National Geographic June 2013, Part 2

First Australians, by Michael Finkel, photographs by Amy Toensing

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

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

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

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

Maxed Out on Everest, by Mark Jenkins

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

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

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

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

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 June 2015, Part 2

Living Goddesses of Nepal, by Isabella Tree, photographs by Stephanie Sinclair

Living Goddesses of Nepal is about the tradition of the kumari, which are prepubescent girls who are believed to be the living incarnation of the goddess Vajradevi for Buddhists and Taleju for Hindus. Our guide to this world is a kumari candidate, six-year-old Unika Vajracharya. The tradition goes back at least as far as the 900s, when both boys and girls were considered to be conduits for the Divine. Eventually, the boys fell out of favor and the girls were elevated to the status of goddesses.

The article opens on the second attempt to make Unika a kumari. I gather that it is not terribly common for a girl to be a candidate twice, since kumari lose their position the first time they bleed. Sometimes a reign can end by a simple scratch and it always ends at the beginning of the reigning kumari’s menstrual cycles. Since loss of blood ends the reign, kumari are never allowed to touch the ground outdoors, and their activities even within doors are fairly restricted. As a result, most kumari leave at the onset of menses. So a kumari chosen at three or four would then reign for around 10 years, which would make most of the candidates from the previous round also too old for the position.

Traditionally every village in the Kathmandu Valley had a kumari, but with time, the number of kumari has dwindled. Part of this is that only some girls qualify to even be candidates. They must all be from the Shakya caste of the Newari, and traditionally there are 32 traits that a kumari must have to even be considered, including such poetic items as the body of a banyan tree and the soft voice of a duck (I, personally, have never thought of ducks as quiet animals — maybe Nepalese ducks are quieter than mallards) and fearlessness.

In fact, the candidate pool has shrunk so much that the selection process sometimes just boils down to checking the horoscopes of the candidates and choosing the one with the most auspicious signs. As fate would have it, Unika has a horoscope more auspicious than that of her rival, so she is chosen.

There is a note on the National Geographic website version of this article that tells us that all of the kumari and former kumari mentioned in the article survived the earthquake that hit the Kathmandu Valley in April and May 2015.

Canada’s Little Park of Wonders, by McKenzie Funk, photographs by Peter Essick

We begin Canada’s Little Park of Wonders, an article on Yoho National Park in British Columbia, by looking at the Cambrian fossils found there, and the evolutionary dead ends that the represent. We then leave that topic to focus on the Vaux family, a family of liberal Quakers. Mary Vaux, the daughter of the family, was a naturalist. She also eventually became the third wife of Charles Doolittle Walcott, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution (Walcott also took one of the first panoramic photos to be published in National Geographic).

Quakers were not supposed to be interested in art, and yet the Vauxes took many photographs of Yoho National park, and Mary in particular, both took photographs and made numerous paintings of the plants found there. Yet their art was mixed in with science — whether they were scientists whose science was artistic or artists whose art was scientific is up for debate. Over 20 years, they documented the changes in the park (the retreat of the Illecillewaet glacier in particular) through photographs.

Sins of the Aral Sea, by Mark Synnott, photographs by Carolyn Drake

This title just gets me every time I see it. I didn’t even know a sea could sin. I’ll try to let go of that. We’ll see how well that works.

The Aral Sea, which sits on the coast between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, was once the fourth-largest lake in the world, in between Lake Victoria and Lake Huron. Then, driven at least in part by siphoning off water from the river that fed the sea in order to raise cotton, the Aral Sea began to shrink. By 1998, the Aral Sea was the eighth largest lake in the world, and now it barely ranks at all. In fact, in 2015, the Aral Sea is actually two smaller bodies of water, with salinity levels one-third that of the Dead Sea, and the southernmost half of the sea is evaporating so quickly that the ground it leaves behind is still wet.

The land left behind is covered in remains of the sea that once was, including docks and piers, grounded fishing ships, and acres and acres of salt. They had hoped that the salt would form a hard crust, but instead, the salt is friable, and blows up in dust storms that are also contaminated by agricultural chemicals.

There are still fish in the northernmost body of water, but the southern part of what remains is inhabited only by one species of brine shrimp. In fact, thanks to dams on the local rivers, the northernmost part of the sea is reviving. However, one of the rivers that they dammed is the river that would have fed into the southern portion. In trying to save one part of the sea, they are killing the other.

National Geographic November, 2014

This is going to be kind of a downer of an entry.  First, we have an article on how parasites change the behavior of their hosts.  Second, we return to Nepal in April 2014, for the single deadliest day on Mount Everest.  I should have expected this issue to be kind of a downer after the “still life” featuring a dead pelican on pages 28 and 29. Continue reading “National Geographic November, 2014”