Can We 'Cool The Planet' Through Geoengineering?
Ideas that writer Jeff Goodell used to regard as bad science fiction — like launching particles into the stratosphere to reflect sunlight — are now being taken seriously because of global warming concerns. Goodell examines the science behind tinkering with the Earth's climate in his new book, How to Cool the Planet.
Other segments from the episode on April 15, 2010
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Can We 'Cool The Planet' Through Geoengineering?
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
If global warming accelerates, and we face serious consequences, like the rapid
melting of arctic ice and rising sea levels that threaten coastal cities,
exactly what are we going to do?
Our guest, journalist Jeff Goddell has a new book about ideas he once regarded
as bad science fiction: drastic schemes to cool the Earth, like launching
billions of particles into the stratosphere to deflect sunlight, dumping iron
into the ocean to stimulate plankton blooms that feed on carbon dioxide and
lofting contraptions into the sky that suck CO2 out of the air.
Goddell says these geoengineering schemes are fraught with scientific
uncertainties and ethical issues. But an increasing number of mainstream
scientists are taking them seriously, Goddell says, because of increasing
evidence of planetary warming and the failure of leaders to control carbon
emissions. Interest in geoengineering, Goddell says, is driven less by mad
scientists than by spineless politicians.
Jeff Goddell is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone and frequent
contributor to the New York Times magazine. He wrote a book about the coal
industry called "Big Coal." He spoke to FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies about
his new book, "How to Cool the Planet."
DAVE DAVIES: Well, Jeff Goddell, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You know, one of
the things I liked about your new book is that it is not an unrestrained
endorsement of geoengineering. I mean, while it's clear that you think there
are ideas here that are worth further research, in some respects you really
respect and embrace many of the reservations that are raised about this. Let's
talk about that. What are some good reasons to be reluctant to tinker with the
Mr. JEFF GODDELL (Author, "How to Cool the Planet: Geoengineering and the
Audacious Quest to Fix Earth's Climate"): Well, the best reason to be reluctant
to do anything is this is a very complex system and that we are messing with a
system we don't really understand. And the consequences for making it worse,
rather than better, and increasing the risk of climate catastrophe are large.
And, you know, this is the â as one scientist said â the operating system for
planet Earth that we're messing around with. And if we make a mistake, we can't
just hit the reboot button and start over. So, the consequences in this whole
endeavor are enormous.
DAVIES: And you also make the point that even if it works well, it can be a
distraction from the business of actually reducing the carbon that we're
Mr. GODDELL: Well, one of the great dangers of even talking about
geoengineering and certainly of funding research for it is that it could be
seen as a quick fix. I mean, Americans love quick fixes. We love technological
solutions to complicated problems.
And it would be very easy to think of geoengineering as just a way of dealing
with this complicated social and political problem of global warming. That we
can fix it by just spraying some particles in the stratosphere or brightening
some clouds, and then we can go on our merry way with our SUVs and our big
houses and not really have to think about it.
But, in fact, it's anything but that. Geoengineering may indeed be a way to
reduce the risk of serious climate change, but it is not a quick fix. And it is
â it doesn't replace cutting emissions in the long term, and I think that
there's a real political danger in the way this is talked about, that it will
be cast that way.
DAVIES: And just to back up a second, you know, when you said earlier that a
reason to be reluctant is that the Earth's climate is such a complex system
that we don't fully understand, can you think of an example of, you know, an
unintended consequence of our intervention in the climate or potential
Mr. GODDELL: Well, one real consequence that could happen, that a lot of
climate scientists and researchers who look into this are concerned about is
shifting of rainfall patterns. One way of geoengineering, of reducing the
amount of heat on the planet, is to reflect away some sunlight, and if you do
that by brightening clouds, for example, or putting particles in the
stratosphere, you change the heat distribution on the planet. You reduce the
differential between daytime and nighttime temperature. And these kinds of
things can have subtle effects on rainfall patterns.
And so, for example, one big concern is the monsoons, which are crucial to food
production in much of Asia. Two billion people or so are dependent upon the
monsoons for their food production. And if we shifted them just a little bit,
that could have profound impacts on these regions' ability to feed themselves.
And then, you know, what happens? That's creating perhaps even a bigger problem
than the one we are trying to solve.
So things like that are really on the forefront of our scientists thinking
about this. And to some degree, it can be modeled with computer models, but to
some degree, we're not really going to know, perhaps, until we start perhaps
DAVIES: Well, given all the good reasons to be cautious about this, to be even
reluctant, why do you think it's worth considering?
Mr. GODDELL: Well, because so far, we've shown absolutely no political will to
actually cut CO2 emissions. And, you know, we've been talking about global
warming for, in a serious way, for some 30 years, and we've â by the only
measure that matters, which is the amount of CO2 that's going into the
atmosphere, we're not doing anything.
We have a lot of talk about green energy and about clean energy and a lot of
people trying to do their part and change their lives in small ways, but in
fact, we're really not doing anything.
And one of the things that I learned in working on a previous book about the
coal industry was that it's unlikely that, in the big picture, we're going to
be cutting emissions anytime soon. And the more you talk to climate scientists,
the more you see the scale of the risks that we run in the future. And so you
begin to think about, well, if we have something like the climate equivalent of
the sort of subprime mortgage meltdown, what would we do? How, if we had to
cool the planet off in a hurry, if we had to take some kind of action, what
would we do? And geoengineering is one answer to that question.
DAVIES: All right, so before we look at some of the technologies that are worth
further research, are there some notions of geoengineering which you would
dismiss, that you wouldn't take seriously?
Mr. GODDELL: Oh, I mean, this is a field that's full of crackpot ideas. I mean,
you know, I ran into a â I won't call him a scientist but say a researcher â
who had this notion that we could, you know, change the reflectivity of the
oceans by Special K into the ocean.
DAVIES: The cereal?
Mr. GODDELL: Yeah.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. GODDELL: Millions of tons of Special K, which would have some other effect
of fertilizing the waters. I don't know. I didn't take it very seriously, but
there's other ideas about shooting nuclear weapons at the moon to blast moon
dust high into space to reflect sunlight. I mean, there's all kinds of really
nutty ideas. And I didn't have much interest in talking about them in my book
because they just discredit what is actually quite a serious scientific
DAVIES: What about launching mirrors into space because that has gotten a fair
amount of attention?
Mr. GODDELL: Well, launching mirrors into space is interesting because one of
the problems with geoengineering is that people can't imagine what it really
looks like and what it means. It's a hard thing to grasp in their â in your
head. What does this geoengineering idea mean?
And so one of the images that everyone latches onto is this notion that we'll
put mirrors out in space at this thing called the Lagrange point, which is â
would allow it to be essentially in stationary orbit out there.
The problem with these mirrors in space is that it is a very, very far-fetched
idea, extremely expensive, very difficult to do. And even by people who are â
the few people who do talk seriously about it, it's not something that would
happen within the next even 100 years.
So that kind of thing has a big grip on the public imagination, but within sort
of scientific circles, it's not taken very seriously.
DAVIES: We're speaking with writer Jeff Goddell. His new book is called "How to
Cool the Planet." We'll talk more after a short break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is writer Jeff Goddell. He has a
new book looking at the notion of geoengineering. It's called "How to Cool the
Well, let's talk about some of the approaches that you think at least deserve
further research, approaches to geoengineering. You say there are essentially
two basic ideas. What are they?
Mr. GODDELL: The first idea, which is sort of the safest and causes least
concern among anyone who worries about the consequences of geoengineering, is
technology to essentially remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
In this sense, they're not unlike trying to capture the carbon dioxide that
comes out of the stack of a coal plant and then burying it underground. It's
called carbon capture and sequestration, a very mainstream idea about how we
might burn coal in a cleaner way.
Some of these technologies are like that. There are some scientists who are
working on an idea of essentially an air capture machine that would capture CO2
out of the ambient air and then bury it underground in safe, underground,
geologic storage. That's one idea.
Another idea is dumping a kind of iron slurry into the ocean, which would
stimulate plankton bloom, which suck up carbon out of the surface waters of the
ocean and then would eventually, in theory, sequester it deep in the ocean. So
that's one technology.
The other is technologies that block sunlight away from the Earth. These are
the ones that can be deployed fairly quickly and fairly cheaply, and they're
essentially like putting a kind of sun parasol over the planet. And what's
interesting is that you don't need to reflect away very much sunlight to have a
big impact. If you can reflect away just, like, 1 to 2 percent, you can
essentially offset the temperature rise of a doubling of CO2 emissions, which
is a common benchmark that scientists use.
And there are two ways to do this that are most commonly talked about and I
think are the most serious proposals. One is to put tiny particles high up in
the stratosphere, at around 60,000 feet or something, perhaps made of sulfur or
other compounds that would essentially act like tiny mirrors floating around up
in the stratosphere that would reflect sunlight away.
And the other one is to brighten marine clouds to change the reflectivity of
clouds over parts of the ocean. And you could do that by spraying tiny droplets
of saltwater, basically, up into these marine clouds, which would make them
whiter and reflect away more sunlight.
DAVIES: All right, well, let's talk about one of these ideas, and that's this
idea, which you call doping the stratosphere, where millions, I guess billions,
of tiny particles are launched high, high above the surface of the Earth and I
guess in particular over the Arctic so as to shield some sunlight, reflect more
sunlight and lower the temperature. Who's working on this kind of stuff?
Mr. GODDELL: Well, it's being explored by a number of people. I mean, it's â
the impacts of this are being explored by a number of climate modelers. One of
them is Ken Caldeira, at the Carnegie Institution at the â on the Stanford
University campus, who's a very well-known climate modeler.
So, people like him are looking at what the impact of these particles would be
on the planet if you inject them into the stratosphere and what the impact
would be on the Arctic because one of the concerns right now is we know that
the warming on the planet is happening most quickly in the Arctic and at the
And so, there's a question of, well, if we saw that the Arctic was starting to
melt even more quickly than it is now, and that would mean, of course, sea
level rise and many other consequences, what could we do to stop it? Is there a
way that we could stop the melt of the Arctic? And one of the issues is â or
one of the ways is to put these particles in the stratosphere.
And we also have engineers looking at it because one of the issues is, of
course, how do you do this? How do you put these particles up there? And some
scientists like David Keith at the University of Calgary are looking into using
high-altitude airplanes to essentially spray a sulfur gas into the high end of
the atmosphere that would create these little particles.
Other ideas that have been looked at are using a kind of hose that would be
anchored in the stratosphere by a high-altitude balloon that would essentially
pump this â allow this stuff to be pumped up into the stratosphere.
DAVIES: So this would be a hose that would be miles long and extend down to the
Mr. GODDELL: Yeah, and it sounds implausible, and it's probably not the most
likely way to do this. I think that most people who take this seriously are
looking at aircraft as the most likely sort of delivery mechanism.
But this idea of this, you know, hose held aloft, it's essentially, you know,
an artificial volcano. It's an artificial, high-altitude volcano that would
pump these little particles high up into the stratosphere. And from a physics
point of view, it's doable. The amount of particles you'd have to put up into
the stratosphere is actually quite small, and - but there are, of course, many
issues about holding this thing aloft and actually working out the technical
bits of it.
But there are even people, in fact at the National Academy of Sciences, when
they looked into this a couple of decades ago, even talked about you could put
this stuff up with artillery, using artillery shells to shoot this stuff into
the stratosphere. That's sort of a low-tech way of doing it, but it is
DAVIES: So let's just talk about sending airplanes up with all of these
particles. Where do we get the particles? What are they made of? How many
airplanes do you send up there? And then what do they â how do they get it out?
Do they just shoot it up with little propulsion guns? What happens?
Mr. GODDELL: Well, there's lots of different ideas about how you might do this.
One of the ideas that is â David Keith at the University of Calgary is
exploring is using a kind of high-altitude aircraft that the military and
others have designed that is specifically for high-altitude research and
actually bringing up canisters of sulfuric acid, which sounds quite horrific
but really isn't given the small amounts that are required.
And you spray â it would essentially release the gas out of the wings of the
airplane and it would create, through a chemical reaction in the atmosphere,
create these small particles that would then stay aloft in the stratosphere
for, you know, about a year, something around that neighborhood.
And one of the complicating things about this is it's a virtue and a kind of
liability, is that these particles fall out. They don't stay there forever. So,
on one level, that's a good thing because it's reversible. If we do it and it
starts to â we start to see real consequences, then we could stop.
But one of the problems is what one scientist calls the sort of Damocles
problem, which is that if we start doing this, and if we actually do use this
to cool off the planet, and if we've been doing it for 10 or 20 or 30 years and
we don't reduce CO2 emissions, the CO2 will continue to build up, which acts
like an insulating blanket. And if we ever did stop putting these particles up,
it would â we would have an enormous rebound in the Earth's temperature.
It'd be like closing an umbrella or a parasol on the beach. All of a sudden,
you would have this real warming. So if we actually did do this, we would be
committing ourselves to this. And, you know, that is a real issue that people
have to think about.
DAVIES: And so if this works, you get a cooler planet, but you donât really
reduce any of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, right?
Mr. GODDELL: Right.
DAVIES: So an even bigger problem if, for some reason, you can't afford the
airplanes and, as you said, you remove the parasol, and suddenly a blast of
heat hits us.
Mr. GODDELL: And one of the big issues that this does not deal with is ocean
acidification. One of the things that we're seeing from, you know, from dumping
so much CO2 into the atmosphere now is that the ocean is becoming more acidic.
The ocean is one of the big sinks in the carbon cycle.
A lot of â it pulls a lot of CO2 out of the atmosphere. And as it's doing more
and more and more, it's getting more acidic. And that's having a real impact on
the marine life in the ocean, especially the small creatures and their ability
to make the little shells, as well as on coral reefs.
And so, there's a lot of concern about this impact on the food chain of the
ocean. And doing this kind of geoengineering would have no impact on that. And
the only way to deal with that is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
So I think it's really important to really say that geoengineering is a really,
really nutty idea that is â we would never do except in a kind of emergency
situation and except with real cuts in carbon dioxide emission and dealing with
global warming in what many would think of as a conventional way of what we're
trying to do now, by cutting emissions through reducing our use of coal and
DAVIES: One more thing: If we did adopt this strategy of putting particles into
the upper atmosphere and effectively shielded some sunlight and effectively
cooled the planet, would the sky look different to us?
Mr. GODDELL: It would. And that's a really interesting question because it's
pretty clear that if we did put these particles up there, they would change the
way the light hits the planet slightly, and they would be â the sky would be a
little bit paler during the day, and the sunsets would be a little brighter, as
they are â as people have seen sometimes when there's a dust storm or
something. The particles tend to reflect more light.
So we'd have paler skies and brighter sunsets. And is that something that â how
would people react to that? And I've thought about that a lot, and I don't
really know how we would react to that. I think, you know, we see variability
in the sky all the time. We look up and sometimes it's a bright blue, and we
remark on that, and sometimes we look up, and it's almost white, and we remark
So there's lots of variability in the sky anyway. Would how we feel about that
change if we knew there was a human hand behind that, if we knew that the sky
is a whiter color today because they're up there now spraying the particles?
Would it change the way we feel about our life here on Earth? Would we think
about ourselves kind of living in essentially a big terrarium where, instead of
looking up and seeing the blue sky of nature, we look up and see the blue sky
of human engineers? I don't know.
GROSS: We'll hear more of the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies
recorded with Jeff Goddell in the second half of the show. Goddell's new book
is called "How to Cool the Planet: Geoengineering and the Audacious Quest to
Fix Earth's Climate."
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Terry Gross. We're talking about proposals to
slow down climate change through geoengineering. Some of these proposals are
pretty radical and are fraught with scientific uncertainties and ethical
Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with
journalist Jeff Goodell about Goodell's new book, "How to Cool the Planet."
DAVE DAVIES: Let's talk about one other approach and that is fertilizing the
ocean with iron. How does this work or how might this work?
Mr. GOODELL: Well, fertilizing the ocean with iron is one aspect of
geoengineering that many people have heard of because there was a relatively
high profile attempt by a company out of California called Planktos to go out
into the ocean and dump iron slurry into the ocean and to sequester carbon and
then to sell those carbon credits on a voluntary carbon market. And the idea is
fundamentally solid. We know that certain parts of the ocean, especially the
southern Oceans, are essentially a kind of nutrient-poor deserts and one of the
nutrients that is lacking in these areas is iron.
So if you dump iron into the ocean in relatively modest quantities you can
stimulate - it's like fertilizer. It stimulates the growth of the plant life in
the ocean. And this plant life, the plankton, phytoplankton, suck up CO2 out of
the surface waters of the ocean and those plankton die and then they float
down. And in theory, they are sequestered deep in the deep waters of the ocean
for hundreds of years. One of the problems is is that it's very, very difficult
to quantify how much carbon is actually pulled out by this method and to know
how long and how deeply and how securely it is buried.
And one of the other big problems is we haven't done really good studies yet on
what the other impacts of this might be and what impact it might have to the
food chain in the ocean, what impact it has pulling these nutrients in from
this area of the ocean, what impact that has in other areas. There's a lot of
unknown questions. And the reasons it's got a lot of controversy is that you
had companies who were essentially trying to profit off this idea before the
science was very solid and that threw up a lot of alarm bells among a lot of
environmentalists and others.
DAVIES: You note in the book that this notion of geoengineering, assuming that
we get some feasible technologies to implement, raises all kinds of vexing
ethical and political questions. Let's talk about some of those. One way you
kind of put this simply is who controls the Earth's thermostat? What do you
Mr. GOODELL: Well, in a very broad sense, what we're really talking about is
building a thermostat for the Earth's climate. It's about figuring out a way to
cool things down if we need to. But it's also a way of figuring out - thinking
about what kind of climate we want to live in.
One of the questions here is who we are when we talk about we want to live in
this. Because obviously, just as there is with global warming, there will be
winners and losers with global warming. The Russians would like, you know, the
Arctic to melt so they can get to the oil up there. And, you know, many
northern latitudes will see increase in agricultural production, perhaps. But
there will also be, you know, significant losers in global warming and the same
is true with geoengineering, there will be winners and losers.
And one of the tricky things about geoengineering is that it's a deliberate
conscious decision. We will have to decide well, what kind of climate do we
want to live in? How much warming do we want to deal with? And right now, we're
just kind of letting it go and we're saying nature is going to decide what our,
you know, how much the Arctic works and things like that.
But geoengineering really injects this level of consciousness into this and so
it injects a lot of questions about okay, well, you know, do we the rich people
who are of the Western world, are we the ones who are going to decide what the
climate should be like? And how do we include thoughts and the benefits and
losses to people in say, the Sahel or in Africa, in various parts of Africa and
the consequences to them? How do their voices get into this conversation? How
do we do this in a fair and equitable way and is that even possible?
DAVIES: You know, as youâve spent time, you know, looking into these
technologies and talking to people who research them and think about their
consequences, I wonder if it's made you think differently about our
relationship to the planet.
Mr. GOODELL: Well, it has. You know, I started this thinking about this as
anyone does when I heard about the idea of geoengineering as just a crazy idea,
and, of course, the - maybe the purest expression I know of, of sort of human
hubris and technological hubris. And - but over the course of looking into this
and meeting the scientists who were involved and thinking more deeply about
this, I've actually come to see that there's advantages, that to be more
optimistic about where this might lead us.
I think that I've come to the conclusion that the biggest problem we face right
now is not technological hubris, but human apathy. That the big risk we run
right now is that we are not doing anything. We are talking a good game. We are
holding conferences about green and clean technology. We're building Web sites
about it. We're giving speeches about it but we're not doing anything. And I
think that there's something to be gained from this sort of active engagement
with the climate and with nature. And one of the most powerful things I think
about geoengineering is that it forces us to have an explicit discussion about
what kind of world we want to live in.
It forces us to say, you know what, we are now in control of what our world is
going to be like and we have to make - we have to have a conversation about
this. We have to have discussion about maybe we donât want to do geoengineering
and maybe we donât want cut emissions and maybe we just want to just warm the
planet and ride it out. Maybe.
And maybe we want to not do geoengineering and, you know, put all of our
efforts behind CO2, and maybe we'll make a collective decision about that. But
we need to make this more explicit and I think that one of the virtues of this
is that it does that. It says we as humans are in control now. What are we
going to do about?
DAVIES: Well, Jeff Goodell, I want to thank you so much for speaking with us.
Mr. GOODELL: Thanks for having me.
GROSS: Jeff Goodell spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Goodell's new
book is called "How to Cool the Planet." You can read an excerpt on our Web
site freshair.npr.org, where you'll also find links to previous FRESH AIR
interviews with Jeff Goodell about the coal industry and the politics of
Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a new CD he describes as a
This is FRESH AIR.
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Sam Newsome: A Soprano Sax 'Soliloquy'
TERRY GROSS, host:
New York's Sam Newsome started out playing straight-ahead jazz on tenor
saxophone with trumpeter Terence Blanchard. Later, Newsome switched to the
smaller soprano saxophone and blended jazz and various global musics. In recent
years, he's turned more and more to playing unaccompanied soprano. Newsome
recently released his second solo album.
Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says it's some kind of knockout.
(Soundbite of music)
KEVIN WHITEHEAD: Soprano saxophone can be an unforgiving instrument. It's hard
to play in tune, and some players get a pinched tone like it has a bad cold.
Still, a number of modern musicians have mastered the horn, like Steve Lacy,
Lol Coxhill, Evan Parker and now Sam Newsome, as announced by his CD "Blue
He's obviously listened to his forerunners, Lacy especially. But Newsome puts
his own stamp on the soprano, with eerie-sounding, hoarse and hollow split-
tones - two notes sound at once, through tricky fingerings and precise breath
control. Often he'll volley between pure tones and split ones, for self-
contained call and response.
(Soundbite of music)
WHITEHEAD: Sam Newsome's solo music departs from the opulent sound of his old
world music inflected jazz band Global Unity. Still, on the album "Blue
Soliloquy," Newsome draws on global traditions like split-tone Tuvan throat
singing, and bamboo flute musics from Japan and the Indian subcontinent. And he
also uses 1920s-style slap-tongue saxophone technique to turn his horn into a
sub-Saharan percussion instrument.
(Soundbite of music)
WHITEHEAD: Newsome is also interested in quarter-tones: playing notes between
the ones on piano as part of a 24-note scale. It's a way to use soprano's dicey
intonation to advantage. The one borrowed tune on his new album is Thelonious
Monk's "Blue Monk," radically recast in a quarter-tone version. Squeezing his
in-between notes into Monk's blues melody, Newsome holds it up to a funhouse
(Soundbite of song, "Blue Monk")
WHITEHEAD: One way solo saxophonists keep everything from sounding the same is
to concentrate on one particular technique or idea per piece. Sam Newsome, for
example, might zero in on the practice of circular breathing, a technique that
lets him keep playing continuously even while drawing a breath.
(Soundbite of music)
WHITEHEAD: Like fellow soprano ace Jane Ira Bloom, Newsome may fine-tune his
pitches by swinging the bell of his horn past the microphone to exploit the
Doppler effect: the way a sound moving toward you appears higher pitched than
one moving away. Think of how the tone of a train whistle drops as it passes.
Newsome at his most radical blends his various strategies together, juggling
quarter-tones and circular breathing and the Doppler effect to make music that
sounds like nothing else I know, except maybe the bagpipes.
(Soundbite of music)
WHITEHEAD: Newsome says all the pieces on "Blue Soliloquy" are blues of one
kind or another. In truth, the connection to blues form is often tenuous. Yet
there's a striking unity of effect: His varied blues that lay out and loop back
to a handful of techniques create their own acoustical space, whether an
individual piece is simple or complex, harsh or conventionally beautiful. Like
other soprano virtuosos, Sam Newsome coaxes a world of music from one reluctant
GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is jazz columnist for eMusic.com. He's currently roaming
the country. He reviewed "Blue Soliloquy" by soprano saxophonist Sam Newsome.
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Poet Robert Hass: An Elegy For His Younger Brother
TERRY GROSS, host:
April is poetry month, which means that there are some really good poetry books
being published this month. My guest, Robert Hass, is responsible for two of
them. He edited a new collection called "Song of Myself: And Other Poems by
We'll talk with him about Whitman a little later this month. But now he's going
to read a poem about the death of his brother from his new collection of poems,
"The Apple Trees at Olema."
Hass is a former poet laureate of the U.S. His previous collection, "Time and
Materials," won a Pulitzer and a National Book Award.
Robert Hass, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I want you to read a poem called
"August Notebook: A Death." But before you read it, I'd like you to introduce
it to us.
Mr. ROBERT HASS (Poet): Well, this is either a poem or a series of poems about
the death of my younger brother, written right after - immediately after he
died a couple of summers ago. And the first poem in this series is called
"River, Bicycle, Peony." And it begins with a series of typos, so itâs hard to
read something like this:
I woke up thinking abou(ph) my broth(ph) that - and then, that was my first bit
of early morning typing. So the first dignity, it turns out, is to get the
I woke up thinking about my brother's body. Apparently it's at the medical
examiner's morgue. I found myself wondering whether he was naked yet and whose
job it was to take clothes off and when they did it. It seemed unnecessary to
undress his body until they performed the exam, and that isn't going to happen
until later this morning. And so I found myself hoping that he was dressed
still, though smell may be an issue, or hygiene.
When the police do a forced entry for the purpose of a welfare check and the
deceased person is alone, the body goes to the medical examiner's morgue in the
section for those deaths in which no evidence of foul play is involved, so the
examination for cause of death is fairly routine.
GROSS: How did you brother die?
Mr. HASS: Well, he overdosed on - probably on prescription drugs. Lay down. I -
we'll never know whether it was an accident or a suicide.
GROSS: Was he lost to you already?
Mr. HASS: No. He was quite present to me and he had just - my younger brother
was - had cerebral palsy and had other physical problems, and by the - he was
in his early 50s, I guess, late 40s, early - how old was he anyway? He could
not walk anymore, though he'd just been in a therapeutic situation in which he
was trying to get back some ability to walk. He was a street person. He was
kind of a scoundrel in the way that you are.
GROSS: When you say a street person, do you mean he lived on the street?
Mr. HASS: Well, he lived on the street for a while and then I decided I
couldnât go through life with worrying about him being on the street so I sort
of became his - I kept an eye on him to see that he had a roof over his head.
And so he lived in an SRO, lived on SSI in San Francisco on a street full of
people living in single residence housing with getting help from - they would
get about 900 a month from the government and pay five to six hundred a month
in rent and got on the street with the extra money and hustled to get through
GROSS: Did your brother have a hustle?
Mr. HASS: No, he never had a successful hustle. But he was just - there's a
passage here that would convey some sense of what that life was like maybe. If
this would be...
Mr. HASS: ...helpful. It begins with my â well - today his body is consigned to
the flames and I begin to understand why people would want to carry a body to
the river's edge and build a platform of wood and burn it in the wind and
scatter the ashes in the river. As if to say, take him, fire, take him, air,
and river take him. Downstream. Downstream. Watch the ashes disappear in the
fast water or, in a small flaring of anger, turn away, walk back toward the
markets and the hum of life, not quite saying to yourself, there, the hell with
it, it's done.
I said to him once, when he'd gotten into some scrape or other, you know, you
have the impulse control of a ferret. And he said, yeah? I don't know what a
ferret is, but I get greedy. I don't mean to, but I get greedy. An old
grubber's beard, going gray, wheelchair, sweats, a street person's baseball
cap. I've been thinking about Billie Holiday. He said, you know, if she were
around now, she'd be nothing. You know what I mean? Hip-hop? Never. She had to
be born, see, at a time when they were listening, when they were writing the
kinds of songs that people were listening to the kinds of songs she was great
And I would say, you just got evicted from your apartment, you can't walk, you
have no money, so I don't want to talk to you about Billie Holiday right now,
okay? And he would say, you know, I'm like Mom. I mean, she really had a genius
for denial, don't you think? And the thing is, you know, she was a pretty happy
So on. Anyway, a portrait of...
GROSS: Well - that's great.
Mr. HASS: He didnât have a hustle. He had a way of staying alive.
GROSS: Did he have - you mentioned he had cerebral palsy and couldnât walk, but
did he have mental problems too?
Mr. HASS: No. I mean he had mental problems in that he was incapable of showing
up for three consecutive days if you asked him to, so he could never hold down
a job. But he was, you know, he had a wide curiosity and he was an extremely
manipulative person but he wasnât crazy.
GROSS: And it didnât upset him to live in an SRO or on the street.
Mr. HASS: He didnât like living on the street and he was terrified at the end
of his life, because he'd sort of run out of scams, that he might end up on the
GROSS: It's just one of those crazy, crazy family things. You know, where like
youâre - youâre a former poet laureate, professor at UC Berkeley and your
brother's living on the street.
Mr. HASS: Mm-hmm. For one period he lived on the street. Well, everybody who
has family like this goes through this business about tough love, how much do
you help people? How much do you let them suffer the consequences of their
Mr. HASS: And so he went through one period on the street and I at a certain
point said, well, turns out I'm one of the people who just can't stand this, so
I saw to it that his rent got paid each month.
GROSS: So had you talked yourself into the tough love approach?
Mr. HASS: I tried.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. HASS: And he liked to talk about it. You know, I mean he's perfectly
interested in having long psychological conversations about - he didnât have
anything else to do all day except have long ironic psychological conversations
about things like that, so he enjoyed it.
GROSS: Can I just ask you - this is very personal, but were you surprised by
what you felt after your brother's death?
Mr. HASS: Yeah. I was surprised and â well, I was very surprised by his death,
first of all. I wasnât expecting it. I'd seen him a few days before and thought
he was kind of back and thought he was going to be okay for a while. And I
donât in truth know whether he killed himself or not. And he had a couple of
times threatened to kill himself if I, you know, he would say if I donât get
this money to pay so-and-so or if I donât get this money to, you know, I'm
going to, I'm just - I donât want to live.
And I would say, youâre telling me that if I won't give you $300 youâre going
to kill yourself? And he'd say no, I mean no, no, I know that's crazy. And he
would laugh and make it as a joke. So it was there. But he seemed in good
spirits and he seemed - I donât think I can do â I don't think I can do this
narrative. But yes, I was surprised that he died. I was surprised at how much I
missed him or the minute he was gone how much I missed him. He didnât have
anything else to do so we talked on the phone quite a lot.
He dropped out of school in I think his sophomore year of high school so he got
his education watching - he discovered the History Channel when he was in his
30s and he would call me to tell me all the just amazing things that he'd
learned about Andrew Carnegie or about World War I. And so he was interesting
and he had many funny stories about the life that he lived and the people he
lived among. So yeah, I missed him. I miss him still.
GROSS: Why did you decide to write a poem about your brother and his death?
Mr. HASS: I didnât. I just - you know, what poets do is sit down in the morning
and write and see â and there it was, so I just kind of wrote my way through
the - what came to me.
GROSS: Maybe the best way to end our conversation is to ask you to read the end
of the poem for your brother.
Mr. HASS: Yeah. I can read a part of the poem, what will feel like an envoy,
and that was in a way got the sort of ground(ph) tone of what I was - the way I
was feeling that loss.
You can fall a long way in sunlight. You can fall a long way in the rain. The
ones who don't take the old white horse take the evening train.
GROSS: Thank you so much for...
Mr. HASS: Thanks, Terry.
GROSS: ...reading part of the poem about your brother and for talking with us
about him. It's great to talk with you again.
Mr. HASS: Thank you very much.
GROSS: Robert Hass's new collection of poems is called "The Apple Trees at
Olema." You can read the full text of his elegy to his younger brother on our
Web site, freshair.npr.org.
Later this month we'll talk with Hass about his new collection of Walt Whitman
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