National Geographic January 2016, Part 3

I still can’t get to the text version of the articles on the website despite, again, being logged in.

Riding the Rubber Boom, by Charles C. Mann, photographs by Richard Barnes

So, earlier today, I was reading an Atlas Obscura article on the American Geographical Society library at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.  One of the maps that they have is of Fordlândia, a town that was set up by Henry Ford to grow rubber for his automobile manufacturing operations. The article describes it as a “lost jungle utopian city,” so I had to check it out.  The Wikipedia article on Fordlândia said that the town failed in part because of the development of synthetic rubber.  So, armed with that little bit of knowledge, I began reading Riding the Rubber Boom, which is about farming natural latex rubber in Southern Asia.  If synthetic rubber caused the failure of Fordlândia in the early 20th century, then wouldn’t there be even more difficulty making a living from farming rubber today?

Well, as the saying goes, it’s more complicated than that.  Latex is as big as it ever was.  We still need it for things like car tires and, even more crucially, for airplane tires.  We also need it for latex gloves and condoms.

As for Fordlândia, the site chosen was too far north and too dry for growing rubber trees, for one.  They also had a nice monoculture going, where all there was was rubber trees.  And, as I’ve mentioned before, monocultures of trees are vulnerable to pests and diseases because they can easily move from tree to tree.  If there are other species of tree in between, though, it becomes more difficult for the pest or disease to travel across the space between the trees.  The pest or disease in question here is a fungus called Microcyclus ulei, which damages the leaves of the tree, killing it.  Fordlândia got infected by M. ulei, so it was just a matter of time.

The rubber farms in this article have a relatively new variety of rubber tree that are more cold-tolerant, so at least they will avoid that failure on the part of the developers of Fordlândia.  However, the farms are also monocultures, but since M. ulei is native to South America, the trees are, so far, safe from it.  However, it will only take one spore being introduced at the wrong time to doom entire farms. The UN has recommended that anyone who has been in the area where M. ulei is present for the previous three weeks and who has arrived in Southeast Asia be inspected, but, at least as of press time, none of the countries in question have followed through on the suggestion.

Kingdom of Girls, by Jeremy Berlin, photographs by Karolin Klüppel

Kingdom of Girls focuses on Klüppel’s photographs of the girls of Mawlynnong, India.  For some reason (no one is apparently sure what), Mawylnnong has a female-dominated culture.  Property passes from mother to daughter, rather than from father to son.

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 May 2015

I have just shown myself that I can, in fact, read and write up an entire issue before I ran out of writeups from my old blog. I am writing this, for what it’s worth, on August 15, 2015, several weeks before it will go live on my blog. Following my old pattern, I should write up April 2014 next, but I cannot find that issue at the moment. Therefore, I will go on to March 2014 next.

It’s Time for a Conversation, by Joshua Foer, photographs by Brian Sherry

It’s Time for a Conversation follows several researchers into dolphin language. Dolphins vocalize and some believe that these vocalizations are a language. For example, when two dolphins at the Roatan Institute for the Marine Sciences are given a signal that means “tandem,” the two dolphins are to do a behavior in unison. The dolphins will go under the water and whistle at each other, then they will do the same behavior together. Are they playing a very sophisticated game of “follow the leader,” or are the sounds they exchange actually communicating a plan?

So far, scientists have not been able to find much in the way of meaning in the chirps and whistles of dolphins. They have been able to determine that dolphins give themselves names while they are calves. For the rest of their lives, if one dolphin uses the call that the dolphin chose as his or her name, that dolphin will respond. Beyond that, there has not been much progress.

It is possible that their intelligence is so different from ours that we will never be able to learn to “speak dolphin.” However, if it is possible for us to learn their language, someone, somewhere is bound to figure it out.

This article has one of my favorite photographs so far in this project. The opening image, on pages 30 and 31 of the issue, there is a photograph of spinner dolphins in Hawaii. The water is perfectly clear and what I assume is the bottom of the ocean is white, and looks more like clouds than sand. This is fairly disorienting, in a pleasant way, and gives me the impression that they are not swimming, but flying. Or, maybe they are flying.

Taking Back Detroit, by Susan Ager, photographs by Wayne Lawrence

In Taking Back Detroit, Ager writes about the attempt of some brave souls to bring the dying city of Detroit back to life. We start out with Anthony Hatinger, who is setting up a tilapia farm in a former liquor store. The Tilapia live in the basement and the water is pumped upstairs, where the fishes’ waste feeds the plants of an indoor garden. The garden consists largely of green leafy vegetables. Once the waste has been removed by the plants, the now-clean water flows back down to the fish in the basement.

And he is just one of many people who are breathing new life into the city. Ager is a journalist who grew up in Detroit and spent the first 25 years of her career there, so this topic is very personal to her.

The fate of Detroit is not nearly as important to me as it is to Ager. In a global sense, Chicago and Detroit are in the same region, but in a practical sense, they are really very far apart and I have only ever been to Detroit twice, once in the 1981 and once in 1987. My mom and I were appalled by the decline in such a short amount of time. So, for me, reading about Hatinger, and about John Hantz, who invested four million dollars in improving the lives of Detroiters by buying up empty lots and planting trees in them, were heartening to me. Green space is an issue dear to my heart anyhow (you will see a lot of posts on parks and other green spaces in my writing. Green space is important to the psychological well-being of people, and the people of Detroit need things that are helpful psychologically.

The work is just starting however. The schools of Detroit are still not performing as well as they should, and Detroit still has a disgraceful level of unemployment. And yet, people are moving into the city and helping to bring jobs and money into the city. And hopefully, with those jobs and money, what was once known as “The Paris of the Midwest” will someday, perhaps even someday soon, have a Renaissance of its own.

Quest for a Superbee, by Charles C. Mann, photographs by Anand Varma

In this era of colony collapse disorder many are worried about the future survival of the honeybee. Colony collapse disorder. is not one problem, but many. Some colonies die off because of the increase in chemical pesticides, but others are killed by disease, and still others by pests. Some colonies don’t die at all, but habitat loss causes them to move elsewhere.

This is not the first time bee colonies have died off in large numbers. Most recently, exactly 100 years ago this year, a virus wiped out hundreds of bee colonies. A young monk known as Brother Adam traveled the world looking for bees and eventually bred was became known as the Buckfast Bee. The problem is more complex now, since there are so many other causes, but if Brother Adam was able to breed a bee that would survive the virus, it may well be possible to breed, or genetically engineer a bee that will survive current threats.

Quest for a Superbee outlines some of the projects being done, in breeding, in genetic engineering, even the possibility of robotic bees — tiny drones that will fly into a field and pollinate the flowers. Some, however, think that nature will find a way and that, despite more significant losses, bees will become naturally resistant to the threats that are killing them off today. I say that so long as the new bees are tested properly in a closed environment before setting them loose in the outdoors, any and all possible solutions are welcome. If genetically engineered bees are what we need to get through until the honeybee evolves enough to survive current threats, then that is what we should do.

Harnessing the Mekong or Killing It? by Michelle Nijhuis, photographs by David Guttenfelder

Over the last 20 or so years, the nations that the Mekong River flows through, China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, have been damming the river in hopes of increasing the prosperity of these nations through the generation of electricity. And the “generating electricity” part seems to be working. The “increasing prosperity part” could use some work.

You see, the people who have lived along the Mekong for generations rely on the river for food, including fish and rice, and the number of fish in the river has dropped from levels that existed prior to the dams being built. Added to this is the threat of flooding. When it rains heavily upstream, the water has to go somewhere, and that “somewhere” is the villages alongside the river.

The lack of prosperity doesn’t end there. The governments and companies that have been building the dams are making lots of money by selling the power generated to other countries. Very little of the power generated is used by those in their own countries. Almost no one in Cambodia has electricity because the power generated in a way that will basically be free once the dam is paid for, is too expensive for the populace.

Can anything be done? Water experts and other ecologists would like to see development of the dams slowed down and planned better. Dams are being built haphazardly by each nation without regard for what the nearby nations are doing. There are places that the dams could be put where it would have minimal impact on those who live in the area, but it looks unlikely that the governments will work together for the good of their citizens any time soon.

Walking the Way, story and photographs by Michael George

Walking the Way is words and photographs about George’s trip down the Way of St. James (Camino de Santiago, in Spanish), a route that goes from France through Spain to Santiago de Compostela, a cathedral in Spain which is rumored to hold the remains of the Apostle James the son of Zebedee (as distinct from James the son of Alphaeus and also James the brother of Jesus).

The Way of St. James was originally a purely religious pilgrimage, but in modern times, 60 percent of those who walk it walk for nonreligious reasons, such as to get space from their daily lives or to contemplate a change in their lives.

For some reason, George specified that he walked the Way in the summers of 2012 and 2013. I had to dig up more information on this. Did George take the trip in two parts (which seems like cheating) or did he do it twice? Apparently, he did the walk twice. The first time, he was just out of college and facing a change in his life status and so he did the walk as a pilgrim. Then he returned a year later to meet the people and photograph his journey. The results of this second trip are largely what we see in this article.