National Geographic April 2014, Part 3

Wild Obsession, by Lauren Slater, photographs by Vincent J. Musi

Wild Obsession is about people who share their homes with wild animals. The cover image is of a hedgehog, but there are no hedgehogs in this article — most of the animals mentioned are large cats and things of that nature. Slater talks to some of the people who currently own wild animals, and also to those who have given their animals up.

Slater comes across fairly sympathetic to the feelings of these owners, except during one instance which Slater interprets as an attempt of a juvenile kangaroo to mate with a pig (and which the owner of the animals says is a grooming behavior), which Slater sums up with “here, in this wired enclosure, the natural order has been altered.” For some reason, this sat wrong with me. It came off as dismissive of the animals’ owner’s assessment of the situation. We never see what is happening, merely what Slater tells us has happened, for one. It also seemed judgmental. Interspecies attempts at mating do happen in the wild, after all. I’ve found stories of moose trying to mate with horses or cows and of seals trying to mate with penguins and I didn’t have to dig far to find them. The seal/penguin story was on the first page of the Google results when I searched for “interspecies mounting” and the moose/horse(cow) one was in the comments to that article. The Wikipedia article has eight footnotes relating to interspecies mating in the wild. Additionally, if species were the kind of impermeable barrier that Slater seems to imagine, we wouldn’t have the Sherpas, since their ability to withstand high altitude comes, from everything I have read, from Denisovian ancestors.

For what it’s worth, I would never consider owning a large animal. The cost of feeding it would be prohibitive, but mostly I wouldn’t consider it because it would be cruel to force a large cat to live on a quarter-acre of land in a residential neighborhood. Also, however, it could be dangerous to me, personally. About 20 years ago now, one of my cats was walking from Point A to Point C and I was at Point B. As he crossed my lap, his rear foot slipped. I still have the scar. If a 15-pound cat could do that, what could a 300-pound tiger do?

Domesticated cats and dogs are plenty for me, thanks.  I would maybe like to get a large parrot someday.  Alex has said that he’d be willing to inherit it from me.  I would, of course, only get a parrot that was born in captivity from a reputable breeder.  I would do this largely to avoid participating in animal trafficking but also so that I would know the health status of the parrot’s ancestors.

Romans in France, by Robert Kunzig, photographs by Rémi Bénali

For some reason, Romans in France starts out with an overview of waste management solutions in Rome, in which we’re told that Monte Testaccio is actually a pile of empty amphorae that were thrown out of warehouses along the Tiber. Then we move on to the meat of the article, which is about an archaeological, well, “dig” is the wrong word, and I’m not too sure about “excavation.” We’ll go with “project” beneath the waters of the Rhône in Arles, France.

In 1986, archaeologist Luc Long was dared by a friend to dive into the polluted waters of the Rhône. Long found a truck under the water, and in the driver’s side of the truck was a Roman amphora.

In 2004, the archaeologists found a Roman barge 102 feet in length. Almost a decade later, the money came along to build a home for the barge once they excavated it. In order to remove it, however, the archaeologists had to work with the seasons and also replace the cellulose, that had long since dissolved in the water, with a polymer.

While I very much enjoyed this article, there is one curiously written sentence in this article that seems to say that because a nail fell out of one of the timbers it was probably similar to the ones that were used in the crucifixion of Jesus. I was unaware that one of the properties of the Holy Nails was that they came out of the wood easily. Kunzig, the blurb at the bottom of that page says, is a senior editor. He could probably have used the services of an editor for that sentence.

National Geographic August 2015, Part 1

I don’t normally comment on the material that comes before the actual articles, but I will make an exception in this case. A few months back, I commented to one of my pharmacists that, if I ever get lice — which is doubtful, but you never know — there is a class of medications that I cannot take because of my hay fever. She had never heard of such a thing and my attempts to find the medication right then came to nothing.

This issue has the answer. The class of medications is ones that are based in pyrethrum. The little article-let thing is on the resurgence of pyrethrum production in Rwanda. Pyrethrum comes from certain species of chrysanthemum, so there is a possible cross-reaction in people with hay fever. The chrysanthemums in the photo, by the way, are single flowers, and not double, like the ones we generally see in the United States.

Generally, pyrethrin, and not pyrethrum, is sold for lice treatment in the United States. RID is one of these medications.

So there you have it. The only medical reason that I know of why I would need to disclose my hay fever when medical personnel ask me if I have any allergies to any medications.

Will the Pope Change the Vatican? Or Will the Vatican Change the Pope? by Robert Draper, photographs by Dave Yoder

During Alex and my 2014 trip to Italy, we went to the Vatican City. We spent three or four hours at the Vatican Museums and then walked around the city walls, the long way, to St. Peter’s Square. As we now (as I write this) live in the first time since the 15th century when there were two living Popes simultaneously, I realized that gave me double the usual chance to see a Pope when we were there and, despite being a dyed-in-the wool Protestant, I kind of hoped that we’d see one, and my preference was for Francis. Alas, we didn’t see even one Pope (though we saw two Swiss Guards who looked to be on-duty, which may indicate that a Pope was nearby).

Fortunately, Yoder didn’t have to look around, hoping to see a Pope. In fact, he was hired by National Geographic to follow the Pope for a six-month period (described in this issue as “off and on”) to take pictures of Pope Francis. Yoder took 67,000 pictures, some of which are reproduced here. Some of the others are in the book Pope Francis and the New Vatican, which came out in September of 2015.

The text of the article goes into some of Francis’s background, including his appearance at a convention of Roman Catholics and Evangelical Christians at which he asked the Evangelicals to pray for him, and for which the ultraconservative Catholic Argentinian newspaper Cabildo labeled him apostate.

Draper’s text also focuses on the changes that Pope Francis has made, from his more humble lifestyle to the attempts of his staff to keep up with his, to them, unpredictable personality. We also see some of the changes that the Papacy has made in Francis. He has accepted that he is now a public figure and has gotten over some of his camera-shyness. One of the changes that resonated with me, was that when he was just plain Jorge Mario Bergoglio, he liked to walk around in Buenos Aires, but he is no longer allowed to wander around Rome in the way he would like to do. The Pope would like to retire someday and return to his home in Buenos Aires. Whether he will be able to do so remains to be seen.

As to the shocking statements and some of the changes he has made, a Buenos Aires-based priest who has known Francis for decades says, “I believe we haven’t yet seen the real change. And I also believe we haven’t seen the real resistance yet either.”

St. Peter's dome from outside the Vatican City
The dome of St. Peter’s Basilica from outside the Vatican City walls

National Geographic April 2015

Lincoln, by Adam Goodheart, photographs by Eugene Richards

April 15, 2015 was the sesquicentennial (they use “150th anniversary” in the article, but we have such a nice word for “150th anniversary” that I couldn’t resist) of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. In recognition (and, of course, anticipation, since the trek had to be done ahead of time so as to make it to print in time for April) of the occasion, Goodheart traced the train that carried Lincoln’s body as it made the journey from Washington, DC to Springfield, Illinois.  There was no continuous rail line between the two, so the body ended up making a two-week journey up through Maryland, then into Pennsylvania, to New York (both the city and the state), then through Ohio and Indiana before arriving in Illinois.  The body the went from Northwest Indiana to Chicago and then down to Springfield.  Lincoln’s body had stayed in Washington, DC from the 15th through the 21st, so by the time the body arrived in Springfield, it was three weeks old and had deteriorated considerably.

We see, through Goodheart’s words, we see the body as it travels through the night along tracks lined with people and at its stops in Philadelphia, Buffalo, New York City, and then on to Springfield, where his remains ended up being moved 14 times during the years after Lincoln’s death.  Then, they proceeded to reconstruct the tomb — the current structure is from the 1930s.

Most of the tracks that carried Lincoln’s funeral train are long gone.  There are markers along the way showing where the train passed, and some of the tracks were removed recently enough that you can still see the gravel.  I grew up in Chicago, and it is very likely that those tracks still exist, as Chicago is still a major rail hub.  Additionally, the freight lines connecting the suburbs to downtown carry commuter trains today.  In fact, doing some digging, it looks like if you wanted to travel some of the Lincoln funeral train trail yourself, you could take the Metra Heritage Corridor line from Chicago to Joliet.  Metra’s website says that the Lemont and Lockport stations were there when the funeral train went through.

Hubble’s Greatest Hits, by Timothy Ferris

Ferris shares some of the history of the Hubble telescope.  Originally, the astronomers wanted the telescope to be farther out, but instead the telescope ended up being put close enough to be reached by space shuttle.  And it turned out to be fortunate that it was put so close in.  Problems plagued the early days of the telescope and if it had been unreachable, it would have been a waste of billions of dollars.  Since it was put in closer orbit, however, astronauts were able to bring replacement parts and fix the telescope, which has been sending amazing pictures of deep space for 25 years as of April 24, 2015.

The photos which accompany the article are actually colorized composites.  The one at #9, for example, of the Crab Nebula, is a composite of four images.  The most complex photograph, and the one that captured my attention best, is the image at #2, which is created from 32 images of the Carina Nebula.  It looks almost like one of the later works of JMW  Turner.

How Coal Fuels India’s Insurgency, by Anthony Loyd, photographs by Lynsey Addario

How Coal Fuels India’s Insurgency is about the Naxalites, a Maoist group that is causing problems for the government of India.  Loyd jumps right into the violent nature of the conflict by introducing us to a leader who goes by various names, including Prashant, Paramjeet, Gopalji.  This man of many names introduces himself to Loyd as “Manas.”  Manas had just been part of a confrontation that killed six policemen and injured eight more.

The Naxalites, who take their name from a village in West Bengal where the movement began.  However, now all Maoist rebels are known as Naxalites, regardless of their place of origin.

Most of the followers of the Naxalites are the poorest of India’s poor.  They are poor farmers, Dalits, and members of an aboriginal group known as the Adivasi.  There are a number of college students who have found common cause with the Naxalites, as well.  The Naxalites flourish in the undeveloped parts of eastern India, mostly in the states of Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand.  This region, as it happens, is also the center of India’s mineral wealth.  Beneath the lands where the Naxalites and their followers live, work, and fight are bauxite, dolomite, iron, limestone and, above all, coal.  An area where there used to be farmlands and wildlife is now given over to mines, much of which is done in open “strip” mines.  And effectively none of the wealth generated by these mines are being given to the people of the region.  This feeds the resentment and leads to further recruits for the Naxalites.

And so, until the government of India finds a way to reach out to and communicate with the residents of this poverty-stricken area, it is unlikely that the question of the Naxalites will ever be resolved.

The Bug That’s Eating the Woods, by Hillary Rosner, photographs by Peter Essick

The Bug That’s Eating the Woods is about the mountain pine beetle, a tiny bug that has killed pine trees in an area stretching from northern British Columbia down into California and as far east as South Dakota.  In some areas, such as the area around Wolf Creek Pass in Colorado, nearly all of the trees in the region are killed.

Scientists are trying to figure out why the beetle has had such a devastating effect in recent years and at least part of this devastation is laid at the feet of climate change.  The beetle can travel farther during the warmer months because the farther northern reaches are no longer too cold for them.  Additionally, we have significantly cut down on forest fires, which has made it easier for the beetle to spread.  Some areas are experimenting with controlled burns to isolate the beetle, but it is too soon to see if that will do any good.  There is also some hope that climate change may help.  The beetle’s actual source of food comes from two fungi that it carries with them, one of which needs cold weather.  As cold weather ceases to be quite so cold, perhaps that fungus will become less effective and end the life cycle of the beetle.

I was a small child during the Dutch elm disease outbreak of 1950s through 1970s (specifically the 1970s end), and currently live in an area where oak wilt is always a concern.  As a result, I am aware of the maxim of urban forestry that no more than 10% of an area should be one particular species of tree.  I cannot help but think that something like that might not be a bad rule to follow when planning what to do with the areas that the beetle has hit, even though it is not technically urban.  Perhaps the forestry departments of the various governments could look into broadleaf trees that would fill a similar niche ecologically and economically.  Then they could  plant 50% pine trees and 25% each two chosen broadleaf species, or a 68%/16%/16% mix, perhaps.

Trajan’s Amazing Column, by Andrew Curry, photographs by Kenneth Garrett

Trajan’s Column is a monument in Rome which chronicles the defeat of the Dacians by the Romans during the rule of Trajan.  The column is also where Trajan’s ashes were laid to rest after Trajan’s death in 117 AD.  We are certain that at least that second statement is true. Trajan’s Amazing Column lists some of the arguments that historians are using against the idea that the details given on the column are as accurate as has generally been assumed.  Some of the details match up with what archaeologists are discovering, but much of it may be made up to conform with the idea of how the war should have gone.

When my son and I were in Rome in 2014, we discovered Trajan’s Column by accident.  I’m not sure how we managed to miss it standing there being all columnar and monumental, but we did.  It wasn’t until our last day in Rome that we found it.  We had been to the Trevi Fountain and stopped in a carryout pizza place.  Our purchase of pizza was purely in the interest of science, of course.  We had had pizza in Naples and needed another sample so that we could compare the two.

We now had two slices of pizza and no place to eat it.  So we walked back in the general direction of our hotel, figuring that if we didn’t see any place to sit down before we got to the hotel, we could eat the pizza in our room.  After walking for a while, we found some people sitting on the steps of a church.  This looked as good a spot as any to eat, so we sat, too.

That’s when we noticed the huge monument right there.  Once we finished our pizza we explored the area, taking lots of pictures of the monument and of the ruins of the forums (fora?) of Trajan and Augustus.  I took a panoramic photo of the column.  It wasn’t perfect, since I didn’t have my tripod, but it turned out pretty well.

In the article, Curry mentions tour guides explaining the column.  The signage, at least when we were there, is excellent, though, so one doesn’t need a tour guide.  There is a long sign running alongside the ruins of Trajan’s forum with pictures of the sections and an explanation of what is there (see image).  This sign must be new, since I cannot see it in Google Street View in June 2014, but it was there in July and Google Street View shows it in October, as well.

Sign at Trajan's Column
The interpretive sign at Trajan’s Column in July, 2014.

Argentine Identities, story and photographs by Marco Vernaschi

Vernaschi is an Italian native living in Argentina.  Vernaschi loves his adopted country and feels that the increasing reliance on soybeans as an agricultural industry is counterproductive.  As a result, he and his wife traveled across the country helping small family farmers find new sustainable agricultural projects.  He also took pictures of the residents of the areas that he traveled to.  He stayed away from the “poverty tourism” aspect of photography, where small rural farmers are shown as impoverished.  Instead, he wanted to focus on their culture, including two photographs in which the subjects are wearing ceremonial clothing and one which features a female gaucho. Tags:

Public Transportation

I know that’s not much of a subject line, but I’m not sure what else to call this post.

I grew up in the Chicago area, so I was surrounded by public transportation, trains in particular, growing up.  Chicago has what was originally a lot of different commuter rail lines.  In 1974, these different lines joined into the Regional Transportation Authority (“RTA”).  In 1984, the RTA was put under the control of the Commuter Rail Service Board, which was rebranded as “the Metropolitan Rail Corporation” (“Metra” for short).  For just about as long as I can remember, every time my mom and I went into the city together, we took the train.  It took longer for this to catch on with my dad, who drove on all of our trips into the city until I was a teenager.

Once I reached adulthood, the only time I drove into the city was when I had to go someplace that required a car either before or directly afterwards.  And since I worked in the city five days a week for two years, that’s a lot of train trips.

And yet, I have not tired of it yet.  I know people who feel that a car gives them some kind of freedom, but that has never made sense to me, except when it comes to places that are “car dependent,” like my neighborhood in San Antonio.  Being trapped behind the wheel of a car, unable to get anything else done, or even really enjoy the place I am in because I’m too busy watching my speed and where I’m going, has never really felt like freedom to me.  Being stuck in traffic has definitely never felt like freedom to me.

The first time my family and I took public transportation on a vacation was probably our trip to Washington DC.  We stayed in the suburbs and took the Metro into the city proper to do our sightseeing.  The next year, we followed that up with the Metro of Montreal, Canada, and then eight years after that, we went to New York City, though we only took the bus once or twice on that trip.  All of our other trips were to car-dependent places, and so that was the total of our public transportation travel during the years before my marriage.

My now-ex-inlaws were not big on public transportation; they drove into the city every time they went (which, if I recall, was not nearly as often as my family and I went). My now-ex was dubious at first, but soon saw how much more convenient the train was when it came to going into the city.  When traveling, however, we still rented a car on most trips even if public transportation was plentiful at our destination.  The only trip I can recall where we did not rent a car was our long weekend in Toronto.  We took a shuttle between the airport and the hotel and got around on our feet or by trolley (and, on one occasion, by subway) the rest of the time.

Our 2002 trip to the UK was both a rental car trip and a public transportation trip.  We used a rental car for the first week and a half of the trip, but when we arrived in London, we parked the car and just left it in the garage until we were ready to go back to the airport.  While we were in London, we took the London Underground anywhere that was too far to walk and then we took a day trip to Paris on the Eurostar train through the Chunnel.

Once my now-ex and I split up, my son and I started planning trips.  Together, my son and I have taken Metra in Chicago, the Metro in Washington DC, four different kinds of trains in Italy, and Amtrak between, and the subways of, both New York City and Philadelphia.  For our Italy and New York/Philadelphia trips, we didn’t even rent a car at all.

I will, of course, go into more detail on the systems we traveled on (to the extent I remember the Montreal Metro; fortunately, I have done most of the rest of it (sometimes again) as an adult and can remember the others better) in future posts.  This is just, on some level, me trying to remember all of the different transportation systems I have used in my life so that they are fresher in my mind when I get to those trips under My Travel Memories.  At the rate I am going, I may well end up recapping my 2014 rail experiences in Italy and then following up almost immediately with recaps of my 2017 experiences with rail travel in Germany.

National Geographic September 2014

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 “National Geographic September 2014”