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Aaron Gilbreath
Aaron Gilbreath has written essays and articles for Harper's, The New York Times, Kenyon Review, The Dublin Review, Brick, Paris Review, The Threepenny Review, and Saveur. He's the author of This Is: Essays on Jazz, the personal essay Everything We Don't Know, and the forthcoming book Through the San Joaquin Valley: The Heart of California. @AaronGilbreath

Living Off the Grid in California’s Coastal Waters

AP Photo/Eric Risberg

While San Francisco tech millionaires spend their days disrupting things and hailing Ubers to meetings, a small group of people live nearby on salvaged boats that might capsize in a storm. Known as the anchor-outs, these industrious people grow food on their decks, make repairs with found wood, trade with each other, and talk about the way people live onshore. Money is scarce, but on good days they call their life outside Sausalito “Shangri-lito.”

For Harper’s, editor Joe Kloc spends time with these scrappy survivalists to understand why they choose this life, or how life chose it for them. Is their situation freedom or a trap? Heaven or hell? And how exactly do they survive? If you’ve ever fantasized about ditching society and finding a quiet place to live outside the system, you’ll want to read this.

On sunny days, the anchor-outs make for the waterfront. They toss their garbage in the dumpsters outside a 7-Eleven and gather together on a four-acre stretch of grass called Dunphy Park. They lie in the shade of box elders and oaks, reading to one another from the newspaper as their children play nearby, ankle-deep in the water. Some discuss their stays in the county jail. Others dream up inventions they will never build, like a heater made from magnets or a shower that runs on a gas-powered generator. Once in a while, a small group convenes near a boat slip to hear a sailor with a long beard and a gnarled walking stick lecture on the anchor-outs’ right to live on the water, a case he makes with dog-eared copies of county ordinances, maps, and city contracts that he prints at the public library and carries around in grocery bags.

I began spending time in the park a few years ago, drawn to the ease with which the anchor-outs took what came their way. Court dates and rough waters always loomed, and the church van promising a free hot meal was never guaranteed to arrive, but these were only temporary setbacks; the anchor-outs had built a paradise, if only the rest of the world would let them enjoy it.

One afternoon, on an early spring day in 2015, I struck up a conversation about the bay with an anchor-out who went by the name Innate Thought, though he was born Nathaniel Archer. Innate had lived on the water for more than a decade and was now almost fifty years old, with a sun-worn face and a generous, worried smile. He was sitting on a bench, listening to a portable radio. He told me he was happier living on the water than he had ever been, and explained his contempt for the world ashore with a story about requesting a free packet of barbecue sauce from a cashier at the local Burger King.

“She said, ‘I’m sorry, I have to charge you twenty cents.’ I said, ‘I know, I remember when we were going through an economic crisis and Burger King replaced those plastic menu boards with TVs. So I know you’ve incurred some costs.’”

Innate fixed his gaze on me. “What was she protecting?”

I shrugged.

“She’s protecting against me coming in every day, taking five sauces, and selling them outside.” He asked if I understood the damage that is done when everyone expects the worst from one another.

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Editors Thinking About Editing at the AWP Conference

Photo by Aaron Gilbreath

Aaron Gilbreath | Longreads | April 2019 | 12 minutes (1,878 words)


The 11,000 people who attend the Association of Writers & Writing Programs’ annual Conference & Bookfair (AWP) come for professional advancement and to build community. They come to attend panels, to stay motivated after graduate school, to promote their magazines, book presses, and graduate programs and to choose magazines to write for, books to read, and graduate programs to attend. For many attendees, AWP is a chance to talk shop deep into the night. I came this year for many of these reasons, and also to improve my editing abilities.

Even though I work as an editor, I have a lot to learn, and the editors on the panel “Editor-Author Relationships: How Should They Be?” offered tons of practical wisdom. Jennifer Acker from The Common magazine moderated a group that included John Freeman of  Grove/Atlantic, Freeman’s, and Granta, One Story editor Patrick Ryan, and Catapult managing editor Matthew Ortile. Freeman is a quote machine; his  mind moved so quickly I could barely write down what he said.   Read more…

What the Death of a Glacier Means for Us

AP Photo/Dino Vournas, File

Ever since geologist Israel Russell first photographed it in 1883, the Lyell Glacier in Yosemite National Park has been closely monitored. The glacier has also shrunken so much that it’s technically no longer a glacier. For The California Sunday Magazine, journalist Daniel Duane follows the life and death of this ancient California ice, to show what glaciers have taught humanity about the Earth’s age and natural cycles, and how that relates to our future on this planet. Duane spends time in the field with Yosemite National Park Geologist Greg Stock, who has studied the Lyell Glacier for so long that, on Stock’s regular glacier visits, Duane compares him to “a man coming home after a long absence, comfortable and eager to catch up.” Seeing his glacier die has left Stock in mourning.

The pleasures of the sublime have a lot to do with my return to the high Sierra year after year, and there is something depressing about the knowledge that I will now have to confront the fragility of those mountains. Once Stock and I reached his dark spot on the Lyell, though, and sat on one of many wet boulders jutting up from the bedrock, and looked out across all those ridges and moraines, I felt the stirrings of something darker still. The end of the Little Ice Age, as punctuated by the death of the Lyell, marks the true end of the entire 2.5-million-year climate regime in which glaciers have advanced and retreated and Homo sapiens have evolved. We don’t know what comes next, except that it will involve a warming climate unlike any that has ever supported human beings.

Back in the early 19th century, and even through Matthes’s work on the Little Ice Age, the study of deep time carried soothing reassurance that old biblical nightmares about catastrophic upheaval were just that, nightmares. The Earth changed and always had changed unimaginably slowly. Now the study of deep time trends toward a different lesson — that Earth changes unimaginably slowly except when it changes suddenly and catastrophically, like right now. Even the driver behind our current warming — abrupt changes to the atmospheric carbon cycle — is not new, having happened at least five times in the past 500 million years. Knowing that human-driven climate change is not so different from dramatic climate changes in our planet’s past offers little comfort when you consider that they all ended badly, with the mass extinction of most living things.

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Zuckerberg’s Trash Is a Subculture’s Treasure

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor

One of the clearest signs of capitalism’s unraveling is the enormous chasm between the super rich and very poor in San Francisco. The city also offers a kind of laboratory about the ways people survive off America’s waste. For The New York Times, Thomas Fuller follows Jake Orta, a military veteran who spends his days gathering discarded material from wealthy residents’ trash bins to resell later for, if all goes well, $300 a week. He’s one of a few hundred residents who make their marginal livings this way in a city teeming with tech money and plagued by chronic homelessness. Mr. Orta has found numerous items in the bin outside Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s $10 million dollar home.

At dusk he leaves his apartment building, which is wedged between a popular brunch spot for tech workers and a cannabis shop in the heart of the Mission neighborhood. The smell of marijuana fills the vestibule. Walking up a steep hill lined with mature trees, he passes homes that could pass for works of art: Victorians, some with stained glass and elaborate cornices and moldings painted in a soft palette of pastels, ocher, celadon and teal. A virtual tour of the neighborhood on the Zillow site shows that homes valued at $3 million and above are the norm.

But Mr. Orta doesn’t look at the architecture. He walks the streets, slightly stooped, his eyes on the ground and a flashlight in his back pocket. His friends call him the Finder.

On the six times Mr. Orta went out with a reporter, he followed a variety of circuits, but usually ended up exploring his favorite alleys and a dumpster that has been bountiful. (The first rule of dumpster scavenging, he said, is to make sure there’s no raccoon or possum in there.) In March, the dumpster yielded a box of silver goblets, dishes and plates, as if someone had yanked a tablecloth from underneath a feast in some European chateau.

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When the Climate Change Story Becomes Your Life Story

AP Photo/The Mail Tribune, Jim Craven

In 2018, writer McKenzie Funk and his family moved from Seattle to tiny Ashland, Oregon. Famed for its beautiful location, navigable size, and annual Shakespeare Festival, Ashland’s “economy relies,” Funk writes, “above everything else, on its quality of life.” Funk quickly learns that Ashland is becoming known for another thing: horrific seasonal air quality caused by forest fires. Tasked with reviewing a few books on climate change for the London Review of Books, Funk quickly finds himself living in the very catastrophe he was reading about, as he tries to understand this new world order.

When a building is burning, firefighters usually try to extinguish every last flame. It’s a fight to the death, over in a matter of hours. When thousands or tens of thousands of acres of forest are burning, the major goal is containment, a kind of negotiated peace with a force greater than man. Wildland firefighters try to halt a blaze’s progress, encircling it with natural or manmade firebreaks. They work to keep the flames away from people and property, hoping to hang on until environmental conditions – humidity, wind speed and direction – change and the autumn rains finally arrive. Many wildfires are left to smoulder, and to smoke, for weeks or months on end, causing little newsworthy damage. Disasters like the conflagration that consumed Paradise, California, in November, killing 81 people – the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in the state’s history – do happen. But the climate disaster facing millions of other residents of the American West is more insidious. In a town like Ashland, the smoke blots out the colour of the houses and the hills, rendering everything in grayscale, a slow-burn diminution of the way life here used to be.

On the afternoon the boys and I arrived the town and the Rogue Valley where it sits were surrounded by nine separate wildfires. The next day, Ashland registered the worst air quality in the United States: 321 on the Air Quality Index. The AQI scale is colour-coded – green-yellow-orange-red-purple-maroon – to denote health risk, and we were well into maroon, or ‘hazardous’. Outside, the air was totally still and the temperature had hit 100°F. It looked like dusk in the middle of the day. Inside, the boys’ upstairs room was like a furnace, but we couldn’t open the skylights for fear of letting the smoke in. We rushed out to buy an air-conditioning unit. At the hardware store down the road, we got the last child-size smoke masks on the shelves, the ones rated N95 for the particulate matter the internet said we really needed to keep out of their lungs. Prepping for the unknown, we ordered a dozen more masks from China on Amazon.

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Busting Broncos and the Patriarchy

Cal Sport Media via AP Images

The world still can’t stand seeing women’s ambition, women’s independence, women’s sexuality, or women’s pain. For Deadspin, journalist Jessica Camille Aguirre writes about an emerging contingent of professional female bronco-riders who are changing the structure of rodeo. Women aren’t new to the sport. They’ve been riding angry horses for over a century. What’s new is the way Daryl and Michelle McElroy, of the Texas Bronc Riders Association, have been creating tours and sanctioned events for women to compete in. “Ever since 1929, when a 32-year-old bronc rider named Bonnie McCarroll was thrown from her horse during a rodeo in Oregon and died in the hospital eight days later,” Aguirre writes, “women’s saddle bronc riding has been more or less wiped from the rodeo event roster.”

But McCarroll’s death prompted the rodeo where she rode, the Pendleton Round-Up, to cancel women’s bronc riding, and other rodeos followed. The Rodeo Association of America formed the same year, and since there were no women rodeo producers, there were also no women in the organization. The RAA did not include women in its published standings, or print photos of women in the finalist shots in its magazine. In 1931, rodeos started hosting sponsor girls, who led parades and were judged on their attractiveness instead of their athleticism. A decade later, Gene Autry started a rodeo company and from then on, none of his rodeos hosted any competitions for cowgirls at all. Deciding that they had better do something or watch themselves be relegated to beauty pageants, women started their own organization, which put together some all-girl rodeos and managed to get barrel racing back on the roster at the larger rodeos.

Since then, women have competed publicly in nearly every sport, including ones that openly involve physical peril. The first woman climbed Mount Everest in 1975; the first woman bullfighter to become a full Matador de Toros in Spain did so in 1996; women’s boxing was included in the 2012 Olympics. It has become passé to fête the achievements of women athletes as though they were interesting only by virtue of their having been accomplished by women, but there is still something liberating about watching women conspicuously demonstrate that they are free to make use of their own bodies however they please, danger or no. In a sense, though, reviving women’s rodeo bronc riding is less of a trailblazing move than it is a throwback to a model of gender roles that prevailed during a certain American moment and that has been dimmed by the passage of time. Eight years before McCarroll was fatally thrown from her horse at the Pendleton Round-Up, an author named Charles Wellington Furlong wrote about the cowboys and cowgirls who rode there, noting that, “few queens have vouchsafed to occupy thrones less secure than that supreme one offered by the parliament of the Round-Up each year—the world championship saddle of the cowgirls’ bucking contest.” By less secure he didn’t mean at risk of being cancelled. He meant that bucking horses buck.

After the video of Wimberly’s bad ride starting circulating and the same old tropes that shut down women’s saddle bronc riding the first time starting appearing again, Wimberly thought, what the hell, flaunt the hurt. Being up front about the injuries and danger, and nevertheless still pursuing glory, would show everyone what women were capable of and what the sport was about. “The way I see it, it doesn’t show the weakness of women, it shows our strength,” Wimberly told the RIDE TV camera crew. There was no reason to hide the hurdles women faced—if anything, they were tougher for it. “When you can get dragged across the arena on your head, get a bad concussion, get your feet nearly jerked from your leg, and get up from that, and stand up, wave to the crowd, walk off—okay, I might have limped a little—to me, that’s impressive.”

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Into the Wild On an E-Scooter

Photo of the author, Brandon Tauszik.

Rental scooters have descended on many American cities, clogging sidewalks and opening riders up to head injuries. Brands like Skip and Lime have the potential to improve city life by increasing mobility, especially in areas with lackluster public transportation. But how would the scooters perform outside the city? For Gizmodo, Joe Veix decides to ride a Skip scooter out of San Francisco and toward the ocean, to test its limitations and see if it can help him escape into nature. The company stated many clear rules. Riding the scooter “as a means of escaping society” was not one of them. But the rules’ undefined edges constituted their own kind of frontier, and Veix embraced this urban adventure.

The Presidio is out of Skip’s service territory area, which is limited to San Francisco proper, excluding its parks. In their app, there’s a border drawn around the map of the city. Outside the area is a purple-colored no-man’s land, free of scooters, presumably ravaged by violent gangs with poor mobility. When I crossed into this lawless territory, I worried that my scooter would shut off and the whole plan would sputter to a stop, leaving me at the mercy of the hordes and their perverse whims. But upon entering the forbidden zone, the scooter kept moving. I was safe… for now.

I rounded the circuitous path up to the Golden Gate Bridge and began crossing. It was crowded with tourists and bikers in spandex. Other than a few odd looks from people, it was mostly uneventful. The bike path along the western side of the bridge was wide and accommodating.

Beyond the bridge, the small screen on the scooter indicated that I had about 50 percent battery left. Not heartening, but it would have to suffice. I rode west, up into the Headlands. The engine churned up the hill at 5 mph. Though sluggish, it was enough to overcome a group of road bikers, who looked upon me with searing disdain.

This is the story of a fun little jaunt by a very funny writer. But there’s also something profound about seeing the e-scooter stripped of its context. Out there on a hiking trail, far from the bustling world of venture capital that created it, it’s no longer a new, potentially lucrative urban accessory poised to disrupt traditional modes of transportation. It’s just a rickety little bunch of plastic with a dying battery.

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The Power of a Neighborhood’s Name

AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

Sometime in the late 2000s, Google Maps started calling Buffalo, New York’s Fruit Belt neighborhood “Medical Park,” even though long-time residents didn’t call it that. Home to Buffalo’s black working class, Fruit Belt residents feared this digital erasure was part of the city’s attempt at rebranding in order to sell it out from under them. For Medium’s tech channel, OneZero, journalist Caitlin Dewey writes about how data threatened this African American community, how residents are fighting to save it, and what Google Maps’ renaming reveals about the flawed ways data collection works. Many people deny that the renaming is part of any calculated rebranding, but what is clear is that data is not neutral. Neither are those who use Google Maps.

Worst of all, in May 2018, a young realtor named Kim Santana posted a glamorous Instagram post of herself standing on the corner of High and Lemon Streets, holding a large coffee cup. “Whether you call it the fruit belt or the medical park neighbourhood, this is a great opportunity to be part of the buffalo renaissance!” her caption read. (“I really believe that the Medical Campus is going to bring some attention to the formerly known Fruit Belt neighborhood,” Santana told me by email.)

Residents who saw the image seethed. India Walton, the co-founder of the Fruit Belt Community Land Trust, ticks off the many ways the Instagram post offended her: the tone, the use of the reviled Medical Park name, the presence of a “chai latte or whatever.” Walton includes the image in a presentation she gives to other activists around the country about the dangers of gentrification. The post proves, Walton says, that developers and realtors seized on Google’s mistake to market the Fruit Belt to rich white kids.

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Deciphering the Language of the Body in China

AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

While living in China, English journalist Poppy Sebag-Montefiore experienced the way strangers touched each other in various situations — on the train, in the market, standing in line. “Touch,” Sebag-Montefiore writes in her essay at Granta, “had its own language, and the rules were the opposite of the ones I knew at home.” She recounts her fascination with all of this touch, and how she set about understanding the way it works and where it came from, before the country’s rapid modernization irreparably changed it. All this physical intimacy offered, in her words, “a direct hit of the love, energy and camaraderie that you get from friendship,” but she also wondered if it had a dark side.

Touch in public, among strangers, had a whole range of tones that were neither sexual nor violent. But it wasn’t neutral either. At times, yes, you’d be leaned on indiscriminately because of lack of space, or to help take some weight off someone’s feet. Yet other times you’d choose people you wanted to cling on to, or you’d be chosen. You’d get a sense of someone while haggling over the price of their garlic bulbs and you’d just grab on to each other’s forearms as you spoke or before you went on your way. Touch was a precise tool for communication, to express your appreciation for someone’s way of being, the brightness in their eyes as they smiled, their straightforwardness in a negotiation, a kindness they’d shown.

I felt buoyed and buffeted by this touch. I sometimes felt like I was bouncing or bounding from one person to the next like a pinball, pushed and levered around the city from arm to arm. If the state was like an overly strict patriarch, then the nation, society or the people on the streets were the becalming matriarch. This way of handling each other felt like a gentle, restorative cradle at times. At other times all the hands on you could be another kind of oppressive smothering. But usually touch was like a lubricant that eased the day-to-day goings-on and interactions in the city, and made people feel at home.

I wanted to document this unselfconscious touch. To keep hold of it. I could tell that this ease between the bodies of strangers might not survive rapid urbanisation. This touch was so visual, so visible. I freed my camera from the head-and-shoulders interview shot and took it out to the streets.

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The Darwinian View of Our Storytelling Species

Terray Sylvester/VWPics via AP Images

Taxonomy classifies organisms in a way that maps life’s diversification and ancestral connections across time. When folklorists started charting popular stories like “Little Red Riding Hood” the same way, they built evolutionary trees that revealed surprising connections between childhood tales across cultures. For Harper’s, science writer Ferris Jabr explores this lesser known scientific approach to children’s narratives, which treats a story’s structural elements as genes, called ­mythemes. But this approach peers much deeper than individual stories’ genealogies. It exposes the ancient, durable roots of storytelling itself and our nature as a species. “Beauty and the Beast” and “Rumpelstiltskin,” Jabr writes, were no longer “just a few hundred years old, as some scholars had proposed — they were more than 2,500 years old.”

“Most stories probably don’t survive that long,” says Tehrani. “But when you find a story shared by populations that speak closely related languages, and the variants follow a treelike model of descent, I think coincidence or convergence is an incredibly unlikely explanation. I have young children myself, and I read them bedtime stories, just as parents have done for hundreds of generations. To think that some of these stories are so old that they are older than the language I’m using to tell them—I find something deeply compelling about that.”

The story of storytelling began so long ago that its opening lines have dissolved into the mists of deep time. The best we can do is loosely piece together a first chapter. We know that by 1.5 million years ago early humans were crafting remarkably symmetrical hand axes, hunting cooperatively, and possibly controlling fire. Such skills would have required careful observation and mimicry, step-by-step instruction, and an ability to hold a long series of events in one’s mind—an incipient form of plot. At least one hundred thousand years ago, and possibly much earlier, humans were drawing, painting, making jewelry, and ceremonially burying the dead. And by forty thousand years ago, humans were creating the type of complex, imaginative, and densely populated murals found on the chalky canvases of ancient caves: art that reveals creatures no longer content to simply experience the world but who felt compelled to record and re-imagine it. Over the past few hundred thousand years, the human character gradually changed. We became consummate storytellers.

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