This is going to be kind of a downer of an entry. First, we have an article on how parasites change the behavior of their hosts. Second, we return to Nepal in April 2014, for the single deadliest day on Mount Everest. I should have expected this issue to be kind of a downer after the “still life” featuring a dead pelican on pages 28 and 29.
Mindsuckers, by Carl Zimmer, photographs by Anand Varma, graphic novellas by Matthew Twombly
Mindsuckers is about, as I said above, how parasites change the behavior of their hosts. We see several examples, including a wasp that forces ladybugs to defend the young that are eating it alive; the lifecycle of Toxoplasma gondii, which forces rats to seek out cats to kill and eat them; a parasitic flatworm that causes frogs to develop deformed limbs, the easier to be preyed upon by herons; white butterfly wasps that use cabbage butterfly larvae as their hosts.
The theory for this alteration of behavior is that the genes of the parasites somehow override the genes of the host. And it seems that, to some extent, this theory is correct. Only from my reading, it seems that the parasites carry viruses which change the behaviors of the hosts, rather than the genes of the parasites doing it themselves.
I was mildly disappointed by the “graphic novellas.” Twombly did a fantastic job of illustrating the lifecyles of the parasites. However, they are just illustrations of what we already read in the text, rather than providing us with new information. Additionally, I have been a comic book reader for over 30 years now, and the two-page spreads in question hardly qualify as “novellas.” I would accept “graphic novelette,” maybe, but I think that “graphic short story” would be more appropriate.
Sorrow on the Mountain, by Chip Brown, photographs by Aaron Huey
Sorrow on the Mountain recounts the events that took place in the Khumbu Icefall of Mount Everest on April 18, 2014. April 18, 2014 looked like an ordinary work day for the guides on Mount Everest. The guides were setting up ropes and moving equipment, just as they did for every expedition to climb the mountain. Some of the anchors had come loose, which caused delays. One of the Sherpas, Nima Chhring, had an experience known as a “crying ear,” which is what some Sherpas experience when something dangerous is going to happen. Chhring heeded his ear and headed down the mountain, warning others to leave the Icefall. Many listened, but others felt that a crying ear was no reason to stop and carried on.
Disaster did soon strike. A tremendous section of ice fell off the mountain with a sound that survivors described as like a bell, rather than the rumbling that usually accompanied falling ice. 16 guides, both Sherpas and those of other cultures, were killed by the falling ice. Sorrow on the Mountain humanizes the men who died that day. We learn their names and their stories and the stories of their survivors, wives and children and even parents.
And, for someone truly unfamiliar with mountain climbing (the only mountains I’m familiar with are the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina) there are some very informative graphics, including a photograph of the mountain showing the areas on the mountain that are referenced in the article. This was a huge help to me.
Sherpa Pride and Sacrifice, images courtesy of Sherpa climbers, photographs by Aaron Huey
This is a several page photo essay on the Sherpas. We see photographs of the Sherpas on top of the mountain, many of whom are displaying prayer cards. We see Sherpas at work, as well, setting up ropes, carrying gear, serving food, and getting paid. We also see Sherpas at home — a pair of grieving parents at a festival, setting up prayer flags at the altar of Khumbila, the god of the Khumbu, and we see Sherpa children at boarding school, getting the education they will need to build lives that don’t depend on them leading tourists up the side of Everest.
Lowcountry Legacy, by Franklin Burroughs, photographs by Vincent J. Musi
Burroughs, a native of South Carolina, is writing here about the ACE Basin, named for the Ashepoo, Combahee, and Edisto Rivers which border the area. This is more of a character study of the area than anything else, going into the history of the area and touching briefly on the new prosperity of nearby Kiawah Island.
The ACE Basin was originally the site of rice plantations. Plantation owners would use the tides to flood the land with water from the rivers, and would grow rice there. During the Civil War, the plantation owners fled, leaving their plantations abandoned. Hunters move into the area In recent decades, the land has been reclaimed and is now a wildlife refuge.
As Burroughs travels through the basin, we see the remnants of former human homes and the activities of the current residents, including the hunters who frequent the area and a church near the burial site of a number of slaves, former slaves, and descendants of these former slaves. We also see, through Burroughs’s eyes, the wildlife of the area and the breathtaking sight of a pair of whooping cranes. In 1941, there were only 23 wild whooping cranes in the world, and at the time of the writing of this article, there were over 500 and today that number is approaching 600.
Musi’s photographs are breathtaking. They are also the reason this article exists. Musi discovered the ACE Basin while working on a different article, and he sold the editors at National Geographic on it. They hired Burroughs to write the text. And then the article lay fallow for almost eight years while Musi tried to find the time to finish the photographs. The photos are worth the delay, particularly the three-leaf spread of the ghostly remains of several live oak trees on Edisto Island.
Carnivore’s Dilemma, by Robert Kunzig, photographs by Brian Finke
Carnivore’s Dilemma is part of the National Geographic’s Future of Food series. In this article, Kunzig discusses the love of the residents of the United States for beef and the way that the ranching industry has adapted to the demand. I did not realize until this article that the peak consumption of beef in the United States was within my lifetime. In 1976, Americans ate 91.5 pounds of beef per year. By 2013, that number had dropped to 54 pounds per person. However, the population of the United States has also grown in that time, In 1976, we consumed about 20 billion pounds of beef, and in 2013, we consumed around 17 billion pounds of beef. Adding in how much the increased global demand for beef has increased, this means that production of beef is a big business.
Kunzig in this article, goes to visit a cattle feedlot and takes us with him. His impressions are that for a place doing a fairly distasteful but overall necessary job, they seem to be gentle with the animals and it didn’t seem like a bad end, overall, for an animal that only exists to be turned into food for people.
The article, however, is accompanied by graphs showing how much land, water, and feed are required, and how much in greenhouse gas emissions are created, to raise a thousand calories of beef, pork, dairy, poultry, and eggs. In every case, the amount required for beef is far higher than for the others (the lowest is consistently eggs).
So the impression one gets from the article is that perhaps beef is less than ideal, but since people worldwide are going to eat beef (the article is accompanied by a map and graph showing how global beef consumption has increased over the years since 1961), the animal scientists working on raising the beef efficiently, economically, and humanely are doing better than they had done in the past and are likely to do so more in the future.
Monkeys of Morocco, photographs by Francisco Mingorance, text by Rachel Hartigan Shea
I debated how to caption this one. I was not sure whether to continue to use the writer first or put the photographer first, since this article is largely a pictorial of Barbary macaques in Morocco with six paragraphs of accompanying text and a small map. And the photographs are well worth looking at.
(originally posted March, 2015)