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Longreads Best of 2019: Science and Nature

We asked writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here is the best in science and nature.

Deborah Blum
Deborah Blum is the director of the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT and publisher of Undark magazine.

‘We Have Fire Everywhere’ (Jon Mooallem, The New York Times Magazine)

Our Secret Delta (Tony Bartelme and Glenn Smith, The Post and Courier)

One of the most interesting trends in climate change reporting is the way writers now quietly and deftly weave its effects into the background of natural disaster stories, from the rapid intensification of hurricanes in the Atlantic to the increasingly explosive wildfires in the west. I’d like to pay tribute to two outstanding examples of this in the past year.

One is environmental writer Jon Mooallem’s stunning narrative portrait of last year’s devastating Camp Fire in northern California, which killed at least 85 people, burned through nearly 240 square miles, and destroyed almost 20,000 buildings including almost all of the small, wooded town of Paradise. Mooallem’s story “We Have Fire Everywhere” is a vivid, terrifying, edge-of-your seat reconstruction of desperate attempts to escape a literal inferno. It moves so beautifully and is so well-paced that you almost don’t realize that he’s also slipping in a lot of very smart fire science, exploring the ways in which climate change is making wildfires exponentially more dangerous. Describing one harrowing moment in a line of burning cars, he writes, “Fisher wasn’t just trapped in a car; she was trapped in the 21st century.”

The other is “Our Secret Delta,” a haunting exploration of South Carolina’s threatened Santee River delta, published this September in the Charleston paper, The Post and Courier. It’s a real pleasure in these days when we worry so much about the fate of local journalism to see this paper shine in so many important ways. This project, led by Tony Bartelme and Glenn Smith, is visually gorgeous and told with the grace of an old-time Southern story, allowing the delta, its history and culture, its fragile waters, to gradually unspool like the winding path of a river itself. The writers create a memorable portrait of an old and essential ecosystem under new threats. Perhaps the most ominous threat is the rise of coastal waters as they reshape the state, yet another reminder that climate change stalks our present as well as our future.

Elizabeth Rush
Elizabeth Rush is the author of Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore and instructor of creative nonfiction at Brown University.

Climate Signs (Emily Raboteau, The New York Review of Books)

When Emily Raboteau’s son becomes obsessed with extreme weather events after a family outing to the “Nature’s Fury” exhibition at the natural history museum in New York, she wonders how much she should shield her five-year-old from conversations around climate change. It is a query she carries with her as she embarks on a city-wide pilgrimage to visit each installation of a public art project called “Climate Signals” wherein the artist hijacks highway traffic signs, rewriting their commonplace warnings with uncanny proclamations of new hazards ahead. In Saint Nicolas Park in Harlem, the sign reads: CLIMATE CHANGE AT WORK. At Hudson River Yards, the yellow lettering spells out an even more dire threat: CLIMATE DENIAL KILLS. In this expertly rendered essay –– gracefully weaving between the personal and critical, the scientific and political –– Raboteau attempts to make sense of what it means to raise a child in a world that is coming apart. It is a question many have but that is all too often addressed in reductive, late capitalist logic in which our human hearts are not taken into consideration.

Emily Raboteau
Emily Raboteau is a professor of creative writing at the City College of New York, and the author of several nontraditional longform essays, including a year-long Twitter thread on climate change, @emilyraboteau.

After the Storm (Mary Annaïse Heglar, Guernica)

Mary Annaïse Heglar’s “After the Storm” stood out to me as a knockout personal essay on climate this year. Heglar is building a body of important work marrying climate awareness with social, environmental, and racial justice. In this piece, which ran in Guernica in October, she frames her harrowing experience of Hurricane Katrina, along with her family in the Mississippi River region, as the lens through which she now sees the climate movement as an activist and director of publications at the National Resources Defense Council. She weaves together the overtly racist news coverage of that storm, the fact that it made landfall the day after the 50th anniversary of Emmett Till’s murder, and the inequitable suffering of New Orleans’ Black population to illuminate the layers of historical injustice magnified by the climate crisis, “covered in the fingerprints of slavery and Jim Crow and colonialism and genocide and patriarchy. It’s what happens when large swaths of people are not only systematically ‘left out,’ but forced to be their own gravediggers and pallbearers.” This should be required reading for those interested in how equity and equality are pivotal to successful climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Mary Annaïse Heglar
Mary Annaïse Heglar is a climate justice writer and communications professional based in New York City.

The End Times Are Here, and I Am at Target (Hayes Brown, The Outline)

Perhaps the most perplexing paradox of climate change is its ability to be both overwhelmingly terrifying and mind-numbingly ordinary. Especially in the past few years, as denial has become less of a viable option and even delusion has slipped from our fingers, the climate crisis with its alarming headlines and horror stories has become… normal. The steady drumbeat to the banality of our lives. Hayes Brown manages to capture that drumbeat in this masterful essay, isolating its sound out of the symphony with surgical precision. As he runs regular errands in a regular Target on a regular, if unusually hot, summer day in Brooklyn, the climate crisis reverberates in the back of his mind, filtering into every choice of every item, if he allows himself to think of it. As someone who exists as a bonafide “climate person,” I love the fresh eye that Hayes brings to the subject. He gives voice to the haunting bewilderment, the guilt of surrender, and the uncertainty that lies within the cracks of the certainty. His essay reminds us of the dullness of our collective heartbreak as we stare into our manmade abyss.

Mikael Awake
Mikael Awake‘s work has appeared in GQ, Bookforum, ArtNews, The Common, and most recently McSweeney’s 58: 2040 A.D. He teaches at Lafayette College.

Indigenous Knowledge Has Been Warning Us About Climate Change for Centuries (Malcolm Harris, Pacific Standard)

This piece by Malcolm Harris has stuck with me for a few reasons. It came out in Pacific Standard, which was an important outlet for environmental writing before it was shut down this past August. (How the crisis in media has interacted with the climate crisis is a subject for another day.) The essay is an elegant synthesis of entomology, economics, and colonial history that places indigenous knowledge at the foundation of the climate conversation — not as ornament, but as central anti-capitalist critique, as timeless technology. Such a piece could inspire the allotment of more time and money — in academic, political, media, and cultural spaces — for deeper dives into indigenous environmentalism and systems of knowledge. It made me dream of a 1619 Project-style series devoted to un-suppressing those narratives, and made me think about Standing Rock and Mauna Kea and how the violent suppression of indigenous activism works hand-on-musket with the suppression of indigenous thought. Harris is a sharp and funny writer, which is why this story seemed something of a departure in approach and tone, and I appreciated it. I wasn’t familiar with the work of Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, who posits the crucial idea that what we call climate change is not a new challenge, but one as old as the New World, “part of a much longer series of ecological catastrophes caused by colonialism and accumulation-based society.” The piece resonated with my feeling that imagination is a function of collective human memory, or as Harris says, paraphrasing sociologist Nikitah Okembe-RA Imani, “[t]hose who study what has been suppressed can see the future.”

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Read all the categories in our Best of 2019 year-end collection.

Longreads Best of 2019: Crime Reporting

We asked writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here is the best in crime reporting.

Pamela Colloff
ProPublica senior reporter and New York Times Magazine staff writer.

Show of Force (Rachel Aviv, The New Yorker)

Every Rachel Aviv story is a marvel, and “Show of Force” — which looks at the intersection of domestic violence and law enforcement — is no exception. In language that is both spare and foreboding, Aviv builds detail upon detail as she sketches the contours of a troubled new marriage in Spalding County, Georgia. She notes that Jessica and Matthew Boynton, the protagonists of her story, left their wedding reception “after less than an hour” and that “Matthew wore a titanium wedding ring with a blue stripe, to signify that he was in law enforcement.” As these small but revelatory details accumulate, so, too, does a growing sense of dread. Aviv illuminates the real human cost behind the chilling statistics that suggest law enforcement officers are more likely to abuse their spouses, making it clear that Jessica, despite being in grave harm, has nowhere to turn. By the time I reached the story’s denouement, my heart was in my throat.


Susan Chira
Editor-in-chief of The Marshall Project. Chira worked for The New York Times for nearly 40 years as a reporter and editor, and shared the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for coverage of sexual harassment.

The King of Dreams (Christie Thompson, The Marshall Project)

This grippingly-written and deeply-reported story exposed the scams of a Texas con artist who made millions promising prisoners’ families their most cherished dream: bringing their children home. Thompson, a staff reporter for The Marshall Project, describes how this conman falsely promised them he could obtain reduced sentences and led them on to exhaust their life savings, in many cases. It’s a window into the desperation and vulnerability of the millions of Americans who love someone who is incarcerated.

Taken: How police departments make millions by seizing property (Anna Lee, Nathaniel Cary, and Mike Ellis, The Greenville News)

One of the great truisms about criminal justice is that it’s local. At a time when local journalism is increasingly endangered — along with the prospect of accountability for local wrongs — here’s an example of a compellingly reported and written investigation by the intrepid staff of this Greenville, S.C., newspaper. They examined statewide civil asset forfeitures over three years and found that not only did the state seize more than $17 million in property, but also that black men were disproportionately the targets.


Aura Bogado
Investigative immigration reporter at Reveal, from The Center for Investigative Reporting

Bound by Statute (Ko Bragg and Melissa Lewis, Reveal)

When reporter Ko Bragg spotted a story about a 13-year-old who was being tried as an adult in Mississippi, she wondered if there were others like him. Her investigation, meticulously examined with data reporter Melissa Lewis, uncovered that nearly 5,000 children were charged as adults in the state in the last 25 years. They found that racial discrepancies abound: three in every four of the children are black; sentences for black minors tried as adults average twice as long as sentences for white minors charged as adults; and even when white kids are handed longer sentences, they’re released much sooner than black kids.

Bragg’s elegant writing follows the devastating story of a child named Isaiah who spent nine months in pretrial detention — sometimes in solitary confinement, other times with adults — before being dragged into court shackled at the waist and ankles. Photographer Imani Khayyam captures intimate moments between a son and mother who illustrate the toll that the state’s laws have taken on their family. But perhaps most compelling is the way the work seemlessly reaches into history to find the origins of this inequity in chattle slavery. The writing explains how the practice of robbing black children of their childhood was upheld through Reconstruction, then made a feature of white mob violence, and finally codified into law — the same law that prosecutors and judges say bind them to perpetuate the inequity today.


Josie Duffy Rice
President of The Appeal, a news publication that publishes original journalism about the criminal justice system. Co-host of the podcast Justice in America.

False Witness (Pamela Colloff, ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine)

Pam Colloff’s story on jailhouse informants is one of the best stories I’ve read this year. It’s a topic that sounds like it could get technical — Pam’s reporting drew on thousands of pages of public records, covering half a century of criminal cases in Texas and Florida — but in true Pam fashion, this piece is completely and totally fascinating. It’s also enraging. The main character is a real piece of work, manipulative and charming and unrepentant. The ways in which he’s charmed women, cops, and juries, destroying peoples lives in the process, must be read to be believed. Incredible reporting, remarkable storytelling. I remain in awe.

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Sarah Weinman
Author of The Real Lolita and editor of crime anthologies, including the forthcoming Unspeakable Acts: True Tales of Crime, Murder, Deceit, and Obsessions

The Minnesota Murderess (Christine Seifert, The Atavist)

Seifert’s historical yarn starts out as a true crime tale but looks more broadly at the ways in which media has always incited panic about women exercising any form of independence in their lives.

He Cyberstalked Teen Girls For Years — Then They Fought Back (Stephanie Clifford, WIRED)

Stephanie Clifford’s story of repeated and sustained harassment of high school girls in a small New Hampshire town is infuriating and enraging and impossible to stop reading.

Catherine Cusick
Longreads Head of Audience and host of The Longreads Podcast

How judicial conflicts of interest are denying poor Texans their right to an effective lawyer / How the Unchecked Power of Judges Is Hurting Poor Texans (Neena Satija, Texas Tribune and Texas Monthly)

In 1963, the United States Supreme Court ruled that states are required, under the Sixth Amendment, to provide an attorney to defendants in criminal cases who are unable to afford their own counsel. How states should pay for this defense, crucially, is left up to the states. For Texas Monthly and the Texas Tribune, Neena Satija exposes the undeniable structural flaws that prohibit funding indigent defense properly in Texas. Satija has done readers an incredible service by recreating the bewilderment of encountering these judicial paywalls from both sides of the bench, bringing much needed humanity to straightening out so many convoluted conflicts of interest.

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Read all the categories in our Best of 2019 year-end collection.

Longreads Best of 2019: Essays

We asked writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here is the best in essays.

Jennifer Baker

Publishing professional, contributing editor to Electric Literature, creator/host of the Minorities in Publishing podcast, editor of Everyday People: The Color of Life—A Short Story Anthology.

Lesson Plan: This Is Not a Drill (Jasminne Mendez, Queen Mob’s Tea House)

On Facebook author Jasminne Mendez said “Lesson Plan” came out of “an attempt at capturing what I’ve felt and what I can only imagine feeling.” Art at its best, at its height, at its most vivid brings us into an experience so deeply one cannot help but feel the effects of the work in our marrow. “Lesson Plan” captures something unique and raw through structure, precision, poetics, and accuracy of what an initially conventional turned unconventional school day looks like when it comes to a new “normal”: active shooters/drills. How can we keep kids safe? Is that even possible anymore? What pressures are educators under? What and who gets lost when these events occur? When will this kind of terror end? The refrain of “this is not a drill” pulsates throughout. Remember… remember… remember. The bare honesty of “Lesson Plan” exemplifies the kind of writing that inspires you to experiment with how to encapsulate and explore our reality, as distressing as it may be.

Read more…

Longreads Best of 2019: All of Our No. 1 Story Picks

All through December, we’ll be featuring Longreads’ Best of 2019. Here’s a list of every story that was chosen as No. 1 in our weekly Top 5 email.

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

Reporting Crime or Turning to Crime

(Photo by Jon Akira YAMAMOTO/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

In this week’s episode of the Longreads Podcast, Head of Audience Catherine Cusick and Head of Fact-Checking Matt Giles discuss recent crime reporting in The Ringer by Kate Knibbs, as well as a collaboration between ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine by Pamela Colloff on a con artist whose testimony helped send four men to Florida’s death row.


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2:40He’s a Liar, a Con Artist and a Snitch. His Testimony Could Soon Send a Man to His Death.” (Pamela Colloff, December 4, 2019, ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine)

2:56 “Worked at Vice Then Went to Jail”: How a Bunch of Canadian Hipsters Wound Up Smuggling Cocaine (and Getting Caught)” (Kate Knibbs, December 2, 2019, The Ringer)

29:00 Sign up to get email updates from Pamela Colloff about her investigation into jailhouse informants and how she reported the story.

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Produced by Longreads and Charts & Leisure.

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

This week, we’re sharing stories from Pamela Colloff, Jordan Smith, James Ross Gardner, Michelle Dowd, and Jaya Saxena.

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In Praise of Del Amitri’s Album Waking Hours

Photo by Ian Dickson/Redferns

Alex Green | The 33 1/3 B-Sides | Bloomsbury Academic | September 2019 | 10 minutes (2,044 words)

 

At Passover dinner in April 1990, our Seder came to the pivotal symbolic moment where we poured a cup of wine and opened the door for the Prophet Elijah. As if on cue, in walked a guy wearing ripped jeans and a black mask, holding a shotgun. It wasn’t exactly how I’d pictured him. I’d always thought skinny, long hair, a beard, maybe a robe…

“Sorry to barge in like this,” the guy said, “but we’re going to be taking some shit.” Then he whistled out the door and in walked an identical masked intruder with an equally menacing shotgun. The two of them tied my family up and then proceeded to ransack the house right in front of us, pulling out drawers, throwing around dishes, and kicking over plants as they searched for anything of value.

Read more…

A Beautiful, Rugged Place: Erosion of the Body

Photo by Jerry Zhang, Book Cover from Sarah Crichton Books

Terry Tempest Williams | Erosion | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | October 2019 | 39 minutes (7,820 words)

 

“We are only lightly covered with buttoned cloth; and beneath these pavements are shells, bones and silence.” —Virginia Woolf, The Waves

 

We had just celebrated my father’s eighty-fifth birthday. Louis Gakumba and I were driving back up to Jackson Hole. My husband Brooke texted me, “I love you. Pull over to the side of the road. Call me.” I knew it was Dan. I had been thinking of him as I was mesmerized by the immense cumulus clouds building in the west.

“Is Dan dead?”

“Yes.”

Read more…

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

NEW YORK, NY - JULY 15: Protestors left Amazon boxes on the ground in front of an Amazon store on 34th St. on July 15, 2019 in New York City. The protest, raising awareness of Amazon facilitating ICE surveillance efforts, coincides with Amazon's Prime Day, when Amazon offers discounts to Prime members. (Photo by Kevin Hagen/Getty Images)

This week, we’re sharing stories from Will Evans, Tomi Obaro, Rachel Morris, Maya Kosoff, and Michelle Delgado.

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Obsession and Release: 10 Years to Write a Longread

Tim Requarth and James K. Williamson

Relative to the time required to read them, #longreads take far longer to write. In the first episode for a new series on The Longreads Podcast, Head of Fact-checking Matt Giles interviews James K. Williamson and Tim Requarth about pieces they recently published after years of incubation, research, and writing.

Tim Requarth is a science journalist and a lecturer in science and writing at New York University. Longreads published his essay, “The Final Five Percent,” in October. Requarth worked on the story for 10 years. It chronicles his brother Conway’s brain injury and subsequent change in personality, as he becomes more violent and eventually lands in jail. Requarth weaves in his own PhD studies in neuroscience and the ramifications of bringing neuroscience into the courtroom. Read more…