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.
In this week’s list, I wanted to share the experiences of those committed—voluntarily or not—to a psychiatric facility. From One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to Nellie Bly’s 19th century expose to American Horror Story: Asylum, the “madhouse” occupies a weird space in America’s psyche, equal parts fascinating and feared. But the experiences of the patients and their caretakers are, obviously, very different than sensationalized cinematic accounts.
In this well-wrought essay, Katherine B. Olson profiles Alice Trovato, a woman and patient who mothers her unofficial charges and strives to make the most of her stay at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in the greens of Queens. Read more…
In a recent piece for The Big Roundtable, Daniel A. Gross profiled Alasdair Ekpenyong, a gay Mormon struggling to make sense of his sexuality within the context of his faith. Alasdair sought answers in many venues, including alternative communities and Mormon history. From the story:
That winter, Alasdair began to write a series of academic essays about the Mormon city. This was the topic that his former bishop studied, the topic that Alasdair had been researching at the commune back in April. He still worked for that bishop sometimes, combing through old Mormon documents that might illuminate the spiritual dream of a utopian city. The bishop had supported him for a long time. He had been there at the end of Alasdair’s mission, after that first sexual experience with Rick, and during Alasdair’s transition to earning a living without his mother’s support.
In those months and months of research, Alasdair felt he had found some deep kernel of truth. He had read the prophet Joseph Smith’s writings on architecture and urban planning, writings that had deeply influenced the layout of both Provo and Salt Lake City. Smith had mapped out the city of faith he imagined. It was a careful grid, split up for farms and factories, for houses of worship and houses of men—each of the many pieces that comprise a House of the Lord. “Let every man live in the city,” wrote Smith, “for this is the city of Zion.”
One of Alasdair’s essays took Smith’s command literally. In the city Alasdair described, perhaps a man did not need to date a woman to remain in the church. He proposed a city designed for inclusion, a city with fewer locks and more doorways.
This week’s Member Pick comes from The Big Roundtable, a new site for narrative journalism founded by Columbia University professor Michael Shapiro. And they’re giving Longreads Members early access to a brand new story, which won’t go live on their site until next week.
“Something More Wrong,” by Katy B. Olson, is an in-depth look inside the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens, New York. Olson explains:
I had always hoped to write about Creedmoor Psychiatric Center. I grew up in a neighborhood a few miles away from the New York State psychiatric institution, and, with all the whispered local rumors as well as books like Susan Sheehan’s 1983 Pulitzer Prize-winning account, Creedmoor maintained a haunting and mysterious presence in my childhood.
My chance to go inside Creedmoor came in 2010, when my mother began working there part-time as a chaplain. After months of negotiating access to report on my Columbia Journalism School thesis, I began interviewing staff in December 2010; many mentioned Ward 3B and its suicidal ‘wild woman’ patients. Soon I was spending two to four days weekly, for six weeks, with the women of 3B: attending groups, doing arts and crafts, eating together, and, as the patients do, relying on aides and their keys to open every door.
In writing this piece, I wanted to understand what drives people to commit suicide. Alice, my subject, like all of us, searches for a reason to live. For some people, causes understood—chemical imbalances, childhood traumas, drug abuse, alcoholism—and many more undiscovered, the will to continue this search can crack and break. For those who have never battled demons like Alice’s, who have never questioned their desire to live, Creedmoor and the people it cares for are unsettling reminders of instincts we cannot—or do not want to—understand.
Though I’ve not come much closer to understanding what it is that makes the will to live so fragile, Alice herself has stripped the fear from me—the fear of Creedmoor and its historical nightmares, and the fear of confronting the very human instinct to give up, which lives in all of us.