It’s a Thursday afternoon in mid-winter, and Dr. Mark Littmann is driving a University of Tennessee van packed with 10 of his students down a gravel road in the backwoods near Kingston, Tenn. In his khaki trench coat and glasses, Littmann looks more like a detective than a science journalism professor. Eager, focused, resolute.
Nothing is stopping this van — not the absent back seat, not the guide who’s gone missing-in-action, not the fluorescent “Do Not Enter” signs they pass, and definitely not any of the health risks said to be looming in the air.
No, Littmann, with his students bouncing in the seats behind him, is determined to get his “Writing about Science, Technology, and Medicine” class to the coal ash spill, Tennessee Valley Authority’s fresh and already famous catastrophe at the Kingston Fossil Plant 40 miles west of Knoxville.
“We’re adventurous,” he says before turning right when the van reaches a fork in the road.
When he was planning the field trip, Littmann said: “If I don’t hear from TVA — because they’re just overrun by all kinds of governmental and official visitors demanding to see the site — Chris Martin knows the back roads, and we’re going to get in a van and use his knowledge and navigate in and see what we can see without official guides.”
Martin, who’s active in Knoxville-based environmental group United Mountain Defense, is one of Littmann’s advisees and most respected science journalism students. Both Littmann and Martin realize and take advantage of their location in East Tennessee, in the heart of southern Appalachia. Not only is Knoxville the home of TVA, it’s the commercial center for wide-ranging coal-mining interests, and it is near-neighbor (20 miles) to Oak Ridge National Laboratory, site of nuclear-bomb work. Therefore it’s an important crossroads for environmental-issue study – and activism.
The coal-ash spill, bringing national media attention to TVA, produced rare opportunities for Littmann’s students. But it also caused TVA to limit public access, for safety reasons and for public-relations reasons.
Less than a month before the class trip Martin said of Littmann and the coal-ash spill: “He wants to figure out a way that we can go. TVA won’t let him. And the group I work with, United Mountain Defense, is saying they wouldn’t let anybody in without double-filtration gas masks and everything.”
And so here we are, with Martin sitting in the front seat, holding a map and deciding both impulsively and instinctively which roads Littmann should follow. No one is gripping a double-filtration gas mask to his or her face, but tension is in the air and it never really goes away.
“I think I’m getting a headache,” jokes journalism student Nate Metcalf after a brief reconnoiter before we arrive at our destination. When we do, I tug at the scarf around my neck, nervously pausing at the van door. “You first!” says classmate Shane Morton.
“I can feel a difference,” a student with asthma says seriously.
All the while Martin is delivering a pre-arrival speech. “Residents are experiencing a whole range of respiratory problems. They call it the Kingston Cough.” Then Martin says something about “nuclear waste” and those who have been idly looking out the window turn their heads as he finishes with: “Nobody seems to understand coal is just as toxic and coal is just as deadly.”
So what about the passengers? “A few hours of exposure won’t be that bad,” Martin says. And it’s all in a day’s work for Littmann.
Littmann, who holds the Julia G. and Alfred G. Hill Chair of Excellence in Science, Technology, and Medical Writing at UT and has been director of the Science Communication program at the university since 1991, has taken his three science journalism classes—“Writing about Science, Technology and Medicine,” “Environmental Reporting” and “Science Writing as Literature”— on field trips since he began teaching.
His science writing courses are legendary for their unique complexity. This intricacy derives from the genre’s requirements to use both the left brain and the right brain at the same time, a skill Littmann has mastered.
“I’ve never met somebody who’s so interdisciplinary,” Martin says about Littmann. “He’s into sciences, he’s into letters … He loves old English poetry. In some classes he would recite some old ancient Anglican verse. I like how he can bring all this thought about literary narrative to science reporting, like how you can make this a compelling story instead of just the hard facts,” Martin says.
The hard facts about Littmann: He got his bachelor’s degree in chemistry and literature at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, his master’s degree in modern literature and creative writing at Hollins College, and his Ph.D. in English at Northwestern University. But his experience as director of Hansen Planetarium in Salt Lake City, Utah, where he wrote star shows for 18 years, fueled his passion for science writing.
“I always thought that a lot could be done with the theatricality of planetarium star theaters – it’s dark, there are stars, people ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh.’ They can still be educational and inspiring,” he says.
Science journalism is nothing new, but it’s relatively rare and often involves uncharted territory for its practitioners.
“You see attempts at science writing throughout American history, but it’s sporadic. And sometimes it’s good and sometimes it isn’t,” Littmann says. “People began to realize as America became a scientific and engineering giant, particularly in the early days of 20th century, that they were going to have to do a better job explaining science to the public.”
The Science Communication program at UT, established in 1987, owes its existence primarily to the rich environmental and scientific opportunities in East Tennessee, such as the Appalachian Mountains, TVA, Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
Covering such a broad spectrum of subject matter, Littmann’s courses attract students of all majors and require no prerequisites.
“So many students know that there’s writing, but they don’t think much about writing about something they love, like science,” he says. He considers this and leans forward. “Imagine an engineer in his group who knows how to write? I mean it’s so rare. [Non-journalism] students feel very nervous about their science writing coming in, yet at the same time a lot of the journalism students feel nervous about their knowledge of science. You put the two of them together and all of a sudden magic happens. They help each other.”
The essence of science journalism — taking the complication of science and technology and helping the public understand it — is what Littmann hopes his students capture. Field trips, where they can see, hear and question for themselves, are one of the ways he does it.
“We’ve been to all kinds of places,” he says. “We try different things, a little different each year.” Past field trips include visits to a bird refuge (“To watch the Sandhill Cranes come in on their migration, numbers of them like you didn’t know existed”), Royal Blue Chip Mill (“It doesn’t seem to be so controversial anymore”), a sewage treatment plant (“I mean it’s not exactly what you spend all your life craving to do, but we take it for granted, don’t we?”).
Littmann’s regular trips, taken in what could be called the university’s own backyard, include Oak Ridge National Laboratory, UT Medical Center, the coal-mining operation at Zeb Mountain, and Buffalo Mountain, home to TVA’s 18 wind turbines.
Littmann’s class has gone to Buffalo Mountain four times during the past several years. “The first time we went there were only three [turbines],” Littmann says. “I don’t know how many times now I’ve been on Buffalo Mountain, but it never ceases to thrill me. It is positively awesome. Particularly because we always seem to get up there and the weather is a little odd.” Indeed, the weather seems to be the most memorable experience on Buffalo Mountain.
Martin describes the journey he made with Littmann: “It was rainy, misty, and the wind was moving all these clouds. The wind turbines, they make a sound like whales when they turn back and forth, and they have sensors that tell them which way the wind is blowing,” he says. “So you’ve got all these different windmills that are turning really slowly. I remember coming up in a little UT van, and suddenly we get to the top of the hill and it’s like the wind turbines just swooped up. It was just the most surreal thing because they were making that whale sound and turning back and forth and there was all the mist.”
Other students also remember the experience with reverence.
“I will never forget Buffalo Mountain because of how the clouds began canvassing the landscape, creeping ever so slowly as they attempted to consume the turbines one at a time. It was almost right out of a horror movie,” says Beverly Adams, who took “Science Writing as Literature” with Littmann in fall 2008.
But poetics aside, it’s the science professionals who give the trips a dose of realism, and an important part of each field trip is communicating face-to-face with professionals. At Buffalo Mountain, both TVA’s communication director and wind engineer have taken the class on tours.
“You can tell the wind engineer just had this twinkle in his eye and was so in love with the concept of how this could be the future,” Martin says. And this is Littmann’s goal for his students: to recognize a specialist’s passion, be inspired by it, and react in a spirit of understanding.
“We want to go there and see for ourselves. We don’t want to sit in our offices and make telephone calls and write e-mails,” Littmann says. “Because if we go to see for ourselves we know more questions to ask. And that’s the heart of, it seems to me, any kind of reporting, and certainly environmental reporting and science reporting: that we see for ourselves and ask the people involved about it.”
But all of Littmann’s field trips are not to inspiring sites such as Buffalo Mountain. Take the Zeb Mountain coal mine, for example. Littmann has taken his Environmental Reporting class there for four years running.
“I think our most notable field trip – I mean I love the other field trips, but in terms of controversy and in terms of seeing things other people don’t get a chance to see – that’s most probably the case at Zeb Mountain coal mine,” says Littmann.
Operated by the National Coal Corporation, Zeb Mountain in Campbell County is the largest surface coal and mountaintop-removal mining site in Tennessee. It’s the source of a heated, publicized dispute between citizens and environmentalists of Appalachia and the coal-mining industry. Actress Ashley Judd has raised awareness about mountaintop removal and proposed the issue to Oprah Winfrey and Anderson Cooper. Woody Harrelson, in the October issue of Playboy magazine, called it an “atrocity” and says he ‘s working on a movie about it with Bobby Kennedy, Jr.
“They take the mountaintop and move it,” Littmann explains. “Then when they’re done mining the coal, they pick it up and put it back. And the weird thing about it is, because it’s not very firmly packed before they mine, when they put it back the mountain is actually taller than it is before.” Littmann raises an eyebrow and leans forward. “Isn’t that weird?” he says. “And the mountain is in the same contours, every little boulder exactly where it was before.”
Littmann remembers a time the environmental director for Zeb Mountain took them to the top of the peak to observe the mining going on all around. “We stand up there, surrounded by 100-ton dump trucks whose wheels are taller than this ceiling, giant shovels and bulldozers, and here’s this denuded land and mountain top that’s flattened and so forth. And he says, ‘Look around. Isn’t it ugly?’”
He pauses, adding an air of significance to his words. “And it is. And his point is that they’re responsible for, by law, and by Tennessee law, being very careful about things. And so they do rebuild the mountain.”
Throughout the years, Littmann and his class have observed the changes happening at Zeb Mountain. “Before, they just, if they were going to do any restoration, threw some grass seeds out and that was it. But now [they’ve] got little plantations with trees growing, [they’re] testing to see what trees grow best, using native trees, native grasses and so forth. So it’s all being documented very scientifically.”
Suddenly Littmann realizes he’s talking about something that’s contentious. “Well, I mean, am I trying to make a case for mountaintop mining? No, I’m not trying to do that,” he says. “Now what’s interesting is that there are a lot of protesters, and they are confined to standing outside and going and screaming, and sometimes chaining themselves to equipment and blocking the gate and that sort of thing, which is their prerogative …,” he says. “But what’s really neat for my students is that we can go up the mountain with experts, we can talk to the miners, we can see the blasting going on, we see for ourselves, we take pictures, we ask questions.”
One of those protesters is Martin, who’s taken all of Littmann’s courses. A week before the field trip, Martin talks about his experiences protesting and going on the field trip to Zeb Mountain at a coffee shop near the UT campus. It’s Monday and nearly 11 a.m. but Martin’s slow moving, his eyes still heavy. He frequently rubs his goateed chin, as if lost in deep thought.
“Dr. Littmann knew that the previous summer I was arrested at a protest there, so he was kind of reeling it in that we get much better access if you go as a journalist instead of an activist.” Now Martin’s been there as both, but only as a journalist did he get to meet the site manager (“I think he may have recognized me but he didn’t say anything”).
He remembers the ground shaking.
“They were blasting when we were up there. It feels like an earthquake, really weird.” He sips his coffee. “Because they plunge however many tons of nitroglycerin down like I don’t know, 20 feet, 20 yards under the Earth and then just detonate it.” Martin makes an exploding sound to demonstrate. “It’s the weirdest feeling.”
An athletic-looking young man stops at the table. “Did I overhear that you’re doing a story on mountaintop removal?” He introduces himself as Sam, and he and Martin engage in small talk about an upcoming bike ride to lobby for the Tennessee Scenic Vistas Protection Act, a bill to end mountaintop removal coal mining in Tennessee. They shake hands, and Sam leaves. Martin is rubbing his chin again, staring off. “It’s a huge thing.”
But now, at the Kingston Plant coal ash spill, Littmann and his class are on perhaps the most controversial, exciting, privileged trip yet. The van whizzes by signs that read “Free Water Testing” and “Affordable Health Insurance.”
“Now look to your right here, folks,” Littmann says. “You can see some of the equipment. You can see the big pile of coal right over there.”
Soon, the van approaches a road blocked by a truck. The driver, in a lime green vest and yellow hard hat, gets out and strolls up to the van. Littmann rolls down his window. “Hi. We’re from the University of Tennessee. We’re a group of science writers. We’d like to just look and come right back out.”
The man shakes his head. “Can’t let you go.”
“Ah, too bad. Is there a good viewing point nearby?” Littmann asks. Saying nothing, the man points to a hilltop, and before long we are there.
Atop the hill sits a quaint Methodist chapel, empty and silent. In front of it is a graveyard – where the class stands, looking out at numerous yellow machines swiveling about a massive clump of gray, less than 100 feet away. There’s something eerie about viewing the ash devastation from a graveyard and everyone seems to notice. It’s silent, except for a brisk wind.
As the group stands overlooking the spill, something Littmann said a month before the trip seems prescient:
“A scientist will tell you he never knows the absolute truth, he’s just reaching towards it, finding little pieces of it that seem to be the truth. And probably journalism is that way too. You’ve heard the expression, that journalism is a first rough draft of history. So we reach for a little part of the truth and try to get it right.”
Photographs for this story were taken by Katie Hogin
Cutline info: Dr. Mark Littmann and students at the site of the coal ash spill near Kingston, Tennessee