On Monday, the Worldometers clock, which rapidly ticks off the ever-increasing number of humans inhabiting our planet, leapt across the seven-billion mark. In honor of the staggering sum (and with a hat tip to Harper’s), let’s look at some other numbers relating to population.
First we basked with whales, then we explored the aquatic food chain, from the micro to the mouthwatering. In the final part of this mini-series on the state of the sea, let’s turn our gaze to the Pacific Ocean, where coral reefs are tumbling into oblivion, plastic is taking on the form of large land masses, and rampaging rubber duckies are on the loose. There’s some good news too.
Coral reefs are the oases of the oceans, the “rainforests of the sea,” sustaining a quarter of all marine species though they occupy less than 0.1 percent of the world’s watery surface. They are living structures formed by colonies of small creatures that exude calcium carbonate as an exoskeleton, creating masses that are underwater havens of life.
But they’re picky buggers, worse than that prima donna Goldilocks….
Goats were grazing on a patch of grass littered with plastic garbage when Phylis Mueni passed by. She carried three 20-liter jerrycans that once held vegetable oil, one a bright yellow that matched her oversize T-shirt. Everything else was a wash of browns and reds—the rusted metal of corrugated roofing, the labyrinth of mud houses, the drainage ditch that ran along the gullied path. Mueni is a resident of Korogocho (which means “shoulder-to-shoulder” in Swahili) one of Nairobi’s largest and roughest slums. She was in pursuit of a most basic element: water. No one in places like this has running water. On a good day, locals travel 300 feet to fill up their cans for a few cents. On shortage days, which happen about once a week, the search can take most of the day, and people can end up paying six times the usual price.
Phytoplankton and Fisheries
Last time I wrote, we were out watching whales, the biggest creatures in the ocean. This time, let’s start small, with those phytoplankton that are the foundation of the marine food web, the organisms that make water so blue to our eyes. According to NASA’s Earth Observatory, phytoplankton serve as a “biological carbon pump” that transfers about 10 gigatonnes of carbon from the atmosphere to the deep ocean each year. They bloom and retreat. They move and wander through the ocean. They provide sustenance for everything from teeny tiny fish to the great whales I saw off Cape Cod.
The Brooklyn Book Festival is the largest free literary event in New York City presenting an array of literary stars and emerging authors who represent the exciting world of literature today. Killing the Buddha will be there. Will you?
I’ll be moderating the panel, The Sacred and the Profane: A Modern Pilgrim’s Progress, featuring Buddha-killers Darcey Steinke (Easter Everywhere), Michael Muhammad Knight (The Taqwacores), and Peter Bebergal (Too Much to Dream). We’ll be exploring unorthodox approaches to faith—how we find it, how we lose it, and how we redefine it for ourselves. Sex, punk Islam, and sober psychedelia will all be on the offering table. Hope you can join us!
Sunday, September 18, 2011
5:00 pm – 6:00 pm
Brooklyn Borough Hall (209 Joralemon Street, Brooklyn, NY 11201)
St. Francis Mcardle Hall
Such a pleasure to finally hold a hard-bound book of Sharlet’s essays in my hands, the true stories he’s held closest to his heart, collecting on the side as he worked on The Family and C Street. Knowing Jeff, I’ve read some of these before, on screen at KillingTheBuddha.com (a site he founded and I continue to help edit) and amid the ephemeral pages of Rolling Stone and Harper’s. But between the covers of Sweet Heaven When I Die, on thick stock, they’re richer with the re-reading. For the many essays that were new to me, I got a fresh look at what I’ve always loved about his writing, the anti-scripture of a man who is crazy about a world that drives him mad, in love with ordinary people around us that he can see are larger than life. The comparison to Joan Didion is apt. He writes passages like this, from the tale of a college love from Colorado and a return visit to see her years later:
She thought she might study religion. She bought herself a concordance. She would sit cross-legged on the floor, the concordance’s giant pages spread on her lap like the wings of a gull, a cup of wine or a bottle of whiskey in one hand and a Marlboro in the other. Her back curved like calligraphy—she had worn a brace as a girl, and her legs were a bit crooked, and her toes wrapped onto one another because when she was little she’d refused to abandon a pair of shoes that she’d loved—and she would parse scripture.
Read Sweet Heaven because you love words and stories. Read because you long and love. Read Sweet Heaven because you believe, or wish you did.
Buy this book, for yourself and a friend.
Last month I boarded a small ship in Cape Cod and headed out to sea in search of whales. The going was easy, the day pleasant, the seas calm. The voice of a naturalist wafted from the loudspeakers, filling our heads with biological facts and pointing out shearwaters as they skimmed above the surface of the water on lance-like wings. And the whales! We observed cetaceans of the filter-feeding mysticetes variety. Humpbacks rose from the water, just a hint of their immense size revealed with each surfacing, “carrying their tonnage / of barnacles and joy,” in the words of poet Mary Oliver. Three traveled together, each emergence and descent repeated in the same order…one, two, three. One minke whale penetrated the surface of the water just off the ship’s starboard side, and vanished a second later.
At any one moment, only a fraction of the leviathans were visible, but even with their immensity, the whales only represented an infinitesimal percentage of the abundance of life we witnessed that day. The color of the water revealed much of the rest. Water, alone, is colorless. Come winter I’ll crave the crystal-clear liquid that hugs the equator, warm and wet, as will the humpbacks that will travel there to calve. But those tropical waters are aquatic deserts where life hovers only around the oases of coral reefs, many of which are dying. Here in the North Atlantic, the deep blue-green waters teem with untold existence—carbon-sucking, oxygen-generating, bottom-of-the-food-chain, maybe-not-so-charismatic-but-unbelievably-important phytoplankton. Without these creatures, an entire web would unravel.
ELODIE SAMPERE and I are behind the bushes with our pants down. We’d just met a few hours earlier when she’d handed me some homemade twice-fried chicken while someone else passed along a Bloody Mary. It was about eight in the morning. Now, as we pee behind the acacia brush after scouting for snakes, she tells me about how at the previous year’s Rhino Charge, the driver of their team, Pinks in Charge, had nearly died. The dust and the heat at Magadi had kicked up her asthma and landed her in the hospital for two weeks.
“So I assume she’s not coming this year,” I say, as we wiggle and shake and zip up.
“No, no, of course she’s coming!” she replies.
It’s time for Rhino Charge, an annual pilgrimage…
As my seventy-six-year-old father reached out across the wire fence to touch the rhino, his face lit up like a little kid’s. Baraka, which means “blessings be” in languages from Africa to Asia, is a black rhino at theOl Pejeta Conservancy in central Kenya, where we visited last year. He is unable to return to the wild where he was born, after losing one eye in a fight and the other to a cataract. Most of his two horns were removed to make him less appealing to poachers. Now he serves as the public ambassador for rhino conservation, mingling with the tourists and accepting their handfuls of hay. And making older men, and thus their daughters, smile.
Nearby, a southern white rhino named Max lingered….
As the word continues to spread about the Best Women’s Travel Writing 2011 book, some of us got to contribute little snippets to Ladies’ Home Journal about how we travel, where we travel, what we carry with us, and where next. Read mine and the other contributions here.
And if you’re in the Boston area, we’re having an event at Brookline Booksmith on July 25th — that’s this Monday! — featuring Carol Reichert, Anna Wexler, Marcia DeSanctis and lil ole me. The event starts at 7 pm at 279 Harvard Street, Brookline, MA. Hope to see you!