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September 30, 2010 3:00pm
A Practical Peacemaker Ponders . . .
I set out on a road trip recently from Denver to Albuquerque. Still hopelessly in love with the American West--even though I have spent my entire adult life close to the Rocky Mountains--I reveled in the spacious vistas and open skies of the high plains and Front Range. The interstate highway south of Raton, New Mexico, follows the route of the legendary Santa Fe Trail.
September 21, 2009 8:52am
I'm a train commuter, and there are times when it seems that the bulk of people on my train are becoming one with their electronic devices, noses sniffing Blackberries and eyeballs sticking to eyePhones. There are some Kindle readers, and a handful of folks reading actual, physical magazines and newspapers. Nearly everyone has earphones on, and is being transported in their own personal concert hall or movie theater. Some
knitting and bill-paying happen. There is one group of people who actually speak with each other (a commuter no-no), and play cards and laugh and drink cans of beer on their way home.
What's become rarer in my years of train travel to NYC is seeing people read books. Years ago, we would swap novels on the train platform, but that system has disappeared now that everyone's an email-slave on their Android. I visit friends' houses that are filled to the rafters with books, then learn that they haven't read the bulk of them. News of closing independent bookstores comes frequently.
March 31, 2009 12:14pm
Running laps around another boat, the Queen Elizabeth.
When I last heard from author Ruth Heidrich
, it was early February and she was on a cruise ship off the coast of Australia. She'd just run a mini-marathon in New Caledonia.
I heard from Ruth again this weekend, and she's still on that same ship. She says:
Greetings from Dubai! I'm currently on a World Cruise and getting to run at a total of 40 different ports of call by the time I get to the end. In two days, we'll be in Muscat, Oman, then heading on down to the Seychelles, and Madagascar. I've given three talks so far on the ship (Holland America's MS Rotterdam) and most people seem to recognize the "other Dr. Ruth" as she goes through her daily triathlon onboard the ship. This consists of an hour on the stationary bike, 100 laps in the pool (it's a very small pool), and then 30 laps around the deck. I also throw in 3 weight-lifting sessions a week.
September 9, 2008 8:45am
Calling from the wild
This past Sunday, I had the pleasure of taking a tour of the Lakota Wolf Preserve
in Columbia, NJ. Twenty-six wolves of three different subspecies currently make their home on this preserve, which is located on land rented from Camp Taylor. The preserve allows wolves who’ve been born and raised in captivity to live out their lives in a natural setting. The preserve also cares for foxes and bobcats, who also because of being born in captivity and with a familiarity to humans cannot be released into the wild.
To see wolves this closely and in such a natural setting (they live in four separate wooded enclosures) is truly breathtaking. To witness and learn about the close bond they share with one another and their intense love, acceptance and desire to care for pups – their own and any others – challenges your own sense of family values. To hear them howl together – well let’s just say is other worldly.
At one point, when we were learning about the foxes, one of the male wolves, King, let out a howl. The guide paused to see if anyone would respond. No one did. She began speaking again, and soon King let out another howl. This time, one after another, all the wolves from all the packs began to join in, each with their own voice calling back and forth to one another. We could only see one wolf at that point, so all of the other voices rose hauntingly from the woods beyond. Then with a mystical sense of union, they all seemed to stop at once. Awesome.
November 1, 2007 8:44am
I have just spent some time in Tucson, Arizona, which was gearing up for huge Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead)
celebrations. Even more than usual, skeleton art was on display in the city's varied shops. I've always had a soft spot for these strange, captivating figurines: tiny skeletons encased in brightly painted wood boxes celebrating a wedding (and dressed for it) or emerging from a few-inch "coffin" emblazoned "amor eterno." My visit to Tucson coincided with a rumination in the New York Times by Verlyn Klinkenborg
on the two pigs he's raised, tamed, spent time with and soon will have dispatched to the great meat world beyond. A dia de los muertas for those pigs indeed.
This got me thinking about the six pigs my partner and I saw in later summer at Sprout Creek Farm
, about 90 miles north of New York City. "They're ready," one of the nuns who runs the place told us matter-of-factly when we inquired about the pigs on this, what we'd understood to be a dairy and vegetable enterprise. In addition to the pigs, turkeys, chickens, ducks and even cows and goats would soon face their own dia de los muertas. The animals did seem to be having good lives: outdoors with plenty of room and soil in which to root and roam. And yet...those lives would be necessarily short and more or less forgotten, lost in the multitudes.
Some people's lives, too, get lost. Overlooked, undervalued or forgotten altogether. But Dia de Los Muertas celebrations offer the possibility of their remembrance...of their "reincarnation" in those inventive, often wild skeleton art forms. What if, I wondered, the artisans, and revelers, created art from skeleton pigs and turkeys and calves as a way of remembering them, too, as individuals. Six skeletal pigs, or just two, could make quite a diorama.
July 5, 2007 12:20pm
Going into the seas
Ambivilance is how I greeted the news that Air Greenland
will soon start direct flights between the U.S. and Greenland
. The Greenland ice shelf, which covers nearly all of the country, apart from a thin strip around the edge, is melting—fast. Global warming is fingered as the culprit. Sea levels will rise precipitously as a result of this and other polar melting. Would visiting Greenland, as have many U.S. political leaders (including those running for something)make people take global warming more seriously and commit to taking whatever action they can to arrest it? There's a good chance it would. But then again, there's something odd about travelling by plane—fueling global warming through the emissions—to a place that's already feeling the effects of climate change in no uncertain terms. Emissions vs. awareness. Income for Greenland vs. more CO2 in the air.
It's hard to say where I come down, especially since I've had the pleasure of visiting Greenland (via Denmark). It's stark, startling, and beautiful in a way I've never seen elsewhere (particularly from the air—a veritable desert in ice unfolds below—and on the water). I was there for work on an indigenous rights project, attending a session of the International Training Center of Indigenous Peoples
, not climate tourism (Greenland is semi-autonomous of Denmark and has an indigenous-run government...and only about 30,000 residents). But still, my travel there and back registers on the climate counter. Greenland is poor, particularly when compared with tiny, tidy, very modern Denmark. It could use more tourist dollars, and more people concerned about the future of its land, oceans and people. What to do? Perhaps get the remaining climate skeptics in positions of power on that Air Greenland flight: Monday and Thursday from Thurgood Marshall Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
June 6, 2007 5:21pm
Afghan girl, Afghan cuisine
Over the weekend, while visiting with friends in Baltimore, I ate at an Afghan restaurant, The Helmand
. I realized that I probably hadn't ever been to an Afghan restaurant in my many years of eating out. My friend informed us that the restaurant is owned by the family of Afghan president Hamid Karzai
, who does, come to think of it, have a very American twang to his accent. Apparently, there are Helmands owned by the Karzais in several U.S. cities. The menu had a whole page of vegetarian entrees. Who knew Afghan cuisine would have that? The food was delicious and the place was packed.
That got me to thinking: what if we had the experience of eating the cuisine of the countries we need to know more about? Would we be more shy about invading them? Would we see them as less alien? Would the bonds of food create some kind of comity? I'm not sure, given the frequent tensions between the U.S. and China—and there are Chinese restaurants in just about every American town I've ever visited. Still, how about if Iraqi restaurants
were more common? Or the cuisines of many African countries, such as Gabonese, South African, even Rwandan?
May 10, 2007 7:29am
At the end of March, I got an on-the-ground view of the impacts of climate change. The scene wasn’t pretty. I found myself in a pick-up truck driving into the Rift Valley
about an hour outside Nairobi. In the best of times, the valley is dry and has an austere, almost out-of-this-world brownish beauty. When the seasonal rains fall, the grass turns green and animals—cows, goats and the occasional zebra or gazelle—come to graze. In the part of the valley where I was, however, the rains hadn’t come and it was bone dry. As the truck wound into the valley, we stopped frequently as women climbed aboard. Public transportation here is erratic to non-existent. The women, dressed in traditional Maasai red-patterned sheets and beautifully, primary-color-beaded jewelry, needed to get to a meeting with, as it happened, me.
As we drove, Joseph ole Simel, founder of a Kenyan NGO, the Mainyoito Pastoralist Integrated Development Organization (MPIDO)
filled me in on the local effects of global warming. The communities here, nearly all Maasai herders of cows, sheep and goats, are going from one crisis to another, he said. The rains fail more often now. The elders can recall drought, but when it came then, it was only once in ten years. That gave people time to recover. Now, that time is gone. As a result, livestock populations are decreasing all over Maasailand, the traditional lands of the Maasai people. Without the livestock, families don’t have money, so they can’t pay school fees for their children. Girls are the first to suffer. They’re often forced to drop out of school and married off so their fathers can get some cows and goats as dowry in return. Raised rates of early marriage follow droughts.
May 3, 2007 9:23pm
King or Queen of the Forest
I've been thinking about jaguars recently, three in particular. One is on my wall, his or her face slightly hidden behind a tree branch in the Belize Zoo,
or at least that's where I think it was taken. You wouldn't know it was a zoo, since there are no bars or concrete to be seen. (While I haven't visited the Belize Zoo, it's said to be well-run and not to take animals from the wild, but rather foster orphans and rehabilitate animals in need.) In Belize, the jaguar is in a manner of speaking, king. You see the big cat's image on everything from painted calabashes to Mayan temples, T-shirts to hotel logos. Perhaps as many as 50 jaguars live in or around Belize's Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Reserve Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary
, also known as the Jaguar Reserve. I walked the trails in the Sanctuary in March and although we were keen, we didn't see a jaguar live (or much mammalian life at all, apart from us humans).
May 1, 2007 1:30pm
There they are...now
It’s the first of May, which got me to thinking about mangroves, those elegant and essential coastal forests. Many years ago, I spent time in the south of India documenting the work of a local activist trying to protect and restore mangroves. She worked by mobilizing communities—small-scale fishermen (and the women who take the fish to market), farmers, union leaders, members of the Self-Employed Women’s Association,
and even former priests (and maybe a current one as well). Then as now, the mangroves were being cut to make way for “development.” In the Indian state of Kerala, this mostly meant expansion of large-scale shrimp farming in huge, chemical-laden lagoons carved from the mangrove beds.
Sadly, the pace of destruction in many coastal regions of India, Vietnam, Thailand and other countries has only increased since I was in Kerala, along with our appetite for cheap, plentiful shrimp. Mangroves were out of sight, out of mind. Until the devastating 2004 Asian tsunami. After that, the role mangroves play in protecting coastal communities from harsh weather did make it into the world press. Areas where mangroves were intact, experience and studies showed, saw fewer casualties and markedly less damage. Perhaps mangrove trees, slender, tall and vivid green, might get a reprieve after all. To find out more about mangroves and what they do, including for us, check out the Mangrove Action Project.
Belize, in central America, also has large stands of mangroves—at least for now. Their value is accepted fact. In 1961, Hurricane Hattie
ravaged Belize; mangroves were protected and still are. On our recent trip there, we saw lots of riverine mangrove forest and in them a boa constrictor, several iguanas, lots of birds and in the river, the shadow of a manatee. Ah, bliss. Until we learned that if a politically well-connected developer wants to build a resort or luxury timeshares for Belize’s northern neighbors seeking warm weather and beach (among them lots of Americans), mangroves will be cleared. Notwithstanding their legal protection. Or their vital “ecosystem services” like holding back ocean tides, wind and both garden-variety storms and mega-hurricanes.
“We can grow trees anywhere but we cannot establish a factory anywhere,” a spokesman for Uganda’s president said recently, commenting on protests over a forest being excised to make way for a sugar company. Those trees aren’t mangroves, but they could be. There’s a madness to our relationship with mangroves. You’ll see them…then you won’t. Instead, there'll will be shrimp and beachside villas. A maladapted calculus to be sure.
April 12, 2007 7:58am
During my time in Kenya, the press has been jawing over the news that one of country's leading politicians, Raila Odinga
, has gotten a Hummer."Raila," as he's almost universally known here, cuts a large swath: he's tall, outspoken, charismatic, quotable, a staple of the front pages of newspapers, and a survivor of many decades of Kenya's often-fractious politics. A Member of Parliament, he's also a key leader of the opposition to the administration of current president Mwai Kibaki
He's also known as an outspoken champion of the poor, attesting when abroad and at home (to the dismay of some wealthy Kenyans), to the squalid conditions in which hundred of thousands of people live in Nairobi's largest slum, Kibera
. So, why the Hummer—a gas guzzler and greenhouse gas emitter of gargantuan proportions—in a country where the poor outnumber the rich by a large portion and the effects of climate change are not only being acknowledged, but being felt on the ground?
April 5, 2007 6:33am
Spot the Green Bag
, Nobel peace laureate (and Lantern author
) has been waging a campaign in Kenya to get the government to ban thin plastics, especially those ubiquitous flimsy bags, and to get consumers to use “eco-friendly” carrying devices like baskets made from grasses. The effort is taking off, and not a moment too soon. It’s sad but true that even here in the Maasai Mara ecosystem, one of the world’s great wildernesses, plastic bags are around. Inside the Maasai Mara reserve it’s rare to see anything other than biological material—thick grasses, trees, shrubs and of course an amazing number of animals and birds. But outside the reserve it’s a different story. On the drive here from Narok, the honky-tonk town that is the gateway to the Mara, near every town and village a thousand (or so) plastic bags seemed to bloom.
In bushes, in the grasses, in trees. Mostly clear, but also the occasional blue-green variety. It’s depressing to see, as it must be depressing to live around. So why do people toss the bags into their environment? It’s hard to know, which means it may be hard to stop. Yet nearly everyone would agree that the bags are a nuisance. And an unsightly and unhealthy one at that (they can lodge in the stomachs of domestic and wild animals and serve as a petri dish for malaria-carrying mosquitoes). So why do these bags continue to bedevil us and the landscape? They’re cheap, they’re everywhere, and even though they’re a relatively new invention, they have become a staple of everyday life, even here in a remote region of Kenya. And their manufacturers want to keep churning them out. After all, there’s money to be made. Kenyan industrialists cite the jobs created by creating all of those plastic bags.
Of course, the calculus is false: they’re costing an arm and a leg and more. I hope San Francisco and Ireland and Dhaka, Bangladesh can withstand the caterwauling of the bag manufacturers so their bans and taxes on the flimsy nuisances hold up. Then, on my or your next visit to the Mara, perhaps Kenya will have done the same—and the most infinite variety of species to greet you on your way in won’t be those made of petrochemicals and oil.
April 4, 2007 7:28am
Walking in beauty, like the night
This blogger is currently in Kenya and more precisely, a few kilometers from the Maasai Mara National Reserve. It's the northern extension of the Serengeti ecosystem and its vast grasslands are home to lions, elephants, cheetahs, gazelles (all manner of them), leopards, buffalo and more. It's too early in the season for the fabled migration north from Tanzania of perhaps four million wildebeest, but it's still a wonderful time to see wildlife. And that's what I've been doing. I've also been watched—brushing my teeth no less—by a young vervet monkey from the relative safety of a tree branch. Later on, I saw another young vervet (maybe even the same one) chew on a stick. Imitation? Invention? Habit? Who knows?
March 10, 2007 7:17am
The Temple at Xunantunich
For those who wonder about how the current and future hegemonies of the United States and China might rise and fall, consider the Mayan Empire
, some of the remnants of which Mia MacDonald
and I visited during our recent trip to Belize
. We drove from Hopkins
, about twenty miles south of Dangriga
on the coast, on the picturesque Hummingbird Highway
to just outside the town of San Ignacio
, where, only a mile or two from the border with Guatemala were the ruins of Xunantunich
and Cahal Pech
I'm not going to give you the full history of this extraordinary and sophisticated civilization, that flourished in the time when Europeans didn't know what they were doing. What was interesting to me, aside from the impressive architecture and sophisticated masonry, and the picturesque
nature of the ruins, was why this Empire within a matter of a couple of hundred years fell apart. It's a story better told in Jared Diamond's Collapse
, but here's a version I heard on the trip.
March 9, 2007 3:58pm
Garifuna Drummer: If You Can't Join Them, Beat It
Belize, where my partner Mia MacDonald
and I just went on vacation, only has a population of 275,000 people: but what a mixed population it is! The largest minority (at seven percent) are the Garifuna
. These are the descendents of a group of African and Amerindian slaves who were apparently shipwrecked off the coast of Belize (then British Honduras) in the nineteenth century while they were being transported by the British to the island of St. Vincent. The Garifuna
are now present along the coasts of Honduras, Mexico, and Belize (indeed, Hopkins, the town near where we were staying, is considered the center of Garifuna culture). They have a distinctive language, culture, and music
that they've maintained for centuries. A group of traditional dancers and drummers came to our resort one night, and performed their percussive and extremely elegant and athletic dances.