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.
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!
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
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.
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.