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The German Forester Who Wants the World to Idolize Trees

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One cold afternoon in the autumn of 2018, in a forest outside the tiny village of Hümmel, in Rhineland-Palatinate, I went for a walk with the German forester Peter Wohlleben. He’s a tall man with a long head and a short gray beard; his vanishing hair was shaved close to the skull. He had the slightly stiff bearing of a person who thinks often about the importance of uprightness. (“When a structure is nice and vertical, it is difficult to upset its equilibrium,” he has written, of trees.) He wore muddy, size-15 army boots and a black fleece jacket that smelled of old woodsmoke.

We followed a logging road through a forest of beeches. Up in the canopy, the leaves were every possible hue of apple skin. Wohlleben had been managing the forest for the municipality for almost three decades, and he had cared for it with unusual gentleness. Each tree is cut individually and removed using horses, rather than heavy machinery, to avoid damaging underground networks of roots and fungi that allow trees to exchange resources and chemical signals. He has generated additional income for the forest by leading tours, teaching courses, and creating a forest cemetery, where people’s ashes can be buried in an urn made of untreated beech wood. He has long insisted that people around the world could and should manage their forests likewise. Until a few years ago, virtually no one was listening.

In 2007, to propagate his views and his know-how, Wohlleben began writing books, hammering them out at a rate of one or two a year. His first fifteen reached a modest audience. He later realized that this is likely because they were written in a “minor key.” They had titles such as “Forest Without Guardians: In the Stranglehold of Hunting Interests and Forestry” and “The Forest: An Obituary.” Following a period of depression due to overwork, he decided to change his tone. His sixteenth book, “The Hidden Life of Trees,” from 2015, was written in a major key—warmly avuncular, storybook simple, and heavily dusted with the glitter of wonderment. It focussed on new and not-so-new scientific findings indicating the sociality and sensuous interiority of trees. His publisher scheduled a print run of twenty-seven hundred copies. For reasons that Wohlleben is still trying to make sense of, the book bloomed, then exploded: it has sold more than a million copies in Germany alone, and more than three million worldwide. Wohlleben now has his own magazine, which features his face on every cover, Oprah-style; a podcast; a film documentary; and a TV show, in which he takes German celebrities on overnight survival trips. He was recently invited to speak before the European Commission, and he has consulted with Germany’s Green Party leaders about their forest policy.

“The Hidden Life of Trees” grew directly out of walking tours like the one that Wohlleben was leading me on, through the same tract of woods. “The people I guided through the forest—they were hard trainers,” he said. “Because, when I talked in a way that wasn’t interesting, they would begin talking with each other.” Eschewing technical jargon, he learned how to make them laugh and how to make them gasp.

He stooped and gently grasped a sapling between his fingers; the thickness of its trunk was somewhere between a pencil and a strand of bucatini. He asked me how old I thought it was.

“Ten years?” I guessed.

Wohlleben carefully counted the bud nodes along one of its branches.

“One hundred and twenty years,” he said.

I should have seen this surprise coming; he describes the phenomenon in detail in his book. The growth process of beech trees follows a pattern that German foresters call “education by shade”: the “mother trees” keep their offspring small for decades before finally toppling over, allowing them to shoot skyward. Wohlleben is fanatical about the virtues of slow growth. The more slowly a tree grows, he says, the tighter its grain, and the greater its chances of surviving natural threats. It pains him to see fast-growing trees in single-species plantations lost to pest infestations and storms. Given all that we now know about how forests work, to clear-cut an old forest and replace it with a monocrop is “evil,” he said.

When Wohlleben entered forestry school, in the early eighties, he did so believing that the profession was “something like a tree-keeper,” and was dismayed to learn that it was more like being an industrial farmer. In Germany, forests were regularly clear-cut, poisoned with herbicides such as 2, 4, 5-Trichlorophenoxyacetic acid (an active ingredient in Agent Orange), and then replanted with nonnative conifers. Forestry practice has changed since then—clear-cutting and the use of herbicides have been strictly curtailed—but not enough for Wohlleben.

Near the end of our walk, he led me over to a hollowed-out, C-shaped ring of mossy wood protruding from the soil. “That is the stump from an old tree,” he said. I knelt down and felt it. It had the hard, wet heft of green wood. It had been cut down at least fifty years ago, and yet, somehow, it was still alive. The tree’s roots, many of which protruded above the soil, were visibly connected to a nearby beech tree.

To Wohlleben, this was proof of the remarkable mutuality of beeches—that they will continue caring for nearby trees even after their death. “The Hidden Life of Trees” begins by describing the day that Wohlleben discovered a stump much like this one, which had been “felled at least four or five hundred years earlier.” It had likewise been kept alive all that time by its neighbors. On our walk, we had been discussing his belief that trees are intelligent—that they make decisions, feel pain, have affinities, and, perhaps, consciously experience the world. I pointed out that, in a Darwinian sense, it seemed distinctly unintelligent to keep feeding a corpse for five hundred years.

“But it’s not dead, that’s exactly it,” he replied. “Only the part with the solar cells has been cut down. Perhaps the real tree is underground.”

“And something about those roots staying alive is also beneficial to this tree?” I asked, gesturing to the living tree beside it.

“We don’t know. That’s a typical human question. What’s the benefit for this tree? ‘Support without benefit? That’s not possible!’ ” he said, in a gently mocking tone. He hazarded a guess that the stump had retained a sort of genetic memory of past hardships—a thousand years of fire and ice, pests and pestilence, drought and flood, storm and stress—which it was able to share with the other tree via the roots. Or, he said, “Perhaps it’s just to be social.”

Wohlleben’s thought tends to move like the body of a fencer—he lunges forward, past his center of gravity, then just as quickly retreats, before thrusting again. In “The Hidden Life of Trees” he writes that, “when trees are really thirsty, they begin to scream.” He admits that this is probably “a purely mechanical event”; this sound, which can be heard only by using special instruments, is in fact an ultrasonic vibration occurring in the trunk as its vascular system struggles to transport a scarce water supply up to the leaves. (Imagine a straw slurping at the dregs of a milkshake and you’re close to envisioning it.) And yet, he writes, “if we were to look through a microscope to examine how humans produce sounds, what we would see wouldn’t be that different: the passage of air down the windpipe causes our vocal cords to vibrate.” He posits a theory: “The trees might be screaming out a dire warning to their colleagues that water levels are running low.” The purpose of this verbal sleight of hand is to humanize trees, and thereby impel the reader to extend greater care to them. To this end, Wohlleben often overreaches; in one of the book’s more nonsensical moments, he explains that some trees can detect animal saliva and therefore concludes that trees must “have a sense of taste,” which is roughly equivalent to saying that, because a cat can hear a bat squeaking, the cat is also capable of echolocation.

Wohlleben is aware of the scientific pitfalls of his method, but he excuses it as a well-intended effort to widen the reader’s imagination in ways that most scientists are institutionally and constitutionally incapable of doing. His critics, meanwhile, see it as a kind of intellectual hucksterism. “With that approach, you could say anything!” Jürgen Bauhus, a professor of silviculture at the University of Freiburg, said, when I described Wohlleben’s just-asking-questions defense. Take, for example, the zombified beech stump that Wohlleben had shown me. Bauhus put forward a leaner theory: the other trees are not sustaining that stump to glean its memories; they are keeping it alive to draw water through its vast root system, an act of pure, unthinking opportunism.

Bauhus calls “The Hidden Life of Trees” a “very nice storybook. But that’s it.” Other scientists speak of it in harsher terms. Barbara Hawkins, a professor who specializes in tree physiology, told me it was “fanciful.” Suzanne Simard, a professor of forest ecology who is famous for her research into tree sociality, and who recently published a memoir titled “Finding the Mother Tree,” told me, “Some of the anthropomorphizing was just over the top. Even I was, like, ‘Ugh, I can’t read this.’ ” Graeme P. Berlyn, a professor of forest management, wrote to me, “There are a lot of amazing things about trees and their interactions with their environment, but I see little of value in Wohlleben’s fantasies.” One German scientist was bothered enough to circulate a petition decrying Wohlleben’s “fairy tales,” which garnered more than forty-five hundred signatures; the trained biologist Torben Halbe even published a book-length critique titled “The Real Life of Trees.” These critics appear to be a vocal sliver of a mostly silent scientific majority—in the introduction to Halbe’s book, Nikolaus Amrhein, a professor of plant physiology, writes, “Most of my colleagues, if they have read the book at all, consider Wohlleben’s theses so obviously unscientific and untenable that they do not find it necessary to express themselves critically in public.”

Wohlleben’s detractors have three main objections to his work. First, he humanizes trees, a cardinal sin in popular science writing dating back at least to the “nature fakers” debate of the early nineteen-hundreds. Second, they charge that Wohlleben cherry-picks and exaggerates many of the scientific findings that underpin his book. And, lastly, they argue that he portrays forests as cartoonishly coöperative. Like Simard, Wohlleben is dedicated to counteracting the reductive understanding of Darwinism as a merciless, perpetual war of all against all. But, in doing so, he swaps a Hobbesian dystopia for a Merkelian utopia: a diverse society of almost-pacifists who work hard, talk softly, and share their wealth.

Arboreality is often much uglier than Wohlleben lets on. Black walnuts poison other plants with a natural herbicide called juglone; some eucalyptus trees continually shed their oily bark, fuelling fires that immolate their competitors; various species of fig tree plant themselves high in the branches of other trees, then slowly creep downward, either strangling the host tree or splitting it apart. Trees of all species shade the ground, depriving seedlings—including their own offspring—of light, allowing only the fittest to survive. “If humans were like trees, we would go into a hospital and eliminate ninety-nine per cent of the babies, and keep only the best ones,” Christian Messier, a professor of applied forest ecology, told me.

The shadier side of trees can occasionally be glimpsed in Wohlleben’s work, albeit in a tone of regretful admission. “Now, the beech is an amazingly socially oriented tree,” he writes, “but only when it comes to its own kind. Beeches harass other species, such as oaks, to such an extent that they weaken.” “Immigrants,” “foreigners,” and “interlopers,” to use Wohlleben’s words for nonnative species, struggle against “purebred European” species. “Genetic misfits” are “discarded.” If trees are held to be exemplars of human behavior—rather than opaque others, or projections of our own preoccupations—dark echoes abound.

Wohlleben’s newest book is “The Heartbeat of Trees,” a collection of essays loosely clustered around an arboreal theme. In it, he seems less interested in responding to his critics than in answering the questions of his readers. One chapter addresses the topic of hugging trees (they can’t feel it, but Wohlleben encourages the reader to do it anyway); another asks whether people can perceive the energy of trees (a common claim among the auras-and-crystals crowd). Wohlleben, who is vocally opposed to “esoteric” thinking, interprets the latter question literally. He concludes that if you were to climb to the top of a tree, where the voltage of electrostatic energy is higher, you might be able to detect a slight charge in the tips of your hair. The chapter, like much of the book, feels like a long climb for a bit of static.

The issue of climate change, the gravest long-term threat to both trees and humans, was largely absent from “The Hidden Life of Trees,” but, in the new book, Wohlleben confronts it directly. He is trenchant in his critique of tree plantations and wood-pellet-power plants, which claim to help the climate but, he argues, end up destabilizing it further. He is less percipient when it comes to solutions. “My own personal goal is that, in the future, we will protect the climate by using less while simultaneously allowing as many forests around the world as possible to revert to their natural state,” he writes. Putting aside the fact that oceans, wetlands, and grasslands together likely play a larger role than forests do in sequestering atmospheric carbon, this goal rests on a dubious assumption that big old trees, in their current locations, will withstand a cascade of ever-worsening planetary disasters. Ancient trees, from the cedars of Lebanon to the baobabs of Madagascar to the giant sequoias of California, are currently dying off in alarming numbers around the world. They are victims of, among other things (including drought, fire, insects), simple mechanics: the bigger a tree is, the more water it needs; the hotter the weather gets, the harder it sucks water from the soil; and, the harder it sucks, the greater the risk of an air bubble rupturing its vascular tissues. Meanwhile, forests—and every other biome on earth—continue to fall victim to simple market forces. It is notable that the word “capitalism” appears zero times in “The Heartbeat of Trees.” Ditto for its best-selling predecessor. For as much time as Wohlleben spends discussing roots, the deeper sources of our global crisis, and the radical changes needed to address it, go unexplored.

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Cynthia Ozick on Never-Never Lands

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Your story “The Coast of New Zealand” revolves around a group of friends from library school who make a pact to meet for a meal once a year, and not to communicate between meetings. Did you know from the start what the outcome of the pact would be?

Photograph by Ulf Andersen / Getty

“The Fanatic” was my original title, and it was this notion that ultimately compelled what was to come, both what I knew beforehand and what turned up, all on its own, to surprise. I have always been drawn to the idea of the fanatic, the zealot, the proselytizer, the Johnny One-Note, the deceiver, the false explainer—the enemy of the ordinary. Sometimes his name is Bartleby. Sometimes his name is Gilbert Osmond. Sometimes his name is Aylmer, practitioner of the relentless science of perfection. But here his name is simply George.

The four characters are, to some degree, anachronistic, drawn together initially by their old-fashioned names—Evangeline, Olive, Ruby, and George—and their old-fashioned choice of profession. Is that aura of fustiness essential to the story?

Fusty, yes, but not in the way of moldy or decaying; rather, in the wafting purity of a forgotten innocence. Even Olive’s attempt to replace her name with the more up-to-date Susan only reinforces her almost maidenly self-consciousness. And the pre-digital library, with its fans and date stamps and ancient wooden cabinets, declares long-ago simplicities. George alone, despite his commonplace name, is looking for fiery dragons to slay.

Yet if their agreement—“the Pact”—is the opposite of fusty, what is it really? “To live in the whirlpool of the extraordinary. To aspire to the ultimate stage of fanaticism.” What did you (or George) mean by that?

Walter Pater’s famous credo is also George’s: “To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.” But the story questions whether George has, in truth, lived up to this passion. And whether the rest of us ought to—and, if not, then what is “success in life”?

George’s rules for the Pact make a real impression on Evangeline—to the point that she almost rejects a loving relationship that she doesn’t think is in keeping with those rules. Why do you think she is so affected by George’s prescriptions while the other women aren’t?

Evangeline’s partners in the Pact are entertained by George’s outrageous pronouncements, but they do, as we soon learn, have their feet on the ground, and look to the future—suitable jobs, marriage, children—as a pragmatic progression appropriate to any normal life. But Evangeline is mesmerized by the exceptional, a vision of transcendence; she has an avarice for the peaks of experience that George inspires. The others are too quickly satisfied by the everyday.

Why did you dispatch George to New Zealand? Simply to get him as far away as possible?

Evangeline’s trust in George’s extraordinary spirit is at first absolute. Like him, she sees New Zealand as the acme of what he calls his “solitary will.” (As for me, I never for even a minute believed that George went to New Zealand.) So immersed is she in George’s tenets that she takes the preposterous for the truly original, while we can see (or maybe not?) that New Zealand is no more than a never-never land.

But only look at his history as he tells it: his parents a double suicide, à la Stefan Zweig and his wife; his great-uncle and his great-aunt vaudevillians, their closets stuffed with costumes (is his showy jacket one of these?); his having his supper in the wings while the show goes on; his sojourn at the Waldorf; his claim that New Zealand is the founder of the digital age; and so on and so on. All this excites Evangeline’s imagination. The proof of her devotion is her revelation of what might account for his not showing up: “He meant to shock her, he meant to undo her expectation. . . . The shock of his disappearance was not a negation of the Pact; it was its electrifying fulfillment.”

Why do you think he does break the Pact in the end? Does he lose interest? Is he ashamed of not having lived up to it? Or is it impossible to know?

My guess is that he is as mercurial as his inventions and gets tired of his one remaining acolyte, and moves on to find fresh ones. There may be other reasons: whatever they are, they are sure to be implausible. (Ultimate implausibility characterizes fanaticism.)

The story has an ornithological theme: Nate Vogel, a devoted bird-watcher, has a name that means “bird”; George has orange elbow patches the color of a parrot; he and Evangeline meet on a park bench covered in owl droppings. How did birds become a motif for this story?

Birds, yes, but also other creatures of pedantic interest, including seals and sea lions, and evolutionary wonders such as dinosaurs becoming birds, and hippos deriving from dolphins. All this, as it happens, comes under the rubric of George’s dicta “that eventuality is always inevitability, that the implausible is the true authenticity.” These apply also to Evangeline’s marriage to Nate Vogel: Why else would a fantasist end up with a dry fact-collector?

Are these characters going to be part of something longer, or do they exist only within the confines of “The Coast of New Zealand”?

Well, Nate Vogel would be acutely uncomfortable anywhere else; he’s content in his prosaic Stamford, Connecticut—his own never-never land of quotidian desire. But Evangeline? She might turn up wherever folly lies.

Earlier this year you published your seventh novel, “Antiquities.” Are you working on another one? Or will you be sticking to shorter forms for the moment?

A story of six thousand words seems exactly the right thing just now. A story of fewer words—one or two thousand, say—yields a momentary epiphany, while a novel rides on wave after wave of a sea. But a long story, neither the one nor the other, can capture the span, and thereby the meaning, of a life.

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“Kevin Can F**K Himself” and “Feel Good” Rethink Relationship Comedy

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On paper, “Kevin Can F**K Himself,” a new meta-series on AMC, is a tempting stylistic cocktail—one part Jekyll, one part Hyde, garnished with a zesty feminist twist. Onscreen, it’s a bizarro centaur with a horse’s head and a man’s hairy ass: the concept is there, but the assembly is all wrong. Annie Murphy plays Allison McRoberts, a standard-issue sitcom wife living a multi-cam sitcom life in Worcester, Massachusetts, with her dopey slob of a husband, Kevin (Eric Petersen). For ten years of marriage, Allison has tolerated Kevin’s antics, which tend to involve guzzling booze, worshipping the Patriots, and evading all adult responsibility, but she’s finally had enough of the long-suffering shtick. She begins to dream of escape—stabbing Kevin in the jugular with a broken beer mug is one happy fantasy—and, as her thoughts turn dark, so, literally, does the show. The corny music drops out, and the bright studio lights dim to a bruised, greenish tinge, as if the camera had been dropped into olive brine. In sunny sitcom land, a laugh track yuks along to plots that revolve around, say, Kevin’s scheme to prank his killjoy boss at his and Allison’s “anniversa-rager.” In the gloomy grit of drama-ville, we watch as Allison Googles “perfect murder” at the public library and tries to finagle an opioid prescription in the hope that she can induce her husband to shuffle off his mortal coil by accidental overdose.

A dark pastiche of network sitcoms that avenges years of sexist sludge pumped into the American psyche by shows such as “Kevin Can Wait” (the callout is so direct that I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the show’s creator, Valerie Armstrong, had been challenged to a duel): what’s not to like? The pastiche itself, for one thing. Playing with two genres, you potentially double the reward, but you also risk winding up with a sitcom drained of comedy and a drama stripped of power, not to mention sense. Far be it from me to suggest that Kevin, a lukewarm can of Bud Light in human form, deserves to live, but why opt for murder when divorce entails considerably less jail time? Allison offers up a jumbled grab bag of justifications for her desperate behavior. The truth is that she’s a pawn, not a character, freed from one set of absurd genre constraints only to become shackled to another.

A sitcom’s breezy rhythm is exacting—one missed beat and the whole thing goes splat. Here, the thud is the point. The show’s first episode opens in the McRobertses’ living room, where Kevin is playing beer pong with his doofus neighbor, Neil (Alex Bonifer), as Kevin’s dad (Brian Howe) and Neil’s bullying sister, Patty (Mary Hollis Inboden, doing a Rosie O’Donnell thing), look on from the couch. When Allison enters, carrying a basket of laundry, she disrupts the fratty equilibrium; “Mom,” as Neil calls her, can’t hang. “Neil, what is our one house rule?” she asks, hoping he’ll apologize for the neg. “Yankees suck!” the group shouts in unison. The laugh track roars; Allison is crushed, and the air is briefly sucked from the scene. A sitcom wife wields her humor as both dagger and shield, doing domestic battle with a wink and a smile. But Allison is turned into another stereotype, the tedious, finger-wagging shrew. “Women is losers,” Janis Joplin sang. Honey, don’t I believe it.

Maybe I’m not the right audience for this show, but who is? “Kevin Can F**K Himself” dissects a product that its target viewers likely already hold in contempt. The baseline of condescension is elevated, in the course of the four forty-five-minute episodes that I watched, by the show’s insistence that these working-class people—Kevin is a cable guy, Allison an employee at a liquor store—are not merely obnoxious and stupid but also bad. Kevin wages a war on the couple’s neighbors, “foreigners” whose favorite football team is Manchester United. Patty brags about getting a mailwoman deported. Presumably, we are meant to recoil in horror, not to pause and wonder at the likelihood of an undocumented person being employed by a federal agency in the first place.

Murphy had a big success playing Alexis Rose, the ditzy sister with a heart of gold on “Schitt’s Creek,” a sitcom as sweet as “Kevin Can F**K Himself” is sour. She was nominated for a slew of Canadian Screen Awards, and won an Emmy in 2020. Still, comic actors often worry about proving their prestige, and it’s understandable that Murphy, who can crack up a room with a raised eyebrow, wanted to test herself with steelier stuff. But serious doesn’t have to mean no fun. Saddled with a bad wig of a Boston accent, her shoulders hunched in a posture of perpetual defeat, Murphy seems lost. This is supposed to be Allison’s show. Why does it feel like the joke is on her?

If you want to laugh without the assistance of a track, I suggest you hop on over to Netflix, where the second season of the underappreciated gem “Feel Good” has just been released. The series, which now totals twelve perfectly paced, gloriously funny half-hour episodes, was co-created and written by the Canadian comedian Mae Martin, who based the story on her own life and plays a version of herself.

Mae, an expat in London, is jittery, wiry, and waxy pale, with the sharp features and big eyes of an anime character and a boyish swoosh of cropped blond hair that makes her look like Peter Pan crossed with a baby chick. She’s thirty but, bundled in her oversized hoodie, could pass for a preteen. A macho Dane Cook type she meets at the comedy club where she does standup pegs her as “some sort of androgynous Muppet,” though she prefers “anemic scarecrow.” Strangers call her “sir,” and her girlfriend, George (Charlotte Ritchie), has Mae saved in her phone as “Corn.” (It’s the hair.) “I don’t really identify as a woman these days,” Mae jokes. How does she identify? “More like an Adam Driver or a Ryan Gosling. I’m still, like, working it out.” That deadpan waggishness is typical of the show’s low-key, anti-doctrinaire approach to the big questions of selfhood. “Feel Good” sends up a familiar brand of generational self-righteousness, but gently, with love.

In the first season, Mae and George meet at one of Mae’s sets. An ecstatic sequence has the couple kissing, screwing, and moving in together at the speed of a stop-motion flower unfurling from bud to bloom. The sex is hot, and often hilarious, but the intensity of the attraction papers over the pair’s compatibility issues. George has never dated a woman before, and her reluctance to come out to her snobby friend group eats at Mae’s confidence. Meanwhile, George learns that Mae is a recovering drug addict; when she was a teen, her parents (Adrian Lukis and a wonderfully imperious Lisa Kudrow) kicked her out of the house, and she wound up on the street, then in jail. Mae grudgingly agrees to join a support group, but, by the end of the season, she has relapsed, and the couple splits up.

The current season opens with Mae back at the rehab, outside Toronto, where she spent time in her youth. She has regressed, in more ways than one. Mae is suspicious of the contemporary tendency to classify feelings with a diagnosis. “I forgot that I’m a Vietnam War vet,” she tells a doctor who suggests that she might have P.T.S.D. But she can’t explain why she sometimes needs to lie under the bed rather than on top of it, or why a ten-year period of her life has been wiped from her memory. The show, closing in on Mae’s past, demands that she reckon not only with the harm that has been done to her but with the more confusing question of her own complicity; two confrontations with sketchy dudes, with very different outcomes, are marbled with ambiguity. (Self-styled good guys are in for a tweaking, too. “Here’s a chapter on the link between the male orgasm and war crimes,” George is told by a male lover, who hands her a book called “Feminist Sexuality” after she confesses to a filthy fantasy involving priests and nuns.) Beneath the surface charms of this clever, entertaining series, Martin wants to show us how difficult it is to be a moral person, and how beautiful it is to try. ♦

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The Rise of Black Homeschooling

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Advocates of school choice say that it gives low-income parents access to institutions that can better serve their children. Critics say that it lures highly motivated Black families away from traditional public schools and further hobbles underfunded districts. Presidents Clinton and Obama supported charters, but Democrats have largely cooled on them, and progressives such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have proposed curbing their growth. Michigan’s charters, most of which operate as for-profit companies, have consistently performed worse than the state’s traditional public schools. Yet parents continue to choose charters, which receive a large chunk of the more than eight thousand dollars per student that the state would otherwise send to non-charters, but aren’t subject to the same degree of public oversight. About half of Detroit’s students are now enrolled in charters, one of the highest proportions of any U.S. city.

The Walton foundation set up the National Parents Union in January, 2020, with Rodrigues as the founding president. Rodrigues’s oldest son, who has autism and A.D.H.D., was suspended thirty-six times in kindergarten alone; sometimes he was sent to a sensory-deprivation room that Rodrigues thought resembled a cinder-block cell. Eventually, a school representative suggested a charter school. “I didn’t know what a charter school was,” Rodrigues said. “I didn’t know I had any options. I just thought I had to send him to the closest school. I didn’t know there were fights like this in education. All I knew was ‘Oh, my god, are you kidding me—why are you doing this to my kid?’ ”

The National Parents Union was less than three months old when the pandemic closed schools. As well-off families set up private learning pods, Vela Education Fund gave Rodrigues seven hundred thousand dollars to help people with fewer resources, like Bernita, create their own. “There was an article in the New York Times about fancy white people in upstate New York creating these ‘pandemic pods,’ ” Rodrigues said. “But that’s how poor Black and brown folks survive in America—we resource-share. We don’t call them ‘pandemic pods,’ because that’s a bougie new term. For us, we called it ‘going to Abuelita’s house,’ because she watched all the cousins in the family after school, and that’s where you learned a host of skills outside of the normal school setting.”

Last summer, the nonprofit news organization Chalkbeat, which receives Walton funding, co-sponsored a virtual town hall on reopening Michigan’s public schools. Detroit’s superintendent, Nikolai P. Vitti, said that expanding to “non-traditional” options, such as learning pods, would hurt many of the city’s children. He warned that homeschooling, like charter schools, would undermine public education and cost teachers their jobs. Legislators were already drafting bills, he said, to take money away from schools so that children could continue learning in pods after campuses reopened.

“I don’t judge any parent for using the socioeconomic means that they have to create what they believe is the best educational opportunity for their child,” Vitti said. “We all do that, in our way, as parents. But that is the purpose of traditional public education, to try to be the equalizer, to try to create that equal opportunity.”

Bernita had logged on to the discussion from her kitchen. “Parents are not deciding to take their children out because of COVID,” she told Vitti. “Parents are doing pods because education has failed children in this city forever.”

I asked Kija if it bothered her to accept money from the conservative-libertarian Koch family, who have spent vast sums of their fortune advocating for lower taxes, deep cuts to social services, and looser environmental regulations. “I guess the bigger question is, why don’t we have enough resources so that we don’t have to get money from them? It bothers me, yes—but why do they have so much money that they get to fund all of our shit?” she asked. “I shouldn’t have to get resources from the Kochs.”

Kija and Bernita describe themselves as Democrats. Bernita said that, in another era, she “would be a Black Panther with white friends.” She said that she was “at peace” with her decision to take money from the Koch family, because they fund several of the charter schools that Victoria attended, through their Michigan-based building-supply company Guardian Industries. She is not a “poster child” for her conservative backers, she added—the Koch family has no control over what or how she teaches. In a video about Engaged Detroit produced by Vela Education Fund, Bernita states, “If school won’t reinvent education, we have to reinvent it ourselves, and our goal at Engaged Detroit is to make sure families have the tools so that choice is in their hands.”

Vela Education Fund offered Bernita one year of funding, and in April she accepted another twenty-five-thousand-dollar grant, from Guardian Industries, to sustain her group through the next school year. Rodrigues imagines a scenario in which the per-pupil funding that public-school districts normally receive goes straight to a homeschooling parent. “Instead,” she said, “you have systems that are addicted to that money.”

Celine Coggins, the executive director of Grantmakers for Education, a collective of more than three hundred philanthropic organizations, including the Walton Family Foundation, says it’s not clear yet whether funders will continue to invest in homeschooling after the pandemic. Most are in “listening mode,” she said. Andre Perry, an education-policy expert at the centrist Brookings Institution, suspects that conservative-libertarian philanthropists will not prop up homeschooling as they have charters and vouchers, “but they will use this wedge issue to hurt public schools,” he said.

Perry was once the C.E.O. of the Capital One New Beginnings Charter School Network, which launched in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, but he grew skeptical of the school-choice movement. Its funders tend to put their wealth toward alternatives to the public-school system, Perry told me, rather than lobbying state governments to implement more equitable funding models for public schools or to address the over-representation of Black children in special education. “Because of the pandemic, you’ve had organizations saying, Hey, this is an opportunity to again go after public schools,” Perry said. The Vela-funded homeschooling collectives don’t address root causes of educational disparities, he continued: “When people only focus on the escape hatch, it reveals they’re not interested in improving public education.”

Perry went on, “Slapping ‘Parents Union’ on something while you’re constantly trying to underfund public education—that’s not the kind of trade-off that suggests you’re interested in empowering Black people. It’s more of a sign that you’re trying to advance a conservative agenda against public systems.”

Six months into the pandemic, a consensus had emerged that many children, in all kinds of learning environments, were depressed, disengaged, and lonely in the Zoom simulacrum of school. “It’s Time to Admit It: Remote Education Is a Failure,” a headline stated in the Washington Post. “Remote Learning Is a Bad Joke,” The Atlantic declared. For some homeschoolers who rely heavily on online curricula, an all-screens, alone-in-a-room version of school can have a flattening effect even outside of a global health crisis. Kafele Gray, Kija’s son, who is now twenty-one and studying music business at Durham College, in Ontario, liked online homeschooling because it freed him from bullying. After two years, though, he was failing his classes and procrastinating, with assignments piling up. “It got kind of stressful,” he said. “You have to teach yourself and be on yourself.” He especially struggled with math. “When I’m in school, I’m better at math, because I have the teacher there to explain it to me—I’m seeing it broken down. When I was online, I would get it wrong, but I wouldn’t know why.” Still, when Kafele returned to his charter school, in eleventh grade, he’d learned to push himself to figure things out on his own. “School was less challenging” than it had been two years earlier, he told me. “I started getting A’s and B’s again.”

When the fall semester started, Bernita and Victoria tried to replicate the course load Victoria would have undertaken in a normal year. Bernita searched for online chemistry and trigonometry classes, and Victoria decided to take dance at the charter high school she’d attended before the pandemic. Bernita wanted the Engaged Detroit families to learn about Black history, so she signed them up for a six-week virtual course with the Detroit historian Jamal Jordan. Victoria bought pink notebooks and pens and a chalkboard for writing out the weekly schedule, and Bernita set up a desk for her daughter in the den. Though Bernita spent many hours on Zoom for her consulting work, the family ate lunch together most days.

As the semester continued, Victoria faded. She stayed up until seven in the morning and slept until two every afternoon, and she stopped doing chemistry. In October, Bernita told her that she couldn’t go on a planned post-pandemic trip to Los Angeles. Later that week, during her weekly coaching session with Kija, Bernita bragged about disciplining Victoria. Kija asked her to reconsider: teen-agers like sleeping in, and homeschooling allows kids to follow their natural rhythms. Besides, Kija said, Black kids are disciplined more than enough. Rather than punish Victoria, Kija suggested, Bernita should ask her daughter what she wanted to study.

The advice worked: Victoria replaced chemistry with a forensic-science class that met the state science requirements for graduation. She pored over lessons about evidence and crime scenes for hours at a time. By spring, she was waking up early to study for the core classes she needed to pass. One cold, sunny Wednesday, wearing a sweatshirt that read “Look Momma I’m Soaring,” Victoria sat down to puzzle out the trigonometry lessons that had always confused her. She emptied a pail of highlighters onto the table. At her high school, teachers hadn’t let her write in different colors, and she couldn’t make sense of her monochromatic notes. She opened a Khan Academy lesson on side ratios, and as the instructor explained the formulas for finding cosine and tangent Victoria drew triangles, highlighting each side with a different color.

The lesson included a nine-minute video and several practice questions. Every time Victoria attempted to find the cosine of the specified angle, she got the wrong answer. In a regular class, she would have pretended to understand. At home, she paused the video, rewound it, and flipped back through her notes. Eventually, she realized that she didn’t know which side was the hypotenuse. She Googled the word.

“The longest side of a right triangle,” she read. “Oh.”

She tried the formula for sine—opposite over hypotenuse—and this time a green check mark of victory flashed on her screen. Victoria solved for the angle’s tangent, and when she got it right she smiled. “O.K., I’m smart,” she said.

The parents of Engaged Detroit meet on Zoom every other Monday night. One evening in mid-March, Bernita set her laptop on the kitchen table next to a plate of broccoli and mashed potatoes. A dozen squares popped up on her screen, showing kitchens and living rooms from across the city. The parents updated one another on their children’s progress. Two preteens had started a jewelry-making business. An elementary-age boy with a stutter was relieved to be learning at home with his mom. Victoria watched for a minute, then went upstairs to feed her guinea pig, Giselle.

“You’ve been in child’s pose for almost three weeks. Just checking that everything’s O.K. . . .”
Cartoon by Becky Barnicoat

A mother, Jeanetta Riley, recounted how, at the beginning of lockdown, she had discovered that her daughter, Skye, a freshman in high school, was performing two grades behind in math. After she joined Bernita’s group, she found a tutor, and now, using Khan Academy, Skye had caught up to her grade level.

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