Letters To Strangers

This book looks like a must-read for multiple reasons. At least 65. That is the number of writers musing on a simple question: how can an “ephemeral encounter with a stranger leave such an eternal mark?” As someone whose life story hinges on a chance encounter in an airport, and so believes that strangers can make great co-adventurers, I am in. If you want a taste of what is in store, this essay by an author we have appreciated in these pages several times over the years, titled To My Lost Trishaw Driver, is excerpted from it:

Yangon, Myanmar, via Creative Commons.

Pico Iyer on decades of letters to a man he met, once, in Myanmar.

Travel is, deep down, an exercise in trust, and sometimes I think it was you who became my life’s most enduring teacher. I had every reason to be wary when, in 1985, I clambered out of the overnight train and stepped out into the October sunshine of Mandalay, blinking amidst the dust and bustle of the “City of Kings.” Continue reading

Pythons, Bobcats & Camera Traps

A Burmese python and a bobcat facing off in the Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida last June, captured by a trap camera set up by the U.S. Geological Survey. U.S.G.S.

We have been posting about invasive pythons, as well as plenty of other invasive species, annually for more than a decade now. Likewise, feline wildlife has been a recurring theme. Not to mention camera traps, another theme we care about.

For a surprising overlap of those two themes, or otherwise just a very well-written story about wildlife, read Matt Kaplan’s article about how Bobcats With a Taste for Python Eggs Might Be the Guardians of Florida’s Swamp.

The bobcat eating the eggs. U.S.G.S.

Our congratulations to Dr. Andrea Currylow for the determined pursuit leading this scientific finding, and with no disrespect to pythons as a species in their native territories, in this case may the best cat win:

Cameras captured the wild feline purloining a Burmese python’s eggs, giving hope that the state’s native species are responding to a voracious, invasive predator.

The bobcat took a swipe. U.S.G.S.

The voracious appetite of the invasive Burmese python is causing Florida’s mammal and bird populations to plummet. With little natural competition to control the big snake’s numbers, the situation looks desperate. But new observations suggest that the bobcat, a wildcat native to Florida, might be able to help. Continue reading

If SUVs Were An Individual Country

The Biden Administration is set to unveil a new set of fuel-efficiency standards on Friday. Photograph by David Paul Morris / Bloomberg / Getty

Elizabeth Kolbert’s essay offers perspective on how the SUV category has grown as a percentage of the global fleet, and what that has meant for fuel consumption. The point of the essay seems not to demonize owners of SUVs, but to suggest a mechanism to put the category on a level playing field with more fuel efficient vehicles. The humanist in me imagines that most SUV owners would own up, given the chance, and take responsibility for their footprint and pay their fair share:

A Better Idea Than Releasing Oil from the Strategic Reserve

It’s time to do away with the S.U.V. loophole.

On Thursday afternoon, President Joe Biden announced that the federal government would release up to a hundred and eighty million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve over six months. The move, aimed at bringing down gas prices—“Americans are feeling Putin’s gas price hike at the pump,” Biden tweeted—is obviously politically motivated. Continue reading

Writing About The Banda Islands & Nutmeg & Us

Around the time we shared a book review of Amitav Ghosh’s most recent work he gave a lecture about the Banda Islands, explaining the relationship between nutmeg and our current challenges related to climate change. It includes conversation with his host, a professor of creative writing, who draws out of Ghosh on his writing process.

The best part of the lecture is about half way through, when Ghosh talks about the agency of botanicals, a topic that many of us first encountered in the writings of Michael Pollan. Thanks to Rhoda Feng for giving Ghosh’s book another review, which led me to find the video above:

A SMALL BUT INCREDIBLY VALUABLE NUT

At the end of Amitav Ghosh’s SEA OF POPPIES (2008), a character reflects on how her life has been governed not by the sign of Saturn but by the poppy seed. Offering a seed to her lover, she says: ‘Here, taste it. It is the star that took us from our homes and put us on this ship. It is the planet that rules our destiny.’ SEA OF POPPIES is part of the Ibis trilogy by Ghosh – followed by RIVER OF SMOKE (2011) and FLOOD OF FIRE (2015) – about the nineteenth-century Anglo-Chinese Opium Wars. Continue reading

Animal Prints & Entrepreneurial Conservation

Conservation-minded scholars hope to harness the cultural power of animal prints. Illustration by Na Kim

It is difficult to judge from Rebecca Mead’s article Should Leopards Be Paid for Their Spots whether and how the idea has a practical future, although the exemplary collaboration between Panthera and Hermes has allure. The concept has plenty of merit, from my vantage point 26 years into an entrepreneurial career that shares some common ground.

If travelers are willing to pay a premium to support the conservation of a place; if they buy things to take home because those things support artisans and farmers; and continue to buy the coffee when back home because it funds bird habitat regeneration (customers tell me via email that in addition to the coffee being excellent, this is a motivator), then why not this too:

Style-setters from Egyptian princesses to Jackie Kennedy to Debbie Harry have embraced leopard prints. Proponents of a “species royalty” want designers to pay to help save endangered big cats.

Jacqueline Kennedy, in 1962. Photograph from Getty

When Jacqueline Kennedy was living in the White House, in the early sixties, she relied upon the taste of Oleg Cassini, the costume designer turned couturier, to supply her with a wardrobe that would befit her role as First Lady, one of the most photographed women in the world. In 1962, Cassini provided her with a striking leopard coat. Knee-length, with three-quarter sleeves and six buttons that fastened across the chest, the coat was not made from a synthetic leopard-patterned fabric. Continue reading

Crypto, Pigs & Possibilities

Wind turbines next to Argo Blockchain’s new facility in Dickens County, Texas. The site would be fueled mostly by wind and solar energy. Carter Johnston for The New York Times

First thought upon seeing the headline of the story below: when pigs fly. There is plenty of evidence to the contrary. If you read to the end of the story, published in the New York Times (click through to read it in full there), you will understand that some at the cutting edge of crypto want to change the name of what they do to “validators” from the less environmentally-friendly sounding “miners.” So, second thought: lipstick on pigs. But, at least they are acknowledging the complaint. Plus, the author of this story has a remarkable track record of reporting on issues we care about. So let’s read their latest claims with an open mind:

Bitcoin Miners Want to Recast Themselves as Eco-Friendly

Facing intense criticism, the crypto mining industry is trying to change the view that its energy-guzzling computers are harmful to the climate.

Texas has become a hot spot for crypto mining, attracting more than two dozen companies, partly because of an unusual incentive structure with its power grid. Carter Johnston for The New York Times

Along a dirt-covered road deep in Texas farm country, the cryptocurrency company Argo Blockchain is building a power plant for the internet age: a crypto “mining” site stocked with computers that generate new Bitcoins. Continue reading

When Fences Are Un-Neighborly

Volunteers modify a wire fence in Wyoming to allow wildlife to pass through. ABSAROKA FENCE INITIATIVE

If we take Robert Frost’s poetic license into the realm of how humans and wildlife might coexist more successfully, then the image above is powerful. Good fences might make good neighbors if they allow wildlife to migrate as needed.

A guanaco at a fence in southern Chile. WOLFGANG KAEHLER / LIGHTROCKET VIA GETTY IMAGES

While working in the Patagonia region of Chile, 2008-2010, I saw images like this in the photo to the right regularly. On occasion the sight would be more gruesome. Ranchers had erected fences without regard for the need of guanacos to wander.

During our seven years living in India the human-elephant relationship was often one of worshipful respect, but included too many stories of fences, or worse, as methods farmers used to protect their properties from elephant intrusions. As is the case in Kenya (see the image below) fences are unneighborly. So, we were on the lookout for creative solutions. The following article by Jim Robbins, in Yale e360, is timely and welcome in this regard.

An African elephant alongside an electric fence in Laikipia, Kenya. AVALON / UNIVERSAL IMAGES GROUP VIA GETTY IMAGES

Unnatural Barriers: How the Boom in Fences Is Harming Wildlife

From the U.S. West to Mongolia, fences are going up rapidly as border barriers and livestock farming increase. Now, a growing number of studies are showing the impact of these fences, from impeding wildlife migrations to increasing the genetic isolation of threatened species.

The most famous fence in the United States is Continue reading

If You Happen To Be In London

Museum number: BP.1079
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London, courtesy Frederick Warne & Co Ltd.

Do you have the inclination of switching from city life to rural? I, for one, made the switch and have no inclination to ever live in a city again. Occasional visits are fine. But as the theme song from a tv show of my youth had it “…keep Manhattan, just give me that country life…”.

My reason for thinking about this today is related to the book on the right. Whether or not you are a fan of her books, you might find the case of Beatrix Potter’s life choices worthy of consideration. Rizzoli has published this book to accompany an exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Our appreciation to Anna Russell for describing both, and adding plenty of detail about the author’s life, in this article:

The Secret Life of Beatrix Potter

A new book and an exhibition on Potter, who wrote “The Tale of Peter Rabbit,” use letters, sketches, and a coded journal to capture an author who delighted in the detail and humor of the natural world.

Many teen-agers will go to great lengths to keep their diaries private—I kept a little key for mine in a wooden jewelry box, which I guarded jealously—but the children’s book author Beatrix Potter took it to an extreme. Continue reading

Less Beef Is Better, No Beef Is Best

A beef rib lifter stacked with strip steak and a sagebrush tree. Photograph by Kyoko Hamada. Styled by Martin Bourne

The photo to the left might have appealed to me last year or earlier. But having tried giving up beef for so long, and finally prevailing, now it has no appeal. It does not disgust me, but I expect to get there.

Ligaya Mishan’s article What Does the End of Beef Mean for Our Sense of Self? has excellent photography by Kyoko Hamada.

My highest compliment is reserved for the stylist Martin Bourne, for making the photos just slightly creepy, matching my current emotional response to looking at beef.

Strip steaks alongside a piece of sirloin tip. Photograph by Kyoko Hamada. Styled by Martin Bourne

When it comes to America’s legacy of Manifest Destiny, there’s perhaps no meal more symbolic than a bleeding steak. So who are we now that we’re consuming less red meat?

MEAT IS PRIMAL, or so some of us think: that humans have always eaten it; that it is the anchor of a meal, the central dish around which other foods revolve, like courtiers around a king; that only outliers have ever refused it. But today, those imagined outliers are multiplying. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reports that the consumption of beef per capita worldwide has declined for 15 years. Nearly a fourth of Americans claimed to have eaten less meat in 2019, according to a Gallup poll. The recipe site Epicurious, which reaches an audience of 10 million, phased out beef as an ingredient in new recipes in 2020. Continue reading

Chocolate Quinoa Crunch

I have no skills as a food photographer, so this may not be the most flattering image of this new product. But even so, maybe the snapshot above will serve my purpose. We are introducing this today, in sample portions, in the Authentica shop at the Marriott Los Suenos. It is 70% dark chocolate, semi-sweet, covering puffed quinoa. It will be offered in the most biodegradable packaging I am aware of. I am working on the label design, and pricing for a package of 12, so stay tuned for final details.

Organikos In Antarctica

A bag of Organikos coffee, geisha whole bean, with Antarctica in the background

On Sundays I try to stay away from the Authentica shops in order to do other types of work. But on a recent Sunday morning we needed to deliver coffee that had just been roasted to the Belen shop. While bringing the coffee in, a man was poring over the labels in our honey display. My conversation with him started on the minutiae of how these raw honeys are prepared, and extended for more than an hour to the subject of the current coffee harvest. When I told him about the recently introduced geisha varietal, he enjoyed hearing as much as I enjoyed conveying its phenomenal success in Panama first, and now Costa Rica. And so, yesterday, he sent the photo above as promised, holding a bag of our coffee in front of the Antarctic coast, where he is on a scientific expedition.

Organikos served coffee at the southern most tip of the South American continent a dozen years ago, and I am happy to see its reach extending further south and keeping the scientists warm and happy.

New Technology For Anti-Poaching

Seized ivory tusks before being destroyed at a waste management center in Port Dickson, Malaysia, in 2019. Mohd Rasfan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Poaching has a puzzling array of culprits as well as victims, and many possible solutions. I have thought over the years that the Tiger Trail approach was replicable for this purpose. But genetic technology might scale more effectively. And with climate change overshadowing other crises, you might think this topic is past its prime, so read the comments section at the end of this article. Thanks to Catherine M. Allchin (how did we miss her prior work?) for this story, and please click through to read it in the New York Times:

It Helped Catch Serial Killers. Can It Stop Elephant and Wildlife Poachers, Too?

Scientists used a genetic investigation technique with the aim of helping turn the tide against illicit hauls of ivory and other animal parts.

Cambodian law enforcement officials received a tip from investigators in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Continue reading

Organic Cotton, India & Veracity

Harvested organic cotton at a bioRe facility in Kasrawad, India. India is the single largest producer of the world’s organic cotton, responsible for half of the supply. Saumya Khandelwal for The New York Times

When I see a headline like That Organic Cotton T-Shirt May Not Be as Organic as You Think my first reaction is a reflexive wince.

I will read the article for sure, as I did in this case, but even before reading it I feel defensive.

I am deeply committed to organic certification and seven years living in India makes this subheading into a red flag in terms of my sharing it with others:

The organic cotton movement in India appears to be booming, but much of this growth is fake, say those who source, process and grow the cotton.

Not because it is hard to believe. Exactly the opposite. I had work experiences that this story echoed in a different context. But when I share articles I value each day, usually on an environmental topic, a large percentage of those who click and read are from India. That is likely because we started this platform 10+ years ago while based in India. I do not enjoy, even if I am confident of its veracity, sharing news that I know will make those visitors, not to mention my many friends in India, uncomfortable.

Farmers set up their load of cotton at the Khargone mandi, a large auction market. Saumya Khandelwal for The New York Times

But I got over it. Each of the journalists who authored this story put something on the line to get these important facts about two topics I care about. So, please read on and visit the source so the authors and photographer are properly credited for their excellent work:

Michael Kors retails its organic cotton and recycled polyester women’s zip-up hoodies for $25 more than its conventional cotton hoodies. Urban Outfitters sells organic sweatpants that are priced $46 more than an equivalent pair of conventional cotton sweatpants. And Tommy Hilfiger’s men’s organic cotton slim-fit T-shirt is $3 more than its conventional counterpart. Continue reading

More On, And From, Kim Stanley Robinson

“The Ministry for the Future” displays Robinson’s anti-anti-utopianism: its prognosis is both heartening and harrowing. Illustration by Deena So’Oteh

Thirteen months ago I first became aware of this author and this book. Four months ago Robinson showed up on my radar again. I still had not made time for his book. And two weeks ago, another reminder of how my time has and has not been employed, this time posed as a question: Can Science Fiction Wake Us Up to Our Climate Reality? I already feel quite awake to that reality, but the question is still of considerable interest.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s novels envision the dire problems of the future—but also their solutions.

Robinson at home in Davis, California. Much of his sci-fi could seem like nature writing, with the Sierra Nevadas—his “heart’s home”—recast as Mercury or Mars. Photograph by Jim McAuley for The New Yorker

Last summer, the science-fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson went on a backpacking trip with some friends. They headed into the High Sierra, hiking toward Deadman Canyon—a fifty-mile walk through challenging terrain. Now sixty-nine, Robinson has been hiking and camping in the Sierras for half a century. At home, in Davis, California, he tracks his explorations on a wall-mounted map, its topography thick with ink. He is a devotee of the “ultralight” approach to backpacking and prefers to travel without water, instead gathering it along the way, from lakes and streams. Arriving at the canyon, with its broad, verdant floor cradled in smooth slopes of granite, he planned to fill his bottles with meltwater from the seven glaciers buried in its headwall. Continue reading

Chinatown NYC + Blizzard = View To Behold

View from our window

On a day when we might have been out and about, we are not. From my desk, this view inspires. We lived not far from here 30+ years ago, and so much has changed (especially me) that the city as a whole does not seem familiar. From our Chinatown lodgings, something I crave apart from local food is just outside. For one, old buildings. Even the snowstorm. That said, I will take this view any other day.

Bananas, Maturity & Gravity

I had the intuition: if I do not harvest these bananas on my schedule, they would do it on their own. And so they did. I came home, looked out the kitchen window, and there was the entire story laid out. Maturity. Gravity pulled them down.

In these two images you can see what maturity means to a banana plant. The bananas are not ripe, but they are heavy enough to pull the entire plant down to the ground.

Normally I would have supported the bunch of bananas with a bamboo pole, then carefully chop the bottom of the trunk so the entire structure slowly makes its way down. Even then, no matter how careful I might be, the structure might come crashing down. And thankfully the bananas are still firm enough that almost no damage is done to them. A few got knocked off, but even those will be fine in a couple weeks when they all start turning yellow. Until then, that entire bunch sits in the dark of a tool shed.

Blacksmithing The Zero Waste Knife

I have mentioned more than once about my brief blacksmithing experience. I have a respect for the profession. I have a new level of respect for this particular blacksmith featured in Matthew Weaver’s article below, so would encourage you to visit his website by clicking the image to the left:

Tim Westley making a zero-waste knife at his forge. Photograph: Xavier D Buendia/XDBPhotography

‘My customers like zero waste’: the blacksmith recycling canisters into cult kitchen knives

Tim Westley takes up chef friend’s challenge to transform laughing gas litter

Discarded nitrous oxide gas canisters. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA

The little steel bulbs that litter parks, roadsides and city centres – the discarded canisters from Britain’s second favourite drug, laughing gas – cause misery to many communities. But now one blacksmith has found an innovative use for them: turning them into handmade kitchen knives.

The prevalence of the canisters has prompted some councils to impose local bans, while the home secretary is keen to outlaw them nationally. But Tim Westley’s handmade kitchen knives are gaining a cult following among environmentally conscious foodies after being endorsed by chefs committed to low waste. Continue reading

Birds, Habitat & The Value Of Ecosystem Services

Fruit-eating animals spread the seeds of plants in ecosystems around the world. Their decline means plants could have a harder time finding new habitats as the climate changes. Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/DPA/AFP via Getty Images

From the time we started managing lodges in biodiversity hotspots, bird habitat became an important sub-component of my professional life. Later, when Seth was working at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, I learned to appreciate a bit more about the ecosystem services birds provide their habitats. I think more frequently about the protection of bird habitats now due to our coffee work,  as well as the conservation benefits that bird watchers might provide to bird habitats.

The importance of the ecosystem services birds provide their habitats will become more obvious as a result of disruptive rising temperatures. Thanks to Lauren Sommer and National Public Radio (USA) for one more way to think about birds’ services as the planet adapts:

To get by in a changing climate, plants need animal poop to carry them to safety

Evan Fricke knows exactly how long it takes, after a bird on the island of Saipan eats a piece of fruit, for it to come out the other end (Answer: as little as 10 minutes).

“There’s always this poop angle to my research,” says Fricke, an ecologist with Rice University. “PhD in bird poop basically.” Continue reading

Too Much Hype About Too Much Stuff

The Economist recently promoted a notion:

Rags to riches – fashion as an asset class HOW DID second-hand clothes become fashion’s hottest buy? Online resale and rental firms are changing the calculus on what it means to buy fashion “as an investment”

Hype? We will see. The “trapped” value of fashion items in our homes might get liberated as discussed, but what about the fundamental trap of fashion?

Ryan McVay/Getty Images

Kenneth P. Pucker shares an important lesson from his time in industry, and kudos to Harvard Business Review for giving him the platform to explain The Myth of Sustainable Fashion:

Few industries tout their sustainability credentials more forcefully than the fashion industry. Products ranging from swimsuits to wedding dresses are marketed as carbon positive, organic, or vegan while yoga mats made from mushrooms and sneakers from sugar cane dot retail shelves. New business models including recycling, resale, rental, reuse, and repair are sold as environmental life savers. Continue reading

Yakutia’s Outsized Impact

“The problem is, you can’t just turn off, let alone reverse, permafrost thaw,” one scientist said. “It won’t be possible to refreeze the ground and have it go back to how it was.” Photographs by Alexander Gronsky for The New Yorker

Joshua Yaffa reminds me, vividly, that my work in Yakutia 16 years ago was an exercise in futility:

The Great Siberian Thaw

Permafrost contains microbes, mammoths, and twice as much carbon as Earth’s atmosphere. What happens when it starts to melt?

Flying over Yakutia, in northeastern Russia, I watched the dark shades of the boreal forest blend with patches of soft, lightly colored grass. Continue reading