Category: Non-Fiction

Spillover

Cover image for Spillover by David Quammenby David Quammen

ISBN 978-0-393-23922-5

“Make no mistake, they are connected, these disease outbreaks coming one after another. And they are not simply happening to us: they represent the unintended results of things we are doing.”

I picked up this book because my last couple of pandemic reads had left me particularly curious about the phenomenon of zoonosis. Zoonoses are diseases that originate in animals, usually harboured by a reservoir—a species that chronically carries the bacteria or virus but is not sickened by it—and are transmissible to humans. When the right set of circumstances occur, when the fragile ecological balance of the world is disrupted in a new way, a pathogen can spill over from animals to humans. Sometimes, that spillover is a dead end; the circumstances are so unique that they may never occur again. Or the virus can be transmitted to humans, but not between people: game over. But the thing that keeps virologists up at night is the pathogen spillovers that are not only virulent—highly deadly to humans—but also highly transmissible between humans once the species boundary has been breached. With the possibility of the Next Big One always looming, David Quammen takes the reader through famous outbreaks of zoonotic illnesses, with sections on Hendra, Ebola, malaria, SARS, Lyme, Nipah and HIV.

David Quammen is a journalist with a long history of covering zoonosis, with the consequent experience in translating a highly technical subject for a lay audience. As detailed in the book, his field journalism has taken him on several expeditions with top scientists working to trace the origins of various zoonoses, from Africa to Asia, following bats, gorillas, and chimpanzees. He interviews people as world famous as Jane Goodall, and specialists who are only rockstars to those who pay close attention to the world of virology. Spillover was published in 2013, and presages not only the 2014 Ebola outbreak, but the current COVID-19 situation as well. That isn’t to say that Quammen or his experts explicitly predicted it; in fact, the final chapter of the book focuses on influenza in particular, and the possibility of avian influenza (H5N1) achieving human-to-human transmission. But COVID-19 is, like influenza, an RNA virus with all the rapid mutation that entails. The broad point is not predicting any specific spillover, which would be virtually impossible, but rather illuminating the circumstances that make these types of events all but inevitable.

One very interesting trend that emerges is bats, which have been implicated as the reservoir host for a variety of spillover viruses. Nipah and Hendra, for example, are confirmed to originate with bats. In his 2006 book China Syndrome, Karl Taro Greenfeld followed the trail of SARS to palm civets in southeastern China’s wild animal markets. But in Spillover, Quammen takes the reader through more recent evidence that palm civets were actually an amplifier or transitional host that enabled the virus to reach humans from bats. Although the reservoir for Ebola remains unconfirmed, virologists are looking at bats with great interest. Unfortunately, Quammen’s reporting reveals that the significance of bats in all this is still poorly understood. It could just be that there are so many bats; at 1116 species, they account for one quarter of all mammal varieties. The fact that they live in large roosts conducive to spreading the virus within their communities, combined with their mobility and range could also be significant. But until bat immunology is better understood, the answer to why so many spillover events seem to originate with bats cannot be more than speculative.

I also found the section on HIV/AIDS particularly interesting because most of the books I have read on the subject focus on the cultural history, specifically the impact on the gay community. None of those books have tended to look further back than the Canadian flight attendant who become known as Patient Zero in a study that focused on a North American outbreak cluster in the early 1980s. Quammen’s interest is more epidemiological, and the story of HIV is particularly fascinating because the science suggests that the spillover event took place much earlier than one might have expected—perhaps as early as 1908. However, this section does get a bit bogged down with a long, imaginative tangent where Quammen uses the little available evidence to extrapolate a narrative sequence about a hunter who ultimately brings HIV out of the forest. The true Patient Zero for HIV will never be known, and while Quammen’s imagining isn’t implausible based on the available evidence, it nevertheless feels out of place in this otherwise very factual book.

Spillover is on the long side—the print edition comes in at nearly 600 pages—and a bit technical at times, but if you’re only going to read one book about epidemics, this one combines multiple outbreaks into a single volume, highlights trends and commonalties, and provides a good basic understanding of  the relationship between virology, ecology, and epidemiology. The chapter on Lyme disease is particularly apt in its illustration of how important the ecosystem is to prevalence of a disease. If you’re not up for the full volume, Quammen has published Ebola and The Chimp and the River, both short extracts from this larger book focusing on Ebola and HIV respectively. If, like me, information is your coping mechanism of choice at the moment, you’ll emerge from Spillover with a much better contextual understanding of our current situation, armed with many of the essential concepts for understanding the virology and epidemiology underpinning the ongoing public health conversation that will be dominating our discourse for the foreseeable future.

You might also like Pale Rider by Laura Spinney

No Ashes in the Fire

Cover image for No Ashes in the Fire by Darnell L. Moore

ISBN 978-1-56858-940-4

“Like so many other black boys who would grow up to love and lust after other boys, I would have died if I had not found safety in my imagination. I maneuvered through my days smiling, even as I suffocated in a world that refused to let me breathe.”

Darnell L. Moore was raised in Camden, New Jersey, a predominantly Black and Hispanic city across the river from Philadelphia. When Moore was born in 1976, Camden was a formerly prosperous industrial city that had developed a reputation for violence after a civil uprising against the murder of Horacio Jiminez by two police officers in 1971. But as Moore grew up, facing a fraught relationship with his father, a difficult relationship with the church, and deep denial about his own sexuality, he was largely unaware of that cultural history. Camden was merely home, a place full of his family, but also full of dangers for a boy who didn’t quite fit in. No Ashes in the Fire is an intersectional memoir at the confluence of being a gay Black man in the United States that recounts Moore’s long journey to self-acceptance.

In his portrait of his youth, Moore characterizes himself as a smart but not exceptional child, albeit one who drew the attention of his peers for his subtle failures to fit in. Moore points to the value of his education even as he critiques the system in which it took place. As a boy, he took his report cards to the guidance counsellor, and demanded to know why he wasn’t in the school’s gifted and talented program. He was admitted, but “unfortunately my individual ascension would be of no consequence for all of my peers who still had to return to the overcrowded classes I left.” Rather than casting himself as exceptional, he critiques the inevitable inequality of per pupil funding that relies heavily on local property taxes. Moore admits that “the better story would be one where I am portrayed as an exception, a student more worthy of better schooling than others,” but rather than giving into this narrative impulse, he firmly states, “I was no more gifted than they were.”

Moore is the son of young parents, who welcomed him into the world when they were still teenagers themselves. But his father, who had once defended his mother from beatings at the hands of her own father, eventually became her abuser. The violence in their home drove Moore deeper into himself, and into denial, and he notes that “the real tragedy of living with routine acts of violence is the way each act deadens emotions.” When his mother finally left his father for good, their relationship was essentially severed, even as his ghost haunted Moore’s choices. Yet “the selfish ambition to outshine my dad was not enough to spark self-transformation.” One of the most aching bits of prose in the entire book describes a chance encounter Moore had with his father as an adult: “To say I hated him would only reveal a surface truth. I hated my need to be loved by him. And I hated the way my heart opened in his presence because I knew he wouldn’t enter even if invited.” His absent father is a constant presence as he struggles to define and differentiate his own manhood.

Church had always been a feature of Moore’s life. He was attending a Catholic university when he suffered a heart attack in his first year, after which he “leapt into the depths of a shallow faith,” becoming deeply involved with youth ministry at the expense of his schoolwork. But while he “poured my love into a god I worshipped while slowly denying love to myself,” he secretly hoped to be cured of his desire for men. Eventually, he found that what the church was really instilling in him was self-hatred of the gay part of himself, even as it bolstered his “attraction to patriarchal rule” through its emphasis on masculinity and authority. For Moore, the church proved to be a false respite, and he eventually came to the realization that “the first, and most important revolution I needed to push was an upheaval of the systems within myself.”

No Ashes in the Fire is a story of the complex collision of multiple identities in a world that defaults to straightness and whiteness, and chooses to see some identities as inherently better or more worthy than others. Too many people are consumed by the twin fires of self-loathing and persecution. The fight for justice and equality continues.

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Unfollow

Cover image for Unfollow by Megan Phelps-Roperby Megan Phelps-Roper

ISBN 978-0-374-71581-6

“Doubt was nothing more than epistemological humility: a deep and practical awareness that outside our sphere of knowledge there existed information and experiences that might show our position to be in error. Doubt causes us to hold a strong position a bit more loosely, such that an acknowledgement of ignorance or error doesn’t crush our sense of self or leave us totally unmoored if our position proves untenable. Certainty is the opposite: it hampers inquiry and hinders growth.”

Megan Phelps-Roper grew up in Kansas, a member of an extremist Christian church composed largely of her family members that would become infamous for their deliberately provocative public protests. Her grandfather was the fire and brimstone pastor, a man who underwent a shocking transition from civil rights advocate to publicly raging bigot after losing his bar license. Her mother, also an attorney, was the church’s chief organizer and spokesperson. As part of the family’s third generation, Phelps-Roper helped lead the church’s charge into the social media space, becoming a regular and outspoken presence on Twitter. But ultimately it was her online proselytizing that led her to ask questions about her faith that she had never allowed herself to consider before. Unfollow tracks the unexpected twists that would lead her to leaving the church in her late twenties, along with her younger sister Grace, and build a new life out in the secular world she had been taught to abhor.

Phelps-Roper was born and raised in the family church, and was only five years old when their “picketing ministry” began. As a result, she was expected to publicly represent the church’s doctrine from an extremely early age. In Unfollow, she has explained the church’s positions and ideas with such articulacy and immediacy that it was hard at times to believe that she didn’t actually hold to them anymore. The Bible verses from the King James Version still roll out effortlessly to underpin and elucidate each position. For most of the book, she uses the pronouns “we” and “our” to narrate events. It was only towards the end of the book that I began to feel her narrative identity separating from that of the church, but it still felt immediate and raw. I have to admit I would be curious to read another book ten years from now, and see what additional insights and perspectives more distance brings.

Unfollow also describes an internal power struggle within the church not unlike what has happened in other new churches when the founder transitions away from leadership. Phelps-Roper was her mother’s right hand, and her mother was the right hand of her own father, the head of the church. Her mother and grandfather are forceful personalities in the narrative; her own father is largely a narrative afterthought until the power shift begins, and as a male head of household he is made part of the new council of elders, albeit the least powerful one. The internal coup aimed at consolidating power to the older, married men, removing women from positions of authority, and increasing the subjection of wives and daughters within the church. To some extent, I think this gave Phelps-Roper a taste of what it was like not to be in a position of privilege within the highly controlling structure of the church, and opened the door to further doubts and questions about hypocrisy, theology, and finally the very divinity of the Bible itself.

Ultimately, the church’s media savvy and penchant for garnering public attention proved to be a double-edged sword. It exposed one of its spokespeople to the very sinners she was supposed to be repudiating. Instead of finding monsters, she found beautiful, messy, wonderful, empathetic people with a tremendous capacity for forgiveness and understanding. She met Jews whose familiarity with havruta made them uniquely suited to debating her, and gay people who knew what it meant to make a choice that would result in losing one’s family. Surprisingly, the tactics the church had traditionally used to garner attention proved counterproductive, “I could watch a Twitter conversation derail in real time whenever I included personally disparaging language,” Phelps-Roper admits, “The exchange would swiftly devolve from theological debate to a playground quarrel.” Slowly but surely, she began moving away from the church’s more radical positions and tactics.

I have some mixed feelings about reviewing this book, despite the fact that it was an emotionally raw and well-written account of Phelps-Roper’s exit from the church and her extended family. If this book made one thing clear to me, it is that the church she left behind thrives on our attention. Counter-protesters just make things exciting; opposition makes them feel validated; retaliation makes them feel righteous and oppressed. The church is engaged in a relationship of exchange with the media, which loves them for their shock value; they are screaming, singing, sign-waving click-bait, and as a result they are regularly able to make world-wide news despite consisting of only about eighty members. Ultimately I recommend this book on the grounds that it is truly insightful about the experience of being raised in such an environment, and the factors that can contribute to dismantling the resulting mindset, but I remain cautious about granting the church more attention than it deserves.

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Going Clear by Lawrence Wright

A Queer and Pleasant Danger by Kate Bornstein

China Syndrome

Cover image for China Syndrome by Karl Taro Greenfeld by Karl Taro Greenfeld

ISBN 978-0-06-185153-7

“The season of SARS could be viewed as either an anachronism or a harbinger.”

Over the winter, a new virus emerged, sickening its victims with a severe respiratory illness that manifested with a high fever and a hacking cough. For an unlucky few, the illness degenerated into total respiratory failure as the lungs filled with fluid, and the organs shut down from lack of oxygen. As Lunar New Year approached, the Chinese government continued to insist that the situation was under control, even as cases began to spread. The story is eerily familiar, because we have all been living it. But Karl Taro Greenfeld’s 2006 book China Syndrome is a chronicle not of COVID-19, but of the SARS epidemic caused by a similar novel coronavirus that jumped the species barrier and sickened thousands in 2003 to 2004. At the time, Greenfeld was the managing editor of Time Asia, and based in Hong Kong, the first place outside of mainland China to be affected by the epidemic. The big news story of the year was expected to be the American invasion of Iraq. Instead, Greenfeld and his staff found themselves on the frontlines of reporting on the twenty-first century’s first major epidemic.

Each chapter is headed with the location and date, as well as the number of people estimated to have been infected or dead of SARS. The death rate in these estimates hovers around a chilling ten percent, and also grows in increasing contrast to the Chinese government’s public refusal to adjust their official numbers upward even as people continued to sicken and die. The book is insightful about the cultural conditions that lead to the denial and cover up. Greenfeld highlights the unprecedented transition of power that was occurring in Beijing at the time, as well as the emphasis on saving face and avoiding blame. Particularly telling is the fact that information about a disease outbreak is classified as a state secret in China. It was illegal to disclose this information anywhere but up the reporting line. Greenfeld witnessed a doctor arrested for talking to him about the outbreak, and another doctor that spoke up spent the rest of his life under house arrest. A Hong Kong virologist risked arrest by traveling across the border repeatedly to smuggle samples for his lab, since it was impossible to get any information out of the Chinese Ministry of Health.

Coming in at seventy-three—albeit often short—chapters, China Syndrome does feels somewhat drawn out, especially in the early chapters before the agent of the disease has been identified. As Greenfeld points out, however, the specific agent often isn’t all that important if doctors can treat the disease with existing methods. Investigators were at first highly focused on the possibility of avian influenza, and it is almost halfway through the book before the term “coronavirus” is even mentioned. By comparison, however, it took more than two years for scientists to isolate the agent responsible for the AIDS epidemic. The race for the answer features internal and international rivalries, and more than one false step along the way.

Before you decide to pick this one up, I would issue a warning for a few more graphic parts of the book. It includes descriptions of the conditions market animals live in, and how they are restrained and killed on site at the restaurants that serve them. Greenfeld also describes the liquidation of livestock that occurred once the virus’ host animal was identified and banned from sale. In the medical section, there is a detailed description of intubation that serves to illustrate why the procedure posed such a risk of infection to the healthcare workers who performed it on SARS patients. These don’t form huge swathes of the book, but it is worth knowing they are in there.

There is a definite sense of eerie deja vu in reading this book, from the slowly escalating rumours, and mutters about biological warfare, to the runs on particular kinds of equipment and supplies, to the very timeline and symptoms of the illness itself. Yet perhaps the most eerie part is the unheeded warning that SARS now represents. As Greenfeld details, the Chinese government banned the sale of the animal found to be the reservoir of the virus, and seized and destroyed the existing stock. But the closure of the urban markets where live animals were sold was only temporary, and within months they were back in business, operating much the same as before, with thousands of diverse, defecating, bleeding, doomed animals trapped in close quarters with one another, and the people who sold, butchered, and consumed them. One threat was eliminated, but the conditions for another such zoonotic outbreak remained much as they ever were.

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Pale Rider

Cover image for Pale Rider by Laura Spinneyby Laura Spinney

ISBN 978-1-61039-768-1

“The number of dead could have been as high as 100 million—a number so big and so round it seems to glide past any notion of human suffering without even snagging on it. It’s not possible to imagine the misery contained within that train of zeroes. All we can do is compare it to other trains of zeroes—notably the death tolls of the First and Second World Wars—and by reducing the problem to one of maths, conclude that it might have been the greatest demographic disaster of the twentieth century, possibly of any century.”

The influenza epidemic that began in 1918—which became known as the Spanish Flu—has drawn a lot of interest in recent months as comparisons are made to the current situation with COVID-19. Pale Rider by Laura Spinney was published in 2017, shortly ahead of the flu pandemic’s centenary year. As such, it is quite current, but of course does not directly address our present circumstances. Spinney tracks the influenza’s two year path around the globe, while also providing historical context, history of medicine, and a significant look at recovery and collective memory as it relates to the pandemic. By the numbers, the contemporary estimate of deaths was 20 million, but over the years that has risen to 50-100 million as more records and evidence come to light. Probably about one in three of the then 1.8 billion living people would have become infected, and while most recovered, up to five percent of the sick may have perished.

I selected this title from among a few popular books about the 1918 pandemic as it is noted for its attempt to take a more global approach to understanding the outbreak. Other previous titles have a more North American and European focus, despite the fact that these areas were not the hardest hit. According to Spinney, that dubious honour likely goes to India, though the numbers for China are murky. In addition to addressing the first recorded case, at Camp Funston military base in Kansas, and covering the impact on the Western Front as well as the acquisition of the “Spanish Flu” nomenclature, Spinney goes further afield to dig into the available numbers for places as various as China, Persia, India, Australia, Iceland, and more, resulting in a more complete picture of the global impact.

The structure of the book is circular, and somewhat repetitive. Rather than following a chronological timeline, Spinney takes a locale-by-locale approach that covers the same chronology multiple times in different places. Despite the repetition, this is an effective structure for sinking into each location and getting a full sense of their experience of the pandemic, which had huge regional variations. Australia, for example, experience only the third wave, having effectively kept out the deadly second wave with a maritime blockade. Spinney also covers three major theories about where the flu may have emerged before it surfaced and was recorded in Kansas, but with a careful eye to the contemporary prejudices that may have been shaping these hypotheses, particularly with regard to China. Within the United States, she addresses the tenements of New York, as well as the remote villages of Alaska, and highlights how differences in responses between cities led to vastly different death rates.

In addition to tracking the pandemic, Pale Rider provides and explains historical context about where the development of medical understanding and technology stood when the pandemic began. Notably, the electron microscope was not invented until the 1930s, meaning that while bacteria could be seen on an optical microscope, viruses—which are about twenty times smaller—were still invisible. Spinney briefly traces the evolution of Western medicine in relation to contagious diseases, and in specific locales such as Indian, China, and Persia, she also addresses how this knowledge was interacting with local medical traditions like Ayurveda. In the West, she also briefly chronicles the backlash against traditional doctors for their failure to prevent the outbreak in the first place.

A notable cautionary note that emerges from Pale Rider is the danger of mass gatherings for any purpose. Influenza does not distinguish between a church service and an armistice parade, a wedding or a funeral. Particularly chilling is Spinney’s account of the Spanish city of Zamora, which was among the hardest hit in that country. Zamoran congregations actually swelled as the pandemic raged, and the populace sought solace and prayed for relief. The city had a zealous new bishop who encouraged religious gatherings, called novenas, promoted the adoration of relics, and continued to distribute communion, all activities that send a shiver down the spine of anyone with a current understanding of the germ theory of disease.

In the latter part of the book, Spinney dives into the difficulty of trying to tease apart the inextricable impacts of the one-two punch that was the Great War with a pandemic following close on its heels. Although more people died in the pandemic, the war remains much better remembered, though Spinney suggests that the centenary is changing that, and no doubt the current situation will also contribute to the revival of interest. For those wondering whether they would be up to reading this book at the moment, I found the author’s approach thorough, but largely not grisly, though there are some dark spots. Spinney leans more towards statistics rather than graphic descriptions of the physical suffering of the flu victims.

The Golden Spruce

Cover image for The Golden Spruce by John Vaillantby John Vaillant

ISBN 978-0-393-07557-1

“The golden spruce was one of the few mature Sitka spruce trees still standing at the north end of the Yakoun River, and as such it had become even more of an anomaly than it already was.”

Sometime around the year 1700, a spruce seed took root in the fertile soil of the Yakoun River valley on Haida Gwaii, off the west coast of what would become British Columbia, Canada. The first recorded European contact with the islands would not take place for another seventy-five years. Despite a rare mutation that caused its needles to be yellow rather than green—a flaw that should have impeded its ability to photosynthesize—the tree that became known as K’iid K’iyaas or the golden spruce, grew to be a giant that stood on the banks of the river until 1997, when it was deliberately felled as a protest again the logging industry. In that time, the golden spruce had become a legend amongst the Haida people of Masset, as well as a symbol of the village of Port Clements. In The Golden Spruce, John Vaillant documents the history of tree, the troubled life of the man who destroyed it, and the impact of this act on the community that was its home.

The Golden Spruce is part history of the logging industry, and part post-mortem of the murder of a culturally significant icon of the Haida people. Vaillant beautifully describes the temperate rainforest landscape, writing that “a coastal forest can be an awesome place to behold: huge, holy, and eternal-feeling, like a branched and needled Notre Dame.” The early part of the book is dedicated to the history of the Haida, and the North American logging industry, as well as a brief foray into the fur trade that preceded it. Vaillant treats this all as necessary context before introducing Grant Hadwin, the man who destroyed the tree in the dark hours of January 20, 1997. A former logger and industry consultant, Hadwin had specialized in laying out the logging roads that would enable the companies to haul massive equipment into challenging terrain, and extract the wood once it was felled. In short, he made possible the very destruction he came to oppose. Vaillant interviews several current and former loggers also caught in this cognitive dissonance between love for being in the wilderness, and making a living by pillaging it, representing a variety of positions on the issue.

In the summer of 1987, on a mountainside near McBride, British Columbia—a small town about two hours east of the larger mill town where I grew up—Hadwin had a vision. A doctor Vaillant spoke with, who specializes in this kind of decompensation, called it a “spiritual emergency.” Having already become disillusioned with the practices of the logging industry in the mid-eighties, his failed attempts to advocate for restraint and moderation became unhinged. His employer at the time compared it to the difference between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Following the vision, Hadwin believed “he was not only forgiven for his prior sins but chosen to represent the Creator of all Life and carry a message to the rest of humanity.” However, it would be a decade before this delusion manifested in an act of destruction that shook the country.

Like most of British Columbia, Haida Gwaii is unceded territory; no treaty exists, and no compensation has been made to the Haida people for all that has already been taken from them. On that dark January night, Vaillant describes how another piece of their culture was destroyed: “as far as many Haida are concerned, Hadwin is one more white guy who came out to their islands in order to take something away, only to leave behind yet another imported illness; this time, a new strain of terrorism.” From his Prince Rupert hotel room, before his disappearance, Hadwin admitted he didn’t know the Haida legend when he cut down the tree. As his friend Cora Grey, an Indigenous woman from Hazelton, put it, “he could only see MacMillan Bloedel. He didn’t see no legend about the Haida when he did that.”

For those looking to understand why Hadwin would destroy K’iid K’iyaas and think he was striking a blow against the logging industry, there is little satisfaction to be had in The Golden Spruce. Using all the skills he picked up during his years in the industry, Hadwin destroyed the structural integrity of the tree, ensuring that it would fall the next time the wind blew up. This happened two days after his nighttime expedition. Fortunately, despite the tree’s popularity as a tourist attraction, no one was hurt. The golden spruce trail and view point were on the other side of the Yakoun River. By the time the tree feel, Hadwin had left Haida Gwaii, and returned to Prince Rupert on the mainland. From his hotel room, he issued a press release decrying the hypocrisy of the logging industry, entitled “The Falling of Your ‘Pet Plant,’” which reads as a deranged screed against “university trained professionals” whose “ideas, ethics, denials, part truth, attitudes, etc., appear to be responsible for most of the abominations, towards amateur life on this planet.”

As Vaillant chronicles, Hadwin was charged for the act, and it is here that the story takes an even stranger turn. Believing his life to be in danger if he took a ferry or plane to his court date in Masset, Hadwin took his life into his own hands, and set out from Prince Rupert in a kayak in February 1998, disappearing somewhere on Hecate Strait or Dixon Entrance. His wrecked kayak and much of his equipment—in surprisingly good condition after four months on the Northwest coast—were found on Mary Island in June. Belief that he faked the wreck remains common amongst those who knew him and his outdoors skills, as well as among the people of Haida Gwaii.

With the tree felled, and Hadwin vanished into the wild, the last part of the book becomes about the grief of the community, and the futile efforts of the scientific community to put right the destruction he wrought. The golden spruce was unique and irreplaceable. Although two cuttings of the tree were located in the University of British Columbia Botanical Gardens, they were not thriving. Controversy erupted amongst community members and Haida leadership about whether the return of a cutting should be accepted, and if it should be planted on the site of the felled giant. In the end, although more cuttings were made from the fallen tree, and two were planted in Port Clements, the golden spruce has largely been left to nature, where it has become a nurse log for the surrounding forest. The Golden Spruce is a sad and disturbing story of destruction, ignorance, and waste. According to Vaillant, “left in peace, the golden spruce could have lived until the twenty-sixth century.”

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Upstream

Cover image for Upstream by Dan Heath by Dan Heath

ISBN 978-1-9821-3472-3

“So often in life, we get stuck in a cycle of response. We put out fires. We deal with emergencies. We handle one problem after another, but we never get around to fixing the systems that caused the problems.”

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, but in the day-to-day busyness of life, it can be easy to overlook systemic problems, focusing instead on quick fixes and immediate solutions. With our natural human bias towards reaction and visible results, it requires deliberation to step away from the urgent and immediate, and turn our attention towards long-term interventions that may not pay dividends for months or perhaps years, even in cases where the rewards are exponential. Often these deeper problems are invisible, but even when they are known, they may be ignored or deferred when no one wants to take responsibility for solving them. In Upstream, Dan Heath examines the reasons why preventative thinking is so difficult, how we can do it better, and the invisible pitfalls that plague such efforts, using examples from business, education, and healthcare to illustrate the broad nature of his point.

I appreciated that a lot of this book was not just about the benefits of upstream thinking, but also focused on why it is difficult, and anticipating the ways that it can go wrong. Heath, who teaches social entrepreneurship at Duke University, provides examples of times that upstream thinking succeeded, such as improving the graduation rate in Chicago Public Schools, but also points to dismal failures, such as the abuses of CompStat policing software to artificially lower crime rates. Heath also acknowledged the complex and interconnected nature of the problems upstream thinking might be applied to, and spends time delving into unexpected consequences of well-intentioned interventions. This is far from being a simplistic paean to the benefits of thinking ahead.

Data is the key to upstream interventions, as measurement is essential to evaluating long-term efforts. But even there Heath points to the pitfalls, and the ways in which metrics can be poorly chosen or gamed. If quantity and quality are not tracked in tandem, one will usually pay the price for the other. One such example is Expedia, which for a long time was only measuring how quickly their call centers resolved customer issues, without pausing to consider why there were so many calls in the first place. Heath also cites the egregious example of police officers failing to record reported crimes, or downgrading a rape to “theft of services” because the victim was a sex worker, in order to keep the crime rate artificially low.

Heath tells the same story two different ways to show how even perceived strengths of human behaviour can have negative consequences for upstream thinking. Our pride in being creative, persistent, and resourceful can trap us inside a system that never learns from its mistakes. By overvaluing adaptability in the moment, we abdicate the responsibility for spotting repeated problems, and fixing them before they happen again. But this requires systems thinking, and for someone to take ownership of the problem even if it might not seem to properly belong to them. This can be especially difficult in cases where the group that has the power or ability to fix the problem is not the same as the group that will directly benefit from fixing it. Through these carefully parsed nuances, Heath makes it clear why upstream interventions are anything but easy.

It was very interesting to be reading this book during the COVID-19 outbreak, as a lot of the examples Heath uses come from the realm of public health, which is ripe for preventative care initiatives. Here Heath discusses problem blindness, or the idea that “negative outcomes are natural or inevitable.” Early discourse around COVID-19 dismissed the outbreak as “just the flu” and many people expressed fatalism about the possibility of becoming infected, with little regard for the collective consequences. Many of the interventions we are currently being asked to participate in, from hand washing to social distancing, are aimed not at treating currently infected people, but at the much more abstract idea of preventing the cases that will otherwise be diagnosed ten to fourteen days from now. If these cases do not materialize, then that is “the world avoided” by the intervention. COVID-19 is practically a case study in the difficulties of upstream thinking; if we succeed in slowing the spread, flattening the curve, and preventing the health care system from being overwhelmed, then we will have seemed to have cried wolf. Meanwhile, the economic harms are immediate, and evident, but are being attributed to COVID-19 hysteria, rather than seen as evidence of problems and weaknesses in the systems of our daily lives. It is easier to blame social distancing for economic hardship than it is to look upstream to wealth disparity, a weak social safety net, insufficient unemployment benefits, deficient sick leave policies, and so many more social issues that go well beyond one pandemic. In short, this was an extremely timely read, but the concepts found here apply to much more than our current situation.

A Mind Spread Out on the Ground

Cover image for A Mind Spread Out on the Ground by Alicia Elliott

ISBN 978-0-385-69238-0

Content Warnings: Racism, sexual violence, domestic violence, mental illness, and suicide.

 “Our parents were far from perfect, but their main barriers to being better parents were poverty, intergenerational trauma and mental illness—things neither social workers nor police officers have ever been equipped to address, yet are both allowed, even encouraged, to patrol.”

Alicia Elliot grew up largely on the Six Nations Reserve, home of her father’s people, with a gaggle of younger siblings. Her mother lived with them only intermittently; whenever her bipolar disorder became too pronounced, Elliott’s father would shuttle her mother across the New York border, and have her involuntarily committed. Her childhood was shaped by poverty, intergenerational trauma, and mental illness, all of which she reflects on in a series of essays. Her debut collection has amassed an impressive array of blurbs, including Eden Robinson and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, and the acknowledgements include thanks to the likes of Roxane Gay, Waubgeshig Rice, Cherie Dimaline, and Tanya Talaga.

The collection opens with the award-winning titular essay, which is a rough English translation of the Mohawk word for depression or mental illness. This proves a central theme of the collection, as many of Elliot’s stories are about her mother’s bipolar disorder, and how it shaped and warped their family life for most of her childhood. The essay “Crude Collages of My Mother” fruitlessly attempts to piece together the divide she created in her mind between her mother when she was well, and when she was sick, and the fundamental unity and yet irreconcilability of the two halves. It also means eventually confronting her own depression and anxiety, and the fact that suicide rates among her people are twice the national average thanks to a complicated history of colonialism and genocide.

A significant part of Elliott’s collection also deals with perceptions of Indigineity. For her parents, this is the push-pull between her mother’s white Catholic identity, and her father’s desire to more deeply connect with his Indigenous heritage. For her it means confronting the perceptions and misconceptions of being half-white, and the choice to pass, or not, in various contexts. When she becomes a mother at eighteen, it means grappling with the fact that her child, who has a white father, does not have status, and the simultaneous guilt and gratitude for the fact that the child is white-passing. She calls out the internalized racism. “No one should have to feel thankful that their child is not dark-skinned,” she laments.

Another theme that runs through the essays is the power of seeing your reflection in literature, and how that impacts a young writer’s ability to create the kind of work they need to make. However, Elliott is equally critical of how the concept of diversity has been positioned in the literary sphere, arguing that it is the publishing world’s equivalent of the “ethnic” restaurant, fundamentally designed to cater to the white palate rather than reflect the tastes or concerns of the community from which it springs. While proud to be labelled a “Native writer” by other Native people, Elliott notes that being labelled a “Native writer” by non-Native people “is more often than not an act of literary colonialism, showing paternalism, ownership and a desire to keep us inside a neatly labelled box where they deem us a non-threat.” Outside their own communities, it is a label that calls even their accolades into question, as Elliott cites from a thesis in which the work of Thomson Highway is deemed to have been “canonized” simply because it came along just at the time when concerns were being raised about the pervasive whiteness of Canadian literature.

Elliott’s essays range from highly personal, to more academic, though they all incorporate a personal component. Some essays, such as “Dark Matters,” use poetic license on a scholarly concept, such as dark matter in physics, to draw a parallel: “Racism for many people seems to occupy space in very much the same way as dark matter: it forms the skeleton of our world, yet remains ultimately invisible, undetectable,” Elliott analogizes. The most academic of these is “Sontag, in Snapshots” which begins with her reflections on why she hates having her photograph taken, and how her friends have often refused to respect this boundary. However, it quickly expands into a more wide-sweeping critical examination of how white artists and photographers like George Catlin and Edward Curtis co-opted the public depiction of Native people, so that they were seen as “frozen in time, relics of the past, beautifully tragic vanishing Indians.” Building on the Sontag essay on which she is reflecting, Elliott critiques how the agency of white photographers has been given priority over the agency of their non-white subjects, cementing the photos as facts, even when the situation has been highly manipulated, or the image is taken out of context.

Across these many themes, A Mind Spread Out on the Ground blends the personal and the critical into incisive essays that cut to the heart of colonialism, and its effects on identity, community, and Canada’s conception of itself.

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