australia

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First Australians, by Michael Finkel, photographs by Amy Toensing

In this article, Finkel spends two weeks living with the people who were, at the time, still referred to as “Aboriginals,” and the photographer, Amy Toensing, spent three years photographing them. I’m trying to find out whether “Aboriginals” is the currently correct term, but it’s the one that, Finkel assures us, the Aboriginals used themselves at the time.

Apparently, “Aboriginal” is now an adjective, modifying, “people.” Aboriginal people can also be referred to as Indigenous people.  If you know someone’s tribe, that is, of course, the best way to refer to them. Since Finkel tells us that these people are Yolngu (also apparently spelled “Yolŋu,” but that seems almost a little OCD to me), maybe that’s how I should refer to them. Let’s see how that works out.

Yolngu live in kinship groups.  Matamata, the village, that Finkel visits, is led by a matriarch. Aboriginal people have two names, an English name and an Aboriginal name, and they generally go by their Aboriginal name. Under this rule, the matriarch of Matamata is called Batumbil.

Finkel goes along on at least one green sea turtle hunting expedition and witnesses a funeral.  The green sea turtle is the main source of food for the people of Matamata, which was a source of conflict for me.  I have fond memories of the honu that I saw in Hawaii during Alex and my 2012 trip.  On the other hand, people have got to eat. If the killing of green sea turtles upsets you more than just “conflicted,” however, you may want to avoid the photograph on Page 67, in which the insides of a sea turtle are on its outside.

Maxed Out on Everest, by Mark Jenkins

Jenkins, a mountain climber whom we last saw/will see in September 2015, gives us an overview of some of the problems that Everest was facing in 2013, and which it is still facing today. As weather prediction becomes more accurate, climbers are starting to cluster together on the same few days a year (at the time this article was published, a record 234 people reached the summit on May 19, 2012. Only around 4,000 people have climbed the mountain ever, so having 6% of that total on one day, well, you can kind of see the problem.

More companies are leading expeditions, which leads more people, some of whom are not really trained for summitting mountains of Everest’s stature, to attempt to climb the mountain.  This contributes to crowding among people who attempt the mountain but stop short of the summit.

Garbage, human waste, and dead bodies litter the mountain.  They are moving some of the bodies from view, most famously the man known as “Green Boots,” who has been missing since 2014.

Jenkins lists some suggestions including limiting the number of permits issued during a year, reducing both the number of operators who can guide groups up the mountain and the size of the groups they can lead, requiring previous mountain-climbing experience before issuing a permit, and requiring groups to remove their garbage and excrement.  Jenkins also suggests removing the bodies of climbers who have died, but the only way to bring a dead body down is to send a team of Sherpas to remove the bodies, at risk to their own lives. The only other way to get rid of a dead body on Everest doesn’t really involve getting rid of the body, so much as pushing it off the side of the mountain into a ravine, which is nicer for the living climbers, but doesn’t seem a whole lot more respectful to the dead.

Last Song, by Jonathan Franzen, photographs by David Guttenfelder

Last Song is about songbird hunting and/or poaching in countries near the Mediterranean (primarily Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Egypt, Croatia, Iraq, Jordan, Kosovo, Morocco, Romania, Spain, and Syria). One of the nice things about this article is that Franzen is against this poaching and he isn’t afraid to admit that he’s emotionally affected by the things he sees in the article.

Albania might be of the worst countries for hunting of songbirds.  At one point, Franzen says that almost none of the songbirds that enter the country ever leave it.  I did a little digging and the government of Albania finally did something about it in 2014, when they forbade all hunting in the country.  It was a pilot program that was supposed to last two years, but in February of 2016, it was extended for another five. While this has lessened the hunting somewhat, it has, obviously, only increased the level of poaching and Albania doesn’t have the resources to really crack down on poaching. Of course, what this means is that eventually only songbirds whose ancestors took migratory routes around Albania will survive to reproduce, and eventually Albania will lose all of its songbirds.

6/13/2016 Note: We went on a road trip yesterday and I finished reading July, 2013 and February, 2016.  I didn’t finish this post last night because I was exhausted when I got back.  I will, however, be able to knock out those three posts pretty quickly once I have some time to sit down and write (some of which will be after I finish today’s road trip). Now on to get started reading June 2013 . . .

The Case of the Missing Ancestor, by Jamie Shreeve, photographs by Robert Clark

In the 18th Century, a hermit named Denis supposedly lived in a cave in Siberia. Around three hundred years later, a piece of a pinkie bone was found in that cave, known as “Denisova.” When the scientists examined the DNA of that bone, they found that the owner of the bone, a girl estimated to have been around eight years old, had been of a species distinct from, but related to, modern humans.  They now call her people the Denisovans.

The Case of the Missing Ancestor goes into the discovery of the phalanx along with the discovery of two Denisovan molars, a Neanderthal toe bone, and part of a stone bracelet that, at press time was deemed probably too recent to have been made by a Denisovan or a Neanderthal, but may actually have been made by a Denisovan after all.

Speaking of things that have changed since press time, Shreeve says that the only living descendants of the Denisovans live in Oceania, including on the Aborigines of Australia and the Melanesians of Papua New Guinea. DNA studies done later indicate that there are also descendants of the Denisovans living in Tibet, including the Sherpa.

Rising Seas, by Tim Folger, photographs by George Steinmetz

Oh, look. Another article about climate change.  What a surprise.

This time we’re focusing on New York City and what can be done to protect it from both rising sea levels and from future storms like Sandy.  One possibility is to build storm barriers and another is to build a chain of barrier islands.  Apparently there used to be barrier islands in New York Harbor, but they were removed “by . . . landfill projects,” which I assume means that the islands are now part of either Manhattan or one of the other boroughs.

Folger suggests that New York City look to the Netherlands for ideas. The Eastern Scheldt barrier which protects Zeeland, is built to a much higher standard than is usual in the United States.  The dike system in Holland is not walls, as we picture, but are sometimes built almost invisibly into the landscape (Folger visits one that just looks to the casual observer to be an ordinary hill).  Rotterdam is also working on building floating buildings and are planning on having floating residences actually in the harbor.

We return to the United States and talk about some of the other places that could benefit from these kinds of remediations, including New Orleans and Miami.  Miami is a special case, however, because it sits on a limestone base, which means that you can’t block out the sea water — the water will just come up from underneath.  This might be a job for those floating buildings that they are working on in Rotterdam.

Big Bird, by Olivia Judson, photographs by Christian Ziegler

I always loved dinosaurs.  When we visited the Field Museum, I always had to visit the dinosaur hall.  My now-ex also always loved dinosaurs.  Early on in our relationship, we talked about how we’d always wanted to take the time to count the bones in the apatosaurus’s tail (though we still called it a brontosaurus at the time) but that the adults we were with always would get bored before we finished and drag us away.  So, of course, early in our relationship, we went to the Field Museum and counted the bones in the tail.  It was nearly 30 years ago, so I can’t remember the exact number we got, but 82 sounds familiar.  82?  182?  I can’t remember anymore.

With two dinosaur-loving parents, it was no surprise that Alex turned out to be fond of the big critters as well.  A wonderful thing had happened in the time between my childhood and Alex’s — they discovered that birds are theropod dinosaurs.  I never had to tell Alex that dinosaurs were gone — they were all around us.  It was magic.

The San Antonio Zoo is kind of bird-intensive.  The zoo has something like 750 species, 170-some of which are birds. When I bring someone new to the zoo, I always tell them that I need to show them our dinosaurs. They usually expect me to take them to the Komodo dragons.  Instead, I take them to the cassowaries — the birds have big three-toed dinosauresque feet and a casque on the head that always makes me think of parasaurolophus (the duck-billed dinosaur that has a crest on its head).

Cassowary, san antonio zoo

A cassowary at the San Antonio Zoo, 2014

This is a roundabout way of saying that I love cassowaries and loved this article.  Judson takes us to the Daintree Rainforest in Australia in search of cassowaries.  We “meet” Dad, who has four chicks (cassowary fathers take care of the young) and learn about the importance of cassowaries in the ecosystem.  Cassowaries eat fruit and the seeds pass basically undigested through their digestive tract.  This spreads plants around and increases diversity in the rainforest.  One tree, Ryparosa kurrangii, basically only germinates when it’s been pooped out by a cassowary.  Scientists are unclear on why being partially digested has such a beneficial effect on the seeds.

We also learn some of how humans are threatening the future of the cassowary.  As humans encroach on their territory, there is less space for the cassowary.  Some are killed by dogs or in traps.  And some die by being struck by vehicles.  There are several schools of thought about how to help the cassowary in the future, but no consensus has been reached yet.