tanzania

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Breaking the Silence, by Alexandra Fuller, photographs by Robin Hammond

When I saw the previous article on Wrangel Island, my first thought was that this was going to be an article on global climate change. To my pleasant surprise it wasn’t. Then I turned the page and found an article on the other recurring theme of these issues, unrest in Africa.

The unrest, this time, surrounds the then-34-year-old reign (all things considered, I hesitate to use the term “administration”) of Robert Mugabe, President of Zimbabwe. In, apparently, the interest of full disclosure, Fuller tells us that she lived for a time in what was then Rhodesia and that her parents were active in keeping the white minority in power. She introduces Mugabe with these two sentences: Robert Gabriel Mugabe exuded an air of conciliatory magnanimity. My mother wasn’t buying it.

This sentence bothered me. I spent the rest of the article looking for bias. Granted, Fuller describes her parents’ efforts as “a questionable cause,” but still, I am not sure what purpose the sentence about her mother serves.

The rest of the article is largely a chronology of the reign of Mugabe and a look into the things that the people of Zimbabwe are doing to rebel against Mugabe.

Our Fertilized World, by Dan Charles, photographs by Peter Essick

I spend too much time surrounded by faux science pro-“organic” propaganda. The opening sentence of the blurb: If we don’t watch out, agriculture could destroy our planet, had me prepared for more of that sort of thing. The little voice that asks whom the writer would let starve to get the organic utopia he wants was just getting warmed up when Charles outright admits that our culture depends on the existence of artificial fertilizer.

Our Fertilized World is not so much pro-organic as anti-overfertilization. We see some of the studies being done to find better ways to fertilize it without overfertilizing.

Next up in National Geographic articles (to be posted on or around July 31, I think?), the little voice in my head is really, really bothered by nitrogen being given an atomic number of 123. And 127.

Apparently that sugar story, and my dad’s reaction to it, created a real antipathy in me towards this issue.  I’m just having the hardest time ever reading it. I may break down and go forward to January 2016 soon and just read this one whenever I can bring myself to do so.

Additionally, I’m sort of experiencing a reading detour at the moment.  For several years during my childhood, my dad bought me one Nancy Drew mystery book a month.  I’ve been planning to read them for the last, oh, ten years or so, and in this last week or so, I’ve begun that project.  I’m now up to #14, The Whispering Statue.  They’re pretty dated, of course.  Nancy wastes a lot of gas driving to places where she can make phone calls and things of that nature.  One detail that I didn’t remember from my childhood stuck out at me — several of these books make an attempt at multiculturalism.  For example, we meet a Native American woman in The Secret of Shadow Ranch and The Mystery of the Ivory Charm features several characters from India.  The child character, Rishi, has trouble with the first person singular pronoun that’s kind of distressing for me.  It’s established that Rishi speaks Hindi, and Hindi does, in fact, have a first person singular pronoun.

Anyway, on to the lions of the August 2013 issue of National Geographic:

The Short Happy Life of a Serengeti Lion, by David Quammen, photographs by Michael Nichols

I’m somewhat confounded by this title.  The article is about the social structure of lion prides and their assorted coalitions of males.  We follow one two-member coalition of males, C-Boy and Hildur, as they mate with the females in their prides and fight off invaders, most notably a four-male coalition that are referred to as the Killers.

Lion prides are only females, generally grandmothers, mothers, sisters, and aunts.  Males work in small groups that affiliate with the prides and father their children.  When a new coalition of males moves in, they kill off or drive away the cubs, which causes the females of cub-bearing age to go back into estrus and then the new males father new cubs on the females.

In this article, we find that the biggest cause of death for lions is other lions.  Males will, of course, kill the offspring of other males, and males will kill other adult males.  Males will occasionally kill females (and it is from this that The Killers got their names — they are the prime suspects in the deaths of several females that were being studied).

Overall, this does not sound like a happy life to me.  But then again, I’m not a lion (at least, I would expect that someone would have told me if I were . . . ) so maybe that is happiness for a lion.

Living with Lions, by David Quammen, photographs by Brent Stirton

Living with Lions leads off with a picture of a man with no arms being bathed by another man.  This led me to believe that this was going to be another article like the one on leopards moving into cities from December 2015.  It isn’t.  The meat of this article is about lion conservation.

The home range of the lion has shrunk over the past millennia.  According to Quammen, at one point, lions spread at least as far north as France, as evidenced by the lions in the cave drawings in Chauvet Cave. And now the lion is confined to Africa and even that habitat is shrinking.  Lions do come into conflict with humans, but things like the human population expanding into the territory of the lions and trophy hunting are causing a lot of the drop in population.

We also meet a group called the Lion Guardians.  They are members of the Maasai tribe, who traditionally have hunted lions, to protect the lions instead.  They are paid a salary and trained in how to track lions with radio collars and they track the lions and prevent lions from killing livestock.  As of 2013, the program appeared to be working, and lion killings were on the downswing.

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)

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