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Appetite of Abundance: On the Benefits of Being Eaten

This week’s Longreads Member Pick comes from Orion magazine and J.B. MacKinnon, author of The Once and Future World.

Thanks to Orion and MacKinnon for sharing it with the Longreads community. They’re also offering a free trial subscription here.

PUBLISHED: Dec. 20, 2013
LENGTH: 11 minutes (2875 words)

The Science of Citizenship

The writer, who was a K-12 educator for 10 years, on the decline of science education in the classroom and how it's affecting students and the way they view the world:

Sometimes we planted seeds and bulbs in paper cups and left them to sprout on the windowsill, but mostly I didn’t worry about science. I was teaching them to read; I was working on their cultural literacy.

But science is cultural literacy, a fact that became apparent when a friend teaching in the same school told me about getting her fifth graders ready for their statewide science test. Preparation was hurried, last-minute, cursory: their scores would not be held against our Adequate Yearly Progress, after all. My friend, however, did not want her students to feel blindsided by the test, so she had photocopied some handouts and sample questions. “I was trying to explain photosynthesis,” she said, “and one of my kids asked me, ‘How does a plant make their food? Do they use a microwave?’ What do you say to that?”

PUBLISHED: Nov. 4, 2013
LENGTH: 17 minutes (4498 words)

Lone Wolf

The first wild wolf to enter California in more than eighty years sparks a debate about conservation:

"The return of wolves to the West has indeed resulted in a trophic cascade of benefits to the ecological landscape. In Yellowstone, for example, the absence of wolves meant the park’s elk and deer were fat, slow, and stupid. They destroyed streambeds, overgrazed grass, and overbrowsed the shrubs and aspens. When wolves were reintroduced, the days of deer and elk lazing around riparian areas like hoofed couch potatoes were over. Yellowstone’s aspen groves made a comeback, streambeds are in better shape, shady shrubs have increased oxygen levels in creeks and streams, thus improving fish habitats, berries are dropping, seeds are scattering, grasses are growing. A case can be made that wolves are far better wilderness managers than humans will ever be.

"But for Sykes it’s a moral issue as well. 'For one hundred years, wolves were hounded, hunted, trapped, hacked, and poisoned until every single one was exterminated. They were extirpated in a brutal, vindictive, ignorant campaign,' he says. 'I would like to see this wrong righted. I would like to see some compassion and understanding for our most persecuted wildlife.'"
PUBLISHED: Sept. 12, 2013
LENGTH: 21 minutes (5492 words)

Longreads Member Exclusive: Symmetrical Universe, by Alan Lightman

This week's Member Pick is "Symmetrical Universe," an essay by physicist Alan Lightman, published in the latest issue of Orion magazine. In it, Lightman explores the wonder of nature and the principles that guide its design—helping to answer questions like why a honeycomb is a hexagon, or why human-created art embraces asymmetry.

Lightman is a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and author of books including Einstein's Dreams and Mr g: A Novel About the Creation.

Support Longreads—and get more stories like this—by becoming a member for just $3 per month.
PUBLISHED: March 1, 2013
LENGTH: 13 minutes (3453 words)

Splendid Visions

A father considers his young son's life in the city of Boston, and wonders if his son would be better off with "a life in nature":

"If it's true that children raised in cities often grow into shrewd, incisive adults wise to the crooked ways of the world, that being exposed daily to a wealth of cultures, languages, libraries, bookstores, theaters, and museums can make impressive people, Wordsworth might argue that those individuals lack a 'sense sublime / Of something far more deeply interfused'—that is, a sense of the unity, harmony, freedom, and 'unwearied Joy' exemplified by nature. Who doesn't want 'unwearied Joy' for his child? Emerson might go a bit further and say that those divorced from nature have a thinking deficiency, because 'Nature is the vehicle of thought.' For Emerson, as for Wordsworth, Nature is synonymous with Life—our lives simply refuse to cohere outside the context of the natural world. Will Ethan the city boy forever lack something sacred in his mind and spirit? Will he lack a certain useful knowledge? When my paternal grandfather was in Korea during the war, his platoon mates from Manhattan 'thought the crickets were North Korean soldiers sending evil signals to one another in the nighttime. They never got a good night's sleep."
PUBLISHED: March 1, 2013
LENGTH: 17 minutes (4375 words)

State of the Species

A brief history of Homo sapiens—and a prognosis for our survival:

"Microorganisms have changed the face of the earth, crumbling stone and even giving rise to the oxygen we breathe. Compared to this power and diversity, Margulis liked to tell me, pandas and polar bears were biological epiphenomena—interesting and fun, perhaps, but not actually significant.

"Does that apply to human beings, too? I once asked her, feeling like someone whining to Copernicus about why he couldn’t move the earth a little closer to the center of the universe. Aren’t we specialat all?

"This was just chitchat on the street, so I didn’t write anything down. But as I recall it, she answered that Homo sapiens actually might be interesting—for a mammal, anyway. For one thing, she said, we’re unusually successful.

"Seeing my face brighten, she added: Of course, the fate of every successful species is to wipe itself out."
PUBLISHED: Oct. 25, 2012
LENGTH: 32 minutes (8232 words)

The Art of Waiting

The writer confronts her inability to have children and explores how humans' behavior with reproduction compares with other animals:

"Like ours, the animal world is full of paradoxical examples of gentleness, brutality, and suffering, often performed in the service of reproduction. Female black widow spiders sometimes devour their partners after a complex and delicate mating dance. Bald eagle parents, who mate for life and share the responsibility of rearing young, will sometimes look on impassively as the stronger eaglet kills its sibling. At the end of their life cycle, after swimming thousands of miles in salt water, Pacific salmon swim up their natal, freshwater streams to spawn, while the fresh water decays their flesh. Animals will do whatever it takes to ensure reproductive success."
PUBLISHED: April 1, 2012
LENGTH: 16 minutes (4159 words)

Deep Intellect: Inside the Mind of the Octopus

Octopuses have the largest brains of any invertebrate. Athena’s is the size of a walnut—as big as the brain of the famous African gray parrot, Alex, who learned to use more than one hundred spoken words meaningfully. That’s proportionally bigger than the brains of most of the largest dinosaurs.

Another measure of intelligence: you can count neurons. The common octopus has about 130 million of them in its brain. A human has 100 billion. But this is where things get weird. Three-fifths of an octopus’s neurons are not in the brain; they’re in its arms.
PUBLISHED: Nov. 1, 2011
LENGTH: 19 minutes (4794 words)

The Reign of the One Percenters

The real hourly median wage in New York between 1990 and 2007 fell by almost 9 percent. Young men and women aged twenty-five to thirty-four with a bachelor’s degree and a year-round job in New York saw their earnings drop 6 percent. Middle-income New Yorkers—defined broadly by the FPI as those drawing incomes between approximately $29,000 and $167,000—experienced a 19 percent decrease in earnings.
PUBLISHED: Sept. 30, 2011
LENGTH: 24 minutes (6191 words)