Search Results for: Smithsonian

Roxie Laybourne: the World’s First Forensic Ornithologist

Starlings (Photo by Peter Byrne/PA Images via Getty Images)

If you love birds, you’ll enjoy “Bird Man” by Eva Holland. It’s a deeply researched essay on extreme birding and the innate human need to classify the world around us.

Using her deep knowledge of bird anatomy, she solved crimes of passion and busted poachers. She helped reduce bird-strike-induced aviation accidents and disasters. At Audobon, Chris Sweeney introduces us to birder-extraordinaire Roxie Laybourne, the world’s first forensic ornithologist, who died in 2003 at age 92.

As part of a nine-month investigation, officials sent the bird remains to the Smithsonian Institution, where they made their way to the desk of Roxie Laybourne. Laybourne had been at the Smithsonian for 15 years and during that time had prepared thousands of bird specimens from around the world for research purposes. Over all that time and all those birds, she had started homing in on the subtle differences in the structure of feathers. It wasn’t hard for her to confirm that the birds hit in Boston were European Starlings.

The FAA’s final accident report, issued in July 1962, concluded that Flight 375 had struck a large flock—perhaps as many as 20,000 starlings—as it lifted off. This, in turn, caused three of the four engines to malfunction in a way that was impossible for the pilot to recover.

For most people, the accident report closed the books on Flight 375. For Laybourne, it marked the start of a remarkable scientific journey that was at times as thrilling as it was bizarre. She’d go on to establish the field of forensic ornithology, and the methods she developed for feather identification would be used to prosecute murderers, bust poachers, and inform conservation efforts. Most importantly, her work would entirely reshape our understanding of the threat birds and airplanes pose to one another—a threat that continues to hang over every airplane in the sky today.

Read the story

The Remarkable Life of Roxie Laybourne

Longreads Pick

“From deep within the Smithsonian, the world’s first forensic ornithologist cracked cases, busted criminals, and changed the course of aviation—making the skies safer for us all.”

Source: Audubon
Published: Oct 5, 2020
Length: 19 minutes (4,787 words)

All Hail the Inventor of the Crock Pot: Irving Nachumsohn

Getty Images

At Smithsonian, Michelle Delgado digs into the history of the beloved crockpot, the staple of potlucks, holiday dinners, and hastily prepared weeknight feasts. If you’ve ever come home from a long day at work to the wonderful smell of dinner waiting in your crockpot, you have Irving Nachumsohn to thank.

The Crock Pot’s story began during the 19th century in Vilna, a Jewish neighborhood in the city of Vilnius, Lithuania. Once known as the “Jerusalem of the North,” Vilna attracted a thriving community of writers and academics. There, Jewish families anticipated the Sabbath by preparing a stew of meat, beans and vegetables on Fridays before nightfall. Ingredients in place, people took their crocks to their towns’ bakeries—specifically, to the still-hot ovens that would slowly cool overnight. By morning, the low-and-slow residual heat would result in a stew known as cholent.

According to Nachumsohn’s daughter, Lenore, her father’s broad range of inventions is evidence of his curiosity and devotion to problem-solving. In their household, the slow cooker was a solution to summer heat, allowing the family to prepare meals without turning on the oven. Nachumsohn applied for the patent on May 21, 1936, and it was granted on January 23, 1940.

Read the story

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Detail of the cutaway on a Fender PM-3 Standard Triple-0 All-Mahogany NE acoustic guitar.
Detail of the cutaway on a Fender PM-3 Standard Triple-0 All-Mahogany NE acoustic guitar. (Photo by Neil Godwin/Guitarist Magazine/Future via Getty Images)

Here are five stories that moved us this week, and the reasons why.

Sign up to receive this list free every Friday in your inbox.

1. The DIY Duo Behind the Amazon Labor Union’s Guerrilla Bid to Make History

Josefa Velasquez | The City | March 24th, 2022 | 4,200 Words

Amazon workers in Staten Island made history last week by voting to establish the company’s first union. The grassroots effort was led by two men, Christian Smalls and Derrick Palmer, who faced all manner of racist and classist indignities, often as a matter of policy created by Amazon officials to derail unionization. On the eve of the vote, The City, a non-profit newsroom, published this fantastic behind-the-scenes look at what was going down on Staten Island. It’s essential reading at a pivotal moment in U.S. labor history, full of rich detail and blistering reminders of why Amazon unions are necessary. For example: “[Smalls] was fired for allegedly stealing two minutes of company time, which he attributes to ‘human error’ for punching in his work time incorrectly.” And: “Sun-faded prayer candles commemorate a 24-year-old [Amazon worker]…killed by a driver in November as she crossed the street during her near-midnight lunch break.” —SD

2. How a California Archive Reconnected a New Mexico Family with Its Chinese Roots

Wufei Yu | High Country News | April 1st, 2022 | 4,116 words

Aimee Towi Mae Tang, a fourth-generation Chinese New Mexican, felt disconnected from her Chinese roots. Amid a rise of anti-Asian hate crimes across the U.S., she wanted a better understanding of her own identity, which included learning how her family had settled in Albuquerque. Born in China and new to Albuquerque himself, journalist Wufei Yu decides to help Tang learn more about her family’s history, and in doing so, perhaps find his own place in a new city. Yu visits the National Archives in the San Francisco Bay Area to dig through documents: “For two days, those 400-plus colorful pages became my world — passenger arrival lists, immigration records, business filings and legal case files, dotted with Chinese characters.” The piece is sprinkled with such pages — lists, photographs, maps — along with gorgeous illustrations by Sally Deng. Yu pieces together the story of Tang’s great-grandfather, previously known to her as Edward Gaw; but deep in these archives, on paper, he is known as Ong Shew Ngoh: a young man from South China who made the journey to San Francisco and fought to stay in America during its anti-Chinese immigration crackdown. He went on to become a businessman in Albuquerque, owning for a time one of the best grocery stores in town until its Chinese community was pushed out. “If my great-grandpa were allowed to have land,” Tang says in the piece, “the Tang family and Chinese Americans could have owned downtown Albuquerque.” I enjoyed Yu’s tracing of the Tang family in these documents, and this glimpse into one of the early Chinatowns of the American West. —CLR

3. H-Town United: An Unlikely Soccer Power Rises in Texas

Tom Foster | Texas Monthly | April 6th, 2022 | 8,905 words

There’s nothing in sportswriting like an underdog story. But sometimes that underdog status persists regardless of the wins column, regardless of championships, regardless even of dynasties. That’s exactly the case with Houston’s Elsik High School soccer team, from its international stock (the school district, in southwest Houston, serves students who speak 90 different languages) to its tough-love head coach Vincenzo Cox, who found in his kids a long-overdue sense of belonging. After all, just being good at soccer doesn’t undo the reality of the world. “There are times when the hurdles life puts in front of his team just break Cox’s heart,” writes Tom Foster. “When a player has to leave town for a bit because his dad’s been drinking again and it’s not safe in the house. When a kid shows up for high school who doesn’t know his ABC’s. When Cox hears about rival coaches speculating that he has recruiting pipelines to Central America and Africa.” Foster is at his assured best here, taking the reader through multiple seasons in a single story that somehow feels like a 21st-century global-Texas version of Hoosiers — and as a Hoosier myself, I don’t use that comparison lightly.  —PR

4. The Kids Orphaned by COVID Won’t Return to ‘Normal’

Tim Requarth | The Atlantic | April 6th, 2022 | 1,776 words

As governments lift COVID restrictions and people attempt to navigate as the pandemic endures, we are only now entering what will be a lifelong phase of discovering COVID’s long-term repercussions on society. What shadow will COVID cast on people who were children when the virus first appeared? At The Atlantic, Tim Requarth* reports on one reality of the pandemic, “some 200,000 American children” who have been orphaned because of COVID. But what is the U.S. federal government doing to help these kids? Very little, as it turns out. “And while a memorandum issued by President Joe Biden yesterday promises that the administration will develop a plan for orphans, it’s poised to be too little, too late. ‘It really doesn’t outline any plan or commitment,’ Rachel Kidman, a social epidemiologist at Stony Brook University, told me. And the inaction goes deeper than that: With a few exceptions, even the parts of the country most inclined toward action don’t seem to be doing much to help these kids…The pandemic’s orphanhood crisis matters most for orphans, but it also matters for the rest of us. If America can’t do anything to help the children most profoundly affected by COVID, what hope is there to make any sort of long-lasting changes as we try to leave the pandemic behind?” —KS

* Tim Requarth’s Longreads essay, “The Final Five Percent” won the 2020 Science in Society Journalism Award in the Longform Narratives category and was included in the 2020 edition of Best American Science and Nature Writing.

5. The Legend of The Music Tree

Ellen Ruppel Shell | Smithsonian Magazine | April 4th, 2022 | 5282 words

I had never heard of “The Tree” until reading Ellen Ruppel Shell’s fascinating essay, but in certain circles, The Tree is not only famous, it is magical. A mahogany tree originating from the Chiquibul jungle in Belize, its beautiful wood is prized by carpenters and luthiers — with musicians claiming guitars made from The Tree produce an extraordinary sound. Shell wanted to discover more about this Tolkienesque-sounding entity and immerses herself in its story: from being cut down in 1965 to the hunt for any remaining stashes of the precious (and finite) material today. A cross between an adventure story and a collector’s tale, Shell throws in some psychology for good measure: Does this wood actually create a unique sound, or is its coveted nature influencing what people hear? This detailed exploration made me sit down and consider the use of rarity to define prestige. —CW

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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

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

Sign up to receive this list free every Friday in your inbox. 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.”

Gone For a Hike: A Reading List on Wilderness and Survival

A woman hiking on a winter day starts a fire outside a shelter on the Appalachian Trail in Carter County, Tennessee
Getty Images

By Kelsey Zimmerman

 

Last week I walked a few blocks from my apartment to a grocery store in my small Midwestern town. The wind chill was -18 Fahrenheit, an improvement over the previous day, when it was a blistering -28. It had been several days — maybe weeks — since I voluntarily went outside for any length of time beyond simply getting in or out of my car.

The Land of White Death by Valerian Albanov inspired me to take this walk. The book tells the harrowing tale of a crew of Russian seal hunters who, in 1912, become trapped in the ice in the Siberian Arctic Circle. Remarkable for its first-person narrative — the vast majority of failed adventure/expedition stories are written by people who did not experience the event themselves — and for its narrator’s headstrong, hopeful, and lyrical ruminations, it made me think about what it must have been like trapped in the cold for years on end, far from home.

Considering I’m risk-averse almost to a fault, I’ll never travel the Siberian Arctic Circle, never climb Mount Everest, never go on a challenging backcountry hike by myself. Why? Partly because of simply having read too many narratives like Albanov’s, too many narratives like the ones on this reading list. Yet coupled with this aversion is a fascination of people who, unlike me, seek experiences full of risk and inspiration; and the thrill of experiencing landscapes few humans have walked on, or mountains unclimbed and unknown. And then, of course, there is the fascination with narratives of those who did not seek risk, who were going about their days and were thrust into extraordinary circumstances. This is the question that haunts me: How would I cope with facing a life-threatening situation in the wilderness? I read story after story, book after book, looking for myself: Yes, being the one who keeps people hopeful, maybe that would be me. Or, thinking of cutting open plants in the desert for water, I’d do that too.

After the Plane Crash—And the Cannibalism—A Life of Hope (Simon Worrall and Roberto Canessa, National Geographic, April 2016)

I grew up near Detroit Metropolitan Airport, and too young, learned about Northwest 255. In 1987 it crashed on one of the busy roads outside the airport, killing all but one passenger and two people on the ground. I was sick with fear around airports for the next 15 years, but fascinated, too. I think now that fear is a cousin of obsession, because as an adult I perseverate on what I fear, including plane crashes. In this piece, Simon Worrall interviews Roberto Canessa, one of the passengers on doomed Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 (subject of the ‘90s film Alive) on the circumstances of survival. After his rugby team crashed in the Andes, Roberto, then a medical student, bore the enormous responsibility of trying to keep his teammates and friends alive, with mixed success.

Who survived? It wasn’t the smartest, most intelligent ones. The ones who survived were those who most felt the joy of living. That gave them a reason to survive.

Tragically Lost in Joshua Tree’s Wild Interior (Geoff Manaugh, The New York Times Magazine, March 2018)

My last real vacation was in February 2020, to Joshua Tree National Park. I was on my own, having peeled off from a group trip to Palm Springs, and I’d already read about Bill Ewasko, an experienced hiker and military veteran who disappeared in the park in June 2010. I went on a few short hikes alone, but, with little previous experience in the desert, was mostly happy to drive. It felt like I could see forever in every direction, yet the panorama kept shifting seamlessly and every few minutes I arrived in a landscape entirely new, save for the ash-gold sand and sentinel Joshua trees. How do you get lost in a place where you can see everything? Well, the truth is, anybody can get lost anywhere.

There is an unsettling truth often revealed by search-and-rescue operations: Every landscape reveals more of itself as you search it. The mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot once observed that the British coastline can never be fully mapped because the more closely you examine it — not just the bays, but the inlets within the bays, and the streams within the inlets — the longer the coast becomes. Although Joshua Tree comprises more than 1,200 square miles of desert with a clear and bounded border, its interior is a constantly changing landscape of hills, canyons, riverbeds, caves and alcoves large enough to hide a human from view. Solid canyon walls reveal themselves, on closer inspection, to be loose agglomerations of huge rocks, hiding crevasses as large as living rooms. The park is, in a sense, immeasurable. And now Ewasko’s case, like Joshua Tree itself, was becoming fractal: The more ground the search covered, the more there was to see. As Pete Carlson of the Riverside Mountain Rescue Unit put it to me, “If you haven’t found them, then they’re someplace you haven’t looked yet.”

How America’s National Parks Became Hotbeds of Paranormal Activity (Sarah Emerson, Vice, October 2017)

Perhaps tied to the risk-averse aspect of my personality is also a strict scientist’s skepticism. I have trouble suspending disbelief when it comes to the occult, such as while reading Stephen King novels, or when watching TV shows like Yellowjackets.

Humans don’t have a great inherent understanding of statistics, nor as a species do we seem to grasp the extraordinary danger that accompanies the great outdoors. That an adult human can simply vanish is literally unthinkable: So when it happens, people look for a paranormal explanation, not comprehending how the landscape tucks bodies away, subsumes them.

Much of this article focuses on David Paulides of Missing 411 and its wide internet communities: Paulides raises awareness of forgotten missing-persons cases, which is good; he’s also a Bigfoot believer — that’s a little more iffy.

What makes Paulides’ ideas so tantalizing, so salacious, is what he doesn’t say. He denies mentioning Bigfoot in any of his works. But, like a good storyteller, he allows readers to reach these conclusions on their own. Even his fans have questioned his motives.

I do find David to, at times, sound a little bit like a charlatan,” one wrote on Reddit. “I feel like when you get so invested in something you are bound to lose yourself a little bit.”

The Accident on the Pacific Crest Trail (Louise Farr, Alta Online, January 2021) 

In the early days of the pandemic, long-trail hikers were encouraged to head home to prevent spreading the virus to small, vulnerable locales. Not everyone listened: Three young men continued their obsessive hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, to devastating conclusion.

At around 9:30 a.m., as they turned a corner onto Apache Peak, the trail disappeared under what, at this higher altitude, was two to three feet of snow. They checked their maps. If they crossed a small clearing and headed around another corner, they’d be fine. Jannek, about 10 steps in the lead, and the lightest, made it across the precipitous slope to a stand of trees. But as Trevor crossed, he slipped on ice hidden beneath the top layer of powder. He stopped and tried to stabilize his footing, then his feet went out from under him, and he fell onto the snowy trail. For the briefest time, he managed to stay in place. Then, suddenly, he began sliding feet first, gathering momentum until he hit a rock and began cartwheeling into an icy gorge.

For 40 Years, This Russian Family Was Cut Off From All Human Contact, Unaware of World War II (Mike Dash, Smithsonian Magazine, January 2013)

When a Russian family was discovered living in the Siberian taiga after 40 years without contact from the outside world, they were astounded by the advances of modern technology, from Sputnik to cellophane. But perhaps the single detail that strikes me the most is the last survivor, the youngest daughter in the family, choosing to live out her remaining days in the cabin in the wilderness, alone. There’s a saying that references “the devil you know” though I can’t speculate on all the reasons Agafia might have chosen to stay behind. Yes, perhaps, fear. But maybe there was also a desire to carry on her family’s legacy, to preserve a way of life she loved. The not knowing — the inability to know — is the true allure of this type of tale.

The Lykov children knew there were places called cities where humans lived crammed together in tall buildings. They had heard there were countries other than Russia. But such concepts were no more than abstractions to them. Their only reading matter was prayer books and an ancient family Bible. Akulina had used the gospels to teach her children to read and write, using sharpened birch sticks dipped into honeysuckle juice as pen and ink. When Agafia was shown a picture of a horse, she recognized it from her mother’s Bible stories. “Look, papa,” she exclaimed. “A steed!”

 

***

Kelsey Zimmerman is a writer from the Midwest. Her poetry can be found in Hobart, The Indianapolis Review, and elsewhere. She can be found hiking on the weekends or on Twitter @kelseypz.

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.

Read the story

The Moral Cost of Cats

Longreads Pick

Pete Marra, head of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, is pushing a controversial conservation idea: that as the single-biggest man-made danger to bird and small mammal populations in the United States, outdoor and feral cat populations should be controlled, either by keeping pets inside, or by euthanasia and sterilize-and-return programs.

Source: Smithsonian
Published: Sep 20, 2016
Length: 15 minutes (3,772 words)

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Oli Scarff / Getty Images

This week, we’re sharing stories from Jean Guerrero, Lauren Weber, Doug Bock Clark, Dara Horn, and Dan Nosowitz.

Sign up to receive this list free every Friday in your inbox. Read more…