Search Results for: Columbia Magazine

Stickiness

Tim Graham/Getty Images

Eleanor Morgan | Columbia Journal | Spring 2019 | 12 minutes (2,015words)

 

My first animal love was the slug. As a child, I would stroke them from head to tail and enjoy seeing their tentacles retract and their black ridges respond with a quiver. If slugs were on a path, I would move them to the side so no one stepped on them. They were so vulnerable, like internal organs without a skin (what a sensation if you stepped on them in your bare feet). In the morning, slow, glossy trails appeared round the frame of the front door and occasionally disappeared under it — evidence that one of them had squeezed its body into the house at night. The slugs had left dry, gluey paths; I preferred their fresh, sticky residue.

I am still attracted to sticky bodies and materials. I have made drawings and sculptures with spider silk, embraced the stinging tentacles of a giant green sea anemone, and forged diamonds from the decaying creatures of the River Thames. In all of these processes, stickiness is more than a property of a material or a method of making: it is a way to think through desirable and undesirable attachments, or what the philosopher Christine Battersby describes as the “sticky boundary” between our self and another. The original meaning of “stick” is to stab — to pierce another, to rupture the skin. It is a visceral and viscous connection that leaves bodies and objects changed, a reminder that the edges of forms are mutable, open to invasion. It is in the sticky sweetness of a glazed doughnut along with the oozing puss of a wound. It is found in our bodily secretions and in the joy of peeling glue from our fingertips.

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Rita Dove on Creating a ‘Collage of American Consciousness’ with Poetry

American poet Rita Dove. (Photo by Emaonn McCabe/Redferns)

At Columbia Journalism Review, Brendan Fitzgerald interviews Rita Dove on how she plans to approach her upcoming one-year stint as poetry editor at the New York Times Magazine. Taking over for Terrance Hayes this summer, Dove has free rein to select a new poem that will appear in the magazine each week, along with her short introduction. Dove is the fourth poet to hold the poetry editor position.

My first feeling is not to consider what might constitute the audience’s blinders. In other words, to assume that they are going to be open—that’s for the first read. Something that moves me, I will immediately put into the pile to be considered later.

But there is something else to consider, and that’s something I’ve thought about a lot. That is to imagine what my audience’s lives might be like when they’re not reading my poem. What they bring to whatever venue or event or magazine. To imagine how much time or energy they can devote, and how to pull them in.

I would hope that what would emerge would be a kind of portrait or collage of American consciousness. Which means, there would be poets from the west as well as the east coast as well as the middle, and men and women, and that would shake out, hopefully, to some kind of parity, representative of what the population is like at large. Poems from all races and all cultural ethnicities. But there will not be bad poems because I need a woman or I need an African-American. No. There are so many amazing, beautiful poems out there that we don’t get to see. That’s going to be my goal. Bring a few of them out there.

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Forget the Sheep, Pass the Dog

Photo by Cuveland/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Dogs have long had a place by people’s side, and hundreds of years ago in southern British Columbia, small-sized domestic dogs were particularly abundant — although for a rather surprising reason: their fur.  Elders from the Nuu-chah-nulth communities on Vancouver Island’s west coast and Coast Salish elders on the island’s east coast and the mainland have an oral history detailing these dogs — which were small, white, fluffy, and loved. Women weavers would care for the dogs, who lived isolated on small islands to prevent interbreeding with hunting dogs. They were fed a special diet and a couple of times a year were sheered like sheep for their wool coats, out of which the women made blankets.

As Virginia Morell explains for Hakai Magazine, the arrival of the Hudson Bay company, and with it a supply of cheap blankets, gradually destroyed the need for the wool dogs, which merged with other domestic dogs and disappeared. Proving their existence has been a challenge for archaeologists. However, over the years new avenues of research have shown the importance of these dogs — with a particular breakthrough being made in 2002, when historian Candace Wellman in Bellingham, Washington opened a drawer and found a woollen pelt. The owner? A fluffy white dog from 1859 called Mutton.

Sometime before 1858, Mutton, a wooly dog, had found himself a new keeper, George Gibbs, a 19th-century ethnographer with the Pacific Railroad Survey and the Northwest Boundary Survey. Gibbs studied the customs and languages of peoples in the Pacific Northwest, and in his notes on the Nisqually language, he recorded the name of the dog wool blankets as Ko-matl’-ked. Mutton likely came from a Coast Salish village in British Columbia. Gibbs named the dog for his love of chasing sheep.

Not too much is known about Mutton in life, though apparently goats also attracted him. In 1859, Mutton ate the head off a mountain goat skin that was in Gibbs’s care, bringing a colleague to near tears. Naturalist C. B. R. Kennerly had meant to send the skin as a specimen to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. “[Gibbs] sent it to me yesterday & when I opened the bag & saw the injury I could almost have cried,” Kennerly wrote in a letter. And more ominously, he added, “Mutton was sheared a short time ago, & as soon as his hair grows out we will make a specimen of him.” Which they did, at some point. In death, Mutton has shared the very essence of himself—his pelt—likely the only known wool dog hide to exist.

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Celebrating Bitch Magazine: A Reading List

Postcards from the Dreams for Women project, curated by Antigone Magazine from 2008-10. Images courtesy of Antigone Magazine.

By A. H. Reaume

 

My first subscription to Bitch Magazine was a gift. I was in my second year of university and couldn’t afford to subscribe. So, when my sister asked what I wanted for my birthday, the answer was easy. 

I’d attended Catholic schools my whole life. By the time I was 19, I wanted nothing to do with the church because of its stance on abortion and queer rights. 

But I wasn’t exactly sure what my politics were. 

I was definitely a feminist — that much I knew. I was interested in social justice, but I didn’t really know what was possible to believe politically. Growing up, all I had been exposed to were conservative and right-leaning liberal views. But I knew I wanted more. More rights for women, more rights for LGTBQIA+ folks, more rights for disabled people, more rights for racialized people, and more economic equality. 

Enter Bitch

I’d heard about the magazine on feminist blogs like Feministing and Pandagon, both of which I read avidly, trying to map and shape my own politics. I searched for Bitch on the magazine racks of every bookstore I visited, and I couldn’t believe it when I finally saw a physical copy of the magazine, on a shelf in a women’s bookstore in Vancouver, British Columbia. 

My breath caught. 

I remember approaching it with reverence, and being absorbed in its pages before buying it along with two back issues. There was something seductive about holding these magazines, written for feminists, in my hands.

At home, I consumed them, front to back, in one sitting. Everything the magazine represented went against what I’d learned growing up. 

I felt exhilarated. 

I was already on a feminist journey when I encountered Bitch, but the magazine sparked new thoughts. It deepened my analysis. For a women’s studies class in my third year, I did a creative project, inspired by an article in Bitch, that examined the ways my Catholic school education had harmed me. The publication introduced me to books and musicians that have since shaped me. But, perhaps more importantly, it showed me the power of media. 

“What if we started a magazine?” I asked my friend Kristen three years after becoming a Bitch subscriber. 

We had been talking about a female politician who’d recently been called a bimbo in the media because she had long blonde hair. It felt to us like women couldn’t win when it came to power — and we were discussing how angry that made us and how we both felt powerless to change it. 

“Oh, I like that idea,” Kristen responded. “A magazine to talk about feminism and the challenges women face in relation to power.” 

That was how Antigone Magazine was born. 

We recruited a number of other feminists we knew and together we named the publication Antigone, inspired by the Greek figure’s courage and determination to do what she thought was right. Through the magazine, we wanted to help young women express and do what they thought was right — even in the face of opposition or punishment, simply because they were women. 

We wanted to embody that kind of defiance. Like Bitch, we wanted to reclaim the identity of the troublemaker. 

We published Antigone Magazine on our campus and periodically on other campuses. It had an international subscription base. We even started an art project called Dreams for Women, curating and posting collaged postcards from around the world with people’s secret hopes for women on them. The project was featured in the International Museum of Women. 

The group of women that became involved with Antigone over the years organized women’s forums and a national conference on childcare and post-secondary education. In 2008, I was invited by the Governor General of Canada to speak about women and politics in Ottawa and in 2009 was also part of a Canadian delegation to a United Nations meeting on the status of women. The magazine was even mentioned in a textbook on women’s history. 

We’re no longer publishing Antigone — but it’s still making an impact. A few years ago, one of our subscribers ran for office and told me Antigone inspired her. Recently, one of our writers published a book about foreign policy. Another person is the managing editor of a national news agency. Some of us became teachers. Others academics. Still more activists. We haven’t stopped demanding more for women. 

Bitch will soon join Antigone in the graveyard of feminist publications. Started in 1996 by Andi Zeisler, Benjamin Shaykin, and Lisa Jervis, Bitch Media announced on April 12, 2022, that it would cease operations in June. The announcement hit many of its loyal readers hard

My own feminist journey, along with those of the phenomenal women who collaborated with me on Antigone, are the types of stories you hear when people talk about Bitch. The publication sparked awakenings. Activism. Community. Change. It was loved for its resolutely queer perspectives, its intersectional coverage, its engagement with disability justice, and its integration of economic justice. The magazine talked about things no other outlets were talking about — and pushed the conversation forward. Many even credit Bitch with making space for other popular feminist media like Jezebel and Teen Vogue

But as people appraise the media organization’s legacy, it is not without criticism — including the contention that, for all their coverage of labor rights, the magazine worked its editors and writers to exhaustion.

What those criticisms show is that even as the magazine is shuttering, the people who made Bitch great are still leading important conversations that will help make culture, work, and feminist media better. 

Despite its organizational challenges, Bitch gave voice to so many amazing writers — it’s their work I want to celebrate. In this reading list, I’ve compiled 10 recommended longreads that represent (some of) the best of Bitch Magazine over the years. And since the organization’s archives will remain online for the foreseeable future, you can dig into and (re)discover your own favorites from the publication, too.   

What’s Very Likely to Happen: The ‘Roe v. Wade’ Endgame Comes to SCOTUS (Bitch HQ, December 2021)

In light of the recent leak of Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.’s draft opinion that the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) has voted internally to overturn Roe v. Wade, one thing that I keep returning to is how much feminist labor went into trying to ensure this day never came. Much of that labor was covered or inspired by Bitch. So while SCOTUS could still choose to let Roe v. Wade stand, there is something deeply tragic about the shutdown of Bitch in a time when we urgently need feminist media. I want to recognize the work the magazine has done in the past on reproductive justice, including looking at how abortion rights were co-opted by white feminists, and the assault on the reproductive rights of refugees and immigrants. This particular piece rounds up great coverage on the arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson from when the case went before the courts in December 2021 — and what action you can take. 

If you’re someone who cares about protecting the right to bodily autonomy in general and abortion access in particular, you’re already aware that this morning’s oral arguments to the Supreme Court in Dobbs v. Jackson are the culmination of a decades-long conservative strategy to overturn 1973’s historic Roe v. Wade decision. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t profoundly unsettling to watch the nation’s most powerful legal body debate questions that should be easy to answer: Does the U.S. government have the right to force a person to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term? Even if that pregnancy poses a serious health risk? Even if the pregnancy isn’t viable? Even if the pregnancy itself is the result of a crime? Even if the outcome is guaranteed to be bad for the humans involved?

The Physics of Melanin: Science and the Chaotic Social Construct of Race (Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, December 2016) 

Dr. Chandra Prescod-Weinstein’s 2021 book, The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred, took the world by storm. In it, Prescod-Weinstein explores the physics of melanin in skin and gives an overview of the racism and misogyny of the scientific community. She first wrote about the topic in Bitch Magazine. This piece shows how the publication offered many writers their first chance to explore topics that would later create significant impact. 

Hundreds of years after the advent of chattel slavery, it’s easy to see why race is defined by skin color. Skin color offers a highly visible cue that makes sorting easy—at least until rape proliferates. The variation in human skin tones is due to a pigment called melanin, which comes from the Greek word melas, “black, dark.” Melanin is found in most living creatures, and when it is studied scientifically, researchers usually use the ink of Sepia officinalis, the common cuttlefish. Our social sorting by skin color can be put in more technical terms as a question of how much melanin our bodies produce and maintain as part of our epidermic structure.

Love Sick: It’s Time to Uncouple Care Work From Romantic Love (Oliver Haug, February 2021)

As a disabled person who spent the first four years of their recovery from a debilitating injury single and who has many beloved single disabled friends, I am obsessed with articles that explore care work outside romantic relationships. I’ve read Caleb Luna’s iconic essay Romantic Love is Killing Us: Who Takes Care of Us When We’re Single? more times than I can count and about 10 books on the future of care. In 2021, Oliver Haug added to the conversation in this critical essay that explores this important issue in light of the pandemic.  

After a year that’s laid painfully bare inequities and oppressions that have always been there, the systemic change that’s at the core of rewriting love still feels far out of reach. … The way out offered by Luna and Kim, as well as many others working in this field, is a deeper understanding of the necessity of interdependence in relationships beyond our romantic ones: “With a restructuring of romantic love as comparable to community/platonic/self-love, we begin to prioritize the care and livelihood of entire larger groups of people as equally important as our romantic partner/s,” writes Luna.

Even During a Pandemic, Fatphobia Won’t Take a Day Off (Claudia Cortese, April 2020)

There are few outlets that cover fatphobia as well as Bitch Magazine did. But then, a feminist magazine that purports to engage in cultural criticism that didn’t respond to fatphobia wouldn’t be doing its job well. Claudia Cortese’s essay tackles the widespread effort by public health officials to restrict or prohibit fat or disabled people from accessing the limited supply of ventilators during COVID-19 waves. The piece does the important work of exploring the deadly impact of fatphobia. 

Some doctors not only have an aversion to patients of size, but they assume a fat body is inherently a sick body; this mode of thinking encourages health professionals to overlook symptoms of disease, not offer treatment, and focus solely on ridding the body of fat. For example, a 2015 study of medical students found they were nearly four times more likely to prescribe medication to thin patients than to fat patients, though both groups had the same symptoms. The supposed relationship between fatness and health concerns likely exists due to widespread weight bias.

Rewriting the Future: Using Science Fiction to Re-Envision Justice (Walidah Imarisha, February 2015)

While it seems that more people know about prison abolitionism these days, in 2015, that wasn’t the case. This article by Walidah Imarisha, one of the co-editors of Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements, explores Octavia Butler’s legacy and the ability of radical science fiction to create change. Imarisha gives an overview of the power of science fiction while weaving in the visionary words of Ursula K. Le Guin, Arundhati Roy, Audre Lorde, and others. It is an inspiring essay that makes you rethink both what social justice organizing and speculative fiction are and do.

We started the anthology with the belief that all organizing is science fiction. When we talk about a world without prisons; a world without police violence; a world where everyone has food, clothing, shelter, quality education; a world free of white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, heterosexism; we are talking about a world that doesn’t currently exist. But collectively dreaming up one that does means we can begin building it into existence.

Anonymous Instagrams Are Unionizing Staffs From Capitol Hill to Hollywood (Sophie Hayssen, April 2022) 

These days, everything’s coming up labor rights. Part of what’s fueling the renewed move toward unionism is social media. Sophie Hayssen explores the ways Instagram accounts are functioning like second-wave feminist consciousness-raising groups by talking about things many people don’t feel comfortable broaching to coworkers — unfair hiring, unsafe work conditions, and overwork. Bitch Magazine’s coverage of labor helped tell the stories of people struggling for justice in industries as diverse as the film industry, the service sector, nonprofits, and politics.

But these accounts aren’t going anywhere, says Lingel. According to Gallup, labor unions’ popularity has increased seven points since 2017. In October 2021, Time reported that the COVID pandemic has highlighted the stark contrast between soaring corporate profits and stagnant low wages and galvanized workers to organize. In these new labor movements, technology is at the forefront: As tech writer Nicolás Rivero, explained in a December 2020 Quartz article, everything from encrypted apps to shareable Google sheets to digital petitions “[help] people to find far-flung peers, share grievances, and coordinate action.”

30 Years After the ADA, It’s Time to Imagine a More Accessible Future (Anna Hamilton, July 2020)

Anna Hamilton’s piece is a studied exploration of the successes and gaps of the American Disabilities Act (ADA) on the occasion of its 30th anniversary. She explores what it has done and what it could not do — and how the world should orient itself toward accessibility in the future. It’s a great essay that adds helpful context to the issue to better understand the current state of disability justice. 

s.e. smith echoes McGee’s concerns: “There’s a real failure to understand that while disability is a shared lived experience, other aspects of life can interact with it profoundly. The gunshot survivor in the Bronx fighting with Medicaid for a replacement wheelchair is not experiencing disability like the wealthy celebrity with multiple sclerosis. It’s not all ‘one of our people!’ when that experiential gap is so wide.” smith points out that the disability justice movement—started by a group of queer disabled people and disabled people of color including Patty Berne, the late Stacey Park Milbern, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Mia Mingus, Eli Clare, Leroy Moore, and Sebastian Margaret— offers a more intersectional approach.

What I Learned About Gender and Power From Sailor Moon (Soleil Ho, May 2013) 

I grew up watching Sailor Moon. I loved that she was awkward like me, and that she presented a very different example of a girl than what I was used to seeing in cartoons. I also loved that she wanted to “right wrongs” and understood her desire to make the world a better place. I really love this piece by Soleil Ho, who writes about her own ambivalent feelings about girlhood and Girl Power, and her turn to Sailor Moon for a glimpse into a beautifully imperfect heroine. 

I realize now that being a girl (or identifying as one) is one of the hardest roles to inhabit in this world. A girl is supposed to be so many things — attractive, graceful, polite, quiet, valuable, valueless — but none of those traits guarantee that she’ll be taken seriously as a thinking and feeling human being. On the other hand, the absence of those traits can often invite violence or, at the very least, judgment.

When we say that all girls are powerful, we often refrain from explaining just what kind of power we’re talking about. The power that I want girls to have certainly includes the power to govern their own bodies, but also something else entirely.

Sailor Moon isn’t just fighting aliens, but a world of adults who want to destroy everything beautiful in girls. In order to save the people she loves, she fights and gets hurt and breaks down and even completely fails at times. And when she can manage it, she tries to save the monsters, too.

Know and Tell: The Literary Renaissance of Trans Women Writers (Katherine Cross, November 2014) 

In this powerful exploration of trans women’s writing, Katherine Cross discusses how work emerging at the time the piece was written was full of “joy, love, laughter, sex, and deep wells of human flourishing amid the gloom.” It highlights writers like Casey Plett, Sybil Lamb, and Olympia Perez, and talks about writing that paints a picture of the everyday experiences of trans women that isn’t “inspiration porn” or a “feel-good story of triumph over lone bigots.” Just read the piece. Then read the works it cites.   

This is trans women’s moment in modern literature, and amid the many currents of transgender existence today, it is singular. So much discourse around trans women’s existence has been spun by everyone but us: cisgender male psychologists, cis feminist academics, trans men and queer cis people. All have had their say about our lives and what they supposedly signify to them: protean radicalism, a crypto-conservative conspiracy, a tangle of pathology. But it is very rare that trans women themselves are heard when we speak about who we are and what we mean.

What emerges from all of these works is a clear picture of trans women as human beings, thinkers, and artists, with mastery and control over the kinds of stories they wish to tell. Neither genderfucking superheroines nor the nightmare of queer radicalism, we are, at last, human.

It’s Time to End the Long History of Feminism Failing Transgender Women (Tina Vasquez, May 2016)

At a time when trans-exclusionary radical feminists are resurging, I wanted to return to this article by Tina Vasquez, which talks about the history of trans exclusion in feminist movements and calls on cisgender feminists to take more responsibility for fighting transphobia. That’s the thing about Bitch: It wasn’t just a magazine that asked us to think only of our own liberation — it asked its readers to think about how we could fight for each other’s freedom. The magazine made all its readers better feminists by teaching us how to be better allies to each other. 

Trans women have been saddled with the responsibility of taking on trans-exclusionary feminists for far too long—but it’s not their issue to deal with alone. Cisgender feminists, such as myself, have to make it clear that our feminism loves and supports trans women and that we will fight against transphobia. As Williams said, it’s time to expose trans-exclusionary feminists for who they really are.

***

A. H. Reaume is a disabled writer whose work has appeared in the anthology Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories From the Twenty-First Century. Reaume is a guest columnist at Open Book and is currently working on a memoir and a novel. She can be found on Twitter at @a_h_reaume

Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Copy Editor: Krista Stevens


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On Trees as Social Creatures and Fungi as the ‘Fabric of the Forest’

Photo by Lukas Hartmann

In Ferris Jabr’s story on the interconnectedness of trees at The New York Times Magazine, take a stroll through the old-growth forests of British Columbia with Suzanne Simard, a forest ecologist whose research has changed our understanding of trees. (Simard was the inspiration for Patricia Westerford, the dendrologist in Richard Powers’ novel The Overstory.)

Trees were once viewed as individual and solitary organisms, competing with other trees for resources. But the forest ecosystem is supported by mycorrhizal networks: an underground fungal web through which trees exchange carbon, water, and nutrients and communicate with one another. “It’s a vast, ancient and intricate society,” writes Jabr. “There is conflict in a forest, but there is also negotiation, reciprocity and perhaps even selflessness.” It’s a fascinating dive into the social life of forests, and you will never look at trees the same way again.

She handed me a thin strip of root the length of a pencil from which sprouted numerous rootlets still woolly with dirt. The rootlets branched into even thinner filaments. As I strained to see the fine details, I realized that the very tips of the smallest fibers looked as though they’d been capped with bits of wax. Those gummy white nodules, Simard explained, were mycorrhizal fungi that had colonized the pine’s roots. They were the hubs from which root and fungus cast their intertwined cables through the soil, opening channels for trade and communication, linking individual trees into federations. This was the very fabric of the forest — the foundation of some of the most populous and complex societies on Earth.

Trees have always been symbols of connection. In Mesoamerican mythology, an immense tree grows at the center of the universe, stretching its roots into the underworld and cradling earth and heaven in its trunk and branches. Norse cosmology features a similar tree called Yggdrasil. A popular Japanese Noh drama tells of wedded pines that are eternally bonded despite being separated by a great distance. Even before Darwin, naturalists used treelike diagrams to represent the lineages of different species. Yet for most of recorded history, living trees kept an astonishing secret: Their celebrated connectivity was more than metaphor — it had a material reality. As I knelt beneath that whitebark pine, staring at its root tips, it occurred to me that my whole life I had never really understood what a tree was. At best I’d been aware of just one half of a creature that appeared to be self-contained but was in fact legion — a chimera of bewildering proportions.

Read the story

Back To School: A Reading List

.Photo: Dean Hochman

Bullies, teachers, classmates—it’s time to head back to school with these six stories from the Chronicle of Higher Education, Los Angeles Times and more.

1. “Twice Exceptional.” (Hana Schank, The Big Roundtable, July 2015)

Hana Schank navigates a disturbingly complex bureaucracy to advocate for her four-year-old daughter, Nora, who is exceptionally bright and low-vision. Read more…

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.”

Longreads Best of 2021: All of Our No. 1 Story Picks

All "best of" featured images by Kjell Reigstad.

All through December, we’ll be featuring Longreads’ Best of 2021. Here’s a list of every story that was chosen as No. 1 in our weekly Top 5 email.

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

The 19th-Century Hipster Who Pioneered Modern Sportswriting

A portrait of a man in handlebar mustache on a bicycle, in front of a collage of images of the same man on his bicicyle in different locales
Collage by Carolyn Wells / Illustrations by W.A. Rogers

Robert Isenberg | Longreads | April 2022 | 10 minutes (2,788 words)

“I am bowling along beneath overhanging peach and mulberry trees,” recalls Thomas Stevens, in the 19th chapter of Around the World on a Bicycle, “following a volunteer horseman to Mohammed Ali Khan’s garden. Before reaching the garden a gang of bare-legged laborers engaged in patching up a mud wall favor me with a fusillade of stones, one of which caresses my ankle, and makes me limp like a Greenwich pensioner when I dismount a minute or two afterward….”

Like many travel writers, Thomas Stevens wrote in the first person. He also wrote in the present tense, so everything he recounts feels immediate, as if his journey is unfolding in real time. Over the course of many hundreds of pages, the reader travels with Stevens, eats with Stevens, weathers rainstorms with Stevens. When Stevens outwits thieves in Persia, we’re right there with him. When he listens to “Hungarian Gypsy music” in Serbia, we hear it, too. When he narrowly evades a herd of stampeding mustangs in the American frontier, we also duck and cover. With every crank of his pedal, we ride alongside, absorbing the same sensations.

But there’s one thing missing from Around the World on a Bicycle, Stevens’ mammoth memoir from 1887: the author himself.

Nowhere, in his two volumes and 41 chapters, does Stevens bother to explain why he decided to ride a penny-farthing across three continents. He never once mentions his parents, his childhood, or a prior career. Even his titular bicycle, which carries him 13,500 miles over mountains and deserts, has no origin story; it simply appears out of the ether. The first chapter opens with a flowery description of his ride away from San Francisco and through the surrounding hills. You might expect some kind of flashback, but no; Stevens has hit the road, and he’ll continue hitting it for two years straight.

Understand, though: Stevens isn’t shy about his own opinion. He assesses the attractiveness of every woman he meets. He analyzes every meal and guesthouse in microscopic detail. He recounts whole histories and cultural traditions to the best of his ability, and then decides how they measure up to the standards of Western Civilization. Because he’s riding a bicycle, Stevens is particularly preoccupied with road conditions, and he casually judges entire regions by their traversability. Stevens has unwavering confidence in his own perspective, and he assumes that we do, too — even if we have no idea who he is.

From a literary perspective, Around the World on a Bicycle is missing vital context. Take a similar book, like Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, and you’ll find a memoir of loss and addiction that also happens to take place on the Pacific Crest Trail. The most respected travelogues are usually couched in introspection. Lands of Lost Borders, by Kate Harris, is also about a cyclist riding thousands of miles across Asia, but Harris chronicles much of her life story up to that point, in order to explain the importance of her journey. In contrast, Stevens unburdens himself of any past or motivation. There’s nothing to him. He could be any able-bodied Victorian male with a taste for adventure.

The most revealing passage isn’t in the story itself, but in the front matter:

To

Colonel Albert A. Pope,

of Boston, Massachusetts,

whose liberal spirit of enterprise, and generous confidence in the integrity and

ability of the author, made the tour

Around the World on a Bicycle

possible, by unstinted financial patronage, is this volume

respectfully dedicated

There you have it: A young man writes his first book, and he dedicates it to his bankroller. Granted, Col. Pope was a prominent bicycle manufacturer at the time. Stevens owned a bicycle — one he’d bought with his own money for an 1884 trip across the United States — but Pope gifted him a nickel-plated Columbia Express and contracted him to write about his two-wheeled travels for Outing, a magazine Pope owned. Stevens would later draw on those articles to form Around the World on a Bicycle. How all this came to pass, though, would be anybody’s guess, because the book never mentions these arrangements — nor Pope, nor anyone Stevens knows or cares about — again.

But Around the World on a Bicycle isn’t literature, nor does it have any ambitions to be. Stevens may be the first human to circle the globe on a bicycle, and he may have chronicled the minutiae of that saga, but Stevens’ book and Strayed’s Wild don’t stem from the same tradition. Wild is travel writing. Around the World on a Bicycle is something else entirely: It’s sports porn.

***

Let’s get one thing out of the way: I love sports porn.

While I’m sure there is “sports porn” intended for genuine sexual gratification, I of course mean something more colloquial: texts and images that excite consumers on a primal level. This more wholesome brand of sports porn celebrates athletic achievement in all its visual glory, perhaps motivating the consumer to attempt similar feats, but offers little narrative substance. Like actual pornography, sports porn doesn’t tell a story so much as serve up an exciting scenario: What if you biked down a mountainous Chilean barrio? What if you went fly fishing in the remotest rivers of Siberia? What if you — in this case — rode your high-wheeled bicycle all the way around the planet?

Specifically, I love outdoors porn — and bicycle porn in particular. As an avid rider who writes regularly about cycling, I could watch vloggers pedal over the Rockies all day. I devour whole issues of Adventure Cyclist, the official magazine of the Adventure Cycling Association, and every last field report. I attended the Banff Mountain Film Festival several years in a row, where I watched film after film of adrenaline junkies BASE jumping off cliffs or paddling kayaks over waterfalls.

Video is now the dominant medium for sports porn, which makes perfect sense: Moving pictures require little explanation and can (literally) zoom in on physical action. This is the kind of high-octane excitement that GoPro cameras were designed for. Today, it’s easy for weekend warriors to shoot at high frame-rates and incorporate slo-mo and speed-ramps into their videos; even amateur productions can look spectacular. More and more often, solo sportsmen can make masterpieces on their own: Gravel bikers journey into the Kyrgyzstani wilderness with their prosumer drones, and they return as YouTube influencers with thousands, or even millions, of followers. Any attempt at real plot would ruin the mojo.


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But before video, there were glossy magazines like Outside, Backpacker, and Dirt Rag, periodicals that are often described in the journalism industry as “aspirational.” I cite these titles lovingly: They are the few glossies I’ve ever actually subscribed to or read cover-to-cover. I have spent much of my own career writing aspirational articles, like how to ride a bike in Taiwan or where to grab brunch in Providence. But while magazines like Outside publish in-depth profiles about serious topics, their appeal for many is largely pictorial. Like National Geographic’s stunning landscape panoramas and aerial shots, sports porn photos of Himalayan ice-climbers and trail-running through Scotland will knock the wind out of you. The next thing you know, you’ve ordered $300 worth of gear from REI and hired a personal trainer.

Before moving pictures existed, though, Thomas Stevens was stirring imaginations with his words, and sports porn is the genre he helped create. In 1886, the high-wheel bicycle (known by many as an Ordinary or a penny-farthing, a reference to the large and small British coins its wheels resembled) was roughly equivalent to the iPhone in 2022: a relatively new technology that had completely transformed modern society. Europeans and Americans were still grasping the possibilities of this magical new machine, and Stevens seized the moment; he vowed to ride across the United States, England, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, completing his journey in Yokohama, Japan. The route was arbitrary, as all round-the-world tours are, but Stevens is still the first known cyclist to satisfy the public with this claim. Stevens pedaled through countries he knew his readers would never visit, and he vividly described the people he met. In the same spirit as any pornographic text, readers were invited to switch out the actual narrator for their own globe-trotting fantasy. Nobody cared who Thomas Stevens was. What they wanted to know was how he did it and what it was like when he got there.

***

To be fair, I didn’t “read” Around the World on a Bicycle so much as listen to it. Vintage copies on eBay can cost hundreds of dollars, and I struggled to find an unabridged reprint. An inexpensive ebook version was easy to find, but I was reluctant to read 1,000 pages of purple prose on a backlit screen. Instead, I found a recording produced by LibriVox — a free archive of public domain writings that functions like a Project Gutenberg of audiobooks — and I dedicated several weeks to Stevens’ book, which is read in tandem by several volunteer narrators.

Stevens was only the latest in a series of authors whose works about long-distance bike touring I’ve read, many of them historical. I had devoured a book by Fred A. Birchmore, also called Around the World on a Bicycle, about the author’s journey in the mid-1930s. I had read Barbara Savage’s Far From Nowhere, about a round-the-world bike tour with her husband in the late 1970s. Most interestingly, I read Around the World on Two Wheels, by Peter Zheutlin, a biography of Annie Londonderry and her infamous wager in the 1890s. All these authors followed similar routes, and they all paid homage to Stevens.

Day after day, I played Stevens’ book on my car stereo. On the bike trail, earbud affixed, I gorged on chapters. The book echoed in my kitchen as I cooked or washed dishes, much to my family’s chagrin. Travelogues are a double whammy for the reader, because the geographic journey mirrors the progression of sentences. The bike wheel turns slowly uphill; the paper page turns in the reader’s fingers; the MP3’s time-stamp ticks along, second by second.

As that journey continued, I found myself torn. On the one hand, I liked Stevens and could only imagine what a pleasure it was to know him. He’s eloquent, dashing, and good-humored. The way he describes himself, Stevens seems gracious to friends and brass-knuckled to antagonists. He is genuinely curious about everything he sees, from folk dances in Eastern Europe to dining etiquette in Kurdistan. Stevens takes pains to learn local languages, to make friends wherever he goes. He compliments and admires much of what he sees: His awestruck description of the Taj Mahal is tear-jerkingly sincere. 

In the same spirit as any pornographic text, readers were invited to switch out the actual narrator for their own globe-trotting fantasy. Nobody cared who Thomas Stevens was. What they wanted to know was how he did it and what it was like when he got there.

Like all great travelers, the man takes everything in stride; when Stevens is arrested in Afghanistan and escorted back to Persia, he expresses little more than disappointment. “As the golden dome of Imam Riza’s sanctuary glimmers upon my retreating figure yet a fourth time as I reach the summit of the hill whence we first beheld it,” he writes, “I breathe a silent hope that I may never set eyes on it again.” If there’s anything a cross-country cyclist loathes, it’s backtracking.

Yet Stevens was a product of his era: He places absolute faith in his Anglo-Saxon virtues, and he finds novel ways to trivialize every other ethnicity. He has no problem describing people as “savages” and comparing their behaviors to children or even animals. In one passage, Stevens is forcibly escorted by a dark-skinned soldier in the Pashtun hills, and his description of the man amounts to straight-up minstrelsy. He also carries a revolver, which was common at the time, but he brags about using random wildlife for target practice. From a modern viewpoint, Stevens’ boorish attitudes remain unsettling to the very last page.

Sports porn still struggles with this archetype — the brave white male seeking glory in exotic lands. In fairness, I have seen the genre diversify in recent years, largely thanks to social media,  but the go-to lead character is still a scruffy blonde guy with a California cadence. Outdoorsy Americans tend to have conspicuous freedom and safety nets that make their lifestyles possible. Nowhere is this privilege more evident than in their rationales, often spoken in voiceover: “I didn’t want to spend my life stuck in an office,” or, “I needed to push myself to try something new” — the usual declarations of young men with a granola streak and nothing more pressing to worry about.

I can’t criticize them too much, because I am part of that tribe — an obsessive cross-country cyclist who spends much of his free time reading about far-flung expeditions by bike. As a scruffy white guy, I could step into any of those YouTube fantasias and no one would notice. Almost 90 years after Stevens’ death, I remain his target readership. And although the penny-farthing was soon replaced with the “safety bicycle,” Stevens and I use roughly the same vehicle for roughly the same purpose: to explore, to challenge ourselves, to connect with the world.

***

In Rhode Island’s entire Ocean State Libraries system, I couldn’t find a single edition of Around the World on a Bicycle, in print or digital versions. Instead, I tracked down a copy at the Providence Athenaeum, a library so historic that it used to loan books to Edgar Allan Poe.

But this wasn’t just any copy: The Athenaeum has an original printing of Stevens’ book, released in two volumes in 1887 and 1888. What’s more, handwritten notations in each book verify that the volumes were acquired in July and September of their respective publication years. These copies, now tattered from centuries of use, their spines chipped and cracked, were hot off the presses when they joined the Athenaeum’s collection.

An old, worn hardcover book on a table, with two rubber bands holding it closed

Photo by Robert Isenberg

One of the librarians carefully set up the books on a table, to make sure I didn’t strain the covers. She had never heard of Thomas Stevens, and when she saw a picture of the author in the opening pages, she guessed he was riding a unicycle. She sat at the desk behind me while I read, a gesture I appreciated: Seeing the book firsthand was a euphoric moment, and I was grateful for someone to witness it.

What I hadn’t realized was that Stevens’ book was illustrated; between them, the volumes contained 180 black-and-white plates. The etchings are artful and detailed; I could frame any one of them and proudly hang it in my home. As a drawn character, Stevens appears again and again, riding his bicycle or standing beside it; he finds himself in wildly mixed company; fashions change all around him, from top hats to fezes to turbans to jingasa. It’s hard to tell how much the artist embellished, of course. Stevens carried a camera, and he mentions snapping pictures, but he also rode alone, and there was no Google Images search to verify his accounts.

As critical as I am of Victorian culture, I couldn’t help but fall under Stevens’ spell. I had already devoured the audiobook, yet found that I still had plenty of room for dessert. Sports porn is most effective when it’s audacious: People aren’t supposed to have fun in such dangerous ways, yet here they are, free-climbing up sheer sandstone. Stevens didn’t reveal much about himself, but he loved being the center of attention. The front wheel of his penny-farthing was 50 inches tall, and Stevens coasted into villages where bicycles had never been seen. In his telling, Stevens constantly explains what the bicycle is, and he entertains crowds by demonstrating its use. More than once, strangers offer to buy the bike from him. Stevens craved the attention, and readers were eager to pay it.

For a 21st-century reader like me, the real value of Around the World on a Bicycle is accidental: It freezes time. Stevens was a sportsman and tourist; he saw the world at street level. He may not have been a reliable anthropologist, but the author painstakingly described what these lands looked and felt like to an ordinary Western visitor. Stevens exhibits a mindfulness that modern people still labor to attain. Given enough time, pornography transforms into documentary. To Stevens, writing a book about a global cycling tour was a business op with a built-in publicity stunt. Today, his account sheds light on a bygone world.

And the inspiration remains — timeless and pure, unsullied by subtext or character development. More than a century later, Stevens still urges readers onward, to propel ourselves forward, to see how far we can go.

 

***

Robert Isenberg is a writer and multimedia producer based in Rhode Island. His books include The Archipelago: A Balkan Passage and The Green Season: A Writer’s First Year in Costa Rica. He was recently named a 2022 Scriptwriting Fellow by the Rhode Island Council on the Arts and won Best Documentary Director at the Block Island Film Festival. Feel free to visit him at robertisenberg.net.

Editor: Peter Rubin

Copy Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands