burning is agonizing, indiscriminate, and not terribly efficient versus shooting or blasting to bits. Burning is a frightening way to die (or, perhaps worse, to not die), and for this reason it is frequently employed as a psychological weapon.

I'm not necessarily advocating its regulation, because I think war is just nasty and efforts to "soften" it are hypocritical, but I can see it coming in the future anyway.


WoTD: "Catastrophize"

Essentially, to "catastrophize" is to overreact in a negative way to a setback, such as the one who is stood up for a date and becomes upset that he or she will never find love. Broadly, catastrophization is a habit of mind that's commonly identified in the anxious and depressed. I don't know enough to speculate about what causes the formation of such a habit, but I can admit to recognizing it in myself. I have often characterized my depression as "an inability to control negative thoughts," and by these negative thoughts I essentially mean overwhelming catastrophization. When I'm depressed, even the smallest and most innocous event or impression can become symbolic of my total failure as a human being.

Recognizing the process as a habit, as something that can be lost or changed or replaced like any other habit, is itself very valuable to me. Even the simple fact that there exists a word to describe the phenomenon brings me considerable comfort--in the first place, it shows that I'm not alone in experiencing it, and in the second, well...everyone knows that to name a thing is to have power over it. The next time I begin to "catastrophize," the word itself will occur to me, and in matching the sign to the signified I will be reminded that the catastrophe I perceive is in my head and not in the world. Maybe, in time, I'll even be able to laugh about it, to find some humor in the extent to which I can blow things out of proportion, but of course there's a fine line to be walked here. I can already hear myself thinking: "I'm catastrophizing again. It's so like me to do that. No wonder I'm a such a TOTALLY WORTHLESS LOSER."

As in learning to meditate, the trick to changing habits of mind like catastrophization is probably to avoid trying too hard. Instead of recognizing catastrophic thoughts and working really hard to stop, it's probably better to just recognize those thoughts, release them, and then casually replace them with something else. Those three Rs could become a mantra: Recognize your negative habits, Release them in the moment, and Replace them with something more constructive. Perhaps there's even a fourth R: Repeat the process until they change.


Maybe Not Too Little, But Probably Too Late

This week my father preserved for me a series of editorials from the Wall Street Journal by Charles Murray, of The Bell Curve fame, arguing his thesis for the reality of g, which he identifies as an inherent and inherited "intelligence factor" that differentiates the smart from the dumb. Distribution of g in the population follows a normal, or "bell," curve, and he points up many of the oft-touted depressing statistics of U.S. public education and explains them--convincingly, in my view--in terms of the normal statistical distribution of intelligence in our population. He revives the spectre of the IQ score, and although he acknowledges quibbles about the accuracy of the tools used to measure it, he also advocates its phenomenological legitimacy. He deals summarily with Gardner's multiple intelligences theory, citing relatively convincing evidence that g is a real phenomenon and can't be wished away by egalitarian reformers. He recognizes how the notion of uneven distribution of g chafes agains our ideals of equality and the political difficulties attendant to making policy decisions based on a worldview which is in this sense elitist.

I see Murray as one of a small but growing vocal minority of intellectuals who are prepared to acknowledge that human beings are in most meaningful ways determined by their genes. As biology and neurobiology advance, we come to understand more and more how even very complex human behaviors can be predicted genetically. This is certainly not the first time in history that a deterministic elitist movement has surfaced, but it may well prove to be the first time that the unpleasant awareness of genetic determinism is answered by an ethical technical solution. Before long, it seems obvious to any scientifically-informed observer, biochemistry will allow human beings to achieve meaningful control of their genetic destinies, at which point a political battle will ensue between the forces that advocate non-intervention in genetic fate and those who recognize biochemical eugenics as an escape from determinism.

Brief meditation on human nature leads me to predict that the battle will be a short one. Voices in favor of accepting determinism--such as Murray, et. al.--run up against the ubiquitous phenomenological fact of choice: Whether it is real or not, human beings experience a process of decision making that causes them to behave as if they have some measure of control over their fates. Although most rational adults can be persuaded to admit, if pressured, that there are things in life over which they have no control, most of them would also prefer that it not be so. If offered a choice between the certainty of a brilliant and beautiful and happy child and the luck of the draw, which of us would leave it to fate?

Practical eugenetic technology is not with us now, and may well not materialize until twenty years hence. Even if it takes that long, however, it still seems likely that we will find ourselves living with a technology that can correct our genes before we find ourselves living in a political culture prepared to accept that they determine our fates. In that most probable case, Murray's arguments, though convincing, come too late on the scene. Even if we begin now to implement the policy regime he advocates, it's likely that by the time reforms come into place the biology on which they are founded will become subject to the same socioeconomic pressures which corrupt the system now. Western culture has lived in denial of biological determinism for decades now, and in resentment of it for millenia--are we going now to give in and accept it on the very eve of our liberation? Better now to begin preparing for that future culture of eugenetic control, to begin steering now toward's Keillor's Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average, and away from Huxley's Brave New World, where minds are manufactured to meet the demands of industry.