National Geographic, March 2014, Part 2

I thought I wasn’t going to be able to finish this issue prior to the scheduled posting date of September 8.  But I did.  Whew!

Quicksilver, by Kenneth Brower, photographs by Brian Skerry

Quicksilver is a picture of overfishing, which seems to be a common theme in National Geographic in recent years, told through the population of bluefin tuna. Bluefin tuna live in all of the world’s oceans except, traditionally, for the Arctic Ocean (this has apparently changed in the months since this issue went to press).

Along the way, we see how important bluefin tuna are to Japanese culture. The first bluefin tuna of the season is subject to a bidding war that raises the price far above what a bluefin normally would cost. In 2013, the first bluefin tuna went for $1.76 million. We also watch scientists who are studying bluefin tuna using tracking devices to watch the movements of the fish. Scientists used to think that different populations of bluefin stayed to their own oceans, but the use of tracking devices has put an end to that idea.

Hopefully with proper studying and fishery management, the population of bluefin tuna will rebound and reach numbers that will ensure that people will be able to eat bluefin tuna long into the future.

Star Eater, by Mark Finkel, photographs by Mark A. Garlick

Star Eater starts off on the cheerful note of the expected extinction of Earth’s sun. This made me nervous. Contemplating the death of the universe is a nice thought experiment, I guess, but it’s not really something that makes me comfortable.

Things become a lot less personal in the second paragraph, though. This is when we start to talk about the forces that cause the creation of a black hole.

The rest of the article is about the way that black holes function, only now I’m more confused than ever. In one paragraph, Finkel tells us that black holes “roam the galactic suburbs” and, later, that some are “star-shredding, planet-devouring Godzillas,” but then later, he says “A black hole has no more vacuuming power than a regular star.” I am now thoroughly confused. So there are stars that wander the galaxy and the star-shredding Godzilla would have done it anyhow even if it hadn’t been turned into a black hole?

Then we talk about the relationship between the black hole and time. Finkel tells us that if you were to fall into a black hole, time is so elongated there that we would never see you fall in. You would just be stuck there on the edge of the black hole, from our perspective, “for an infinite amount of time.” But earlier Finkel told us that at the time this magazine went to press, a gas cloud was headed towards the black hole and that we would see a ring of debris form around the edge of the black hole as it eats the cloud. Why will we see the debris of the gas cloud form, but the person on the edge of the black hole would never fall in?

I actually very, very briefly considered studying astronomy at one point, and I’m glad that the consideration was very, very brief, because I’m clearly not smart enough for this.

People of the Horse, by David Quammen, photographs by Erika Larsen

The horse evolved in what is now North America. During the era of the Bering land bridge, some horses moved to Eurasia and then an extinction event happened in North America (perhaps they were hunted to extinction), leaving North America horseless. Horses were domesticated in Eurasia, and then thousands of years later, Christopher Columbus and future colonizers brought horses back to North America, where horses settled in as though they were at home, largely because they were. Many nations of Native Americans embraced them and made them part of their culture. And they are still a major part of Native American culture today.

Quammen gives us a little of the history of the horse, but People of the Horse is largely about the relationship between modern Native Americans and their horses. We meet Toni Minthorn, whose family didn’t have enough money to provide their children with toys. The family had 47 horses, however, which saved Toni’s self-esteem.

People of the Horse goes into the events of the Native American rodeo in great detail. I won’t even try to summarize, because I couldn’t do justice to it without quoting Quammen in detail. However, if you need information on the Native American rodeo and the Indian Relay, this article is definitely a good resource.

Call of the Bloom, by Susan McGrath, photographs by Merlin D. Tuttle

I love bats. Sometimes living in Texas gets me down (particularly when the temperature is over 100 degrees Fahrenheit), but the abundance of bats is definitely a plus. Just yesterday (as I write this; it will post about six days later), Alex and I were in Fort Worth, and we saw the wings of several bats in the parking garage. So, yeah. Bats.

There are numerous species of night-blooming flower and if you think about it, with nothing to pollinate them, the flowers would have died out. Sometimes the pollinator is a moth or the rare nocturnal variety of bee, but quite often the pollinator is a bat.

Call of the Bloom goes into the mechanics of how nectar-drinking bats find the flowers that produce the nectar, including having dish-shaped leaves that bounce the sound of the bat’s cry back at them strongly. We also see how those flowers have evolved to make it easy for the bat to get the nectar out While the bat is drinking the nectar, the stamen will drop pollen onto the bat, and the pollen sticks in the bat’s fur, where it remains until it falls off into the next flower. Interestingly, while many night-blooming flowers have smells that are pleasant to the human nose, the flowers that attract bats don’t necessarily smell so good to us. McGrath describes the smell as being like cabbage, sour milk, and skunk, among other smells.

The Mexican free-tailed bat is the bat that summers here in San Antonio, and they are known to drink some nectar. The night-blooming cereus, which does have a pleasant smell to the human nose, is one of the plants that bats pollinate.. I am tempted to get one for my front yard (so that the bats don’t get into conflict with my dog) and see if I can attract some bats next summer.

National Geographic, December 2014

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

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

The Joy of Food Text and photos by various writers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wasteland, by Paul Voosen, photographs by Fritz Hoffmann

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(originally posted March 2015)