Saturday, August 20, 2011

Geographica: Hope!

Wonders abound in the latest National Geographic, which isn't always the case. Sometimes, in the Society's zeal to present nothing less than the entire world to its loyal readers, it inadvertently conveys so much of what's wrong with the world that those readers (this one, certainly) put down some issues ready for a good long cry - or a good stiff drink. The undeniable toll that mankind is wreaking daily on virtually every inch of the planet is difficult to balance out with anything like good news. Species are disappearing every single day; humans are multiplying at something very near to a billion a year; and worst of all, the very climate of the planet is changing, and changing so rapidly that nobody alive today will escape the consequences, and most of those consequences will be horrifying - probably in ways we haven't yet conceived. Sharks are being annihilated for their fins; abandoned old Soviet nuclear power plants are being raided for their weapons-grade plutonium; camels are mistreated throughout the Middle East. Bad news abounds.

The September issue manages to bring good news, and that feels great. Not the daffy fake-good news of the cover story, but real good news, from a motorized exoskeleton that could allow paralytics to move around again, to a dreamy little photo of a woman paddling her canoe in Florida and being joined by an inquisitive manatee.

And two of the issue's big feature articles are likewise bright with optimism. The first is by Charles Siebert and deals with Kenya's many orphanage-farms for parentless young elephants. The article is illustrated by several heartwarming photos by Michael Nichols, showing these pint-sized behemoths at their most vulnerable and adorable, receiving the patient and loving care of the humans who work at these orphanages. Siebert is very good at supplying the larger context along the way:
What makes this particular moment in the fraught history of elephant-human relations so remarkable is that the long-accrued anecdotal evidence of the elephant's extraordinary intelligence is being borne out by science. Studies show that structures in the elephant brain are strikingly similar to those in humans. MRI scans of an elephant's brain suggest a large hippocampus, the component in the mammalian brain linked to memory and an important part of its limbic system, which is involved in processing emotions. The elephant brain has also been shown to possess in abundance the specialized neurons known as spindle cells, which are thought to be associated with self-awareness, empathy, and social awareness in humans. Elephants have even passed the mirror test of self-recognition, something only humans, and some great apes and dolphins, had been known to do.

The claims here might be a bit narrow (the octopus and the raven, for instance, also routinely pass the mirror test), but anything that gives elephants even a small added chance of garnering more of the human protection every species in the world now needs to survive is welcome. They're a long-lived and slow-maturing species, so from humans they need the most precious gift of all: time.

The wonders that time can produce are on full display in the article by Verlyn Klinkenborg on the Adirondacks, accompanied by stunning photos by Michael Melford. The piece celebrates the 'primitive forest' vibe given off by the place - a feeling experienced by everybody who's ever been there in the happy present day. It's a feeling that would have been much more difficult to access a hundred years ago, when rampant mining and road-cutting had the place looking grimy and denuded throughout much of its range. As unbelievable as it feels when you're hiking through it, most of the Adirondacks has been reclaimed in the last century. Klinkenborg captures something of the magic:
What's arresting about the Adirondacks isn't the tantalizing promise of another view lying out of sight, though the park is an endless beaded chain of new perspectives. What's arresting is the absence of a view, the dense enclosure of the eastern forest, the depth of the biotic floor you step across as you move deeper and deeper into a kind of Leatherstocking shade. It seems irrational to feel the trees closing behind you, as if the forest is cutting you off from the present. But the gravity you feel - drawing you over rock and moss, through small streams where the light opens overhead, across deadfalls, and into pure dim stands of hemlock - is the returning wildness of the place.

I've trekked the Adirondacks many times and felt that same sense of enclosure - a weird and not entirely enjoyable feeling that can be profoundly stirring, even when you're shepherding a small crowd of noisy, inquisitive beagles. It's amazing to think that deep green atmosphere needed less than a century to re-assert itself after near-fatal deforestation. It's amazing to think that, and gives you hope.

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