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Louisiana wetlands, as many places, are the inadvertent home to some ecosystem-altering invasive species, like fast-spreading aquatic plants called water hyacinth and giant salvinia. But hippos, no. There aren’t any hippos down there.
Oh, what might have been.
I’m not sure how I didn’t discover this earlier, considering how much I’ve been writing about invasive species of late—things like zebra mussels and sea lamprey in the Great Lakes and snakes on Guam and cheat grass in the American West, to name a diverse few. But miss it I did, until recently. Now I know that some people, partly in the name of invasive-species control, once considered bringing hippopotamuses from Africa to Louisiana and setting them free.
It was the early 20th century and it was going to be a great thing, because hippos would offer a tasty new resource for a meat-hungry and fast-growing nation and, bonus, they’d help control those pesky aquatic greens that were swallowing up swaths of wetland that normally support young fish, ducks, and a lot of other desirable creatures. A win-win.
There are plenty of this-century cases of our introducing one species to try to hinder another. When biological controls (e.g., natural predators) are applied very carefully in concert with other targeted methods, called “integrated pest management,” it can be an effective way to, say, suppress a non-native insect that’s damaging crops or slow the spread of a noxious weed that’s destroying the native landscape.
And then there are the many times introducing a “control” has gone awry. A couple of favorites: Land managers have released cats and, elsewhere, snakes to control rodents on islands only to have the introduced animals decimate local bird populations. (In the case of snakes, poison-stuffed mice, pre-deceased and attached to parachutes, were later dropped from helicopters to kill the snakes. You can’t make this stuff up.) Similarly, a parasite set free to knock out an invasive amphibian was apparently unskilled at Latin names and decimated a bunch of native species, too. Points for trying? Tell it to the tree frogs.
But this was hippos versus plants, maybe the biggest, baddest plan of all. It arose in the late 1800s, according to a comprehensive and extremely entertaining piece found here, if you have time and want the full absurd story. The ideas men were a pair of big-game hunters, one of whom was the inspiration for Indiana Jones and the Boy Scouts (Frederick Russell Burnham), the other a con man (Fritz Duquesne). The men—bitter enemies-turned-friends (over their shared hippo idea) turned-enemies again—were also both spies. These dudes had some compelling criss-crossing histories and you should definitely read more about them. Elsewhere.
Meanwhile, a politician needed a solution to a serious water hyacinth problem. The ornamental plant, introduced from Japan to New Orleans during the 1884 World’s Fair, was spreading all over the damn place, crowding out native species. Louisiana Congressman Robert Broussard apparently got word of Burnham’s and Duquesne’s grand plan, thought, hey, two birds one stone, and got behind the ship-the-hippos proposition with gusto. The three men joined forces and started the New Food Supply Society to promote the plan.
H.R. 23621, the American Hippo Bill, presented by Broussard in 1910, sought a $250,000 appropriation to import hippos (“useful” animals soon nicknamed “lake cow bacon” in a NYT editorial) into the U.S. from Africa. The animals, which would no doubt lumber happily through the bayous of Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana, would solve the “Meat Question” (how to nourish the expanding U.S. population at a time of overgrazing and soaring beef prices) with a million tons of tasty fatty brisket and other edible parts, and they’d munch on water hyacinth when they weren’t being shot at by a new breed of U.S. hippo hunters.
It didn’t pass, needless to say. (I’m still trying to imagine hippos squeezing into those coach seats on United.) But it was discussed at length and had quite a bit of citizen support, not to mention some real political momentum for a time. (Just imagine the Tweet storm [a term I never thought I’d use] H.R. 23621 would inspire were it introduced today. Huge hippos [drawing huge crowds?] outside New Orleans? Take that, European leaders!)
Despite their size, hippos actually eat much less than cattle. So even if they’d chosen native flora over the invasive greens, perhaps it wouldn’t have been an ecological disaster in that way. Let’s not forget, though, that hippos also dine on meat now and then. Who knows what naive animals would have become prey and how that might have buggered up the food web long term. Unintended consequences, people.
Notwithstanding how hippos might have reshaped the environment down South, I keep picturing a random misty 1920s Sunday, when a couple of mustached duck hunters come upon a three-ton beast that, despite the roly-poly bod, mouse ears,,and Gerber cheeks, is one of the most dangerous animals on the planet. (Hippos kill anywhere from 500 to “nearly 3,000” people a year, depending on your source.) Most often vegetarian, sure, but way faster on those webbed feet than you’d think and territorial as hell, not afraid to knock the camo pants off a man if a big-mouth yawn isn’t enough to scare him away. (And yes, I AM saying, without apology, that it would be a man stalking a hippo in a U.S. swamp. Then and now. Truth.)
So. Carnivorous appetites plus invasive-species management plus creative (and perhaps not fully thought out) problem solving almost took a very big, very strange turn back in the day. Just thought I’d share. Fake news can’t even compare.
A while back I took my toddler for a walk in his stroller to the local café in my old neighborhood. I loved it there because I always felt like a rock star. Everyone would be happy to see me and say nice things to me and want to pinch my cheeks. Okay, so, I guess most of that was aimed at the kid but I was with him and so I was still kinda cool. Like an assistant to a rock star or something.
And like a rock star, he was especially popular with young women. And also like a rock star he can sometimes be kind of a jerk about it.
Take the day in question. Three young women came over and started cooing over him and pinching his cheeks. (This being Mexico, nobody thought to ask me if cheek-pinching was okay. Or really anything.) I smiled and told him to fist bump all the nice ladies, as that’s his preferred greeting. He looked up at the first and punched it out while everyone laughed. Then the second woman offered her fist and he blithely obliged, like he was signing an autograph. But when the third put out her fist, he went back to the first woman with fist outstretch and a blank, expectant look.
“He’s just shy,” I said. Moronically, since he obviously wasn’t. “C’mon buddy, say hi to the nice lady. Chocalas,” which is Spanish for “high five” or “hit it.”
But the kid wasn’t having it. He didn’t like the third woman, he liked the first. I could be wrong but the third woman looked genuinely insulted by my child, which seemed appropriate, considering he was being a jerk. I tried to get him to acknowledge her and realized the harder I tried the weirder the situation got. Mercifully, my order was called and I stuffed a croissant in his fat little fingers before he did anything else to embarrass me.
This was not an isolated incident. For the first year and a half of life my kid had an blatant preference for attractive women that was, frankly, odd. It was like living with Don Draper, except his drinking problem was more about bad aim. We’d be walking through the park and he would lock his eyes onto some young lady and set off like a baboon in the banana aisle. It was creepy but not as bad as the way he
ignored anyone else standing nearby.
Bystander: “Oh what a cute baby! What is your name, my sweet, sweet child??”
Child: “I didn’t come over here to gawk at you, lady, I came to gawk at your friend. No eye contact for you!”
Which is boggling. He couldn’t tell a red triangle from a blue square and occasionally referred to our cat as “doggy” but he had tabloid-level opinions on who’s hot and who’s not? How do you say, “Don’t be a douchebag” to a toddler?
It turns out this predilection is common and not a reflection on my mediocre parenting skills. Indeed, kids just a few weeks old seem to have preferences for certain faces over others. And while those preferences do change over time, it’s fair to say they like attractive people.
It’s obvious why we adults are programmed to find babies cute but less so why the reverse would be true. Facial symmetry maybe? Nope, babies prefer objectively attractiveness independent of symmetry.
Amazingly, it’s not just humans they get catty about, it’s also cats themselves. Yes, babies seem to actually prefer attractive cats – both house cats and tigers – over ugly ones. What’s an ugly cat, you ask? I could trot out the research for you but come on. We all know an ugly cat when we see one.
So why the Shallow Hal routine? Judith Langlois, the UT Austin child psychologist who has pioneered much of this work has been quoted as saying that pretty faces are simply easier on the brain. Meaning that small children seem to be able to process them faster than unattractive ones. Beautiful is literally easier on the eyes. But this doesn’t answer the question of why. Why is Charlize Theron in The Cider House Rules any easier to process than, say, Charlize Theron in Monster?
One theory is that beauty, rather than being some reflection of health or symmetry, is just a measure of average-ness. Nose not too big or small, face not too long or squat, head not too pointed or flat, etcetera. Call it the Goldilocks theory of visual processing. Babies (and perhaps adults by extension) generally prefer simple faces to look at, just like they prefer simple flavors and simple music.
Small children are trying to understand the world by learning to recognize things. That is a face. That is a ball. That is a dried up turd. That is either a turd or a cat, I can’t be sure.
This makes sense to me. It’s why so many people like simple art that’s easy to look at. It also explains why so much crappy TV has so many beautiful people in it. It’s like grape soda for the eyes. But after a certain age, you just can’t stomach grape soda anymore and similarly, I find the best shows are the ones with actors who look like real people. And British, since they are usually made in England.
People say the fact that we are hard-wired to like attractive people and maybe it’s true but I don’t have to accept it any more than being hard-wired to like grape soda. The best art challenges our senses and offers a much deeper satisfaction. Good wine is way better than grape soda. Rachmaninov over Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.
Maybe it’s not that babies are somehow more pure or honest but that they’re just more … babylike. That getting hung up on appearance is something we should outgrow.
Still, as I write this, sitting on a train headed home, I notice a baby sitting next to me. He’s staring at me like I’m the most fascinating thing he’s ever seen. It actually feels pretty nice. Like I’m, I don’t know, special or … oh wait … no. He’s looking at the guy next to me with the chin and the hair. Yeah. Yeah, that makes a lot more sense.
On the Dutch Caribbean island of Curaçao, near the center of the capital city of Willemstad, stands the oldest continuously active synagogue in the Americas. The chunky, high-ceilinged yellow building, which opened its doors in 1732, was built by a congregation of Spanish and Portuguese Jews that was already almost a century old. Many of its earliest members were conversos, who escaped the Spanish Inquisition by practicing their faith in secret until they were able to emigrate—to the Netherlands, in their case, and then to its Caribbean colonies. Though the island’s Jewish community once numbered more than two thousand, the congregation now has barely two hundred members, with the empty seats at services occasionally filled by cruise-ship tourists.
Like much of the Caribbean, Curaçao has a complex and tragic history: The island, only forty miles from the coast of Venezuela, was a hub of the Dutch slave trade—a trade that at least a few Curaçaoan Jews participated in. Today, as a multilingual independent country, it continues to struggle with the legacies of slavery and colonialism. For centuries, though, the island that was hell for so many others was a haven for Jews, and the Mikvé Israel-Emanuel synagogue has long symbolized the refuge that its members and their ancestors found here. The congregation is one of four in the world that maintains the Spanish-Portuguese tradition of covering its synagogue floor with several inches of sand—a reminder of the conversos who sometimes used sand to muffle the sounds of their secret worship. When I visited on a sizzling afternoon last week, the synagogue and its courtyard were nearly empty, and the interior of the old building, kept cool by its thick walls and blue-tinted windows, was mercifully shady. The place was silent, and as I walked over the sand, my steps were silent, too.
Not long ago, a lifelong friend told me—seriously but matter-of-factly—that in the current political climate, he sometimes finds himself wondering who he can count on to hide him. His Judaism is loosely practiced but closely held, and these days, he said, its history seems closer than ever. Mikvé Israel-Emanuel’s floor of sand is not only a tribute to the past, but also a reminder to the present—a reminder that any one of us may someday need to keep quiet, and that the rest of us may need to guard the door.
Sorting through photos from our motion-triggered game camera reminds me a lot of field work. For every target animal you’re seeking, you end up looking at a lot of deer. So when I recently discovered a creature that I couldn’t immediately identify in our roll of game cam photos, I was thrilled.
It looked wide and strong, and for a split second I wondered if it could be a bear. But the size easily ruled that out — it was too small and squat.
Immediately, my mind went to the most exotic, exciting possibility — wolverine!
According to my National Audubon Society Field Guide to the Rocky Mountain States, the wolverine, or Gulo gulo, is “robust,” “bear-like” and “very strong and fearless for its size; drives bears from kill.”Its range includes western Colorado and its habitat is listed as forests, scrub and meadows, which pretty much describes the back acres of our farm where our game cam spotted the mystery creature. The wolverine’s lateral stripes “can range from extremely prominent to almost indiscernible,” according to the Wolverine Foundation.
By the time I downloaded the photo, there were no tracks left, so all I had to go on was the photo. Checking the photo with the species accounts, everything seemed to check out. Of course, it was just one datum, so I called in some backup.
I sent the photo to some wildlife savvy friends, and they were split. A lot of them agreed it could be a wolverine. A few others wondered if it were a badger.
The American badger, Taxidea taxus, also fit the description pretty well. The range, habitat and body shape — “wide, flattish,” according to the Audubon guide — all fit. While it’s not clear that there are any wolverines left in Colorado, badgers are pretty common in the state, which tilted the scales in its favor.
I’ll be honest, I wanted it to be wolverine. Well, sort of. They’re vicious killers so maybe I didn’t want them hanging around my chickens, cats and other animals. I didn’t really want a badger around either. Still, there’s something thrilling about the thought of a dangerous wild animal inhabiting a shared space.
After looking at a bunch of photos in my field guides and online, I decided it was probably a badger.
And then I downloaded the latest photos, the first of which were taken the day (night, really) after the mystery photo was shot. And here’s what I found.
Skunk! It was a skunk. As soon as I saw this photo (and a video of what was probably the same skunk the following night) I was convinced.
Why? Because until I had seen the second photo and video, I had very little hard evidence to go on. The notion that the animal was a wolverine or badger was based almost entirely on what could be seen on the photo. And really, that wasn’t much. In the age of the internet, we all know how deceptive photos can be.
Wild animals can be hard to identify on the fly (or run or in a single snapshot of a camera) and so it’s important to consider a principle called “base rate neglect” or the “base rate fallacy.” It’s the tendency to favor the most recent or individual information while ignoring the prior probability of a particular outcome. In this case, it was taking the bodily characteristics of an animal in a night photo as the most compelling evidence, without giving as much consideration to the probability that a wolverine would be lurking in my forest. It wasn’t impossible that it was a wolverine, but chances were much greater that it was not. Badgers are more common around here than wolverines, and skunks are even more widespread still. I also had lots of prior evidence that there were skunks around — I’d chased one out of my garden shed multiple times.
The base rate principle is useful for birding too. Hawks are notoriously difficult to identify when they’re high in the air. We have lots of them around here, and I usually look up and say, “Look, a red-tailed hawk!” Because chances are, I’ll be correct.
I’ve been lucky to travel to some beautiful and fascinating places while reporting on the complex human relationship with the rest of nature. In May 2014, I bought an REI Half Dome Plus tent for $175.19 to use for field reporting. The first trip I took it on was an excursion hosted by Oregon Wild to look for wolves in Eastern Oregon. I stopped overnight near Bend for the night and camped solo and I remember how incredibly cozy it felt to be tucked inside. It was small enough to feel womblike and large enough not to trigger claustrophobia. I felt at home.
Since then I have carried by tent around the world several times. I’ve camped in my Half Dome:
on a tiny uninhabited island in New Zealand for a forthcoming National Geographic story, where two kind teenagers wove me a little wall to demarcate my space.
In the backyard, with my kids, who love looking at the stars through the mesh top. We sleep surprisingly well with all three of us tucked inside.
In the Australian Outback, earlier this month, for a forthcoming story for The Atlantic. I kept the fly off the first night to see the overwhelmingly beautiful stars in one of the darkest places in the world. From Australia, you can see the shape of an emu in the Milky Way. It was freezing at night though, so I reluctantly put the fly on the next night and my own body heat kept me toasty warm.
Often, when you are reporting in the field, you and your sources are thrust together into a quite close intimacy for days on end. I need my alone time, like anyone else, and doubly so when I am “on” as a reporter. So my tent is frequently a place of social refuge on reporting trips, and I have many happy memories of simply lying on my back being alone for a few minutes inside its familiar shape.
It is also simply a good tent. It consistently gets great reviews. I like the way the poles are designed and I can set it up by myself in five minutes. I once had a tent putting-up race on a sandy Amazonian riverbank with with Ron Swaisgood, General Scientific Director of Cocha Cashu Biological Station, and won. It has excellent headroom. It has lots of good pockets inside. I even love the colors.
I had what felt like a near-death experience in my Half Dome tent. On another trip to the Amazon, during a multi-day journey down the Manu and Madre de Dios Rivers, we camped on the riverbank. In the middle of the night, a storm hit us, with fierce winds and so much rain I was terrified the river would rise and drown us all. I kept unzipping my door and sticking my head outside to see if I could see how high the river was in the starless night. It was impossible. All I got for my pains was a drenching. The tent’s sides whipped back and forth with loud cracks and I was sure the whole structure would fold up and blow me and my gear into the river in a tangle of nylon and poles. But it held. The next morning we put our tents away wet, then went downriver and set them out to dry while we bathed in some hot springs.
My tent is a reminder of past travels, a pleasingly first-rate bit of gear (and I cop to loving outdoor gear), and an excellent traveling companion–and everyone knows how hard a good traveling partner is to find. It simultaneously provides the wonderful but seemingly mutually-exclusive feelings of home and adventure, all at under four pounds weight.
Later this summer, I am taking my step-sister camping for her first time. I’m loaning her my Half Dome. I am not sure she realizes how much this is a gesture of love.
The first thing you need to do right now is read Ann’s meditation on vulnerability. She has stitched together three disparate parts of the world no one else would put together, and created something that will make you hate people, love them again, and finally remember that we are all on a different part of our trajectory.
Rose is pissed off about the World Cup, not just about the way the US team kicked themselves out of it, but also because it kicks off the world cup of thoughtless announcer quips that are just a little bit racist! You too can play along with the inevitable using her custom bingo card.
Christie finished out the week with an elegy for the dying print newspaper, whose functions are less easily replaced online than you think they are. The knowledge and perspective implicit in editorial decisions to place some stories up front and others in the back, for example. But mostly she is nostalgic for their anchoring us all to a shared reality.
I died a little inside when I heard about the recent Today Showinterview in which Jeff Bezos said, “I think printed newspapers on actual paper may be a luxury item. It’s sort of like, you know, people still have horses, but it’s not their primary way of commuting to the office.” As founder of Amazon.com and the new owner of The Washington Post, Bezos’s opinion on this matters. (Disclosure: I write a health column for the Post.)
I’m no luddite. I read Bezos’s comment on Twitter. I own two Kindles, and more than once, I’ve pulled up an electronic book on my iPhone while standing in line at the grocery store. I understand the convenience of reading news electronically — the news arrives instantly, snow or shine, it fits in your pocket, and there are no recyclables piling up on the kitchen table.
Like most of my peers, I read news online, but I still have three newspapers delivered to my house — the local daily, the weekly paper covering my rural county, and the Sunday Denver Post, which I read daily until they stopped delivery in my part of the state a few years ago.
Reading the newspaper has been my morning ritual since I could read, and online news has yet to replicate the experience in a satisfying way. I know what all you 20-somethings are thinking — oh, another curmudgeonly rant about new technology — tl;dr. And it’s true that I’m nostalgic for a way of delivering news that’s probably hopelessly impractical in the digital age.
A story in newsprint has a genuine quality to it — a paper’s signature columns and font make the words seem weighty and bona fide. It exists in the physical world, not just the cloud. A newspaper clipping can survive 100 years inside someone’s desk drawer or a shoebox in the attic, but the fate of our digital files seems less certain. Not so many years ago, someone advised me to back up my digital files on floppy disks and put them in a safety deposit box. Today, I would have a hard time accessing such files, but I can still read newspaper stories my mother clipped decades ago.
But what I mourn about newspapers is more than just their visceral pleasure. It’s the sense that I’m holding in my hands the news of record — the same accounting of events that my neighbors and friends are reading too. We may not always agree with the newspaper’s decisions about what to cover or how, but our sense of what’s happening in our community begins at a common place, one that attempts to provide an objective report. Of course you can also get this by reading the paper online, but on the internet you have more opportunities to seek out stories you want to read and skip the ones that are boring but important.
A newspaper’s layout is arranged according to a system in which editors determine each story’s significance and place it accordingly. This doesn’t mean that readers must agree with their judgment, but that, too, is part of the newspaper’s tradition — to give morning readers something to write in to complain about — “You call this a front page story?!”
When you see something on A1, above the fold, you know that it’s the day’s top story, not because it’s the one the most readers will read, but because it’s actually newsworthy and significant. Yes, this also happens to some extent online, but there the stories are increasingly arranged by algorithms that feed you content based on your previous clicks. Sections become products tailored to individual taste, rather that a hallowed place of common civic discourse.
In an informal poll of my friends, I was surprised to discover how many of them don’t read a paper on newsprint. I was less surprised to find that newsprint reading tracks with age. A friend in her late 20’s, told me she’d never had a newspaper delivered to her home, and I couldn’t help but feel sad for her. I realize that this sort of nostalgia strikes any person who finds a favorite object becoming obsolete, and I’m resigned to the fact that newsprint is on its way out. But I refuse to be happy about it.
My local paper has shrunk so much that it’s now only two sections — news and sports, plus a thin classifieds section. The sports section is often the fattest one. My husband and I joke about how quickly we get through the paper most mornings, but we have no plans to abandon our subscription. We could read the news on our various devices at the breakfast table, but then it would cease to be a shared experience. When you read news online, you may begin at the same newspaper site, but before you know it, you’ve wandered somewhere else, as you follow some thread of interest to wherever it leads you on the internet. I like the intimacy and satisfaction of passing the newsprint sections back and forth, discussing (or ranting) about the stories we’ve both just read. When we’re done, we crumple the paper into kindling for the wood stove that warms our house. And that’s one function online news will never replace.
The 2018 FIFA World Cup begins today (or, has already begun, depending on which time zone you’re in and when you’re reading this). This time around, the American team didn’t qualify. It’s embarrassing, to be frank, that we managed to miss the World Cup. You can read more about how it all happened here. Yes, I’m still mad. No, I don’t want to talk about it right now. Instead I want to talk about awful announcing.
For me, I’m picking two allegiances. On the one hand, Iceland, the underdog of all underdogs, who in the 2016 European Championships surprised everybody by advancing to the quarterfinals. On the other hand, in the words of Issa Rae, “I’m rooting for everybody black.” That is, all the African teams: Nigeria, Egypt, Senegal, Morocco and Tunesia.
Soccer (yeah yeah I know, it’s football, don’t @ me) is the world’s game. You know what else is the world’s game? Racism! And during the World Cup, American announcers are extremely annoying in this regard. These days, at least we have announcers who actually know the rules of the game, mostly. But they almost certainly know nothing at all about the players who don’t come from the United States or Europe. Pay attention, as you watch this World Cup, to how the announcers talk about the African teams in particular. They’re always described as “athletic,” “powerful,” “raw talent.” They are assumed to lack the finesse and grace of their European counterparts who are described using words like “cultured” and “finesse.”
Here’s a thread where you can find a lot of examples:
Should we have a counter for how much commentators are going to use “pace and power” to describe Black and African players this World Cup? Or make it a drinking game?
Sure, African teams often don’t have the same resources as the big guns in Europe and South America do. But remember, Luis Suárez’s signature move is literally biting people. I’m not joking. Zinedine Zidane, the French captain, was ejected from the 2006 World Cup for head butting another player in the chest, completely off the ball. And Senegal’s 2018 team looks every bit as intelligent as its European rivals.
Anyway, last World Cup I created a bingo sheet for terrible tropes that announcers use during games in which African teams are playing. I’ve refreshed it a bit with some new examples, and here it is for you to use as you may. I do not suggest making this a drinking game, unless you want to be very, very drunk.
Last year, I went to an island in the middle of the Bering Sea to count nesting birds. Most of the nests failed, possibly due to elevated ocean temperatures. A couple of weeks ago, one of the techs on the island called to tell me that this year is shaping up to be the same for at least one species. So in sad honor of another bum breeding year, I thought it appropriate to share this post, which originally appeared in August.
Each morning, when the fog was thin enough to see, I went to the cliffs.
I’d park the white pickup down a grassy ATV trail. Or off the main dirt road on a pullout. Or in the turnaround at the island’s southwesternmost point, where, when the wind was up at sea, waves coming from the south and west slapped together in explosions of spray and sound that I could feel like thunder in my chest.
At most of the sites, I walked below the cliffs, tracing the strip of cobbles between their toes and the surf, watching carefully for fur seals. When asleep, the giant pinnipeds look just like wet, sea-rounded stones; it would not be hard to step on one. More than once I nearly did. The startled seal would heave its fat-rolled body up on its improbably long flippers, arc its improbably small hedgehog head forward, and roar. Startled me would levitate backwards, moving faster than I thought possible across rocks slick with algae.
At a place called High Bluffs, I walked the cliff tops, staring 600 feet down their faces. Hills rolled inland from the island’s steep margins, like their own slow ocean swell, and my pants soaked as I pushed through the waist-high grass that covered them.
Arctic foxes, dark brown with summer, sometimes watched my progress. Their ears poked above the flowers and seedheads, and they coughed out an eerie metronome of barks if I got too close to pups concealed nearby in a den. I loved them best of all, but I didn’t come for the foxes. I didn’t come for the seals, either. I came to Saint Paul for the birds.
Saint Paul is one of a small scatter of islands called the Pribilofs, a couple hundred miles west of the coast of mainland Alaska. During the last Ice Age, the Pribilofs were mountains overlooking the mostly flat plains of the Bering Land Bridge. Now, they are cut off at the shoulders by the Bering Sea, lonely in the pitch and jostle of its waves.
The cliffs aren’t lonely in summer, though, when millions of seabirds arrive to breed and raise chicks on their sheltered ledges. When I arrived in early July, there were small gulls called kittiwakes, red-legged and black, that tamped down mudbuilt nests in a strange little dance. There were murres, common and thick-billed, that pressed their deep chests into the rocks and each other, and laughed like old men. There were puffins, tufted and horned, that found the most improbable cubbies to tuck into. There were cormorants, red-faced and pelagic, that swiveled their long necks in vaguely disturbing ways. There were northern fulmars, that spontaneously vomited when alarmed.
And there was me, peering at them through binoculars, counting one species at a time in each of my assigned plots with a pair of metal devices called tallywhackers that dangled awkwardly from my neck on a shoelace. Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge had brought me on as a volunteer to help with a population count that’s been conducted every three years since the 1970s. The other bird field techs, Ryan and Brady, tooled around on ATVs, roped into rebar at the top of some cliffs and occasionally set up mistnets—monitoring the seabirds’ breeding success, what they were eating, whether banded individuals had survived another year.
It was an enviable gig, staring at the Bering Sea every day. The birds were as thick in the air as mosquitoes, or pasted to the cliffs in a great, chattering mass. Occasionally, one of the two eagles that had taken up residence on the island would fly overhead, flushing them all at once and ruining my count. I hated the eagles then, but I was grateful too, for when the seabirds flushed, hundreds of them plummeted simultaneously from the cliffs, then arced upward again, transcribing a great, flapping parabola that screamed and squawked and cackled and then dissolved over the ocean. It was like seeing the air itself assume living form before your eyes — the soul of the world laid bare in a moment of movement.
But the beauty couldn’t mask another thing the three of us watched slowly unfold: Most of the birds were failing. The kittiwakes never laid, and their nests disintegrated and oozed down the cliff walls, littering the rocks with clumps of mud and grass. The murres crouched on the ledges lost their eggs or never laid them. Last year it was the same, but there were die-offs too – starved puffins washing up in the surf. Murres by the thousands turning up dead on beaches across the Alaskan coastline and all the way down into the Pacific Northwest.
This was hard for Brady and me, but we’d been here only one season. Ryan was in his fourth, and he is one of those people who loves birds so much that he sometimes seems like one of them. He’d curse the foxes for eating them. He’d linger at his plots to watch long after he’d finished collecting data, laid out in the grass as if it weren’t a pants-soaking sea. He’d cook up reasons to be in the field in the late-night still-daylight, or when the weather was bad. And as July wore on, you could see the nesting failures accumulate in him like sediment. He would come to my room at staff quarters sometimes in the evening to check in about the next day’s work or just to talk, but he never rested long on the lack of eggs. He’d change the subject, turn it into a joke that didn’t feel like a joke to either of us. Once, his voice cracked, and he looked away.
The Bering Sea has been warmer than usual these last two years. Perhaps food was thin. Perhaps this hinted at what the future will look like, on these islands, as humans ratchet Earth’s temperature ever higher. But seabirds are long-lived and some species are prone to booms and busts. It’s hard to know what two bad breeding years in the Pribilofs mean for murres and kittiwakes, or what story they tell about the North Pacific.
That was one reason why we were here. To gather pieces that, added together with countless others assembled over time and space, would help someone arrive at answers. This is the slow, unromantic part of science: Not the eureka of discovery, but the ritual of observance, practiced across decades.
And so, to me, going to the cliffs each day came to feel something like attending church. We each went alone and were still. We listened and watched — bearing witness to these lives so different from our own, noting details, counting birds, counting nests, counting days. We tried to imagine what the small things we were collecting revealed about this place, and our relationship with it.
When I left, finally, in August, I didn’t feel closer to understanding. But I was glad to go. For both my hands were heavy with the boundless space, with the flash-underside of a thousand pairs of wings, with the sea-stone backs of seals, with the remembered taste of grass stems, with the muffle of fog and the burnt-match smell of guano and the weird claws and lobes of seabird feet. And my heart sank beneath the weight of portent, and all this that could be lost.
Red kittiwake drawing by the author.
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