montana

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I don’t know how long my discussion of Yellowstone will turn out to be, so I’ve tentatively labeled this as Part 1.

Alex and I got kind of a late start on our first day at Yellowstone. The drive from Salt Lake City had taken a lot longer than we had expected. In addition to the two hours of scheduled stops, and the unscheduled more than an hour Rocket Display stop, I forgot my rescue inhaler, so we had to transfer it to a Walmart in Idaho and wait for it to become ready. I estimate that rather than taking four or five hours, it took eight or nine. At this point, I was not in a rush to get back in the car, even though I thought that I’d get plenty of time out of the car at Yellowstone.

I didn’t get lots of time out of the car at Yellowstone. Let’s put it this way. San Antonio is the 67th largest city in the world in terms of land area. You could drop San Antonio on top of Yellowstone (not that I’d recommend this) and still have lots of space around the edges (19 miles all the way around, if my math is correct). So, yeah. Unless you book a bus tour, expect to spend lots of time in the car.

Overall, I have to give Yellowstone a solid four out of five stars for producing megafauna to gawk at. Minutes after entering the park, we saw our first bison. By the time we left Yellowstone heading for Dinosaur National Monument, we saw even more bison (including several herd of bison in the distance, one ahead of us blocking traffic, and one alongside the road so close to our car we could hear it breathing — that was unnerving), a black bear (which was too close to the road, but we stopped and took a couple of pictures anyway, a grizzly bear (likewise), at least one yellow-bellied marmot, and at least one elk (or maybe one elk and two moose cows, or possibly two elk and one moose cow). I think I saw some pronghorn antelope in the distance once. We also heard something howling on two separate occasions (I’m not sure if they were coyotes or wolves). No dall sheep or actual sightings of wolves, and also it would have been nice to have gotten a picture of the things that I thought might be pronghorn.  If I’d gotten those squares on my megafauna bingo card, Yellowstone would have rated five out of five.

Yellowstone Madison River Bison 2016

Believe it or not, that brown lump pretty much right in the center of the image is a bison. I also have some closer photos of it, but I wanted to share just the tiniest bit of the scale of the park as well. The water in the foreground is the Madison River.

We chose not to go to Old Faithful first because Alex wanted to do some stargazing and I read several things that said that the area around Old Faithful is a good place to stargaze, largely because there are people there pretty much around the clock. Since it was just the two of us, I figured that keeping to populated areas after dark would be a good plan. As it turned out, 81% of the moon’s disk was visible that night, so the light pollution from the moon ended up causing us difficulty with the stargazing. I still owe Alex a stargazing trip.

Back to that morning. We’d heard that there had been snow at the higher elevations in Yellowstone, so since we started out kind of hungry, we chose to eat at the Canyon Village, which is the highest in elevation (I hoped that perhaps Canyon Village would be close enough to the highest elevations that we could see if there actually was snow up there and maybe find a route up to it). We ended up eating sandwiches at the deli and while they were, you know, sandwiches, and not terribly exciting as cuisine goes, the people there were very pleasant and helpful. This set a very nice tone for the day.

After we ate, we stumbled across the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, which is a place where the Yellowstone River cut into the rock and, well, created a canyon (just like it says on the tin). We found, and spent entirely too much time photographing, the Lower Falls. We saw a boardwalk that led down towards the river and, because I’m too adventurous for my own good sometimes, I convinced Alex to go down there with me. The trip down was great, but the trip back up was a bit strenuous. Just a year ago, he and I had climbed the Statue of Liberty with no problem, so I was sort of distressed about just how difficult I found the walk back up. However, the elevation of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is around 6,000 feet, so perhaps that made at least some of the difference.

After this, we went in search of even higher elevations, which led us up into the northwest corner of the park. I didn’t want to attempt to climb Mount Washburn. Oh, who am I kidding? I probably would have totally been up for it (despite the adventure I had coming back up at the Grand Canyon). Alex talked me out of it. Mount Washburn was probably our best shot at seeing snow on this trip, too. Oh, well, maybe it’ll snow in Dallas this year and we’ll luck out and be able to go up to Dallas to see it.

While we were in that corner, we drove into Fort Yellowstone, where we saw an animal that I at first identified as a horse. Alex was taking pictures of it, and I asked him why he was taking pictures of “that horse.” He told me that it clearly was not a horse and later, when I looked at the pictures, I think it might have been a moose, though it was more of a yellow color than I was expecting. Looking at other pictures of moose and elk, maybe it was an elk.

We parked and kind of knocked around a while at the Mammoth Hot Springs area (and I would like to go back and stay at the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel some fall or winter) and took a lot of pictures of the thermal features there.

At this point, it was getting pretty late and we were looking at an hour and a half drive, so we headed towards Old Faithful. We took even longer than that, because we found a whole area of thermal features that needed to be explored and photographed.

Finally, with the sun beginning to sink in the west, we headed for Old Faithful. We got there just after an eruption, so we had an hour or so to kill, and during that time, the sun went down almost completely. I took some photographs of the geyser before the sun went down and then again afterwards (I also videoed the eruption, but my phone camera is not fantastic at night photography, so the video is mostly whooshing noises and blackness). We stuck our heads into the Old Faithful Inn (I had wanted to visit the Inn because I remember the 1988 wildfires that came *this* close to threatening the Inn). We then went to the Old Faithful Lodge and got a drink and two huge cookies to eat while we waited.

One of the nice things about watching Old Faithful erupt after nightfall is that almost no one is there. We had fantastic seats. And the geyser gave us a nice several-minute show. After the eruption we looked at the stars for a bit, but I wasn’t sure if they really would let us out of the park that late at night, and we still faced a 45-minute drive (during daylight hours — we were driving just a little more slowly because I didn’t want to end up wrapping the car around a moose or something) back to West Yellowstone, so we headed back out. We stopped along the way and looked at the stars again on the way, as well.

And, since we’re at over 1,000 words, this looks like a good place to stop for now. So I will end up with at least two posts on Yellowstone. We’ll meet here in Montana/Wyoming again on September 3, I think?

I applied for a couple of jobs on a whim and actually ended up with one job interview. I won’t know how I did until sometime next week, but it’s been hard to focus on pretty much anything besides that interview (particularly since I went out and bought a whole new outfit — shoes and everything — for it) in the last few days.

I’ve been thinking about the before and after of our trip to Yellowstone.  My checklist included:

  1. Find my ancestor’s baptismal record;
  2. Visiting Temple Square
  3. Seeing the Great Salt Lake
  4. Visiting Golden Spike National Monument
  5. Seeing a bison
  6. Seeing a bear
  7. Walking at least 100 yards from a paved road at Yellowstone
  8. Leaving the path entirely at Yellowstone
  9. Seeing Old Faithful erupt (and recording it if possible)
  10. Visiting the Old Faithful Inn (and eating there if possible)
  11. Visiting Dinosaur National Monument
  12. Seeing the petroglyphs at Dinosaur National Monument
  13. Visiting five different states

And I may have done the first. The record I found was for the correct date and the surname starts with the correct three letters. Unfortunately, as helpful as the people at the Family History Library were, no one there that day spoke Russian.

I did the 7th as a technicality. The park ranger directed us to a path that was fairly well traveled (and thus not terribly likely to end up with us disappearing without a trace or anything) and, as it turned out, 212 yards of it were unpaved. As a result, for 12 yards in the middle of the path, we were technically 100 yards from a paved road. We also made a sharp left into the woods and walked for a total of about a hundred yards, but we had to turn right to get around an obstacle, so we ended up less than 100 yards from the path.

And we got four of our five states in. We never made it to Colorado, since it was really late when we got to our hotel in Vernal and I just didn’t have the energy to drive any longer that night, even if Colorado was only a half hour away. And the next day, we got a later start than I would have liked, so we had to head back to Salt Lake City and didn’t get to go to Colorado that day. But I still got to visit Utah, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, so four out of five isn’t bad.

Alex and I leave for Chicago early Monday morning, so I’m going to type up my next National Geographic post tonight or tomorrow and perhaps write up Golden Spike National Monument as well. Those will be my posts for August 8 and 10, and by the 12th we’ll be home.

So far, this issue is going much better than the previous one. Let’s see if I can keep up this momentum.

A couple of times in my life I have traveled somewhere just in time for something interesting to happen.  The most notable of these was my family’s trip to the UK.  I had breast cancer in 2001 (it’ll be 15 years this October and I haven’t seen any sign of it since then, so I’m pretty sure I’ll be okay at this point) and decided that I wasn’t going to die without ever having been to the UK, so we made our plans.  As we finished the plans, we realized that we’d be there just in time for the Queen’s Golden Jubliee celebrations.  We also were in London on June 7, which was the day of the World Cup match between England and Argentina, a match that England was apparently expected to lose, but which it won.

How does this tie into my National Geographic project?  For 2016, National Geographic is doing a series on the National Park Service in honor of the Park Service’s centennial.  I didn’t even know that 2016 was going to be the centennial for the National Park Service when I planned a three-national-parks-and-a-national-forest trip which includes the oldest National Park, Yellowstone.  This was a complete coincidence.

How National Parks Tell Our Story — And Show Who We Are, by David Quammen, photographs by Stephen Wilkes.

Just like it says on the label, this article goes into the history of the National Park Service and tells how they decided on a single vision for national parks.  The photographs in this one are awesome, even for National Geographic photos.  Wilkes set his camera up at an elevation and took thousands of pictures of parks (Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, and West Potomac Park) over one day.  Then he pasted them together into panoramas showing the vantage point through the night and the daytime.

This Is Your Brain on Nature, by Florence Williams, photographs by Lucas Foglia

This is Your Brain on Nature is about the health benefits of getting out and getting some “green time.”  Williams even goes so far as to say that people may have lower incidences of physical ailments if they live within half a mile of green space.  On the other hand, there is the “urban advantage,” where people who live in cities tend to have have longer, healthier lives than those in rural or suburban areas.  Some of the “urban advantage” probably comes from access to health care, and others come from being able to walk to destinations rather than having to travel in a car to get there.  I wonder, too, if the presence of urban parks makes a difference.

And tomorrow the credit card payment should clear and I can pay it off.

In 2016, Alex and I will be adding five new states to our collection:  Utah, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado.  Not that we’ll be doing any of them in too much detail. We’ll be traveling to Pando (never pass up the opportunity to visit the world’s most massive single organism (as opposed to the largest, which is a fungus in Oregon)), Salt Lake City, Golden Spike National Historic Site, Yellowstone National Park, and Dinosaur National Monument.

I’ll be getting my city fix in August when Alex and I are planning a four-day trip to Chicago. Hopefully I’ll be able to take some pictures to spruce up my Northern Illinois Destinations posts while there.

The Power of Photography, by Robert Draper

This isn’t so much of an article as just the text to go along with the fold-out pages of photographs for the cover story.  It’s mostly praise for the hard work that National Geographic photographers do, but there’s a side-order of “hey you kids get out of my yard” that makes this slightly uncomfortable reading for me.  Then there’s the line “global cacophony of freeze-frames” that me wonder what my high school sophomore year English teacher would say about it.

The Price of Precious, by Jeffrey Gettleman, photographs by Marcus Bleasdale

The Price of Precious chronicles the travel of Gettleman and Bleasdale into the Congo, where they investigated the ongoing war and the way that trafficking in precious metals has been supporting that war. It is likely that some of the precious metals in my computer, and in whatever device you are reading this on is, and probably the server that will host this file once I finish writing it, came from the Congo.

Thanks to the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010, some manufacturers of electronics are weeding the conflict out of their precious metals.  At the time this went to print (over two years ago now) some of the groups that were funding violence with precious metals had seen their profits drop 65% and the Congolese government were starting to inspect mines to ensure that they were not funding violence.

Meltdown, by Robert Kunzig, photographs by James Balog

This is another short page-length bit of text to accompany photographs, this time Balog’s photographs of glaciers of Alaska and Iceland.  Kunzig discusses glaciers in Montana, Switzerland.  And in the years since this was published, the glacier in Switzerland, the Rhône, has retreated so far that the Belvedere Hotel, which used to be open to house visitors to the glacier has closed.

To Walk the World, by Paul Salopek, photographs by John Stanmeyer

And finally I reach the beginning of the Out of Eden Walk series.  From now on, all posts on this topic will be in chronological order.

In this introductory article, Salopek explains his motivation for attempting this walk. He tells us how he wants to understand how small groups of a couple of hundred humans who originally left Africa, came to dominate the globe in such a relatively short space of time. He says that he wants to take this at the pace of a human’s walking speed so that he can learn everything he can, and also to document “current events as a form of pilgrimage.”  He will be following humanity as it spread out from Herto Bouri, Ethiopia, where the earliest human relics have been found, and eventually end up in Tierra del Fuego, Chile.

In this article, Salopek starts out at Herto Bouri, then goes northeast to Djibouti.  I feel the need to warn for one graphic image. On page 46 of this issue, there is a picture of a dead body on a lava field.  The body is in what looks to me to be an advanced state of decomposition and one can see some of the bones.

There is a map of Salopek’s expected path, and it looks to me, two years later, that he’s behind schedule.  There are years given, but no indication whether they are the beginning, middle, or end of the year.  The point for 2014 is in Tajikhstan and the point for 2015 is in India.  As of October 27, 2015, Salopek was in Georgia, which means he hasn’t even made it to that 2014 marker yet. So I guess we’re looking at this project going on until 2018 at least, rather than ending in 2017.

Ghost Cats, by Douglas Chadwick, photographs by Steve Winter

Ghost Cats is about the status of the American cougar in the United States.  The cougar is an apex predator, which means that a lot of humans are afraid of them. As a result, they have been driven out of a lot of inhabited places, which has thrown the ecological balance out of whack. But cougars are making a comeback. Scientists are tracking them with collars and cameras and observing their behavior, and the behavior of cougars is nothing like the scientists expected.  They expected the cougars to be largely solitary, but they seem to share space and prey fairly easily.

One of the reasons why humans don’t like cougars is the fear that they will kill livestock, pets, and be competition for prey with human hunters.  But it looks as though once a male gets established, a lot of the mayhem that humans have come to expect from cougars. One male being in charge of an area seems to reduce the number of other males that come into the area looking for food.

The photographs that accompany this article were largely taken with automatic cameras. And the camera must be very fast indeed, because the photos are so clear and crisp that they look almost like photographs of taxidermied animals, rather than living ones.  I looked carefully for any indication that taxidermy was involved, but all of the pictures seem to indicate that they were of living animals.

I know that I should probably be doing October of 2014, since I’m sort of working my way outward from January of 2015.  This issue has an article on Nero in it, though, and I went to Rome in July of 2014, so I’m skipping ahead a bit.  Also, October of 2014 is probably somewhere in my son’s bedroom.  I’ll get to it once I find it. (note: I found it later, in between two Nature Conservancy magazines.)

The Evolution of Diet, by Ann Gibbons, photographs by Matthieu Paley

The Evolution of Diet talks about the “Paleo diet,” which posits that people should be eating a meat-based diet that limits, or eliminates, beans, grains, and dairy products. The theory is that the human genome hasn’t evolved in the last ten thousand or so years.  It starts out speaking kind of positively about the Paleo diet, arguing that the hunter-gatherers’ inclusion of meat in the diet is part of what allowed us to develop advanced brains.  However, as the article progresses, we get farther from this argument.  Gibbons quotes Amanda Henry, who has found evidence that humans have been eating grains and tubers for at least the last hundred thousand years.  Gibbons also quotes Sarah Tishkoff, who makes the point that humans did not stop evolving ten thousand years ago.  We are still evolving and many populations have evolved to digest lactose and starches that others have not.  Oneof the quotes that is highlighted is “The real hallmark of being human isn’t our taste for meat but our ability to adapt to many habitats and to create many healthy diets.” Continue Reading

As I write this, it is around 6:45 (I say “around” because my cat is sleeping in front of the clock on my computer) on July 9, 2015.  When this posts, it will be midnight, Central Daylight Time, on July 16, 2015.  If all goes as planned, my son and I will be asleep in New York City, recovering from our first full day of vacation.  We will definitely have just visited the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island the day before and hopefully will have been to the United Nations as well. We probably will have taken the bus to Battery Park so that we could make it in time for our tour, but I may have convinced my son to walk at least some of the way back.  Let’s see how it all plays out in the end.


The theme for this issue is food. There are other articles, on the Middle East, 3-D printers, and the like, but the first three articles (well, technically, article and two pictorials) are about food, so I am going to group them together.

The Joy of Food Text and photos by various writers.

The Joy of Food is the first pictorial in the article. There are both historical and current pictures of people eating (mostly of them sharing food) from as far back as 1894 and from locations all over the world.

We open with two children in England sharing an apple in a photograph first published in National Geographic in 1916 accompanied by text by Victoria Pope. Following this are images from Afghanistan, Germany, England, and the United States (one from California and one from Washington, DC). The 1894 photograph takes up two pages. It is of picnicgoers in Maine eating watermelon. The next pages feature images from Croatia, Ghana, China, and one of a family saying grace where the location is unknown (but likely is the United States once again). We get another two-page photograph, this one likely to be a modern photo of nuns in Beirut making marzipan. The final five photographs are of 1934 birthday party, an Armenian wedding, food laid out for the dead in Belarus, a fisherman in Alaska, and a boy eating porridge in Denmark.

In addition to the Victoria Pope quote, the text is from Erma Bombeck, M.F.K. Fisher, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

The Communal Table Text by Victoria Pope, Photographs by Carolyn Drake

I think that this is the first article I’ve reviewed that has both text and photographs by women.

The Communal Table is about a meal in Milpa Alta, the poorest borough of Mexico City. Milpa Alta, which is Spanish for “high cornfield,” is the site of around 700 religious festivals a year, culminating in an annual pilgrimage, which begins on January 3, to a holy site in Chalma, 59 miles from Milpa Alta.

This meal, which is held just before Christmas, is called </i>La Rejunta</i> (Spanish for the roundup), is a meal of tamales and atole, which is traditional Mexican chocolate drink. The tamales and atole of La Rejunta given to thank those who made donations to the pilgrimage, and the amounts of each are proportional to the value of the donation.

The Communal Table focuses on the people who make La Rejunta work, particularly on the 2013 majordomos of the event, Virginia Meza Torres and Fermín Lara Jiménez. Pope takes us through the steps of preparation for La Rejunta until the day of the event.

My only issue with this article is that the focus on the people leaves the places shrouded in mystery. The reference to “the ancient place of the holy cave,” and to “a life-size darkened statue of Jesus” led me to the conclusion that the pilgrims still visited the original cave. Instead, the “statue” is a crucifix and the current pilgrimage is to a baroque church that stands in front of the cave. There are references in the text to Milpa Alta being “rural,” but the images are all very crowded looking. In reality, the area is spread out enough that three major hot-air balloon festivals are held in the area every year.

By Their Fridges Ye Shall Know Them, photography by Mark Menjivar

This is a two-page spread featuring several photographs from Menjivar’s “Refrigerators” project. Menjivar takes pictures of the insides of people’s refrigerators and displays them full-sized, so that the viewer gets the feeling that he or she is really looking into someone’s refrigerators. Four images are featured in this spread, including the refrigerators of a football coach and social worker, of a midwife and science teacher, of a street advertiser, and of a bartender.

The bartender, by the way, has a container of mayonnaise from the Central Market Organics line which is local to South Texas (where I live currently). I looked up Menjivar’s CV, and he is in South Texas, as well.

Cross Currents, by Kennedy Warne, photographs by Thomas P. Peschak

Even though this isn’t an official part of the food theme of this issue, this is also an article on food — fishing in particular.

After apartheid ended in South Africa, the government set up a new policy regarding fishing, allowing a certain number of licenses to commercial, recreational, and subsistence fishermen.  The subsistence fishermen group were largely indigenous Africans who fish to provide food for their families.  Subsistence fishermen had previously been shut out of getting licenses, so it was a huge step forward to allow them to have a certain percentage of the available licenses.

The are two problems  with this scheme.  The first problem was that the commercial licenses all went to large operations, leaving the smaller commercial operations (who are described in the article as “artisanal”) without licenses.  The second was that they overestimated the ability of humans to overfish.  As a result, the government ended up rescinding a bunch of licenses and set aside “marine protected areas” where the fish could, theoretically, reproduce undisturbed.

The end result of this, however, was that poaching is now skyrocketing.  Warne spends much of this article talking to the poachers and trying to balance their viewpoints with those of the people who are in favor of keeping, or even expanding, the marine protected areas.

Blessed, Cursed, Claimed:  On Foot Through the Holy Lands: (Out of Eden Walk – Part 3) by Paul Salopek, Photographs by John Stanmeyer

Blessed, Cursed, Claimed is the third installment of Salopek’s series, Out of Eden Walk, where Salopek is walking from Africa’s Rift Valley and across the Middle East, then through Asia, into North America and then down into South America.  Apparently Salopek is taking a fairly liberal interpretation of the term “walk,” since he is doing some of the trip by boat.  Salopek began the walk in 2013, and hopes to complete it in 2020.

In this installment, Salopek walks from Jordan to Jerusalem.  We see archaeological sites, refugees, Bedouins, Jews, Muslims, and Christians, in this part of the walk.

Much of this article focuses on barriers.  not only does Salopek cross a national border, he also crosses through the West Bank, where the two-state solution would have the nation of Palestine be.  We also cross the barrier between the main city of Jerusalem and the community of the Haredi, ultraorthodox Jews who have a strict separation between men and women in their society.  We also visit the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.  The actual site where Helena (mother of Constantine the Great) believed that Jesus was born is now a Greek Orthodox church.  At the height of the tensions between the Greek church and the Catholic Church of St. Catherine next door, the only way that Catholic visitors could see the church was through a peephole in the common door between the two churches.  And, finally, we see the gulf of darkness that separates a Bedouin family that was  Salopek’s host on the shores of the Dead Sea from the nearby luxury resort.

Just Press Print, by Roff Smith, photographs by Robert Clark

I think that this may be the first non-travel-centric article that I’ve written about here, aside from the prefatory material from 1888.  Though there is some geography-related content in the article, the article is mostly about the advances in technology that comes from 3-D printing.  Most of the results of 3-D printing that I have heard of has been plastic and since the results of the 2-D printing industry, in the form of junk mail, has been a big stressor for me, my reaction has usually been “Oh, goody.  Plastic three-dimensional stuff to take up even more space.”

So, this article was good for me to read, since we see some of the useful things that can be made, including a new face for a man who lost much of his face to cancer (warning: if you are squeamish about these types of things, don’t read this article, because there is a beautiful photograph of the man and his prosthetic face) and living tissue, with a view towards perhaps being able to print replacement  organs for people.

The travel hook in the article is a bit about a printed house that the firm DUS is building in Amsterdam.  They expect the house to be finished in around three years.

Wasteland, by Paul Voosen, photographs by Fritz Hoffmann

Wasteland is an article about Superfund sites in the United States.  In 1980, Congress created a program, called Superfund, that was designed to remediate lands that were damaged by toxic waste.  The Superfund program arose after toxic waste was discovered in the Love Canal neighborhood of Niagara Falls, New York.  The original plan was for the companies that caused the waste to be left there to pay some of the cost of remediation and for the government to pick up the rest of the cost, but a number of the companies were unwilling or unable to pay for their share, leaving the government to pay the entire cost.

There are more than 1,700 Superfund sites in the United States, and one statistic given says that one in six people in the United States lives within three miles of a Superfund site.  I have lived, if not within three miles, pretty close to that, of two in my life, one in the Chicago area when I was a child and one in the San Antonio area as an adult.

The article talks about the different types of remediation being done on some of the sites in the United States and also the increasing difficulty the government is having coming up with the money now that the tax that had previously paid for the government’s share, a tax on chemicals and oil, has expired.

Images of other sites profiled in this, article, aside from Love Canal, are Tar Creek in Pitcher, Oklahoma; a landfill in Monterey Park, California;  the Gowanus Canal in New York City; and the Berkeley Pit in Butte, Montana.  There is information on even more sites in the text of the article.

Cowboys on the Edge, by Alexandra Fuller, photographs by Tomás Munita

Cowboys on the Edge is the tale of baguales of Estancia Ana María, in Patagonia in Chile.  In the early 20th century, Estancia Ana María was owned by Arturo Iglesias.  Some of his herd of cattle went feral and natural selection caused them to become wilder and stronger than regular cattle.  Now, rather than vacas, the name for this type of literally savage cattle is baguales, and the men who herd them are bagualeros.

Fuller traveled with the bagualeros as they went to round up as many baguales as they could in the period before the Iglesias family sells the land to a rancher.  The bagualeros hoped to collect as many as 50 baguales, but it was a tougher job than they expected.

I am used to running with a fairly sensitive group online, so I want to put a small content warning on this article. Several of the baguales die on the trip and there is one reference to invading Poland that is kind of tone-deaf to those who are sensitive to Nazism.

Otherwise, this is a quick read written in a pretty informal style.  I did have to wonder about Fuller’s assertion that boat or a 10-day horse ride through fairly deep water are the only ways to get to Estancia Ana María.  I wondered if there are some extreme updrafts preventing one from reaching it by helicopter or if that was an oversight.

(originally posted March 2015)

National Geographic has occasional theme issues.  This is one of them.  The theme for this issue is “Firsts.”

First Artists by Chip Walter (Photographs by Stephen Alvarez)

This article, just as the name implies, is about the beginnings of artistic expression in humans. We start out at one of the best known early artistic sites, Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave, where artists starting at least 36,000 years ago made charcoal drawings on the walls. We then go to South Africa, where an even older form of artistic expression was found — pieces of ocher with geometric patterns carved into them dating back to at least 100,000 years ago.

There is no continuity to the artistic expression, however. It will flower in one place and then die out again only to resurface somewhere else. The development of art seems to track to times when there were more people, so the theory that Walter and, presumably those he’s spoken with, advances is that the art was a way for groups to communicate.

I wonder if it could be the other way around, though. Perhaps the default state of humanity is to be creative, but stresses on the population reduce that urge. Maybe the population increases were because times were relatively good, which allowed the natural creativity of our ancestors to show. We are, from all the research I have read, naturally wired to acquire a language, so it doesn’t seem to be too much of a stretch to think that maybe we are wired to express ourselves artistically as well.

And despite their reputation as brutish, there may be some evidence that there was a creative urge for Neanderthal humans. Archaeologists have found items with holes drilled into them as if for jewelry in a cache with some tools in France.

Along with the articles are the usual stunning National Geographic photos, including pictures of the earliest pieces of art (including one that is described as a flying bird, but which looks awfully phallic to me), of the archaeological dig in South Africa, and of two young women covered in ochre. 

The First Year by Yudhijit Battacharjee (Photos by Lynn Johnson)

Technically this article should have probably been called The First Years because much of it relates to events in the second year of life and there are even some references to events beyond that point. 

The article, for the most part, recounts studies being done on the brain development of children in the first years of life. We begin with Hallam Hurt’s study of children who come from poor backgrounds which showed that the damage our culture associated with prenatal maternal use of crack actually reflected the situation of poor families in the United States. From this, we developed programs to encourage bonding and mental development during infancy and early childhood.

We also see a glimpse into some of the imaging studies being done of the brains of babies, including studies that show how language development works. 

There is also one study referenced that made me uncomfortable. Nicolae Ceausescu made birth control and abortion illegal, in service of increasing the population of Romania. It worked. It worked so well, that many families ended up abandoning their children, who then ended up in orphanages. The orphanages were understaffed and fifteen to twenty babies were generally taken care of by each worker, which meant that there was no time for the babies to be given any kind of personal attention, which harmed their brain development. A group of scientists saw that the children in these orphanages had irregular behavior patterns similar to those of children with severe autism. When the children’s brains were studied, it was shown that they had much lower levels of activity than would be expected from a child of that age. So they devised a study where half of the children would be put in foster home and half left in the orphanage. The brains of the fostered children under the age of two came to resemble those of children who had not been deprived, but the brain development of the children who remained in the orphanage remained abnormal.

Now, my own background is training as a medical librarian, so my frame of reference is clinical trials, but it is my understanding that if a treatment (which in this case is being put in a foster home) is shown to work (which it clearly did), the study is halted and all of the participants are given the treatment. To do otherwise would be unethical. Yet, there is no indication in this article whether the institutionalized children were put in foster homes in hopes of helping their brain development as had been done with the children put in foster care. I finally had to do some research on my own to find that homes were found for most of the children who had been left in the institution. Out of 68 institutionalized children in the original study, ten of the institutionalized children were still in the orphanage by the age of eight. So at least something was done for most of those children, but I’m still not happy about the ten who were still in the orphanage. On the good side, Romania now has a law forbidding placement of children younger than two in orphanages.

While the article itself is fairly dry, with lots of talk of studies and brain imaging, the “human element” comes from Johnson’s black-and-white photographs of families, many of them poor, taking the time to bond with their children, thus enriching their lives and helping their brains grow.

First City, by Robert Draper (Photographs by Robin Hammond)

In the case of this article, the word “first” is more a reference to rank rather than to chronology. The census for the country of Nigeria has trouble tabulating the population of Lagos, which has grown so fast that, at the moment it is somewhere between 13 and 18 million. The economy of Lagos is flourishing, as well. In the 21st century alone, consumer spending in Lagos has grown from 24.4 billion to 320.3 billion. The economy of Nigeria passed up the previous front-runner, South Africa, in 2012.

As with many National Geographic articles, this one features the stories of a number of Nigerians, from Onyekachi Chiagozie, an electrician who has big dreams, to Banke Meshida Lawal, a beautician with offices in Africa but who has representatives in other countries, including the United States, to Kola Karim, a multimillionaire who owns a conglomerate that employs more than 3,000 people.

The article also discusses the political climate of Nigeria, including the gap between the culture of Lagos and the upheaval of the rest of the country. Draper also discusses the corruption of the national government of Nigeria, which is a major exporter of petroleum but which doesn’t have enough gasoline for its citizens and which is unable to supply a steady level of electricity to any of its residents.

The photographs range from sitting portraits of residents to pictures of people going about their daily lives, both in the upscale and downscale areas of the city.

First Glimpse, by Timothy Ferris, Photographs by Robert Clark

This article is on cosmology, and cosmology really isn’t my thing. Somehow, the huge numbers of years and distance and things just serves to remind me that the clock is running and the universe will wind down someday. I mean, I’d be gone by then anyhow, unless an article I read a few years ago that said that time might stop any second turns out to be true, but I still find the thought, particularly that there is nothing we can do to stop it, or even slow it down, sort of distressing. 

That being said, I read this article, which opens with a quote that cosmologists are “Often in error but never in doubt.” That’s comforting. Well, not really, but it does kind of remind me of the Dunning-Krueger effect, which says that people who don’t know what they’re doing (“often in error”) will be more likely to be certain that they are experts (“never in doubt”) than one would expect. It is likely that they do know what they’re talking about, but obviously someone has some doubts. 

The article that follows talks about “dark matter” and “dark energy,” which are two forces that we cannot perceive but that seem to have some kind of effect on the universe. “Dark matter” seems to be pushing things closer together, while “dark energy” seems to be pushing them apart. Ferris also talks about the things that cosmologists are doing to measure what they perceive as being dark matter and dark energy, including a large sphere of lights pointing inward towards a pool of argon. The hope is that dark matter will pass through this device and make flashes of light. 

I did find out that dark matter is not some mysterious thing “out there,” though, which was kind of interesting. Apparently, the Earth is being bombarded by it constantly and since we cannot perceive it, it is likely to be be passing through our bodies and we just are not aware of it. 

First Americans, by Glenn Hodges

Now I’m back on familiar, and far more comfortable, territory. 

In 2007, Mexican divers found a cavern full of bones. The oldest one whose skull was intact enough to do a facial reconstruction on, was a teenaged girl who died somewhere between 12,000 and 13,000 years ago. She was given the name Naia, after the Naiads of Greek mythology. Naia’s basic genetic structure is the same as that of current Native Americans, indicating that the current Native American population is descended from the people who were here all those centuries ago, but her facial structure is very different, with much coarser features. 

The bodies of Paleo-Americans that have been found so far seem to be very likely to have evidence of injuries from some kind of close-range battle. The standard explanation is that the men were fighting over women, and the women were victims of domestic abuse. While this is a possible explanation, and may even be the most likely explanation, I was a teenager several decades ago and remember a few physical fights among my female peers. As a result, I’m not going to completely discount the idea that perhaps the women fought among themselves just as the men seem to have done. 

The article also discusses the Friedkin site which is described as being in central Texas “about an hour north of Austin.” That’s still a very large area, so I did a little digging and discovered that it is in Salado, Texas, in Bell County. The Friedkin site may be the earliest settled place in North America. A large quantity of stone tools have been found on the site, some dating back 15,500 years. The quantity of tools seems to indicate to the archaeologists that a group of Paleo-Americans actually settled there for an extended period. 

Hodges mentions the Anzick site in Montana, as well, where the 12,600-year-old skeleton of a child. They were able to extract an entire genome from this child, the first time we had been able to do so. Fossilized human waste was also found in a cave in Oregon, which gives archaeologists a chance to see what people of the area ate and which indicates that the Paleo-Americans may have settled there for a while.

The photographs on the article were taken by various photographers including Timothy Archibald, Paul Nicklen, James Chatters, David Coventry, and Erika Larsen.

First Bird, written and photographed by Klaus Nigge

This is a short, six-paragraph, piece on the bald eagle accompanied by five beautiful photographs. In the article, Nigge discusses his time photographing the bald eagles of the Aleutian islands, who were so habituated to humans that they would let him walk right up to them to photograph them.