My father, whom I loved and in many ways admired, was an engineer. Following receipt of his master’s degree in forestry from the University of Minnesota in the late 1940’s, he got a job selling state-of-the-art chemicals used in wood preservation. Having fortunately determined that he didn’t like sales (the chemicals in question were later found to present vivid environmental hazards), he took a job in “forest products research,” and thus began my family’s life amid what then remained of the great temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest coast (California, Oregon, Washington). I learned to love trees because, to put it baldly and obviously way too melodramatically, my father was in the tree murdering business. In late middle age, he left the employ of the timber barons to found his own company producing a kind of glue that he had developed for use in plywood manufacture. At the end of his life, he lived in a beautiful valley on the edge of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Klickitat County, southern Washington State. There, he planted trees and spent many hours mowing the grass that began just beyond the picture window with its spectacular view of Mt. Adams; in the evenings he read about his hero, Charles Darwin.
My father loved “nature,” according to his lights; he also believed (although he might have denied it) that human beings ought to—can—have a level of control over our surroundings and our circumstances that I believe is illusory and quite possibly senseless. (It would take many journal pages or possibly a lengthy psychoanalysis to begin to unravel the contradictions in my personality surrounding this subject.) In service to his vision of civilizational order, he used to create neat circles of bare earth around the trees he’d planted, by spraying his favorite herbicide at their bases. I think of him whenever I hear of that herbicide, Monsanto’s Roundup (brand name for glyphosate).
Yesterday, I read this:
Palmer amaranths seem as if they were designed by nature to outwit herbicides and farmers. Unlike many weeds, it has male and female versions, increasing genetic diversity—and the chances of a herbicide-resistant mutation—in each new seed. And each plant is astonishingly prolific, producing up to 200,000 seeds in an average field….
A glyphosate-resistant palmer is a mighty beast indeed. Its seeds can germinate any time during the growing season, so herbicide sprayed in April is useless against a palmer that appears in July. Once sprouted, palmer amaranths can grow more than two inches a day. Once it exceeds four inches, even herbicides for which it lacks resistance begin to lose their effectiveness.
–“Invader Battles Rural America, Shrugs Off Herbicides—Scourge in South, Weed Now Threatens the Midwest,” Michael Wines, The New York Times, 8-12-14, pp. A11-A12
The article goes on to detail the efforts of farmers to eradicate the insurgent flora. While some experts advocate “natural solutions” like the planting of cover crops, a farmer profiled in the article prefers to wait for a chemical fix that might work over the short term, although he concedes that “I know you can only ride a pony so far.”
Over the course of his life in the timber industry, my father figured out that clearcutting forests was a pony you could ride only so far. The realization probably came a number of years before he devised his own exit strategy. But he never conceded—at least not out loud—that the engineer’s attractive faith in practical problem-solving, and in constantly testing out the limits of control rather than aiming to harmonize our common life with the mysteries of those limits, might be another pony with extremely finite stamina.
Living as I do in an urban environment that’s all about engineering, surrounded by civilizational achievements symbolized by ubiquitous construction cranes and shiny phallic towers (not to mention the quotidian miracles of things like sewage systems and potable water), I confront the puzzle of building every time I walk out the door. Which for me is the puzzle of the conflicted feelings—admiration and outrage–I feel in the presence of something like my father’s approach to the world—the engineering outlook, the proud builder’s creed. Look what I can do! So much is possible!
I know, or believe I know, that there’s no either/or; that the big mistake was not the abandonment of hunting and gathering for settled agriculture; not even the invention of the internal combustion engine. If there is a world-to-come, there’s a place for engineering in it. But what would a humble engineering look like?