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Climate change researcher Paul Mayewski

An expert in climate change research, Paul Mayewski led the National Science Foundation's Greenland Ice Sheet Project 2. The project extracted ice cores chronicling 100,000 years of climate history. Mayewski, with co-author Frank White, writes about their expeditions in the new book, The Ice Chronicles: The Quest to Understand Global Climate Change (University Press of New England). Mayewski is also co-director of the Institute of Quaternary and Climate Studies at the University of Maine.


Other segments from the episode on April 24, 2002

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 24, 2002: Paul Mayewski; Interview with Sheri Tepper.


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Paul Mayewski discusses climate studies on glacial ice

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Margot Adler, sitting in for Terry Gross.

Everybody always talks about the weather, and we all think we know what's
going on, and usually we think something strange is going on, at least that's
what you hear on the street, in buses and in coffee shops. Here in the
Northeast, for example, we had record days in the high 90s last week in the
middle of April. And everyone tells you storms are more intense. Does any of
this anecdotal stuff have any facts behind it? Paul Mayewski is co-director
of the Institute for Quaternary and Climate Studies at the University of Maine
and co-author of a new book, "The Ice Chronicles." In the last 10 years, the
secret history of climate has begun to be unraveled. Scientists have been
drilling into Greenland ice two miles down and slowly pulling up ice cores,
each about a meter long. These cores reveal secrets about the history of our
climate going back more than 100,000 years.

You describe Antarctica and the ice core projects as time machines. When did
scientists begin to understand that looking at an ice core could give you

Mr. PAUL MAYEWSKI (Co-Director, Institute for Quaternary and Climate Studies,
University of Maine): The first ice cores that were drilled were drilled in
Greenland and Antarctica in the late '60s and early '70s. People were mostly
interested in trying to find out the engineering properties of the ice. But
by the middle '70s and late '70s it became apparent that there were things
that were trapped in the ice, obviously that had come from the atmosphere, and
that they were trapped in their correct order--the oldest ones near the
bottom, the youngest ones near the top. And by the early '80s and mid-80s,
many of the fields of analytical chemistry were able to allow us to detect
very, very low levels of chemicals, and that's exactly what we have in these
ice cores. So suddenly there was a match between the analytical chemistry,
the fact that we had these remarkable trapped records, and a growing awareness
and interest in the environment, largely revolving around things like acid
rain and the beginning of the identification of the growth of greenhouse

ADLER: When I looked at your book, "The Ice Chronicles," I couldn't picture
an ice core. I'm not a very visual person. That's probably why I'm in radio.
But I want to know what it looks like, how big is it. You know, how would you
actually describe it? I couldn't get a picture.

Mr. MAYEWSKI: Ice cores are in some ways silly looking things. They're
anywhere from about two inches to five inches in diameter. We tend to pull
them out as roughly three- or four-foot-long plugs of ice, and once we pull
one out, we drill back down into the other. They look like white cylinders.
Sometimes we'll see something quite remarkable in them. Maybe some volcanic
ash. But normally they just are white and--however, if you can look at them
more carefully through reflected light, you can see that there are differences
in the shading from one portion of the ice core to another, and those are
related to the difference between winter and summer snow, which allows one to
actually count back year by year. And if you were...

ADLER: So it's sort of like layers in a tree.

Mr. MAYEWSKI: Exactly.

ADLER: They're sort of like tree rings.

Mr. MAYEWSKI: It's like a giant tree ring.

ADLER: And so there are these tubes of ice, and you take them out.
They're--What?--about a meter long, a yard long when you take them out?

Mr. MAYEWSKI: In some cases they are several meters long, but more typically
they're about a meter long when we've pulled them out. And certainly when we
transport them they're only a meter long.

ADLER: And can you see these layers with your eyes, these different strata?

Mr. MAYEWSKI: You can see the layers with your eyes if you look carefully.
And you can actually count from year to year. And when we first did that, we
were pretty shocked that we were able to go back a few hundred years and
realized that we needed to really calibrate this, so we found other
techniques, several other techniques, for being sure that we could actually
count the years. And then something quite remarkable happened. We kept on
counting years and counting years, and eventually got down to 110,000 years of
very, very well-dated ice core record.

ADLER: Now how far did you have to go down to get to 110,000 years?

Mr. MAYEWSKI: We drilled down about 2,700 meters to get to that age, and then
a total of about 3,000 meters, a little bit over 10,000 feet, to get to the
very bottom of the Greenland ice sheet.

ADLER: So you're talking about two miles down?

Mr. MAYEWSKI: Yup. Two miles down, and it took us two or three summers of
reconnaissance, followed by five summers of working about four months every
year to recover that record.

ADLER: Now before you had this ability, how far back could you go in studying

Mr. MAYEWSKI: Before we had the ice core from Greenland that has really
changed our view of climate, there were records that went back much farther,
hundreds of thousands of years from the deep ocean. But they didn't tend to
be as detailed as the record we have from Greenland and now from Antarctica,
these subannually resolved records. So we had an understanding of how
long-term climate change operated, but we didn't have detailed enough records
to understand how quickly climate could change.

ADLER: My guest is Paul Mayewski. He's co-director of the Institute for
Quaternary and Climate Studies at the University of Maine. Along with Frank
White, he's the author of "The Ice Chronicles."

So what do we now know about climate change that we didn't know before this
whole process that you've been involved in for 10 years took place?

Mr. MAYEWSKI: Prior to recovering and understanding this record, we didn't
necessarily believe that natural climate variability could operate very fast
or very frequently. We now know that it could be very, very dramatic. There
can be 20-degree centigrade changes in temperature occurring in less than 10
years with dramatic changes in storm patterns and precipitation, and that
system could be set up for several hundred years and then go away in 10 years.
We know that the most dramatic of those events occurred when the Northern
Hemisphere had a lot of ice cover on it. The next thing we found out was that
even during times similar to today, when there isn't that much ice cover in
the Northern Hemisphere, you can still have dramatic changes in climate. They
may not be 20 degrees centigrade. They may very well be only 1 to 4 degrees
centigrade. Also, changes in storm patterns. And to verify that these are,
although smaller, so very important to humans, we've done a tremendous amount
of work with archaeologists and have found tremendous correlations between
dramatic changes or even collapses in society and the changes in climate that
we see in our record. So although more subdued in the last 10,000 or 11,000
years, natural climate variability is still a big player.

We have learned that the climate is controlled by many different things, and
we've actually been able to unravel the so-called climate-forcing factors,
which--and many of them are predictable. They operate on order of hundreds
and thousands of years, but there is a real natural rhythm to climate which
has never really been as well understood before.

We've also learned that there is--it is absolutely undeniable that humans have
had a dramatic impact on the environment. Levels of greenhouse gases are
higher than they have been in hundreds of thousands if not millions of years.
Levels of acids in the atmosphere are higher than they have been in thousands
of years--of toxic metals, of organic acids, of radioactive products. And the
ice core records really give us that time perspective that shows us that the
change in the last hundred years to the quality of the atmosphere, both
physically and chemically, has been very, very dramatic, and those things are

ADLER: When you talk about rapid change--and what do they call it? RCCEs was
the name for it in your book?

Mr. MAYEWSKI: That's what we call them in our book, rapid climate change

ADLER: RCCEs. And here we're talking about--What?--it could be 10, 20 years?
How rapid is rapid?

Mr. MAYEWSKI: Rapid for some of the very big events that we talk about is
occurring in less than 10 years and sometimes less than two years. And these
are changes, the very biggest, of course, were more than 11,000 years ago, but
humans were around then. And that means that in the space of a couple to 10
years, people could have been plunged from a winter that was only two or three
months long to a winter that was 12 months long, that lasted for several
hundred years, and obviously would have had a pretty dramatic effect on their
oral tradition.

ADLER: Now most of us sitting around and listening to you speaking are
thinking in much shorter periods of time. I mean, we're thinking about the
last couple of weeks. And the last couple of weeks on the East Coast have
been bizarre. We had 96 degrees in Manhattan in, you know, the second week of
April, then suddenly a cooling period. And, you know, that's not the kind of
rapid change you're talking about. Or is it?

Mr. MAYEWSKI: No, it's really not. It would be--our rapid climate changes
would be the equivalent of having many, many days in a year in which the
temperatures were much, much hotter or much, much colder or much, much
stormier. At the end of our year, we may very well average out to something
that looks pretty much like last year. That doesn't mean it makes it easy to
live from day to day, but our records are really helping to tell us where
we've come from in terms of climate history and allow us to determine much
better over the next few years what we should probably expect in terms of
drought and storms and temperature.

ADLER: We've been in a relatively warm period, haven't we, for the last 8,000

Mr. MAYEWSKI: Yes, actually we've been in a relatively warm period for maybe
11 1/2 thousand years, and the last century has certainly been dramatically
warm compared to that time, although there have been in the past 10, 11,000
years periods that are even warmer than today.

ADLER: And according to what you write, we should be entering a new glacial
period, according to the cycles that you've been looking at?

Mr. MAYEWSKI: Yeah. It depends on the amount of time that you want to
project over. Without a doubt, in the next several thousand to tens of
thousands of years we will see a dramatic cooling in the climate and a
regrowth of the ice sheets. However, looking over the next couple of hundred
years, I do believe that in terms of the natural climate system, we are still
within one of the potentially cooler and more stormy periods of the relatively
mild last 10 or 11,000 years. But clearly, if you look at the temperature
records, that's not the case. If you look at the records of atmospheric
circulation, it is the case. And it's from that point of view that I think
our evidence helps to demonstrate that something different has happened in the
last hundred years. We have actually superceded what probably should be a
cooler climate with a warmer climate, and superimposed it on a naturally very
stormy climate.

ADLER: Now one of the things that you mention or at least I read in several
articles is that you can actually think about how climate change has affected
past civilizations, and two of the civilizations that you mention are the
Mayan and the Viking. How so?

Mr. MAYEWSKI: Well, one of the great products of this ice core record has
been the possibility to talk to people in many different professions--solar
physicists and archaeologists, historians--and we've done a lot of work with
archaeologists and have, with them, identified those times in the last few
thousand years, during the growth of civilization, when there seem to have
been the largest changes. And we find very strong correlations between
several of those time periods and very unique events in our climate record.
Periods that we can interpret as being very dramatic drought, very dramatic
cooling. And I think it's almost undeniable that, particularly for societies
that were founded around cities that couldn't move nomadically away from a
region, that they had to have been affected by these changes, particularly if
they lived right on the edge of, for example, the desert or right on the edge
of the sea ice where small temperature or, in the former case, precipitation
changes could make a big difference.

ADLER: So if, for example, the Vikings couldn't move out to sea because it
got cooler and there was a larger ice sheet, they would be affected?

Mr. MAYEWSKI: Absolutely. And it would only take, in the case of the
Vikings, a very small drop in temperature, a degree centigrade, for the sea
ice that surrounded Greenland, which had been their home for several hundred
years, to be completely locked off from Europe. And the interesting thing
about the Vikings who went to Greenland was that they went there in about AD
1000 when the climate was warmer than AD 1400 when they disappeared. And they
were resupplied regularly, literally yearly, with materials from Europe. And
they didn't adapt to the Eskimo culture. As a consequence, when the supply
ships couldn't get through anymore, they had a long tradition of not adapting
the way the local people had, they weren't nomadic, so they disappeared.

ADLER: My guest is Paul Mayewski, the author of "The Ice Chronicles." We'll
talk more with him after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

ADLER: My guest is Paul Mayewski. He's co-director of the Institute for
Quaternary and Climate Studies. Along with Frank White, he is the author of
"The Ice Chronicles."

One of the things that fascinated me is that the ice cores, besides revealing
climate changes, have also been able to pinpoint certain historical events.
The two that fascinated me was that they revealed evidence of the meteor that
landed in Siberia, and the other thing that I couldn't get over was that they
pinpointed the date for the volcanic eruption of the Minoan city on Thera. Is
that correct?

Mr. MAYEWSKI: Absolutely. That's why the records are such a delight,
because they provide a framework for a whole gamut of unbelievably interesting
environmental situations. The exact timing of volcanic eruptions, because we
can count year by year down to the eruption. The effects of the Tunguska
meteorite impact. The tremendous forest fire burning that accompanied that is
seen really clearly in our records. In addition, we can find events like the
dust bowl of the mid-1930s and realize that we've got to go back another 250
years in North American environmental history before we see anything like the
1930s dust bowl again.

ADLER: And how do you--I mean, how does that event show up in the ice core?
I mean, how can you pinpoint it?

Mr. MAYEWSKI: We have many different measurements that we make. We can look
at the gases that were trapped in the atmosphere at the time. We can look at
the dissolve chemistry, the particles. And these are particles that are
wind-blown particles and volcanic particles. And by putting all of them
together, we can reconstruct the circulation patterns of the air, and it's
really a matter of finding anomalous or unique signatures in one of these
particular variables. In the case, for example, of ammonium, big spikes in
ammonium are produced by forest fire burning, and we know that because there
are also other chemicals that go along with that ammonium that exactly label
forest fires. Big spikes in sulfate come from sulfur gases that were emitted
during big volcanic eruptions. We do a lot of calibration to know that those
interpretations are correct.

ADLER: Are there other historical events that have been noted that people
would find fascinating?

Mr. MAYEWSKI: There's the Tambora volcanic eruption of 1815-1816, which
produced in eastern North America and Western Europe, the year without a
summer. That's a fascinating event. We've taken a look, for example, at the
time period of the sinking of the Spanish Armada and found out that for 20
years before or 20 years after that turned out to be a very stormy period.
However, if they had gone more than 20 years before or more than 20 years
after, it was generally a less stormy period, and they may not have been sunk
at sea on their way to attack Britain.

ADLER: Wow. Now often, we read contradictory reports. We hear that
Antarctica is warming, Antarctica is cooling, the ice is growing thicker, the
ice is growing thinner. Now it's a big continent. Are both happening? What
should we see when we see these reports? What should we be thinking?

Mr. MAYEWSKI: You're absolutely right. It's a big continent. It's one and a
half times the size of the United States, and portions that are very far north
are without a doubt experiencing warming. There is collapse of the floating
ice areas around them. The low-lying portions of so-called west Antarctica,
close to South America, is receiving more accumulation because there's warm
air around the coast, and that--warmer than has been in the past, so it brings
more precipitation in. And there are portions of east Antarctica, which at
least for the last 20 years have been cooling, and some of that could very
well have to do with where the air comes from that comes into east Antarctica.
Much of that air may come from the high atmosphere, the stratosphere, where in
fact cooling does occur when warming occurs in the troposphere. So it's a big
place, and I think a lot of the--perhaps the thing that is most important is
the fact that we are seeing along the coastline in the most northern areas,
some very dramatic recession of glaciers and break-off of large masses of ice
that at least in the last few decades is very rare, and from many of the ice
core records, we believe is rare over at least hundreds if not thousands of

ADLER: Paul Mayewski is co-director of the Institute for Quaternary and
Climate Studies at the University of Maine. Mayewski's book, "The Ice
Chronicles," details his research. We'll talk more with Paul Mayewski in the
second half of the show. I'm Margot Adler and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) The north winds blow. It's 12 below. Springlike
ice, ain't it nice to be...

Unidentified Man and Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Snowbound, snowbound.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) No place to go. Hip deep in snow. We're all
right, tucked in tight, 'cause we're...

Unidentified Man and Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Snowbound, snowbound.
Yes, we're snowbound.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Bad news is the weatherman says more bad weather.

Unidentified Man and Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Snowbound.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) The good news is that here we are socked in
together. The corn is popped. The clock has stopped.

Unidentified Man and Unidentified Woman: (Singing) What a storm, what a
sight. We'll keep on through the night, 'cause we're snowbound, snowbound.


ADLER: Coming up, the global warming debate. We continue our discussion with
climate researcher Paul Mayewski. His new book is "The Ice Chronicles." Also,
science fiction writer Sheri Tepper on why she's interested in apocalyptic
themes. She's written over a dozen books. Her latest is "The Visitor."

(Soundbite of music)

ADLER: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Margot Adler, back with my guest, Paul
Mayewski, the author of "The Ice Chronicles." Mayewski spent years heading
the Greenland Ice Sheet Project, analyzing ice cores deep within the Earth.
Mayewski says the research reveals a history of dramatic climate change, much
of it natural, some of it man-made.

How do you view the global-warming debate currently? And do you find that
your own work intersects with that debate?

Mr. MAYEWSKI: I definitely feel that the work that we've done from the
Greenland program and from other ice-coring activities has added valuable
information to the debate about global warming. We can find evidence in many
of our records for the fact that the last hundred years have experienced
increases in temperature that are greater than the increases of the last six
to 700 years. We can demonstrate that natural climate probably would not have
been warming, and we can provide perspective going back much farther. So I
think our records, unlike the instrumental records--they may not be as densely
spread around the planet, but they are in some pretty important spots in the
polar regions and in some of the high-altitude mountain regions of Asia, and
work by others in South America all demonstrate that over the last hundred
years we're seeing something unique in terms of warming compared to the
previous hundred years.

Exactly how much of that change is produced by human activity, of course, one
could debate a little bit more. But when you look at all of the other things,
all of the things that humans have done to the atmosphere--increasing
greenhouse gases, etc., changes to the ozone hole--one is forced into the
correlation that we have an awful lot of strange human additions to the
climate in the last few decades, and we have some strange physical changes
happening to the climate and, without a doubt, some very strange changes in
the chemistry of the atmosphere. You put all that together and I think it
points very strongly.

We won't know, perhaps, the final answer until 30 or 40 years from now, when
we can actually look back and see that change. But I think there's enough
evidence in all of these other environmental indicators to point to the fact
that the less we can do to complicate the climate, the better, and the more we
can do to clean up air quality and stabilize climate, the better off we are.

ADLER: What do you want to leave people with? I mean, if you had one message
besides the absolute glory of scientific adventure, what would you want to
leave them with?

Mr. MAYEWSKI: I think perhaps the most important message is the fact
that--there have to be two messages: that natural climate variability can be
very, very large; it will always continue into the future. And then an
equally important message, and that is that, without a doubt, humans have
changed the chemistry of the atmosphere beyond anything in the natural
environment, and there is the highest probability that we have had an effect
on temperatures, at least close to the surface of the Earth. And we have
become a major component of change in both the physical and the chemical
component of the atmosphere.

ADLER: When you say that humans have caused all of these changes, are
you--you're generally talking about changes that are negative?

Mr. MAYEWSKI: That's a good...

ADLER: Pollution, you know; I guess, greenhouse gases. Or are we talking
about a mix of things?

Mr. MAYEWSKI: Certainly, much of the change that has been produced by humans
has been different than the natural environment. So if you assume that
different in the natural environment is negative, that's true. The other
important message, however, is that, while we have been able to pollute the
environment, we have also proven, through the Clean Air Act and through the
Montreal Protocol for protection of ozone or reduction in destruction of
ozone, that we're capable of, through legislation, making some very positive
changes, too. So I'd say the important message is that we are able to both
positively and negatively affect the environment.

ADLER: But signing a piece of paper doesn't always make change, does it?

Mr. MAYEWSKI: No. For some things it certainly has been successful; for
others, it's more complicated. In "The Ice Chronicles," we talk about what we
think is sort of a logical plan for the future that ideally takes into account
the fact that we need energy, people need to travel to work, drive cars, and
what might be a smart way to look at the environment. I think there has to be
a constant evaluation on both sides, but the important thing is not just to
have the discussion, but is to begin the action to make these changes, because
many of these changes don't have to in any way be economically impractical.
Under the right situations, new sources of energy, new ways of recycling, can
all be economically very viable and create whole new industries.

ADLER: So suppose that human beings continue in their ways and don't make
these changes. What do you see as the future?

Mr. MAYEWSKI: If we don't change--I think that if we don't change what we're
doing, we will obviously see increased levels of greenhouse gases and acids
and toxic materials in the atmosphere. We will see increases in temperature.
As a consequence of that we will see declines in air quality, declines in
water quality. I think we have to think very seriously. We, in fact, have to
make some changes. Now how you make those changes, of course, is something
else. They've got to be done in a way that protects developing countries,
that protects people.

And I think those are things that can be done, but they can only be done
through open dialogue, through cooperation on an international basis and by
beginning the actual process. We plan to continue our research and finding
out more ways to understand, to make better predictions of climate, but that
does not mean that we should wait until we have the final answer before
changes are enacted. The changes are required now.

ADLER: One of the things that you talk about is the connection between the
science that you're doing and space science. And, of course, when we think
about the fruits of all those Apollo NASA missions, we see the Earth seen from
space and, you know, the connection of seeing that one globe, seeing how
fragile the Earth is, etc.--the blue sphere in that huge space. What other
connection are you talking about when you say that there is a connection
between space science and these ice cores?

Mr. MAYEWSKI: Well, space science and, in particular, those early views of
the Earth from outer space, not only showed us that the Earth is a relatively
small place, but really how it's connected. It's not that people didn't
understand this before, but the visual picture is always very important--how
one portion of the atmosphere is connected to another, to the ocean, to the
land, how the color changes. And it gives you the big picture in a spatial
sense. Ice cores and what we call "The Ice Chronicles" give you something
that adds greatly to that picture of the Earth from outer space, and that's
the view back through time, and in great environmental detail. It doesn't
give you necessarily the entire picture of the Earth every single year back
through time, but it gives us something that you can't see in that Earth

So the two really feed off each other in an immense way, and I certainly hope
that the contributions from ice cores can provide, even in a small sense, the
product for humanity that has come out of those first views of the Earth from
other space.

ADLER: Paul Mayewski's new book is called "The Ice Chronicles." It details
his research with the Greenland Ice Sheet Project.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Betty, it's cold outside. Betty, it's cold out
there. Been hoping that you'd drop in. I'll hold your hands; they're just
like ice. Beautiful. What's your hurry? Listen to that fireplace roar.
Beautiful. Please don't hurry. Why don't you put some records on while I
pour? Betty, it's bad out there. No cabs to be had out there. Your eyes are
like starlight, now. I'll take your hat. Your hair looks well. Mind if I
move in closer? What's the sense of hurtin' my pride? Baby, don't hold out,
oh, but it's cold outside.

ADLER: Coming up, the apocalyptic science fiction of Sheri Tepper. This is

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Author Sheri Tepper discusses her work and inspiration

Though Sheri Tepper is the author of more than 15 science fiction and fantasy
novels, her writing career didn't take off until the 1980s when she was in her
50s. Tepper admits that she continually pounds on the same themes:
oppression of women, environmental catastrophe and authoritarian societies.
In one novel, "The Family Tree," a resurgent nature fights back. Her new
book, "The Visitor," takes place on Earth hundreds of years after it was hit
by an asteroid. Though much of civilization has been destroyed, a small band
of renegades tries to save it.

Sheri Tepper and her husband live outside Santa Fe, New Mexico, where they run
a guest house. She grew up in Colorado, where she first discovered science

Ms. SHERI TEPPER (Author): When I was about 10 years old--I was born into a
family that lived out in the country, and there were no other children around
anywhere. And, of course, this was well pre-television. And so my main
enjoyment, when I wasn't out just wandering around, was books. And I found
magazines, wonderful magazines full of fantastic, weird, marvelous stories,

ADLER: These are like Amazing and...

Ms. TEPPER: Oh, yeah, Amazing, Astounding, you know, all of those that went
way, way back--Weird Tales. And my father, who went into Denver to work every
day, worked at an office where the bookmobile from the Denver Library stopped.
And so every week he picked me up an armload of books and brought them home,
and the next week he took them back. And I had a lovely diet of fantasy and
science fiction; so many names I can't even remember who now at this point.
But it was my lifeblood. I just loved it.

ADLER: Now one of the things that I've noticed about many of your stories is
they often have apocalyptic themes. But it started me thinking that there is
this whole tradition of apocalyptic, dystopian--negative utopian, that
is--fiction, and some of these books we know well, you know, like "1984" and
"Animal Farm," and there are others like "We" by Zamyatin, and there are all
these movies we've seen, like "Blade Runner" and "Brazil," you know. But did
any of this notion of dystopia, negative utopia, hit you as you were growing
up--any of these themes?

Ms. TEPPER: Being out in the country, as I say, and being a reader, sometimes
I ran out of things to read. And the ones that we had in our own library, the
books that we had in our own library, were books that my father had had as a
child or as a young man. And, of course, among them were all of the child's
stories out of the classics--you know, the Greek and Roman myths--and also a
large-print and very copiously illustrated Bible. And I read the Bible all
the way through, skipping the dull parts, for the stories. And I read it all
the way through probably 12 or 13 times by the time I'd reached teen age. And
the Book of Revelations, I think, is extremely strong, and it's very strong in
our heritage. Book of Revelations leads to a great deal of our
post-apocalyptic thinking.

ADLER: So the Bible, more than any of this history of science fiction and
utopia, led you to sort of think about doing it yourself.

Ms. TEPPER: I think so. Yeah.

ADLER: Well, I also notice that all those apocalyptic themes that I remember
reading, which were all about nuclear disaster--now they seem to have been
superceded by ecological disasters. And what I notice in your work is that
you often take ecological themes, ecological disaster themes, and use them.

Ms. TEPPER: I lived in the country. I lived on a farm where there was a
river and a marsh and a bosk, as they say down here in New Mexico--a woods
along the edge of the river. And it was alive with birds and it was alive
with small animals, and for a lonely child it was very much a paradise. When
I left that place and then returned to it some years later, the river had been
riprapped because it was going to flood and ruin the golf course across the
road on the other side of it, where the forest had once been. The marsh had

ADLER: Excuse me, but what does riprap mean? I'm sorry.

Ms. TEPPER: That's where they line it with stones on both sides to make a
channel. They dig it out and they put stones all along the sides so that the
river can't spread out. They often do it through cities and through towns to
keep the river from spreading out. They drained the swamp for the same
reason, because it's in the way. And the trees weren't there anymore and the
marsh wasn't there anymore and the animals weren't there anymore and the birds
weren't there anymore, and I felt impoverished. I felt that somebody had
taken something very valuable and very beautiful that I loved, and just simply
murdered it and done away with it.

Now that's just on a personal, possibly sentimental, emotional level.
Multiply it by the billions, and you get what's happening to the world. And I
feel very strongly about it. I hope that we don't wreck the world entirely,
that we don't get to the point where it's just simply too late and we can't do
anything about it.

ADLER: My favorite book in this category of sort of ecological science
fiction that you write is "The Family Tree." And why don't you give me a
quick summary of it before I start asking some questions about it?

Ms. TEPPER: You would give me that one to try to summarize.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ADLER: Well, because it's impossible, yes. You're right. It is an
absolutely impossible book. Well, maybe I'll try.

Ms. TEPPER: And there's a...

ADLER: I'll try. I'll try. We have a mystery. We have a woman cop. She's
in a failed marriage and she finds a strange weed taking over. It's almost as
if nature is attacking back. And she begins investigating the death of three
geneticists who were experimenting on animals. And then you're on a wild and
woolly ride to 3,000 years in the future. You're into some kind of strange
tribal society that you don't really understand. There are incredible twists.
And without giving away the ending, I will say that a secret children's code
we all lived in school figures prominently, and by the end, you have to really
think about issues of what makes a human being, and what is the difference
between a human being and an animal. Now is that a reasonable summary?

Ms. TEPPER: You did that so much better than I could have.

ADLER: Well, you know, I'm interested in this book because it's humorous, for
one thing. It has a lot of humor in it. And interestingly enough, when I
went into to look at the citizen reviews of this book--and one of
the things that I saw in all the write-ups of this book from citizens,
ordinary people, who had read it were things like, `I loved this book, except
the politics,' many, many times, in many, many different versions. And so I
have to ask you: Do you think that your writing is too polemical?

Ms. TEPPER: It undoubtedly is. If I could just get a `polemectomy.'

ADLER: What?

Ms. TEPPER: A polemectomy.


Ms. TEPPER: I've tried. It just won't come out. I don't know. It's a
disease. It's something I ought to have taken out, if I could just figure out
where it was.

ADLER: And how did you catch this disease?

Ms. TEPPER: Well, let's see; at one time in my career I was a preacher's
wife, but I don't think that took. Oh, maybe I'm by nature somebody who wants
to be a schoolteacher or a...

ADLER: Didactic.

Ms. TEPPER: Yeah.

ADLER: You want to reach.

Ms. TEPPER: Yeah, or...

ADLER: And what about working for Planned Parenthood? I heard you were a

Ms. TEPPER: That did it.

ADLER: I bet that did a lot of it, right?

Ms. TEPPER: Speechwriter, pamphlet writer; `Listen to me and do what I tell
you or else' kind of thing. You know, `You will use birth control until
you're 18. Please, dear, please do this for me.' I don't know.

ADLER: So do you think it hampers writing? Do you think it gets in the way
of trying to tell a story?

Ms. TEPPER: Sometimes, I'm sure it does. I thought probably that "The Family
Tree" was the least political book I have ever written. It had very little
politics in it, very little polemic in it. It was pretty much pure story. So
if they didn't like that one for the politics, gee, I don't know what you do.

ADLER: Sheri Tepper's new book is called "The Visitor." We'll be back after
a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

ADLER: My guest is science fiction and fantasy writer Sheri Tepper. Her new
book is "The Visitor." She's written many novels, including "Grass," "The
Family Tree" and "Raising the Stones."

Does science fiction make it easier to talk about ideas?

Ms. TEPPER: It makes it easier to talk about ideas with people who aren't
really very interested in talking about ideas. It sneaks up on you.

ADLER: Well, some have said that it's our only real literature of ideas right
now. I mean, if you think of most of the novels that people read today, most
of them are about relationships, over and over and over in different kinds of
ways. And the thing about science fiction, it's always seemed to me, is you
can remake ways of loving and learning and living and structure cities and
structure society. You can focus on sort of the larger issues of our lives.

Ms. TEPPER: You can focus on things that are terribly important that are so
overlooked day to day that no one knows how important they are. They're
just--we go through our lives accepting the surroundings around us and
accepting what's happening around us because it's always been that way, and
we've never really thought about what's happening, what the long run is going
to accomplish if we go this way. And I have a book I'm working on now called
"The Dogs,"(ph) and in "The Dogs" the idea is, what if we encounter a race
whose language is not spoken at all? What if we encounter a race whose entire
language is conveyed in smells? What would we have to do to talk to these
people or these creatures? And it gives you a new perspective on what
communication is, and it gives you a new perspective on the relationship
between unlike beings. And that, of course, is one of the things that I most
hate about our wiping out so much of our wildlife, is that it gives us less
chance to communicate with unlike beings.

ADLER: You are in your 70s. You grew up in the West. And somehow or
another, you ended up as an activist with Planned Parenthood.

Ms. TEPPER: Yes.

ADLER: You know, that doesn't sound typical for someone who is in their 70s
today. How did you get that way?

Ms. TEPPER: How did I get...

ADLER: How did you get to...

Ms. TEPPER: Be an activist? Well...

ADLER: Well, and a feminist, given your age?

Ms. TEPPER: Let me tell you. Feminism kind of came late, but it came after
the activism, quite frankly. I got into Planned Parenthood because of my
concern with world population, which fits in beautifully with eco-feminism, of
course, or eco-anything. And at the time that I got into Planned Parenthood,
it was a very much simpler organization than it later became, and it was
devoted mostly to providing birth control information and care to women who
didn't know about it or couldn't find it or couldn't get it, all of which were
things that I believed in very deeply. And at the time it was a job, you
know? How nice to have a job doing something you can believe in. And I got
the job because I was a woman on her own with two children to support, so it
all sort of fit together.

I became an activist on that job, because when you are confronted with the
reality of the countries around the world and what they do to women. Even two
books ago I took the Taliban apart--this was before our little escapade in
Afghanistan--for what they were doing to women. But there's culture after
culture in the world where women are treated very little better, if as well
as, domestic animals.

ADLER: But I'm wondering how you ended up coming to these views, given your
own background? Was there anything in your background, your parents, growing
up that led you to this? Or was it just a sort of an `Aha!' moment and...

Ms. TEPPER: It was a revelation. It was a revelation. It was a series of
revelations, little strokes of lightning hitting you on the top of the head,
somebody laying a hand across your back and saying, `Now listen to me,' you

ADLER: Sheri Tepper, thank you very, very much for being with us.

Ms. TEPPER: You're very welcome.

ADLER: Sheri Tepper's new book is called "The Visitor." Her other novels
include "The Family Tree," "Beauty" and "Grass."


ADLER: For Terry Gross, I'm Margot Adler.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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