An excerpted version of my Virginia Quarterly Review piece on India’s vulture crisis is just out in Open magazine in India. Here’s the link: http://openthemagazine.com/article/living/the-last-indian-vultures
I hear from a great distance that he calls himself Harold Camping. I hear that he has studied a very old book very closely and decided that today is the day the world will end. Others believe him! I know my opinion might not count for much, but I don’t think the world will end today for the humans. There are seven billion Homo sapiens on earth, give or take, usually taking. They’re a species that like to mate, from what I’ve observed, and females are fertile every 28 days are so. It’s rumored that some pairings that have trouble with conception have various other means at their disposal to help the process, often resulting in multiple births. Each day I see more of them! That their world might end seems quite impossible!
They like to give names and the one they’ve given me is the Taita thrush. I like their way of naming, but not the way they’ve come into my forest and carried it away, stealing my home to make theirs. I awoke in a cloak of sadness this Saturday, unable to sing my morning song. I have been looking for a while now for another of my kind and I think they might all be gone. I’m having the urge to nest, but without a mate, I know it will be a futile endeavor. My friends, you see, have been disappearing for a while now, apparently risen up to some other realm. Each time we’d gather, there were fewer of us. Even when I couldn’t find them, I’d hear their call, singing through the forest. And then it was just me. No one answered my song. Maybe there is another there, across the divide, too far to hear. The Taita Hills of my Kenyan land were all one once, and I suppose the ground still connects us, but the places where we live – where I live – are only four in number now, and the distance between them is too dangerous for me to travel. And I woke up not feeling so well this morning.
Another post on Dissent’s Arguing the World blog….
Sunday is Mother’s Day, and—after calling my mom to tell her how great she is—I’ll be boarding a plane bound for Kenya. Meanwhile, all week long, planes have been leaving Nairobi, laden with sweet-smelling bouquets bound for mothers all over the world.
Europe’s equivalent of the New World’s Colombia, Kenya provides the other side of the pond with a third of its cut flowers—88 million tons of blooming glory each year, worth some $264 million. The vast majority of them are produced at one location at Lake Naivasha, the largest freshwater lake in the Great Rift Valley. I spent weeks on the shores of the lake last year, where zebras and leopards still roam, and where I’ll soon be returning. The scene there is not so—sorry—rosy.
In the so-called Happy Valley, the acacia forest that once ringed the lake is broken in places by swaths of industrial floriculture greenhouses, unending bows of plastic …
Should the vultures of India be as fortunate as the Virginia Quarterly Review. The esteemed literary journal went through upheaval last year, but like some phoenix, has risen again, Ted Genoways back at the helm. The spring issue, Ruin and Rebirth, features my piece, “India’s Vanishing Vultures”, accompanied by amazing pictures by Ami Vitale. (I dont have rights to her photos, so this spectacular one is by raptor biologist Munir Virani.) It’s not online yet, so pony up the $14 and get down to your local bookseller and support journalism! Thick as a book, this issue features Elliot Woods with the trash-pickers of Cairo, Chien-ming Chung on a journey to where all our electronic waste ends up (hint: it involves an open skillet and children) and a heart-breaking yet crucial account by J. Malcolm Garcia of the debilitating and ignored ailments our veterans are returning from Afghanistan and Iraq with after residing next to open burn pits on military bases. OK, so maybe not the cheeriest of topics, but all part of our brave new world.
Late-breaking addition! No pictures yet, but the story is available here.
Mark your calendars for a couple of upcoming readings to celebrate the publication of Best Women’s Travel Writing 2011, just out from Travelers’ Tales.
If you’re in New York City on June 16, come out to Lolita Bar for the Restless Legs reading series. I’ll be joining a handful of other fine women as we read from the anthology. I mean, how can you pass up a reading series that caters to the “wanderlust stricken”? The Restless Legs gatherings bring travelers, travel writers, and the people who love them together for an evening of sharing tales from the road, gossiping, and general debauchery. Join us at 7 pm at Lolita, 266 Broome Street on the Lower East Side.
For those in the Boston area, we’re having an event at Brookline Booksmith on July 25th 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!
I’ll be doing a little guest blogging on environmental issues over at Dissent. Here’s the first:
Nixon would never have let this happen. Back when Tricky Dicky ruled, Americans had nearly annihilated such creatures as the bison, the peregrine falcon, and the bald eagle, but were making efforts to bring them all back. It was 1973 when Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act, crafted in a collaborative effort between scientists and government, with a hearty dose of lawyerly input. It was a monumental step for species survival, ensuring a place for the marginalized flora and fauna that were at risk of extinction as a “consequence of economic growth and development untempered by adequate concern and conservation.” The year 1973 also marked the culmination of an era when conservatives could publicly support conservation without being vilified. The intent of the landmark law was that, once in place, decisions about listing—and delisting—species as endangered would be based on conservation science, not politics.
That all changed this month when Senator Jon Tester (D-MT), a music teacher turned farmer, and Representative Mike Simpson (R-ID), a dentist, placed a rider on the federal budget bill that removes wolves in Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, and Utah from the federal endangered species list.
I just returned from another trip to India. On my second day there, I was eating lunch at my aunt and uncle’s house, setting out the tiered tower of stainless steel tiffin containers to reveal finely cut green bean curries, sambar, rasam and other South Indian staples. In an attempt to be polite, I served my uncle first, scooping out a spoonful of rice fresh from the pressure cooker.
“Oh, we don’t do the rice first…,” my aunt began, waving her hand in an attempt to interrupt my hovering spoon’s path. And then she explained that Brahmins don’t let the rice touch the plate before some curry has been put down first. Well, not all Brahmins, my uncle added, just our kind, and he makes the horizontal motion across his forehead indicating the marks of a Siva worshipper, as opposed to the trident-shape mark of the Vishnu followers.
Damn, did it again! Rule-breakin’ in Chennai. Bless my eternally accommodating extended family as I transgress, they laugh, and then explain. I learn the rules, one by one, if not necessarily the reasoning behind them. Repeat.
It was a reminder that my essay “A Hundred Unspoken Rules” that was originally published in Killing the Buddha still stands true. I’m happy to report that it was selected for the anthology The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2011, edited by Lavinia Spalding and just out from Travelers’ Tales.
It should be arriving in bookstores soon, but in case you prefer arm-chair shopping to complement arm-chair traveling, then you can get it now on Amazon.
In addition to my South Asian bumblings and ruminations, you’ll find true stories about having lunch with a mobster in Japan and drinks with an IRA member in Ireland, and learn the secrets of flamenco in Spain and the magic of samba in Brazil. You can deliver a trophy for best testicles in a small town in rural Serbia, fall in love while riding a camel through the Syrian Desert, ski a first descent of over 5,000 feet in Northern India, and discover the joy of getting naked in South Korea. And then, maybe, think about where your next adventure might lead you.
Only Bidoun could come up with this awesome title. Only Bidoun would relish the story of a state-of-the-art hospital in Abu Dhabi—that only caters to falcons and other birds of prey. Here’s an excerpt from my piece, just out in their spring issue on the theme, Sports:
In 1999 Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, founder and first president of the United Arab Emirates and a devoted falconer, banned all forms of hunting in his country. Exterminators need special permits to kill even rats. In spite of Emirati falconers’ massive campaign to add falconry to UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, it is almost completely illegal to use falcons to hunt in the UAE.
The ban was imperative. The object of falconry was extra intangible. The only hope that hunting might ever again be practiced in the Gulf would be to ease up for a time, perhaps decades, and let the hammered hare and houbara bustard populations recover. Abu Dhabi, meanwhile, is trying to jumpstart the project with an international Houbara breeding program. Much to-do attends even small events marking forward progress, as when Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Ruler’s Representative in the Western Region and Chairman of the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi, released seventy bustards into the desert last year.
One might ask, then, how an Arab might partake in his cultural heritage? For decades now, the answer has been: he migrates. Some head for North Africa, where a handful of countries still allow falcon hunting. But mostly, those who can afford it — primarily sheikhs and their entourages — go to Yak Much, in western Pakistan.
An alternative title name for the article? “Slouching to Yak Much”
Jesus looked 40 feet tall as I floated above him. The Florida waters were warm, and I kicked my finned feet, listened to my breath pass in and out of the snorkel and the crinkling crystalline sound of water lapping against my body. I watched the others around me descend to touch the underwater Christ of the Abyss, though it seemed so very far away. I was five. Everything looked huge, and I stayed on the surface.
But I was at home in the water. Our little New Jersey town was bordered by two rivers that drained into the Atlantic seven miles from our house. I learned how to swim in their waters and in the frigid pool of the local YMCA. My dad would trick me, letting go and stepping back with the agreement that I would swim toward him. But he would step farther away from me with each stroke I made, forever out of reach, an unattainable goal. The lessons worked; I crave the feel of my body in that liquid environment, where fluid movements so like flight are possible, where gravity reverses itself.
In the Keys, there was more than just Jesus. There were barracuda, slender four-foot fish that I could see at a blue and murky distance. And in the shallows, a stingray nearly as large as I was undulated through the water below me, a dusting of fine white sand from the sea floor stirred by its water wings. Lobsters crawled straight from some prehistoric epoch and sea urchins were underwater starbursts. The barracuda had razor sharp teeth. The stingray could sting. A misstep on an urchin would have sent me to the hospital. But all I knew was that I had entered a world I never knew existed and it was wondrous. That there were things that inhabited this other place that could hurt me, I was unaware. I had no fear. My flippers made my new swimming skills seem like those of a superhero, and I knew that the creatures I encountered were busy with their own doings, ignoring my little mammalian body that had trespassed upon them.
It is thirty-five years later, and I have just spent two weeks worrying about the status of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, though I am 10,000 miles away. It was not completely idle fretting. On top of thinking about the people of northern Japan, last night I was supposed to be on a plane to Tokyo, to celebrate my cousin’s wedding. I chose, in the last hours, not to go. Fear was the deciding factor. I was worried about the hot water that keeps evaporating from the pools filled with spent fuel rods, and the radioactivity in the steam. I was worried about the International Atomic Energy Association’s repeated use of the words “very serious.” I was worried about all that the scientists and technicians don’t know and the qualifier “somewhat” by a Japanese spokesman when claiming that they were preventing the situation from getting worse. I was worried about the power of that energy we’ve pretended we’ve harnessed, though the bind of control seems to have reversed, though my cousin’s future grandchildren will still be asking, decades from now, what do we do with all this radioactive shit they left behind?
Was it in those Florida waters? Was that the moment when I last experienced a world without apprehension? Though the barracuda’s teeth were just as sharp as they are now, the water was so warm and everything so new and beautiful. And there was a bronze Jesus and a little girl who knew nothing of nuclear fission. Of the cruel ways men can treat animals and each other and the earth. Of what the eyes of a dying friend look like. Of the length of a surgical incision in a father’s torso.
I returned to that same body of water in Florida when I was nineteen. My breath caught when I saw the barracuda, though they still paid me no mind. And Jesus? He was not much larger than a tall man, a swimming pool’s depth below the surface of the water. With a kick of my fins, I held my breath and swam down to touch his outstretched hand, but it was the fearless moment I was after, and I couldn’t reach it.
Published today on Killing the Buddha…
Last Friday night, a man late in his years and a recent recipient of news about his body that no man wants to hear, leaned in close to me and asked me a question. The air was heavy with mortality, and its twin emotion, love. What his question was is irrelevant, but the answer, I realize as I sit down to write about a marathon public reading of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick last weekend, is not. My answer was about how I cherish the quiet spaces in life. Time without interruption. Time for deep conversations or a sensuous focus on a single subject. Time to get into the grit of life, and let it unfold. I am decidedly of the mind that that’s where all the good stuff happens. I also feel like these moments, in our hyper-communicative lives, are becoming extremely rare. We share more, with more people, but we stay on the surface of an unfathomable ocean.
At noon the next day, I stepped into a space that felt deep and from some other time. The approach, rumbling down cobblestone streets, helped. The entrance to the new Bedford Whaling Museum was plugged with people, some (including myself) laden with sleeping bags and backpacks of snacks. It was the fifteenth annual Moby-Dick Marathon, a non-stop reading of the epic tale from the site of Melville’s own departure on a whaling ship in 1841. My friends and I were in it for the long haul. I, I must admit, had never read the book. I knew it was about a ship, and an obsessive captain, and a whale.
And so I learned about Ishmael and Ahab and the white whale and their adventures. For more than a day, it was just voices. One after the other, 180 readers stepped up to the mic for a ten-minute stretch each over the course of 25 contiguous hours. You could look at the number affixed to their sleeve and then the program and perhaps figure out who they were: notables such as Barney Frank (MA congressman) or Peter Whittemore (great-great-grandson of Melville), or simply “Retiree” or “Melville Aficionado.” Though we moved venues a couple of times, mostly we were settled in the museum’s Jacob’s Family Gallery, transformed into a space of words and whispers. Whale skeletons, suspended from the ceiling, hung over our heads. A blue whale exuded oil from its bones that collected in a small flask that would take decades to fill.
Nearing midnight, the crowd had thinned. I had signed up as a substitute reader, placed my own S-14 label on my arm and it was as I was getting sleepy that one of the organizers rested a hand on my shoulder and asked me to read. As I stood at one podium listening to the prior reader finish and awaiting my cue to begin, I saw that it was snowing outside and I smiled. And then with his nod, I began to read of the “power and malice” of sperm whales, as noted by our young sailor. Call me, not Ismael, but a romantic; I felt like I was taking part in some small yet wondrous bit of history.
For reading aloud is a dying art. When did you last read something, more than a snippet from the newspaper, to someone close to you? When was the last time you had something read to you? A poem? An essay? A book? A long book? Jeff Sharlet, who founded this website, (and, it’s not unrelated, named his blog, “Call Me Ishmael.”), was once my professor. He made us stand at the podium and read our work aloud to each other. “Go to book readings,” he commanded. “As writers, they are your church services.” Some of the readers in New Bedford were born preachers, in this respect. They read neither too slow nor too fast. They lingered over words. They savored the stage directions of punctuation. Others were young, or inexperienced, or melodramatic. The resulting flavors were humorous (when an English captain took on a thick Brooklyn brogue) or painful (when the most basic words were mispronounced), yet there was always something fabulously democratic about the mélange. Our lack of reading aloud, or perhaps more accurately, our lack of listening, is the death of our pronunciation. Moby-Dick is advanced; there are deceptive nautical terms where only half the letters are pronounced and 25-cent words galore. When they were spoken correctly, they sang. We listeners learned.
The other blessed thing of these epic events, these extended spaces of quiet, is the stages they pass through. In the beginning, hundreds of us were in a room filled with the Lagoda, a half-scale model of a whaling bark, its mast inches from the cathedral-height ceiling. We moved to the Seaman’s Bethel across the street for the sermon section, sitting in the stiff wooden pews where Melville once sat, listening to a real-life pastor play the part of Reverend Mapple as he thundered the story of Job from a boat prow pulpit. We returned to the museum and settled into the Jacob’s Gallery, taking short forays into the theater and another exhibition room to surround a sperm whale skeleton for a soliloquy on cetology. The hours ticked on. People came and went. By three in the morning, there were fifteen people sitting in folding chairs and another dozen snuggled in sleeping bags in the upper corridor. I slept myself, on and off, and then periodically leaned up, book in hand, and resumed listening. As light began to stream in the window, a new wave of people arrived with coffee cups in hand, stomping fresh snow from their boots.
But the movement in body was minimal, not more than 20 or 30 minutes spent in transition, the rest in continual reading, page to page, chapter to chapter, reader to reader. The audience was hushed. Attentive. There were a few Kindles and iPads, but those with computers were rare and tended to tuck themselves away into far corners. A few women knitted. Most of the audience bent over copies of the book, their own—dog-eared and pencil-marked—or borrowed from the museum. If we spoke at all, it was in a whisper. I learned nothing about the friends of friends I was with until we buckled up in the car for the ride back to Boston early Sunday afternoon.
Except for the brief time when we crossed the street to the Seaman’s Bethel, I had not left the museum but once. A spell was broken as a friend and I stepped into the cold morning in search of a coffee. Early on in Moby-Dick, Ishmael talks about the love of extended stays on sea, far from daily news.
For the most part, in this tropic whaling life, a sublime uneventfulness invests you; you hear no news; read no gazettes; extras with startling accounts of commonplaces never delude you into unnecessary excitements; you hear of no domestic afflictions; bankrupt securities; fall of stocks….
I imagine the quiet of the sea, the drama only in moments of storms or the slaughtering of whales. As the barista fixes my coffee, I glance at the newspaper lying in wait. A massacre in Tuscon. We leave, return to the museum and the sacred space within, find solace, and escape, in the auditory marvel of a story well told.