National Geographic April 1889, Part 1

Well, we’re back to the 19th century now.  There were only three issues in 1889, so this should go pretty quickly, provided I get enough hiking alone time to knock out the LibriVox versions of the issues.

Africa, Its Past and Future, by Gardiner G. Hubbard

Africa, Its Past and Future was surprisingly less racist than I was expecting. Now, I was expecting racism of both the “native Africans are lazy and useless” and of the “white people need to save them” types.

We start out strong, with an acknowledgement that Africa was civilized centuries before Europe was, then take a sharp downhill slide with the line “For ages upon ages, Africa has refused to reveal its secrets to civilized man.” Really? Ugh.

Let’s not even begin on Hubbard’s explanation that the Negro can find the “Mohammedan” afterlife more comprehensible than the (apparently superior) Christian afterlife. I can’t even.

Quite a large number of words are wasted in descriptions of where geographical features such as rivers, lakes, and mountains, are in relation to one another.  I spent quite a lot of this time wishing they’d just put a map in the issue.  And there is a map, but only of which areas of Africa are colonies of which European nations.  Nowhere, apparently, is there a just plain, you know, map.

Hubbard also talks about the colonization of Africa by Europeans, about how exploration of Africa (again, by Europeans) progresses, about the slave trade, about mining and mineral wealth, and about the titular future of Africa.

As to the future, as promised in the title, this article ends in a big question mark.  Apparently they can’t deliver what they promised.

Report — Geography of the Land, by Herbert G. Ogden

This was so gripping that I’m not a bit surprised that National Geographic has become a byword for engrossing education on the world around us.

That was a lie.  This was so. Boring.

Parts that were sort of memorable were the “barbarous tendencies” of the Africans, the “semi-civilized races” of Asia, and Ogden’s breathless anticipation of the surveys of New Jersey and Massachusetts.

National Geographic became more of a general interest publication in 1915, if I recall correctly.  That means I only have another 16 years of this to go before it gets interesting.  If I get that far.

Now, back to 2013.

National Geographic September 2015, Part 1

Tracking Ivory by Bryan Christy photographs by Brent Stirton

Generally, for these posts I read the hard copy and then pull up the Internet version of the issue to refresh my memory while I write the article. In this case, I had to refer back to the issue, because the title at the top of the webpage was How Killing Elephants Finances Terror in Africa, and my first response was, “That’s not a National Geographic article. That’s a term paper.” And, yes, the title of the article in the actual hard copy is Tracking Ivory, which is the name given to the entire section of the website where the article can be found.

The National Geographic Society is starting a Special Investigation Unit and Tracking Ivory is the first article on the work of this unit. Christy was an attorney, but he is now a journalist. In Tracking Ivory, he hires a world-class taxidermist to make fake elephant tusks. These fake tusks look and feel exactly like the real thing and also have a hidden compartment where Christy hid a transmitter. Using this, Christy hoped to be able to track the path that the fake tusks will take.

Curbing poaching of elephants is important for two reasons. The most obvious, and most pressing, is that the population of elephants is dropping quickly — about 30,000 elephants are killed every year. The second reason is that the proceeds from the sales of these tusks is being used to finance terrorism. The Lord’s Resistance Army, the terrorist group headed up by Joseph Kony, is one of the primary traffickers in ivory.

Christy brings his fake tusks into Africa (and is detained by police along the way, which gives him hope that the traffickers will fall for his fake tusks) and gets the tusks to the traffickers. Along the way, we hear the stories of some of Kony’s victims.

At the article’s end, the tusks are in a house in Sudan, likely buried in the yard, because the tusks are in an environment that is cooler than the local air temperature. I have looked to see if Christy has posted any kind of update on their position, but have been unable to find anything.

Point of No Return, by Mark Jenkins, photographs by Cory Richards

Right up front, I’m going to tell you that the photograph on pages 88 and 89 is a spoiler for the ending. If you want to be kept in suspense, I recommend that you take a paperclip and ever-so-carefully paperclip the pages together so that it goes directly from page 87 to page 90.

Point of No Return follows Jenkins and Richards and the rest of their team of climbers as they attempt to be the first to take a GPS reading of the height of Hkakabo Razi in Myanmar, which may be the highest mountain in Southeast Asia. It was long thought to be the highest until another team of climbers reached the top of Gamlang Razi and used GPS to measure that mountain as 19,259 feet, which is higher than the most recent figures on Hkakabo Razi.

Jenkins is one of the last survivors of an adventuring group formed in 1993. The original group was four young men, two of whom are now dead. The fourth has stopped having these types of adventures, so Jenkins was climbing Hkakabo Razi, one of the most challenging mountains in the world, not just for him, but in memory of his late friends.

The climbing team consisted of five people, three men and two women, but ultimately only the three men attempted the final ascent. One of the women was insistent on going, but ultimately she makes what Jenkins describes as “the correct decision” and chooses to send one of the men instead. Unfortunately, we just have Jenkins’s word that it was the correct decision.

Ultimately, the climb is harrowing and I was very happy indeed to be sitting calmly at my sideline job on a balmy 70-degree day in South Texas, rather than attempting that climb myself.

National Geographic July 2015, Part 1

Seeking the Source of Ebola, by David Quammen, photographs by Pete Muller

Despite the title, the scientists that study ebola aren’t really looking for the source of ebola so much as they are looking for a reservoir species, where the disease hides in between outbreaks. They are as certain as it is possible to be (which means that really persuasive evidence could change their minds) that ebola is not always present in the human population. This means that it must hide in another species.

For most of this article, Quammen focuses on bats. This seems to be a pretty good candidate, since Patient Zero in the most recent outbreak, two-year-old Emile Ouamouno of Guinea, likely caught the illness from a bat. Ouamouno was seen playing in a tree that had a colony of bats days before he became symptomatic. Children also try to catch the bats and then they roast them on a stick and eat them, and that may be what happened to Ouamouno.

And then there’s more about bats as a disease vector for other viruses, including Nipah virus, Hendra virus, and Marburg virus. However, when it all comes down to it, there is no definite evidence that bats are the reservoir species. The reservoir species may be something else, such as an insect or bird.

Food Truck Revolution, by David Brindey, photographs by Gerd Ludwig

A few years ago, they legalized food trucks in San Antonio. A food truck is just like it sounds, a truck that serves food. Generally, the food is cooked on the truck, but there are also trucks that serve premade food such as sandwiches and beverages. And I realized then that there isn’t a lot of street food in San Antonio. This is odd, since street food was a big part of San Antonio history. If you are in the United States, it is likely that you have eaten chili at some point in your life. Chili began as a San Antonio street food. For over a century, from the 1800s until World War II, the “chili queens” would serve chili from tables in the public parks and squares (most notably Alamo Plaza).

Yet that culture died out at some point, perhaps when the focus of business shifted from downtown to the area around North Loop 410. And even today, if you look where the food trucks are, you will see more out by Interstate 10, Loop 1604, and Loop 410 than you will find downtown.

Food Truck Revolution focuses on the origin of the current crop of food trucks — the Kogi BBQ truck of Los Angeles. In 2008 Korean-born Roy Choi opened a food truck serving Korean-flavored Mexican food. From there, Brindey shows us some of the other food trucks of the Los Angeles area.

Despite the proliferation of food trucks in San Antonio, I have really only ever eaten street food while on vacation. Maybe I will have to track down a food truck or two here in San Antonio someday and see what they have to offer.

National Geographic July 2014

The Hunt for Life Beyond Earth, by Michael D. Lemonick, photographs by Mark Thiessen

The Hunt for Life Beyond Earth is pretty much just like it says:  it’s about scientists’ attempts to find life on other planets.  Needless to say, Mars is one of the planets they are considering as home for this extraterrestrial life, but Mars is too close.  Rocks travel back and forth between Earth and Mars periodically.  As a result,  the discovery of life on Mars would not prove that said life developed there.  It could be terrestrial life that made the trip between the two planets.

Based on the premise that life should be develop in places with liquid water, we are also looking at two of Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus, as possible sites of life.  Saturn’s moon Titan also has liquid, but that liquid is methane and not water.  As a result, scientists who are looking for life haven’t ruled Titan out, but they are uncertain what kind of life would develop in liquid methane.

Then there is the possibility of life beyond our solar system.  In 1961, an astronomer named Frank Drake created what is now known as the Drake Equation, which is an equation to calculate how many extrasolar civilizations we should be able to contact.  The equation included the number of sunlike stars in our galaxy, the number of those stars that had planetary systems, the number of planetary systems that have planets capable of sustaining life, the number of planets that actually do develop life, the number of those whose residents develop intelligence, and the number of those who develop radio signals that we could detect.  We are just now starting to be able to apply numbers to these variables.

As someone who has read and watched entirely too much science fiction for her own good, I think that the Drake Equation may understate the number of planets that we might be able to communicate with.  What if a society jumped right to television?  Or used some other form of radiation that we cannot yet detect to communicate?  Or evolved while orbiting a sun completely different from ours?  The Drake Equation might be a good estimate, but there are no guarantees that it is the only way for life to develop.  It’s just the way that our life developed.

The Next Breadbasket, by Joel K. Bourne, Jr., photographs by Robin Hammond

The Next Breadbasket is another installment in the Future of Food series.  For this installment, we travel to Africa to watch the various ways that the fertile land, and those who work it, are being both used and exploited by agribusiness.  In too many African countries, the government allows the agribusiness entities to run people, some of whom have been farming this land for generations, off of their land.  Bourne names names, both of the companies that have treated the indigenous people well and those who have treated the people poorly.

So far, two of the ones that Bourne seems to support are a company called African Century Agriculture which uses an “outgrower” model, in which African Century provides soybeans, weeding, and training in conservation agriculture to small farmers. The farmers then sell the soybeans that they grow back to African Century, which deducts the costs of their services from the payment.  This way, the small farmers get to keep their land and also get education in the latest agricultural techniques.

Another company that Bourne seems to me to think well of is Bananalandia, the largest banana farm in Mozambique.  The owner of Bananalandia, Dries Gouws, pays his workers at least 110% of the Mozambican minimum wage and he also has done things to improve the lives of the people in the surrounding villages, including paving roads, providing electricity, building a school, and making improvements to the sewage system.  I know well that 110% of minimum wage is in no way going to raise these people out of poverty, but I feel that the other improvements in the quality of life that Gouws has made are not insignificant either.

The Wells of Memory, by Paul Salopek, photographs by John Stanmeyer

In The Wells of Memory, the second installment of Salopek’s Out of Eden Walk series, Salopek is walking up the western coast of Saudi Arabia, through an area known as the Hejaz.  The Hejaz was added to what is now Saudi Arabia in 1925. Both Mecca and Medina are in the Hejaz, so until the era of airplane flight, most of the pilgrims coming from around the world had to pass through the Hejaz. Jeddah, also in the Hejaz is the burial place of Eve, according to legends.

Salopek focuses in part on the wells that are spread, a day’s walk apart, through the Hejaz.  The wells date back to the Caliphate of Caliph Umar in 638.  There were also guesthouses, forts, and hospitals along the route, courtesy fo the Caliph.  Today, in addition to the ancient wells, there are asbila, outdoor electric water coolers along the route these days.

Salopek is one of the first, if not the first, Westerner to travel this route in close to a century, but this is the route taken by other Westerners in the past, including Lawrence of Arabia.

As with nearly all National Geographic stories, The Wells of Memory is punctuated by photographs.  However, some of the photographs in this story were taken with a smartphone and then edited to look like vintage, sepia-toned photographs with an app called Hipstamatic.  Stanmeyer chose this approach to reflect his feeling that he “had one foot in the present, and the other had stepped back a hundred years.”

Big Fish, by Jennifer S. Holland, photographs by David Doubilet and Jennifer Hayes

For the past 25 years, the Altantic goliath grouper has been a protected species.  Once sport fishermen would catch them by the dozen, but goliath groupers are long-lived and reproduce slowly.  This meant that the fish were not able to replace their numbers as quickly as they were being harvested.  This resulted in the species being granted legal protection as an endangered species.

Now, some fishermen believe that their numbers have rebounded enough that it should be safe to start catching them again.  In part they want the trophies, but these fishermen also believe that the goliath grouper is eating fish that the fishermen should legally be able to catch, thus reducing the numbers of legal fish even farther.

Holland seems unswayed by these fisherman’s arguments.  She has spoken with scientists who are studying goliath grouper and who believe that the population is still too low.  Goliath groupers tend to stick to one area, and until they start to overpopulate that area, they will not spread elsewhere in their range.  Additionally, according to Holland, there are a number of studies (she doesn’t tell us which ones) that show that there is not much overlap between the targets of the fishermen and those of the goliath grouper.  If the fishermen are finding it difficult to find fish to catch, it is not the fault of the goliath grouper.

Additionally, just because their numbers are rebounding now does not mean that this will continue indefinitely.  Goliath grouper juveniles live in mangrove swamps, and the mangroves in their home range are being decimated.  To make matters worse, due to mercury levels, goliath grouper are coming down with lesions in their livers.  This may also have an impact on their population numbers in the long term.  It also makes goliath grouper unsafe to eat, so fishermen who catch them would need to throw them back, or use them only for trophy purposes, which would be wasteful.

Empire of Rock, by McKenzie Funk, photographs by Carsten Peter

Alas, Empire of Rock has nothing to do with popular music.  It is, in fact, about the karst caves underneath Guizhou, China.  This part of China was once covered by a sea.  Over the centuries, the mollusks left their shells behind, which compressed into a  limestone formation known as karst.  Karst is limestone which is punctured by holes.  Water seeps down into the holes, which wears the holes away until they join together and eventually form caves.  This area is relatively unique in that this process has taken place over so many centuries that there are entire mountains of karst on the surface.  Have you ever seen photographs or Chinese paintings of large, steep stone mountains, usually surrounded by mist?  Those are karst mountains.

Funk accompanied a group of scientists and cavers who were attempting to measure the volume of one of the largest cave chambers in the world, the Hong Meigui chamber.  Though Funk’s eyes we watch them descend into the chamber and see their laser scanners, which Funk tells us is about the same size as a human head, measure the volume of the cave.  Funk and her hosts also visit other caves and karst formations in the area.

“Hong Meigui,” by the way, is the word that inspired me make my last post, on my experiences with foreign language.  “Hong Meigui,” depending on the tones, can mean “red rose.”  And I suspect that may be the meaning here, since there is a caving organization called the Hong Meigui Cave Exploration Society and the characters for the name of that group are the “hong,” “mei,” and “gui” of “red rose.”  Another chamber mentioned is the Miao Room, and my first instinct was that the “miao” in question is “temple,” but, when looking at a list of other “miao”s, it could also be the “miao” that means “infinity,” or any of a number of other Mandarin words that can be transliterated as “miao.”  I just don’t know.  To make things more frustrating, Funk does imply one translation when he tells us that the Yanzi cave is named for the swallows that live in the walls.

Two months after the cover date on this magazine, in September 2014, the title of the largest cave in the world was granted to the Miao Room.

(originally posted June and July 2015)

2/3/2019 On or around November 28, 2018, I realized that I need to start monetizing this blog. To that end, I’m starting to put what I call Gratuitous Amazon Links into my posts. As of January 12, 2019, I’m going back to add GALs to my older posts. If I can’t find anything exactly on-topic to the post, I’m choosing from among the highest-rated items on the same topic as the post. For example, for a post on a park, I’ll search Amazon for books on parks and choose one of the ones with the highest reader ratings. Here is the GAL for this post:

National Geographic Animal Encyclopedia: 2,500 Animals with Photos, Maps, and More! by Lucy Spelman (Author)