This story was funded by our members. Join Longreads and help us to support more writers.
Digging into the moral and environmental hazards of a battery-powered future. Reckoning with a family secret. Celebrating Diné cultural traditions. A deeply personal search in Pennsylvania, and Barbie’s complicated relationship with feminism.
Nick Bowlin | The Drift | July 9, 2023 | 7,602 words
The mining sector is having a moment. Due to people’s growing—if absurdly belated—concern about climate change, demand for alternative materials that can power the future is skyrocketing. We’re talking lithium, cobalt, and copper, the stuff needed to build electric-vehicle batteries, solar panels, and other items that are likely to be staples of a decarbonized economy. It’s no surprise, then, that mining interests are talking a big game about being on the right side of environmental history. Journalist Nick Bowlin heard it loud and clear while reporting on the world’s largest mining conference, which was held earlier this year in Toronto, Ontario. As Bowlin smartly details, in a story that never once gets boring despite being about—let me repeat—a mining conference, there’s an ugly underbelly to this touting of green bona fides. Extractive industries are notoriously and unrelentingly colonialist, and above all they’re eager for profit. They will strip land, exploit people, and smile as their rampant devastation earns them billions. If the mining sector were really serious about a green future, it would drop its maximalist mindset. Indeed, we all would. “The mining industry,” Bowlin writes, “benefits from the self-satisfied consumerism of the E.V. buyer. For all of its disdain for environmentalists, the industry needs green consumers who seek absolution for their carbon-intensive ways of life. With their complacent inattention to the injustices inflicted by the green economy, these consumers not only fund the industry’s expansion but give it moral cover.” —SD
Rachel Priest and Emily Strasser | Bitter Southerner | July 11, 2023 | 3,069 words
At Quaker school, Emily Strasser notes, they weren’t allowed to keep score at recess soccer games because it was considered a form of violence. Imagine learning that for 30 years, your grandfather worked as a chemist at the Oak Ridge, Tennessee facility that helped make the atomic bomb that the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. Like everything to do with family, it’s complicated. In this nuanced Q&A from Bitter Southerner, Rachel Priest speaks with Strasser about her ten-year search to understand not only more about her grandfather’s work, including why he chose it and the affect it had on him, his family, and his mental health, but most importantly the horrific legacy of the U.S.’ nuclear weapons program. Priest’s tough, necessary questions and Strasser’s thoughtful responses make for reading that transcends the average Q&A. “It started off as a way of thinking about how to be in the world where I came from, my own origin story, and then grew into confronting this vast legacy of nuclear weapons in our country and in the world,” Strasser says. How does one reckon with immeasurable harm, a toll that defies reckoning? What becomes clear is that while the most important questions are often the toughest to answer, Strasser demonstrates that this is the only way we as humans will ever learn to do better in this world. —KS
Rachel Yoder | Harper’s Magazine | June 20, 2023 | 7,350 words
As Rachel Yoder points out early in this searching, personal piece, there are many names for the phenomenon she’s writing about. “Powwow” and “Braucherei” are simply two of the most common, though “pulling pain” and “natural healing” are also popular. What they all refer to is an Amish folk ritual that Yoder calls “one of the more compelling corners of my Amish and Mennonite heritage.” That heritage, and Yoder’s uneasy relationship with it, propels one of the most beautifully written pieces I’ve read all year. She’s come to Pennsylvania in search of a spell book, but also for answers to the existential aches plaguing her—and, crucially, accompanied by her father, who himself drifted from an Amish upbringing into modernity many years ago. There’s tension everywhere you look, from the father-daughter dynamic to Amish reluctance to Yoder’s halting embrace of the culture that birthed her. There’s also love, particularly between Yoder and her father; his equanimity and humor leavens what might otherwise become sodden, and provides delightful counterpoint to her indelible, rhythmic prose. “It’s comforting to imagine that things go away if you leave them alone long enough,” she writes. They don’t, of course. But in looking for a piece of herself, to use one healer’s phrase, Yoder is kind enough to bring us all along. —PR
Jake Skeets | Emergence Magazine | June 22, 2023 | 3,901 words
Every once in a while, I stumble on an essay that not only teaches me, it feeds me with something good and genuine, and gives me a sense of hope. Jake Skeets’ recent essay for Emergence Magazine was a deeply satisfying journey of cultural discovery as he reflects on butchering a sheep to help celebrate Kinaałda, the Diné puberty ceremony for a young relative. Skeets revels in the cycle of stories and knowledge passed from generation to generation. At points he is a child and a learner, at other times an educator passing on his deep love and respect for animals and the land. His prose is spare as he describes the influence that food and story have had on him in his lifetime, but there is a profound beauty in his minimalism. “Stories have a unique ability to collapse time,” he writes. “Food does, too. Stories move through time differently than we do. They can move between times, slow time, or even stop time. Food operates similarly carrying metaphors, images, and memories.” Skeets’ keen attitude and commitment to educating himself in traditional ways and passing that on to others is like a helping of nutritious comfort food: something to savor and something to celebrate. —KS
Willa Paskin | The New York Times Magazine | July 11, 2023 | 6,671 words
After the barrage of Barbie-related content that has preceded Greta Gerwig’s forthcoming film, I was not sure I was ready for another 6,000 words on the subject. Luckily, I succumbed and read Willa Paskin’s thoughtful discussion with Greta Gerwig on the Barbie film she is bemused she was allowed to make. Paskin gets why she was: “[T]he fizzy marriage of filmmaker and material would break through the cacophony of contemporary life and return a retirement-age hunk of plastic to the zeitgeist.” Smart, Mattel. (And the snippets of the film Paskin describes do sound pretty good.) But what I most enjoyed was the reporting that went beyond the film. Is Barbie a feminist, or really, really not? Why did her creator, Ruth Handler, refuse to allow Barbie to have a child? How did Mattel reinvent Barbie in 2015? Read and find out. As someone who grew up with classic Barbie—the one whose proportions meant she wouldn’t be able to stand up in real life—I was intrigued to learn about her evolution. But as evolved as she may now be, this remains my favorite quote from the piece: “A psychological study found that after playing with Barbies, girls thought themselves less capable of various careers than they did after playing with a control Mrs. Potato Head.” Go, Mrs. Potato Head. —CW
Here’s the piece our readers loved most this week:
Sara Clemence | The Atlantic | July 3, 2023 | 1,532 words
Sara Clemence is ruthless in this piece, questioning the privilege and indulgence of the people who travel to the one place on earth that still belongs to nature, just because they can. The self-important justifications of these tourists will leave you feeling even more frustrated with the human race. Clemence is right: Don’t go. —CW