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The Vital and Surprising Role of Driftwood

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You may see a piece of driftwood at the beach or on the shore and wonder about its journey from land to water, and back to land again. As Brian Payton reports at Hakai Magazine, Driftwood is not only beautiful. It’s a critical piece of the marine ecosystem that offers vital sanctuary to breeding insects and invertebrates on shore and in the sea, who in turn feed species all the way up the marine food chain.

Dead trees were sailing the seas long before our ancestors conceived of the ax or skiff, long before the continents split and went their separate ways. And yet, when a tree falls in a river or stream today, it can set out on a journey that remains little studied and poorly understood.

A tree undergoes reincarnation when it lands in flowing water. Branches, bark, and heartwood—what appears to be nothing more than floating debris—become either home to or sustenance for a range of plants and animals. In old-growth forests, up to 70 percent of the organic matter from fallen trees remains in streams long enough to nurture the organisms living there, passing through the digestive tracts of bacteria, fungi, and insects. Caddis flies and mayflies undergo their metamorphosis into adults while anchored to floating wood. When they emerge, they in turn become food for salmon fry, salamanders, bats, and birds. Larger logs control the very shape and flow of streams, creating pools and back eddies where returning salmon rest and spawn. These pools provide critical shelter for young salmon as they hatch, feed, and hide from predators before they make a break for the open sea.

As wood passes through the floodplain, it collides with and remakes the shore. Some becomes anchored there, trapping silt and seeds. As new vegetation takes root, deer mice, voles, shrews, and chipmunks move in for the harvest. Weasels, minks, and hawks make meals of them and fertilize the soil. Wood that drifts into estuaries becomes perches for hungry bald eagles and herons; rafts for weary cormorants, pelicans, and seals; and nurseries for herring eggs.

It is estimated that, in the habitat associated with a single large piece of oceangoing driftwood, the combined weight of the associated tuna alone can add up to as much as 100 tonnes—or the equivalent of well over half a million cans of tuna.

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The Mysterious Disappearance of Sam Sayers

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After summiting Washington state’s Vesper Peak on a day hike in August 2018, Sam Sayers disappeared. At Seattle Met, Allison Williams reports on the conspiracy and true-crime enthusiasts, the social media frenzy, and the desperate search for a woman who hasn’t been seen since.

THE TRAIL REGISTER may be the last tangible piece of Sam on Vesper Peak, the last one you can physically touch, but there was one more sign of her. That sunny August Wednesday, a hiker stopped a few hundred feet below the top, right above the meadow where Kevin would one day erect his camp.

The hiker turns his camera in a blurry panorama, catching blue sky over boulder fields, the sharp peaks that circle Lake Elan. A big open space where it looks like you can see everything. As the camera trains on Vesper Peak, a figure ascends the scramble route, passing other climbers at a determined pace.

Sam has a hiking pole in each hand, head down as she earns the last of the 4,200-foot climb. This is the stance of someone who doesn’t give up. The camera moves on, and Sam continues ever upward.

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A Mountain and a Range of Memories

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As Alison Osius climbs Colorado’s Mount Sopris and reflects on how weather, climate change, and fire has shaped the mountain, she remembers friends lost during their own mountain adventures. Read the essay at 5280.

The challenges Sopris posed made hiking it again even more attractive; it was something I wanted to stay strong enough to do each year. I had gained familiarity and connection with the mountain that had been the backdrop to my adult life. I had seen this peak every day, watched it in all its moods and beauty. Now I was an ever-closer observer, witnessing its transitions the same way it had stood over mine.

Now, experiencing the mountain up close, all day, brings sustained thoughts of Lathrop and of Hayden. The thoughts are sad but a solace, because I want to remember them.

All year, Sopris presides over my life, its distant faceted face staring down, immovable—on the walks that I take on dirt roads and trails around town and on my drives to office and market. But one day each year, I am the one looking down, and out, from a mountain that serves as a monument, bestowing a view of a range and a range of memories.

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When Your Doctor is Also an Opioid Addict

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Lou Ortenzio was a beloved family physician in West Virginia until he popped his first Vicodin to ease a headache after a long day at the office seeing patients, starting a slide into addiction where Ortenzio took 20-30 pills a day. After building a habit that exhausted the free samples supplied by pharmaceutical reps, he started to write prescriptions in his kids’ names. As Sam Quinones reports at The Atlantic, Ortenzio lost his house, his wife, and his kids to his addiction but now, after getting clean, he’s trying to help others conquer their drug problems so that they too, can start over.

By 2006…physicians were writing 130 opioid prescriptions for every 100 West Virginians…Nothing ended an appointment quicker than pulling out a prescription pad.

As a physician in a small community with limited resources, Ortenzio did a bit of everything: He made rounds in a hospital intensive-care unit and made house calls; he provided obstetric and hospice care. Ortenzio loved his work. But it never seemed to end. He started missing dinners with his wife and children. The long hours and high stress taxed his own health. He had trouble sleeping, and gained weight. It took many years, but what began with that one Vicodin eventually grew into a crippling addiction that cost Ortenzio everything he held dear: his family, his practice, his reputation.

“It went from a dozen [salesmen] a week to a dozen a day,” Ortenzio remembered. “If you wrote a lot of scrips, you were high on their call list. You would be marketed to several times a day by the same company with different reps.”

Most drug companies in America adopted the new sales approach. Among them was Purdue Pharma, which came out with a timed-release opioid painkiller, OxyContin, in 1996. Purdue paid legendary bonuses—up to $100,000 a quarter, eight times what other companies were paying. To improve their sales numbers, drug reps offered doctors mugs, fishing hats, luggage tags, all-expenses-paid junkets at desirable resorts. They brought lunch for doctors’ staff, knowing that with the staff on their side, the doctors were easier to influence. Once they had the doctor’s ear, reps relied on specious and misinterpreted data to sell their product. Purdue salespeople promoted the claim that their pill was effectively nonaddictive because it gradually released an opioid, oxycodone, into the body and thus did not create the extreme highs and lows that led to addiction.

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Do Not Mess with the Devils Hole Pupfish

File -- In this Saturday, April 30, 2016, file photo, a still image taken from security video released by the National Park Service, shows three men inside the perimeter fence at the edge of Devils Hole, in Death Valley National Park, Nev. The National Park Service says the men climbed a fence guarding Devils Hole, a detached portion of the park located in southwestern Nevada, on April 30. The Park Service says they fired a shotgun at least 10 times and one man swam in Devils Hole, a hot-water pool that is the only natural home of the tiny Devils Hole pupfish. The man left his boxer shorts in the water. (National Park Service via AP, File)

In Death Valley National Park lies Devils Hole: an aquifer-fed pool home to one of the rarest fish species in the world — the Devils Hole pupfish. The pupfish has been the center of controversy between conservationists dedicated to protecting the inch-long species and Nevadans who believe it isn’t worth sacrificing their right to pump water on their land.

As Paige Blankenbuehler reports at High Country News, Trent Sargent learned about how well the pupfish is protected the hard way. After a booze-fueled break-in and skinny-dipping session at Devils Hole in which Sargent killed a pupfish, the law tracked him down and he was sentenced to a year and a day in jail.

SIXTY THOUSAND YEARS AGO, a narrow fissure opened up in the Amargosa Valley, releasing water pooled deep in the earth and creating Devils Hole, the opening to an underwater cavern. Scientists disagree over just how it happened — whether by way of underground tunnels, ancient floods or receding waters — but several desert fish were separated from the larger population and trapped in Devils Hole. There, a tiny sub-population — the Devils Hole pupfish (Cyprinodon diabolis) — evolved in extreme isolation for tens of thousands of years, eventually, according to scientific consensus, becoming an entirely new species.

Today, visitors to Devils Hole get a rare window into one of the Mojave Desert’s vast aquifers. Steep limestone walls surround a tiny opening into turquoise water. Divers have descended over 400 feet into the cave without reaching the bottom. The water is so deep that earthquakes on the other side of the world cause it to slosh, shocking the fish into spawning.

The Devils Hole pupfish are truly unique. The males are a bright blue, the females a subdued teal, and they’re only about an inch long. They are more docile and produce fewer offspring than their cousins, which are found in pockets ranging from the Southwest toward the Gulf of Mexico. The Devils Hole pupfish lacks the pelvic fin that enables its kin to be vigorous swimmers. But it is able to thrive in temperatures far warmer than similar species can tolerate. Trapped by geology in a consistent 93-degree womb, Devils Hole pupfish have nowhere to go. In fact, they have the smallest geographic range of any known vertebrate species on earth.

The pupfish were among the first species to be protected under the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1967 — along with the American alligator, the California condor and the blunt-nosed leopard lizard — and that protection was carried over to the Endangered Species Act of 1973. At the time, around 220 survived in Devils Hole, but since the 1990s, the species has been in significant decline, sinking to just 35 fish in 2013. Today, there are modest signs that the population is growing; the last population count was 136.

Normally, the nocturnal visitors would have been caught by a motion sensor that triggered a loud alarm. But a barn owl roosting in the area had caused too many false alarms, and rather than spook the bird, officials had disabled the device. So once the men broke in, they felt no real urgency to leave. Little did they know that multiple cameras captured their every move.

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‘There Are Things You See With Your Body’

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In this harrowing excerpt from his memoir, Once More We Saw Stars, Jayson Greene recounts his shock, disbelief, and grief following a freak accident involving his two-year-old daughter, Greta. Read the excerpt at Vulture.

We follow into a corner room, maybe 12 by 12, with a table in the middle and doctors and nurses crowding around it. In the center of it is Greta, stripped down to her diaper and pitifully tiny, her eyes closed and her mouth open. I watch as team members lift her arms and legs like she’s a sock puppet. I remember seeing the upper roof of her mouth, the pearly islands of her teeth. I have no memory of the injury on her head; my mind either refuses to note it or has erased it.

There are things you see with your body, not with your eyes. Stepping away, I feel something evaporate, a quantum of my soul, perhaps, burning up on contact. I am lighter, somehow immediately less me, as if some massive drill has bored into my bones, extracting marrow. I glance at Stacy, gray and motionless in a hallway chair, and see the same life force exiting her frame. Susan is on a stretcher down another hallway, out of our sight. We wait.

He lowers his bony frame into the chair next to us and clasps his hands between his knees. “I wish I had better news for you. We removed as much of her skull as we could to allow the brain to swell, but the bleed was rather severe.”

I feel him choosing his words as carefully and severely as possible: Our false hope is a blockage, and his job is to cut it out at the root and leave nothing behind to grow.

“So you’re saying that her recovering would be sort of … a miracle situation?” Stacy asks.

“I want you to be aware,” she adds more gently as we sob, “that there is a lot of swelling. You should know that before going in to see her.” She sits and listens silently to the sound of our hearts splitting open in that room. Then she stands up: “Let me know when you are ready to go in.”

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Where the Men are Scarier than the Minefield on the Mountain

Photo by Louis Meunier (CC BY 3.0)

Afghan women have few rights — they’re expected to live life according to the wishes of their fathers and the husbands they’re made to marry as teens. Considered “worthless” by some, women are required to spend their lives cooking and cleaning and raising children. Because they’re denied an education and even the right to exercise to improve their physical fitness, some feel resigned to domestic dronery. At Outside, Theresa Breuer reports on Ascend, a mountaineering program that empowers Afghan women to take control of their lives by teaching them how to climb a mountain. While the mountain itself offers life-threatening risks from altitude sickness and a path through an actual minefield, the girls and their families face even greater risks at home from members of the community who want to keep women in the kitchen and who use terror and violence to impose their will.

To run Ascend, which typically has 11 employees, seven board members, and multiple volunteers, Marina travels to Afghanistan four times a year. She visits girls’ schools to promote the program and invites students to apply. There are usually about 20 members, ranging in age from 15 to 23. The economic background of the young women’s families is varied, but most are poor. Team members must participate six days a week, after school and on weekends, for at least nine months. They interview with Marina, Ascend program leaders, and prominent women in the community to demonstrate their commitment. Once accepted, the girls need to get their families’ permission.

“Afghanistan is a predominantly Muslim, very culturally conservative country with strict rules about what women can and can’t do,” Marina says. “It would threaten the girls’ lives if their fathers didn’t approve. Each woman who’s part of Ascend takes a risk. So does her family. There’s a lot of extremism in Afghanistan. Honor killings still happen. Male relatives feel obligated to protect the family honor, and a girl who does something perceived to dishonor the family can be punished by any of them.”

While the women’s fathers have given permission for them to participate, not all have done so enthusiastically. One let his daughter join because “he had nothing better for her to do.” He made sure to tell Marina what he thought of her efforts: “You’re wasting your time. Everybody knows that girls are worthless.”

Many Afghan girls internalize these sentiments. When asked to describe herself, Neki responded, “When I was born, no one was happy, because I was a girl.” Shogufa, who has a close relationship with her father, remembers an old story that her grandmother told her: “ ‘When a girl crosses underneath a rainbow, she will turn into a boy.’ Whenever a rainbow appeared, I chased it.”

The four Ascend members climbing Noshaq—Hanifa, Shogufa, Freshta Ibrahimi, and Neki Hai­dari—were chosen for their physical strength and the skills they demonstrated on training climbs, in addition to their emotional endurance and commitment to the program. Just a few years ago, none of them could have imagined coming to Noshaq’s rugged terrain.

Like Freshta, Hanifa knew nothing about mountaineering before Shogufa convinced her to give it a try. Once Hanifa was in the mountains, she says, “I felt like I got free from a cage. I decided that from now on, I want to be a powerful woman who, when I see someone whose hand has fallen, I will take their hand and help them. No longer should women feel weak.”

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‘Writers tell’: The Devastating Contrasts in Life, Death, and West Virginia

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As her son Keats is born in West Virginia, a state of stark contrast between the beauty of the natural surroundings and the desecration of some of the land in never-ending hunt for oil, Christa Parravani considers his arrival and the death of her twin sister Cara, who died of a heroin overdose in the aftermath of a horrifying, brutal rape. In this haunting and beautiful essay at Guernica, she writes of the fragility of life and the state’s complicity in violence toward women and in pillaging the earth for its natural resources.

I pushed my son out in the late morning, into my husband’s hands. Keats was born limp and purple and quiet. I pulled him atop my chest, cord and all, rubbing him into his voice. We both cried out; him from the shock of life; me from the shock of that life colliding with something close to death. My husband passed our son to a mountain midwife and officially into Appalachia. Keats was born face up. The midwife had needed to twist his body to get him out of me; his collarbone broke from that turn. I wouldn’t know this until weeks later.

I’ve learned that when people from the coasts think of West Virginia at all, they think about banjo music, and Trump country, and sad miners and blown-apart mountains. What I observed as I settled in didn’t exactly match those stereotypes. There are progressive activists, and live-off-the-land farmers, and a vibrant community of artists. There are people living high off old money from coal, and people living even higher off new money from fracking. It’s a place with a long history of taking. The people and the earth carry that pain.

In the last days of Cara’s life, she and I weren’t speaking. I’d thrown her out of my Massachusetts home after I caught her shooting heroin in my bathroom. On the day she died, seven days after I’d told her to leave, Cara was living back at home with our mother. I woke that morning with a feeling of terrible remorse. I had the keen worry that I had abandoned my sister; I’d left her thinking I didn’t want her in my life. All I ever wanted was for the sober her to come back to me.

I dialed Cara’s number right after breakfast. She didn’t answer. I kept calling. I called more than thirty times. She never answered; she was already gone, her head tipped forward, her face purple and still with blood. The sun shone through a window behind her; in death, her body was warm with light. When I heard the news, it was sundown. I screamed so hard that the force of my voice, and the tension of my body, tore the straps of the dress I was wearing.

Twelve years later, I birthed my son on my sister’s death day.

What remains: Keats was born into a world that hurts women—through physical violence and politicized restrictions, through scorn and blame and silence. I can take my experience of that fact and let it break me like it broke my sister, or I can release it with faith that someone hears.

Writers tell.

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The Suprising History of the Ball Pit

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Despite my personal aversion to ball pits everywhere (don’t people pee in them?!), what started out as a response to child-abduction fears in the 1970s remains a hugely popular play activity among children and adults alike. At Vox, Elena Goukassian reports on how the ball pit — a staple piece of equipment in indoor play centers — was born in the safety-conscious 1970s, long before helicopter and lawnmower/snowplow parenting became a thing.

While Ontario Place launched McMillan’s serendipitous career in playground design, contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t the site of the very first ball pit (although it would house one later). According to McMillan, that honor belongs to the ball crawl he installed in 1976 at SeaWorld Captain Kids World in San Diego, another of a handful of theme parks McMillan designed — his most famous being Sesame Place on the outskirts of Philadelphia, which opened in 1980, complete with a giant, ball pit called The Count’s Ball Room. (80,000 plastic balls… mwa ha ha ha ha.)

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“This Is the Glittering Fringe”: On Drag Inclusivity at the Rosemont

Dove. Photo by Mike Sullivan. Used with permission.

At Guernica, Amanda Feinman visits the Rosemont Bar in Brooklyn, New York, to learn about how the venue’s drag shows are expanding the art with boundless inclusivity and one rule: “No one should say, ‘This is how you should or shouldn’t look.’”

Drag has exploded in recent years, reaching larger audiences than ever before on social media and YouTube, and through RuPaul’s sprawling empire. The art form has often provided space for cisgender gay men to perform exaggerated femininity: this might be called “binary drag,” the older and more mainstream school, where prettiness and pageantry are prized and performers are expected to cross unambiguously over a perceived gender line. That stuff hasn’t disappeared. Cis men are still the majority of drag performers, and many queens still aim for drag that’s “fishy” (or female-passing) and polished. But here, in this dim sanctuary from the bitter Brooklyn cold, you sense a hunger for something more knotty. The drag is messy, activist, inclusive. Its performers identify all along the gender spectrum. It engages explicitly with contemporary politics, does not shy away from pain and ugliness, and is uninterested in restraint.

Crucially, a lot of drag at the Rosemont resists binary expectations. It’s a church of “genderfucking,” where high-femme makeup gets paired with flat, hairy chests. Bare breasts meet penile prosthetics. A cinched waist sits below an ample beard. Where some drag prizes clear-cut movement across gendered categories, this work worships the collapse of category altogether.

“There is no reason at all to subscribe to a binary in an art form that is meant to be subversive,” Jupiter Velvet tells me. She’s a trans femme queen based in Miami, but because of her deep Brooklyn ties (Brooklyn maven Merrie Cherry is her drag grandmother), she’s frequently in the Rosemont’s orbit. When I first saw her gliding across Bushwick, she had on a full face of impeccable makeup, a tight shirt whose round cut-outs revealed hairy nipples, and a trans pride flag draped over her shoulders, cascading down her body in baby blues and pinks. “No one should say, ‘This is how you should or shouldn’t look,’” she insists. “We don’t always need to be padded or shaved.”

For a school of drag to have liberated itself from binary rigidity is no small thing. The variety and fluidity here hint at larger trends within the art form, and have implications that reverberate beyond the drag world, too. Even with the careful distance that I—as a straight, cis woman—must maintain when I enter queer spaces, I feel animated by the revolutionary premise of this kind of drag. Because it embraces a radical softening of social category, it suggests something about how the world might be. How we all might live, even after we close our tabs at the end of the night, and stagger back to our muted routines.

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