National Geographic May 2013, Part 2

Breaking the Silence, by Alexandra Fuller, photographs by Robin Hammond

When I saw the previous article on Wrangel Island, my first thought was that this was going to be an article on global climate change. To my pleasant surprise it wasn’t. Then I turned the page and found an article on the other recurring theme of these issues, unrest in Africa.

The unrest, this time, surrounds the then-34-year-old reign (all things considered, I hesitate to use the term “administration”) of Robert Mugabe, President of Zimbabwe. In, apparently, the interest of full disclosure, Fuller tells us that she lived for a time in what was then Rhodesia and that her parents were active in keeping the white minority in power. She introduces Mugabe with these two sentences: Robert Gabriel Mugabe exuded an air of conciliatory magnanimity. My mother wasn’t buying it.

This sentence bothered me. I spent the rest of the article looking for bias. Granted, Fuller describes her parents’ efforts as “a questionable cause,” but still, I am not sure what purpose the sentence about her mother serves.

The rest of the article is largely a chronology of the reign of Mugabe and a look into the things that the people of Zimbabwe are doing to rebel against Mugabe.

Our Fertilized World, by Dan Charles, photographs by Peter Essick

I spend too much time surrounded by faux science pro-“organic” propaganda. The opening sentence of the blurb: If we don’t watch out, agriculture could destroy our planet, had me prepared for more of that sort of thing. The little voice that asks whom the writer would let starve to get the organic utopia he wants was just getting warmed up when Charles outright admits that our culture depends on the existence of artificial fertilizer.

Our Fertilized World is not so much pro-organic as anti-overfertilization. We see some of the studies being done to find better ways to fertilize it without overfertilizing.

Next up in National Geographic articles (to be posted on or around July 31, I think?), the little voice in my head is really, really bothered by nitrogen being given an atomic number of 123. And 127.

National Geographic March 2016, Part 1

I don’t know when I’m going to get the reading done for this post, but I’m going to get started writing it up anyhow.  Hopefully I’ll get the reading done on June 28 or 29 and get this knocked out by the end of the month. I may also get a start on the July 13 post, which will probably be another San Antonio city park, between now and then, as well.

The day after this goes live, by the way, Alex and I are leaving for our Salt Lake City/Yellowstone trip. Assuming that the flight is uneventful, we’ll be landing pretty early in the day, getting our luggage and our rental car, and heading off to Pando, the most massive single organism in the world.

July 6 – I was sort of close.  I got part of the reading done in very early July but then stalled.  I intended to finish up the second article while waiting for a doctor for some jaw pain I’ve been having lately. I got right in to see the doctor and got right back out again.  It’s now July 6 and I’m just now starting on the writing.

Waste Not, Want Not, by Elizabeth Royte, photographs by Brian Finke

First, the meaning of the term “want” had moved from “the lack of” to “a desire for” by such an extent by my own childhood, that it took me a very long time to figure out that “waste not, want not” didn’t mean “if you don’t waste it, you won’t want it.”

Second, this article returns us to the Future of Food series for the first time since I’m-not-sure-when. It’s been so long that the “future of food” tag doesn’t even show up on my widget.

Now, onward.

A shocking amount of food is wasted in the world. Some of it is food that was purchased in grocery stores or restaurants and went uneaten, but a lot of it is actually disposed of at the site where it is grown. Sometimes it comes out malformed and the buyers, either the shoppers themselves or the buyers who work for the retail industry. Sometimes there is actually something wrong with the produce, such as a fungal infection or an infestation by parasites.

We follow Tristram Stuart as he puts together meals from discarded food. We see him buying crookneck squash that took their name just a little too seriously, for example. These squash become part of a squash tempura, turnip dumpling, and zucchini noodle meal.

In this article, we go on to France, Kenya, Peru, and back to the United States (Las Vegas, this time) to see what Stuart, and others, are doing to use unsalable food.

The Cold Rush, by Joel K. Bourne, Jr., photographs by Evgenia Arbugaeva

With the increasing warming of the Arctic region, several countries, including Canada, Norway, and Russia are attempting to harvest the natural resources that are coming closer to (and sometimes actually reaching) the surface. Norway is drilling for oil in the Arctic Circle, and Canada is mining gold and iron. Additionally, some ships (including a cruise ship) are taking advantage of the melting ice to take the proverbial “Northwest Passage”  from Europe to Asia through northern Canada.

It’s not all rosy, though. The Arctic Circle is so remote that workers need to be brought in in groups, the workers then live in those groups for weeks or months, and then they get shipped home. Also, ecological damage is being done. There are no oil pipelines that far north, so the oil has to be dumped into tankers, which leads to the risk of an oil spill. And, of course, mining always leads to damage.

The Azolla Event, which is the proliferation of azolla fern that led our carbon-rich atmosphere to go into an ice age, locked up more carbon than just the carbon in the fern. Some carbon dioxide was dissolved in the water and once the water froze, the carbon that was dissolved in it was trapped. Cold Rush points out that the melting ice is releasing further carbon into the atmosphere.

National Geographic January 2016, Part 2

This is ridiculous.  I’m having the worst time ever getting to the online version of this issue.  I’ve had to log in twice now. My browser used to keep me logged in and I used to be able to just get to it by searching Google for the issue number.  Now all I can get while logged in is a photograph of the pages.  When I try to get to the text version, it keeps telling me “This National Geographic content is only available to subscribing members” and gives me a link to a login screen.  And I can see that I’m still logged in behind it.  I’ve actually sworn at this thing.  Twice.

Well, I guess I’ll have to make the best of this bullshit.  I’m not happy, though.  Having to zoom in to read the text is a pain in my left buttock.

In other news, I did make it to an average of 8,200 steps per day for May, finally.  I couldn’t remember if the number I got on the final day of the month was the final count, or if it would drop at midnight, so I put in a couple thousand extra steps so that I had one day of wiggle room.  I ended up with 8,467 steps on average for the month.

Bloody Good, by Elizabeth Royte, photographs by Charlie Hamilton Jones

I got a kick out of the title that the website gives this article, Vultures are Revolting.  Here’s Why We Need to Save Them. The mental image of vulture revolutionaries amuses me.

Bloody Good focuses on the life and current plight of vultures in Africa and Asia. Some of the vultures in these areas are critically endangered.  Vultures reduce the number of animal carcasses rotting in the sun, which means that they also reduce the chances that people and livestock will be made ill by the kinds of illnesses that develop from rotting meat.  I know that vultures have a bad reputation, but there’s one photograph of cape vultures in South Africa that is truly beautiful.

We have traditionally had a lot of black and turkey vultures here in Texas.  I made sure that Alex grew up appreciating the good they do for the environment. We once actually found the remains of a raccoon at Guadalupe River State Park and we had seen vultures in the park earlier that day. Now I didn’t get cozy enough with the bones and fur that remained to see if there were beak marks on them, but the corpse was just to the side of the walking path, so I suspect that if the poor thing had been left to rot, someone would have removed it, or alerted a park ranger so that it could be removed.

By the way, it looked like the poor thing had become tangled in fishing line, so please be careful when you go fishing to always account for all of your fishing line before you go home.

Into Thin Ice, by Andy Isaacson, photographs by Nick Cobbing

I’m somewhat nonplussed by the title here.  I think that the usual saying is “on thin ice,” and the focus of this article (aside from — what else? — global warming) is on boats that examine the Arctic by attaching themselves to ice floes, so the word “on” would seem to apply there. But it’s the editors’ choice what to name the articles, even if it is somewhat cumbersome.

And, of course, the ice is melting more rapidly than is traditional and scientists are very concerned.  The warming oceans are releasing carbon dioxide into the air, which will hasten global climate change.

Stay tuned for my next National Geographic recap in which the rubber plantations of Asia are about to precipitate an ecological catastrophe.  Unless I can knock out the rest of July 1889 by then, in which case my next National Geographic writeup will be about the rivers and valleys of Pennsylvania in great detail.

National Geographic August 2013, Part 2

Apparently that sugar story, and my dad’s reaction to it, created a real antipathy in me towards this issue.  I’m just having the hardest time ever reading it. I may break down and go forward to January 2016 soon and just read this one whenever I can bring myself to do so.

Additionally, I’m sort of experiencing a reading detour at the moment.  For several years during my childhood, my dad bought me one Nancy Drew mystery book a month.  I’ve been planning to read them for the last, oh, ten years or so, and in this last week or so, I’ve begun that project.  I’m now up to #14, The Whispering Statue.  They’re pretty dated, of course.  Nancy wastes a lot of gas driving to places where she can make phone calls and things of that nature.  One detail that I didn’t remember from my childhood stuck out at me — several of these books make an attempt at multiculturalism.  For example, we meet a Native American woman in The Secret of Shadow Ranch and The Mystery of the Ivory Charm features several characters from India.  The child character, Rishi, has trouble with the first person singular pronoun that’s kind of distressing for me.  It’s established that Rishi speaks Hindi, and Hindi does, in fact, have a first person singular pronoun.

Anyway, on to the lions of the August 2013 issue of National Geographic:

The Short Happy Life of a Serengeti Lion, by David Quammen, photographs by Michael Nichols

I’m somewhat confounded by this title.  The article is about the social structure of lion prides and their assorted coalitions of males.  We follow one two-member coalition of males, C-Boy and Hildur, as they mate with the females in their prides and fight off invaders, most notably a four-male coalition that are referred to as the Killers.

Lion prides are only females, generally grandmothers, mothers, sisters, and aunts.  Males work in small groups that affiliate with the prides and father their children.  When a new coalition of males moves in, they kill off or drive away the cubs, which causes the females of cub-bearing age to go back into estrus and then the new males father new cubs on the females.

In this article, we find that the biggest cause of death for lions is other lions.  Males will, of course, kill the offspring of other males, and males will kill other adult males.  Males will occasionally kill females (and it is from this that The Killers got their names — they are the prime suspects in the deaths of several females that were being studied).

Overall, this does not sound like a happy life to me.  But then again, I’m not a lion (at least, I would expect that someone would have told me if I were . . . ) so maybe that is happiness for a lion.

Living with Lions, by David Quammen, photographs by Brent Stirton

Living with Lions leads off with a picture of a man with no arms being bathed by another man.  This led me to believe that this was going to be another article like the one on leopards moving into cities from December 2015.  It isn’t.  The meat of this article is about lion conservation.

The home range of the lion has shrunk over the past millennia.  According to Quammen, at one point, lions spread at least as far north as France, as evidenced by the lions in the cave drawings in Chauvet Cave. And now the lion is confined to Africa and even that habitat is shrinking.  Lions do come into conflict with humans, but things like the human population expanding into the territory of the lions and trophy hunting are causing a lot of the drop in population.

We also meet a group called the Lion Guardians.  They are members of the Maasai tribe, who traditionally have hunted lions, to protect the lions instead.  They are paid a salary and trained in how to track lions with radio collars and they track the lions and prevent lions from killing livestock.  As of 2013, the program appeared to be working, and lion killings were on the downswing.

National Geographic August 2015, Part 2

Last Rites for the Jade Sea? by Neil Shea, photographs by Randy Olson

Last Rites for the Jade Sea? is about Lake Turkana, which sits on the border between Kenya and Ethiopia, and the Daasanach people, who depend on the lake for their livelihoods. Lake Turkana sits not terribly far from the Great Rift Valley, where humanity began, and the ancestors of modern humans lived on its shorelines.

And, as with so many smaller bodies of water, Lake Turkana is threatened. The lake has been shrinking for 7,000 years. The trend has increased in recent years, and may be threatened further by a proposed dam and planned sugar plantations on the Omo River. The Omo River is the main river that feeds Lake Turkana. Sugarcane uses a lot of water and the dam will certainly not help the flow of water to the lake.

The Daasanach are underrepresented in Kenya’s government and so it is likely that their concerns, and their very homes, may never be taken into account as the governments of Ethiopia and Kenya make plans for the Omo River and the region around the lake.

Still Life, by Bryan Christy, photographs by Robert Clark

Christy takes us to the World Taxidermy Championships in St. Charles, Missouri, and then further into the history of taxidermy. My interest in taxidermy is superficial at best. I have many fond memories of the taxidermied animals at the Field Museum of Natural History (likely to come to a Northern Illinois Destination post near you sometime in November). The Field Museum has the skins of the lions that were the subject of the movie “The Ghost and the Darkness.” One lion is kind of standing up and the other is lying on some rocks. If you’ve been through that room, you have probably seen them. They now have a big sign and everything, though I don’t think they had that sign when I was younger.The lions are smaller than they were in life because they were used as rugs for 25 years in the home of the man who killed them (and who was played by Val Kilmer in the movie), and they were in the kind of shape that you’d expect a 25-year-old fur rug to be. As a result, the taxidermists had to trim them down to make it work.

Then there’s Jenny Lawson. Her blog, The Bloggess, is about Lawson’s life and mental illness and the weird and wonderful things that happen in her life. Lawson also collects taxidermied animals. Her rules for her collection are that the taxidermy has to be older than she is, or that the animal has to have died of natural causes. And despite this, she has amassed a really amazing collection of taxidermy animals.

So, overall, this was a pretty interesting read. Though sharing my home with the skin of dead animals which has been wrapped around a plastic form so that it looks like the animal might have looked in life isn’t really a goal of mine.

Laos Finds New Life After the Bombs, by T.D. Allman, photographs by Stephen Wilkes

I’m going to level with you. I’m a pacifist. I don’t know if I’m gung-ho enough to join the Quakers or Mennonites (there’s a part of me that goes, “well, maybe, I guess . . ” about the American Revolution, the Civil War and World War II*), but in general, I’m anti-war.

And I cut my teeth on this anti-war stance at a surprisingly young age. I can’t remember a time when I thought that the Vietnam War was a good idea. Now as a sort of side comment, by the time I was born, the war was about halfway done. I also became aware of the wider world outside as it became more clear that the Vietnam War had been a colossal waste of time, money, and, most importantly, of lives.

One of the worst-hit victims of the Vietnam War was Laos. As the tagline for the article says, “the U.S. dropped more than 2 million tons of bombs on Laos . . . . That’s equal to a planeload every 8 minutes for 9 years.” I was on the low end of the single digits for most of that time (and wasn’t even there for some of it), but that statistic makes me feel kind of ill.

In 2015, it has been over 40 years since the bombs stopped falling and the Laotians are still feeling the effects of the war. Their ground is still full of holes from where the bombs landed and they still find live bombs. In the nine years from 1999 through 2008, 1,350 people were injured and 834 were killed when old bombs exploded. Taking those numbers as an average (rather than, as I suspect, a low end), that’s about 3,800 deaths from when the bombing ended to today, and that’s 3,800 too many.

Allman’s words and Wilkes’s photographs do a wonderful job of not only showing the damage done but also showing how Laos has grown, and will continue to grow, over the intervening years.

*There are probably other wars in other countries that I would say the same about, but as I’m not very interested in war, finding those wars is not a priority for me.

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)