Full STEAM Ahead with Chris Howard

Full STEAM Ahead

 

Chris Howard, author of ROOTLESS ...

I am thrilled that Chris Howard, author of the fascinating Rootless is here today for Full STEAM Ahead.  I first read Rootless a few months ago and fell in love with the world Chris built.  As I read, I was swept into Banyan’s world, full of mechanical trees, pirates, and genetically-modified corn.  I had nightmares about locusts with a taste for human flesh.  And I wanted my own mechanical tree.  Thankfully, we still have real trees so mine would only serve as decoration.

When I finished the book, I found myself thinking about the genetically-modified corn that plays such a big part in the book.  I first heard about genetically-modified food during my first-year composition course at Rutgers, when our TA had us read an article about the Monsanto Company.  I’ve kept tabs on them since that time (2001) and it amazes me that science continues to progress but that humanity has not come to a consensus on genetically modified crops.  Talk about a human issue!  Are genetically-modified crops safe for human consumption?  How do they affect the ecosystem around them? Do they disrupt pollinators? Do they contribute to climate change? How do they affect the economy?

My first-year composition course was through the English department, but my TA was a science minor.  I was lucky to have a TA who shared my interest in STEM and he brought that passion into our writing class.  Debating the Monsanto Company’s policies was a great intro to argumentative writing and helped many of my classmates dive into science when they might have avoided it in the past.  And I think Chris Howard’s book can do the same.  It brings up big questions about climate change, conservation, human progress, and genetically-modified crops that will keep readers thinking long after they finish the book.

I had a few questions for Chris Howard and he was kind enough to answer them for today’s edition of Full STEAM Ahead.

Hi Chris!  First, I am wondering- What made you focus on trees? Did writing Rootless involve any extensive research on tree species or anything like that?

My background is in ecology and environmental sciences. I studied Natural Resources Management at Colorado State University, before working for the National Park Service, teaching Forest Ecology, and leading wilderness adventure trips for teenagers. I took a lot of classes in college about trees and forests, and my love for them, as well as my education, certainly informed the writing of the book. The initial idea for ROOTLESS came when I was hiking in the mountains of Colorado and found myself surrounded by lodgepole pine trees devastated by the Mountain Pine Beetle (a big problem in certain areas of our state). I started to imagine a world where every tree, as well as all the plants and grasses and animals, had been wiped out by insects. That initial idea led to a fantastical story, but it’s definitely rooted in my scientific background :)

And what about the mechanics of building trees? Where did that idea come from? It must have STEM roots somewhere along the way. :)

Banyan (the main character who builds trees from scrap-metal until he uncovers a clue to the whereabouts of the last living trees) certainly has strong engineering skills. His forests are not just beautiful works of art, but real feats of ingenuity: towering above the dusty plains, his trees come to life at night with elaborate lighting, and the branches and leaves create music as they turn in the wind. I must admit, I have no idea how to build such forests myself! But there are people out there who do! Check out this guy!

And I think this is fascinating – these huge new artificial trees in Singapore generate solar power, act as air-venting ducts for nearby conservatories, and collect rainwater.  

The idea of a “tree builder” occurred to me almost as soon as I imagined a world without trees or nature… I thought people would build trees as a way to remember the world that once was.

Finally, I’d love to hear more about the GenTech corn in Rootless. Did you spend a lot of time researching genetically modified food? Do you have any thoughts on GM food in our world?

You know, GenTech and the corn are, at the end of the day, intended as metaphors. But as soon as I imagined locusts consuming everything in their path, I pictured one thing surviving: genetically engineered corn. I imagined it becoming the only source of food and fuel. And I imagined a single corporation controlling it…

I do believe we’re losing biodiversity as a result of corporations developing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Such companies engineer crops to be resistant to disease, insects, even pesticides. Then they slap patents on their GM seeds and release them into the environment where they outcompete and interbreed with non-GMOs, reducing biodiversity and increasing the patent-holders’ control over our food supply.

It’s too serious a subject to play around with in story-form and not do any research. And one of the most interesting things I found was this “super worm” that’s evolved to be able to resist the pesticides that Monsanto has put INSIDE corn. The GM corn in question is engineered to produce a protein that’s fatal to the rootworms that ingest it. Yet pesticide-resistant rootworms are now showing up – outsmarting the genetic engineering that was supposed to keep them away. That’s similar to how the all-consuming locusts in ROOTLESS evolved in response to GenTech’s corn.

It’s a very complicated issue, but I hope ROOTLESS will inspire some readers to think about the potential dangers that can arise when we overly-manipulate the natural world. To me, it’s not so much about the science, it’s what we do with it that’s important.

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ABOUT ROOTLESS

17-year-old Banyan is a tree builder. Using salvaged scrap metal, he creates forests for rich patrons who seek a reprieve from the desolate landscape. Although Banyan’s never seen a real tree–they were destroyed more than a century ago–his missing father used to tell him stories about the Old World.

Everything changes when Banyan meets a mysterious woman with a strange tattoo, a map to the last living trees on earth, and he sets off across a wasteland from which few return. Those who make it past the pirates and poachers can’t escape the locusts . . . the locusts that now feed on human flesh.

But Banyan isn’t the only one looking for the trees, and he’s running out of time. Unsure of whom to trust, he’s forced to make an alliance with Alpha, an alluring, dangerous pirate with an agenda of her own. As they race towards a promised land that might only be a myth, Banyan makes shocking discoveries about his family, his past, and how far people will go to bring back the trees.

ABOUT CHRIS

Before he wrote stories, Chris Howard wrote songs, studied natural resources management, and led wilderness adventure trips for teenagers. He currently lives in Denver, CO, and ROOTLESS is his first novel. Join him at http://www.chrishowardbooks.com/

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