russia

All posts tagged russia

I definitely am starting my fifth year of National Geographic issues here. And things should pick up soon. Alex is back in school, so we won’t be going anywhere together on most of my weekdays off. This means that I will return to my hiking-and-listening-to-19th-century-National-Geographic-issues trips. I should be done with 1889 by the end of 2016. I hope.

Bringing Them Back to Life, by Carl Zimmer, photographs by Robb Kendrick

The “them” of the title here is extinct species. Humanity is causing, directly or indirectly, the loss of species, perhaps on a daily, or even hourly, basis (depending on the model you use). Most of these species are likely to be bacteria, invertebrates, or even plants that were never identified in the first place. But the fact remains that there are hundreds of species that we can identify that have gone extinct and it would be nice to stop the resource use (particularly deforestation and rerouting of water) that causes these extinctions.

About a century ago, we lost the passenger pigeon. At one time, there were millions of passenger pigeons in North America, and then westerners moved in and started eating them. Within a couple of hundred years, they were all gone. So, since they once existed in such high numbers and because their loss was relatively recent, this is the example given of how manipulation of rock pigeon genes could create new passenger pigeons, or at least a new bird with the same genetic traits as the passenger pigeon. It would look like a passenger pigeon and likely have some of the same behaviors as the passenger pigeon. Hopefully it would fill the same niche in the ecosystem that the passenger pigeon once filled. At worst, it seems to me that it would be a prettier rock pigeon (and I say this as someone who finds rock pigeons to be a fairly nice-looking bird).

Will this kind of manipulation ever successfully be done? Well, it’s three years later and we haven’t seen the return of the passenger pigeon, so it doesn’t look like it’s been attempted. But perhaps someone someday will attempt it and it will be successful. One of the problems with the plan is that they would have to produce a lot of passenger pigeons in that first generation to succeed, because passenger pigeons naturally formed large flocks.

And even if we do see the return of the passenger pigeon or the Western black rhinoceros, or the Pinata Island tortoise, it will be a long, long time indeed before resources are such that we would have a Jurassic Park-type revival or even the return of animals that coexisted with humans such as, well, the mammoth. Hey, that leads nicely into the next article . . . .

Of Mammoths and Men, by Brook Larmer, photographs by Evgenia Arbugaeva

No, we aren’t talking about the return of the mammoth from extinction. Instead, Of Mammoths and Men is a profile of the residents of northern Siberia who hunt mammoth tusks for a living. As of 2013, a mammoth tusk could earn a hunter at least $60,000.  The hunter that we follow has an exceptionally good year while we follow him, bringing in at least $150,000 worth of mammoth tusks.

Element Hunters, by Rob Dunn, photographs by Max Aguilera-Hellweg

Element Hunters, aside from the annoying faux-periodic-table font they used for the title (“N,” “H,” and “U” have atomic numbers thank you very much. They don’t need fake ones attached to them by the graphics layout people at National Geographic) has the also-annoying misuse of the word “hunters.” The title makes it sound like the scientists in question are looking for existing elements. They aren’t hunting for elements any more than my cousin used to hunt for poodle puppies (hint: she bred them).

The titular “hunters” are using a cyclotron to throw protons and electrons at each other in an effort to create a new element that will remain stable. So far, they all have so many particles that they are pulled apart after the tiniest fraction of a second. I kind of doubt that we’ll ever find a stable element with that many protons and electrons, but it’s a hobby, I guess.

China’s Grand Canal, by Ian Johnson, photographs by Michael Yamashita

In this article, we travel with Johnson to the city of Jining and then spend two weeks on a barge carrying a load of coal down the canal to the Yangtze. Along the way, we learn the history of the canal, which was begun when Emperor Yang wanted to carry rice from the north to the south. The major rivers of China run east-to-west, so Yang had “a million” people dig a canal running perpendicular to the rivers. The canal used to start at Beijing, but much of the northernmost section is filled in now.

On Beyond 100, by Stephen S. Hall, photographs by Fritz Hoffmann

On Beyond 100 is largely about centenarians (people who live to be 100 or  more) and people who have conditions that might lead then to become centenarians. Two under-100s who are likely to reach highly advanced ages interviewed for this article, for example, are young men with Laron syndrome, which leads to short stature but also to a reduced risk of cancer and type 2 diabetes.

Hall also discusses the idea that caloric restriction leads to longer lives. This seems to work in mice and I actually had a teacher who was experimenting with it.  He did live to be 80, which is a respectable age, but is hardly the age he wanted to reach. And, further studies in caloric restriction show that it’s not so likely to work in primates as it seems to work in mice.

One thing that emerges from these studies is that men tend to have a larger chance of having genetic conditions that correlate highly with longevity. It seems that women centenarians greatly outnumber male ones not because of some inborn advantage, but because they take better care of themselves, including seeking out medical care.

The take-home, for me, at least, is that while science searches for genetic and hormonal pathways to longer life, and I do seem to be in better shape than most of my female ancestors were at my age, it also behooves me to also take care of my body.

Russian Refuge, by Hampton Sides, photographs by Sergey Gorshkov

In this article, we visit a Russian island with the very un-Russian-sounding name of Wrangel Island. Wrangel Island was named for Ferdinand von Wrangel who was born to a German family in Russia. Wrangel attempted to find the island in the 1820s, but failed. This was probably a good thing for his own longevity, since it took another 60 years for someone to actually land there and live to tell the tale. That someone was an American expedition.  Since Americans were the first to land there and return, Wrangel Island was for a time thought of as part of the United States.

In the 1920s, Russia claimed ownership of the island and forcibly moved a colony from Siberia there. Their descendants stayed there until the 1970s, when Wrangel Island became a nature preserve. Perhaps there will be eco-tourism there someday, but that day is still quite a ways off.


In other news, I hope to take Alex downtown tomorrow to check out the Pokéstops and see if the people who played Ingress found any historical markers, public art, etc., that I have missed on my many trips downtown. I may also try to catch a few Pokémon while I’m there, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, onward.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last Song, by Jonathan Franzen, photographs by David Guttenfelder

Last Song is about songbird hunting and/or poaching in countries near the Mediterranean (primarily Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Egypt, Croatia, Iraq, Jordan, Kosovo, Morocco, Romania, Spain, and Syria). One of the nice things about this article is that Franzen is against this poaching and he isn’t afraid to admit that he’s emotionally affected by the things he sees in the article.

Albania might be of the worst countries for hunting of songbirds.  At one point, Franzen says that almost none of the songbirds that enter the country ever leave it.  I did a little digging and the government of Albania finally did something about it in 2014, when they forbade all hunting in the country.  It was a pilot program that was supposed to last two years, but in February of 2016, it was extended for another five. While this has lessened the hunting somewhat, it has, obviously, only increased the level of poaching and Albania doesn’t have the resources to really crack down on poaching. Of course, what this means is that eventually only songbirds whose ancestors took migratory routes around Albania will survive to reproduce, and eventually Albania will lose all of its songbirds.

6/13/2016 Note: We went on a road trip yesterday and I finished reading July, 2013 and February, 2016.  I didn’t finish this post last night because I was exhausted when I got back.  I will, however, be able to knock out those three posts pretty quickly once I have some time to sit down and write (some of which will be after I finish today’s road trip). Now on to get started reading June 2013 . . .

The Case of the Missing Ancestor, by Jamie Shreeve, photographs by Robert Clark

In the 18th Century, a hermit named Denis supposedly lived in a cave in Siberia. Around three hundred years later, a piece of a pinkie bone was found in that cave, known as “Denisova.” When the scientists examined the DNA of that bone, they found that the owner of the bone, a girl estimated to have been around eight years old, had been of a species distinct from, but related to, modern humans.  They now call her people the Denisovans.

The Case of the Missing Ancestor goes into the discovery of the phalanx along with the discovery of two Denisovan molars, a Neanderthal toe bone, and part of a stone bracelet that, at press time was deemed probably too recent to have been made by a Denisovan or a Neanderthal, but may actually have been made by a Denisovan after all.

Speaking of things that have changed since press time, Shreeve says that the only living descendants of the Denisovans live in Oceania, including on the Aborigines of Australia and the Melanesians of Papua New Guinea. DNA studies done later indicate that there are also descendants of the Denisovans living in Tibet, including the Sherpa.

I’m just having the worst time getting my schedule back together.  Let’s see if I can get this post out now and get my Manitowoc post written today.  That’ll get me back on schedule.

Out of the Shadows, by Richard Conniff, photographs by Steve Winter

Out of the Shadows is about the increasing contact, and conflicts, between humans and leopards in places like India and Africa.  All over the world, humans are encroaching on the territories that previously had been dominated by top-level predators such as leopards.  Sometimes the predators retreat, but sometimes, as is happening with leopards, the predators adapt.

Conniff takes us to some places where leopards and humans are coming into conflict and lets us into some of the research on how these two species can coexist peacefully.

Personally, I am always struck by the camera trap photographs of big cats.  In the December 2013 issue, we had the article Ghost Cats.  I had the same experience there.  For some reason, the automatic cameras they use in their camera traps make the cats seem to look almost like they are taxidermied.  Are the shutters of the cameras that fast?  Or is there some other mechanism at work that makes the cats look, not just like they are not moving, but like they are actually stationary?

Remnants of a Failed Utopia, by Rena Silverman, photographs by Danila Tkachenko

Tkachenko visits places that used to be communist and photographs the buildings and machines that they left behind.  For this project, Tkachenko photographs these structures in snow, which diffuses the light, making for haunting images of a “lost civilization.”  For some reason, the images chosen for this issue have almost no color (for example, there are only traces of color in the photograph of the Bartini Beriev airplane, which made me wonder at first if Tkachenko also used black-and-white film.

First Skiers, by Mark Jenkins, photographs by Jonas Bendiksen

The question of which people were was the first to ski is a complicated one. The invention of skiing is largely dated by petroglyphs, which are carvings in rock. There are ancient petroglyphs in both Norway and in China, possibly giving both the claim to having been the first to ski. To make matters more complicated, the oldest ski ever found is a fragment that has been dated using carbon dating, as 8,000 years old. It was found neither in Norway nor in China, but in Russia.

Jenkins takes the tack that the people in China, who are not ethnic Han, but Tuvan, who come from Siberia. Jenkins takes us to China to see these people, the Altay, at work. They do ski to this very day, using one ski, the bottom of which is covered in horse fur, and one pole. The horse fur is oriented so that the nap raises up when the skier is going uphill and prevents the skier from sliding downhill. When oriented in a downhill direction the nap lies flat and allows the skier to slide.

Jenkins also watches the Altay people show him the traditional Altay method of hunting elk. Elk-hunting is forbidden in China, so Jenkins’s hosts merely show him how to track and rope the elk and no elk are actually harmed in the process.

Virtually Immortal, by George Johnson

Virtually Immortal is about the projects of a group called CyArk from Oakland, California, to document as many historic structures as possible. They used computers to make virtual copies of many landmarks and World Heritage Sites, including (but not limited to) Chichen Itza, Carthage, Mount Rushmore, Pompeii, and Rapa Nui.

In Virtually Immortal, we go to India to watch the team digitize a step well called Rani ki Vav, or the Step Well of the Queen. In India, people dug wells to find water. As time passed, the wells became more elaborate, including staircases lined with sculptures that went down to the water. Rani ki Vav is extremely elaborate, with carvings of gods and nature spirits lining the walls. Rani ki Vav was filled in with silt and sand within about 200 years of its construction, and the people at CyArk aim to save a digital copy of it so that it will never be lost again.

Putin’s Party, by Brett Forrest, photographs by Thomas Dworzak

Putin’s Party is about the then-upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. As we now know, things did not exactly go without a hitch in February 2014, with unfinished hotels and cramped conditions for the athletes, but this article is not about those things. You see, Sochi was a controversial choice for other reasons, namely the near eradication of the Circassian people.

The final battle of the war between the Circassians and the Russians (the Circassians lost) was in an area called Krasnaya Polyana, which is, coincidentally, where the skiing events of the 2014 Winter Olympics were held. The Circassians were sent to Siberia or to the Ottoman Empire.

Putin’s Party also profiles Pyotr Fedin, who biult a ski resort and got bought out by Gazprom, the corporation which previously had been the Soviet Ministry of Gas Industry. Gazprom is publicly traded on the Moscow, London, Frankfurt and OTC stock exchanges. As I write this, the price is $4.61 per share.

Things in Sochi and the surrounding area were getting tense in late 2013 when this article was written, both through threats from Muslims who live in nearby areas such as Chechnya and through Russia’s own, the article uses the words “suspicion of foreigners and their motives,” so let’s go with that.

In response to this, well, I guess, “suspicion,” is as good a word as any, the government has reactivated the Cossacks, who are both an ethnic group and a sort of military force. The Cossacks allied with the Tsars against the Bolsheviks. As a result, they were repressed during the Soviet era. They are no longer repressed and have been patrolling the streets of the cities and villages of the region.

Impossible Rock, by Mark Synott, photographs by Jimmy Chin

Impossible Rock takes us to a peninsula of Oman, where there are some of the most difficult rock-climbing rocks in the world, apparently. Our tour guides are Synott, a rock climber, and two of his rock-climbing compatriots, who prefer to climb without ropes.

The article is well written and the photographs are breathtaking, but this is about as close to free solo climbing as I think I’m going to get. This may be about as close to rock climbing as I really would like to get, come to that. I much prefer the kinds of adventures you can have exploring cityscapes and things of that nature. Maybe, someday, when I have exhausted all of the places that I can get to with a car or a boat or a train or whatever, and I’m down to places that can only be accessed by rock climbing, I’ll consider taking up rock climbing. I feel the same way about parachuting, by the way. It holds no interest for me unless it involves crossing more places off my travel “to-do” lists.

The Dogs of War, by Michael Paterniti, photographs by Adam Ferguson

The Dogs of War is about the Marine Corps use of dogs to find improvised explosive devices (IEDs).  I was less enthusiastic about this article than I might otherwise have been because I don’t like war.  I’m one of those people who thinks that the best way to support the troops is to bring them home.  And that goes for the dogs, as well.

Paterniti takes us to Afghanistan, where we meet Jose Armenta and his dog, Zenit.  Zenit is a German shepherd.  And when I say “his” dog, neither Paterniti nor I am using this word in a way that you would expect.  I have read articles about how most police dogs are socialized to live with humans and trained only to be aggressive on command.  As part of their training, they live with the police officers’ families more or less as a pet would.  I expected that to be the way that military dogs are kept as well.  It was kind of startling to find that while Jose lives in the barracks, Zenit lives in a kennel.

Though I should put that last sentence in the past tense.  We find out what happens, in the end, to Jose and Zenit and it’s a bittersweet ending.

Untouched, by Heather Pringle, photographs by Robert Clark

El Castillo de Huarmey is a tomb built into the side of a large rock formation in northern Peru.  The area around El Castillo had been used as a burial ground and had been violated by tomb robbers many times over the centuries.  As a result, when Polish archaeologists decided to explore El Castillo, which looked more or less like a step pyramid, no one but the archaeologists expected to find anything.

What the archaeologists found was the undisturbed tomb of one of the rulers of the Wari, a people who ruled this area of northern Peru for around 500 years.  One of the chambers contained what looked like a stone throne.  There were mummified guards, as well, all of whom were missing their left feet.  No one now living knows why their feet were removed.

In one chamber, the bodies of sixty women were found.  It appears that three or four of them were royalty and some 54 of the others may have been nobility.  These women were found wearing jewelry and fine clothing, then wrapped in cloth that left a roughly egg-shaped form.  There were also some other unmummified women found in the chamber, and it is possible that they may have been sacrifices.  Other goods, fabrics, vessels, boxes, and so forth, were found in the tomb as well.

And yet, with all of the bodies and materials and the throne, no sign of a king has been found yet.  The archaeologists are still searching, but while looking for other information on the Wari, I found a page at Archaeology Magazine’s website called “A Wari Matriarchy?”  And it occurred to me that why not?  Maybe the archaeologists will never find the “king” because there is no king to find.  Perhaps the highest-ranking woman, with the finest jewelry and clothing, was the ruler.

Puffin Therapy, photographs by Danny Green, text by Tom O’Neill

Before we get to the meat of this article, I find the way this article was credited interesting.  Generally, it’s the title, then after a few pages of photographs, when the text starts, the writer and photographer are credited in that order, and then the text starts.  In Puffin Therapy, the photographer credit is by itself where the writer and photographer credits normally go, and the writer’s credit is stuck at the very end of the text section, following a dash.  I wonder why they did it this way?  My first instinct is to say that perhaps Green was supposed to have written the text, but he had some kind of prior obligation that kept him from being able to do so and so they enlisted O’Neill at the last minute.

The text is largely about the mating behaviors of puffins.  The common image of puffins with their bright orange beaks is their appearance during mating season.  The rest of the year their faces and beaks are darker.  In fact, one photo that I found when searching for what puffins look like the rest of the year looks more or less like the puffins that we’re used to seeing right after a vacuum cleaner bag blew up in its face — all gray and sooty looking.

It wouldn’t be a National Geographic article without a mention of global climate change.  There is some concern that the change in climates may have a deleterious effect on the puffin population.  Puffins in some locations have had almost no offspring in some years.  Puffins are long-lived and can afford to miss a year or two of breeding, but this trend may be increasing and the puffin may end up being threatened as a result.

The title comes from Iain Morrison, who takes visitors to see the puffins.  He says that spending time with puffins makes the visitors happy and refers to it as “puffin therapy.”  And looking at Green’s photographs, I can definitely believe it.

How to Farm a Better Fish, by Joel K. Bourne, Jr., photographs by Brian Skerry

It should come as no surprise that an article called How to Farm a Better Fish would be about fish farming.  This installment of the Future of Food series focuses on the growth of the fish farming industry and how fish farmers and scientists are attempting both new and older methods in the industry.

As a general rule, fish is one of the most efficient forms of protein there is.  Where chicken takes around 1.7 pounds of feed to produce a pound of meat, and the ratios are 2.9 for pigs and 6.8 for cattle, for fish, the ratio is close to one pound of feed per pound of meat.  Additionally, more people are eating fish than ever before.  As a result, there is more growth in the fish farming industry than in most other areas of agriculture.

We look at a number of farms, including the farm of Bill Martin, who  is attempting to develop carbon-neutral onshore fish farming.  We also see several offshore farms, including one eight miles offshore which raises cobia.  The man who developed this farm, Brian O’Hanlon, has put the farm so far offshore so that the currents will take away the waste. And, indeed, researchers have yet to detect any waste outside of the fish pens.  And one researcher, Stephen Cross, is attempting what is called polyculture, where many different edible species live in a sort of symbiotic relationship.  In Cross’s case, he is raising sablefish and then down the current from the fish, he is raising mollusks.  Down the current from the mollusks are kelp, and further down are sea cucumbers.  These three other species filter the water and remove waste from the sablefish.  Cross says that the biological filtration system that he is using could be fitted onto any fish farm and, since all of the species he is using for filtration are edible, the filters themselves can be harvested and sold.

The final farm we see is a kelp farm.  The owners of the farm, Paul Dobbins and Tollef Olson, grow three species of kelp that can grow up to five inches a day.  They then sell the kelp to restaurants, schools and hospitals.  Dobbins and Olson have increased their farm has increased to ten times its original size in the past five years and the kelp is cleaning the water in the area as it grows, a win/win for both the farmers and the environment.

I love seafood.  I was visiting a friend who was a vegetarian and he tried to convince me to go vegetarian.  I admitted that vegetarianism holds some appeal for me, but that I don’t think I could ever give up seafood.  And this article made me feel even better about seafood and its future as a source of food for the planet, than I felt before I read it.

Train for the Forgotten, by Joshua Yaffa, photographs by William Daniels

In 1974, the government of the Soviet Union began an ambitious project to showcase what they believed was Soviet superiority over nature.  They started work on a rail line connecting Lake Baikal to the Amur River in northern Siberia.  Around half a million people worked on the rail ine and on the towns that they had to build to connect it.  The original homes for the workers were wooden barracks in the woods, and as time passed, they erected prefabricated buildings to live in.

Then when the Soviet Union collapsed, so did the construction project.  Since 1991, the people of this region, known as the Baikal-Amur Mainline (“BAM”) have been isolated and left with no regular health care.  In an effort to remedy this situation, the Russian government runs a medical train along the tracks.  The train, named for Russian health-care pioneer Matvei Mudrov, has exam rooms and medical personnel and visits each village on average every six months.  This may be okay for many of the residents, but for those who are sick or injured, it is not nearly often enough.  There are no urgent care facilities and people die of conditions that are treatable in the world outside the BAM.

Yaffa takes us into the world of the BAM, seeing how isolated the people are and how desperate their medical situation can be.  He show us the slowly crumbling buildings and infrastructure (where anything besides a dirt road exists; some of the villages don’t even have running water) of the villages along the BAM.  The story out of Russia is that the Russian government intends to use the BAM to ship containers, but none of that is seen here.  All we see is the slow decay of what started out as an audacious (in both senses of the term) project.

(originally posted July 2015)

Before Stonehenge, by Roff Smith, photographs by Jim Richardson

Before Stonehenge is the cover story, and, like other cover stories, the blurb on the cover doesn’t even begin to, well, cover it. The blurb says, “The First Stonehenge: Britain’s Master Builders” and, well, this article does discuss the Stones of Stenness, which is likely to be the oldest stone circle in Britain. But the article is so much more than just that one monument.

In Before Stonehenge, we see Skara Brae, for example.  Skara Brae is an entire neolithic village on a headland known as the Ness of Brae.  The homes had furniture and built-in storage units that would likely have been a lovely selling point if there were any such thing as a stone-age real estate market.

When you look at Orkney, an archipelago to the north of Scotland, on a map, it seems like it should be cold and inhospitable.  It is roughly parallel with the Gulf of Alaska, after all.  And yet, the average low temperature for Orkney for February (the average coldest month) is 35.1 degrees Fahrenheit/1.7 degrees Celsius.  That’s 15 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the average low temperature in February in Chicago.  Credit for this mild climate goes to the Gulf Stream.  Thanks to the Gulf Stream, the islands had a bustling agricultural economy that allowed the residents the freedom to express themselves artistically, as well.  So far, more than 650 works of art have been discovered.

And Orkney was not nearly as remote as its location would have you believe.  It was, in the words of Caroline Wickham-Jones of the University of Aberdeen, “an important maritime hub, a place that was on the way to everywhere.”  And the article contains a map that shows the extent of the settlements of Orkney during the Neolithic.  The current estimates are that there were more than 10,000 people living in the Orkney islands during the Neolithic.

Best of all, only around 10% of the Ness has been excavated, which means that there are certainly more treasures to be discovered on the Ness of Brae and, perhaps, all over the Orkney Islands.

Gombe Family Album, by David Quammen, photographs by Anup Shah and Fiona Rogers

On April 3, 2014, Jane Goodall turned 80 years old.  In recognition of the occasion, David Quammen interviewed  Goodall.

Goodall recalls being told that she had done her work  “wrong” in the minds of the establishment in animal behavior.  When Goodall went to Cambridge to get her Ph.D. in ethology, her professors didn’t want to hear about the personalities of the chimpanzees. They wanted her to be able to find patterns in their behaviors.

From here, the conversation moves on to discussions of the personalities, and personal histories, of some of the chimpanzees she got to know at the Gombe Stream Research Center in Tanzania.

The article is illustrated with a photo of Goodall in the 1960s holding hands with a chimpanzee named Figan.  This photo was  taken by Hugo Van Lawick.  There are also beautiful portraits  of some of the chimpanzees she worked with:  Frodo, Samwise, Gaia, Sparrow, Gremlin, Gizmo, and Nasa.

The New Face of Hunger, by Tracie McMillan, photographs by Kitra Cahana, Stephanie Sinclair, and Amy Toensing

The New Face of Hunger, this issue’s installment of the Future of Food series, is based in the United States.  The article focuses on the millions of Americans, most of whom are working full-time, who are facing food insecurity.  You are likely familiar with the term “food insecurity.”  This is the term which, since 2006, has replaced “hunger” in order to reflect the new reality of hunger in the United States.  In past generations, people either had plenty of food or were pretty consistently short on food.  In the current era, however, many people have plenty of calories but are short on nutrition, which can lead these people to become obese.  Additionally, these people cannot aquire  even the high-calorie low-nutrient-dense foods that they have the time and/or money predictably, which leads them to have this new term, rather than calling them “hungry.”

In The New Face of Hunger, we visit food-insecure families in Iowa, Texas, and New York. We talk about the food insecure and food deserts.  Many people live in what is known as a food desert.  A food desert, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, has to meet two criteria:

  1. They qualify as “low-income communities“, based on having: a) a poverty rate of 20 percent or greater, OR b) a median family income at or below 80 percent of the area median family income; AND
  2. They qualify as “low-access communities“, based on the determination that at least 500 persons and/or at least 33% of the census tract’s population live more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store (10 miles, in the case of non-metropolitan census tracts).

The article also discusses the role of subsidies in hunger.  The top five most highly subsidized crops between 1995 and 2012, were corn, cotton, wheat, soybeans, and rice.  The four of these that are edible are high-energy (which is the fancy way of saying that they have lots of calories) but are not so full of nutrients.  Fruits and vegetables, to the extent that they are subsidized, are subsidized at a much lower rate, which keeps those crops much more expensive (particularly on a per-calorie basis) than crops such as corn and wheat.  On the other hand, however, the subsidies that do exist help to keep the high-calorie foods that are highly subsidized more affordable to low-income people.  Without those subsidies, perhaps rather than food insecure people, we’d have a much higher rate of the truly undernourished poor in the United States.

While noodling around with the Food Access Research Atlas on the USDA website, I found evidence that apparently the USDA does not consider a Walmart Supercenter to be a supermarket, despite the fact that a Supercenter is about 1/3 groceries.  A new Supercenter opened in San Antonio last year and the area right next to it is shown as being a low-income area more than a mile from a supermarket or large grocery store.  Upon further looking at the map, I think that perhaps that’s just a side effect of the size of the census tract, because I just realized that there is an indisputable “supermarket or large grocery store” just about a mile from that Supercenter, also bordering on that same census tract.  Maybe, since the tract is so large, since the people on the far end are more than a mile from a store, all of them are considered to be in a food desert.

Franz Josef Land: The Meaning of North, by David Quammen, photographs by Cory Richards

In Franz Josef Land: The Meaning of North, Quammen and Richards accompany a scientific expedition to Franz Josef Land, an archipelago in the far north of Russia to determine why the ice is melting, how extensive the melting will be, and what the ecological consequences of the melting will be.  Their group of 40 people include experts and students in a variety of disciplines including but not limited to botany, microbiology, ichthyology, and ornithology.

We meet a number of the people on the expedition including Michael Fay, the botanist, who walked across the forests of Central Africa.  We also meet Enric Sala, whom we will see again in the September, 2014 article on the Southern Line Islands.

One of the things that is emphasized is how heavily armed the guards that accompany the expedition are.  I was wondering if the expedition was facing some kind of danger from humans.  I’m not sure who would be a threat that far north, maybe some kind of insurrectionists would be hanging out there, but it turns out that the guns are to protect them from polar bears.  And the author does have one close call.  Fortunately the situation is resoilved without violence,  There is a  lovely closeup photograph of a polar bear (not taken during that close call but with a remote camera).  The caption states that the remote camera was later chewed up by the polar bear.

And, of course, no conclusions can be made yet about the fate of the ice of Franz Josef Land.  All the scientists can do is collect data, watch trends, and see what conclusions they can draw from those down the line.

The Hidden World of the Great War, by Evan Hadingham, photographs by Jeffrey Gusky

The Hidden World of the Great War is about the reality of the trench warfare of World War I.  The soldiers did not just stand in trenches, they also built extensive tunnels and lived in ancient underground quarries.  These tunnels and quarries were dug into chalk and limestone, both of which are soft enough to carve, and some of the soldiers did just that.  There are, of course, the requisite names carved into the walls, but soldiers also left art behind.  There are portraits and symbols, including a praying soldier and a carving of Marianne, the symbol of the French Revolution.

(originally posted May and June 2015)