National Geographic August 2014

Before Stonehenge, by Roff Smith, photographs by Jim Richardson

Before Stonehenge is the cover story, and, like other cover stories, the blurb on the cover doesn’t even begin to, well, cover it. The blurb says, “The First Stonehenge: Britain’s Master Builders” and, well, this article does discuss the Stones of Stenness, which is likely to be the oldest stone circle in Britain. But the article is so much more than just that one monument.

In Before Stonehenge, we see Skara Brae, for example.  Skara Brae is an entire neolithic village on a headland known as the Ness of Brae.  The homes had furniture and built-in storage units that would likely have been a lovely selling point if there were any such thing as a stone-age real estate market.

When you look at Orkney, an archipelago to the north of Scotland, on a map, it seems like it should be cold and inhospitable.  It is roughly parallel with the Gulf of Alaska, after all.  And yet, the average low temperature for Orkney for February (the average coldest month) is 35.1 degrees Fahrenheit/1.7 degrees Celsius.  That’s 15 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the average low temperature in February in Chicago.  Credit for this mild climate goes to the Gulf Stream.  Thanks to the Gulf Stream, the islands had a bustling agricultural economy that allowed the residents the freedom to express themselves artistically, as well.  So far, more than 650 works of art have been discovered.

And Orkney was not nearly as remote as its location would have you believe.  It was, in the words of Caroline Wickham-Jones of the University of Aberdeen, “an important maritime hub, a place that was on the way to everywhere.”  And the article contains a map that shows the extent of the settlements of Orkney during the Neolithic.  The current estimates are that there were more than 10,000 people living in the Orkney islands during the Neolithic.

Best of all, only around 10% of the Ness has been excavated, which means that there are certainly more treasures to be discovered on the Ness of Brae and, perhaps, all over the Orkney Islands.

Gombe Family Album, by David Quammen, photographs by Anup Shah and Fiona Rogers

On April 3, 2014, Jane Goodall turned 80 years old.  In recognition of the occasion, David Quammen interviewed  Goodall.

Goodall recalls being told that she had done her work  “wrong” in the minds of the establishment in animal behavior.  When Goodall went to Cambridge to get her Ph.D. in ethology, her professors didn’t want to hear about the personalities of the chimpanzees. They wanted her to be able to find patterns in their behaviors.

From here, the conversation moves on to discussions of the personalities, and personal histories, of some of the chimpanzees she got to know at the Gombe Stream Research Center in Tanzania.

The article is illustrated with a photo of Goodall in the 1960s holding hands with a chimpanzee named Figan.  This photo was  taken by Hugo Van Lawick.  There are also beautiful portraits  of some of the chimpanzees she worked with:  Frodo, Samwise, Gaia, Sparrow, Gremlin, Gizmo, and Nasa.

The New Face of Hunger, by Tracie McMillan, photographs by Kitra Cahana, Stephanie Sinclair, and Amy Toensing

The New Face of Hunger, this issue’s installment of the Future of Food series, is based in the United States.  The article focuses on the millions of Americans, most of whom are working full-time, who are facing food insecurity.  You are likely familiar with the term “food insecurity.”  This is the term which, since 2006, has replaced “hunger” in order to reflect the new reality of hunger in the United States.  In past generations, people either had plenty of food or were pretty consistently short on food.  In the current era, however, many people have plenty of calories but are short on nutrition, which can lead these people to become obese.  Additionally, these people cannot aquire  even the high-calorie low-nutrient-dense foods that they have the time and/or money predictably, which leads them to have this new term, rather than calling them “hungry.”

In The New Face of Hunger, we visit food-insecure families in Iowa, Texas, and New York. We talk about the food insecure and food deserts.  Many people live in what is known as a food desert.  A food desert, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, has to meet two criteria:

  1. They qualify as “low-income communities“, based on having: a) a poverty rate of 20 percent or greater, OR b) a median family income at or below 80 percent of the area median family income; AND
  2. They qualify as “low-access communities“, based on the determination that at least 500 persons and/or at least 33% of the census tract’s population live more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store (10 miles, in the case of non-metropolitan census tracts).

The article also discusses the role of subsidies in hunger.  The top five most highly subsidized crops between 1995 and 2012, were corn, cotton, wheat, soybeans, and rice.  The four of these that are edible are high-energy (which is the fancy way of saying that they have lots of calories) but are not so full of nutrients.  Fruits and vegetables, to the extent that they are subsidized, are subsidized at a much lower rate, which keeps those crops much more expensive (particularly on a per-calorie basis) than crops such as corn and wheat.  On the other hand, however, the subsidies that do exist help to keep the high-calorie foods that are highly subsidized more affordable to low-income people.  Without those subsidies, perhaps rather than food insecure people, we’d have a much higher rate of the truly undernourished poor in the United States.

While noodling around with the Food Access Research Atlas on the USDA website, I found evidence that apparently the USDA does not consider a Walmart Supercenter to be a supermarket, despite the fact that a Supercenter is about 1/3 groceries.  A new Supercenter opened in San Antonio last year and the area right next to it is shown as being a low-income area more than a mile from a supermarket or large grocery store.  Upon further looking at the map, I think that perhaps that’s just a side effect of the size of the census tract, because I just realized that there is an indisputable “supermarket or large grocery store” just about a mile from that Supercenter, also bordering on that same census tract.  Maybe, since the tract is so large, since the people on the far end are more than a mile from a store, all of them are considered to be in a food desert.

Franz Josef Land: The Meaning of North, by David Quammen, photographs by Cory Richards

In Franz Josef Land: The Meaning of North, Quammen and Richards accompany a scientific expedition to Franz Josef Land, an archipelago in the far north of Russia to determine why the ice is melting, how extensive the melting will be, and what the ecological consequences of the melting will be.  Their group of 40 people include experts and students in a variety of disciplines including but not limited to botany, microbiology, ichthyology, and ornithology.

We meet a number of the people on the expedition including Michael Fay, the botanist, who walked across the forests of Central Africa.  We also meet Enric Sala, whom we will see again in the September, 2014 article on the Southern Line Islands.

One of the things that is emphasized is how heavily armed the guards that accompany the expedition are.  I was wondering if the expedition was facing some kind of danger from humans.  I’m not sure who would be a threat that far north, maybe some kind of insurrectionists would be hanging out there, but it turns out that the guns are to protect them from polar bears.  And the author does have one close call.  Fortunately the situation is resoilved without violence,  There is a  lovely closeup photograph of a polar bear (not taken during that close call but with a remote camera).  The caption states that the remote camera was later chewed up by the polar bear.

And, of course, no conclusions can be made yet about the fate of the ice of Franz Josef Land.  All the scientists can do is collect data, watch trends, and see what conclusions they can draw from those down the line.

The Hidden World of the Great War, by Evan Hadingham, photographs by Jeffrey Gusky

The Hidden World of the Great War is about the reality of the trench warfare of World War I.  The soldiers did not just stand in trenches, they also built extensive tunnels and lived in ancient underground quarries.  These tunnels and quarries were dug into chalk and limestone, both of which are soft enough to carve, and some of the soldiers did just that.  There are, of course, the requisite names carved into the walls, but soldiers also left art behind.  There are portraits and symbols, including a praying soldier and a carving of Marianne, the symbol of the French Revolution.

(originally posted May and June 2015)

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