Human ingenuity in the face of crumbling infrastructure. One man’s quest to save a bird that might already be extinct. The cultural schism dividing a major musical genre. A personal essay braiding space and family. And a jungle trek gone horribly, horribly awry. These are our editors’ favorite reads of the week.

1. The Balkans’ Alternative Postal System: An Ad-Hoc Courier’s Tale

Ilir Gashi | The Guardian & Kosovo 2.0 | July 13, 2023 | 4,061 words

In 2012, I lived in Pristina, Kosovo for a few months. Much to the chagrin of my mother, I couldn’t receive mail at my apartment. I had no postal box or number; as far as I could tell, no one in the brutalist residential complex did. I informed my mom, who wouldn’t take “no address” for an answer, that she should send mail to the nearby NATO base; I had met someone posted there who offered to serve as a middleman. (Thanks again, Drew.) I had the privilege of being an American with a connection to a powerful institution. Still, I did what many people in the Balkans do when they need to get something from point A to point B: I asked a friend. Ilir Gashi’s essay—a runner-up for a European Press Prize—details how informal networks that move packages, letters, and passengers have developed in response to the Balkans’ disputed borders and entrenched poverty. Gashi worked as an ad-hoc courier, delivering medicine, documents, homemade food items, and even a doll, which a little girl on a trip to Belgrade left behind when her family returned to Pristina. “While the weather map on Radio Television of Serbia shows Pristina as part of Serbia,” Gashi writes, “as far as the Serbian postal service is concerned, this city doesn’t exist, just like other places in Kosovo where Serbs aren’t the majority. Private delivery services are way too expensive. The only way the doll could reach Pristina was for somebody to take it with them.” This is a beautiful story of everyday resilience. —SD

2. Chasing the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker

Lindsey Liles | Garden & Gun | May 24, 2023 | 4,371 words

Does the ivory-billed woodpecker still exist in Arkansas? If you ask Bobby Harrison, the answer is yes. If you ask pretty much everybody else, the answer is no. That hasn’t stopped Harrison from 2,000 sojourns into Arkansas swampland to find a bird that hasn’t been officially sighted since 1944. At any time, the U.S. federal government may declare the bird extinct, ending all environmental protections for the species; Harrison is trying to prove everyone wrong and the clock is ticking. Lindsey Liles’ piece for Garden & Gun is much more than simply a superbly written profile of Harrison and his majestic quarry. It is more than the story of one man’s quest. It is a paean to faith and perseverance, to belief, and above all, hope. “As it turns out, searching for the ivorybill feels exactly like buying a lottery ticket,” writes Liles. “Rationally, you know it won’t happen, but the if and could of it all—plus the mystery of the deep woods, where anything can be lost or found—keeps your heart racing and your eyes combing the landscape.” Take a chance and spend some time on this piece. It won’t take long before you’re rooting for Harrison to hit the jackpot. —KS

3. Country Music’s Culture Wars and the Remaking of Nashville

Emily Nussbaum | The New Yorker | July 17, 2023 | 9,528 words

I’m not what you’d call a country music fan. I’ve never been to Nashville. So in many ways, I’m exactly not the audience for Emily Nussbaum’s grand unpacking of the schism currently wracking the genre and the city. But I love a good cultural shift, and I love having my expectations upended—and her feature accomplishes both of those without breaking a sweat. It feels cheap to call what’s happening an ideological divide, but nothing else feels like it comes close. For years, Nussbaum demonstrates, country music has been ruled by the so-called “bro” variant of the genre, facile cosplay of working-class platitudes performed by wealthy suburbanites; yet, as more queer and Black and female and politically progressive artists find success, in part by pushing against the prevailing mores, they’re inevitably shunted into the country-adjacent genre “Americana.” In the long run, that means less radio play, lower sales, and ultimately a ghettoizing: y’all over there, us over here. Again and again, Nussbaum finds people and places that underscore this struggle; her scene work is effortless and plentiful, whether gathering with members of the musical collective Black Opry or soaking in the atmosphere at bro-country star Jason Aldean’s Nashville club. It’s tempting to write this off as parachute journalism, but Nussbaum has been a country fan for decades, so there’s little baggage to weigh down the keen eye that made her such a dynamite TV critic for The New Yorker. What emerges is a memorable, hopeful, and sometimes maddening portrait of a machine in flux. It might not have made me a country fan, but it made me a fan of the people who are pushing that machine in long-overdue directions. —PR

4. Black Hole Paradox

Erica Vital-Lazare | The Baffler | July 19, 2023 | 3,914 words

Do you feel a certain tingle when you’ve stumbled on a great piece? I do. Erica Vital-Lazare’s beautiful braided essay on black holes—both those in space and the void her father created in deserting his family for the lure of Las Vegas—exacted a gravitational pull on my reading brain. Vital-Lazare doesn’t blame, chastise, or attempt to excuse her father’s neglect; she simply tries to understand. “Black holes are remnants,” she writes. “Their absence creates unfathomable weight…where no-thing can exist or escape. It is the uncreated space, where what was can never be again.” Humanity exists in the space where she cares for her aged, ailing father, in cooking turkey sausage instead of pork and serving unsugared jam to a man who abdicated his responsibility to take care of her as a child. For an essay that mines absence, it’s Vital-Lazare’s thoughtful observation and incisive prose that will fill you up. —KS

5. How I Survived a Wedding in a Jungle That Tried to Eat Me Alive

Melissa Johnson | Outside | July 18, 2023 | 4,273 words

I defy you not to squirm as you read Melissa Johnson’s account of her Guatemalan trek. Her visceral descriptions conjure up the sticky, itchy, sweaty reality of the jungle until you feel enveloped by it; a written Jumanji, if you will. The only romance here lies in the purpose of the trek: A marriage at El Mirador, the ruins of a Mayan city. (The ultimate in an inconvenient destination wedding.) Ten friends attend, and each struggles on the trek, but only Johnson gets bitten on the vagina by a tick, an incident she describes with as much eloquence as she does the wedding ceremony. It’s fun and funny but also an honest reflection on aging and lost time—not to mention a brutally effective reminder to remember bug repellant spray on your next jungle trip. —CW

Audience Award

Now for the piece that our readers loved the most this week:

My Lumbago Isn’t Acting Up: On Disney World

Molly Young | The Paris Review | July 12, 2023 | 1,871 words

I have been to Disney World—but only as a child, and the memories are vague. I remember bright colors, noise, and the endless, miserable queue for Space Moutain. And being cross about it. (Such treasured memories make it money well spent for my parents.) I, therefore, enjoy those who enter the gates with a healthy dose of cynism, and Molly Young’s analytical take is no exception. But although she approaches things with humor, she does not quite shake off the wonder altogether—finding the most surprising part of Disney World to be people’s unerring positivity. Maybe I am the exception who managed to sulk through the experience. Sorry, Mum and Dad. —CW