I have a small booklet of illustrated postcards from National Parks, both ones I’ve been to and others I have yet to see: Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Acadia, Glacier, Olympic, and more. The cards are whimsical. Each in the set features an outline of a park, and a smattering of critters, landmarks, and flora and fauna in bright colors. There is a cartoon banana slug; a meadowlark, beak open in song; a sunny yellow coneflower, petals all the way unfurled; a bighorn sheep; a branch of a ponderosa pine; a hiking boot looming larger than a small illustrated tent; and a herd of antelope making their way toward Delicate Arch.
Whether because of the tiny size of the cards — a whole park scaled down to the size of a palm — or the natural world tuned to carefully blocked hues of teal and mustard and coral and lime green and blue, when I look at the postcards, I tend to daydream about the National Parks in a way that mirrors the illustrations themselves: my perception of the parks becomes two-dimensional, sanitized of any complication. I envision myself hiking along a dirt path, a Steller’s Jay swooping down to scavenge for seed, Ponderosa pines lining the way, the sky blue and open above the picture-perfect peaks of a mountain chain. In my daydreams, there is never anyone else around: there is just me moving through a landscape freckled with flowers, silence broken only by the chittering of birds.
Some parts of these daydreams are feasible, which I know from time spent in parks. I have followed a dirt trail for miles around a lake in Grand Teton, the woods quiet save for the stirring of small creatures. I have hiked down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back up in a day, the sun baking every shade of orange-red rock in sight. I have kept my body still in Yellowstone in hopes of watching a coyote limber across a field just a few moments longer. I have foraged for blueberries in Acadia, sat by the placid, shockingly-blue waters of Lake McDonald in Glacier, and hiked through parts of Denali, pink fireweed lining my way.
The time I’ve spent in National Parks has always seemed restorative, a reminder that there is wild beauty to be protected. But my perceptions can be complicated, underlying tensions teased from what I simplify. For example, as Terry Tempest Williams writes in The Hour of Land, she grew up with the myth of Yellowstone National Park being “void of people” when it was established in 1872, before learning as an adult that the lands where the park was created “was the seasonal and cyclic home of Blackfeet, Bannock, Shoshone, and Crow Nations.” She writes, “Like any good story with the muscle of privilege behind it, it seemed believable. And I never asked the question: ‘Who benefits from the telling of this particular story?’”
What stories have I told myself about the natural parks? Why do I imagine myself alone there, when I have rarely — if ever — experienced solitude on the trails? What kinds of privileges afford me the ability to travel to the parks, and who are parks truly accessible to? What types of harmful histories have I buried or blurred in the way I’ve narrativized the parks in my own mind? What environmental protections have the park lands been granted and what is at risk in a time of climate change and a president’s dangerous decisions? The essays curated here approach these questions — and more.
1. Out Here, No One Can Hear You Scream (Kathryn Joyce, HuffPost)
As a child, the outdoors felt most like home to Cheyenne Szydlo, a trait she carried with her into her professional life as a wildlife biologist. But when she earned the chance to find the elusive — and possibly locally extinct — Southwestern willow flycatcher in The Grand Canyon, her experiences outdoors took a sinister turn, not because of any natural threats, but human. A man named Dave, her river guide, perpetually harassed her and threatened to sexually assault her.
Szydlo’s story is far from uncommon, as Kathryn Joyce writes in this harrowing longform piece. From interviews with Szydlo, women firefighters, and other women park employees, as well as a bevy of researched statistics, Joyce emphasizes the dramatic scope of sexual assault and harassment that far too many women have experienced while working in national parks and other natural places.
The agencies that protect America’s natural heritage enjoy a reputation for a certain benign progressivism—but some of them have their own troubling history of hostility toward women.
In 2012 in Texas, members of the Parks and Wildlife Department complained about a “legacy” of racial and gender intolerance; only 8 percent of the state’s 500 game wardens were women. In 2014, in California, female employees of the U.S. Forest Service filed a class-action lawsuit—the fourth in 35 years—over what they described as an egregious, long-standing culture of sexual harassment, disparity in hiring and promotion, and retaliation against those who complained.
2. We’re Here. You Just Don’t See Us. (Latria Graham, May 1, 2018, Outside)
Number seven on a list of “22 Things Black Folks Don’t Do,” an article Latria Graham finds on BlackAmericaWeb.com, is “Go to national parks.” Graham, who encounters, both online and in life, an array of stereotypes about black people not liking the outdoors, explores the premise of those stereotypes by mapping the locations of national parks and discussing the ways in which historic practices of segregation still influence people’s perceptions today.
By blending gorgeous ruminations of growing up on her own family’s land, reminiscing on the ways in which Zora Neale Hurston’s work helped her discover her own voice, recounting her trips to national parks and incorporating hard-hitting research, Graham’s essay asks readers to evaluate their own internal biases and work to make real change.
The parks were designed to be clean and white, and if we let the data tell the story, that’s how they’ve stayed. In 2009, the National Park Service did a comprehensive survey of the American public, consisting of phone interviews with more than 4,000 participants. According to their data, African Americans comprised just 7 percent of visitors.
3. Dear Mr. Abbey (Amy Irvine, Autumn 2018, Orion)
In this direct address to Edward Abbey, Amy Irvine writes about how life within public lands has changed since Abbey’s death, and also ways that his work might be reconceived if thought about through a more contemporary lens. Irvine, as she reckons with who has the freedom to travel to natural lands — “a privilege that belongs to the able-bodied, upper classes” — tells Abbey about the destruction of natural lands that has occurred as a result of Trump’s decisions, and discusses the ways in which her experiences of natural parks and solitude differ than Abbey’s because she is a woman.
Can you imagine, in my own book about Utah, if I had called it “Amy’s country”? I could have justified it; my family has been there for seven generations and counting. Yet even with such credentials the clan of my surname doesn’t get to call it ours because it’s all stolen property: whatever the forefathers didn’t snatch from the region’s Native Americans on one occasion, they took from Mexico on another.
4. The Government Won’t Let Me Watch Them Kill Bison, so I’m Suing (Christopher Ketcham, May 20, 2015, Vice)
The history of bison in North America is a long and sordid one, which includes settler colonial violence that, at one point, led to there being only 23 bison left in existence. Though the population of bison has increased since then, there are still tensions surrounding their existence, as Christopher Ketcham reports in this piece. Most notably, Yellowstone National Park “culls” (through slaughter) bison from natural lands. The damning part? For over a decade, park officials haven’t allowed the public to watch, spurring the ACLU to file a letter of intent to sue.
I once saw a video of bison being trapped in preparation for their sorting and slaughter. It had been filmed in 2004, in Yellowstone, the last year the Park Service permitted viewing of their bison operations. In the video, the bison are angry, bucking and kicking. The wranglers cry, ‘Hyah, hooee, yah yah, uhsh uhsh,’ smiling as they whip and beat the animals from catwalks. The camera angle shifts to the colliding bodies of the creatures, which cram in the bottleneck of the chutes.
5. From Yosemite to Bears Ears, Erasing Native Americans from U.S. National Parks (Hunter Oatman-Stanford, January 26, 2018, Collectors Weekly)
Though the National Park Service prevented wholesale industrialization, they still packaged the wilderness for consumption, creating a scenic, pre-historical fantasy surrounded by roads and tourist accommodations, all designed to mask the violence inherent to these parks’ creation. More than a century later, the United States has done little to acknowledge the government-led genocide of native populations, as well as the continued hardships they face because of the many bad-faith treaties enacted by the U.S. government.
Accompanied by photographs, maps, historic promotional materials, and other artifacts, Hunter Oatman-Stanford lays bare a multitude of violences and injustices perpetrated against native populations in the creation of National Parks, as well as chronicles the ways in which the harm of this history still affects people today.
6. Are We Losing the Grand Canyon? (Kevin Fedarko, September 2016, National Geographic)
During an end-to-end hike of the Grand Canyon, Kevin Fedarko notes how much of the landscape has been impacted by human development and ruminates on Edward Abbey’s prediction that the wilderness he was writing about “is already gone or going under fast. This is not a travel guide but an elegy. A memorial.”
How much of the Grand Canyon should be developed? And in what ways? What tensions exist because of the Grand Canyon’s capacity to generate revenue? And who has been harmed in the process of development? Fedarko explores answers to these questions, and more, in this longform piece.
But according to U.S. Geological Survey data, 15 springs and five wells inside the Grand Canyon area have levels of uranium that are considered unsafe to drink, due in part to incidents in older mines, where erosion and problems with containment have allowed uranium to leach into the groundwater.
7. Clothing Companies Are Funding Our National Parks Because Our Government Won’t (Jen A. Miller, August 27, 2018, The Outline)
Jen A. Miller, who has a goal of visiting all 417 sites in the U.S. overseen by the National Park Service, began receiving Instagram ads for “Parks Project,” a company that seeks to fund NPS-related charities through their sales of shirts and other goods. Upon researching further, Miller discovers that “Parks Project” is not the only company attempting to help with NPS funding through the sale of merchandise, a noble goal, though one that still falls far from providing the kind of money NPS actually needs to thrive.
And while on paper it looks like the National Park Service budget has gone up from $3.276 billion for fiscal year 2009 to $3.460 billion for fiscal year 2018, when adjusted for inflation, it’s really an 8 percent drop. The New York Times has referred to this paradox of rising crowds and shrinking funds as a “crisis” — I was in Zion National Park in Utah right around the time their reporter was, and I don’t think the pictures do justice to the massive crowds I had to work through.
Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir about running and neurological illness. Her essays have been published in The New York Times, Guernica, Tin House, and elsewhere. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @jacquelinealnes.
The National Book Awards, presented by the National Book Foundation, “celebrate the best of American literature, to expand its audience, and to enhance the cultural value of great writing in America.” There are four categories: fiction, nonfiction, “young people’s literature,” and poetry. Several of this year’s nominees have been featured on Longreads before (see: Ta-Nehisi Coates, Adam Johnson, Noelle Stevenson), and this reading list features the five nonfiction nominees. The winner will be announced on November 18, 2015.
1. The Radical: Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
“The Hard Truths of Ta-Nehisi Coates.” (Benjamin Wallace-Wells, New York Magazine, July 2015)
“Letter to My Son,” in The Atlantic, adapted from Between the World and Me
You must struggle to truly remember this past. You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice. The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. Enslavement was not destined to end, and it is wrong to claim our present circumstance—no matter how improved—as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the posthumous, untouchable glory of dying for their children.
A collection of stories from Thursday night’s awards, including The New Yorker, Time and National Geographic.
The American Society of Magazine Editors handed out its 2014 National Magazine Awards Thursday night, with Fast Company, New York magazine, Inc., Poetry magazine and Modern Farmer all taking home trophies. Boston Magazine’s stirring cover image (above) following the Boston Marathon bombings was named ASME’s Cover of the Year.
Below is a reading list featuring some of the stories honored Thursday night. Read more…
At National Geographic, Nadia Drake has been writing about NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft reaching Pluto this week, and she’s also written about our history with the former planet, which was discovered by 24-year-old Clyde Tombaugh on February 18, 1930:
Tombaugh spent about a year searching for the missing world, using an instrument called a blink comparator. The noisy machine let viewers flip back and forth between long exposures of the sky, often containing hundreds of thousands of stars, taken several days apart. Anything that traveled a significant distance during that time—a planet or an asteroid, for example—would appear to move as the images flipped.
On that late afternoon—it was February 18—Tombaugh was manning the comparator and squinting at thousands of stars, evaluating each one by eye. Suddenly, in photos taken six days apart in January, he spied a small speck of light that didn’t stay put. In one image, it was to the left of two bright stars. In the next, it had jumped a few millimeters to the right of those stars. Tombaugh flipped back and forth between the images and watched the spot leaping in and out of its original position. He grabbed a ruler and measured the precise difference in the spot’s position. Then he found another photo of the sky, taken earlier in January, and searched for the same spot. Finally, he used a hand-magnifier to confirm the potential planet’s presence in one more set of photos, taken by a different camera. After 45 minutes, Tombaugh was convinced.
The latest clue as to why our modern diet may be making us sick comes from Harvard primatologist Richard Wrangham, who argues that the biggest revolution in the human diet came not when we started to eat meat but when we learned to cook. Our human ancestors who began cooking sometime between 1.8 million and 400,000 years ago probably had more children who thrived, Wrangham says. Pounding and heating food “predigests” it, so our guts spend less energy breaking it down, absorb more than if the food were raw, and thus extract more fuel for our brains. “Cooking produces soft, energy-rich foods,” says Wrangham. Today we can’t survive on raw, unprocessed food alone, he says. We have evolved to depend upon cooked food.
To test his ideas, Wrangham and his students fed raw and cooked food to rats and mice. When I visited Wrangham’s lab at Harvard, his then graduate student, Rachel Carmody, opened the door of a small refrigerator to show me plastic bags filled with meat and sweet potatoes, some raw and some cooked. Mice raised on cooked foods gained 15 to 40 percent more weight than mice raised only on raw food.
If Wrangham is right, cooking not only gave early humans the energy they needed to build bigger brains but also helped them get more calories from food so that they could gain weight. In the modern context the flip side of his hypothesis is that we may be victims of our own success. We have gotten so good at processing foods that for the first time in human evolution, many humans are getting more calories than they burn in a day. “Rough breads have given way to Twinkies, apples to apple juice,” he writes. “We need to become more aware of the calorie-raising consequences of a highly processed diet.”
— Ann Gibbons in National Geographic on how our diets have evolved and whether returning to a “Stone Age diet” would help prevent high blood pressure, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
Alice Driver | Longreads | December 2019 | 7 minutes (1,783 words)
We are hungry but we aren’t afraid
Young and rebellious
And the disappeared?
The revolution will educate your children
– Graffiti scrawled on buildings lining the Plaza de Bolívar in Bogotá, Colombia during the national protests against the government in November 2019
* * *
You hold a spoon that has been worn down by the hands of your mother, of your grandmother. You hold a kitchen pot upon which is written the history of women who labored to feed loved ones. You hold a cheese grater, a measuring cup, a tin pitcher, a colander, a potato masher, a whisk, and you stand thousands upon thousands strong, banging your spoons in rhythm, dancing and singing as you face a repressive police force, riot police armed with tear gas, drones and helicopters following your movements from above. As days pass into weeks, you stand in defiance, spoon and pot in hand, demanding with every clang that the government elected by you the people listen to its people. This is a cacerolazo, a method of peaceful protest with deep roots in Latin America in which women — in the domestic space and in the streets — play a central role.
In the ‘60s and ‘70s, women represented roughly 20 percent of the labor force in most Latin American countries, and the societal expectation was that women belonged at home with their children. Under dictatorship and in times of economic cuts and food shortages, women were particularly affected given their assumed role as caretakers of the family. And to protest such conditions — first in Chile in the ‘70s and later in Argentina and Venezuela — women took to the streets in numbers, banging pots and pans, and often they were joined by other sectors of society, particularly students. The cacerolazo created a challenge for repressive governments because it was hard — even in countries with government-controlled media — to justify violence against women, often accompanied by their children, banging pots and pans.
In 2019, students like Carolina Avellaneda, 23, participated in cacerolazos across Latin America to protest government corruption and growing inequality. Avellaneda, who is from Bogotá, Colombia, participated in a nationwide protest that began on November 21, 2019, and will continue until Colombian president Iván Duque Márquez responds to the requests of protesters. She said she had been inspired to participate in the cacerolazo by earlier protests in Chile. While some of those Chilean protesters had died and hundreds had lost the use of one or both eyes due to police tactics involving shooting peaceful protesters in the eye with rubber bullets, the government had at least been forced to listen to and negotiate with protesters on issues regarding inequality.
I interviewed Avellaneda at the Parque de los Hippies in Bogotá on November 23, the third day of the protests. She was among the thousands of students, mothers, and children banging on pots and pans. I covered the protests with Colombian photographer Sebastián Villegas on a motorbike, which allowed us to track the movements of the ESMAD, the riot police. The ESMAD wore black body armor, whose weight appeared to slow them down, and black helmets with clear plastic visors covering their faces. They traveled in pairs on motorbikes. A uniformed police officer drove each bike and behind him sat a member of the riot police who, upon arrival at a protest area, would quickly jump off the bike and get into formation with the ESMAD on-site. They used information gathered by drones and teams of helicopters to quickly find, surround, and disperse peaceful protesters in different parts of the city with stun grenades, tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, and paint guns (used to tag students to identify them as protesters for later punishment). Without the motorbike, it would have been impossible for me to witness the coordinated brutality of ESMAD.
Governments have always tended to act repressively when faced with protesters. It is one of the ways to silence us and our requests, along with the use of excessive force by police. However, we aren’t afraid. We are here.
The morning of November 23, Villegas and I went to the Parque Nacional Enrique Olaya Herrera, where a group of a few hundred students, mothers, and children had gathered to bang on pots and pans, dance, and sing. It was sunny and the atmosphere was relaxed, with dozens of students gathered in groups, sitting or lying on the ground, making protest signs that read It is better to lose than to win so little and We want peace. Some were petting dogs or pushing babies in strollers. In the afternoon, as we rode out of the park and toward the Plaza de Bolívar, the main plaza in the city and the location of another protest, we crossed paths with a fleet of ESMAD on motorbikes. We watched as they arrived at the periphery of the park, dismounted, and got into tight formation. By the time we arrived at the Plaza de Bolívar some 20 minutes later, I had received a text message from another journalist at the park noting that the riot police had thrown stun grenades and tear gas at the protesters, dispersing the gathering within minutes.
At the Plaza de Bolívar, students congregated on the steps of the government buildings, surrounding the plaza and chanting in unison, “No violence!” Many held up strips of white cloth, stretched tight between their two hands — a sign of peace. Some students ran around the periphery of the square waving large Colombian flags, while others chanted, “The people united will never be defeated!” Many stood beside their bicycles, and couples kissed and held hands. Within minutes, the riot police arrived on motorbikes in a two-line formation, dismounted, and marched into the plaza throwing stun grenades and dispersing tear gas and pepper spray. I read on Twitter in real time some Colombian news outlets reporting that most protesters were violent and only wanted to vandalize the city and steal. I stood on the farthest side of the plaza watching as ESMAD threw stun grenades, and at the first explosion of sound all the pigeons in the plaza rose in unison, the sound of their wings flapping as students ran in wild desperation toward the closest exits. As the pink and white smoke cleared, the riot police fought to take bikes away from a few remaining students in the plaza and quickly — before I could get my camera — grabbed others by the feet and dragged them across the plaza and into a nearby building. As Johana Quintero, 30, a protester and a communications professor at a university in Bogotá explained, “Governments have always tended to act repressively when faced with protesters. It is one of the ways to silence us and our requests, along with the use of excessive force by police. However, we aren’t afraid. We are here.”
The riot police then gathered in the center of the square around a statue of Simón Bolívar and waited as two perfect lines of police driving motorbikes arrived, picked them up, then did a victory lap around the square before exiting as drones and helicopters hummed above. The riot police had tracked the location of protests around the city using those drones and helicopters and thus could arrive quickly, disperse crowds, and secure the periphery of the given location with the National Police of Colombia (UNIPOL) who wore army-green uniforms and body armor, and black helmets with plastic visors over their faces.
A few protesters, mostly women, stayed behind to try to talk to the UNIPOL, mostly men, who were blocking the entrance to the Plaza de Bolívar. “You know, this is a peaceful march,” said one young woman who leaned in close to the plastic visor of a member of the UNIPOL. A group of her fellow protesters proceeded to organize a sit-in directly in front of the UNIPOL, holding up signs that read, I am marching for the future of my children.
Leaving the Plaza de Bolívar and en route to witness another protest at the Parque de los Hippies, Villegas and I passed a group of protesters surrounded by ambulances, smoke, and wails rising from the crowd. Upon arriving at the Parque de los Hippies, we received word that the ambulances had arrived to help Dilan Cruz, an 18-year-old student who had been gravely injured when riot police aimed a tear gas canister at his head.
At the Parque de los Hippies, Avellaneda, an environmental engineering student at the Universidad del Bosque, stood, her face covered by a black bandana, wearing black-framed glasses, and ripped jeans. She held a cardboard sign on which she had written in green marker No fear. By her side was her friend Sofia de León Jaramillo 24, also a university student, who held a similar sign that read No violence. Avellaneda said, “I think the strike will last longer until we at least get a response from the government, the president, and the mayor, because they are attacking us and saying that we are vandals.” Although there had been vandalism, which usually occurred at night, citizens disagreed about the cause of it, and some believed that the police themselves might have paid for the vandalism to make protesters look violent, while others wanted to blame it on Venezuelan immigrants.
Although the participants in the protests were diverse, the inequality they were protesting had specific dimensions. Mateo Castro, 24, a friend of Avellaneda who worked as a systems administrator, said, “I am one of the lucky few who has a job because unemployment is high. I work and I’m here and I brought my pan and I’m here for the cacerolazo.” According to 2018 figures, unemployment among women in Colombia was 65 percent higher than among men. Jaramillo said she had joined the protests because she wanted to see labor and pension reforms. She explained, “We are following in the footsteps of other countries [like Chile] because we have a voice and we are young and we understand the reality and hope that the protest will continue until we are really heard.” She described the protests as a time bomb whose arrival, due to systemic inequality in Colombia and in the region, could have been predicted. “This is related to other events in Latin America, to what is happening in Chile, to what is happening in Bolivia,” she added.
Daniela, 29, a lawyer protesting at the Plaza de los Hippies, requested that her last name be excluded due to fear of repression. She explained that she was protesting because, “This government has torn up the peace agreement after 50 years of enduring war — well, much longer than that, but if you’re talking about the guerrilla war, we’ve spent half a century, 50 years [at war]. … But there is no political will to implement the agreements that were signed in Havana.” And in that half decade or more of warfare, women in Colombia have suffered the brunt of sexual violence.
As news of Dilan Cruz spread on social media — he was in the hospital in critical condition — protesters from all around the city, many with children and dogs in tow, began to surround the Parque de los Hippies and shut down the street. Graffiti around the plaza read Don’t be silent, shout! Crowds chanted, “You aren’t going to silence us.” A shirtless young man had written across his scrawny chest in black marker MARICA ES ÉL QUE NO LUCHA, and near him another student wore a flag cape on which she had painted the words No more deaths, peace. A woman rode by on a bike. She had attached the handle of a cooking pan to her bike handle and was using one hand to steer and the other hand to bang on the pan with a large wooden spoon. A young woman on a pink skateboard rolled by, and the back of her shirt read, Resist! I promised my mother I would not fall! On a statute behind her, a student scrawled quickly in spray paint, No more ESMAD! Duque Resign!
As dusk fell, students lit torches and sang the national anthem. Quintero and other students said they would continue to participate in the protests as long as it took for the government to listen. Quintero was hopeful and explained, “I believe that one of the things that the protests have demonstrated to the country, especially in the context of Bogotá, which is where I live, is hope. Because although we have always been very quiet, submissive people to the State, it is the first time in many generations that we can see several acts of solidarity and diverse voices that are legitimately asking for profound transformation. It is hopeful, especially for new generations. They are very critical young people, they are young people who have taken to the streets despite state repression and serious police abuse.”
By Sunday morning, protesters had gathered in front of San Ignacio hospital, leaving flowers and notes for Cruz, who remained in critical condition. By Monday, November 25, Cruz was dead and protesters, outraged at the brutality that caused an 18-year-old armed with only a spoon to die, flowed into the streets in even greater numbers. The sound of them banging on pots and pans rang throughout the city, a funeral hymn, a peaceful cry for justice, for equality.
* * *
Alice Driver is a longform journalist and translator based in Mexico City. She covers borders and migration, and she is the author of More or Less Dead. You can find her work at National Geographic, California Sunday, Time, Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and CNN.
Editor: Krista Stevens
Fact-checker: Steven Cohen
Copy editor: Jacob Gross
In the fall of 2011, Peter Hessler arrived in Egypt, with his family — twin toddlers, and his wife, the writer Leslie Chang. The two had met in China, where Hessler first landed as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1996. His first book, River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, details his two years teaching English. Two other books, Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China and Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory, followed. After leaving China in 2007, the family settled in southwestern Colorado, where they are now based. A few years later, they decided to wipe the slate clean and move to Egypt. But just as they planning their move, the Egyptian Arab Spring started, sending the country down the chaotic path it has followed until today.
Hessler’s latest book, The Buried: An Archaeology of the Egyptian Revolution, chronicles both the revolution itself, and the lives of the people they met during their five years in Cairo. It’s a deep look at what is, in some ways, the oldest country in the world, and it bears the hallmarks of Hessler’s work: vivid scenes, elegant narrative arcs, and a long lens that examines the links and gaps between Egypt’s troubled present and its ancient past.
Today, Hessler is a staff writer at The New Yorker. He won a National Magazine Award for his 2007 National Geographic story, “Instant Cities,” and in 2006, Oracle Bones was a National Book Award finalist. In 2011 he was named a MacArthur Fellow. After leaving Egypt, his family returned to Colorado again, before decamping this year for another stint in China, where Hessler plans to teach at Sichuan University, 20 years after he first taught at Fuling Teachers College. Frank Bures spoke to him about the value of language, learning from John McPhee, and what your garbage man can teach you.
Frank Bures: You built your career writing about China, but how did you start writing in the first place?
Peter Hessler: My first interest was in 10th grade. I had an English teacher in high school who thought that I had some talent at it, and encouraged me. She was the one who made me think seriously about becoming a writer. That was one of the reasons I ended up at Princeton, because they had a good creative writing program. I was encouraged there by Russell Banks, who was my teacher and a thesis advisor, and also John McPhee.
I originally was interested in fiction. I didn’t do journalism in high school, didn’t work for a paper or anything, and at Princeton I never published a word in a college publication. Later, after I took McPhee’s class, I started doing a little freelancing. In grad school overseas I started shifting towards nonfiction, partly because I couldn’t sell short stories. It was hard to publish them, whereas I could publish my travel pieces and essays and get paid for them, and that was encouraging. But I was still unsure when I joined the Peace Corps at age 27. I’d published a lot of travel pieces, but I’d never held a job in journalism, and the kind of stuff I published wasn’t enough for me to support myself.
I didn’t do journalism in high school, didn’t work for a paper or anything, and at Princeton I never published a word in a college publication.
FB: What kind of travel pieces had you done?
PH: The New York Times used to have these essays. The first one I wrote for them was about taking the Trans-Siberian train. Because after I finished grad school at Oxford I traveled for six months, and I consciously researched stories along the way, thinking that when I got home I would write pieces, and possibly write a travel book. I wrote the train essay, and just sent it to a name on the masthead at the Times, and by some miracle they read it and published it. After that I started doing some stuff for them as a freelancer.
FB: When did you start thinking about books?
PH: When I joined the Peace Corps, I wanted to learn Chinese and become a better writer. But I didn’t think I was going to write a book about that experience. I felt I was too young, and I really was. I didn’t have the maturity to write a book, nor did I really have the material at that point. But I did take a lot of notes. It was my way of processing what was going on. I would write about experiences I had, or encounters with people, things on campus, but just in a diary format. And I tracked a lot of my students’ writing because they were such beautiful writers, and I thought they were fascinating people.
Then with six months to go, we got Internet for the first time, and I got back in touch with people. If it had been any earlier, it probably would’ve been a distraction, but at that point it was good to start thinking about the future.
He said, ‘It’s there. It’s in you. You just need to do it.’
I had written to John McPhee throughout my time there, and he had written back often. But now we were on email, and I remember writing to him because I was thinking about applying for journalism jobs, and applying for an internship at Newsweek in Beijing. John wrote me a long letter, telling me: “You should write a book about Fuling.” Because he’d read these letters. He said, “It’s there. It’s in you. You just need to do it.”
That was a powerful moment, because I hadn’t thought about it. Once I got that email and started thinking, it immediately made sense. When I went back through all my notes in my diaries, I realized, “I’ve really got a lot of stuff here.” But I could also see what I needed: more detailed descriptions of the landscape, and some deeper observation of the community and of the city.
FB: Did you write the book then?
PH: No, I didn’t write the book until I left. I went back to my parents’ home in Missouri, and I decided I would take about half a year. I was 29 years old and I had never held a job. I had college debt, so I felt a lot of pressure. I was applying for journalism jobs at the same time, sending out resumes to The New York Times, Washington Post, and Time, pretty much anybody who had a China bureau, and I got form rejections across the board.
When I finished the book, I sent a resume to Amazon, because they had sent me a recruiting thing when I was in Fuling. I had no idea what it was. I guess my life could’ve been pretty different. I sent them a resume, but they never wrote back.
I was so depressed by that point. I had completely lost all perspective. I just wanted to get rid of the thing and put it behind me and do something else. After a couple weeks of this sort of thinking, I finally sent the book out to agents, and a couple of agents were interested. I went to New York and met with them, and I ended up signing with a young agent named William Clark. He sold the book to HarperCollins, and it happened very quickly. It wouldn’t be considered a big advance, but it was enough to pay off all my college loans, and suddenly I realized, “I can just go back to China on my own. I don’t need a job. I’ll just go and figure it out.” And that’s where Oracle Bones starts, in that I was just showing up, and I had a part-time assistant position at The Wall Street Journal, for $500 a month, and that gave me a base.
I was so depressed by that point. I had completely lost all perspective. I just wanted to get rid of the thing and put it behind me and do something else.
It took a while for River Town to come out, because I took a long time editing it. But there was a lot of stuff going on that year and people were starting to get interested in China. So I very quickly had a lot of work. After about a year I got a break with National Geographic and The New Yorker. I was on the ground there for just a little more than a year when I sold my first story to The New Yorker in 2000. Then a week later I sold my second story to them, and we were pretty much off and running.
FB: It was a great time to be writing about China.
PH: Yeah, I was very lucky. I was at the right place in the right time. But it did take some faith, because it was very discouraging earlier, when I was rejected for those jobs and living at my parents’ house. I didn’t grow up with any money, so I couldn’t rely on anything else. And the college debt weighed on me.
FB: Was there anything you learned from John McPhee that influenced the way you write, or think about writing?
PH: There were huge numbers of things that I learned from him. There’s technical stuff. Probably one of the best examples is a “set piece.” He’d teach us that in his course, and show us an example from his writing. It’s something, actually, that a lot of journalists don’t learn, because you only do it in long-form writing, but it makes you think differently about the structure and organization, and that was a really useful lesson to have as a young writer. The example he gave came from his Alaska book, where he’s on his trip through the Alaska back country, and they see a bear. The thing shifts to maybe 1,000 or 1,500 words about bears, and it’s no longer in his experience. It talks about the nature of bears, things they do, and their size. There’s all this, of course beautifully written, but it’s a way of getting background information in an interesting way. It also allows you to step away so the voice doesn’t get stale.
McPhee had a lot of technical lessons, but I think the most important thing was the deeper ways of thinking about writing. One of them, for me, was that you can do fascinating creative writing as a nonfiction writer. I had always been so focused on fiction that I was kind of turned off by the newspaper style of writing. My parents didn’t get The New Yorker, so I didn’t realize there were these other ways of writing nonfiction, and that it could be just as dynamic and fascinating as fiction, and just as artistic.
FB: How did you and Leslie choose Egypt?
PH: There are a couple things. We wanted something different from China. We wanted a different kind of challenge, and something that would give us a new perspective. We wanted to study a language that would be fascinating and rich. I like the idea of a place with a long history, and especially with ancient history because I like archeology. But we also needed it to be a place that would interest The New Yorker. I couldn’t go to Portugal, right? I mean, how many stories about Portugal are you going to write for The New Yorker? I had to be able to support my family.
We thought about India, but I didn’t like the way that there wasn’t one language that unified it, and it seemed like maybe it was too close to China in some sense. So we eventually settled on the Middle East. It was going to be Damascus or Cairo, because those are good places to study Arabic. We were leaning toward Damascus for a while, but once the Arab Spring started it was clear that Cairo was the place. But we’d never been there. We showed up in Cairo with these kids, and neither Leslie nor I had ever been to Egypt.
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FB: Having kids myself, I can’t imagine a move like that.
PH: When I look back, it’s totally crazy. Leslie and I, maybe we’re delusional or something, but we’re also pretty calm people. It helps, too, if you’re doing this with somebody else who’s totally on board. It was definitely a hard first year. I mean, I think the whole thing was hard, because it’s hard with little kids to do something like that, and it’s hard to be in the midst of this chaotic political period. It was very intense. But it’s an engaging place. The people are likable, even though Egypt has problems on a level that we had not experienced in China. There’s serious dysfunction in many aspects of Egyptian society. But it was a phenomenal experience, and I was also fortunate in that I did get to know individuals who brought some light to what was going on, and not just in the sense of understanding. They were engaging, positive people that I liked to spend time with. Sayyid, and Manu and Rifaat, our teacher. We loved it.
FB: What’s your feeling about the importance of learning the language of a place where you’re writing about or living?
PH: To me, it was fundamental. I’m not interested in writing in-depth about a place where I’m not at least doing my best to learn the language. In Egypt I didn’t become fluent like I was in Chinese, but I was very conversant, comfortable with somebody like Sayyid. I could spend a lot of time with him and his family and understand what’s going on, and that was really important to me.
FB: With Egyptian Arabic, what did you learn about Egypt that you wouldn’t have learned without that?
PH: There’s the deep religious nature of the language, and the impact of religion on the language itself. It’s fundamental to that language. I think that that’s pretty rare in the world. There aren’t that many cultures where you have the religion so deeply embedded in the language. It’s a huge part of what you’re saying when you’re using these terms all the time.
I had always been so focused on fiction that I was kind of turned off by the newspaper style of writing.
The language also makes you think a lot about the Pharaonic world, and the ways in which it lasted or didn’t last. There are remarkably few Pharaonic words in Egyptian Arabic. It’s quite striking. There are probably more Turkic words than there are Pharaonic words. But it’s also striking that a lot of those Pharaonic words are very foundational, like the vocabulary for agriculture has a lot of Pharaonic stuff in it, and the word for women, the word for water, the word for land, the Nile, the river. These are things that have deep roots, and those survived the adoption of Arabic.
FB: I love how in both The Buried and Oracle Bones, you’re writing about the distant past and the present, and finding connections and divergences. Do you think that was one of the reasons that you were attracted to Egypt?
PH: I definitely liked the idea of this place with an incredibly rich ancient history. I think there are always some people who say, “Well, that’s not really relevant to what’s going on today.” But I don’t believe it disappears. There are too many echoes that you can see. Also, it’s not just whether things stay the same. I’m not saying that everything is static, but more what I’m saying is that the ancient Egyptians were brilliant politicians, and a lot of what they did politically we see echoes of. For example, their use of nostalgia. Even 3,000 or 4,000 years ago, they were already writing nostalgically about the past, and the perfect political world of the past. That’s an effective political strategy. It’s what Trump does now. People do this all over the world.
FB: What’s your sense of the difference between how people in China and Egypt relate to that distant past?
PH: It was a huge difference. The Chinese are much more comfortable with it, and there are a couple reasons for this. The main one, of course, is they see their history as an unbroken line. It’s a very powerful thing to have that link. Egypt does not have that. The other huge difference is that the last Egyptian to declare himself Pharaoh was somewhere in the second century BC, and from that point until 1952. there was not a single Egyptian leader.
FB: What was the biggest challenge as a writer in Egypt?
PH: It was getting enough language, and being able to do that while the revolution was going on and while I had small children. I couldn’t study all the time the way I had in Fuling. In Egypt I was having to go report on stuff, and I had kids to take care of.
FB: In Oracle Bones you say that in writing narrative nonfiction stories, you’re collecting fragments and organizing them into stories. Some of your stories have arcs that span years. How do you know when a fragment, or something that you’ve collected, is part of that story?
PH: It’s an instinct you develop over time. It took me a while to get there, but by the time I left China I had a pretty good sense of this. When I was in Colorado, for example, and I was reporting on the uranium industry in my corner of the state, and I ran into a town where everybody was telling me to talk to the pharmacist, because he knew everything. That confused me, because why would a pharmacist be somebody who knows a lot? Then I talked to him and realized, well, there’s no medic, there’s no hospital anywhere near here, so he’s basically like a doctor.
I feel like when you start with an issue or a theme, maybe you’re dehumanizing people from the start.
He also mentioned the story of some loner in town who died and left him half a million dollars, and at that point my instinct kicked in and I thought, “There’s something going on here.” So I left him out of the uranium story, with the idea that I was going to pursue this. I didn’t know where it was going to go, but I thought there was something there. You get those instincts over years of writing stories and books. The same thing in Egypt when the garbageman, Sayyid, kept bringing me stuff from the neighborhood and he knww so much about people.
FB: Do you typically start with an idea?
PH: It’s usually either a person or a place. It’s almost never an idea. I don’t start with themes or issues. Partly that’s my instinct, but partly it’s also deliberate because I feel like when you start with an issue or a theme, maybe you’re dehumanizing people from the start. Maybe you’re fitting them into a larger narrative or idea that isn’t appropriate. So I tend to start either with a place or a person, and then the issues and the themes are secondary. They come in as I get to know the person or the place.
So I get to know Sayyid. Then I start to learn about him. Then that leads me into the informality of Cairo and the self-organization of those communities. Then it also leads me into gender relations, because I start to get to see how him and his wife interact. It leads me to issues of education, because I realize that this incredibly intelligent person is illiterate, and I get to know what his children are doing in school, and educate me in new perspectives. But it all starts with him.
FB: And now you guys are going back to China. Where are you going to be?
PH: We’re going to Chengdu. I’m going to teach for a year at Sichuan University. It’s been 20 years since I taught in Fuling.
FB: Is Chengdu near Fuling?
PH: It’s close. I wanted to teach in Fuling, but I wasn’t allowed for political reasons. I could do it in Chengdu. I’ll also be tracking down my former students and seeing what they’re up to, and revisiting Fuling.
FB: Are you going to write a sequel to River Town?
PH: I suspect some kind of follow-up book. But, I don’t know. I always wait until I’m into it before I really know what form it’s going to take. I do want to build on that experience, and I want to try to write something about how this place has changed and what it feels like on the ground, both for the people involved and for me as an observer. I’m also interested in my former students, who were a remarkable generation, because they were born around the time that Mao died, and they grew up with the changes. I’m curious to know more about their perspective on what they’ve seen and what they’ve lived through, because they’re middle-aged now.
FB: Is your plan to be there for a year?
PH: Right now, I think we’ll be there for five years. I’ll do one year of teaching, and then transition to writing full-time and reporting. Leslie is finishing her Egypt book, and then she’ll transition to writing. We also want our children to learn Chinese.
FB: How did you guys meet?
PH: I was working at The Wall Street Journal as an assistant, and she was a journalist, or a correspondent for them in China. I was the lowest guy on The Journal totem pole, and she had a real job, back in ’99. But we didn’t date then. We were in the same circle of friends, and then in 2003 we started dating.
FB: Can you say what Leslie’s Egypt book is about?
PH: It’s about women factory workers in Egypt. She reported on the factory in Alexandria. She has really good stuff, and she’s partway through it now.
FB: That will sit nicely on the shelf next to Factory Girls.
I’ve never wanted feedback from anybody while I’m writing, because I add in stuff a lot while I’m going, and I want to be the one to shape it.
PH: I think the two books will be interesting. My book and her book also will be interesting because we’re looking at Egypt from slightly different angles. There are some cross-themes, and it was fun to have these projects being researched at the same time. It helps, I think, both of us to have all these conversations while we’re doing research.
FB: Do you guys read each other’s work, like Joan Didion and John Dunne?
PH: Pretty late in the game. We don’t do it as we’re working. I’ve never wanted feedback from anybody while I’m writing, because I add in stuff a lot while I’m going, and I want to be the one to shape it. Actually, for this last book, she didn’t read it until pretty late in the process because I think she was feeling a lot of pressure for her book and trying to get it going, and I didn’t feel like I wanted to throw it on to her. She needed to focus on her thing, but I think that was a little bit of an unusual time, just part of the whole challenge of doing these projects with young children. We’re both very supportive, and it helps a lot in terms of the reporting, because each of us is learning things that help the other person.
FB: With two writers in the family, how do you balance your life and work?
PH: I guess that develops kind of naturally. It’s all we ever knew together, because both of us were writing from the time we met. The hardest thing about having two writers is probably financial, and lack of stability. Neither of us have a steady paycheck, but we had kids so late, and then both of us had the good fortune to start in China, which was a good place to get established. Though we would never write together. We have no interest in that. We are not a team of writers. It’s an individual sport, like running.
Frank Bures is the author of The Geography of Madness and editor of Under Purple Skies: The Minneapolis Anthology. He writes about travel, culture, language, science, outdoors, narrative, and belief for publications such as Harper’s, Aeon, Lapham’s Quarterly, The Washington Post Magazine, Outside, and the Best American Travel Writing.
Editor: Aaron Gilbreath
Ailsa Ross | Longreads | August 2019 | 22 minutes (6,062 words)
It’s the winter of 1923 and a five-foot tall woman is shooting at brigands in Tibet. She’s surviving a blizzard by eating boot leather. She’s accepting a maggot-dancing stew from a drug-addled butcher and having a face-off with a snow leopard.
This woman is Parisian opera singer-turned-anarchist Buddhist lama Alexandra David-Néel, and she’s kicking through Tibet’s wild hills and steppes as she strides on foot across the Himalayas from Kanchow to Lhasa.
Alexandra’s starlit memoir recounting her adventure is no Thoreauvian nature journal. This is a tale that demands to be read in a cool bed while the night paws at the windows — or in my case, by the fire while my dad watches Come Dine With Me repeats on a black January afternoon.
I started reading My Journey to Lhasa because I love adventure stories. And while I’ve never pushed myself to extremes, still I felt a kinship with Alexandra. “Ever since I was five years old,” she wrote, “I craved to go beyond the garden gate, to follow the road that passed it by, and to set out for the Unknown.” She didn’t dream of towns or parades, but a solitary spot where she could “sit alone, with no one near.” As a child, her nannies often found her crouched behind bushes or hidden up trees in Paris gardens.
Quiet spaces — I’d needed those since I was a teenager.
I was most in search of a quiet space while teaching in Seoul in 2012. I was twenty-four and tired — of living in that crunching city of 26 million, of being in a job I was no good at, of lying awake in the self-hating 2 a.m. dark with a burnt throat from smoking cigarettes on the kindergarten rooftop. I wanted to feel clean again, like a child who’d spent the day by the sea. Read more…