Last April, my editor at Outside asked me to look into the possibility of a Japan-style earthquake and tsunami striking the West Coast. Turns out it's not only possible, it's probable. Will it strike within our lifetime? Nobody knows. But if it does, it's going to be one hell of a ride. The resulting 7,000-word piece, "Totally Psyched for the Full-Rip Nine," envisions a 9.1 megaquake and tsunami hitting the coast, with a minute-by-minute narration. It won't hit newsstands until mid-September, but the editors put an early version online and it's getting massive hits and media interest. Here's an interview I just did an hour ago on KUOW's "The Conversation," with host Ross Reynolds. Coverage also at the P-I Online, KING 5 News, and Daily Kos.
The long-awaited (by my children) National Geographic cover story on the Spirit Bear of British Columbia finally hits the stands this month--and it's a thing of beauty. I provided the words for the two main features on the bear and its lair, but Paul Nicklen's photos are the real glory of the issue. I've had the good fortune to work with Paul on two NG features now (check out his work, with my words, on Svalbard in NG a couple years ago), and it's always a thrill to open up that early proof and see what he's come up with. Paul and I got lucky with this piece--when we first went up to the Great Bear Rainforest two years ago, an abundant pink salmon spawning season lured the bears down to the rivermouths. Our bear guides, Marven Robinson and Doug Neasloss, knew where to lead us and proved to be wonderful companions on the trail. (You can reach Marven through King Pacific Lodge, and Doug at his website, dougneasloss.com.) National Geographic cover stories aren't often controversial, but this one is kicking up a bit of dust in Canada, where the Northern Gateway pipeline, a proposed pipeline that would bring oil tankers into the heart of the Spirit Bear's homeland, is the object of heated debate.
Nearly a quarter century ago, an anonymous artist/activist painted a giant crack down the face of the Glines Canyon Dam, one of two dams that blocked the passage of salmon up the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula. 'ELWHA BE FREE" appeared beside it. The crack was, in a way, the opening shot in the great Elwha dam war, a 25-year fight to remove the dams and restore one of the Pacific Northwest's legendary salmon runs. Later this fall, the dams will come down and the Elwha will indeed be free. In the current issue of Seattle Metropolitan magazine, editor Katherine Koberg gave me some space to chronicle the battle--and to track down and reveal, for the first time, the story of the crack painter. He's an old Earth First! activist named Mikal Jakubal, and I think you'll enjoy meeting him.
On newsstands and online this week: My feature in The Atlantic Monthly on the art and science of camouflage.
The backstory: A couple years ago, while working on an article on deer hunting, I became interested in the idea of human camouflage. There seemed to be two completely different schools of thought. Hunters favored tromp l'oeil foliage patterns like those produced by Mossy Oak (bottom right photo), while soldiers wore those strange pixelated digital patterns (left).
Like a lot of articles I work on, this one stewed for a while. I kept a file on camouflage, followed my nose, and eventually found a way to write about it. Which is to say, I found Guy Cramer (that's him in the photo, upper right). Cramer, a 40ish Canadian, lives in a rural town east of Vancouver, B.C., and spends his days designing military camouflage patterns and inventing new ways to become invisible. The guy's a quiet genius. But I didn't know that at first. After meeting him in his research lab last year, it took me time and a lot of checking to make sure the guy was legit. He didn't fit the pattern of how we think of either military contractors or inventors. His office was neat, clean, almost eerily squared-away. There was no massive back office, no lobbying arm, no PR professional squiring me around. There was just Guy, quietly working on his projects in the cold misty Canadian afternoon. He's one of the most memorable characters I've met. Read more about him in the online version of the story.
The amazing Shalane Flanagan took bronze at yesterday's World Cross Country Championships in Spain, continuing a string of world-class performances that began with her second place finish in last year's New York City Marathon. Coincidentally, my profile of Shalane just hit the stands in the April issue of Runner's World. I had a chance to talk with Shalane and watch her train at Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, and also saw her run with training partner Lisa Koll at the UW Dempsey Indoor meet in January. She's an amazing athlete to watch: Such a smooth, quiet runner. I'm excited about the next Olympic marathon trial, just announced for Houston in January 2012. I've profiled two of the leading contenders--Shalane and Kara Goucher--and can't wait to see them run against Deena Kastor and one of the strongest American fields ever.
Last November I traveled to Alaska to research a cover story for On Earth magazine. The idea was to go up there and see if global warming is changing the food web in any way. I got more than I bargained for. It rained the entire time I was there, which is itself an indication of how things are going up there. (It's usually snowing, and the ice should be freezing.) On Earth has just published the story online, and the print version should be on newsstands soon. We've also put together an audio slideshow, and I'll post a few photos of my own here. This is what it sounded like: Download 1058.
This is Kotzebue's controversial new sea wall, created to protect Front Street from autumn storms. Those weren't such a big problem in the past, as the sea would be frozen, and the storm would just whip up snow. Now with more open water later in the year, storms surge up against the town. Hence the wall. Note the melting band of water along the edge of the wall. This was taken on a day when locals were warned not to travel on the ice; the warm rain had made it too unstable.
The Nullagvik Hotel, Kotzebue's finest, was fully booked when I visited. People from outer villages who'd come to town for supplies or to visit relatives found themselves trapped in town when the sea and river ice melted. (Their inbound routes were on ice.) Some ended up chartering bush planes to get home, leaving their snowmachines in town and coming back for them later in the winter.
A typical scene in Kotzebue in November. Cemetary in the foreground, houses, then fuel tanks holding the diesel that powers the local electrical grid. It gets a little lighter during the day, but not much. This was taken around 2pm, when things were already getting dim.
Kotzebue operates some of the world's northernmost wind turbines, which are situated on a rise a couple miles outside of town. They help offset the heavy use of diesel, which can be brought in only during a summer window when ships can travel on the ice-free Chuckchi Sea. I spent an afternoon with two guys who are responsible for repairing and maintaining these things. Tough job.
Claire's heartwarming and hilarious memoir, Poser: My Life in Twenty-three Yoga Poses (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25) hits bookstores next Tuesday, Dec 21, but you can get a sneak peek in the January issue of Vogue, which hits newsstands today. I've linked to a crummy pdf scan of the magazine here: Download Vogue Jan 2011 excerpt but it's worth getting your own copy. It's the one with Natalie Portman on the cover. (Update: For some reason--spousal magnetic website repulsion?--my website won't allow me to link-insert to my wife's website. Go figure. She and her book are at www.clairedederer.com.)
During my trip to the Arctic last month, I had the opportunity to spend time with Brendan Kelly, one of the world's leading Arctic biologists. Brendan and I spoke at some length about his work on ringed seals. (It'll be part of a feature on Arctic food webs in the Spring 2011 issue of On Earth magazine.) We also touched on the topic of hybrid animals, and how global warming may be increasing their number in the Arctic. In today's issue of Nature, Brendan and two colleagues report the first two confirmed observations of grizzly-polar bear hybrids, as well as other hybrids being seen up north. My own piece on his study was published by On Earth's web site today. Brendan's list of 34 potential Arctic hybrids makes for particularly interesting reading. Photographer Steven Kazlowski, who provided the shot of the (possible) grolar bear, lives and works just up the road from me in Kingston, Washington, and his book The Last Polar Bear is one of the great environmental books of the last decade (published by the good folks at Seattle's Braided River books). Very interesting stuff happening up in the great white north.
In case you haven't heard about it, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is currently filibustering the on the Senate floor over the tax deal. This 13-minute clip of the start of his speech, given earlier this morning, may be one of the most courageous and important speeches made in my lifetime.
Go Bernie! Finally somebody's willing to say it, and say it loud.
I had such a good time at the Field's End Writers' Conference last spring that I'm working with the Field's End folks again next year. We're teaming up to offer a seminar on nonfiction writing for the magazine market, and it should be a lot of fun. Here's what the catalog copy says:
In this class, we'll work to identify viable nonfiction story ideas and match them with potential magazines and editors. Students will develop story ideas, proposals, and articles as class assignments. The instructor will help students report, write, and edit their stories into shape and give oral and written feedback. No experience necessary.
We'll meet once a week during January and early February on Bainbridge Island. The class is limited to 10 students, so check it out if you're interested. Registration opens Tuesday, November 16. Read more about it at the Field's End Winter Classes site. Hope to see you there!
The Belize Zoo needs our help.
Sharon Matola's "Best Little Zoo in the World," featured in my book The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw, took a direct hit from Hurricane Richard late last month. The storm fairly well wrecked the joint. Giant ceiba trees crashed into the jaguar enclosure, the king vulture exhibit looks like a tossed net and tinkertoys, and the plumbing system's a mess. These photos give you some idea of what they're dealing with. Download More info and hurricane photos.
Sharon has had to close the zoo until December. Volunteers, staffers, and military personnel are all pitching in to clean the place up, but she's taking a huge hit in cement, fencing, netting, PVC pipe, lumber, nails, water pumps, and paint.
"It isn't too nice here," Sharon told me earlier this week. "Lots of things went a bit over-the-top odd. We need help, that's for sure."
Here's the key point: Sharon's still paying the working zoo staff, but the zoo is closed. Which means no gate receipts. And gate receipts are how the zoo stays afloat.
We can help. Sharon and the zoo's supporters have set up a Hurricane Relief Fund for direct donations.
My suggestion is this: Please become a Family Member ($35) or Patron ($65) of the Belize Zoo right now. Thirty-five or sixty-five bucks goes a long ways in Belize--I've seen it myself--and will immediately help offset the loss of zoo income due to this temporary closure. Sharon and the animals will thank you!
Today's High Country News has a nice riff on my "Hatch-22" piece (see earlier post) by Joseph Taylor, author of the classic Making Salmon: An Environmental History of the Northwest Fisheries Crisis. It's a fair and accurate critique, and I'm always thrilled to find any mention of my work in the old HCN. It's also prodded me to correct an oversight. NOAA fisheries biologist Alex Wertheimer's comment on Ray Hilborn's 2000 study of Prince William Sound hatcheries can be found here: Download Wertheimer hatchery response. Apologies for not posting it earlier. For those of you keeping up with Ray Hilborn, Crosscut recently posted Judy Lightfood's account of his recent lecture in the UW's "Food: Eating Your Environment" series. Hilborn's message: Save the land! Eat more fish.
I love James Franco, like Aron Ralston, but frankly, watching a guy saw off his own arm is my idea of hell. You see, I'm a fainter. Come at me with a needle, I'm done. Whump. On the floor. 10th grade vaccine shot: Whump. Group Health clinic: Whump. Birth of my son, C-section: Whump. (Read all about it in my wife's forthcoming memoir. Seriously.) I fainted--I kid you not--while sitting in a hot theater listening to Spalding Gray describe one of those freaky Phillipine surgery-with-bare-hands deals. So now the LA Times reports that 14 people--and counting--have passed out while watching Franco painstakingly de-hand himself.
Why do some people faint like this? The best explanation I've come across (read: The one that shines the best light on moi) comes from good old WebMD:
The idea is that back in time, when someone was coming at someone else with a sharp stick or rock, a kind of genetic variation allowed certain people to faint in response," explains Tyler C. Ralston, a clinical psychologist in Honolulu, who treats people with blood-injury phobias. Warriors who fainted looked dead and were passed over during battle. The blood pressure drop also might have helped those who were wounded avoid bleeding to death. Survivors then passed on the 'fainting' gene.
Yes! Vindicated! A canny warrior's strategy, that.
Anyway. Warrior-passed or not, I think there may be something to the genetic thing. I recall my father nearly fainting in 1976 while I got stitches in my chin after a nasty skateboarding accident. And last year when the kids got their H1N1 shots, 11 year-old Lucy...hit...the...floor. Whump.
Sorry, kid. That's on me.
There's some interesting stuff going on down on the Gulf Coast right now, most of it happening out of the spotlight because of the midterm election. Though oil isn't washing up in high volumes, it's definitely hanging around in certain wetlands, especially Bay Jimmy, one of the areas I got to know well during my time down there reporting for National Geographic. This afternoon's HuffPo put up this strange hybrid piece that combines AP photos with Greenpeace photos to give what looks to me like a skewed interpretation of what's going on. The Greenpeace aerial shots show ribbons of what looks like weathered oil--but might very well be algae blooms, given the high volume strands seen from the air and recent testing of the stuff done by scientists at LSU and elsewhere. That's not to say that old oil isn't occassionally turning up in the bays--Tuesday's NYT piece quoted a longtime Louisiana fisherman who'd gotten her hull gunked up with oil, not algae. I've been out with those folks, and that quote had the smell of truth. What gives? Probably a little same-old, same-old: Scientists only test what the Coast Guard scoops up and gives them, and my experience down there leaves me with little confidence in the Coasties' ability to locate and scoop samples of the reported oil strands. The upshot: There's probably a lot of algae out there and a little bit of residual oil too. Trust AP photos and reports (like the photo posted here, of Plaquemines Parish official PJ Hahn--will they ever get your head in the shot, PJ?), but treat Greenpeace photos and reports with a dose of skepticism. Mixing the two is a bad idea.
As promised in my earlier post, here are some sources for my "Hatch-22" article posted today on Yale Environment 360. Greg Ruggerone's study of sockeye and pink salmon is a great place to start the conversation on competition between salmon species in the ocean: Download Bristol Bay Sockeye Pink. Nancy Davis's work on salmon diet in the ocean is available here: Download Salmon diet Davis. Ray Hilborn's 2000 study on the effect of Prince William Sound Hatcheries is here: Download HilbornSalmon. And he responds to his critics here: Download Hilborn Eggers 2001 response.
One of the most interesting bits of research I turned up, but which didn't make it into the article, was this: The drive to increase production of pink salmon from Alaskan hatcheries is driven by salmon processors, who can't get enough product right now from Alaskan fishermen. Word is that a crash in the Chilean farmed Atlantic salmon market, caused by a virus that wiped out most of their fish, has led to a surge in demand and, of course, price. (More about that Chilean situation in a good, if dated, piece here.) The Russians continue to pump more and more pink salmon into the Pacific, and they're gaining market share. Read this very interesting open letter that the salmon processors sent to Alaskan hatchery operators earlier this year: Download Open Letter to Alaska Hatcheries.
Finally: I would be remiss if I didn't post a link to Wesley Loy's excellent Alaskan salmon industry blog, Deckboss. If you want to keep in touch with what's going on with this issue, set up a feed to Wesley's site.
Yale Environment 360, one of the best new outlets for environmental journalism, just posted my piece on the Pacific Ocean's salmon glut. Yes, you read right--glut. Greg Ruggerone, a fisheries consultant based over at Ballard's Fishermen's Terminal, recently published a fascinating study that estimated the total abundance of salmon in the Pacific Ocean. His findings? There are twice as many salmon in the Pacific today as there were 50 years ago--and we may be reaching the limit of the Pacific's salmon carrying capacity. Good news? Not exactly. Pinks and chum salmon are thriving, thanks in part to industrial hatcheries cranking 'em out, but chinook and coho are not (that's why so many runs are endangered). To find out why salmon can be simultaneously endangered and clogging the ocean, read my piece here. Ruggerone's original study is also available online, as is the UW's page on the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, which is really hard to boil down into a single paragraph. I'll put up more of the original documents and studies related to this article later today...
At yesterday's closing SEJ (Society of Environmental Journalists) conference session, authors David James Duncan (The River Why, River Teeth, The Brothers K) and William Kittredge (Hole in the Sky, Who Owns the West) worked up some serious passion over the worrying creep of corporate 'personhood' in America. For those unfamiliar with the issue, check out the end of this not-exactly-elegant entry in Ye Olde Wiki. Corporations in America have been, over the past decade, gathering a number of rights previously reserved for actual persons. A few years ago Nike claimed its corporate PR pronouncements deserved the same First Amendment rights as any other American person. That was the first toe in the water. Then, in last year's Citizens United case, corporations overturned our campaign finance laws by arguing, successfully, that corporations have the same First Amendment rights (including their expression through campaign spending) as flesh-and-blood American citizens. (There's a good primer on the issue and possible remedies written by Monica Youn at the Brennan Center.) If you're wondering why the crazy attack ads are flying so fast and furious during this election, the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision is the answer.
That's a long-winded way of getting back to Kittredge and Duncan, whose eloquence and passion against corporate 'personhood' was to-the-barricades stirring. Kittredge had the last word on it, though, and I can't do any better: "Corporations are the only 'people' in the world legally required to act as selfishly as possible."
Just got back from the big plenary lunch session at the SEJ, the annual convention of the Society of Environmental Journalists--we’re meeting in Missoula, Montana, this weekend—and I’m still aghast at Nancy Sutley’s performance. Sutley is Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. She’s President Obama’s principal advisor on environmental policy. And two hours ago she got up on stage and gave an incredibly dispiriting display.
Scene: A panel on the future of U.S. energy policy. Players: Sutley; Karen Harbert of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (the folks that brought you the death of the energy/climate bill); Kieran Suckling, who files a new endangered species lawsuit every day before breakfast; and Randy Udall, a folksy, brilliant energy consultant and member of the Udall clan. Audience: 150+ of the most influential enviro journalists in the United States.
Sutley kicked things off with a thoroughly desultory recitation of the Obama administration’s many positive moves on clean energy, the stimulus package, yada yada—and I swear to god she read it off a sheet of paper. No nod to her audience. No acknowledgment that we’d all been covering these issues for years. It was Rotary Club boilerplate. When the others attacked Obama’s enviro policies, Sutley responded with equivalent of a noodle sword and a paper shield. Her answers essentially boiled down to: 1) We’re doing the best we can and 2) We tried to change things, but Congress wouldn’t let us.
Um, yeah. That’s the Congress that your own party controls. All in all, a shocking disappointment. At least Harbert of the Chamber rose to the fight and gave as good as she got. If this is what we’re going to get from the White House on energy policy over the next two years…well, excuse me, I need to get a drink.
After a hot summer on the oiled waters of the Louisiana marshes, long nights of writing, and weeks of fact checking, National Geographic's October issue on the Gulf oil spill hits newsstands and mailboxes this week. Grab it and set aside a couple hours. It's magnificent. I was lucky enough to be assigned part of the whole--my piece on oil in the marshes is online, but best read in print--and it was one of the most challenging and satisfying assignments of my career. I ended up spending a number of days on the water with photographers Joel Sartore, Charlie Reidel, and Gerald Herbert, chronicling the worst of the barrier islands and bird rookeries. (That's Joel's shot of P.J. Hahn rescuing a pelican; I'm just out of the frame, in oil-soaked pants.) Geographic set a small army of editors, fact checkers, photographers, cartographers, and writers onto the project, and it paid off in a spectacular issue.
UPDATE: Full article now available on Backpacker's web site. When I'm dropped into an assignment in the backcountry and have to make sense of what I'm seeing, sometimes I'll use what I like to call the sportsman gambit. I ask the locals for the name of the best hunter in the county. When I find him, I offer lunch in exchange for a tutorial: Walk the ground with me. Show me the place through your eyes. It's amazing what they show me--so much life going on that I couldn't see. And yet so often hunters are stereotyped by non-hunters as beer-chugging dolts. I'm a lifelong hiker, skier, camper, and sometime climber, but until recently I'd never been hunting. The editors of Backpacker invited me to explore America's curious hunter-hiker divide, and do a little deer hunting myself. The result is "Killer Hike," a feature in the new issue of Backpacker that's getting good buzz at sites like independentoutdoorsmen.org. Backpacker builds in a delay on its web site, so the article's only available in the print version of the magazine right now. But here's a pdf preview for you: Download Preview of Hunting feature.
In the frigid Bering Sea, the Pacific Prince tries to take only the fish it needs -- and leaves the ocean healthier
Deep within the bowels of the Pacific Prince, a 149-foot pollock trawler, 28-year-old biologist Monica Brennan stands in her orange rain gear, holding an empty plastic laundry basket, waiting for the fish. Two years ago Brennan quit her job as a groundwater specialist in Phoenix. She wanted to try something new. Something adventurous. So she signed on as a fisheries observer. And here she is on a two-and-a-half-month stint on the Pacific Prince. It's 1:00 a.m. on a stormy winter night in the middle of the Bering Sea off Alaska. The boat is bucking like a rodeo bull. Wind chill factor outside: 12 below.
Up in the wheelhouse, Captain Jack Jones watches his crew pull the net aboard. Bering Sea pollock boats tow cone-shaped nets that sieve the water a few hundred feet above the ocean floor, where pollock congregate in massive schools. Imagine a fishnet stocking the size of a boxcar, stuffed with wriggling fish. A crewman opens the net's side zipper and sends thousands of pollock, a fish with a trout's sleek body and a cod's wide-mouth head, sluicing down a hopper. If you've ever eaten Mrs. Paul's frozen fish sticks, a basket of Long John Silver's fish and chips, or a McDonald's Filet-O-Fish sandwich, you've eaten Alaska pollock.
Read the full article at On Earth's web site.
Here's an op-ed I wrote for the LA Times a few days ago that's sparking a lot of reaction and getting a lot of play in papers and on radio around the country.
What in heaven's name were her parents thinking?
For a lot of people, that was the second thought that came to mind upon hearing that Abby Sunderland, the 16-year-old Thousand Oaks girl attempting to sail solo around the world, was rescued by a French fishing vessel Saturday after being cast adrift in the middle of the Indian Ocean. (The first thought, of course, was: Thank God she's alive.)
Now that Abby's OK, the inevitable storm of criticism is raining down on her parents, Laurence and Marianne, who wished their daughter bon voyage when she cast off from Marina del Rey in January. Allowing a 16-year-old girl to sail alone around the world — were they insane?
Not at all. Unusual, yes. But hardly "the worst parents in the world," as I've heard them called recently. In fact, they may be the opposite. Like Paul Romero, the father of Jordan Romero, the 13-year-old Big Bear Lake teenager who climbed Mt. Everest last month, the Sunderlands are practicing something bold and rare these days: brave parenting.
Raising kids today (I have an 11-year-old and an 8-year-old) is like working on a construction site with an overzealous risk manager. Everywhere you look there are signs reminding parents that Safety Is Job One. We're told to cut up hot dogs and grapes to prevent choking, to lash the kids into car seats, to never let them out of sight at the park. A certain amount of this is progress, of course. I'd rather my kids not launch through the windshield like human missiles in a head-on, thank you.
But in our obsession with safety, we've lost sight of the upside of risk, danger and even injury: raising bold children who are prepared for adventure and eager to embrace the unfamiliar.
Read the rest of the story at the LA Times site here.
Last summer I hiked the 53-mile coastline of Bainbridge Island, my new home, and mapped it with an iPhone for the editors at Backpacker Magazine. It turned into a hell of a production. We ended up with 2,500-word cover story, a hand-drawn map, a book, and a fantastic Google Earth map of the island. If you want to see the Google Earth project, complete with photos, text, trails, and video, you can download the whole kmz file here: Download BAINBRIDGE BACKPACKER MAG MAP. (Hint: You've got to have Google Earth already downloaded onto your computer to make it work. Do it. It's easy, and you can see your house from space. Also: When the map opens, it may inexplicably take you to Africa. Why? I have no idea. Google Earth ain't bug-free. What to do: In the "Places" box on the left hand side of your screen, click the empty box next to BAINBRIDGE BACKPACKER MAP. That will open the Bainbridge files. Now scroll your Google Earth globe over to North America, and you'll see my icons there in the upper left-hand corner of the country. Keep clicking on them, and you'll get there.)
You can access the full Backpacker story, with map downloads, here.
Late last year I had an interesting conversation with Dave Howard, an editor I've worked with for years. Dave's the executive editor at Bicycling Magazine, and he mentioned an off-the-cuff comment from a former Olympic bicycle racer. In his day, the ex-racer said, you cycled away your hyperactivity; that was partly how he got into the sport. "I wonder how many kids over the past decade got put on Ritalin instead," he said. "How many potential racers never discovered the sport?" That got Dave and me to talking: What if we took that question seriously? So began a seven-month investigation into the history of ADHD and the use, study, and abandonment of exercise as a serious treatment for the condition. The result appears in this month's issue of Bicycling: Riding Is My Ritalin, a story about the powerful positive effects of exercise on the brain, and the largely unrecognized potential it has for people struggling with ADHD. In the course of my research I turned up a number of promising studies linking concentrated, regular doses of exercise to steady improvement in the management of ADHD in children. Time and again, those studies were ignored or never followed up. The reason? Exercise doesn't result in big profits for pharmaceutical companies. In the course of my reporting, I found one athlete who was going his own way and acting as a one-man test case. Adam Leibovitz, 19, was diagnosed with ADHD 13 years ago and has tried a suite of drugs, from Ritalin to Adderall to all the rest. A couple years ago he decided to drop the drugs and use his bicycle training to calm his mind. So far, it's working. Adam's a nationally ranked spring cyclist and a sophomore at Marian University in Indianapolis. Check out his story here.
Apparently it's prize week around here. On Monday night I dragged myself to the door, sopping wet from a long week up in the rainforests of British Columbia, and found a bounty awaiting me: Korean editions!
Somewhere out there a translator has been burning the midnight oil to turn out a Korean-language edition of Last Flight. (Translator: Whoever you are, give me a shout. I have a signed edition waiting for you.) Looks fabulous. If you're in the market for a copy, contact Sallim Books, they can hook you up.
In other exciting news: Last Flight has been named the winner of the 2009 Gene E. & Adele R. Malott Prize for Recording Community Activism, which recognizes the best literary depiction of an individual whose efforts resulted in a significant improvement of their local community. It's an especially neat award because it honors the community activist--the Belize Zoo's Sharon Matola--as much as the book.
Finally: I just learned that the book has been named a finalist for the 2009 Washington State Book Award, an honor given to The Measure of a Mountain a decade ago. Good times. Now I gotta go dry out my gear.
The final pages of my book, The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw: One Woman's Fight to Save the World's Most Beautiful Bird, took place nearly four years ago. How's the Chalillo Dam worked out for Belize? Not so great. Here's the latest: During Belize's June-to-November rainy season the green, placid Macal River typically swells into a roiling beast. But this year something's a little off. Unusually high amounts of sediment are mucking up the river, and it's not all coming from hillside runoff. Candy Gonzalez, who's been monitoring the dam since it began construction years ago, has obtained aerial photographs that show the river running clear in the reservoir behind the dam, and turning chocolate below the dam. Stephen Usher, operations VP for BECOL, which runs the dam, acknowledges that the company is flushing high levels of sediment out of the reservoir. (The dam's intake pipes are several hundred feet below surface water level. Sediment can kill a dam if it fills in the reservoir and smothers the intake pipes.) Usher blames Guatemalan Xateros--foreign palm frond poachers--for deforesting the hills surrounding the dam and causing the iron-rich soil to run into the water. Which is classic Belize: When in doubt, blame Guatemala. Downstream residents, many of whom depend on the river for drinking water, are complaining about dirty stinky water coming out of their taps. Adele Ramos, as usual, has the best reports on the developing story in Amandala (updated here). Channel 7 has an expected take-no-sides version, and International Rivers has a version slanted toward the enviro side. Adding to the controversy: A photo of the Macal, downstream of Chalillo, meeting the Mopan River (left), showing the undammed Mopan running clear until it meets the silt-laden Macal. ** 8/27 UPDATE ** Adele Ramos continues to push the story in Amandala. The latest issue has a senior Gov't of Belize health inspector advising: (1) Don't drink the water, (2) Don't swim in the water, and (3) Don't worry, all is under control. Next up: A public meeting to discuss the river brownout, next Thursday, Sept 2, at the Cultural Center in Cayo. Expect fireworks.
Five minutes past midnight in Svalbard: The wild world is awake and clattering. At the edge of a sheltered estuary in the Adventdalen, a valley on a cluster of islands halfway between Norway and the North Pole, a flock of arctic terns soar and wheel in the perpetual daylight.
It's a typical summer night in Svalbard, an entirely atypical refuge in the high Arctic that abounds with an extraordinary array of wildlife. I had the amazing opportunity to visit this high northern refuge last summer for National Geographic, which recently published a few of my words alongside Paul Nicklen's spectacular photographs--stunning shots in the best of the Geographic tradition. (That's his Svalbard reindeer in motion.)
What's it like in Svalbard? Bright. 24-hours-a-day bright during the time I was there (August), which was highly amusing and mildly disorienting. I went for sunshiney hikes at 2am, though not outside of the town limits, because those who do so run the risk of being eaten by polar bears. Here's a shot of your faithful correspondent tanning in the midnight hours. The biggest surprise? The locals' love of winter, which brings 24-hour darkness. "It's the best in winter," one of them told me, "because it is just us, just the local people, and everyone meets at the sports center for volleyball games and has parties, and snowmobiles gives you free reign of the island."
...and doesn't, one hopes, fling it across the room. The Port Townsend Public Library recently announced that The Measure of a Mountain: Beauty and Terror on Mount Rainier, my 1997 book about the Northwest's great geographic icon, would be the featured title in its 2009 Community Read.
I find this both amazing and moderately frightening.
How cool to have your book read by an entire town! It sounds kind of like the plot of a Stanley Kramer movie--whole town reads the book, invites author, then...something goes horribly awry in a way that propels us through awkward/funny situations to a third act resolution in which all involved learn something grand and touchingly human about themselves.
It all happens next month (March), and includes a mind-boggling number of events about Rainier, and mountains, and people's opinions about the book. I'll be there on Thursday, March 26 for a massive star-studded multimedia extravaganza of a presentation but frankly I'm tempted to slip in unannounced to some of the earlier events. There's a "Book discussion group" scheduled to meet at the Hilltop Tavern at 7pm on Thursday, March 10. Now look: I've slung back a beer in Port Townsend. The idea of a posse of critics having a go at your own book around a pitcher at the Hilltop is both profoundly scary and almost irrisistibly enticing. Especially since I've seen the MySpace page for the Hilltop. Which lists the Hilltop as a 47-year-old female. "I am a red brick building..." says the Hilltop. "I have a new beer garden. It makes the customers very happy to be able to drink outside."
Anyway: Come on over to PT next month for the big doings. Couple of really nice articles about it just came out in the Port Townsend Leader and the Peninsula Daily News. The Daily News piece has a massive head shot of me that has me (a) running to RiteAid for some SPF 45 and (b) considering using its gargantuanity as a Fathead poster in our basement.
There's a fantastic transcript of today's Obama cabinet meeting flying around via e-mail right now. A couple things of note. First, the man seems to be able to toss off Bartlett's-worthy remarks like a Denny's fry cook whipping out Grand Slams ("Order up!"). In the course of introducing tough new lobbying rules, which should stop the ridiculous door-spinning we all got used to during the Bush days, he said this:
It's not about advancing your friends or your corporate clients. It's not about advancing
an ideological agenda or the special interests of any organization. Public service is,
simply and absolutely, about advancing the interests of Americans.
Sure, plenty of politicians could say that. But Bush never did. And if he did, the evidence would have proven him a liar.
Also, Obama turned the Freedom of Information Act back into the Freedom of Information Act. Under the Bush rules, government officials were ordered to err on the side of secrecy. If a document wasn't already public, there were almost no good reasons to make it so. Obama just changed that.
For a long time now, there's been too much secrecy in this city. The old rules said that if there was a defensible argument for not disclosing something to the American people, then it should not be disclosed. That era is now over. Starting today, every agency and department should know that this administration stands on the side not of those who seek to withhold information but those who seek to make it known.
Those two items aren't campaign promises. Obama just signed the Executive Orders. They're done.
Now it's up to us to hold him to it.
I've been asked the question three times in the past hour: Why can't they just put shields over the engines of airplanes to keep birds from destroying them? In other words, put some dang ol' wire mesh in front of 'em, like they did in the old days. Well, at least the old German days (see photo). I put the question to Russ DeFusco, one of the world's leading birdstrike experts and my main source for birdstrike knowledge over the past six months. Says Russ:
I can't even tell you how often this is suggested to us, but the bad news is it just can't be done. Any kind of defective shield is so disruptive to airflow that modern jet engines just can't operate with them. In order to make such a shield, it would have to be minimally intrusive and thus not able to withstand an impact. In fact, such a shield would likely collapse and itself be drawn into the engines and thus cause even more damage. The answer has been incorporated into almost all modern jet engines: a high bypass ratio. Most air bypasses the core of the engine and is redirected, forced down, and used as thrust and for cooling. Only a portion (usually less than 20%) is used for combustion in the core. Therefore, most debris, including birds, is shunted to the perimeter of the engine and bypasses the core. Unfortunately, birds and other debris when they hit the fan blades sometimes cause those blades to fail and they in turn are ingested along with the bird remains. This, along with the inherent instability that results is usually the cause of an engine's demise in such events.
Talk about strange timing: About three weeks ago I handed in a 3,500-word feature on the danger of birdstrikes--airplanes hitting birds--to the editors at Audubon Magazine. "The numbers keep going up, and the FAA is just clueless," one veteran pilot told me. "The airline industry doesn't want to get involved because they're afraid they might have to spend money. Nobody will get involved until we have a big catastrophe."
Early indications are that yesterday's crash of a US Airways jet on New York's Hudson River was caused by a birdstrike. Two, in fact. Canada geese. Took out the engines.
Aubudon is scrambling to put the piece up on its web site, and it should be there any minute now. I'll link to it when it's live. In the meantime, I put together a short piece for the New York Times Op-Ed page, which they're running on their "Room for Debate" web site, which picks up where the printed page leaves off. As soon as the Audubon story goes up, I'll post more photos and videos of birdstrikes. Amazing stuff, really.
The Bush Administration warped American life in such profound yet subtle ways that we won't really know what hit us we can look back years from now and wonder, What the hell? Take, as one tiny example, television. There were some shows made unwatchable by their virtuous counter-example: The West Wing. Week after week, we'd tune in to watch the train we'd all missed by a few lousy Florida votes--a smart, articulate, chess-playing(!) president who was familiar with the concepts of strategy, diplomacy, and sophistication. At least you all tuned in, because after a while the contrast between make-believe Martin Sheen and the real-world man in the Oval became too painful for me to take. And then there were shows made unbearable simply by the knowledge that Dick Cheney liked them: 24. How could you enjoy Kiefer Sutherland saving the world when you knew the Dark One took every episode as an endorsement for waterboarding? There were changes in viewing habits that, at first, baffled the commentariat--I worry and scratch my chin as America switches from Tom Brokaw to Jon Stewart--and then, as some unspoken tipping point was reached, became obvious. How could you not get your news from Stewart, seemingly the only man in America left with an honest, not-completely-gutless reaction. Finally, last night's exit by Gil Grissom from CSI. It's no mystery why CSI has crushed all comers in the ratings: Cops and robbers in Vegas, great writing, fab acting, good guys win. And no politics involved. Pure escapism. Until last night, that is. On his way out the door, Gil Grissom (William Peterson) uttered a piece of advice to his successor, played by Samuel L. Jackson. "People lie," he said. "The only thing we can count on is the evidence." As the Bushies leave the building, it's not a bad aphorism to remember them by.
Take it as a sign of America's home heating bill sickness (as in, we're sick of paying them): Today's most-emailed story over at the New York Times is a feature on passive houses, homes so efficient and tight they require no fuel source other than human bodies. As a couple of colleagues have pointed out, the story was frustratingly short on specifics--the key to the whole rig seems to be a mysterious heat exchanger shaped like a styrofoam cooler--but apparently that hasn't stopped a whole lot of readers from dreaming of a fuel-bill-free world. I rooted around and found a few more details at the Passive House Institute, an Urbana, Illinois-based group, that's got a good web site and a book, Homes for a Changing Climate. If you're wondering how propane and heating oil prices have fluctuated in the past year, check out the Energy Information Administration's heating oil and propane update. I also like John Bogdanski's home heating site; he ain't the greenest freak in the world but the Boge peddles good basic info. The most intriguing device I've run across lately is the EcoFire Super-Grate, which promises to turn your fireplace into a high-efficiency heater. Anybody tried one of these things? Do they work? Let me know.
INAUGURATION DAY UPDATE: Fantastic piece in today's Huffingtonpost about revelers in D.C. throwing shoes over the White House fence yesterday, and at a blow-up W doll today.
I just got back from the Bainbridge Island post office, where I met a woman waiting patiently in the long holiday line to mail her own shoe to the White House. GENIUS! The brilliance of her idea nearly sent me running screaming in the streets. If you haven't seen the video of the Iraqi journalist throwing his own shoes (excellent aim and velocity--had he practiced?) at George W. Bush, you can see the CNN clip here. I'm going home now to box up an old hiking boot. Tell your friends to do the same. Here's the mailing address: George Bush, The White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington DC 20500. Boot up, America!
Over the past 12 months I've had the great fortune to spend time with Tom White, a new addition to my life list of amazing, inspiring people (see also: Sharon Matola, Alex Lowe, Alexandra Morton) whose spirit stays with me long after the reporting and writing end. Tom's a family doctor in Buena Vista, Colorado, who nearly lost his leg in a motorcycle accident 25 years ago. After recovering from that tragedy (he was an NCAA marathoner at the time), Tom returned to doing what he loved: Running long distances with his wife Tammy. When his leg began failing him again, though, he made an agonizing choice. He decided to have it cut off so that he might run again. I followed Tom and Tammy through his decision, surgery, recovery, and rehab for Runner's World, and you can read the whole story here. A little more than a year ago Tom was recovering from surgery. Last month he ran the New York City Marathon. Check out his mid-race interview in this video from WNBC.
The conservation status of Ara macao, the scarlet macaw, is one of the central issues in The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw. The bird's relatively healthy populations in South America keep it off the IUCN's Red List of endangered species, but that designation hides the bird's threatened status in Central America, where its habitat is quickly dwindling--and with it, the last flocks of the area's wild macaws. I'm continuing to track the region's macaw populations, and am building some pages that contain general information and deeper source material, which you can find here.
Amazing but true: The February 17, 2008, cover of the New York Times Book Review features a rave review of Last Flight by Elizabeth Royte. Click here (nyt_book_review_last_flight.pdf) to read the full piece.
The headlines shouted: "Red, Red, Red!" (the colors of the UDP party) this past week in Belize, as the corrupt Musa-Fonseca regime was swept out of office in a landslide national victory for the opposition UDP party. Uncle Said kept his local seat, and will remain the nominal leader of the PUP, but the Big Wheel, Ralph Fonseca, was fully ousted, losing his seat in Belize's House of Representatives as well as his grip on power. Dean Barrow, who briefly argued against the Chalillo Dam before Belize's highest court, now takes office as Belizean Prime Minister. Check out full coverage in Amandala, Belize's largest paper, and in The Reporter, and at 7 News Belize.
Seriously. Sharon Matola, the hero of Last Flight, keeps a handful of cabins and cabanas on the grounds of the Belize Zoo. They're fabulous. My favorite, the Pond House, at left, perches on stilts over a pond where turtles, crocodiles, cychlids, and dozens of species of birds roam about all day. (And night.) I wrote chunks of Last Flight there, on the screened-in porch, while listening to the calls of the forest falcons and melodious blackbirds. It ain't the Ritz. It's better. It's sleeping in the backabush. And man, it's cheap. Like $70 a night. Try finding that in Belize City. To find out more go to this link at the Belize Zoo.
Sharon's campaign to revive the harpy eagle in Belize continues to be a smashing success. Last month she and Humberto Wohlers, of the Belize Zoo, along with three officials with the Peregrine Fund, released a male and female harpy into the subtropical forest near the Rio Bravo research station in northwestern Belize. The pair represent the 12th and 13th harpys released into the wild in the past four years.
The birds are apparently taking to the Belizean backcountry quite well. Researchers tracking the 13 eagles with radio telemetry report that the birds are feasting on a wide variety of prey, including anteaters, kinkajous, coatimundis, grey foxes, porcupines, and white tail deer.
For more info on the harpy project, click on this link to Belize biologist Jan Meerman's excellent Biological Diversity in Belize web site.