The year before soldiers with shallow gold pans for headgear stopped dying in trenches in a war that left an entire Generation Lost, a mustachioed New Zealander who had already won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry succeeded in splitting the atom. Like a subatomic nesting doll, the proton emerged out of this split atom and into human knowledge. In splitting the atom and discovering the proton, this New Zealander claimed that he had “broken the machine and touched the ghost of matter.” From this discovery of the proton came an entirely new realm of science: nuclear physics.
Eight months before a young Senator from Illinois rode the tide of a developing Republican crisis to become the first U.S. President with African American roots, officials from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources delivered a rather shocking announcement. They had discovered a single, healthy, adult American chestnut tree. A rare enough sighting. But where they found it was perhaps just as head-scratching: in a marsh near the second-most polluted of the Great Lakes, Lake Erie.
As dutiful members of the tree family that also includes oaks, beeches, and the rare-breed-of-dog-sounding chinkapin trees, adult American chestnuts fan out as they reach heights of nearly 100 feet. Their canopies become broad, sweeping, like the arches of Roman aqueducts or the horsehair crests of the helmets worn by the soldiers who defended them. In the fall, the limbs of American chestnuts droop under the weight of their large crop of nuts, covered in a husk of quills that gives them the look of small porcupines levitating in the trees.
Giant stone faces line a rocky, windswept coast in the ashen reaches of the Pacific Ocean, peering sullenly, hollowly, upon sweeping fields. Blades of grass tremble like pupa under the chilling gaze of steady winds. Interestingly, these stone faces -- some up to 30 feet tall -- face not towards the ocean’s iron waters, but inwards, as if introspective proctors of history rather than would-be explorers of uncharted lands. These statues are, as you might have guessed, the famous moai, stone monoliths of Easter Island. They dot the barren coastline of the most remote island in the world, more than 2,000 miles off the west coast of Chile.
One sultry summer evening -- because summer evenings in the South are nothing if not steamy -- my spouse, we'll call her AAA, and I enjoyed a beer before heading to one of our favorite local haunts for some casual Tex-Mex. Over four years ago, I voluntarily gave up wheat because of the inflammation it caused me, so I always opt for the corn tortillas. Towards the end of the meal, AAA made an offhand remark that she intended as a joke. I have no idea what the offhand remark was now because it was so inoffensive, but something about the remark and my mental state at the time prompted me to spiral into a frenzied, self-righteous rant. Like any mature fifth-grader learns to do, I demanded that AAA apologize, even though I was the one who had just smashed hardboiled egg (figuratively, of course) all over my face in one of our favorite eateries. Within two minutes, my frothing brain had cooled, and I immediately said that I was sorry.
The same year that the Atlanta Braves won the World Series with virtually no hitting, a web-toed Kevin Costner urinated into a cup, poured the contents into a Rube Goldberg machine of tubes and demijohns, and drank the resulting potion. Critics were not impressed. Had she been born at the time of this film’s release, McKayla would not have been, either.
Roger Ebert gave the film featuring a gilled Kevin Costner 2.5 out of 4 stars. Waterworld, as the producers so imaginatively named the film, told of a dystopic future -- probably around 500 years distant -- in which the world was entirely covered by water. The polar ice caps had melted, and gangs of terrible actors roamed the planet. But an equally chilling and pressing water-related issue has emerged since Waterworld’s box office debut: many of Earth’s largest reservoirs of freshwater are dropping.
In 1909, the New York Times published perhaps it’s strangest headline of all time: “Here’s to C7H38O43.” The headline was neither the nuclear codes of the Russians, nor a song from Tommy Tutone’s B Sides, but rather the chemical composition of the most widely used substance in the world: synthetic plastic. The man who invented this first entirely synthetic plastic was a Belgian named Leo Hendrik Baekeland. Perhaps you’ve heard of him. Or, perhaps, like three hundred twenty two million of your U.S. peers, you haven’t.
There’s nothing quite like ambushing the last mammoth on Earth. So began the book I started writing months before the U.S. presidential election in 2016, a skeleton of a manuscript that formed the inspiration for this podcast, Age of Ecology. After the book’s opening line: “There’s nothing quite like ambushing the last mammoth on Earth”, the first chapter continued: “And not just because you don’t realize you’re doing it at the time. Rather, there’s some primordial part of us that longs for that most unringable of bells, The Kill. Freud claimed it stemmed from a lustful father and a band of banished brothers hell-bent on taking back their birthright of female mates in one cannibalistic coup. As with most topics, Freud was wrong.”