Tag Archives: nature

Finally Seeing the Forest for the Trees

sshepard/Getty

Maura Kelly | Longreads | November 2017 | 15 minutes (3,727 words)

Growing up in suburban New Jersey, I never got the whole nature thing. In my middle-class town, surrounded by neatly engineered housing developments, the little “nature” I knew was unnatural. The grass of the boxy lawns, stripped of dandelions, shined a uniform pesticide green. The most memorable tree of my youth lived like a caged beast in an indoor shopping mall; Shel Silverstein would’ve wept to see it, imprisoned between the food court escalator and a fake waterfall with wishful pennies glittering on its floor. In my state, even the ocean was tainted; the beaches of the Jersey Shore were a riot of oversized umbrellas and slick men in banana hammocks blasting their boomboxes. One summer, so much trash washed up on the sand that it made headlines, hypodermic needles and all. The Garden State, so-called, but it wasn’t exactly Eden. Since I never went to summer camp, since my parents had no country hideaway, I was a kid who thought the Great Outdoors wasn’t all that great. A tree by any other name was just as boring as every other tree.

All that began to change slowly during my undergraduate years in a postcard-perfect New England town. There I began to understand how beautiful nature could be. I still didn’t want to commune with it or anything. (Camping seemed like a fantastically bad idea; why anyone would want to sleep on the cold hard ground in a place without a proper toilet was beyond me.) But the trees surrounding my campus and the mountains around my college town pleased my eye in a way that was new to me. There, in New Hampshire, I also went on the first hikes of my life. But despite my burgeoning Romantic sensibility, I saw those excursions up the mountain as little more than a chance to exercise while hanging out with friends. As for opportunities to stop and smell the pine needles, I was determined to avoid them. All I wanted was to rush to the top of Mount Cube and race back down again — fast enough to burn some calories — and I got annoyed when anyone tried to slow me down to ooh-and-ah over some dumb mushroom.

After college, I eventually arrived in that city of all cities, New York. I loved it. I couldn’t believe it had taken me so long to get there — to the center of the world, so it seemed, with all the great art museums, the great jazz places, the great movie theaters, the great performances of Shakespeare. The city helped me to notice an aspect of myself, the intellectual epicure, that I’d barely noticed before. It was a thrilling discovery. In New York, my brain was fed the richest of foods, my ambitions were fueled, my expectations for myself raised. By then, I’d lived in four other U.S. cities, and I felt sure I’d found the place that beat them all, where I’d stay forever.

The years passed and I had what I half-jokingly call “my nervous breakdown.” Half-jokingly, though it was no joke. A perfect storm of events — a break-up, a career disappointment, a professional trauma — knocked me down. I couldn’t eat or work, I could barely read or write, and I especially couldn’t sleep more than three hours a night. I couldn’t go out in public without disintegrating into tears — on the subway, in restaurants, at the gym, during a friend’s book party — triggered by the least little thing, like a long wait or a sad song. I was frequently overwhelmed by vertigo that felt as much physical as metaphysical. It felt at times as if I was slipping down some vast mountain into the abyss, unable to stop my steady descent, like a character out of some Edgar Allan Poe horror story. This went on for months and threatened never to end.

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An Oregon Wolf, Profiled

Emma Marris’s Outside story on OR4, the first male wolf to start a pack in Oregon since the 1940s, is a biography of a 21st-century predator told largely through the eyes of Russ Morgan, the field biologist who’d tracked him for more than six years. Marris weaves together uneasy questions about the scientist and his subject: What does preservation mean when, in order to survive, wildlife can’t transgress human definitions of acceptable behavior? What happens to the subjects we observe when we transpose surveillance technology from the human realm into the animal realm? Whose landscape is it, anyway?

The bureaucracy of wildlife management is part oxymoron, part paradox. The tensions are apparent from the moment that Morgan, the stoic biologist, places the first tracking collar around the neck of a tranquilized OR4.

Six months after their first meeting, on February 12, 2010, the black male got a collar and a name. Morgan used the signal from OR2 to track the family by helicopter. When he found the wolves, he had to try and pick the alpha male out of a half-dozen adult-sized wolves coursing through the rocky defiles of Road Canyon in lower Grouse Creek, just a few miles from the elk site. It was easy enough to spot OR2, and she had a companion running beside her, keeping close. Morgan figured he’d found his alpha.

Wolves are so fast — they can do bursts of 38 miles per hour, ten faster than Usain Bolt — that Morgan’s helicopter pilot struggled to keep up, while Morgan, leaning out the door, tried desperately to get a clear shot at the alpha’s rump. Suddenly, the big black wolf tripped over brush and rolled in a somersault. When he righted himself, he sat down and started barking and howling at the chopper, inadvertently concealing his backside.

“When he flipped over, I could see the rotor wash flattening his hair,” Morgan says. “He was frustrated. He gets pretty frustrated when he is being chased.” Finally, the wolf stood and Morgan got a shot off. Darted, the animal slowed, sat, and then went to sleep in the snow. The terrain was too steep to land, so the pilot dipped into the ravine, where Morgan stepped out with his kit. The helicopter took off, and Morgan shared a moment with the unconscious alpha. As he weighed him — 115 pounds, the largest wolf ever recorded in Oregon — took blood samples, and affixed tags and a collar, the black wolf officially became OR4, a wild animal with a name. A wild animal with his DNA on file.

OR2 wasn’t happy about any of it. She stood a couple hundred yards away while Morgan worked, howling continuously.

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Now Airbnb is Wrecking Mountain Towns, Too

Log cabin in the woods
My Log Cabin by Anoldent via Flickr (Creative Commons)

We had a little trouble finding a place for the extended family to stay when we chose to meet in Sedona, Arizona for my mom’s 75th birthday. Most places wouldn’t book us for under a week thanks to a regional law limiting short term rentals. Several mid-size Arizona cities and have taken a stand against companies like Airbnb, which make renting a place for a family’s gathering a more lucrative choice than renting to locals. But for visitors and property owners, Airbnb has been mostly a good thing, and the state of Arizona recently agreed. Last year it overturned the local laws and made short term rentals legal.

It’s not news that Airbnb has caused limited rental options in places like San Francisco and New York City, but now residents in rugged places are feeling the pinch too. At Outside, Tom Vanderbilt looks at how home-sharing services are affecting the character of places like Bozeman, Boise, and Crested Butte.

From Barcelona to Boston, the world has been grappling with the ­arrival of home-sharing platforms. Amid any number of skirmishes—neighbor against neighbor, tourist against townie, lobbyist against legislator—cities have scrambled to get a handle on this “wild west” (one of the most common descriptors of the new home-rental landscape) and rushed to enact regulations. Everywhere you look, the battle is raging. In Flagler County, Florida, just north of Daytona Beach, 150 people turned out for a March meeting over a bill, backed by home-­rental companies, that would limit how ­local governments can regulate short-term rentals, or STRs, as they are now frequently ­abbreviated. In Asheville, North Carolina, the issue proved so contentious that, late last year, a task force created to study STRs publicly splintered, according to the ­local Citizen-Times. In March, the city of San ­Diego—where residents of neighborhoods like Ocean Beach have decried the loss of ­local identity as rentals have proliferated—had to move a meeting on STRs to a bigger venue because of overflow crowds.

In the Mountain West—“God’s country, renter’s hell,” as one alt-weekly tagged it—where towns are already chronically beset by housing shortages, traffic problems, and the invariable ambivalence about sharing one’s slice of heaven with the tourists who help sustain it, the entrance of Airbnbs and VRBOs and HomeAways has heightened the tension. Some places, including Boulder and Denver, have passed tough regulations that permit only primary residents to rent out their properties for short periods. Other towns have taken the opposite tack, changing laws to allow previously illegal renting that was already on the rise, as happened late last year in Missoula, Montana.

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Late in Life, Thoreau Became a Serious Darwinist

Randall Fuller | The Book That Changed America: How Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Ignited a Nation | Viking | January 2017 | 25 minutes (6,840 words) 

The excerpt below is adapted from The Book That Changed America, by Randall Fuller, which explores the impact of Darwin’s Origin of Species on American intellectual life. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky

* * *

“How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book!”

-Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Origin_of_Species_illustration_cropped

Detail from the single illustration that appeared in the first edition of the Origin of Species. Via Wikimedia.

*

537 plants!

With the possible exception of Asa Gray, no American read the Origin of Species with as much care and insight as Henry David Thoreau. Throughout the first week of February, he copied extracts from the Origin. Those notes, which until recently had never been published, comprise six notebook pages in a nearly illegible scrawl. They tell the story of someone who must have read with hushed attention, someone attuned to every nuance and involution in the book. In their attention to detail, they suggest someone who assiduously followed the gradual unfolding of Darwin’s ideas, the unspooling of his argument, as though the book of science were an adventure tale or a travel narrative.

He was drawn to Darwin’s compendium of facts, which illustrated the delicate interplay of causes leading to the survival or extinction of species. Darwin wrote, “The number of humble-bees in any district depends in a great degree on the number of field-mice, which destroy their combs and nests.” Thoreau copied the sentence into his notebook, probably because he enjoyed the cause-and-effect relationship it implied. He had always been interested in the quirky, arcane detail. “Winged seeds are never found in fruits which do not open,” he read in the Origin, transcribing the sentence into his natural history book. He recorded the strange (if incorrect) statement that “cats with blue eyes are invariably deaf,” something Darwin had gleaned from a work on zoological anomalies by Isidore Geoffroy St. Hilaire, who mistakenly assumed that all blue-eyed cats were deaf rather than the majority, as is actually the case.

He also admired Darwin’s genius for experimentation. Thoreau had described his own efforts in Walden to disprove the local myth that the pond was of unusual depth. With a stone tied to the end of a cod line, he “could tell accurately when the stone left the bottom, by having to pull so much harder before the water got underneath to help me”— a procedure that enabled him to chart the pond’s topography and discover its shallows and depths. He had even provided a map for interested readers. Now he discovered a similar impulse in Darwin. The British naturalist wanted to determine how far birds might transport seeds caught in their muddy feet; this would explain how identical plant species might be found thousands of miles apart. From the silty bottom of a pond near his home he procured some “three table-spoonfuls of mud,” which “when dry weighed only 6¾ ounces.” He kept the mud in his study for six months, “pulling up and counting each plant as it grew; the plants were of many kinds, and were altogether 537 in number; and yet the viscid mud was all contained in a breakfast cup!” The charm of the experiment resided in its simple ingenuity; from common household items Darwin had made a marvelous discovery: 537 plants!

Thoreau was most urgently drawn to Darwin’s ideas. That the struggle among species was an engine of creation struck him with particular force. It undermined transcendentalist assumptions about the essential goodness of nature, but it also corroborated many of Thoreau’s own observations. While living on Walden Pond, he had tried to discover the “unbroken harmony” of the environment, the “celestial dews” and “depth and purity” of the ponds. “Lying between the earth and heavens,” he wrote, Walden “partakes of the color of both.” But sometimes a darker reality intruded upon this picture. “From a hilltop you can see a fish leap in almost any part; for not a pickerel or shiner picks an insect from this smooth lake but it manifestly disturbs the equilibrium of the whole lake.” Something portentous and uneasy lurks about this sentence. The “simple fact” that animals must consume other animals to survive upsets Thoreau; it disturbs the equilibrium of one who wishes to find harmony and beauty in his surroundings. Thoreau tries to laugh it off, calling the dimpled lake the result of “piscine murder.” Yet Darwin provided an explanation for nature’s murderous subtext. Competition and struggle influenced “the whole economy of nature.” It drove species to change and adapt. It created. It was the cost of doing nature’s business. Read more…

Despair All Ye Who Enter Into the Climate Change Fray

(jcrosemann / Getty)

A New York Magazine story on climate change is making the rounds on the internet, frequently being shared by people characterizing it as a “terrifying” “must-read.” “It is, I promise, worse than you think,” writes David Wallace-Wells, who goes on to tell his readers that even the most anxious among them are unaware of the terrors that are possible “even within the lifetime of a teenager today.”

What many readers seem to be overlooking is how frequently words like “may” appear in the text of Wallace-Wells’ article. “May” is in there seven times; “suggest” six times, “possible” and its variants a few more. Wallace-Wells is, of course, referencing the positions of scientists, whom he says have become extra cautious due to “climate denialism,” steering the public away from “speculative warnings” that could be debunked by future scientific progress, weakening their own case and giving weight to their opponents.

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Teaching a Stone to Fly

Getty images

Ever tried to skip a flat stone across a body of water? Happy with a few skips? Elated at five or more? To be the best stone skipper in the world, you’ll need 89 skips to beat current Guinness World Record holder Kurt “Mountain Man” Steiner (88 skips). At Minnesota Monthly, Frank Bures tries his luck at stone skipping at The Mackinac Island Stone Skipping Competition.

But I’d been skipping stones my whole life, ever since I was around my daughters’ ages, always getting better and better. There was almost nothing I loved better than the feeling of knowing—even before it hit the water—that you had a perfect throw, one that defies nature by making a stone both fly and float.

To reach the upper echelons of the skipping world was not easy. Mackinac was divided into two heats. First there was the “Open” division, in which every fudge-eating tourist on the island was welcome. Usually there were a few hundred people who entered. Only by winning the Open can you move up into the “Professional” division, which features heavy hitters such as Russ “Rockbottom” Byars, whose Guinness World Record held for years at 51 skips; Max “Top Gun” Steiner, who took the title from Byars with 65; and Kurt “Mountain Man” Steiner (no relation to Max) who currently holds the title with 88.

What you want, according to reigning champ Kurt Steiner, is a stone that is not perfectly round but that has points, or lobes, that act as spokes. As the stone spins, these points will push the stone up off the water, keeping it airborne and preventing it from sticking.

“If you spin it fast enough, the stone will essentially walk on those spokes,” Steiner told me, when I had called him for skipping advice. “A really good skip tends to walk like that.”

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

Wasp on a Windshield
Wasp on a Windshield by Ruth Borragina via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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

(Yellowstone National Park / Flickr)

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
A female polar bear near Kaktovik, Alaska (photo by rubyblossom via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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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