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The Music of the Cave

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Cueva de los Tayos — Cave of the Oilbirds — is a giant cave in the Andes guarded over by the Shuar, the Indigenous people of the region. This cave has compelled visitors for hundreds of years, who have linked it to UFOs, ancient metal tablets, and burial grounds. Writing for Outside, David Kushner tells us how the allure of this cave even reached as far as Scotland, to a civil engineer named Stan Hall. 

As a young married man in Dunbar, a seaside town near Edinburgh, he was a mild-mannered civil engineer with a bookish interest in science, history, and travel. “He got interested in explorers,” ­Eileen says. “People like Lawrence of Arabia who would go off into the unknown.” Reading about Tayos in The Gold of the Gods captured his imagination like nothing before. Von Däniken claimed that an Argentine-Hungarian explorer, Juan Moricz, had taken him to the cave, where they found the tablets that, he wrote, “might contain a synopsis of the history of humanity, as well as an account of the origin of mankind on earth and information of a vanished civilization.”

The fantastical account gripped Hall, who on a whim decided to write to Neil Armstrong and invite him to take a trip to the cave in 1976. Armstrong, recently world-famous from his moon walk, could draw enormous attention to the venture, and as Hall had learned, the astronaut had Scottish roots, so he just might consider the idea. To Hall’s shock, Armstrong wrote back saying he was interested. With that letter in hand, Hall approached both the British and Ecuadorean governments, which agreed to provide funding and helicopter transportation to the site. Within a year, Hall had organized one of the largest cave expeditions of his time.

After Stan Hall passed away, his daughter, Eileen, also felt the call of the cave. Kushner joins her on one of her expeditions and discovers that her motivation is very different from that of her father. Eileen is not treasure hunting in the traditional sense, feeling “a growing sense of alienation in a male-dominated adventure narrative,” Eileen was drawn to the spiritual side of the cave. She wants to record music there, an idea, which after some resistance, was welcomed to help “spread the word about the fragility of the region’s landscape and the Shuar people.” And so it is with musical instruments that Kushner descends with her into the deep. 

The deeper we go into Tayos, the more spectacular it becomes. We step into a giant cavern, which I nickname King Kong’s Palace. Boulders cover the ground like fallen ruins, and the cave’s ceiling looms at least a couple hundred feet overhead. In the distance, there’s another passageway with perfectly smooth walls that rise and meet at close to a right angle.

Around the corner, we come to the gargantuan Main Chamber. It could hold a 20-story building lying on its side, and it’s just as tall. The light from our headlamps fades before it reaches the far side. The ground is rocky, lunar, and black, but unlike the moon it’s teeming with life. Giant brown tarantulas stroll between stones. I catch the glimmer of the silvery back of a three-inch beetle before it scurries into the shadows. On a small boulder, we spy what looks like a steampunk insect, part flesh, part machine. It’s an Amblypygi, or whip spider, and as we get closer, we see that it has a beetle in its mandibles.

After pitching our tents and filling up on lentils and rice, we fall asleep to the cries of the oilbirds, which gradually fade to silence.

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The Rehab of Big Sky Country

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In this personal essay for Beside, Simon Hudson reflects on the time he spent as a teenager in a wilderness rehabilitation center in Montana. It was not somewhere he went willingly. His parents, scared of the path Hudson was on, signed over custody to “two ex-Marine types” who turned up in his bedroom at 3am to take him on a plane to the woods of Montana. Initially, Hudson was filled with rage at his lack of choice, and his only thoughts were of escape — managing to leave the facility and hitchhike the 483 kilometers to Missouri. However, Hudson was soon sent back, and when he finally accepted his time in the woods, he found that the wilderness did have something to teach him. 

Montana is known as “big sky country.” On our long hikes through the mountains, the wide summer sky framed everything we saw: eagles perched on cliffs looked like giant boulders before swooping into the valley below; mountain lions took a path along the ridge that ominously intersected with our bearing. Beneath our feet the snow melted, edible glacier lilies and berries spread out, the colour of the rocks shifted from deep reds and blacks to translucent pinks and blues of quartzite and rare lightning glass.

I remembered the things I wanted to do and create, the things that sparked my curiosity, but mostly the people that were important to me with whom I wanted to share those things. I understood how I had intentionally broken off relationships as a way to hide from my shame of being a terrible friend. I had such an outpouring of old, packed-away ideas to examine and process that the long walks were never boring.

These intense moments of clarity persisted even in my sleep. Each night as I lay in a bivy sack under my tarp hooch, my thoughts morphed into dreams that were as vivid as real life—my subconscious working out what I couldn’t when I was awake. I once dreamt our group was trekking through a park back home in Seattle and we encountered some of my friends in a circle getting high. I left the trek to go join them and I sat down in the circle just in time for my turn in the rotation. One of the counsellors came up to me and asked, “What are you doing?” I was surprised at how I hadn’t even managed to muster a doubt about rejoining my old life. At the same time, I was also certain it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I got up and got back on the trail. Then I woke up.

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A Bit of Mud is Good for You

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In the Western world, humans spend 90% of their time indoors, more since the impact of COVID-19 — but disconnecting ourselves from the outside into sanitized boxes is not as safe as we may think. Caroline Winter explains in Bloomberg Businessweek that while light and air pollution are obvious issues, so is the microbiome of the built environment. The buildings we inhabit are full of microbes; inhale deeply and, “With each breath you bring oxygen deep into the alveoli of your lungs, along with hundreds or thousands of species.” Indoor microbe populations tend to be less healthy for us than those that exist outdoors — and, if you live in a green area, simply opening a window can promote a healthier environment. It may also help to be just a little less clean — ease up on the bleach and we won’t wipe out all the good bacteria with the bad. So don’t be afraid to breathe in a bit of the outside world, or get some mud on you: The microbes from species found on plants and leaves may actually be good for us.

Of course, the most urgent microbe-related question is where to find SARS-CoV-2 and how to kill it. Beyond that, there are also long-term questions. How can we promote indoor microbe populations that don’t make us chronically ill or harbor deadly pathogens? Can we actually cultivate beneficial microbes in our buildings the way a farmer cultivates a field? Experts including Van den Wymelenberg are confident all this is possible. “I really believe our building operators of the future and our designers will be thinking about how to shape the microbiome,” he says.

The term “microbiome” is most often used to refer to the population of microbes that inhabit our body, many of which help produce vitamins, hormones, and other chemicals vital to our immune system, metabolism, mood, and much more. In the typical person, microbial cells are as numerous as those containing human DNA and cumulatively weigh about 2 pounds. In recent decades our personal microbiomes have been altered by factors such as poor dietary habits, a rise in cesarean-section births, overprescription of antibiotics, overuse of disinfectants and other germ fighters, and dwindling contact with beneficial microbes on animals and in nature. According a 2015 study, Americans’ microbiomes are about half as diverse as those of the Yanomami, a remote Amazonian tribe.

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Alzheimer’s Before Forty

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At the age of 37, Jo Giles was diagnosed with a form of Alzheimer’s disease. He first shared his story with Shannon Proudfoot for Maclean’s at the age of 38. In the three years since, the disease has progressed in “plateaus connected by sudden declines,” and in this latest piece, Proudfoot looks at the agonizing decision Jo’s wife Robin is now facing. Robin “knows a reckoning is imminent”— with Jo becoming more and more difficult to care for at home. She is considering a nursing home, but before Jo lost the ability to verbalize his thoughts he told her he despised that idea and would prefer to end his life. This is not possible: “… when medical assistance in dying became law in 2016, excluded were “advance requests” that would have permitted people with dementia to set out terms for their death while they still had capacity to consent.” And Robin herself is struggling to imagine a home without her husband — although they stopped being “husband and wife” a long time ago, he is still “her person,” even as his former self slips further and further away. 

Mostly, Jo looks like any guy in his early 40s and just like he always has, because even as he’s had to switch to comfortable clothing with no buttons or zippers, Robin has stuck close to his personal style; his wardrobe is still heavy on band T-shirts. But there’s a sort of veil in his gaze now and a relaxed softness in his facial features. When Instagram or Timehop present Robin with old photos, she can see some important source of light in Jo that’s gone now. A trip to the beach two years ago seemed ordinary, but when the photo appears, she can remember the day vividly: a postcard from another world where such things were possible. “It’s pretty devastating,” she says. “But also it’s nice to remember those times.”

Doctors often use the term “insight” to discuss whether a person with dementia is aware of their condition; some people come in for an appointment furious at a spouse who keeps insisting they’re losing track of things when they’re sure they’re not. Jo was acutely aware of his illness early on, and he and Robin talked about it often. “He was just frustrated by the hand he was dealt, and he was always, always worried about being a burden,” Robin says. “We would tell him, ‘You’re not.’ ” Jo stopped having those conversations about a year ago.

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The Grizzly Attack that Created a Bear Advocate

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When Mya Helena Myllykoski and her son were attacked by a grizzly bear whilst hiking they managed to fight it off — partly through luck, and partly through a can of bear spray. As Eva Holland explains in Cottage Life, the fact that they were not completely helpless could be why neither has had any adverse psychological effects from the attack: “For most … a key factor in recovering from trauma is agency, the sense that you have power or control over your own circumstances.” It’s a concept called “post-traumatic growth,” also known as “adversarial growth” or “benefit-finding.” Mya went hiking with her younger son a few days after the attack, and, in fact, the incident ended up giving her a clear sense of purpose —  she now addresses bear-human conflict in speaking gigs and in a book that she is working on. Instead of holding any resentment against bears, she wants to help save them. 

That’s when Mya went for her backpack with the spray, the sound attracting the bear’s attention, and he charged at her. He knocked her onto her back again, pinning her chest with huge, heavy paws. The can of spray was in her hand somehow now, her fingers tangled in the plastic loop below the trigger guard, and she regretted that she hadn’t practised removing the safety recently. She put her hands up as the bear’s jaws came down towards her face. Then the canister exploded between them. It took her a moment to understand that the bear, snapping at her face, had bitten right into the can instead. 

The bear backed away, looking—in Mya’s word—“insulted.” She couldn’t breathe properly, though she didn’t yet feel the searing pain of the high-potency spray that covered her face. The bear moved away into the brush, and she got to her feet. Alex was standing now too, bloody, still swearing. “Fuckin’ A!” he said, riding high on adrenalin. “That was amazing!”

A deep, pained groan from the brush let them know the bear was still close by. Quickly, feeling that continued threat, they emptied all their water onto Mya’s face, hoping to clear the spray. They only succeeded in spreading it around. Her skin burned now, and it hurt to breathe, and she could hardly see. They gathered their things from the ground and retreated down the trail, Alex leading his mother along. He was still jubilant, punching the air.

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Longreads Best of 2020: Science and Nature

All Best of Longreads illustrations by Kjell Reigstad.

All through December, we’re featuring Longreads’ Best of 2020. We’ve searched through our archives to find the science and nature stories that take you into ancient forests, through dark swamps, to the bottom of the sea, and right up into the stars. 

If you like these, you can sign up to receive our weekly Top 5 email every Friday.

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The Social Life of Forests (Ferris Jabr, The New York Times Magazine)

Old-growth forests in North America are like something out of a fairytale — huge trees, luminescent with moss, with boughs arching above your head, and “gnarled roots” beneath your feet, “dicing in and out of the soil like sea serpents.” And, as Ferris Jabr discovers in this story, the magic of these trees goes beyond what we see — with intricate fungal networks weaving them together into an inclusive community that links “nearly every tree in a forest — even trees of different species.” This is a fascinating piece that shows you these giant sentinels are more than you expect — more than just individuals. 

Jabr goes into the forest with Suzanne Simard, a professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia who has studied these systems and proved “a dynamic exchange of resources through mycorrhizal networks” between the two species of paper birch and Douglas fir. Her work has provoked a certain amount of controversy: “Since Darwin, biologists have emphasized the perspective of the individual … the single-minded ambitions of selfish genes.” Simard is proving this is not what is happening in old-growth forests; they are “neither an assemblage of stoic organisms tolerating one another’s presence nor a merciless battle royale: It’s a vast, ancient and intricate society.” And trees are not just interacting with each other, “trees sense nearby plants and animals and alter their behavior accordingly: The gnashing mandibles of an insect might prompt the production of chemical defenses … Some studies have even suggested that plant roots grow toward the sound of running water.” 

A forest operating as a complicated, sharing society is a powerful notion. Not only does it garner more respect for this ecosystem, but it could prove that cooperation is as central to evolution as competition: “Wherever living things emerge, they find one another, mingle and meld.”  Read more…

The Hungry Bears

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In his article for Beside, Jimmy Thomson looks at the delicate ecosystem that operates around the humble salmon — and what happens when that balance is upset. Thomson visits the community of Wuikinuxv, where the relationship between salmon, grizzly bears, and humans has been knocked out of sync. With great respect for the animals they share the land with, the Wuikinuxv nation wants to do their best to rectify this, rather than come into conflict with the bears.

Carver George Johnson is putting the finishing touches on a stunning pole when I visit his carving shed. It’s built around the concept of “four,” a number that has great resonance in Wuikinuxv culture. For each of the four seasons, there’s a species of salmon. For each of the four local species of salmon, there’s an animal that catches it, just one of which is a human. At the bottom of the pole, clutching a sockeye, is a grizzly bear. And swirling up from the ground, along the haunches of the bear, is a pattern that connects it to the soil and the land.

In eating the salmon, the bears bridge the gap between the deep ocean and the treetops, dragging the wriggling essence of one ecosystem into another.

With colonization, the community of Wuikinuxv saw the opening of several canneries — and salmon numbers depleted, to a point they have still not recovered from. The last of the local canneries closed in 1957, but the salmon declined for another half-century. Part of the reason could be a loss of genetic diversity that came with a lower population, leaving the fish vulnerable to environmental changes. The reduction in salmon was accompanied by logging, replacing old-growth rainforest with a dense thicket — full of juvenile trees that do not produce berries. For grizzly bears, this has meant a reduction in two important food sources — and hungry bears are increasingly coming into contact with humans. 

The carcass is a reminder that bears remain a threat even today; accordingly, there are a few things I need to know before I step outside the Wuikinuxv lodge, according to the facility’s manager. “If you smell something, it’s a bear,” Judy says. “If the dogs are going crazy, it’s a bear.”

With instructions to get inside the nearest house in an emergency — the small cluster of houses in the village are always unlocked for this exact purpose — Judy hands me a metal, spring-loaded tool the size and shape of a pen with a plastic cylinder screwed onto it. It’s a “bear banger,” a tiny explosive like a firework intended to scare away curious bears. I am to carry it around any time I’m outside.

I run into Johnny Johnson outside the lodge. He laughs at my puny protection. “That won’t even scare them anymore,” he says. Johnson’s opinion on the matter is an educated one; not only did he grow up in Wuikinuxv, he survived a violent mauling a decade ago.

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Longreads Best of 2020: Food

All Best of Longreads illustrations by Kjell Reigstad.

Through December, we’re featuring Longreads’ Best of 2020. After revisiting the food stories picked by the team this year, we’ve narrowed down our favorites. Whether you are a fan of marmalade, bagels, or sushi, we hope you find something you enjoy. 

If you like these, you can sign up to receive our weekly email every Friday.

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Flimsy Plastic Knives, a Single Microwave, and Empty Popcorn Bags: How 50 Inmates Inside a Michigan Prison Prepared a Feast to Celebrate the Life of George Floyd (Tana Ganeva, The Counter)

This is a story that puts you through a whole gamut of emotion — from frustration, admiration, joy, to sadness — all while discussing fried rice on a bagel.

The protagonist behind the bagel is Michael Thompson, an inmate of Muskegon Correctional Facility in Michigan, who has served 25 years of a 40- to 60-year sentence for selling marijuana in Michigan, a state where cannabis is now legal. But it is not his own plight that is concerning Thompson — he has been moved by the story of a Black man killed by a Minneapolis police officer — George Floyd.

Wanting to find a way to mark Floyd’s death, Thompson decided to share a special meal with his inmates in a “celebration” honoring Floyd’s life. Such a simple concept is a monumental task in prison — and you feel great pride in the inmates you are joining on this mission. First, there is the issue of money — Thompson wanted to feed the whole unit, but resources meant it had to be capped at 50 inmates. Some food was donated, and the rest Thompson bought from the commissary. Then there were tools — the entire operation had to be carried out using “only flimsy plastic knives, a single microwave, and empty popcorn bags.” The men struggled, tearing their hands up with plastic while cutting, but at the end, each “attendee was served one celebration bagel, a bag of chips, and a soda.” And that food was so appreciated — for some, the first cold pop they had drunk for decades.

More than just the enjoyment of the food, this meal brought the men together, even though they had to eat separately, because: “After they returned to their cells, each man sat in silence for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. And then they began to eat.”

Why Grocery Shopping Is on Its Way Out (Cory Mintz, The Walrus)

As a food writer, Corey Mintz loves a supermarket more than most — in fact, he got married in one: “between the cash register, the root-vegetable table, a group of … friends and family, and a display of maple syrup.” In this piece, he gives us a fascinating history of the supermarket, whilst bemoaning what is unwittingly being lost by more and more people as they choose to order their groceries online.

Written just before COVID-19 hit in full force, the topic is eerily prophetic of things to come. When Mintz discusses the loss of “getting out of the house; the freedom of choice; being in a large, expansive space; the visual stimulation of all that abundance on the shelves,” he was unaware that the arrival of the pandemic was soon to rush this reality to the fore for millions. However, as mental health deteriorates alongside isolation in 2020, the accuracy of some of Mintz’s other points is undeniable: The idea that interactions with local storeowners — or “weak ties” — “improve physical and mental health and … reduces loneliness.”

This year supermarkets have been bombarded by a new wave of online customers, and the herculean feat it takes to get a delivery slot suggests that the figures in this article — that 1.5 ­percent of people in Canada and 3 percent in the U.S. order their food online — are already out of date. Now that people have discovered the delight of bananas and chocolate biscuits turning up at their door will they ever go back to their local supermarkets? If these community interactions are lost on a permanent basis, what is the long-term cost?

Mintz will certainly be hoping that in the future we remember that “while other human beings can be annoying—clipping our nails on the subway, calling instead of texting, disrespecting the unwritten rule that the middle seat on a plane gets armrest preference—we need one another.”

Marmalade: A Very British Obsession (Olivia Potts, Longreads)

This essay resonates with the pure joy that a particular food can bring, but it’s not the most obvious of foods — a bitter citrus fruit boiled in sugar to create a breakfast condiment … a.k.a marmalade.

Potts’ language draws you into the kitchen with her as she brews up her concoctions, so you can almost feel the steam and stickiness as she drops “saffron strands into a couple of the jars, stirring last minute, and they hang, suspended in the jelly, perfect threads.” The pleasure she derives from her “potted sunshine” is apparent, but more fascinating is the complicated world of marmalade that she explores. A central theme of British culture — eaten by Samuel Pepys, James Bond, and Paddington Bear — it inspires fanaticism. Invited to judge at the World’s Original Marmalade Awards, Potts discovers that “the tricky, maddening nature of marmalade is precisely why people love making it.”

Along with Potts, we brace ourselves “for the marmalade obsessives” she would find while judging for four days at Dalemain. And yes, 50 sheep were dyed orange in readiness for this year’s festival, but despite herself, Potts finds herself entranced by this eccentric world, and when she is the first to try the marmalade that ultimately won the Double Gold International Marmalade award in the artisan category, she “wanted to ring everyone I know and tell them about this stuff.” It turns out the subculture of marmalade is rather delightful.

Once back at home, and in a global lockdown, Potts finds comfort in making her own marmalade: “there is something inherently optimistic about preservation, about putting something away for your future.”

Read this loving homage to marmalade, and you too will find “a small optimism, a hope of orange-colored happiness in your future.”

The Sacred Ritual of Meals with My Mother (Marie Mutsuki Mockett, Elle)

In this essay, Marie Mutsuki Mockett evokes the vivid associations we can have with food. She argues that the food of our youth — given to us by our mothers — formulates our palette for the rest of our lives. As a teenager, in the hospital with pneumonia, Mockett craved “Japanese soul food” — her mother brought her pickled sour plums, rice, and seasoned ground beef, and her “body reconstituted itself out of her nourishment.” Even today, when she is sick, she yearns for those flavors.

Now the tables have turned, and with her mother aging, it is Mockett who is bringing meals that bring her comfort, such as elegant flats of sushi with “the spinach … steamed, the water squeezed out, and the leaves placed into strips.” Despite her mother leaving Japan for the United States decades earlier, it is the food she grew up with, and taught her daughter to love, that they share — their personal and regional history interwoven.

COVID-19 has now robbed Mockett of the chance to share meals with her mother — whose nursing home was one of the first to shut its doors to visitors. She manages to express her devastation with a simple, yet searing, description: “Sometimes I get a photo of her eating her meals. There is no sushi on her plate.”

My Restaurant Was My Life for 20 Years. Does the World Need It Anymore? (Gabrielle Hamilton, New York Times Magazine)

This year has been a struggle for many small restaurants — with so many having to shut their doors. In this piece, Gabrielle Hamilton tells the story of the closure hers — Prune — but it is the tale of many. Written from a first-person perspective this is a deeply personal essay that exposes the pain of shuttering a lifelong dream.

Prune was 20 years old when the gates were finally rolled down. A bistro in Manhattan’s East Village, when it was born “there was no Eater, no Instagram, no hipster Brooklyn food scene.” Hamilton worked seven nights a week “driven by the sensory, the human, the poetic and the profane — not by money or a thirst to expand.” However, once she cut her first payroll check, she understood, that poetic notion aside, she was running a business. When COVID-19 hit there was “one piece of unemotional data to work with: the checking account balance,” and there was not enough in it.

It took a week to shut the restaurant. A week of cleaning and “burying par-cooked chickens under a tight seal of duck fat to see if we could keep them perfectly preserved in their airtight coffins.”

Then followed weeks of paperwork — desperately applying for grants and unemployment that failed to appear. Then further weeks of idleness and quarantine, and the realization that although there was still a month of food in the freezer, what about somehow getting hurt and needing serious medical care with no insurance? More questions followed: Is Prune necessary? Will restaurants survive the pandemic?

Having decided against delivery and going online, sticking to her vision of her restaurant “as a place for people to talk to one another, with a very decent but affordable glass of wine and an expertly prepared plate of simply braised lamb shoulder,” Prune’s shutters are still down.

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Read all the categories in our Best of 2020 year-end collection.

Longreads Best of 2020: Crime Reporting

All Best of Longreads illustrations by Kjell Reigstad.

Through December, we’re featuring Longreads’ Best of 2020. After taking a plunge into the murky world of crime, we narrowed down our favorites. Enjoy these Best of Crime reads, showcasing gripping tales and insights into the human psyche. 

If you like these, you can sign up to receive our weekly Top 5 email every Friday.

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I Hope Our Daughters Will Not Be Punished (Justine van der Leun, Dissent Magazine)

Van der Leun’s piece details the plight of Kwaneta Yatrice Harris — who, incarcerated for killing an abusive partner, wrote her letters from solitary confinement in a Texas prison. 

This year a lot of us have spent vast expanses of time isolated from family and friends — and so for many, this story will strike a chord. When van de Leun discusses pandemic lockdowns, she states, “Those who were alone began to physically throb for human connection.” This is a powerful concept — if we, with all the distractions of Zoom and Netflix and pets, can still ache for human connection when isolating, consider what it must feel like for those locked in solitary for months, with their senses so deprived of stimulation they magnify to “smell the guard’s perfume, hear the click of shoes echoing from far away.” 

By talking to Harris, van de Leun gives us an inkling of what it is like to live in a condition that is “classified as torture by the United Nations, serves no rehabilitative purpose, and causes mental health to deteriorate in as few as ten days.” A registered nurse, Harris is terrified of COVID-19, and the unsanitary conditions she finds herself in — her unit is rarely cleaned, and she showers in one of three showers shared by forty-two women. 

This essay also echoes another horrific event of 2020 — the death of George Floyd, killed during his arrest in Minneapolis. The racism that Black people experience at the hands of the police can extend to prison wardens. In Texas in 2015, a Black man named Mark Sabbie was feeling unwell — he was given a disciplinary ticket for “creating a disturbance” by “feining [sic] illness and difficulty breathing.” He was cuffed in his cells and left alone — and found dead the next morning. 

An emotional read: but an important look at how the challenges wider society has faced in 2020 are magnified inside the microcosm of a Texas prison.

Pleas of Insanity: The Mysterious Case of Anthony Montwheeler (Rob Fischer, Rolling Stone Magazine)

What does it mean to be “criminally insane”? The official answer sounds simple — to have a mental illness that impairs you from telling the difference between right and wrong. But mental illness is a nuanced spectrum — and, to many, it seems impossible to decipher someone’s state of mind during a crime. This story is a fascinating exploration into the complexities of the insanity plea in the United States — which, even though there are “lots of tests and things you can do to kind of back up your intuition … in the end, it’s kind of this gut feeling.” 

Using the case study of Anthony Montwheeler,  Fischer explores what can happen when a gut feeling isn’t enough. Montwheeler apparently played the system. Charged in 1996 with kidnapping his wife and son at gunpoint he was found “guilty except for insanity.” Twenty years later, he claimed he faked mental illness by studying a copy of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and mimicking behavioral traits — to avoid incarceration in favor of a state psychiatric hospital — and now wanted to be discharged. After he spoke at a hearing for a total of eight-and-a-half minutes, a review board decided Montwheeler was “no longer affected by a qualifying mental disease or defect,” and the state was legally required to discharge him. Had Montwheeler been pretending all those years? It seems no one really knows for sure, but what we do know is that after his release he went on to murder his third ex-wife, Annita Harmon. 

This case is a rarity — the insanity defense is pursued in fewer than one percent of all criminal trials. But, however hard to define, mental health is still an obvious factor in crime: “37 percent of prisoners and 44 percent of jail inmates have been told by a mental health professional at some point in their lives that they suffer from a mental disorder.” Fischer shows that while the insanity defense may be flawed,  there is still a clear link between mental health and criminality — with a lack of mental health care, and the resulting issues, apparent.

The Confessions of Marcus Hutchins, the Hacker Who Saved the Internet (Andy Greenberg, Wired)

Greenberg is meticulous in his detailed analysis of Marcus Hutchins’ character, a hacker who some view as a criminal, and others as the savior of the internet. It’s a thrilling story, with many twists and turns, but also an exploration into people’s moral complexities.

Hutchins stopped the worst malware attack the world had ever seen — christened WannaCry. In the space of an afternoon, it destroyed, by some estimates, nearly a quarter of a million computers’ data — before Hutchins found the kill switch. He was celebrated as a hero, but Hutchins himself knew “what it was like to sit behind a keyboard, detached from the pain inflicted on innocents far across the internet.” Three years earlier he had been the chief author of Kronos — a type of malware focused on stealing banking login credentials. 

After disabling WannaCry, Hutchins’ previous work with Kronos was discovered and he was arrested. The hacker world rallied in support — which left Hutchins ravaged by guilt for what he had done, but even the judge in his trial concluded that “one might view the ignoble conduct that underlies this case as against the backdrop of what some have described as the work of a hero, a true hero.” This is a thought-provoking insight into the gradual descent into a criminal world, the climb back out again, and the layers of gray in between.

The Wind Delivered the Story (Josina Guess, The Bitter Southerner)

It feels jarring to put the terms “beautiful” and “lynching” in the same sentence — but this personal essay about the 1947 lynching of Willie Earle is beautifully written. Guess’ writing is almost lyrical — as she explains how the wind blew “history into my path” in wonderfully descriptive language.

When Guess moved into her farmhouse in Georgia she found a box of old newspapers from the mid-1940s through the early 50s. She stored them in the woodshed until a blustery autumn storm disturbed them and scattered them about the property. One headline that appeared, like “a bird I had been expecting in this landscape that carries memories of racialized violence,” read “State Seeks Death Sentence For All 31 Lynchers.” Not ready for the emotional toll of exploring this incident further, Guess tucked the paper away, but the story wanted to be told, and a few weeks later the wind blew the conclusion across the garden: “28 White Men Get Blanket Acquittal in South Carolina Mass Lynch Trial.” It was Willie Earle who was killed, to avenge the fatal stabbing of a cab driver named Thomas Brown. Arrested, then almost immediately kidnapped from jail, Earle had no opportunity to stand trial — his guilt or innocence was never proven. His murderers were given that chance, but despite ample evidence and confessions, were found innocent.

Guess’ work focuses on dismantling racism in Georgia, so it seemed fate that this story, literally, landed at her feet. She went on to research the history of the Willie Earle murder, discovering it was considered the last lynching in South Carolina, and, although the trial was a miscarriage of justice, it marked the end of mob violence and the beginning of a rumbling that eventually became the Civil Rights Movement.

The Strange and Dangerous World of America’s Big Cat People (Rachel Nuwer, Longreads)

Amongst one or two other things, 2020 was the year people learned the names Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin. The Netflix series Tiger King landed on our screens at the same time that many of us were in lockdown due to COVID-19, and was binge-watched by millions. This story by Rachel Nuwer was written before we met these characters on Netflix while clutching our loo rolls and hand sanitizer, and her piece sheds a brighter light on their complicated personalities.

Nuwer’s piece explores the murder-for-hire plots that Exotic instigated against Baskin, but her focus also remains firmly on the animals around which the story revolves. Exotic was not only convicted of murder-for-hire — but of 17 wildlife crimes, including illegally killing five tigers and trafficking them across state lines — a significant conviction when there is still no oversight over big cat ownership by the federal government. This investigation goes beyond the larger than life characters and the human drama, and actually shows us the lives of the animals that are owned by America’s big cat people.

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Read all the categories in our Best of 2020 year-end collection.

Open the Door to the Political World of Narnia

Photo by E. Charbonneau/WireImage for Disney Pictures. Getty Images.

C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia have sold over 100 million copies worldwide. The adventures of dwarves, talking animals, and some plucky children have engaged people throughout generations — but Lewis was selling more than just stories — he was also selling Christianity, having discovered, “that a children’s book was the best way of conveying his devoutly Christian message to the world.” While Christianity is indisputably intertwined with the chronicles, according to Mark Jones, writing for The Independent, Lewis’ work also contains a less obvious theme — politics. When we walk with Lucy through the cupboard door into Narnia, we should be aware we are entering a world with a political agenda.

… The four children from England are now kings and queens of Narnia. This is how they rule: “They made good laws and kept the peace … and generally stopped busybodies and interferers and encouraged ordinary people who wanted to live and let live.”

I don’t know if Boris Johnson read Narnia as a child. He’d be a rare English middle-class child if he hadn’t. But the adult Johnson could easily lift those words for his next manifesto. As a summary of benign, libertarian Conservative politics, it is nigh-on perfect. And it’s the libertarians who are most on his back now. A visit to Narnia might do him the power of good.

In Narnia Lewis created a vision of these islands that Johnson, not to say Michael Gove and Nigel Farage would heartily endorse. It’s a happy, small, independent nation, bursting with neighbourliness and godliness, where the food is honest and healthy, the beer is excellent, where everyone knows their place – and they’re happy with it.

Narnia also resents modernism and progress — apparent in the third chronicle, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. 

The central theme of the story is a familiar one: a priggish, unpleasant boy called Eustace Scrubb comes to acknowledge god through the figure of Aslan, learning courage, steadfastness and loyalty along the way. He has a Lewisian mountain to climb.

On that first page we discover Eustace’s mother and father are “modern parents” in the manner satirised a few decades later in Viz magazine. He calls them Harold and Alberta, not mother and father. They are “very up to date and advanced people”. Among their many sins – and there is no question Lewis does view these things as sins – they are vegetarian, teetotal non-smokers who (shame!) like to have their windows open and, bizarrely – what was on Lewis’s mind? – “wore a special kind of underclothes”.

But don’t despair of Narnia just yet. It may be full of religious and political messages you are not expecting, but it is also a magical story that children have loved for 70 years.

But there are other roads we can take. Lewis had every chance to “get at” me, in Pullman’s words: I’ve read the chronicles dozens of times as well as his adult novels and Christian apologetics. Yet I turned out to be an atheist, liberal pro-European – a Narnia-loving one.

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