Tag Archives: nature

Sometimes You’re the Bug. Far Fewer Times, of Late.

Wasp on a Windshield

At my house, we’d noticed the lack of bees this spring, but we’d chalked it up to the late arrival of warm weather and a rainier-than-usual season. Turns out our anecdotal data gathering isn’t entirely off — there are fewer bugs. Of all kinds.

In Science, Gretchen Vogel asks why we’re spending less time cleaning the windshield, and what that means further up the food chain.

Entomologists call it the windshield phenomenon. “If you talk to people, they have a gut feeling. They remember how insects used to smash on your windscreen,” says Wolfgang Wägele, director of the Leibniz Institute for Animal Biodiversity in Bonn, Germany. Today, drivers spend less time scraping and scrubbing. “I’m a very data-driven person,” says Scott Black, executive director of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation in Portland, Oregon. “But it is a visceral reaction when you realize you don’t see that mess anymore.”

Some people argue that cars today are more aerodynamic and therefore less deadly to insects. But Black says his pride and joy as a teenager in Nebraska was his 1969 Ford Mustang Mach 1—with some pretty sleek lines. “I used to have to wash my car all the time. It was always covered with insects.” Lately, Martin Sorg, an entomologist here, has seen the opposite: “I drive a Land Rover, with the aerodynamics of a refrigerator, and these days it stays clean.”

Though observations about splattered bugs aren’t scientific, few reliable data exist on the fate of important insect species. Scientists have tracked alarming declines in domesticated honey bees, monarch butterflies, and lightning bugs. But few have paid attention to the moths, hover flies, beetles, and countless other insects that buzz and flitter through the warm months. “We have a pretty good track record of ignoring most noncharismatic species,” which most insects are, says Joe Nocera, an ecologist at the University of New Brunswick in Canada.

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This Land Should Be Your Land: A National Parks Reading List

When President Obama walked out of the Oval Office earlier this year, he left behind more land protected under federal law than any of his predecessors. President Trump appears intent on challenging that legacy, recently ordering a sweeping review of national monuments with an aim to “balance” the protection of these lands. (The Bureau of Land Management also recently added banners to its website to evoke the wondrous vistas of coal mining and oil drilling.)

It’s not yet clear whether Trump will actually try to revoke Obama-era designations—or whether he’d succeed if he does—but the land protected under federal law has been a mix of majesty and mystery ever since Ulysses S. Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act designating the nation’s first national park. Writers have used their craft to ask fascinating questions and expose the weird underbellies of national parks, monuments, and federal lands since long before Trump ever expressed an antipathy toward them.

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Want To See a Polar Bear? Just Follow the Bones

a polar bear walks on the ice

In Kaktovik, Alaska, dozens of polar bears take advantage of the bone pile—the remains of this community’s yearly quota of bowhead whales, which locals butcher right on the shore—to supplement meager summertime hunting. The bone pile is also a bounty for locals like hunter and guide Robert Thompson, who’s booked solid through 2017 taking hopeful wildlife photographers on polar bear tours. Michael Englehard tells the story in Hakai magazine.

The juncture of lingering bears waiting for freeze-up, the windfall of a bone and blubber cache, and a nearby community eager for economic opportunities, has resulted in a burgeoning bear watching industry in Kaktovik. Thompson, one of seven coast guard-certified tour boat captains, makes a good living from the castaways at the bone pile between September and November. A popular captain who is already fully booked for 2017, he can get so busy that he rushes to work without breakfast, grabbing a fistful of coffee beans to chew on his way out the door. His boat Seanachaí, Irish for storyteller, is aptly named—the man who can see bears making a beeline to the bone pile from his living room chair and who once got charged by a marauding male right on his doorstep regales visitors with tidbits about life in the North. A favorite is the technique for how to prepare a polar bear skin. “You stuff it through a hole in the ice and let shrimp pick it clean,” he says, adding that he’s also seen bears steal from set fishing nets and once watched one pull a net to shore. Thompson’s porch is a still life of body parts and implements: a pot with chunks of unidentifiable meat chilling in the frigid air; a caribou leg for his dogs; snowmobile parts; a gas tank; and, like a cluster of fallen angels, a brace of unplucked, white-phase ptarmigans. On a driftwood stump near the shed grins a mossy polar bear skull; it’s not a scene for tender romantics.

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The Sense of an Endling

Elena Passarello / Animals Strike Curious Poses / Sarabande Books / March 2017 / 12 minutes (3,100 words)

Illustrations from “The Last Menagerie” by Nicole Antebi.

The last Woolly Mammoths died on an island now called Wrangel, which broke from the mainland twelve thousand years ago. They inhabited it for at least eight millennia, slowly inbreeding themselves into extinction. Even as humans developed their civilizations, the mammoths remained, isolated but relatively safe. While the Akkadian king conquered Mesopotamia and the first settlements began at Troy, the final mammoth was still here on Earth, wandering an Arctic island alone.

The last female aurochs died of old age in the Jaktorów Forest in 1627. When the male perished the year before, its horn was hollowed, capped in gold, and used as a hunting bugle by the king of Poland.

The last pair of great auks had hidden themselves on a huge rock in the northern Atlantic. In 1844, a trio of Icelandic bounty hunters found them in a crag, incubating an egg. Two of the hunters strangled the adults to get to the egg, and the third accidentally crushed its shell under his boot.

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Searching for the Lost on Public Land

After the September 11 ­attacks, Interior tried to build its own data­base to track law-enforcement actions across lands managed by the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Indian Affairs. (The Forest Service is under the Department of Agriculture.) The result, the ­Incident Management Analysis and Reporting System, is a $50 million Database to Nowhere—last year, only 14 percent of the several hundred reportable incidents were entered into it. The system is so flawed that Fish and Wildlife has said no thanks and refuses to use it.

That leaves the only estimates to civilians and conspiracy theorists. Aficionados of the vanished believe that at least 1,600 people, and perhaps many times that number, ­remain missing on public lands under circumstances that defy easy explanation.

People regularly disappear on America’s 640 million acres of national forests, national parks, and Bureau of Land Management property. The disappearance of an 18-year old runner in Colorado sent Outside journalist Jon Billman to investigate the sheriffs, trackers, amateur detectives, and mourning families who search for the people who go missing in the wild.

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Bird Man

Eva Holland | Longreads | February 2017 | 10 minutes (2641 words)

 

Noah Strycker spotted the first bird before I made it from the parked car to the edge of the marsh. “It’s a rough-legged hawk,” he said when I caught up to him, gesturing for me to peer through his long, 60-power Swarovski scope. I obliged, and there it was: large, mottled white-and-brown, perched on the bare branch of a distant tree.

The sightings kept coming. Strycker picked out a Western meadowlark (“Oregon’s state bird,” he noted), a group of killdeer — lankier members of the plover family — and nearby, on an open mudflat, an American pipit, and a least sandpiper. He identified a red-shouldered hawk, pointing out the distinctive red-orange bars across its chest, and then two, three, four bald eagles. A red-tailed hawk and three northern harriers joined our growing list of raptor sightings.

“I’m just looking for something that doesn’t look like a tree branch,” he explained, scanning the horizon with binoculars. I imitated him with my borrowed binos, watching for lumps, movement, anything out of place. Around us, there was nothing — to my eye — but a sea of tall dried winter grasses and bare, dead-looking trees, lit up by the slanting winter sun.

It was January 16, 2016. Strycker had been home in Oregon for less than two weeks, after a year on the road. On December 31, 2015, he had completed his global “Big Year” — an attempt to see as many bird species as possible over 365 days. The previous world record, set in 2008 by a British couple, was 4,341 species. Strycker’s goal was to see 5,000 bird species; he finished the year with an astonishing list of 6,042. In one year, he saw more bird varieties than many elite birders will see in a lifetime. But the new record wouldn’t stand for long: a Dutch birder, Arjan Dwarshuis, cleared 6100 species sighted by early November 2016, and announced that he hoped to break 7000 by year’s end. On December 31, he spotted his 6,833rd variety. He had seen two-thirds of the world’s roughly 10,000 bird species.

Strycker and Dwarshuis are extreme practitioners of an extremely common practice. Birding is big business: in 2011, 18 million Americans traveled with the specific intent to see birds, spending an estimated $15 billion on food, lodging, transportation, and guides in the process. Birders are list-makers: they track their species sighted in a day, in a month, in a year, in a lifetime. In doing so, they act on a deeply ingrained human instinct: to classify and categorize the world around us. Animal behaviorists call that instinct our umwelt — the way we navigate the world.

Though he was attempting to complete the biggest Big Year of all time, Strycker’s goal, beyond tallying a massive list, was to build something larger: to both lean on and to nurture a growing global community, and to show the world that birding matters; that it taps into something larger — something human. He wanted, he told me, to sell the world on birds.

Across the marsh, a flock of tens of thousands of dunlins — gray-brown shorebirds from the sandpiper family — had taken flight. Unremarkable on the ground, in the air they became a shifting cloud of light and shadow, flying in tight formation. Their white bellies glinted in the sun when they turned one way, then the whole group seemed to vanish when they turned away again. Strycker kept pointing out new birds on the mudflats, but I couldn’t stop staring at the dunlins, following their zigs and zags through my binoculars. Like millions of other people, I had seen that viral video of a starling murmuration — but here was the real thing, unspooling in front of me. The dunlins flew back and forth in a rippling unison, moving like a flag in a high wind, gleaming in the January sun.

I had to admit: I was sold.

* * *

Modern birding began with Roger Tory Peterson’s A Field Guide to the Birds, published in 1934. The book was revolutionary: while naturalists had typically killed their specimens and carried them home in order to study them, the portable field guide meant that people — people in North America, at least — could now identify birds on sight, in the wild.

Once bird species were readily quantifiable by anyone who’d studied a field guide, it wasn’t long before birders began competing to see who could spot the most species. Big Days became Big Months became Big Years, and the North American Big Year was the biggest of them all. The original record, set at 497 species in 1939, was broken in 1953 (by Roger Tory Peterson himself, with 572) and again in 1956 (598).

The old style of watching birds — people of means, mostly, taking train or car trips, and eventually flights, to places with known guides, and with plenty of downtime between trips — stood until 1971, when a college student based in Arizona spotted 626 species. Young Ted Parker’s record, in turn, was broken by his close friend, Kenn Kaufman, in 1973. Kaufman was a long-haired teenager who’d dropped out of high school in Kansas to chase birds — he set his new record, 671 species, by spending the full year on the road. He hitchhiked back and forth across the continent, tapping into a network of local knowledge as he went, and sleeping out under the stars. His approach — grassroots knowledge and constant travel over targeted trips and hired guides — was an inspiration for Noah Strycker’s global big year.

* * *

One of the first things we do, from infancy, is learn to categorize the world around us: That’s a dog. That’s a cat. That’s a bird. We gain a more complex understanding as we go: that’s a blue jay. That’s a cardinal. That’s a bald eagle. But while the basic impulse behind birding — categorization and collection — is near universal, we don’t all advance to the level of knowledge or intense attention wielded by active birders. What makes someone take that leap?

To explain themselves, birders talk about “spark birds” — the single bird species, or single sighting, that cements a lifelong addiction. For Strycker, now 31, that encounter came at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge when he was just 14 years old. The refuge is best known as the site of last winter’s armed occupation by an anti-government militia, but back then, it was a quiet, wild corner of eastern Oregon, popular with birders and virtually no one else. A couple of years earlier, Strycker’s fifth-grade teacher had installed bird feeders outside her classroom windows and passed out binoculars for each student’s desk. Her young pupil went home and begged his parents to build birdhouses on their wooded property just southeast of Eugene. He had already begun memorizing the identifying markers and distinctive chirps and calls of his local birds. Eventually he started birding farther afield — and Malheur was an early, favorite destination.

That’s where he spotted them, on a visit with his father during the spring migration: a barred owl and its heavyweight cousin, a great horned owl, brawling on the ground over a snake that each was intent on eating. This wasn’t a passive songbird on its perch. This was primal violence: beaks and talons, feathers and dust. He was hooked.

Barred Owl  -- Mircea Costina/Rex Features via AP Images

Barred Owl — Mircea Costina/Rex Features via AP Images

Since then, Strycker has made a career of watching birds, counting birds, and thinking and writing about birds. At 16, he landed a summer job surveying the bird population at a reservoir outside Eugene. He started submitting articles to birding magazines — they were good enough that one of his first editors initially wondered whether a parent wrote them. At 18, he was named “Young Birder of the Year” by the American Birding Association. While at Oregon State University (where he studied fisheries and wildlife science, with a minor in fine art), he did field research in Oregon, Panama, Michigan, Maine, and Hawaii. He was also hired as a part-time, paid editor at Birding magazine, a job he still holds a decade later. On customs and immigration forms, he lists his profession as “bird man” — as good a way as any to describe his cobbled-together, bird-themed professional life.

The nearly three months he spent in Antarctica after college, at a remote three-person research camp, inspired his first book, Among Penguins, published in 2011. It’s a young man’s memoir (count the penis jokes) that nonetheless established Strycker’s voice as a writer: earnest, light-hearted, informed, and likeable. Then came more field work in Australia, Costa Rica, Ecuador; California’s Point Reyes, and the Farallon Islands, and a side gig as the resident ornithologist/naturalist for a small cruise company specializing in the Arctic and the Antarctic.

…birds have something to teach people – that intensive, intentional observation of birds can reveal truths not just about life as a bird, but about ourselves.

In 2014, Riverhead Books published Strycker’s second book, a well-reviewed collection of essays called The Thing With Feathers. It mixes the latest academic research with Strycker’s own thoughtful observations from the field. Whether he’s discussing how the nesting habits of fairy wrens can illuminate some of human society’s norms, or exploring what nutcrackers can teach us about the limits and possibilities of memory, his premise, broadly speaking, is that birds have something to teach people — that intensive, intentional observation of birds can reveal truths not just about life as a bird, but about ourselves. (“It takes time to get to know birds,” Strycker writes, “as it takes time to get to know anyone.”)

During his Big Year, Strycker spotted an average of 17 bird species per day to hit his total of 6,042. In one hot streak, in Ecuador, he spotted 625 species in 12 days. There was no time to rest, or to contemplate what he was seeing. He crashed in hostels, with friends, and on birders’ couches, and lived out of a carry-on sized backpack. He moved rapidly from place to place — traveling mostly overland, averaging one short-haul flight per week. His carefully constructed around-the-world route took him to 41 countries and all seven continents. The year cost him, all in, roughly $60,000. (Nearly half of that went to flights alone.) A publisher’s advance, for a forthcoming book about the year, footed the bill.

He recalls sleeping past 6:30 a.m. just once in 2015. Most days he was up and on the hunt by 4:30 or five in the morning, often keeping at it until 10 or 11 p.m. that night. He had worried, before he started, about burnout, but instead, he just seemed to get stronger as he went. His ears and eyes got sharper; his list grew and grew.

On January 1, 2016, in India, the day after he’d completed his record-setting Big Year, Strycker woke up at 5 a.m. and…went birding.

* * *

By late afternoon, the sun was setting and the air had turned cool. Strycker suggested that we wait for dusk, in hopes of spotting a short-eared owl as it emerged for the night. I was game.

While we waited, we watched two northern harriers making low, lazy loops above the marsh. A type of hawk, the harrier tends to hunt from flight, Strycker explained. He’s a natural teacher, slipping casually into a clear, explanatory mode without ever seeming to lecture, delving into a memory bank of knowledge about hundreds, even thousands of bird species: their shapes and sizes, their feather colors and patterns, their calls and songs, their movements. In the fading light, and with the birds in near-constant motion, he could still easily identify the harriers by their style of flight.

The owl we were waiting for shared some habits with the harriers. It, too, hunts from the air, he explained: hovering low over the marshes and fields where its prey, small mammals, try to hide.

Then — speak of the devil — the short-eared owl appeared, flying behind one of the harriers, both of them just shadows in the dusk. Through my binoculars I could see its pale face popping out of the darkness — a sign that this was a male bird. Another owl joined the first, and then a third. Soon, with Strycker’s help, I could distinguish between their flight and the harriers’: the owls’ languid, deliberate wing beats reminded me of a ray’s slow underwater flight. I said so, and Strycker complimented me on the comparison. I felt that surging glow of achievement — the feeling you get when you answer a tricky question correctly at pub trivia, or you navigate the subway successfully in a new-to-you city.

Birding fulfills its practitioners on several levels. It can be about activism, or altruism, and about competition: Arjan Dwarshuis, throughout his mission to break Strycker’s record, was also aiming to raise money for BirdLife’s Preventing Extinctions Programme. It can provide the small, specific pleasure I experienced with the short-eared owls — the little thrill of lining up the details to make a correct identification — or moments of abstract, transcendent beauty, like my long drinking-in of the dunlins. Perhaps most importantly, it can feed our bone-deep, soul-deep need to classify and organize the world around us.

The term umwelt comes from the German word meaning, roughly, “environment” or “surroundings.” But in this context it refers to a given species’ way of perceiving the world around it: dogs organize their world by smell, bees by ultraviolet light, and so on. Carol Kaesuk Yoon, a biologist, proposed in her 2009 book, Naming Nature, that we humans, in turn, navigate through and organize our world via a system of ordering and classification of other natural beings, and that this system is remarkably consistent across history, languages, cultures, ecosystems, and societies. Our umwelt is “our shared human vision of life.”

This isn’t merely a vestigial trait from the days when our daily survival hinged on correctly identifying predators and prey. It’s a vital part of our orientation in the world. When brain-injured humans lose access to their umwelt, their ability to navigate the world through a system of classifications, they lose their bearings. One such patient, who otherwise acted and interacted normally, had to be regularly prevented from trying to consume his hospital blankets and other inanimate, inedible objects. Another, a former birder, could no longer distinguish between species of birds in the images shown to him — he told the doctors that they all “look the same.” Think of a musician who’s no longer able to distinguish between notes, or a foodie without taste and smell: their world is cruelly diminished.

The umwelt, Yoon writes, “is so potent, so compelling, and so vivid that we cannot ignore it. We find we simply must and do order and name the living world…We humans can be counted on to do a number of things: breathe, eat, walk, notice organisms, and organize them into a hierarchical classification.”

In Among Penguins, Strycker’s stock response to the inevitable question, “What got you into birding?” echoes that idea: “I sit back, smile, and ask the asker: ‘What got you so interested in eating, sleeping, walking, and talking?’”

What motivated Noah Strycker to spend a year circling the world, seeking out birds for up to 18 hours every day? What drives millions of birders to venture out into the fields and forests every year, ears cocked and field guides in hand? Call it competitive desire, or the collector’s compulsive need to make and complete ever-longer lists. Call it umwelt.

Maybe it’s all those things, or maybe it’s something less complex. When I asked Ted Floyd, Noah Strycker’s longtime mentor and editor at Birding magazine, what he thought drove Strycker, his answer was simple: “He’s just really, really interested in birds.”

That night in the marsh, we watched the short-eared owls bank and hover, glide and bank again, until their silhouettes faded into the deepening darkness — until even Noah Strycker couldn’t see them anymore.

* * *

Eva Holland is a writer and editor based in Canada’s Yukon Territory whose work we’ve featured on Longreads many times in the past. Visit her personal site at evaholland.com.

Editor: Krista Stevens | Fact checker: Matt Giles

How to Talk about the Weather Like a Newfoundlander

Winters are long and cold in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada’s easternmost province, but the language that describes the many local varieties of rain, wind, and ice is anything but dreary. In Hakai Magazine, Emily Urquhart digs deep into the rich lexicon Newfoundlanders — from First Nations people to Basque and Irish immigrants — have assembled over the centuries to talk about the world around them.

Stories, like songs, are told with cadence and tone, timing, and, most importantly, attention to language. Perhaps there simply weren’t enough words to describe the erratic weather and rock-lashed land, the complex history of the people who settled there, and the boundless sea that surrounded them. Maybe the regional lexicon was not simply the result of limitation—the isolation of the outports—but a response to the limitlessness of the natural and social landscape.

The vocabulary is fluid. It’s an ongoing dialogue, and it’s as captivating and elusive as the Newfoundland fairies. Preservation efforts are constantly underway, from the b’ys (read: dudes) on George Street outdoing one another with local slang to the academics who collect and study this kind of talk like specimens in a jar. But it’s the artists who’ve cornered the market on heritage language in the province.

Marlene Creates, for example, captures the language of the natural world in her poetry and visual art, which are equal parts aesthetic and political. And what wordsmith could resist terms like glim, a light seen across a distant ice field, or swatch, a rivulet of open water in ice? There is an onomatopoeic quality to these words that lends itself to lyrical language: sketch, for the thin layer of ice that rests on the water; sish, both the word that describes a boat running through slushy water and the resulting sound. You can hear the crackle in brickle ice, which is easily shattered. Way ice is more straightforward, in that a vessel can navigate its broken pans.

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Are We in a New Era of ‘Re-Wilding’?

The contrasting conditions of the resurgent Föritz and the depleted forests of Albania are a microcosm of the planet. We are living in the Anthropocene, a time when human activity, more than anything else, shapes the earth’s climate and ecosystems. Our hunting, fishing, deforestation, overgrazing, and pollution have created a period of mass extinction the likes of which haven’t occurred since the dinosaurs. E. O. Wilson, the preeminent biologist and conservationist, predicts we could lose half of all species on the earth by the end of this century.

But might we also be in a period of “re-wilding,” a time of ecological restoration and the return of species that had previously been exterminated?

In New England, where I live, the countryside was so denuded in the early twentieth century that scarcely a tree remained. Reforestation over the past eighty years has been so extensive that British author Nigel Williams was only half joking when he wrote of the region’s “tree epidemic.”

Similarly, forest cover in Europe has increased by more than 70 percent since 1960, as generations of young people moved to cities. Despite subsidies that encourage European farmers to stay put, they will vacate 30 million hectares of marginal farmland, an area the size of Poland, by 2030.

As forests and open meadows return, so too have the creatures that once inhabited them. European bison, nearly one-ton beasts that bear a striking resemblance to their North American cousins, were extinct in the wild a century ago. The only remaining individuals lived in captivity. Now, through breeding programs and reintroductions, they number several thousand in the wild.

Phil McKenna, writing in The Big Roundtable about efforts to transform the no man’s land that once separated Western Europe from the Eastern Bloc into an eco-corridor. McKenna’s piece also tells the story of two men who met as boys living on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain, and who were bonded by their shared love of birds. The piece was produced in partnership with PBS’s NOVA Next.

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Scientists are trying to uncover why some people are better able to recover from trauma than others:

After Ebaugh crawled up the rocky riverbank, a truck driver picked her up, took her to a nearby convenience store and bought her a cup of hot tea. Police, when they arrived, were sympathetic and patient. The doctor at the hospital, she says, treated her like a daughter. A close friend took her in for a time. And her family offered reassurance and emotional support. ‘For the first month, I almost had to tell people to stop coming because I was so surrounded by friends and community,’ she says.

Studies of many kinds of trauma have shown that social support is a strong buffer against PTSD and other psychological problems. James Coan, a psychologist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, has done a series of experiments in which women lie in an fMRI scanner and see ‘threat cues’ on a screen. They are told that between 4 and 10 seconds later, they may receive a small electric shock on the ankle. The cue triggers sensory arousal and activates brain regions associated with fear and anxiety, but when the women hold the hands of their husbands2 or friends3, these responses diminish.

Social interactions are complex and involve many brain circuits and chemicals; no one knows exactly why they provide relief.

“Stress: The Roots of Resilience.” — Virginia Hughes, Nature

More from Nature

The key to solving hunger in Africa starts with improving the soil. An overview of agricultural subsidies and the debate over whether the best approach is through inorganic fertilizers or greener, cheaper (but more difficult) solutions like no-till farming:

Fertilizer use in Africa is at the mercy of precarious politics. Although Rwanda’s fertilizer programme is growing, Malawi’s has started to fall apart as the country’s economy has collapsed and its international relations have deteriorated. Many of Malawi’s biggest donors, including the UK government’s Department for International Development, suspended budgetary support to the nation last year because of concerns about governance and the Malawian government’s refusal to devalue its currency as recommended by the International Monetary Fund.

Although the United Kingdom reinstated some funding to help transport fertilizer, many Malawians couldn’t purchase it this year. Changuya walked for an hour and a half to the depot in town, only to find that all the subsidized fertilizer was gone and she would not have been able to afford it anyway.

“African Agriculture: Dirt Poor.” — Natasha Gilbert, Nature

See also: “The Last Famine.” Paul Salopek, Foreign Policy