Ovid, Phaethon & Climate Change

We’ll scorch the earth, set fire to the sky

We stoop so low, to reach so high

U2 Red Hill Mining Town

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Ovid begins Book 2 with the tragic story of Phaethon.  This is the longest single story of Metamorphoses and so far the one I have found to be most profound. The story of Phaethon should be read as a metaphor for man’s self-deluded idea that humans can manipulate nature without consequence.

Phaethon, a young man, travels to the Palace of the Sun determined to meet Phoebus and find out if the sun god is in fact his father. Phoebus says he is. To prove it, he will give Phaethon anything he wants, swearing by the River Styx that he will grant Phaethon his wildest dream. The boy’s dream is to ride Phoebus’s chariot. Although his father warns him that no god save him (let alone a human) can control the horses and safely ride the chariot across the sky, Phaethon will not listen. His youthful arrogance allows him to believe he is as mighty as the god who sired him. As soon as Phaeton takes flight however, his excitement changes to abject fear. He realizes that he is not able to control his father’s chariot. As the horses gallop wildly out of control, the earth suffers as the chariot draws nearer. Moisture evaporates, mountain and forest are burned, rivers dry up, and the oppressive heat confines Neptune to the sea. To prevent the entire planet from burning, Jupiter sends loose a thunderbolt that kills Phaethon and drives the horses into the sea.

The young Phaethon is driven to seek his father out because of his desire to be god like. His mother has always declared his absent father to be the sun god, yet his peers mock this idea. Phaethon goes in search of the truth as he is convinced he is the son of the sun, which in Greek and Roman mythology is the source of universal power. He asks to drive the chariot, a metaphor for the sun’s journey across the sky, to prove to all that he is as powerful as his father. Tragically for young Phaethon he learns to late that he is no match for his father. Phaethon comes perilously close to destroying the earth but is killed before he can do so.

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Phaethon’s story could be our story. We humans have deluded ourselves into believing we are able to control the reins of nature, even as we scorch and pollute the earth.

In the story the earth looks up at the gods and through the smoke cries out:

Look at my singed hair, look at the ashes coating my eyes and face! Is this the respect that you show me?

Is this the reward for the crops that I yield and the service I render, bearing the wounds of the plough and harrow, harshly exploited and working from one year to the next, supplying the grazing cattle with wholesome verdure, the grains to nourish the human race?

If the earth could talk these may be the very questions she asks of us today. What I find most troubling is that those who believe a god created the universe are usually the ones who believe the most fervently that man has the ability to control and manipulate nature without consequence. Most climate change deniers are fundamental Christians who fervently assert that being sons of a god allows them the right to do what they like with the planet and that their god would never allow its total destruction, even as we see the damaging effects man has inflicted. It never occurs to them that their god like Phoebus can only watch as man uses the gift of free will.

Ovid’s story of Phaethon was a warning to the ages that humans do not have god like powers and that it is folly to even try. Man cannot create beautiful sunrises and sunsets but he can surely destroy the earth from which we watch them on.

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Happy Earth Day! My interview with a soil scientist

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For Earth Day I decided to do something different. Instead of writing a story about the history Earth Day or a review of a good book on natural history, I decided to share a school assignment, tied to the idea of sharing what state forest departments do. Many people do not know what I do to pay the bills. Until writing articles allows me to stay home full time, I am one of two administrative assistants for the Nevada State Fire Warden. But let me start with what we don’t do, and why some days it doesn’t pay to get out of bed.

Caller: “Would you please come over to my house, pick up the dead quail in my front yard and tell me why it died”.

Me: No, ma’am, we do not offer that service. I suggest calling Fish and Game or your local animal control office”.

Caller: “But you work in the forest, why won’t you come get this dead bird?”

Caller: “I see smoke and flames on the road to Tahoe”

Me: Please hang up and call 911.

Caller: But I don’t know if it is an emergency!”

Me” If you see smoke and fire where none should be, it is an emergency”.

Caller: “You are no help!”

It might surprise people to know that even though we work in the woods we don’t deal with animals, dead or alive. Yes we do help put out fires, but we are never the first you should call if you see one. We respond after local authorities ask for our help. Our focus is wildfire prevention and improving our state’s natural resources. My school assignment was to interview a scientist, hopefully one whose work complements climate change mitigation. Luckily for me David Howlett, one of my co-workers is such a scientist.

I hope you enjoy the interview: Happy Earth Day!

I reached out to David Howlett, a soils scientist. David received his Ph.D. in Soil Science at the University of Colorado. I just happen to work with David at the Nevada Division of Forestry. David has been with our agency for about 6 months and already has established quite the reputation as a climate scientist within Nevada. David I sat down for lunch last Wednesday, and ended talking for two hours on everything from why climate change is hard for many to accept, to why Neil de Grass Tyson is such a hero to the science community. We disagreed on the subject of the lack of the general public education as it pertains to climate change, but over all I learned a lot about David and what government agencies are doing to mitigate the effects of carbon pollution.

David grew up in Las Vegas, where trees are rare. He did not grow up thinking much about the natural world and our place in it. It took a stint in the Peace Corp to bring the scientist out of him. He originally wanted to teach philosophy to bright-eyed college students. During his time in the peace core David learned about carbon in the soil and the damaging effects that deforestation has on carbon release. David learned that deforestation is releasing carbon into the atmosphere at an alarming rate. The general public equates industrialization with carbon pollution but it is actually the tilling of millions of acres that is doing the most damage. This has a double effect on the earth, as the soil is losing carbon which is a vital nutrient for Earth’s plants and trees. Not only are we taking trees down, we are weakening those that are left standing.  David and other soil scientists are on a mission to figure out how to capture air borne carbon and put it back into the soil.

Soil science owes its paradigm shift to Johan Six and his model for calculating carbon release. Here is a wonderful video of Six explaining agricultural air pollution http://vimeo.com/24628895. Before Six came out with his model of carbon release, science assumed carbon release was a natural by-product of plants. Most of us were taught that trees are the lungs of the Earth, and carbon release is a natural ‘exhale’ by plants. Six proved that agriculture and deforestation is responsible for most carbon escape into the air. Here is a wonderful article written to help the California agriculture communities mitigate pollution based on Six’s work http://ucanr.org/sites/ct/files/44381.pdf.

David explained that each year air quality tests are done in Hawaii. Hawaii’s air is seen by scientists as the perfect example of universal ambient air mixture. These tests show that CO2 pollution is on the rise. The ideal number is around 350 parts per million (ppm), right now we are at around 387ppm. His job is to figure out how to decrease the numbers.

So what does David do? Well, David is excited to once again be out in the field doing hands on work. He had worked in research, and considered working with Johan Six at the University of California in Davis. But as he put it, research is not very rewarding. You do the research, prove a hypothesis (or not) then move on. David wanted to see science in action, which is why he took a job with the Division of Forestry. David is working on two big projects;  developing grant funding on tree planting for county use and working with one of our resource managers on developing carbon mulch for commercial use.

David is encouraging urban tree planting, as plants capture more carbon than they expire. He is also going around Nevada accessing statewide tree health. The more we understand the effects agriculture and mining has on our soil the better our understanding is of our use of “natural resources”. The carbon mulch is made by burning wood (from wildfire mitigation work- that could have been another interview) without oxygen, thus keeping the carbon from being released into the air. Think of it as a slow burn in a airless oven. The result is small clumps of carbon that will be turned into deep soil mulch. The Nevada Division of Forestry will be using this mulch in conjunction with our urban tree-planting project.  Over the next few years David will be monitoring the growth of the trees and testing the soil. The goal is to find out if man is able to capture carbon and put it back in the soil. This would help both man and our plant life. How cool is that?