Our Favorite Form Of Prospecting

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Expedition members sprint to flush Slender-billed Flufftails, among the world’s most elusive birds, in a marsh in Bemanevika reserve. Photo: Tristan Spinski

Bioprospecting, a topic we have not posted enough about, came to our attention in the mid-1990s through Costa Rica’s National Institute of Biodiversity. Kimon de Greef, writing for Audubon Magazine, offers an inside view of a prospecting expedition in one of the most wondrous, and at-risk natural habitats on the planet:

Scientists Race to Uncover the Secrets of Madagascar’s Treasure-Filled Forests

The rediscovery of a long-lost duck spurred the creation of two protected areas in the country. Now researchers are scouring these spots for other endemic species before it’s too late.

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With only a few kilometers to go during day-long to Bemanevika, challenging road conditions forced the group to disembark from the two Toyota Land Cruisers and push them through the deep mud. Much of the terrain required the forest technicians to utilize the wench, which they fastened to tree stumps to wind the vehicles up the muddy mountain roads. Photo: Tristan Spinski

We had come this far and now we were stuck, dug in on a dirt track high above the plains. It was monsoon season in Madagascar, and thunderstorms had laid waste to the deeply rutted road. Already we had traversed seemingly unnavigable passes on our way to the remote northern mountains, mud churned to slurry by each passing set of wheels. Almost 24 hours later, this slope flanked by agave plants had defeated us. Our drivers took up shovels: There were ruts to flatten, boulders to excavate and heave into the bushes. As the workers toiled, cicadas hissed from the treetops.

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Map: Mike Reagan

For the field biologists I was accompanying, this breakdown of rural infrastructure held great promise. They were on their way to survey some of the island’s last remaining virgin rainforests—shrinking havens of exceptional biodiversity, including some of Earth’s rarest birdlife. “There’s definitely a correlation with how hard it is to get in,” said John Mittermeier, an expedition leader, ornithologist, and geography Ph.D. student at Oxford University, “and how likely you are to find new stuff.”

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Clockwise from top left: Spearpoint leaf-tail gecko; Andreone’s tree frog; Compsophis fatsibe snake; Boophis goudot frog; Calumma nasutum chameleon; Spinomantis nussbaumi frog. Photos: Tristan Spinski

Now a cry went up among the team. A snake was moving its way through the undergrowth, and with abandon they leapt after it. Luke Kemp, the herpetologist on the expedition, crouched beside the bushes, poking around but coming up empty. “It’s like an addiction,” he told me. “I can’t stop.”

The biologists had congregated from four countries, united by a relentless, even maniacal fascination with wildlife. They wore faded shirts from scientific conferences and were never without their binoculars. Instead of making small talk, they discussed bird calls and sampling methods, animated by purpose and shared expertise. In unison, like meerkats, Mittermeier and the other two birders swung their binoculars from side to side, trying to glimpse what sounded to them like an endemic robin. The two entomologists swept the air with butterfly nets; they would not hesitate, when their hands were full, to pop wriggling insect specimens between their lips. Continue reading

Vegan Hooligans @ Abby’s Diner

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When I started reading this short piece below, subtitled “The chefs Roy Choi and Jose Mejia sample the Vegan Hooligans’ plant-based junk food at an L.A. pop-up.” and containing no photos, before getting two paragraphs in I had to see what Abby’s Diner looked like, and found the image above and those below, on Instagram and in a story by KCET, so following is a mix of the sources:

The chef Roy Choi posted up at the counter of Abby’s Diner in Los Angeles recently. Several times a week, the place morphs from a traditional greasy spoon—booths, tiled floor, B.L.T.s—to a greasy spoon that serves vegan renditions of such drive-through classics as the McDonald’s McRib.

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Entrepreneur, social activist and chef Roy Choi takes a journey through his hometown of Los Angeles to explore complex social justice issues including food deserts, food waste and sustainability. Learn more about “Broken Bread.” Watch this trailer.

Sheila Marikar has not appeared in our pages before, but I will be on the lookout for more from her, because even without images (thanks to KCET and the Hooligans’ Instagram account for those here) her words make vegan more compelling:

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Jose Mejia is the man behind the Vegan Hooligans.

“I like to re-create a lot of stuff from fast food so people feel comfortable,” Jose Mejia said. He is a founder of the Vegan Hooligans, which began popping up last February. (The name is a nod to his love of punk rock and soccer.) He wore overalls and a brown beanie. “I wanted to create a brand that didn’t just capture the eyes of, like, vegans,” he added.

BeLeaf.jpgEleven years ago, Choi co-founded Kogi BBQ, a fleet of Korean-taco trucks that fuelled a food-truck renaissance and got him on a number of best-of lists (Food & Wine Best New Chef, Time 100). He is not a vegan. “Kogi, for Pete’s sake, means ‘meat’ in Korean,” he said. But after meeting Mejia while filming an episode of his TV series, “Broken Bread,” a less hedonistic version of Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations,” Choi decided to try more meat substitutes. Now he eats animals maybe once a week. Continue reading

Trick Question From Rwanda

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A recent message from Rwanda, in spite of what I said about Seth being plenty verbal, was as quiet as what you see above. Amie, whose eye inclines this way and makes sure our platform shares stories like this, thought it was the fruit we were supposed to guess the identity of. Because of my coffee focus of the last year, and Seth’s experience planting coffee, I immediately thought it was about whatever pest might be ravaging the leaves. Neither. Continue reading

Rwanda, Third Message

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The image above was taken after the last giraffe photo, but I do not know where. Today Seth sent more photos after he and his colleagues hiked up, through a national park, to the upper reaches of a volcano.

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Hiked to the summit of Visoke volcano in the national park, the toughest hike I’ve done just for elevation (got up to 3711 meters asl) through the wettest slush mud

Seth is plenty verbal. But under these circumstance I appreciated the parsimony of words in his message accompanying the photos. I have been at that altitude and it does not encourage chit chat.

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We have lived and worked in beautiful places; again, all I can say is I look forward to Ghana.

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And again, my favorite image is not the one I would have expected.

Hill Culture Contemplation

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The Hutchison Memorial Hut, colloquially called the Hutchie Hut, illuminated by moonlight in Scotland’s Cairngorms National Park. Stephen Hiltner/The New York Times

How did Stephen Hiltner know? I was just looking through photos from the 2009 edition of the Patagonia Expedition Race, and remembering the huts along the way. They were perfect places to escape the realities of the rest of the world, in order to contemplate more clearly. With perspective. They could come in handy for plenty of folks these days, I am sure. Seems certain to me now that those huts at the southern tip of the South American continent were built by folks from the hills sampled in the story below:

In Britain, Enraptured by the Wild, Lonely and Remote

Rustic shelters called bothies — more than 100 of which are scattered throughout England, Wales and Scotland — are an indispensable, if little-known, element of British hill culture.

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Warnscale Head at night. Since bothies are often built with local stones, they’re easily camouflaged in their surrounding landscapes. Stephen Hiltner/The New York Times

 

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Shenavall Stephen Hiltner/The New York Times

By the time the tiny hut came into view, nestled high in a corrie in Scotland’s 1,748-square-mile Cairngorms National Park, I’d trekked for nearly nine miles, three of which, regrettably, I’d had to navigate after nightfall. The hike, through a broad valley in the Eastern Highlands called Glen Derry, carried me past groves of Scots pines and over a series of streams, some of which, lined with slick steppingstones, made for precarious crossings. All the while, two rows of smooth, eroded mountain peaks enclosed me in an amphitheater of muted colors: hazel-hued heather, golden grasses. Though much of my walk was solitary, the flickering glow in the hut’s main window, I knew, meant I’d have some company for the night and the warmth of a fire to greet me. Continue reading

Tigers, Tales, Illumination

ImpossibleOwl.jpgBrian Phillips has not featured once in our pages until now, nor has The Ringer. If you read his essay below, featured also in the book to the right, the fit with our platform here is clear. Strange, though; I would not have expected to see it featured on a website that looks to be mostly focused on sports.

But it is a welcome surprise. It serves as another welcome reminder of some of the highlights of our years in India. And it provides a reason to track the author. The blurb the publisher chose to accompany the book (click the image to the right) is telling: “…Dogged, self-aware, and radiating a contagious enthusiasm for his subjects, Phillips is an exhilarating guide to the confusion and wonder of the world today. If John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead was the last great collection of New Journalism from the print era, Impossible Owls is the first of the digital age.”

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Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Man-eaters

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Of the twelve tigers I saw in India, one might have been a ghost; two were in water, eight were on land, and one was sleeping in a tree. One stepped out of high grass, crossed the road in front of me, and disappeared into grass on the other side. One walked along a low ridge on the edge of a different road, oblivious or indifferent to the tourists taking her photograph. One looked out from a cover of branches and red leaves, so perfectly concealed that from thirty feet away he kept stereoscoping in and out of sight. Three were cubs, just four or five months old. Three were juveniles, aged around one year. The rest were fully grown. All were tired, because the days were hot, and because the days were dry they moved and breathed and slept in a film of clay-colored dust. Continue reading

Foraged Wild Foods

Thanks to National Public Radio (USA) for this brief story by Maia Stern, which expands our knowledge of foraged wild foods:

The first insect that Pascal Baudar ever tried eating was an ant he found in his kitchen. The verdict? “It tasted like some kind of chemical,” says Baudar.

Most people would have probably given up on the bug-eating experiments right there. But Baudar? He’s made it part of his life’s calling. Continue reading

The Only Virtual Reality A Surfer Might Enjoy

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Slater has spent a career searching the world for waves, adapting to tricky conditions with unparalleled intuition. Now his Surf Ranch, in California farm country, can produce a perfect wave on demand. Photograph by Ben Lowy for The New Yorker

I have surfed, but I am not a surfer. I have surfer friends, including some who have travelled the world searching out the waves described in the story below, and family friends of ours have an adult child ranked in the top ten in the world. I do not care about surfing as much as any of them, but because of them I care deeply about surfing. Evidence of that is the fact that surfing is the #1 metaphor I use within my own family to describe the pivots we make from time to time, explaining a move to France, Croatia or India or back to Costa Rica is due to a new wave of opportunity that we might catch. Below is a story I appreciate for other reasons as well, because it is about a man-made replica of the ultimate pleasures of a real-life experience. This is kind of what we do for a living. But it is really about surfing. And even non-surfers can enjoy this. William Finnegan’s story is complemented by two interactive features, the first with the author himself and the second a remarkably clear explanation of the technology.

Kelly Slater’s Shock Wave

The best surfer in history made a machine that creates perfect conditions on demand. Will his invention democratize surfing or despoil it?

The first few hours I spent at the W.S.L. Surf Ranch, a wave pool built for surfing in the farmlands south of Fresno, California, were for me a blur. I was fine on arrival, hiking through a little forest of scaffolding, eucalyptus, and white tents with a publicist from the Kelly Slater Wave Company, which built and runs the place. The valley heat was fierce but dry. House music rode on a light northwest breeze. We passed a bright-red antique row-crop tractor parked on wood chips. Then I looked to my right and felt my mind yaw. The wave was probably six hundred yards away, a sparkling emerald wall, with a tiny surfer snapping rhythmic turns off the top. I had come expecting to see this wave, out here in cotton fields a hundred-plus miles from the coast. Still, my reaction to it was involuntary. Kelly’s Wave, as it’s known, seems designed to make someone who surfs, which I do, feel this way: stunned, turned on, needy. Surfers spend much of their lives looking for high-quality waves. Now a machine has been invented that churns out virtually flawless ones on command. “We call it the smile machine,” someone, possibly the publicist, said. I had trouble paying attention. Every four minutes, I had to turn and crane to watch a wave make its way the length of the pool. Continue reading

Stacked Stones Had Nothing To Do With It

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After writing yesterday’s post I got a message from the “new friend.” She is the one on the right in the photo above. I am the one on the left. My two childhood friends are in the middle. The new friend’s name, Amie, will be familiar to regular readers on this platform. After reading my post yesterday she sent me these three old photos. Above is at the top of the gorge, just as the sun is coming over the mountain. Dawn’s rosy tipped finger, someone among us surely said. By late morning, time for a fruit break, below is the place where I might have started thinking of stacking stones, in the figurative sense of wishing something of the future. But I did not then, nor do I now, believe in totemic powers of objects, or good luck.

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I believed that a new friendship was sufficient good fortune, and being in that natural setting was the closest I got to worshiping things.

SamariaC&A2.jpegNo need to stack stones. As we made our way down to the bottom of the gorge, to where those sky-high rock walls allowed single file passage to the black stone beach, conversation was the thing.

The black stones were a surprise because they seemed to bear no relationship with the geology of the gorge. And I do remember now, playing with the stones, and surely stacking them while we sat there looking out to the sea, continuing the conversation. But I was not stacking stones in the way Sophie Haigney’s story refers to.

Really. I can say that with confidence because Amie reminds me that the oblong oval-shaped stones were not stackable. So I tried my best, but could not get one to rest upon another. That said, I am also confident that while not superstitious I was still able to make wishes, and then take actions to fulfill them.

Stop Stacking Stones

 

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The steep downhill path starting from Xyloskalo

If I have done it, it would have been once. And hopefully less of an issue than the examples given in this story below. It was a day in September, 1983 and I had traveled to Greece with two childhood friends, all of us now in early adulthood. With us was one new friend, who we had met in JFK airport just prior to departure.

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The peaceful river crossing Samaria Gorge

On the island of Crete, we left Xania well before sunrise to hike from the top to the bottom of Samaria Gorge, as far south in Greece as you can get and still be on land. With every switchback of our descent, I was getting more and more lost in conversation with our new friend, so that by the time we reached the bottom of the gorge I wondered where the day had gone. After a full day of hiking, lost in conversation or otherwise, the stones of the gorge play on your mind.

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The impressive Portes in Samaria Gorge

At this point you pass through one last formation that is so stunning that if you had not been thinking of playing with stones until now, you had not been paying enough attention. And that was my case. I remember walking silently through this last section and not talking again until the very end, when you spill onto a beach formed by smooth black stones, facing south, nothing but water until you reach Africa. There, in Agia Roumeli, you can get a cool drink before a boat takes you back to Xania. And while you wait for the boat, if you have something to wish for, you may find yourself stacking those smooth black stones.

My photographs from that day, somewhere in storage, would show the beginning, long middle sections, and end of that day. If I did stack stones the evidence will be in those photos, and I will find them. For now I have linked to photos from the blog of a Cretan travel consortium to give a hint of what the place looks like, and as a recommendation to others to visit. Sophie Haigney, writing on the New Yorker website, gave me reason just now to think about my own culpability in what can now be described as a dangerous, destructive form of travel footprint, and I thank her for bringing this to our attention:

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An Instagram trend that’s littering national parks with towers of carefully balanced stones, #StoneStacking can cause erosion and damage ecosystems. Photograph by Sam Oakes / Alamy

People Are Stacking Too Many Stones

The photograph in the Facebook post is pretty: piles of red rocks balanced at the edge of a cliff, suggesting a miniature mirror of the jagged rock face opposite. The stacks look like small shrines to mountain solitude, carefully balanced at the edge of a precipice. But when Zion National Park posted the photo, in September, the social-media coördinators for the park included a plea: “Please, enjoy the park but leave rocks and all natural objects in place.” The post noted the “curious but destructive practice” of building small stone towers, and said, “stacking up stones is simply vandalism.” Continue reading

A Visual Requiem, And A Call For Quiet Grace At The Grand Canyon

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In a merged image, the photographer Peter McBride captured a vision of the Grand Canyon choked by noise and exhaust. Photograph by Pete McBride

Noise pollution was the topic of several of the first posts on this platform when we started it in 2011, and has been a persistent theme ever since then. We especially appreciate those related to noise in wilderness areas, so thanks to Nick Paumgarten for this story:

The Grand Canyon Needs to Be Saved By Every Generation

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Hiking in the Grand Canyon can be a perilous pursuit. Photograph by Pete McBride

Three years ago, in the course of thirteen months, the photographer Peter McBride and the writer Kevin Fedarko hiked from one end of the Grand Canyon to the other. They did it in eight sections, mainly so that McBride could shoot in different seasons. In all, it took them seventy-one days to cover two hundred and seventy-seven river miles and some eight hundred shoe-leather miles, through some of the continent’s roughest hiking terrain—“a whole lot of scratching around the rock puzzles in that giant abyss,” as McBride put it recently.

Before they set off, the Grand Canyon had been hiked nose to tail only nine times in recorded history. There is also a handful of obsessives who have chipped away at it, piece by piece, in the course of decades. “Maybe some crazy ancestral Puebloan did the whole thing, but that wouldn’t make logical sense—they wouldn’t have had any reason to,” McBride said.

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 panoramic view of the confluence of the Colorado and the Little Colorado. Photograph by Pete McBride

McBride, a native Coloradan who shoots for National Geographic, has been documenting the Colorado River for a decade, sometimes from a perch in an ultralight aircraft. Fedarko, who lives in Flagstaff, Arizona, has guided on the river and is the author of “The Emerald Mile,” an account (with many historical tributaries) of a harrowing speed run of the Grand in a dory during the biggest flood in generations. (As it happens, Kenton Grua, the boatman in the book, was also the first person to walk the canyon, in 1976.) McBride and Fedarko have both become persistent, ardent advocates for preserving the place, in all its spellbinding, inhospitable glory, in abidance with Teddy Roosevelt’s famous dictum, issued during his one visit, in 1903: “Leave it as it is. Man cannot improve on it; not a bit.” Still, this was the first time, and surely the last, that either of them had tried to walk it. Continue reading

Protecting Nature & Defying The Odds

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On a game drive in Akagera. Shannon Sims

Thanks to Shannon Sims for this story of a refuge defying the odds:

A Rwandan Game Park Defying the Odds

Despite modest tourism numbers, Akagera National Park is a success story in the making, particularly considering that, like its host country, it survived catastrophe.

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A velvet monkey and her baby in Akagera National Park. The Rwandan park is a success story, despite modest tourism numbers. Credit Ben Curtis/Associated Press

The road through Akagera National Park in eastern Rwanda was blocked. Two giraffes had positioned themselves smack in the middle of the dirt road and were rubbing their necks together. In the car, with a driver and a guide, my cell service was long gone; there was nothing to do but sit back, relax and enjoy the show.

Right around this time of year, to the east of Rwanda’s borders, in Tanzania and Kenya, big packs of tourists are stumbling over each other to get the perfect photo of a scene like this. They’re driving through protected areas like Serengeti National Park and the Maasai Mara National Reserve in caravans of Land Rovers, each packed so tightly that peoples’ binocular straps get tangled up. It makes sense: the animal migrations that occur in this part of the world these months are rightly considered by many to be the greatest natural show on earth. Continue reading

Virtual Immersion In Wilderness Via Live Feeds

Thanks to Rachel Riederer for this:

Bear Cam’s Captivating, Unedited Zen

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It’s innately satisfying to see a bear grab ahold of a salmon with its mouth and trundle off into the shallows with the fish still flapping in its jaws. Photograph by Jennifer Leigh Warner / Barcroft / Getty

One recent afternoon, I found myself spellbound by the brown bears of Alaska’s Katmai National Park, and spent longer than I care to admit watching them fishing and feasting on the sockeye salmon of Brooks Falls. Several bears stood in the water, facing the falls. They didn’t interact with each other much—at least not in a way that was legible to me—but quietly went about the business of fattening up for winter. I watched these Internet stars through a live stream popularly known as the bear cam, which provides a counterpoint to the hyper-produced prestige nature documentaries that use music, high-definition videography, and delicately placed cameras to turn wildlife activities into dramatic cinema. If “Planet Earth” is a Michael Bay production, the bear cam is not even a home movie—it’s CCTV. Continue reading

Moving Slowly & Avoiding Breakage

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Panthera onca. The jaguar is the king of neotropical forests, where it is the largest of the cats. Its presence at the White City indicates an extensive, thriving ecosystem. © Washington State University, Panthera, Wildlife Conservation Society, Zamorano University, Honduran Forest Conservation Institute, Travis King, John Polisar, Manfredo Turcios

When the journalist Douglas Preston shared this story, I was in the process of closing up shop in India, where we had been in residence since 2010. Kipling-induced daydreaming notwithstanding, Amie and Milo (whose photos may be the most tangible representations of the dreaminess of those years) and I never had the illusion that there were lost civilizations or any such thing in India.

movefast (1)We did have the nonstop motivation of feline-fueled conservation initiatives, and some close encounters. Those provided us a perfect counterpoint to the seemingly irresistible catchphrase that described progress in the form of disruptive technology. Haste really does make waste when it comes to ecology, anthropology, and realms of life other than economic forward-marching.

When I read Mr. Preston’s story on the first day of last year I realized that our relocation to Central America, oddly enough since it is in the hemisphere called the New World, was full of potential for all kinds of discovery of “lost” things. And my own discoveries further sensitized me to the importance of moving slowly and avoiding breakage. My posts on this platform from February through July, 2017 are evidence of the richest ecological and anthropological observations of my lifetime (so far), and that makes Mr. Preston’s update post yesterday all the more wonderful to read:

Deep in the Honduran Rain Forest, an Ecological SWAT Team Explores a Lost World

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Sachatamia albomaculata. The inner organs of glass frogs are visible through their translucent bodies. Photograph by Trond Larsen / Conservation International

A little more than three years ago, I joined a team of archeologists on an expedition to La Mosquitia, a remote mountain wilderness in eastern Honduras. For centuries, the region had been rumored to contain a lost city, known as the City of the Monkey God or the White City, and now, thanks to a combination of luck and modern technology, an ancient settlement had been found. Although it was probably not the lost city of legend, it was a very real place, built by a mysterious civilization that flourished long before Columbus arrived in the Americas. Hidden in a densely forested valley, it had never been explored. Continue reading

Henry Worsley & The Importance Of Making Dreams Come True

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Before Henry Worsley set off alone, his family painted messages on his skis. “Come back to me safely, my darling,” his wife wrote.
Photograph by Sebastian Copeland

If you have not read it yet, go straight to it. If you have read it already, next you will want to listen to the author, the subject (via field recordings) and the subject’s wife.

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Henry and Joanna Worsley at the Korean War Veterans Memorial, in Washington, D.C., in 2015. Worsley served in the British Army for thirty-six years.
Photograph courtesy Joanna Worsley

We have linked to stories about explorers, though none specifically about Shackleton, in the past. The subject of this story has something important to say about his hero, and it is worth hearing his voice as well as his wife’s (click here).

The author, who we have linked to more than once, gave two excellent interviews about his process as a long-form story-teller, and if this is your thing, then you will want to listen to both, first here and more recently here.

The White Darkness: A Journey Across Antarctica

A solitary journey across Antarctica.

By David Grann

I. Mortal Danger

Worsley.jpgThe man felt like a speck in the frozen nothingness. Every direction he turned, he could see ice stretching to the edge of the Earth: white ice and blue ice, glacial-ice tongues and ice wedges. There were no living creatures in sight. Not a bear or even a bird. Nothing but him.

It was hard to breathe, and each time he exhaled the moisture froze on his face: a chandelier of crystals hung from his beard; his eyebrows were encased like preserved specimens; his eyelashes cracked when he blinked. Get wet and you die, he often reminded himself. The temperature was nearly minus forty degrees Fahrenheit, and it felt far colder because of the wind, which sometimes whipped icy particles into a blinding cloud, making him so disoriented that he toppled over, his bones rattling against the ground. Continue reading

Rules Of Experiencing Nature, Reconsidered

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A woman and her young children hike through a grassy field in Pleasant Valley Preserve near the Eightmile River in Lyme, Connecticut. Photo © Jerry Monkman

Just when we thought we knew what we were doing out in nature, this:

Why Staying on the Trail Is Bad for Nature

Stay on the trail. Look, don’t touch. Take only photographs, leave only footprints.

These and similar rules have become a standard component of a refined environmental ethic; any reasonable outdoor education class is going to emphasize them.

I have a confession to make: As a kid I violated every one of those rules, frequently and without guilt. It made me a conservationist. Continue reading

Life List Birding

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Jabiru stork taking flight from the Blue Creek rice fields, Orange Walk District, Belize

The name “Jabiru” is derived from the Tupi–Guarani family of languages from South America and means “swollen neck”; an apt description. This is the tallest flying bird in South and Central America and is second in wingspan (excluding pelagic flyers like albatross) only to the Andean Condor.  This denizen of wetland habitats is a voracious, opportunistic forager on a wide variety of animal matter, living or dead.  Needless to say, an impressive bird and I was ecstatic to see it!

It was past the mid-point of our Belize vacation, and as good and enjoyable as the birding had been, life birds (new species that I had never seen before) were fewer and farther between than I had anticipated/hoped.  I guess that was to be expected given that I have visited the Neotropics several times previously.  I had already seen many of the common, easy, widespread species (e.g., many if not most of the hummingbirds, parrots, motmots, etc.) that make birders new to the Neotropics giddy.  After talking to the local guides, apparently most of my desired life birds were the tough ones (hard to find, rare, skulky, etc.).  As I went through my list of target birds, they just kind of smiled and shook their heads. Continue reading

That Thing About Uber

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For what it is worth, a confession. I deleted this app with the intent to never use it again, and then I switched to this one. That felt good. Then last week I was up in the mountains of Escazu, in Costa Rica, and I had to change my mind. At 3:30 a.m. a local taxi driver who was supposed to pick me up to take me to the airport did not show up. After a few minutes I finally relented and downloaded the app I had deleted. And something unexpected, something very good happened. Continue reading

Maps, Walking & Health

Emily has been reworking the maps for nine miles of walking trails surrounding Chan Chich Lodge. On a typical day I walk 45 minutes at dawn, and 45 minutes at dusk and I have tended to stay on the same trail for the last year. Now I am looking forward to the various loops I had not yet wandered onto, and checking the maps. I tend to believe in the link between nature and health, and especially when walking is involved the benefits are a broader form of wellbeing. Gretchen Reynolds, writing the Phys Ed column for the New York Times has this to say:

For Exercise, Nothing Like the Great Outdoors

Long walks can improve moods and reduce anxiety, but the benefits may be greatest if the walks take place outdoors rather than in a gym, according to a new study by researchers in Austria. And while the Alps may be a particularly fine place to hike, a vigorous walk in the woods or paths near home may provide the mental boost we need to keep us moving.

We all know, by now, that for optimal health, we need to move. Continue reading

El Capitan Never Disappoints

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El Capitan, the towering stone heart of Yosemite National Park and a sweep of golden granite reaching twenty-seven hundred feet into the sky. PHOTOGRAPH BY MARK RALSTON / AFP / GETTY

I am not a climber and I do not generally favor extreme sports where someone else has to come in and clean up after an adventurer’s misfortune. I am in awe in this case, and so make an exception. It never bores me to look again at the image above. But it electrifies me more than usual when it accompanies a story like this one:

…Four hours later, that lone figure, the thirty-one-year-old professional climber Alex Honnold, had completed the first ascent of El Cap in the free-solo style. In other words, he had climbed the cliff alone and without a rope or protective equipment of any kind. Had he fallen, he would have died.

The achievement had long been predicted but never quite accepted as possible. The iconic face of El Capitan—photographed by Ansel Adams, praised by John Muir as “the most sublime feature of the Valley”—has long been the proving ground for American rock climbing. It has been climbed at incredible speeds and via routes of extraordinary difficulty; a ropeless ascent was the last “big psychological breakthrough” that remained, as Peter Croft, who completed groundbreaking free solos in the nineteen-eighties and nineties, put it. There was no real competition to be the first to meet the challenge. Either Honnold would do it, or he would leave it to future generations. Or he would try, fail, and fall…

A sports writer for the New York Times titles it perfectly:

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Alex Honnold at the 1,000-foot level of his free-solo climb of El Capitan. CreditTom Evans

El Capitan, My El Capitan

Alex Honnold woke up in his Dodge van last Saturday morning, drove into Yosemite Valley ahead of the soul-destroying traffic and walked up to the sheer, smooth and stupendously massive 3,000-foot golden escarpment known as El Capitan, the most important cliff on earth for rock climbers…