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.
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:
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
Early last year an article in the Guardian reminded me of work I had done in Montenegro in an earlier decade. The work was among the most impactful in my life, both professionally and personally, but the reminder was more a warning than a celebration. Something similar just happened with work I carried out in the region Rachel Dixon, a travel writer for the Guardian, brought to my attention with the film above, mentioned in this article:
Step 1: Register your interest in hosting a screening
We are aiming to host hundreds of screenings of Blue Heart globally in 2018 to raise awareness of the plight of the people affected in the Balkan region. If you are interested in hosting a screening, please complete the form below and a member of our team will get back to you ASAP. Please note the film is 40 mins long and we recommend that you allow at least 20 mins for a post screening discussion. Continue reading
PHOTO COURTESY OF PRAKASH MATADA
I have spent most of the last year expanding my coffee knowledge. One thing I was already confident about, and remain so, is that arabica is better than robusta on two scales that matter most to me: taste, and environmental impact. From 2010-2017 during our residency in the Western Ghats, we developed and opened a series of properties where both taste and environmental impact were brand signatures formed in Costa Rica.
Instituto del Café de Costa Rica
With regard to coffee, I knew there was more than one good reason why Costa Rica only permits arabica coffee to be grown in the country. And we sourced the highest grade arabica coffee produced in the Western Ghats as much as we could.
A Malabar pied hornbill, one of 204 species of bird found on coffee plantations in a new study, which found that the tree cover from shade-grown coffee farms provides a welcome habitat for all kinds of animal species. Credit Shashank Dalvi
I took to India a conviction that robusta coffee was to be avoided, but a few months ago started learning otherwise. Today I have read an article that reminds me to keep rethinking.
Thanks to Jason Daley in Sierra magazine for this look at the same scientific findings as those I first read in February in the New York Times, (as I drink an organic arabica that I am sampling from a roaster in Atlanta, and even with this news about robusta I expect to remain committed to arabica for my own consumption, as well as our commercial purposes):
A new study shows sun-loving robusta coffee doesn’t have to hurt biodiversity
Alexandrine parakeet | Photo courtesy of Manish Kumarhoto
When coffee consumers think about the most sustainable way to manage their caffeine habit, they normally think about the cup it’s in—is it recyclable? But what about the coffee itself? Some coffee plantations require clear-cutting—will drinking one type of coffee have a bigger impact on the environment than another? Continue reading
Click below for the second episode of the podcast I mentioned last week. The answer to the question, whether Facebook is fixable, was a surprise. Although we use that platform, if passively, to promote entrepreneurial conservation in our businesses, I personally chose not to have an account. It was only recently that I began appreciating the value of that decision. Now, something similar with Amazon, for which I have had equal measures of awe and wariness. This episode helps me understand the details that make my instinctive wariness insufficient.
Some time later this year, Amazon could become the first trillion-dollar company in American history. Its valuation has already doubled in the last 14 months to about $800 billion, and Jeff Bezos, its founder and CEO, is officially the richest man on the planet.
There are ways in which Amazon seems to be the greatest company in American history. It’s revolutionized the global shopping experience and expanded into media and hardware, while operating on razor-thin margins that have astonished critics. But some now consider it the modern incarnation of a railroad monopoly, a logistics behemoth using its scale to destroy competition.
So what is Amazon: brilliant, dangerous, or both?
Tacos at a restaurant in Nashville. Credit Christopher Berkey for The New York Times
Margaret Renkl, Contributing Opinion Writer for the New York Times, shares an opinion that I am, as a son of an immigrant, inclined to agree with. Even if I was not so closely related to the theme, it would still make sense to me:
NASHVILLE — Not quite two weeks ago, I was driving down Nolensville Road, Nashville’s “international corridor,” looking for a restaurant called Tennessee Halal Fried Chicken. In the passenger seat was John T. Edge, the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance and author of “The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South.” He was telling me that this particular approach to dining out, in one way of looking at it, could be considered a form of exploitation: “To patronize a restaurant of people who are different from you can be a kind of booty call,” he said.
This is an idea Mr. Edge has been considering for some time. The historically complicated nature of cross-cultural dining goes back to black-owned barbecue joints in the age of Jim Crow: “White Southerners patronized those restaurants,” he said. “They got in, they got what they wanted, and they got out.” Continue reading
The novelist Richard Powers, I see from this review, has utilized an idea I first heard of in 2016, and that idea disappeared for a couple years (from my view, anyway). But that compelling idea is back, fictionalized and more interesting than ever:
People see better what looks like them,” observes the field biologist Patricia Westerford, one of the nine—nine—main characters of Richard Powers’s 12th novel, The Overstory. And trees, Patricia discovers, look like people. They are social creatures, caring for one another, communicating, learning, trading goods and services; despite lacking a brain, trees are “aware.” After borers attack a sugar maple, it emits insecticides that warn its neighbors, which respond by intensifying their own defenses. When the roots of two Douglas firs meet underground, they fuse, joining vascular systems; if one tree gets ill, the other cares for it. The chopping down of a tree causes those surrounding it to weaken, as if in mourning. But Powers’s findings go beyond Dr. Pat’s. In his tree-mad novel, which contains as many species as any North American forest—17 are named on the first page alone—trees speak, sing, experience pain, dream, remember the past, and predict the future. The past and the future, it turns out, are mirror images of each other. Neither contains people.
Barbara Kingsolver’s earlier review in the New York Times started the ante on the must-read judgement that Nathaniel Rich (above) upped:
Trees do most of the things you do, just more slowly. They compete for their livelihoods and take care of their families, sometimes making huge sacrifices for their children. They breathe, eat and have sex. They give gifts, communicate, learn, remember and record the important events of their lives. With relatives and non-kin alike they cooperate, forming neighborhood watch committees — to name one example — with rapid response networks to alert others to a threatening intruder. Continue reading
I had already been impressed with the Atlantic’s weekly interview podcast, but since that most often has to do with politics or other topics not central to our purpose here, I have never linked to one of those. But here is an 8-episode show, whose first guest is one of my favorite thinkers currently. The host, Derek Thompson, is another plus, and the topic is quite timely:
In the last 18 months, Facebook has gone through one of the worst public relations crises of any major tech company. In this episode, two guests debate whether Facebook is fixable, or whether its business model is designed to sell us lies. Continue reading
The first lucky bird of the day, a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron at Marriott, which I hadn’t seen yet on property
Almost four years ago, James and I took a day trip to Carara National Park, on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica where the tropical dry forest meets the moist rain forest in a transition zone that provides a great mix of habitats for all sorts of birds and other wildlife. On eBird, Carara’s Hotspot has over four hundred species, which made it a natural place for me to spend part of my Global Big Day this year, since I was already documenting the avian life on the property of the Los Suenos Marriott in Herradura, just half an hour south along the coast. These photos are from my May 5th efforts!
The Turquoise-browed Motmot is a regular at Marriott and one of my favorite “common” birds in the country
I started the morning at 5:30am, heading out onto the perimeters of the forests surrounding Los Suenos Marriott and its golf course. Continue reading
Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, with its chief executive, Rose Marcario, in the tin shed where he once forged and hammered metal. The outdoor-clothing company has mixed commerce and activism since the early 1970s. Credit Laure Joliet for The New York Times
Since the early days of this platform we have linked to stories about this company many times, and its founder in particular is in our pantheon of role models. During these seven years we have also studiously avoided linking to stories involving politics, other than highlighting activism that holds public officials accountable. This story below borders on too much politics, but I find the company’s position not only acceptable, but as usual about this company, aspirational. Thanks to David Gelles for this story about how Patagonia has supported grass-roots environmental activists for decades and how it is suing the president in a bid to protect Bears Ears National Monument:
Patagonia employees at the Ventura, Calif., headquarters, where there are picnic tables in the parking lot, on-site day care and easy access to the beach.CreditLaure Joliet for The New York Times
VENTURA, Calif. — The offices of Patagonia occupy a low-slung complex of stucco buildings in this sleepy beachside town in Southern California. There are solar panels and picnic tables in the parking lot, day care with a jungle gym by the main lobby and easy access to the beach, where employees surf during lunch break. It is a corporate Eden of sorts, where idealistic Californians run a privately held company that sells about $1 billion of puffy down jackets and organic cotton jeans each year.
But on an unseasonably hot and windy Monday morning in early December, Patagonia headquarters were transformed into something that quickly resembled a war room. There were emergency conference calls with Washington lawyers. Court filings were prepared. Web designers remade the company’s home page.
It wasn’t a business crisis that had mobilized the company, however. It was politics. Continue reading
Last year at this time, I was in Belize hosting a team from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. I had known of the Lab starting 30 years ago when we moved to Ithaca for me to start graduate school at Cornell, and had known the Lab’s backyard, Sapsucker Woods, since Seth was born and we walked him through in a stroller from time to time. But I did not really know much about the Lab’s work until Seth started working there in 2011, during his sophomore year of college. And then in 2012 we had another young Lab worker join us in India.
We have been celebrating Global Big Day ever since, in India and Costa Rica, then last year in Belize. This year Seth is in Costa Rica, where he will be in a national park with a very high bird species counts. I hope we will hear from him about that experience. For now, may we recommend you click the button above to learn more?
I have been based back in the Americas for fifteen months. For the previous couple years I had been driving Ford’s best-selling vehicle in India –a vehicle with the three letters Eco in its name. This was the company that built the cars I grew up in, but had long since stopped believing in. That “Eco” car got me starting to believe again.
Then the election of 2016 happened. Holding aside all its other dangers, the election result has elevated ecological danger to perhaps its greatest level in my lifetime. A government elected on the slippery Make America Great Again slogan has given cover to companies seeing profit in rollbacks of erstwhile impressive ecological commitments. And the slope down which we all are now sliding seems to be getting steeper. An op-ed by Jamie Lincoln Kitman, the New York bureau chief for Automobile Magazine, illuminates the slip and the slope:
Two years ago, the Ford Motor Company boasted about having been named Interbrand’s Best Global Green Brand and said it was committed to working to meet stricter fuel economy standards. Last week, after lobbying with the rest of the industry to strike down those standards, Ford announced that it would largely abandon the American passenger car market in favor of building more trucks, crossovers and S.U.V.s. Continue reading
Ajinomoto, the world’s largest manufacturer of MSG, produces umami magic at its panda-themed headquarters. Photograph from Alamy
In the new issue of one of the sources we draw from weekly there is an article–An MSG Convert Visits the High Church of Umami, by Helen Rosner–that gives a refreshing splash of cold water on the face. My kitchen counter looks like the one she describes, sans MSG. And for the reasons she lays out. Always happy to be corrected, I recommend this to others who may have suffered the same culinary fate as me until now:
On my kitchen counter, to the side of the stove, there is a jagged skyline of jars and bottles, featuring the condiments and oils and spices that I use too often to ever properly put away. A few are ingredients so key that I buy them in bulk, storing the multi-kilo mega-packages in the back of the closet and decanting them for daily use into more countertop-friendly vessels: olive oil, kosher salt, and monosodium glutamate, or MSG. In one combination or another, this holy trinity ends up in almost everything I prepare—the MSG, with its savory chemical magic, is particularly useful as rocket fuel for dishes of raw fruits and vegetables. I whisk it into vinaigrette before dressing a salad; add it by the teaspoon to the relish of fresh plums and jalapeños that I make each summer; and, whenever I’m feeling snacky, sprinkle it on chopped cucumbers. Continue reading
Nathan Englander came to my attention nearly six years ago. A novelist who lives in Brooklyn, he got me thinking about story-telling in a way that was very important to me, two years into our residency in India. He did something important for me again this last week, focusing my attention on an act I would normally ignore. But his point resonated with me because of the subject’s connection to the state of nature. So I thought about how to link to his op-ed in a manner consistent with our objectives on this site.
Four years ago Richard Conniff, who writes about wildlife and human and animal behavior, started a long series of regular appearances in our pages. The day after Nathan Englander published the op-ed I mentioned above, Richard Conniff published an op-ed referencing the same act, a day in advance of Earth Day. And it is powerful. So I knew how to proceed, and with this excerpt you may be inclined to read both op-eds in full:
I was thinking about Mr. Buckel and about despair a few nights later, over a drink with Joe Walston of the Wildlife Conservation Society. As director of that organization’s worldwide field conservation work, Mr. Walston routinely comes face-to-face with the dark forces of human overpopulation, mass extinction of species, climate change and pollution. But he is also the co-author of a paper being published this week in the journal BioScience that begins with the uplifting words of Winston Churchill to the British nation in June 1940, under the shadow of the Nazi conquest of France: “In casting up this dread balance sheet and contemplating our dangers with a disillusioned eye,” Churchill declared, “I see great reason for intense vigilance and exertion, but none whatever for panic or despair.” Continue reading
Thattekad Bird Sanctuary, Kerala
CreditPatricia Wall/The New York Times
This review, thanks to Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, has my attention on The Coffee-Flavored American Dream of a young man with about as improbable a mission as I can imagine. Returning to the coffee fields of Costa Rica’s Tarrazu region in a few days, I also plan to cross the Central Valley to see the latest mission accomplished of another coffee dreamer, the choice of Dave Eggers for his latest book topic is much appreciated.
A few years ago I traveled with a group of friends from the southern Yemeni port city of Aden to the capital of Sanaa in the north, taking the long coastal road that twists and curves around the bulge of Yemen’s southernmost tip. After passing the Bab el Mandeb strait, the road stretches along the seashore. Under a clear bright sky, the waters of the Red Sea shimmered and the sand glowed a warm ocher, the monotony interrupted only by an occasional fisherman’s shack, a small nomadic settlement or a bleached one-room mosque. Flat-topped trees looming in the distance suggested an African landscape.
Ahead of us lay the port of Mokha, or Al-Mukha in Arabic, where from the 15th century onward ships set sail with precious Yemeni coffee bound for Istanbul, London, Amsterdam and eventually New York — so much coffee that the word “mocha” became synonymous with it. Continue reading
Yesterday we were compelled to link to an illustration that captured the importance of vigilance. Putting that link in context was the reminder that our primary purpose on this platform is to seek out evidence of progress related to environmental and social innovation.
Today a case in point. Credit is due to Starbucks. Just a couple days ago our vigilance antennae were roused by their opening in Yosemite, one more step in a national park system compromised by commercialism. There is no doubt that Starbucks is commercial, but they can also be model corporate citizens when seen from another angle.
Costa Rica provides evidence in favor of Starbucks. Their recently opened facility–a combined working coffee farm, milling operation, visitor center, cafe, gift shop–called Hacienda Alsacia looks like a win-win for a country that deserves attention and investment, and a company that can provide them both of those.
I plan to visit the property next week, so will save my commentary, focusing here on what makes me want to visit:
A 46,000-square foot visitor center immerses guests in the entire life cycle of sustainably grown, high-quality arabica coffee from seedling to picking, milling, roasting and the craft of brewing in a café
Starbucks approach to ethical sourcing and innovative coffee tree hybrid research also showcased at the visitor center, part of the company’s $100 million investment in an open-sourced farmer support program to help make coffee the world’s first sustainably sourced agriculture product Continue reading
“So, like, what do you do every day?”
I get asked this often and I’m not always sure how to explain it to people without pictures at hand or infinite patience for follow-up questions. So, in this blog post, with the benefit of time to pick the right words and theoretically infinite space to write them out, I figured I would try to provide an adequate answer.
View from the field, a week or so ago
This, I feel, is the question at the crux of the what-do-you-do-every-day question. Why do you have to go to Kenya to do your work? Right, the bird you study is only found there, but why do you have to be out on the savanna everyday – can’t you just bring the birds back to the lab or study them in a zoo?
Of course, you can (nowadays, only with the right permits) and that is precisely what early zoologists did, collecting specimens – alive or dead – from around the world and bringing them back to examine them under microscopes or in aviaries in a rainy British country garden. While this may be convenient, it inevitably renders your conclusions about a bird’s diet or the adaptive nature of its plumage coloration suspect, because they are arrived at out of context. Without the bird having been examined in the environment it’s found in, with different factors that might affect its behavior and morphology in play, it is impossible to understand why it acts the way it does and why it is the way it is. Hence, fieldwork: observing and sampling critters in the wild. Continue reading
Odgerel Gamsukh has a started a company to create a green community in the unplanned and polluted sprawl outside of Ulaanbaatar. Katya Cengel for NPR
My one visit to Ulaanbaatar was in 1984, so I have outdated perspective, but I do recall the haze. I did not know it was from coal, associating it more with the Soviet gloom that I grew up believing was a permanent shadow on those lands. The military guards patrolling the train station were ominous at first sight. And one of them walked up to my buddy, grabbed his camera and ripped the film out of it. Yikes. No photo ops for us. But when our train, the Trans-Siberian, left the station I saw that Mongolia is one of the most blessedly beautiful landscapes I had seen, or have seen since. Multiple rainbows alway on the horizon. Thanks to Katya Cengel and NPR for this reminder that the sun is always shining somewhere in Mongolia:
It takes the taxi driver three tries to find the neighborhood and at least another three wrong turns on narrow unpaved roads before he locates the company’s front gate. Each time he gets turned around the driver reaches for a cell phone. On the other end of the line Odgerel Gamsukh directs the driver to Gamsukh’s garage door business. Neither man seems bothered by the multiple interruptions and resulting delay. Mongolians are used to it taking a little extra time to get around, especially in the ger areas of Ulaanbaatar.
Gamsukh’s designs are displayed on his desk.
Katya Cengel for NPR
If street addresses mean little in the city center, where residents commonly give directions based on landmarks instead of street names, they mean even less in the surrounding ger areas, named for the circular felt tents in which many residents live. In these neighborhoods, the route that takes you from one place to another is sometimes a grass-covered hill. That is because the government has yet to catch up with the city’s rapid growth. Sixty years ago only 14 percent of Mongolia’s population lived in the capital of Ulaanbaatar, the country’s largest city. Today it is approximately 45 percent, more than one million people. The majority of them, 60 percent, live in ger areas that often lack basic services such as sewer systems, running water and trash collection. The coal that area residents burn to warm their homes is the main cause of winter air pollution that now rivals Beijing’s. Continue reading
The cleanup … Glastonbury 2017. Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images
This headline in the Guardian, accompanying the photo above, is well timed for me:
That story continues after the jump, but I want to add to this post an image I just photographed when visiting the Costa Rica Marriott Hotel San Jose that was built more than two decades ago. Amie and I were friends with the managers of that property from the mid- to late-1990s, but had lost track of what this property has been up to lately. And I was very happy to learn today that they have recently earned five leaves in the CST program, whose board of directors I served on in the mid- to late-1990s. Bravo, Marriott! And as I snapped this photo, I was told that starting next month this property will have no straws, even if someone says they “really need one” (as the text on the sign says near the bottom). Double bravo!
We have reported on efforts in India, during our years there, to reduce noise pollution using similar signage. Whoever designed this sign for the Marriott property in Costa Rica was thinking along the same lines, graphically speaking. While I am in Costa Rica this week, I hope to have more to report, but for now, back to Glastonbury: Continue reading