The Longreads Blog

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

(Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images)

This week, we’re trying something new. In addition to our usual list of five great stories to read, we wanted to share a little insight into why we chose each one.

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1. Courtney’s Story*

Diana Moskovitz | Defector | September 13, 2021 | 13,800 words

Diana Moskovitz’s investigation of Ohio State’s handling of domestic violence allegations against one of its football coaches centers the survivor, a young wife and mother named Courtney Smith. It shows how some of the most powerful people in Ohio, and in college football, worked to protect themselves and their reputations, all at Smith’s expense. In the dictionary, “Courtney’s Story” should be found under the listing for “damning.” —Seyward Darby

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2. A New Nurse Struggles to Save Patients in a New COVID Surge

Kathryn Ivey | Scientific American | September 16, 2021 | 1,757

Kathryn Ivey became a registered nurse on July 27th, 2020, and went straight into a COVID ward in Nashville, Tennessee. “I learned how to be a nurse with death constantly at my heels,” she says. Recounting the terror and dread of the ward, she remembers “every single 2 A.M. phone call to family members so they could hear the voice of the person they loved at least one more time.” Ivey’s first-person account is nearly surreal, it’s that terrifying. What’s worse is that so much of this suffering and death could have been prevented. Here in Canada, Alberta’s ICU is near capacity after a premature summer re-opening plan eliminated protections and restrictions. The provincial government only just admitted they were wrong. Now, Canadian nurses like Ivey will have to deal with the casualties of a government more concerned about freedom and economics than human lives. Ivey’s piece should be required reading for anyone who’s eligible, yet remains unvaccinated by choice. “We are haunted by failures now, starting with the failures of policy that allowed human lives to be sacrificed on the altar of the economy and ending with us telling a family that we can do no more. COVID has made martyrs of us all,” says Ivey. —Krista Stevens

3. Rain Boots, Turning Tides, and the Search for a Missing Boy

Katherine Laidlaw | Wired | September 9, 2021 | 6,900 words

I picked this essay because Laidlaw’s powerful, descriptive language pulls you in right from the start. This tragic story of a missing 3-year-old is also told with respect and sympathy toward the family — against the grain of an online community that has them marked as the prime suspects. —Carolyn Wells

4. Hawai’i Is Not Our Playground

Chris Colin | AFAR | September 2, 2021 | 2,943 words

Tourism has “tamed and reinvented [Hawaii] for the mainlander imagination,” writes Chris Colin in his latest story for AFAR. From countless sacred sites to Native Hawaiian traditions, the land and history of its Indigenous population have vanished and been forgotten over time. Colin’s view of Hawaii as a vacation destination unraveled as he toured Oahu in late 2019 with local activist Kyle Kajihiro. Kajihiro told him that even responsible, politically conscious visitors automatically slip into “vacation mode” as soon as they step foot outside of the airport, expecting no less than the idyllic “lei-draped, aloha-dispensing, honeymooner-welcoming” version of Hawaii. As visitors, what more should we be doing — and what does reciprocity in the context of travel look like? What does decolonizing tourism — and decentering the outsider — mean? And ultimately, how can we all support Native Hawaiians in their fight to reclaim their land? Colin’s piece is thought-provoking, pushing me rethink when and how to visit. —Cheri Lucas Rowlands

5. Revolt of the Delivery Workers

Josh Dzieza | New York Magazine | September 13, 2021 | 7,479 words

Convenience has always come at a cost; this we know. Yet for the class of delivery cyclists that has emerged in New York City over the past decade, ferrying Doordash and Seamless orders across bridges and boroughs, those costs grow ever steeper. If it’s not draconian apps like Relay pushing riders to the brink of danger, it’s bike thieves robbing riders of their transportation and livelihood — often inflicting injury in the process — and a police department that hasn’t exactly leapt to help. As Josh Dzieza chronicles in a vividly reported feature called Curbed, a patchwork of collective action has arisen from this fraught landscape. Riders band together to navigate attack-plagued routes en masse; they protest outside NYPD precincts and lobby for legislative protections from predatory employers; most jaw-droppingly, they track stolen bikes to their new homes and manage to get them back. “For Cesar [Solano] and many other delivery workers,” Dzieza writes of one organizer, “the thefts broke something loose.” His story doesn’t help put those pieces back together, but reading about these workers and the steps they’re taking ensures that you’ll think about what it really means to have a salad ferried crosstown. (And if you still can’t do without that Sweetgreen, then tip well — in cash, if possible.) —Peter Rubin

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Michael K. Williams on March 31, 2021 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Rodrigo Varela/Getty Images)

This week, we’re sharing stories from Anand Gopal, Óscar Martínez, Erica Lenti, T.J. Quinn, and Matt Zoller Seitz.

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1. The Other Afghan Women

Anand Gopal | The New Yorker | September 6, 2021 | 9,900 words

“In the countryside, the endless killing of civilians turned women against the occupiers who claimed to be helping them.”

2. Mourning the Dead, and Fighting for the Living

Óscar Martínez | El Faro | August 27, 2021 | 7,800

“New York was one of the states hit hardest by the pandemic in the United States. The hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants who live there suffered both the virus and its ravages: mass graves, widespread contagion, hunger, debt, overcrowded housing, unemployment—just some of the legacies of 2020. After years of struggle, many must start all over again.”

3. Cases of Missing Trans People Are Rarely Solved. A Married Pair of Forensic Genealogists Is Hoping to Change That.

Erica Lenti | Xtra Magazine | September 1, 2021 | 3,645 words

“Resolving any Doe case is, at its core, about restoring dignity to the dead. But that is especially pertinent in cases of trans and gender nonconforming people, who are routinely harassed, sexualized, overpoliced and dehumanized. The TDTF’s work is also about restoration, righting the historical wrongs of institutions that have overlooked trans people. It is not easy work, but the Redgraves consider it necessary. If we want to begin the process of undoing decades of harm that systemic transphobia has caused, they say, this is one painful but crucial place to begin.”

4. “Is This My Life Now?” Justin Foster’s—and My—Struggle With Long-Haul COVID

T.J. Quinn | ESPN | August 16, 2021 | 6,670 words

“From our first conversation, we connected about what it was like to suddenly no longer be yourself, and the constant self-doubt that came with it. If we can’t do the things we used to do, then who are we?”

5. Death of a Storyteller

Matt Zoller Seitz | Vulture | September 7, 2021 | 3,450 words

“Rare is the actor who can locate the specific in the universal and vice versa. Michael K. Williams was that actor.”

Twenty Years Later: A 9/11 Reading List

The 9/11 Memorial Reflection Pool in New York City.

On Tuesday September 11th, 2001 I was at my desk in the Communications Department at Boeing in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The radio was on. Just after 8 a.m. local time, breaking news reported that an airplane had hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City. I imagined a small plane, perhaps a Cessna. A horrible accident, but hopefully one with few casualties, I told myself. I could not have been more wrong.

As more reports came in, we found the only conference room in the building that had a television set with a cable feed. As colleagues converged on the room, we watched in disbelief when United Airlines Flight 175 hit the South Tower and in horror as the towers fell less than two hours later. Parts of the two Boeing 767s and Boeing 757s used in the attacks had been hand-made and assembled in our building. We could not believe that four aircraft we’d helped make with love and pride had been used to cause terror and death. We were stunned, silent.

As the 20th anniversary of September 11th approaches, here are six stories about the tragedy and its ongoing aftermath. In curating this list — out of so many stories written in response to the events of that day — I found myself drawn mostly to ones published in the past few years.

1) What Bobby McIlvaine Left Behind (Jennifer Senior, The Atlantic, September 2021)

Bobby McIlvaine was 26 years old when he died at the Twin Towers in Manhattan on September 11th, 2001. Reporter Jennifer Senior knew Bobby and the McIlvaine family; senior’s brother had been Bobby’s roommate. Senior’s impeccably paced story is a deep study in grief: How grief differs for everyone. How some guard theirs and others rail, both pitted against something that can never be truly assuaged. Senior reminds us that memory is fallible even in, or perhaps even because of, the most tragic circumstances. That life as a survivor remains exactly that — surviving — day-by-day, knowing you are forever in the after and your loved one is forever in the before.

Then, on the morning of September 11, 2001, Bobby headed off to a conference at Windows on the World, a restaurant in a building to which he seldom had reason to go, for a media-relations job at Merrill Lynch he’d had only since July. My brother waited and waited. Bobby never came home. From that point forward, I watched as everyone in the blast radius of this horrible event tried to make sense of it, tried to cope.

Early on, the McIlvaines spoke to a therapist who warned them that each member of their family would grieve differently. Imagine that you’re all at the top of a mountain, she told them, but you all have broken bones, so you can’t help each other. You each have to find your own way down.

It was a helpful metaphor, one that may have saved the McIlvaines’ marriage. But when I mentioned it to Roxane Cohen Silver, a psychology professor at UC Irvine who’s spent a lifetime studying the effects of sudden, traumatic loss, she immediately spotted a problem with it: “That suggests everyone will make it down,” she told me. “Some people never get down the mountain at all.”

This is one of the many things you learn about mourning when examining it at close range: It’s idiosyncratic, anarchic, polychrome. A lot of the theories you read about grief are great, beautiful even, but they have a way of erasing individual experiences. Every mourner has a very different story to tell.

That therapist was certainly right, however, in the most crucial sense: After September 11, those who had been close to Bobby all spun off in very different directions. Helen stifled her grief, avoiding the same supermarket she’d shopped in for years so that no one would ask how she was. Jeff, Bobby’s lone sibling, had to force his way through the perdition of survivor’s guilt. Bob Sr. treated his son’s death as if it were an unsolved murder, a cover-up to be exposed.

2) The Falling Man (Tom Junod, Esquire, September 2003)

“The Falling Man” by Tom Junod is among the canon of pieces that surface in my mind now and again, ones I reread because they’re unforgettable. What touched me when I first read the piece in 2003 and continues to resonate today, is the humanity of the man captured by photographer Richard Drew. Amid unimaginable catastrophe, this unknown man — one who became controversially symbolic of the senseless tragedy of 9/11 — accepts his fate with dignity. He does not struggle. He does not flail. Faced with certain death, he chose the way in which he left this world and in his leaving, blessed us with his grace.

But the only certainty we have is the certainty we had at the start: At fifteen seconds after 9:41 a.m., on September 11, 2001, a photographer named Richard Drew took a picture of a man falling through the sky—falling through time as well as through space. The picture went all around the world, and then disappeared, as if we willed it away. One of the most famous photographs in human history became an unmarked grave, and the man buried inside its frame—the Falling Man—became the Unknown Soldier in a war whose end we have not yet seen. Richard Drew’s photograph is all we know of him, and yet all we know of him becomes a measure of what we know of ourselves.

The photographer is no stranger to history; he knows it is something that happens later. In the actual moment history is made, it is usually made in terror and confusion, and so it is up to people like him—paid witnesses—to have the presence of mind to attend to its manufacture.

In most American newspapers, the photograph that Richard Drew took of the Falling Man ran once and never again. Papers all over the country, from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram to the Memphis Commercial Appeal to The Denver Post, were forced to defend themselves against charges that they exploited a man’s death, stripped him of his dignity, invaded his privacy, turned tragedy into leering pornography. Most letters of complaint stated the obvious: that someone seeing the picture had to know who it was. Still, even as Drew’s photograph became at once iconic and impermissible, its subject remained unnamed.

In a nation of voyeurs, the desire to face the most disturbing aspects of our most disturbing day was somehow ascribed to voyeurism, as though the jumpers’ experience, instead of being central to the horror, was tangential to it, a sideshow best forgotten.

3) An Oral History of The Onion’s 9/11 Issue (Brian VanHooker, MEL Magazine, June 2020)

In September 2001, The Onion staff had only just moved to Manhattan, from Madison, Wisconsin. When satire and comedy are what you do, how do you respond to tragedy in your brand-new backyard? With great care, as it turns out.

Hanson: Our normal, irreverent, edgy, cynical, dark humor wasn’t going to be emotionally appropriate with this situation.

Loew: At some point we realized, “Oh my God, this is going to be the first print paper we’re going to drop on the streets of New York City!” So we had to make it about 9/11, because if we made it about Cheetos or some silly stuff, that would be offensive. But this was terrifying because we’re these kids from Wisconsin coming into New York City and we’re going to drop this silly comedy paper about this horrific tragedy. So we knew we had to get it right — it was like threading the eye of the needle.

Loew: We all got back in and we all sat together, pitching headlines, trying to find the right tone. We’ve got to cover it from this angle, we’ve got to cover it from that angle. What about the average person at home, how are they handling it? That’s where “Woman Bakes American-Flag Cake” comes from. We have to capture some of this righteous anger, so “Hijackers Surprised to Find Selves in Hell.” The one that always tickled me was “Rest of Country Temporarily Feels Deep Affection for New York.”

4) Raising Brown Boys in Post-9/11 America (Sorayya Khan, Longreads, September 2017)

In her personal essay, Sorayya Khan recounts the clueless curiosity, microaggressions, and overt racism she endured as a brown immigrant in America. Later, as a mother she relates having to explain that Muslims had perpetrated the attacks, knowing she would be unable to protect her sons, aged 9 and 5, from a deeply wounded and vengeful white America.

Before the week was out, a boy his age told Kamal on the bus that he would come to our house and kill us all. He’d been Kamal’s second grade classmate when he bragged about owning a shotgun, a detail we discussed over dinner. I knew his father, as much as I could know a man who dressed in fatigues on Tuesday afternoons and said nothing while we waited by the classroom door to take our children to after school activities. The boy’s name was Gunner, not yet irony, merely fact, like his eyes that were set not quite right and the blond crop of unruly hair which fell over them. The same day, also on the bus, another child called Shahid a terrorist. Our kindergartener understood the import, but not the word, and at bedtime he insisted on a precise definition. Naeem explained that the pejorative term depends on which side of a fight you’re on. Terrorist is complicated when you’re a political science professor speaking to a five-year-old who is your son, has been to Pakistan, and like all five-year-olds, understands a thing or two about justice.

One afternoon on the school bus, with no better grasp of the term, Shahid was again called a terrorist, and this time a boy named Rich told him he was going to kill him. “Only Gunner has guns, right?” Shahid asked when he got off the bus. Right away, I telephoned the principal who promised to take care of the matter. Trusting that he had, we put Shahid on the bus the next morning, but on the afternoon ride it happened again. We met with the principal who said he’d dropped the ball. Despite the sports analogy, the Americanism never failed to fail me, as if it should be possible to make things right by locating a dropped ball, picking it up, and putting it in its place.

5) The Mystery of 9/11 and Dementia (Patrick Hruby, The Washington Post Magazine, August 2021)

The emotional toll of September 11th is a heavy price families and loved ones have paid every day since. As Patrick Hruby reports at The Washington Post Magazine, first responders are now suffering health consequences after prolonged exposure to airborne chemicals and toxins during the immediate post-attack search and rescue and in the months-long cleanup that followed at Ground Zero. Responders, many of whom are in their 50s, don’t just suffer emotional aftershocks like sleep disturbances and PTSD. Physical ailments, which started with breathing and gastrointestinal issues just after the attacks, now include cancers as well as memory problems and cognitive impairment at three times the rate of others in their age group.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – SEPTEMBER 11, 2001: Rescue workers help one another after the attack on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. (Photo by Matt Moyer/Corbis via Getty Images)

Ron was one of the tens of thousands of police, firefighters, construction workers and others who worked amid the ruins of the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan following 9/11. Like many of those responders, he later paid a price. Diagnosed with asthma and a lung disease both linked to Ground Zero exposure, Ron retired on disability in 2009 and moved to Arizona.

By 2014, however, Ron’s troubles with thinking and memory were becoming unmanageable. Back in New York, he had deftly maneuvered a fire engine along the city’s crowded streets; now, he struggled to parallel park the family’s SUV inside two spaces. He would put toothpaste on his toothbrush and not know what to do with it. He was let go from his security job — in part, Dawn says, because he struggled to use a smartphone.

Ron’s condition is almost unheard of for a 59-year-old man, and it points to an emerging medical mystery: Twenty years after 9/11, Ground Zero first responders are suffering from abnormally high rates of cognitive impairment, with some individuals in their 50s experiencing deficiencies that typically manifest when people are in their 70s — if at all.

Of the 818 responders Clouston and his colleagues first tested, 104 had scores indicative of cognitive impairment, a condition that can range from mild to severe and that occurs when people have trouble remembering, learning new things, concentrating or making decisions that affect their everyday lives. Ten others scored low enough to have possible dementia. Clouston was stunned. As a group, the responders were relatively young. Many had to pass mentally demanding tests to become police officers and firefighters in the first place. They were some of the last individuals you would expect to be impaired, let alone at roughly three times the rate of people in their 70s. “We should have seen — maybe — one person” with dementia, he says. “And we had way too many people showing impairment. It looked like what I’m used to seeing when we study 75-year-olds. It was staggering.

6) The Children of 9/11 Are About to Vote (Garrett M. Graff, Politico, September 2020)

As Garrett M. Graff reports, 13,238 Americans were born on September 11th, 2001. In 2020, they turned 19 and were eligible to vote in a U.S. presidential election for the first time. How has growing up in a post-9/11 world saturated by social media, amid near-daily mass shootings and racial inequality, shaped their politics and their worldview? Graff interviewed 19 of them to find out.

The interviews do not represent a strict, scientific cross section of the 67 million children of Generation Z, but collectively they capture a portrait of a generation entering politics seemingly with a more clear-eyed sense of America’s place in the world—a country that still represents hope and opportunity to millions around the globe, yet is no longer the unchallenged superpower or champion of Western values that perhaps it was for previous generations.

Chloe: Every single day since I was born, we haven’t been in a time where we’re at peace.

Tawny: The main mindset growing up with that—actually something that I am ashamed to admit—was this deep-rooted fear, this Arab-phobia. “Oh, these are the bad people.” which was certainly not my parents’ intention when teaching me about 9/11. I think a lot of Americans who grew up after 9/11 grew up with that kind of racism. Anytime you go on an airplane and you saw someone of that race or ethnicity, you get a little uneasy. Thankfully, that’s something I grew out of, and I definitely worked on.

Chloe: When I was younger, my feelings about America were more classic, patriotic, Fourth of July, red, white and blue. You’re proud to be American because of the way that our country values hard work and capitalism. Right now, for me, I would say that being an American is being empathetic to everyone from all different types of backgrounds and races and understanding them, and understanding what they’re doing here in our country. Everyone here is an American.

As Adsel told me, “Millennials are a lot more weary—they came into adulthood during the recession, they lived through 9/11. I think their view is a lot more depressing. Whereas Gen Z—our generation—things can only get better. We’ve been born with the backdrop of 9/11, we’ve lived through shootings, we’ve lived through very polarizing politics, we have the pandemic.”

A Sketch Artist, a Grieving Mother, and An Unsolved Mystery

Michael Marsicano for The Atavist Magazine

Nile Cappello | The Atavist Magazine | August 2021 | 7 minutes (1,994 words)

This is an excerpt from The Atavist‘s issue no. 118, “The Girl in the Picture,” written by Nile Cappello and illustrated by Michael Marsicano.

The Atavist Magazine is Longreads’ sister publication. For 10 years, it has been a digital pioneer in longform narrative journalism, publishing one deeply reported, elegantly designed story each month. Support The Atavist by becoming a member.



For most residents of Holland, Michigan, there was nothing remarkable about March 11, 1989, a Saturday. Frost on the ladders of the city’s water towers thawed in the sun—spring was just over a week away. Mothers poured milk over cereal for kids watching back-to-back episodes of their favorite cartoons. Fathers who worked weekends drove pickup trucks to industrial jobs at local automotive and concrete companies.

But all was not well in the house on the corner of Lincoln Road and 52nd Street. It belonged to Dennis and Brenda Bowman, a married couple with two children. For the Bowmans, March 11 marked the last time they saw their 14-year-old daughter, Aundria, alive.

Dennis was the one who contacted the police. He told them that he’d come home from his job as a wood machinist to find Aundria missing, along with some of her belongings and $100 from his dresser. Dennis described Aundria—whom he and Brenda had adopted when she was an infant—as a troubled teenager who frequently fought with her mother and had run away to a friend’s house once before.

Dennis agreed to call around to the homes of kids Aundria knew to find out if anyone had seen her. But his wife soon took over as the family’s point of contact. It was Brenda who called the police regularly, and Brenda who corrected the amount of cash missing from her husband’s dresser to $150. That was enough for police to issue a warrant for Aundria’s arrest for larceny; the warrant listed Dennis as the victim of his daughter’s alleged crime.

With no foul play suspected, the police labeled Aundria a runaway and passed her case along to the Youth Services Bureau. Few people who knew the Bowmans questioned the official narrative. Over the years, there had been whispers about the family. Once, when Aundria was in middle school, she boarded the school bus bleeding from her wrist. Some kids gossiped about a suicide attempt, but others said Aundria had cut herself trying to get back into her house after her parents locked her out. There were rumors that Dennis, a former Navy reservist with reddish-brown hair, a goatee, and wire-rimmed glasses, and Brenda, a portly woman with curled bangs who’d once worked at the jewelry counter at Meijer department store, abused Aundria. But back then, what happened behind closed doors was considered family business.

Fifteen months before Aundria disappeared, Brenda gave birth to a daughter, Vanessa. Aundria went from being an only child to more than a big sister—she was a third parent to the chubby, redheaded baby. While other kids her age went to afterschool clubs and Friday night football games, Aundria stayed home changing diapers and cleaning bottles. She kept a photo of her sister in a school folder, where other teens might stash a magazine cutout or a polaroid of their crush. When she wasn’t with Vanessa, Aundria was anxious about the baby’s well-being.

Many people in Holland assumed that Aundria had gotten so fed up with her home life that she finally split. Maybe she’d gone looking for her birth mother. People heard that she’d hitched a ride at a local truck stop, had left town with an older boy, or was pregnant.

Brenda reported a series of tips in the weeks and months following her daughter’s disappearance, all of which seemed to confirm that Aundria had run away. At the end of March, Brenda claimed Aundria had been spotted at a 7-Eleven. In mid-April, Brenda said she received an anonymous call from someone claiming that police were looking for the teenager in the right area, but on the wrong street—whatever that meant. In June, she reported a sighting at a local property, where Aundria had supposedly been hanging out with a group of young men. And in October, Brenda said a friend had seen Aundria, pregnant and with dyed hair, in a line at Meijer. Police investigated but found nothing.

Aundria’s classmates went to prom and graduated, then got jobs or headed to college. Eventually they married and had children of their own. But Aundria remained forever 14. A single photograph formed most people’s memory of her. It was given to police when she first vanished. In it, Aundria is sitting against a blue studio backdrop and looking just off camera, with her green eyes cast hopefully upward and pieces of her dark, shaggy hair hanging over her forehead. Her smile is charmingly off-balanced. She looks suspended between adolescence and adulthood.

Photos of missing children were often printed on the sides of milk cartons or on flyers taped to the top of pizza delivery boxes. Aundria’s picture wound up somewhere else. In 1993, the band Soul Asylum debuted a music video for its song “Runaway Train,” featuring the images and names of missing kids across America. The video was a huge hit, with several versions airing on MTV and VH1. In the one that played in Michigan, Aundria’s photo appears just after the two-minute mark.

Reflecting on the video 20 years after its release, director Tony Kaye claimed that more than two dozen missing children were found because of the video. Aundria Bowman wasn’t one of them.

Back then, what happened behind closed doors was considered family business.


Carl Koppelman never expected to solve mysteries. He worked as an accountant until 2009, when his mother’s health began to decline. At 46, Koppelman became a full-time caregiver, and his days, once filled with reviews of spreadsheets and financial statements, now revolved around driving to doctor’s appointments and administering medications. When he wasn’t tending to his mother, Koppelman was online, exploring message boards, news sites, and social media. At the time, the story dominating headlines, and bordering on popular obsession, was the return of Jaycee Dugard.

In 1991, Dugard had been kidnapped while walking to a bus stop near her home south of Lake Tahoe, California. The blond, freckled 11-year-old was the subject of a nationwide search, but eventually the case went cold. Then, on August 26, 2009, Dugard reappeared. For 18 years, convicted sex offender Philip Garrido and his wife, Nancy, had held her captive at their home in the town of Antioch, more than 150 miles from where they’d kidnapped her. Dugard had given birth to two of Garrido’s daughters, who were now 11 and 15. To the embarrassment of local authorities, parole officers had visited the Garridos’ home several times during the years Dugard was missing. They’d failed to check the backyard, where the young woman was kept in a network of tents, lean-tos, and sheds.

Koppelman’s interest in the Dugard case led him to Websleuths, a forum where crime hobbyists and armchair detectives connect and collaborate on unsolved cases. Koppelman gravitated to posts about cold cases, the ones least likely to ever be solved. Until recently, Dugard’s had been one of them. How many more would benefit from fresh eyes and a little persistence?

Koppelman spent countless hours scrolling through the national database of missing persons and unidentified bodies, known as NamUs. There’s overlap between the two main parts of the database, the disappeared and the deceased—the trick is finding it. During late nights at his computer, in a dimly lit corner of his mother’s suburban home in El Segundo, California, Koppelman would try to match the characteristics of people who had gone missing with those of the unidentified dead. Finding a likeness could be enough to generate a tip for law enforcement.

When Koppelman noticed that the age and condition of some bodies might make it difficult for loved ones to recognize them, it sparked an idea: Koppelman liked to draw portraits for fun, and he was pretty good at it. He also had a CD-ROM of the image-editing software CorelDRAW, which someone had given to him as a gift. One day, with his mother napping in the next room, Koppelman installed the program on his computer. It was his first step toward becoming a forensic sketch artist.

He started creating lifelike renderings of Jane and John Does based on photos taken postmortem. He used CorelDRAW to open eyes, fill in sunken cheeks, and give faces more dynamic expressions. In complicated cases, where bodies had decomposed, he re-created facial structure. The goal was to make the dead more recognizable—to loved ones searching for them, and to police trying to identify them. Once he finished a rendering Koppelman sent it to NamUs, and the database would sometimes publish it. He also posted his work on Websleuths so other armchair detectives could use it in their identification efforts.

Eventually, Koppelman began working with police departments and the DNA Doe Project, which identifies human remains through genetic testing and genealogical research. Glad to help law enforcement generate leads and, in some instances, put a name to a face, Koppelman was almost always an unpaid volunteer. His renderings were instrumental in solving several cold cases, including the identification of the Caledonia “Cali” Jane Doe (Tammy Jo Alexander) in 2015.

But before all that, in 2009, when he was just starting out as an amateur sleuth, Koppelman got interested in the case of the Racine County Jane Doe. When she was found near the edge of a Wisconsin cornfield in 1999, the young woman had only been dead about 12 hours, but rain had washed away any evidence that might have been useful to investigators. It seemed likely that the young woman had been murdered elsewhere and dumped. An autopsy determined that she may have been cognitively disabled, and that she had suffered long-term abuse and neglect: She had broken bones and a cauliflower ear, and her body showed signs of sexual assault. More than 50 people from the farming community where she was found attended her funeral. But no one knew her name or what had happened to her. Her gravestone read “Gone, But Not Forgotten”—a hope more than a description.

Koppelman read everything he could find about the Racine County Jane Doe, combing through news articles and social media. He learned that she had hazel-green eyes, two piercings in each ear, and short reddish-brown hair. She was five-foot-eight and 120 pounds, and estimated to be between 18 and 30 years old. She was found wearing a men’s gray and silver western-style shirt embroidered with red flowers—a design, the manufacturer told police, from the mid-1980s.

On NamUs, Koppelman plugged in some general search criteria—gender, age, location—and clicked through the results for missing persons. With each one, Koppelman asked himself, Could this be her? In most cases, the answer was a clear no. The age didn’t match, or the location made no sense. But one entry gave Koppelman pause: Aundria Bowman.

Aundria and the Racine County Jane Doe shared physical characteristics, and their ages aligned: Aundria would have been 25 in 1999, when the Jane Doe was killed. Holland, where Aundria disappeared, sits directly across Lake Michigan from where the Jane Doe was found—it’s just four hours by car from one location to the other, tracing the lake’s southern shoreline and passing through Chicago. To test the possible identification, Koppelman created a composite image, superimposing Aundria’s photo with ones from the Jane Doe’s autopsy. He marked the similarities in red.

Koppelman took his theory to law enforcement, who found it compelling enough to investigate. To determine whether the Jane Doe was Aundria, police would need to compare DNA from the body with that of someone in Aundria’s family. Because Aundria was adopted, authorities had to track down her birth mother. Koppelman knew that could take a while, or that it might never happen, forcing investigators to find other avenues for identification.

As the police did their part, Koppelman kept poking around online, learning what he could about Aundria. One day at the end of 2012, he came across a page for Aundria—the premium kind you have to pay to keep active, in order to connect directly with former school acquaintances. Was this Aundria, alive and well, and trying to find old friends? And if it wasn’t her, who was it?

Read the full story at The Atavist

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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This week, we’re sharing stories from Robert Sanchez, Nicholas Hune-Brown, Emily Van Duyne, David Ferris, and Jaya Saxena.

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1. The Enduring Legacy of Elijah McClain’s Tragic Death

Robert Sanchez| 5280 Magazine | September 1, 2021 | 4,454 words

“In summer 2020, the nation’s attention turned to the killing of a 23-year-old Aurora man. His death prompted a flood of more than 8,500 letters from outside the state of Colorado—all begging Governor Jared Polis for justice. We read every one.”

2. The Shadowy Business of International Education

Nicholas Hune-Brown | The Walrus | August 18, 2021 | 7,330

“Foreign students are lied to and exploited on every front. They’re also propping up higher education as we know it.”

3. Grace: An Unfinished Draft, A Fire

Emily Van Duyne | Avidly | September 9, 2020 | 2,405 words

“In Texas—Georgia—in Alabama—all over this vast canvas of fear that we call America, women will die. They won’t have time to run away. They will be great-Aunts only in name, and in death. And their deaths will disappear into a language made and remade by men to cover their shitty sins.”

4. When the Toughest Trees Met the Hottest Fire

David Ferris | E&E News | August 16, 2021 | 6,670 words

“The other name of the coast redwood is Sequoia sempervirens. The second word in Latin means ‘evergreen.’ Its tactics are legendary. Knock over a redwood and it is not dead. A circle of new redwoods, called a fairy ring, will grow around its wide base. The tree has cloned itself, and Big Basin is full of redwoods formed in rings, starting life in the ruins of death.”

5. Margaritaville and the Myth of American Leisure

Jaya Saxena | Eater | August 30, 2021 | 4,200 words

“Margaritaville, as Parrotheads will tell you, is a state of mind. But it’s also—delightfully, sometimes inexplicably—a real place now open in Times Square.”

But Who Tells Them What To Sing?

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Adrian Daub | Longreads | September 2021 | 21 minutes (5,894 words)

When a new trailer for the Marvel film Black Widow dropped in April of this year — after the movie had been repeatedly moved back due to the pandemic — the producers seemed intent on reminding people about why they’d been excited about the movie before the lockdowns started. They did so by closing the promo with a new version of the theme from The Avengers, probably to call back viewers to a different, less socially distanced time. How could you know this was a new version of the motif? It was choral, but that was a well Marvel had gone to before. This time it had lyrics. As best I can tell, for the first time.

As fans welcomed the callback in online comments, I was brought back to a question that I’d had when Game of Thrones did something similar at the end of its fourth season and again at the very end of the show. It’s something of a trend these days to take a highly recognizable instrumental theme and make it choral. And I get why: The gesture is big and bold and epic. But my question concerned something comparatively pedestrian: Who decides what the lyrics are? What language are they even in? And who writes them? I decided to find out.

Those of us who listen to soundtracks obsessively do so knowing that that’s not how soundtracks are intended to work on us. Whoever mixed in a chorus for a few seconds of the Black Widow trailer was going for an emotional reaction, not some new layer of meaning to be disentangled. “When I do a film score,” the late James Horner said in a TED talk in 2005, “I am nothing more than a fancy pencil” executing the vision of a filmmaker. You’re not meant to listen to a soundtrack in isolation from the image. It is music in service of the moment.

You’re not meant to listen to a soundtrack in isolation from the image. It is music in service of the moment.

But one place where this fancy pencil has more autonomy is when it comes to the text that a chorus sings. Perhaps it’s better to say that the pencil is condemned to freedom. When the composer John Ottman was hired to score the 2008 Tom Cruise film Valkyrie, he realized that he needed a break in the texture of the soundtrack at the very end of the film. That’s because in the final scenes of the movie basically all of the even remotely redeemable characters get executed. After they had all died and the credits rolled, Ottman decided he wanted a “sense of release, because there had to be a different feeling as the audience walks out of the theater.” So he hit upon the idea of a self-contained choral piece. “The problem was though, what on earth would they be saying?”

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What on earth indeed? It’s a moment where blockbuster filmmaking — always so anxiously in control of its meanings — seems to be at a bit of a loss. And it’s a moment where we as an audience suddenly get a sense for how films make meaning, and how it isn’t always the meaning they intend to make.

So who decided what the lyrics to the theme from The Avengers were? The short answer is that I still don’t know. But the long answer to my pedestrian question leads into the high-pressure, highly collaborative world of film scoring. A world in which composers often have just a few weeks to write music that pleases the studio and the director, and potentially even test audiences. And in which they toil with assistants, orchestrators, sound editors, and many, many session musicians to find a sound for a film that is still in the process of evolving. I wanted to find out who among this massive group would be the one to say “hey, let’s add a chorus and have it sung in Sanskrit” or something along those lines.

The answer turns out to be: Pretty much any of them can and sometimes do. What film choruses offer us is a perfect synecdoche for the collective, frenzied, and deeply mercenary magic that creates movies in the first place. It’s as likely that a director had the screenwriter invent specific lyrics early in post-production as that a subcontractor, assistant composer, or orchestrator jotted down some words or went on a Wikipedia deep-dive eight weeks out from release in a desperate late-night quest for a non-copyrighted text to use with a cue that might please a bunch of suits half a world away.

What film choruses offer us is a perfect synecdoche for the collective, frenzied, and deeply mercenary magic that creates movies in the first place.


Choruses have been part of film scoring for over a century. People have been singing on screen since the earliest silent reels, and with increasing technical wizardry we could even hear them doing it. But something like the Black Widow trailer is what we call an non-diegetic chorus: These are voices that viewers aren’t supposed to somehow locate within the screen action. In early cinema you had to have musicians physically present, first in the cinema with a viewer, eventually in the scene with the actors. Both of which pretty much ruled out the use of a choir. And, as film music historian Mervyn Cooke points out, once technologies existed that allowed films to have at least a partial soundtrack, filmmakers initially avoided non-diegetic music — precisely because they needed to sell the illusion that the sound was coming “from” the scene.

Non-diegetic music started to become the norm only in the early ’30s. And even then the limitations of recording technology meant that non-diegetic voices were not usually worth the trouble. By the late ’30s this had changed. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) had its choir chime in even when it wasn’t for the explicit musical numbers. (Snow White was also the first soundtrack issued as an album, so choruses were part of how film soundtracks traveled semi-independently from their films from the very beginning.)

Alfred Newman had begun relying on wordless “heavenly choirs” going ooo and aaa in the background, in films like Wuthering Heights (1939), How Green Was My Valley (1941), and The Song of Bernadette (1943). As the music historian Donald Greig, who is also an active session singer on many modern scores, has pointed out, in the beginning choruses had to be at least somewhat motivated by theme or screen action — they were there to speak for ghosts, to intimate religious dimensions to the screen action.

And then there was Dimitri Tiomkin’s score for Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon (1937). The film concerns the discovery of Shangri-La in the Himalayas, and when we finally get to the fabled land the soundtrack accompanies the matte-painted wonderland with a chorus singing in … well, in a language that isn’t English and doesn’t seem to be Tibetan either. And thus another Hollywood tradition was born: film choruses belting out perfectly nonsensical prose with utter conviction.

And thus another Hollywood tradition was born: film choruses belting out perfectly nonsensical prose with utter conviction.

Both types of choral performance have never left the Hollywood lexicon. In thinking through how film choruses make meaning, I became obsessed with what the process of recording a soundtrack looks like today and at what point in that process someone actually writes lyrics in fake Tibetan. In the Golden Age, studios kept their own choirs — professional singers would show up at the lot and ooo and aaa for a Miklós Rósza score today and belt out a ferocious battle hymn for Erich Wolfgang Korngold the next. Studios also had their house orchestrators (usually several), and while laypeople remember the composers of Hollywood’s Golden Age, there are other figures that probably shaped the way films sound just as much if not more, all the while just quietly collecting their paychecks.

Speaking with modern singers about their experiences, I was struck by how little their day-to-day job description had changed since Tiomkin’s day. But the world in which they are performing is altogether different. As part of my research for this article I made a massive choir belt out the most menacing rendition of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” ever, and all it cost me was $199 plus tax. The EastWest Symphonic Choirs software allows you to make a virtual choir sing in just about any style imaginable. Want your ooos and aaas to sound like a whisper? More Broadway or more classical? All of that’s in the package.

But there’s more: Due to a system called WordBuilder, you can have this choir sing pretty much anything — you can type in text in English, in phonetics, or a proprietary alphabet called Votox, and the software will assemble it out of a massive databank of vowels and consonants. This is a commercially available product, but there are even bigger sample libraries kept by individual composers: If you’re wondering who’s dropping by to supply a quick “agnus dei” for a Hans Zimmer score, well that’s almost certainly a proprietary sample owned by Zimmer’s film score workshop, Remote Control.

All the professional singers I spoke to were keenly aware of products like EastWest Symphonic Choirs and the sample libraries — because more likely than not they’re in them. If you’re in the business of singing on film, these days you won’t always be asked to sing for an actual score, but instead you might get booked to record samples. There’s a scary possibility that these artists are slowly eroding the industry’s need for their labor — that the fruits of their one day of paid work will perform for the studios in perpetuity and with no extra residuals. Their disembodied vowels are putting their vocal chords out of business. But that possibility hasn’t been fully realized: Often enough when they arrive in the recording studio, singers will find that there is a vocal track already, but it’s done by computer. And yet, the composer wants a live version. Almost all the singers I spoke to expressed some surprise that Hollywood still bothered.

Their disembodied vowels are putting their vocal chords out of business.

One possibility why they do: Composers simply like working with live humans and consider it part of their job to do so. As Jonathan Beard, who has been composing and orchestrating in Hollywood for over a decade, put it to me, choirs are an easy, effective way to give dimension to a scene — “because you have a human body as one of the instruments, and there’s a power the human voice [has] over us in general.”

Composers are highly trained musicians, and a lot of their training has involved singing. The composer brothers Harry and Rupert Gregson-Williams (Harry composed for films like Kingdom of Heaven, the Narnia-films, and most of Denzel Washington’s films of the last 15 years, while Rupert is best known for DC Universe films like Wonder Woman and Aquaman) were both choirboys at St. John’s College in Cambridge — it makes biographical sense that choral textures and their creation would be important to them. And that they might like to think through music with a live chorus rather than a computer. Another surprising preference that speaks to a kind of sweet traditionalism: While sometimes vocal tracks get doubled in recording (meaning what sounds like 16 singers is just eight overlaid onto each other), this seems to be the exception rather than the rule. Clearly someone in the process enjoys working with large groups of people and thinks they give you an aesthetic payoff that engineering wizardry would not.

But there’s a more cynical reason as well, and it’s the reason why automation hasn’t displaced human labor in other fields: The process of booking some freelancers through a fixer, having them record for a day, and then paying them no residuals isn’t actually much of an expense. That’s how London became a preferred place for Hollywood to record: a large population of well-trained musicians, whose union doesn’t insist on residuals. Several London-based singers I spoke with suggested that the reason Hollywood doesn’t record in, say, Germany as often is that singers in continental Europe have steadier income and are less dependent on session work. And once a producer decides that even London-based musicians are too demanding — well, then there’s always Prague or Budapest. The gorgeous voices you heard in a John Ford Western were the sound of unions and full-time employment; in a Hollywood score today they are monuments to the globalizing power of the gig economy.


So that is the world from which these vocals emerge. Imagine you are a classically trained singer in, say, London who has done some previous work on soundtracks. You get a call from a fixer, who is assembling a chorus, or soloists, for a production company. You book the gig, and you show up for the recording session knowing which film you’re singing for, probably knowing the composer you’re recording for, but nothing else. Most recording sessions take place in the famous Abbey Road Studios, which are expensive, so you’re usually booked for no more than a certain number of union-approved hours.

Importantly, by the time you show up for the recording session, the film is pretty much “in post post production,” as one session singer put it to me. The film is basically finished, the wrangling over what the score is supposed to sound like is over. By the time you record, whatever orchestral parts you are supposed to accompany are fully assembled — you usually have them in your headphones as you sing. When you get there, you are handed a large stack of notes to sing and, according to all the singers I spoke with, you get through some portion of them in the next few hours — never through all of them. Some cues you sing will never be in the finished film, some cues you might do 10 versions of. And then the studio time the composer booked is over, you hand over your stack of notes, sign statements agreeing not to divulge anything about what you just sang, and you are on your way.

As the soprano Catherine Bott said: “You enter a studio and you open the score and off you go. You sing what you’re told, and it’s all about versatility, just being able to adapt to the right approach, whatever that may be for that conductor or that composer.” And part of that, singers told me, was singing the words — whatever they may be. As Donald Greig pointed out to me, a lot of these singers have training in classics; they certainly know their way around a Requiem or a Stabat Mater. And yet often enough when they step into Abbey Road they’re being asked to sing perfectly nonsensical phrases in pseudo-Latin — but the studio is booked, the clock is ticking, and as Bott put it, “that’s not the time to put up your hand and, you know, correct the Latin.”

Or the English: Bott sang on the soundtrack for the 1986 animated feature An American Tail. For a cue where the little immigrant mouse Fievel first lays eyes on New York harbor, composer James Horner had the choir intone the famous Emma Lazarus poem inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty. As she was singing through the cue — “Give me your tired, your poor” — Bott realized that whoever had put together the score had written down “your huddled masses yearning to be free” rather than “breathe free.” She was pretty sure she knew better, as did some colleagues, but out of English reserve, deference to the Americans, or professionalism, no one felt it was their place to say anything. The misquote stayed in the picture and you can buy it on CD today.

Perhaps part of what made me look for the meaning behind the lyrics on some of my favorite soundtracks was exactly this professionalism. A good singer sells the emotion and the conviction, to the point that a listener sort of has to believe that it all means something. Interestingly enough, early in this long tradition of made-up languages, Hollywood felt the need to pretend that it did mean something. When Lost Horizon was released in 1937, Columbia Pictures claimed in its publicity material that Dimitri Tiomkin’s score “includes authentic folk songs of Tibet.” The same press sheet noted that the Hall Johnson Choir, a popular gospel choir, “will sing the folk song arrangements in the native Tibetan language.”

Film music historians agree that this is hogwash. There is no evidence Tiomkin researched Tibetan folk songs for his score — what the ad men were selling as “authentic folk songs” were almost certainly newly written pieces in a made-up language. Tiomkin had started out as a concert pianist and relied on a small army of orchestrators to turn his melodies into actual playable scores. Someone in that group put a pen to paper and wrote these pieces, and either that same person or someone else seems to have made up some fake Tibetan text to distribute to the singers.

But for whatever reason Columbia Pictures’ publicity department didn’t want to frame the vocals in this manner. Perhaps extradiegetic voices were still sufficiently new that they wanted to tell an audience what these voices were doing on the soundtrack. Or it had nothing to do with the soundtrack itself, and was just another way of selling the broader spectacle of filmmaking: Look at the lengths we went to.

At the same time, lyrics have a pesky way of clarifying the intended audience. After all, it is not altogether difficult to imagine why Tiomkin and company wouldn’t have bothered with actual folk songs and actual language. Lost Horizon is one of those movies that stars noted non-Asian persons H.B. Warner as “Chang” and Sam Jaffe as “the High Lama of Shangri-La.” The broad and bogus claims to authenticity are also making a point of who the movie is for. The fact that the Hall Johnson Choir was an African American group best known for singing spirituals, amplifies the sense that Lost Horizon turns non-white people’s authenticity into charming window-dressing for white audiences. Like Shangri-La for its white visitors, even when its lyrics were incomprehensible film music was still “for” white English speakers.

At other times when Hollywood filmmaking relied on choruses, the point was the opposite of exoticism: hyper-comprehensibility. Decades later Tiomkin wrote a rousing score for John Wayne’s jingoistic epic The Alamo (1960). At the end of the movie, with the siege over and one lone survivor and her little daughter leaving the ruined fort, a chorus drifts faintly onto the soundtrack, almost as though the singers were standing somewhere far away in the field of battle. Over the movie’s final shots, the choir takes over the soundtrack, singing a version of what would eventually spend some weeks on the pop charts as “The Ballad of the Alamo.” The first lines a viewer is able to clearly hear are: “Let the old men tell the story / let the legend grow and grow. / Of the thirteen days of glory / at the siege of Alamo.”

This music explicitly tells us why it needs to turn human voices singing in a language the viewer is supposed to understand. The “Ballad” tells us what to do with the story we have just heard: Pass it on, let the legend “grow and grow.” Also — since this was made by John Wayne in the ’60s — the message is probably also don’t be a communist. But note how the movie has to treat three things as essentially the same: the singing has to be audible for the casual moviegoer, over people getting out of their seats early or finishing off their popcorn; the words have to be comprehensible on a purely linguistic level to an audience that has been taught to tune out the music on some level for the last two hours; and the reason why these words were included in the movie has to be clear.

Also — since this was made by John Wayne in the ’60s — the message is probably also don’t be a communist.

The fact that these three factors are separate can be easy to forget for an English-speaking audience reared on American pop culture. I grew up on Hollywood films in dubbed versions — though those didn’t typically dub the music. Meaning, as a kid who didn’t speak English, I became pretty used to following a plot in German, then the music would swell and I’d sort of tune out for a few minutes as the soundtrack, and the English language, washed over me. I’d get the basic idea of course — the characters were happy, or sad, or patriotic — but I had no idea what they were saying, and I was okay with that.

That’s sort of how most of us feel when we listen to the theme to the 21st-century version of Battlestar Galactica — unless we happen to be familiar with the mantras of the Rig Veda. Still, it’s a culturally specific experience. These days we can’t watch fantasy or science fiction without being sung at in Sanskrit, Old Norse, Dwarvish, Elvish, Uruk-hai, Klingon, and so on. When composer John Williams returned to the Star Wars universe for 1999’s The Phantom Menace, he composed an amped-up piece for the final duel — and over its churning ostinatos he overlaid a chorus belting out a … Sanskrit translation of a Welsh poem. And apparently the syllables of the Sanskrit text were rearranged to the point of incomprehensibility. Clearly, these shows and movies are not addressing us as potential speakers of Klingon or Sanskrit or even Welsh — they’re interested in the feel and a sound of a language rather than its meaning. At one recording session, Donald Greig told me, “they spent ages telling us how to pronounce the Russian and then we realized, ‘well this doesn’t actually mean anything.’” This turns out to be both a pretty new and pretty old way of listening to music.

When composer John Williams returned to the Star Wars-universe for 1999’s The Phantom Menace, he composed an amped-up piece for the final duel — and over its churning ostinatos he overlaid a chorus belting out a … Sanskrit translation of a Welsh poem.


Hollywood scores come in waves. The film industry isn’t known for being particularly fond of risk taking, and film scores in particular often build on previous scores. The director will often cut the film to a temp track consisting of existing pieces, and it’s easy to imagine that the filmmakers would eventually want something that sounds like their temp track to accompany the finished film. Choirs have never really left Hollywood, but there are certainly moments when producers and directors seem to have almost reflexively sought them out and others when they have avoided them. The Omen (1976) with its massive latinate choral opener, “Ave Satani,” kicked off one such wave. Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy kicked off another.

This new chapter in the way films sounded started in the Town Hall, a storied concert venue in Wellington, New Zealand. That’s where composer Howard Shore recorded the earliest parts of his soundtrack for The Fellowship of the Ring (the rest would be recorded in London). The recording involved a full orchestra on ground level and rotating choirs in the balcony. It wasn’t lost on the composer that the scene was weirdly traditional: “The orchestra,” Shore explained, “was set up very much the way a pit orchestra was set up in an opera.” The collaborative process around the composition, too, felt like something Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte might have recognized. The screenwriters wrote the text the choir would be expected to sing, an on-site translator would translate them into Tolkien’s languages, and Shore would then set the Dwarven or Elvish text.

Somewhat counterintuitively it’s not actually choral music with incomprehensible lyrics that is novel and needs explaining, it is choral music with comprehensible ones. For a long time, and for far longer than instrumental music, choral music in the West belonged to the church, to the mass, and that meant to Latin. A language as native to Christian religious life as it was foreign to most Christians. The Lutheran Reformation did a lot to hand church services over to language the congregants could actually understand, but throughout Europe the experience of being talked, and in particular sung, at in Latin persisted. That’s of course not to say that people didn’t sing in their vernacular languages — just that the experience of singing words you don’t, or don’t fully, understand would have been very normal to these people.

For a long time, and for far longer than instrumental music, choral music in the West belonged to the church, to the mass, and that meant to Latin. A language as native to Christian religious life as it was foreign to most Christians.

For the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer choral music was meaningful only insofar as the words were not the point. In his The World as Will and Representation, which appeared first in 1819, was republished in 1844, and strongly influenced composers like Richard Wagner, Schopenhauer claimed that music was the purest expression of reality because it didn’t linger with “representations” — words and the things they represent — but tapped automatically into something deeper. Choral music would seem to fall short of that standard — being pretty centrally concerned with words and the things they denote — but Schopenhauer didn’t think so. After all, you shouldn’t listen to sung music primarily for the words, and often you may not even know the words. And Schopenhauer thought this was for the better.

Latin still works that way for most modern audiences: You might argue that there isn’t much of an expectation on the part of an American film composer circa 1989 (or on the part of the filmmakers who hired him) that the audience should be able to follow along with the Latin lyrics — in fact, it might well be distracting if they did. What text is included, both singers and composers confirmed to me, has far more to do with the flow of phonemes and how it interacts with the raw sound of the vocals. The words are simply yet another instrument in the repertoire the composer has at their disposal. But it’s an instrument that comes freighted with all the complications that inevitably arise when our loquacious species uses language.

The words are simply yet another instrument in the repertoire the composer has at their disposal. But it’s an instrument that comes freighted with all the complications that inevitably arise when our loquacious species uses language.

After all, unlike a humming chorus, a Latin chorus does create extra levels of meaning for those who want to listen more carefully. Composer Jerry Goldsmith wrote “Ave Satani” for The Omen as a deliberate transposition of various Catholic masses. While the individual Latin may have been hard to pick up on (and wasn’t entirely correct to boot), listeners who were Catholic likely would have recognized what was being inverted here, given that they’d spent most Sundays around the actual Latin texts. It’s not clear how seriously Goldsmith (or the choirmaster who jotted down the Latin lyrics for the composer) grappled with that dimension of the score — for one thing, the very title of the piece messes up the declension of Satan. But that dimension was there nonetheless —The Omen was part of a kind of religious revival in Hollywood, and though it plays as camp today it was taken far more seriously then.

James Horner’s score for the 1989 film Glory relies heavily on a Latin chorus, and in the film’s climactic moment that chorus sings recognizably in Latin. Glory tells the story of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry regiment, an all-Black unit during the American Civil War, and the film ends with most of the unit being mowed down by Confederate soldiers while assaulting Fort Wagner in South Carolina. The piece in question relies on a text drawn from a Latin mass, frequently incorporated into the classical canon in various requiems from Mozart to Verdi. But, as so often, Horner (or his orchestrator) doesn’t stick to the actual text, but rather seems to create a mashup of snippets from the traditional requiem mass.

So is Horner just using the text of the requiem mass the way layout professionals use the phrase “Lorem ipsum?” Hard to imagine. After all, it makes a lot of sense to have a requiem text being sung as your characters are dying one by one. But more importantly, precisely because the text is so garbled, certain words stick out all the more: “Recordare,” Latin for “recall,” “stricte” (severely), and “judex” (judge). These pieces are largely taken from the Dies Irae, the part of the requiem mass that tells of the end of the world and God’s judgment, albeit with admixtures from just about every other part. The text, though hard to parse, is remarkably consonant-heavy for a Hollywood soundtrack, and a lot of it seems to be due (and I hope I’m hearing that right, as no actual text exists for this piece that I was able to track down) to the text’s overreliance of the future active participle, which ends in “-urus”: just in terms of pure grammar, the threatening hissing in the text is literally about what is to come.

So is Horner just using the text of the requiem mass the way layout professionals use the phrase “Lorem ipsum?” Hard to imagine.

So maybe the text, and the fact that it’s in Latin, isn’t about pretentiousness on the part of the filmmakers at all. It’s a mass for the dead and a tale of divine wrath, and it seems to make — over the heads of most of the film’s audience, admittedly — a point about retribution. It is remarkable how sophistic (white) Americans, who are frequently so proud to deal in moral absolutes, get when it comes to their Civil War. Horner’s grammatically challenged remix of the “Dies Irae,” I think, makes a point that is stark and simple and remarkably rare in American depictions of the country’s most bloody conflict: The Confederacy is evil, those who kill on its behalf are committing a sin, and they are bringing God’s wrath (and future judgment) upon themselves. There is, then, in this particular instance something to be gleaned from a text that otherwise we’re not meant to pick up on.

Which gets at an interesting disconnect — namely, that different constituencies will experience the same song differently. The choir members know what they’re saying, even if they have no clue as to what any of it means. And the composer, director, sound designer, etc., although they live with a soundtrack far longer than either the performers or even the most devoted audience, don’t tend to get to the words that go with the music until fairly late in the game. They often have to rely on orchestrators and assistants, or a helpful choirmaster who claims he really knows Latin. Their budget, and thus their time, is not tailored to their needs, but to the dictates of the director and the studio. The prose simply appears, like a ghost in this immense machine. And — in spite of the fact that most parties involved seem to be content to have it not mean very much — it winds up signifying something.

One example: An “exotic” text can only be understood by very specific listeners. But, very much to the point, they are not therefore the intended listeners. Lost Horizon wasn’t banking on a particular reception in the Tibetan community — rather the opposite: Dimitri Tiomkin and his collaborators seem to have counted on not having any actual speakers of Tibetan in the audience.

This gets a lot more troubling in the case of the phrase “Nants ingonyama bagithi baba,” likely one of the most repeated, parodied, and bowdlerized lines of text in any soundtrack. It’s clear that it isn’t addressing the average viewer with the intention of being understood. The very fact that it is in Zulu, but the story of The Lion King appears to take place in the Serengeti, thousands of miles to the north, suggests that the language is here to signal one thing and one thing only: African-ness.

For contrast, look at the way composer Michael Abels’ score for Jordan Peele’s Get Out features Swahili voices: Outside of the considerable number of Swahili speakers in the world, most people watching Get Out won’t know what the singers are saying. But what they’re saying does matter, in a way: Literally “listen to your ancestors,” but as a saying meaning something kind of like “you’re about to be in danger.” The viewer who doesn’t understand this line is missing an important warning about what is to come in the film. As is, of course, the film’s African American protagonist who cannot listen (or at least understand) his ancestors. Peele and Abels manage to wring from this small decision a whole range of subtle points.


But as with all exoticism, there’s a strange tug of war between condescension and appreciation in these kinds of borrowings. When Ottman decided to use a choral piece at the end of the 2008 film Valkyrie, he clearly needed a German text, and I suspect any German text would have sufficed. But he didn’t pick any German text. The film stars Tom Cruise as Claus Graf Schenk von Stauffenberg, a historic figure who led the only attempt by members of the Nazi state to get rid of Adolf Hitler. The text is “Wandrers Nachtlied,” one of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s most memorable, well-known texts, and if it’s a little bit treacly by the great poet’s standards, it’s hard to deny it’s a deeply appropriate choice for this moment. Not overtly about politics, it is nevertheless about history, about reflection, about resignation. And about a different use of the German language than one is used to in Hollywood films.

For any German person it’s weird to hear bad guys so consistently speak (and butcher) your language. I’m not complaining, mind you, it makes perfect sense. But what’s remarkable about Valkyrie is that it seems unusually careful for a Hollywood-film in how it deals with the German language. Earlier in the film, Cruise’s character says that “people need to know we were not all like him,” and this final poem seems to do something similar for the German language — the filmmakers close their movie by pointing out that this language is capable of beauty and deep humanity. The poet Paul Celan — himself a Holocaust-survivor — pointed to the strangeness of writing in a language that was both “my mother’s tongue” (Muttersprache) and “the murderer’s tongue” (Mördersprache). Ottman seems to want to recover the former after showing plenty of the murderers.

The strange thing is: I am pretty sure Goethe’s “Nachtlied” is the first utterance in actual German in this film about Germany. Cruise sort of tries a German accent every other scene, the largely British supporting cast doesn’t even bother. And no one speaks any German, the way Sean Connery does with Russian at certain moments in The Hunt for Red October, or Alan Rickman in Die Hard. The film’s supporting cast is stacked with Germans who belt out accented English throughout. It almost feels like the film wants to bend over backwards a little too much: remind us what beauty and thoughtfulness this language is capable of — even though it never shows us the barbarity, which the film renders in English.

I suppose it’s moments like that one that made me obsess over what choirs sing in movies, and who decides what they sing. Because it’s a moment when blockbuster film or TV, which increasingly is created for the greatest possible global audience, which has been focus-grouped and test-audienced within an inch of its life, manages to speak far more directly, more improvisationally to a much smaller audience. All of us are sometimes in that smaller audience, sometimes not. But we’re aware it’s there. When cinema is literally speaking in tongues, how could we not? And to be the person who hears a call the object of fascination never knew it was putting out there — what better definition could there be of what a fan really is?

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Adrian Daub is professor of Comparative Literature and German Studies at Stanford University. He is the author of four books on German thought and culture in the nineteenth century, as well as (with Charles Kronengold) “The James Bond Songs: Pop Anthems of Late Capitalism” (related story here). He tweets @adriandaub.

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Editor: Krista Stevens
Fact checker: Julie Schwietert Collazo

A Tall Tree Reading List

Image by Carolyn Wells

“I’m a lumberjack and I’m OK/ I sleep all night and I work all day.” This is what was playing in my head, in an incessant loop, as I worked on this reading list. It’s a song from Monty Python’s Flying Circus, a British comedy show, and includes the line: “Leaping from tree to tree/ As they float down the mighty rivers of British Columbia.” This is accurate. British Columbia is where I now live, and I have seen for myself the vast swathes of felled logs clogging up rivers around the province — just without the leaping lumberjack (aka Michael Palin).  Logging is a huge industry here, a business that comes with its share of controversy — which in turn has inspired some thought-provoking writing.

And it isn’t just logging that writers have chosen as a subject matter — the beauty of trees, their communication, their struggles, and their many mysteries have all been tackled. It’s not hard to see the inspiration. On many a hike, I have stood in awe before a towering tree, tried to wrap my arms around a huge trunk to no avail, or breathed in the heady scents of the distinct species as they drift across a trail. Trees are magnificent, and so it came as no surprise that some of the words written about them are as well.

1) The Wolf Tree and the World Wide Web (Suzanne Simard, Wired, May 2021)

This essay from Finding the Mother Tree by Suzanne Simard is a wonderful way to start our journey into the woods. Simard conjures a forest scene for us with great reference, almost affection. Here she is in among some Canadian trees, researching the fascinating connections that link a forest together. Fungus plays a huge role for Team Tree, linking old trees and young seedlings by delivering nutrients and messages between them. She beautifully describes this underground network: “This courageous root was as vulnerable as a growing bone, and it survived by emitting biochemical signals to the fungal network hidden in the earth’s mineral grains, its long threads joined to the talons of the giant trees.” This interconnected, familial system leads Simard to ponder on her own family — her children, and a failing marriage.

The roots of these little seedlings had been laid down well before I’d plucked them from their foundation. The old trees, rich in living, had shipped the germinants waterborne parcels of carbon and nitrogen, subsidizing the emerging radicals and cotyledons—primordial leaves—with energy and nitrogen and water. The cost of supplying the germinants was imperceptible to the elders because of their wealth—they had plenty. The trees spoke of patience, of the slow but continuous way old and young share and endure and keep on. Just as the steadiness of my girls steadied me, and I told myself I was strong enough to endure this season of separation. Besides, I’d have a sabbatical in a year, and I could make their lunches again, drumsticks and sliced cucumber and oranges cut into smiles, and I could show them how to build go-carts and plant flowers, and Nava and I could read together more, alternating turns through pages of Mercy Watson to the Rescue. But until that magical year, I’d spirit across the mountains each weekend to reabsorb their lives, my motherhood like time-lapse photography.

2) Do Trees Talk to Each Other? (Richard Grant, Smithsonian Magazine, March 2018)

Others have also been inspired by the intimacy of forest networks, and in this article for Smithsonian, Richard Grant takes a walk into the woods with Peter Wohlleben, a German forester, and author, who has developed a unique way of talking about trees — one that has earned him some scorn among the scientific community. Wohleben takes anthropomorphism to a new level, discussing mother trees who “feed their saplings … and warn the neighbors of danger,” compared to fickle young trees who take “foolhardy risks with leaf-shedding, light chasing, and excessive drinking.”

While trees may not have “will or intention,” it can still be argued that they are more social and sophisticated than people once thought. This is what Wohleben wants his audience to realize, and it seems his imaginative descriptions deliberately slip into the world of fairytales. People love a story, and this wordsmith uses his narrative skill to engage people with the forests he adores. In the slow-moving world of trees, adding a little drama to the “Crown princes” who “wait for the old monarchs to fall” is a clever tactic, and Wohleben does not seem too phased by the criticism: “they call me a ‘tree-hugger,’ which is not true. I don’t believe that trees respond to hugs.” A dive into Wohlleben’s world certainly isn’t boring — his language, after all, is rather delightful.

Trees can detect scents through their leaves, which, for Wohlleben, qualifies as a sense of smell. They also have a sense of taste. When elms and pines come under attack by leaf-eating caterpillars, for example, they detect the caterpillar saliva, and release pheromones that attract parasitic wasps. The wasps lay their eggs inside the caterpillars, and the wasp larvae eat the caterpillars from the inside out. “Very unpleasant for the caterpillars,” says Wohlleben. “Very clever of the trees.”

A recent study from Leipzig University and the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research shows that trees know the taste of deer saliva. “When a deer is biting a branch, the tree brings defending chemicals to make the leaves taste bad,” he says. “When a human breaks the branch with his hands, the tree knows the difference, and brings in substances to heal the wound.”

Our boots crunch on through the glittering snow. From time to time, I think of objections to Wohlleben’s anthropomorphic metaphors, but more often I sense my ignorance and blindness falling away. I had never really looked at trees before, or thought about life from their perspective. I had taken trees for granted, in a way that would never be possible again.

3) Illuminating Kirinyaga (Tristan McConnell, Emergence Magazine, October 2020)

In this essay for Emergence Magazine, we go on another forest walk, this time alongside Tristan McConnell, who is documenting a “stubbly, hollow-cheeked sixty-four-year-old” named Joseph Mbaya. Walking in the mountain forests that surround Mount Kenya, Mbaya finds a portal to a “slower and more meaningful world,” and also treatments for ear infections and “pungent wind.” His knowledge of herbal cures makes walking the forest tracks with Mbaya, “like walking the aisles of CVS with a taciturn pharmacist.”

It is lovely to share an insight into the mystical remedies a forest can offer, but this essay quickly takes a darker turn, detailing how these magical forests are shrinking. Fire-clearing for farming, timber plantations, and climate change are all taking their toll — but so is simply the poverty of this region. For many here, “conservation is an unaffordable luxury” — with the forest offering a resource they need to exploit, rather than protect, in order to survive.

DEEP INSIDE THE fractured forests that still ring the mountain, a hallowed sense of wonder persists. One morning, soon after the sun burns mist from the mountainsides and clouds shroud the peaks, I visit part of the mountain’s few remaining areas of old-growth woodland with a pair of young Kenyan foresters from the Mount Kenya Trust. Marania Forest, on the mountain’s northern fringe, is a revelation: thickly towering trunks of eight-hundred-year-old rosewood reach overhead, the trees’ crowns held up to the light of the canopy, pencil-straight cedar and craggy-barked olive are draped with lichen, and moss carpets the earth, muffling sound to a church-like silence. It is dark, crowded, and otherworldly—the ground soft underfoot, the trunks damp to the touch, the trees centuries old, the sunlight breaking through in narrow shafts. At our feet, fallen trunks breach the understory like shipwrecks, gradually decaying and returning to the soil—to its subterranean fungal networks and the spreading roots of neighboring trees—as food for the rest of the forest. We all smile, the foresters and I. It is a routine venture out for them, and my first to these old forests, and yet our reactions are the same: joy and reverential wonder. We instinctively drop our voices to a whisper. We walk and talk, feet sinking into the damp, spongey soil as the foresters teach me about the trees.

4) Inside the Pacheedaht Nation’s Stand on Fairy Creek Logging Blockades (Sarah Cox, The Narwhal, July 2021)

The forests around Mount Kenya are not unique — forest exploitation is a controversial issue around the world. Within my own community in British Columbia, the debate has recently been focused around the logging of old-growth trees in an area called Fairy Creek. For many months now, protesters have been blocking access to the logging cut block — and more than 300 people have been arrested, making it one of the largest civil disobedience actions in recent Canadian history.

A few pieces have been written about Fairy Creek, but I was particularly struck by the insight Sarah Cox provided in her article for The Narwhal. Cox not only looks at the perspective of the protestors and the police, but at the viewpoint of the people on whose territory Fairy Creek lies — the Pacheedaht First Nation. It’s complicated. The Pacheedaht co-manages the annual cut on its territory, and forestry has helped them to provide revenue and jobs — even allowing them to buy back some of their ancestral lands. The Pacheedaht First Nation’s elected leadership has asked the protestors to leave, but an elder, Bill Jones, has welcomed the protestors and garnered extensive media coverage. Cox deftly peels back the layers to look at the tensions within a community that has often been overlooked in this debate.

We scramble onto the boggy shore of an island where four Pacheedaht members in hip waders are planting sedges and grasses to repair damage to fish habitat caused by decades of industrial logging — logging in which the nation played no part and from which it received no benefit. An eagle lets out a high-pitched whistle. Our boots squelch in the mud. Then, slicing through the stillness, comes the throaty chuckachuka-chuckachuka of a RCMP helicopter.

For the Chief, “everything that’s been happening,” refers to the blockades taking place in and around the Fairy Creek watershed on Pacheedaht territory and in the neighbouring territory of the Ditidaht First Nation. From the estuary, we can almost see the green spirals of the Fairy Creek valley, only a few kilometres distant, that has become the epicentre of a flourishing movement to save the last of B.C.’s unprotected old-growth forests. At this very moment, RCMP are arresting protesters wedged into tall tripods hammered together with discarded logs or lying under tarps with their arms chained inside “sleeping dragons” — metal tubes dug into the ground. When the RCMP leave each day, more protesters (or land defenders, tree protectors, tree-huggers or intruders, depending on whom you talk to) drive their cars, camper vans, trucks and SUVs up the inclines of logging roads that provide access to planned logging in the Fairy Creek watershed.

5) When The Toughest Trees Met the Hottest Fires (David Ferris, Greenwire, August 2021)

The past few months have brought home to me that logging is not the only threat to our forests — climate change is increasing the impact of fires year on year. This summer the area where I live reached an unprecedented 46 degrees, a whole town burned to the ground, and I witnessed for myself flames licking up a forested mountain, gleefully jumping from tree to tree with ease.

Old-growth forest is more fire-resistant — and in fact, this is one of the arguments for saving old growth from the saws — but as David Ferris points out in his poignant essay for Greenwire, even the very oldest are now being wrecked by blazes. Ferris tells the story of last August, when the CZU Lightning Complex Fire “climbed the ladder of lesser trees and into the crowns of the giants,” ruining redwoods that had formed “an unbroken living line from today’s Silicon Valley to the times of the Bible.” Ferris peppers his stories with these jaw-dropping facts — the trees in question are up to 2,500 years old, 350 feet tall, and have six chromosomes compared to a mere two in us humans — they are simply incredible. He also paints a vivid picture of their home, a “cloud forest, dripping and primeval,” steeped in time. In contrast, the story of the fire is tense and fast, the drama played out through the eyes of Cal Fire’s Dan Bonfante, who almost lost his life.

As the forest burns every year, the humans who live near the redwoods will experience heat waves, and evacuations, and blackouts, and droughts, and mudslides, and smoke hanging in the air. Creatures that don’t measure their lives in millennia could find their life spans nastier and shorter.

The shaggy, patient trees that form an unbroken living line from today’s Silicon Valley to the times of the Bible are in ruins. The sprouts bursting from their trunks suggest that the shaded cathedrals could return, though the healing may take so long that no one now alive will see them. Today’s adults will take their children to Big Basin, and to landscapes across the West where once-verdant forests have been withered by fire. They will point and talk, not of the desolation that is, but of the Eden that used to be — and could be again, one distant day.

“In my lifetime, yeah, it’s not going to look like it used to look,” said Kerbavaz with a shrug. “But in the next lifetime, probably.”

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Slime Mould (Getty Images)

This week, we’re sharing stories from Matt Hamilton and Garrett Therolf, Lacy M. Johnson, Devin Kelly, Max Bell, and Rainesford Stauffer.

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1. How the State of California Failed Noah Cuatro

Matt Hamilton, Garrett Therolf | Los Angeles Times | August 19, 2021 | 5,000 words

“Before a 4-year-old boy’s killing, authorities wavered on rescuing him.”

2. What Slime Knows

Lacy M. Johnson | Orion Magazine | August 24, 2021 | 3,411

“There is no hierarchy in the web of life.”

3. From a Window

Devin Kelly | wildness | August 15, 2020 | 2,089 words

“Tonight, a dog holds a piece of cardboard in its mouth for an entire block. I don’t know what it finds in such a small, almost useless thing, but then again, I horde so much of what is small and useless, even to me, even to a dog. In most moments, there is something beautiful about trying, even if it’s impossible.”

4. The Bizarre and Tragic Ride of J Sw!ft

Max Bell | theLAnd Magazine | August 26, 2021 | 5,938 words

“What follows is the far more complicated story of how our country’s complex, disturbingly callous, and ever-shifting yet forever intractable immigration policies created years of hell and potentially permanent exile for one of hip-hop’s greatest producers.”

5. Her Name Is Not Honey Boo Boo

Rainesford Stauffer | Teen Vogue | August 25, 2021 | 2,300 words

She grew up on reality TV. Now she’d like you to call her Alana.

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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This week, we’re sharing stories from David Rohde, Sarah Cox, Wyatt Williams, Joshua Hammer, and Kiana Fitzgerald, Paula Mejía, Matt Sonzala, Donnie Houston, Lance Scott Walker, Brandon Caldwell, Cat Cardenas, Jessi Pereira, and Sama’an Ashrawi.

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1. Trying—and Failing—to Save the Family of the Afghan Who Saved Me

David Rohde | The New Yorker | August 17, 2021 | 2,539 words

“We saw the city full of these strange armed men. With strange clothing and hair styles. We are back in the nineties, you can’t believe these people are back.” The last time the Taliban had seized power, in 1996, their reign had begun with relative calm, but they quickly started conducting house raids, making arrests, and inflicting other abuses.”

2. Inside the Pacheedaht Nation’s Stand on Fairy Creek Logging Blockades

Sarah Cox | The Narwhal | August 16, 2021 | 7,574

“The Pacheedaht Nation has close to 300 members. About 120 live in the Pacheedaht community, less than a 15-minute drive from the blockades. And the inconvenient truth for the protesters, however well-intentioned in their inventive and prolonged efforts to save old-growth, however well-versed in the parlance of acknowledging the territories of Indigenous peoples, is that only a few Pacheedaht members have joined them.”

3. Eating the Whale

Wyatt Williams | Harper’s Magazine | August 18, 2021 | 5,739 words

“A personal history of meat.”

4. The Sopranos of Berlin: A Brutal Crime Family and a Billion Dollar Jewel Heist

Joshua Hammer | GQ | August 18, 2021 | 6,208 words

“For such thieves, there is no more desirable prize than the crown jewels of the great monarchies of Europe. Putting aside whatever cultural significance these treasures may have later accrued—landing them in museums—the simple fact is that these pieces were made of materials that are still quite valuable today. The authorities feared that if they didn’t catch a quick break, pieces of the Green Vault collection would be lost forever.”

5. The 20 Essential Texas Rap Tracks

Kiana Fitzgerald, Paula Mejía, Matt Sonzala, Donnie Houston, Lance Scott Walker, Brandon Caldwell, Cat Cardenas, Jessi Pereira, and Sama’an Ashrawi | Texas Monthly | August 18, 2021 | 7,267 words

“Rap wasn’t meant for Texas. But it was only a matter of time before Texans started rapping, made the genre their own, and regifted it to the world.”

Bringing Species Back … From the Brink


I don’t often get to use the term gobsmacked, but that is how I was rendered when I saw the film Jurassic Park. I remember the 1993 cinema trip vividly: clutching my popcorn, wide-eyed, as the first dinosaur, a brachiosaurus, ambled across the screen. Walking out with my parents, I jabbered with excitement: “Could we really make dinosaurs real again, Dad? Could we? Could we?”

These memories came flooding back as I read Natasha Bernal’s piece in Wired UK, exploring the world of biobanking animal cells. Bernal answers the question of whether extinct animals could be brought back with a tentative yes — science has long proved that “frozen cells from extinct animals could potentially be used to revive species” — but that is not what biobanking is about. The intention is to increase the diversity of living species, cloning to prevent further loss, rather than to bring back what is already gone. As a species dwindles, so does its genetic pool, and frozen cells from extinct animals could potentially be used to help prevent extreme inbreeding. 

Bernal’s case study is Tullis Mason, a chap who sports “three-quarter length shorts” even in a lab coat. Matson runs an artificial insemination company for racehorses from his family’s farm in Shropshire, England. However, on the side, he is also planning to save the animal kingdom by building the biggest biobank of animal cells in Europe. It’s not always a dignified business, with Bernal describing Mason hooking an elephant penis into a device that looks like “a huge condom,” but the science and the ethics her article explores are fascinating. We may not be about to bring dinosaurs back to life, but with help from biobanking, life already on this planet might still find a way.

This is why, back at Matson’s farm, there is a tiny, black, felt-like ear and two bat testicles the size of olive pits on a lab bench. The Seba’s short-tailed bats at Chester Zoo are usually housed in the Fruit Bat Forest, where visitors can feed them as part of a £56 “experience”. Though not currently listed as endangered, with global biodiversity at a tipping point, it’s likely that no species is entirely safe. This bat died of natural causes, but its genetic material will live on.

The first thing that Lucy Morgan, a scientific advisor at Nature’s SAFE, does is shave the ear. “Ears grow to a certain extent throughout our lifetime, so they’re a cell type that’s already wanting to grow and regenerate itself,” she says. “So when choosing a sample that you’re trying to pick to culture in the future, it’s a good one.”

She puts the ear to soak in chlorhexidine to clean it from bacteria and switches on a timer. After two minutes, she transfers it to a petri dish, and starts cutting it into small pieces the size of chocolate chips. Using tweezers, she puts them in cryovials filled with cryopreservant. The tiny testicles will be preserved whole. They couldn’t get any semen out of them – a common problem for animals that are too small to preserve in the traditional manner.

Safely pipetted into a cryovial or straw, an animal’s tissue, semen or ova are deposited into the cryogenic tank, ready to be unfrozen when they may be needed for repopulation programmes in zoos or, if feasible, the wild. In the case of some creatures, whose anatomical challenges do not currently permit artificial insemination using sperm or ova, the samples may stay there for decades. For now, all of Nature’s SAFE’s samples are in one location, but the charity aims to build a backup so that tissue can be split into different places and safeguarded for the future.

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