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)

My Travel Memories: Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, Florida

I was thinking that my next My Travel Memories post would be the start of what will likely turn out to be a bunch of posts on Walt Disney World, but I just looked at a map, and apparently the Kennedy Space Center is ever-so-slightly farther north than Walt Disney World.  So, in accordance with my north-to-south (to the extent I can piece my earliest memories together) literary itinerary, the Kennedy Space Center is next.

The Kennedy Space Center is the place that all of the manned space flights since 1972 launched from.  This means that every space shuttle launch took off from Kennedy.  When my folks retired to Florida, they could see the space shuttle launches from the beach near their house. I never visited during a launch, though, so I didn’t get to see them. I don’t know if I would have wanted to have seen it, either.  After the Challenger disaster in 1986, any time a space shuttle launched, I watched metaphorically through my fingers.

I’ve needed to do some research into when I went to the Kennedy Space Center.  It was definitely before the space shuttle era.   I am virtually certain that it was still Cape Kennedy at the time because I can remember telling an adult that we went to Cape Kennedy and the adult was confused at first because she knew it only as Cape Canaveral.  So that means that it was most likely in or before 1973, because they changed the name of the cape from Cape Kennedy back to Cape Canaveral on October 9, 1973 and we always went on vacation before October.

I suspect if I went back today there would be things that would trigger sense memories in me, but from here, sitting in my breakfast nook in Texas, the only thing that seems to have made a really lasting impression on me was what I am pretty sure was the Apollo 14 command module.  I remember it because it was less shiny and silver than I was expecting.  It was actually a rather unattractive shade of brown.  Apollo 14 was in 1971, so that narrows the date even farther, to sometime between 1971 and 1973.

Edited to Add:  I found our 1972 Florida trip album and there is no mention of the Kennedy Space Center in it.  Since we basically went to Florida every year during my early childhood, it looks like 1971 or 1973 are likely to be our target year.

(originally posted July 6, 2015)

2/1/2019 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:

Earth and Space: Photographs from the Archives of NASA Nirmala Nataraj (Author), NASA (Photographer), Bill Nye (Preface)

My Travel Memories: St. Augustine, Florida

St. Augustine, Florida is definitely a place that I visited both before and after 1977.  I went there with my parents in the 1970s (and maybe visited it with my mom, aunt, and uncle in the late 1960s if memory serves) and in 1989 and then, for good measure, I made a return visit with my now-ex-husband in 1992.

In the United States, most people makes a big deal out of the Mayflower, like it is the very beginning of United States history.  I’ve even read a (pretty bad) young adult book in which the protagonist’s love interest is supposedly a descendant of Mayflower immigrants, as if that made him royalty or something along those lines.  As a result, it made a real impression on me when I was told that St. Augustine was the “oldest city” in the United States.  That is, of course, an oversimplification, since St. Augustine is technically the oldest continuously occupied European-established settlement in the United States.  The Native Americans had cities long before the Europeans got here.

St. Augustine got its name because the coast of Florida was first sighted by the settlers of the area on August 28, 1565.  August 28 is the feast day of St. Augustine. If they’d been running a day earlier, the city would be named “Santa Monica,” and if they’d been a day later, I don’t know what they would have named it, since August 29 is the Feast Day of the Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist.  Maybe they just would have gone with “San Juan de Bautista,” or “San Juan” for short.  Spanish settlers did this a lot.  I live in a city that was named for the day that the missionaries met the local Coahuiltecan tribe, the Payaya,

There are, as one would expect, a lot of historical buildings in St. Augustine, though no wooden buildings older than 1702, because the British burned the city in that year.  There is the “Oldest Wooden Schoolhouse,” which is not actually the oldest at all, since the actual oldest schoolhouse in existence in the United States, to our ability to determine, is on Staten Island and is roughly 20 years older than the St. Augustine schoolhouse.

It was always kind of a thrill to walk down the streets of St. Augustine and think about how this is as old as it gets (in terms of permanent European settlements at least) in the United States.  Probably the most interesting building to visit, as far as I am concerned, is the Castillo de San Marcos, which presumably was founded on or around April 25, the Feast Day of St. Mark the Evangelist. The Castillo de San Marcos is older than 1702, since it was built of coquina, a sedimentary rock formed of shells bonded together, and thus it survived the 1702 fire.

Some of the most memorable buildings of St. Augustine are comparatively modern.  In the late 1800s a tycoon by the name of Henry Flagler moved to St. Augustine.  He commissioned a number of elaborate buildings which are there to this day.  Among the buildings he commissioned are the Ponce de Leon Hotel (which is now home to Flagler College), the Alcazar Hotel (now the Lightner Building, containing a museum and the St. Augustine City Hall), and the Memorial Presbyterian Church (which is still a church).

Author’s Note:  I wrote this  and queued it up for June 26, then remembered bits and pieces of another place I’ve been, farther north in Florida than St. Augustine:  Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park in White Springs, Florida.  I don’t really remember much about it, though.  I remember a building with a colonnaded porch (the museum, apparently), trees covered with Spanish moss, and my mom explaining that the correct name of the river is “Suwannee” and not “Swanee.”   That last is how I came to be pretty sure that the park I remember is the one in Florida and not the Stephen C. Foster State Park in Georgia.  The river looks closer to the Florida park than it does to the Georgia one.  I also cannot see any buildings with columns in any photographs of the Georgia park.

(originally posted June 26, 2015)

My Earliest Travel Memories

I have long said that I want to go “everywhere.”  I know how I made this decision.  Part of it was because of my parents’ National Geographic subscription. Every month for as long as I can remember we would get a new issue with beautiful full-color photographs of the world and, once I got old enough to read, fascinating descriptions of the places and the people who lived there. 

The other part was my parents’ landlords.  When they were first married, and prior to having had me, my parents rented an upstairs apartment in a couple’s house.  We would visit them every New Year’s Day and every year they would have photographs of the places that they had traveled.  Far from being bored, though, I loved it.  The wife was a musician and she would buy a small hand-held instrument at most of their destinations.  They were on windowsills and bookcases and on top of the television.  And every year I would think, “I’m going to go there someday.”

Unfortunately it took me until I was 11 to actually start checking places off of that list.  This is because for most of my childhood, travel meant driving from Chicago to Florida to visit my mom’s family.  We would stop at some destinations on the way, but most of the time was spent at my cousins’ house doing basically the same things I did at home, only with cousins.  We’d go to the supermarket and cook dinner at home, and visit my mom’s old high school friends, and sit around and watch television.

One thing that was differentiated home from the cousins’, though, was that my cousins’ house was just a block away from the Intracoastal Waterway.  My cousin’s son is only a year younger than I am and we would go down and watch the fiddler crabs and the boats.  This was in the 1970s, which was when the manatees were really in decline; my mom would tell me about seeing them when she was in high school and lived in that area, though.  The area of the Intracoastal Waterway that my cousins lived near had lots of mangrove plants when I was little.  I didn’t even realize that people lived on the other side of the mangroves until I was much older. 

My last visit to the Waterway was after my mom’s funeral.  My dad and son and I walked down there.  The mangroves were long gone and much of the land where my cousin and I used to watch the crabs had been paved over.  It was so different from how it had looked in my childhood and yet it still felt a bit like “home.”  Suddenly, my son, who was a kindergartener, said, “What’s that?” and pointed out into the water.   It took my dad and me a while to see what he was seeing.  It was a small pod of dolphins.  Probably there were two or three of them, it was hard to see at that distance.  And, of course, this was before everyone had a camera on their person at all times, so no one got a chance to photograph them.  Even if we had tried, it is likely that they would have been just a little blip on the surface of the water, since they were about 600 feet (just shy of 200 meters) away by my calculations.  I’ll never forget it, though.

(originally posted April 25, 2015)