National Geographic June 2014

The Dogs of War, by Michael Paterniti, photographs by Adam Ferguson

The Dogs of War is about the Marine Corps use of dogs to find improvised explosive devices (IEDs).  I was less enthusiastic about this article than I might otherwise have been because I don’t like war.  I’m one of those people who thinks that the best way to support the troops is to bring them home.  And that goes for the dogs, as well.

Paterniti takes us to Afghanistan, where we meet Jose Armenta and his dog, Zenit.  Zenit is a German shepherd.  And when I say “his” dog, neither Paterniti nor I am using this word in a way that you would expect.  I have read articles about how most police dogs are socialized to live with humans and trained only to be aggressive on command.  As part of their training, they live with the police officers’ families more or less as a pet would.  I expected that to be the way that military dogs are kept as well.  It was kind of startling to find that while Jose lives in the barracks, Zenit lives in a kennel.

Though I should put that last sentence in the past tense.  We find out what happens, in the end, to Jose and Zenit and it’s a bittersweet ending.

Untouched, by Heather Pringle, photographs by Robert Clark

El Castillo de Huarmey is a tomb built into the side of a large rock formation in northern Peru.  The area around El Castillo had been used as a burial ground and had been violated by tomb robbers many times over the centuries.  As a result, when Polish archaeologists decided to explore El Castillo, which looked more or less like a step pyramid, no one but the archaeologists expected to find anything.

What the archaeologists found was the undisturbed tomb of one of the rulers of the Wari, a people who ruled this area of northern Peru for around 500 years.  One of the chambers contained what looked like a stone throne.  There were mummified guards, as well, all of whom were missing their left feet.  No one now living knows why their feet were removed.

In one chamber, the bodies of sixty women were found.  It appears that three or four of them were royalty and some 54 of the others may have been nobility.  These women were found wearing jewelry and fine clothing, then wrapped in cloth that left a roughly egg-shaped form.  There were also some other unmummified women found in the chamber, and it is possible that they may have been sacrifices.  Other goods, fabrics, vessels, boxes, and so forth, were found in the tomb as well.

And yet, with all of the bodies and materials and the throne, no sign of a king has been found yet.  The archaeologists are still searching, but while looking for other information on the Wari, I found a page at Archaeology Magazine’s website called “A Wari Matriarchy?”  And it occurred to me that why not?  Maybe the archaeologists will never find the “king” because there is no king to find.  Perhaps the highest-ranking woman, with the finest jewelry and clothing, was the ruler.

Puffin Therapy, photographs by Danny Green, text by Tom O’Neill

Before we get to the meat of this article, I find the way this article was credited interesting.  Generally, it’s the title, then after a few pages of photographs, when the text starts, the writer and photographer are credited in that order, and then the text starts.  In Puffin Therapy, the photographer credit is by itself where the writer and photographer credits normally go, and the writer’s credit is stuck at the very end of the text section, following a dash.  I wonder why they did it this way?  My first instinct is to say that perhaps Green was supposed to have written the text, but he had some kind of prior obligation that kept him from being able to do so and so they enlisted O’Neill at the last minute.

The text is largely about the mating behaviors of puffins.  The common image of puffins with their bright orange beaks is their appearance during mating season.  The rest of the year their faces and beaks are darker.  In fact, one photo that I found when searching for what puffins look like the rest of the year looks more or less like the puffins that we’re used to seeing right after a vacuum cleaner bag blew up in its face — all gray and sooty looking.

It wouldn’t be a National Geographic article without a mention of global climate change.  There is some concern that the change in climates may have a deleterious effect on the puffin population.  Puffins in some locations have had almost no offspring in some years.  Puffins are long-lived and can afford to miss a year or two of breeding, but this trend may be increasing and the puffin may end up being threatened as a result.

The title comes from Iain Morrison, who takes visitors to see the puffins.  He says that spending time with puffins makes the visitors happy and refers to it as “puffin therapy.”  And looking at Green’s photographs, I can definitely believe it.

How to Farm a Better Fish, by Joel K. Bourne, Jr., photographs by Brian Skerry

It should come as no surprise that an article called How to Farm a Better Fish would be about fish farming.  This installment of the Future of Food series focuses on the growth of the fish farming industry and how fish farmers and scientists are attempting both new and older methods in the industry.

As a general rule, fish is one of the most efficient forms of protein there is.  Where chicken takes around 1.7 pounds of feed to produce a pound of meat, and the ratios are 2.9 for pigs and 6.8 for cattle, for fish, the ratio is close to one pound of feed per pound of meat.  Additionally, more people are eating fish than ever before.  As a result, there is more growth in the fish farming industry than in most other areas of agriculture.

We look at a number of farms, including the farm of Bill Martin, who  is attempting to develop carbon-neutral onshore fish farming.  We also see several offshore farms, including one eight miles offshore which raises cobia.  The man who developed this farm, Brian O’Hanlon, has put the farm so far offshore so that the currents will take away the waste. And, indeed, researchers have yet to detect any waste outside of the fish pens.  And one researcher, Stephen Cross, is attempting what is called polyculture, where many different edible species live in a sort of symbiotic relationship.  In Cross’s case, he is raising sablefish and then down the current from the fish, he is raising mollusks.  Down the current from the mollusks are kelp, and further down are sea cucumbers.  These three other species filter the water and remove waste from the sablefish.  Cross says that the biological filtration system that he is using could be fitted onto any fish farm and, since all of the species he is using for filtration are edible, the filters themselves can be harvested and sold.

The final farm we see is a kelp farm.  The owners of the farm, Paul Dobbins and Tollef Olson, grow three species of kelp that can grow up to five inches a day.  They then sell the kelp to restaurants, schools and hospitals.  Dobbins and Olson have increased their farm has increased to ten times its original size in the past five years and the kelp is cleaning the water in the area as it grows, a win/win for both the farmers and the environment.

I love seafood.  I was visiting a friend who was a vegetarian and he tried to convince me to go vegetarian.  I admitted that vegetarianism holds some appeal for me, but that I don’t think I could ever give up seafood.  And this article made me feel even better about seafood and its future as a source of food for the planet, than I felt before I read it.

Train for the Forgotten, by Joshua Yaffa, photographs by William Daniels

In 1974, the government of the Soviet Union began an ambitious project to showcase what they believed was Soviet superiority over nature.  They started work on a rail line connecting Lake Baikal to the Amur River in northern Siberia.  Around half a million people worked on the rail ine and on the towns that they had to build to connect it.  The original homes for the workers were wooden barracks in the woods, and as time passed, they erected prefabricated buildings to live in.

Then when the Soviet Union collapsed, so did the construction project.  Since 1991, the people of this region, known as the Baikal-Amur Mainline (“BAM”) have been isolated and left with no regular health care.  In an effort to remedy this situation, the Russian government runs a medical train along the tracks.  The train, named for Russian health-care pioneer Matvei Mudrov, has exam rooms and medical personnel and visits each village on average every six months.  This may be okay for many of the residents, but for those who are sick or injured, it is not nearly often enough.  There are no urgent care facilities and people die of conditions that are treatable in the world outside the BAM.

Yaffa takes us into the world of the BAM, seeing how isolated the people are and how desperate their medical situation can be.  He show us the slowly crumbling buildings and infrastructure (where anything besides a dirt road exists; some of the villages don’t even have running water) of the villages along the BAM.  The story out of Russia is that the Russian government intends to use the BAM to ship containers, but none of that is seen here.  All we see is the slow decay of what started out as an audacious (in both senses of the term) project.

(originally posted July 2015)

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