Long Reads Pick of the Week: Recall of the Wild

Since I spend so much time reading long-form non-fiction online, I’m going to link to my favourite one every week for anyone who’s interested in similar reading.

This week’s story explores the fascinating rewilding experiment by separate groups of people and their quest to engineer a world before humans. The Dutch government used land reclaimed from the sea to create a fifteen-thousand-acre park that mimics a Paleolithic ecosystem. You can read the full story here.

recall of the wild

Known as the Oostvaardersplassen, a name that is pretty much unpronounceable for English-speakers, the reserve occupies fifteen thousand almost perfectly flat acres on the shore of the inlet-turned-lake. This area was originally designated for industry; however, while it was still in the process of drying out, a handful of biologists convinced the Dutch government that they had a better idea. The newest land in Europe could be used to create a Paleolithic landscape. The biologists set about stocking the Oostvaardersplassen with the sorts of animals that would have inhabited the region in prehistoric times—had it not at that point been underwater. In many cases, the animals had been exterminated, so they had to settle for the next best thing. For example, in place of the aurochs, a large and now extinct bovine, they brought in Heck cattle, a variety specially bred by Nazi scientists. (More on the Nazis later.) The cattle grazed and multiplied. So did the red deer, which were trucked in from Scotland, and the horses, which were imported from Poland, and the foxes and the geese and the egrets. In fact, the large mammals reproduced so prolifically that they formed what could, with a certain amount of squinting, be said to resemble the great migratory herds of Africa; the German magazine Der Spiegel has called the Oostvaardersplassen “the Serengeti behind the dikes.”

*

Such is the success of the Dutch experiment—whatever, exactly, it is—that it has inspired a new movement. Dubbed Rewilding Europe, the movement takes the old notion of wilderness and turns it inside out. Perhaps it’s true that genuine wildernesses can only be destroyed, but new “wilderness,” what the Dutch call “new nature,” can be created. Every year, tens of thousands of acres of economically marginal farmland in Europe are taken out of production. Why not use this land to produce “new nature” to replace what’s been lost? The same basic idea could, of course, be applied outside of Europe—it’s been proposed, for example, that depopulated expanses of the American Midwest are also candidates for rewilding.

*

Helmer stressed to me that Rewilding Europe was not particularly concerned about whether the new landscape that would be created would resemble the ancient one that had been altered or destroyed. “We’re not looking backward but forward,” he said at one point.

“We try to avoid too much discussion of wilderness,” he observed at another. “For us, that is not the most important thing—at the end will this be a wilderness or not? It will be wilder than it was, and that’s what matters.”

Recall of the Wild by Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker

Advertisements

Rhyme and Reason: Gulp by Mary Roach

Rhyme and Reason is where the excerpts I enjoy, from books I’m currently reading, come to live.

Mary Roach approaches the subject of food and what happens to it once it’s eaten with a mix of unbridled delight, ceaseless curiousity, infectious enthusiasm and a whole lot of hilarity. Which makes reading her book an incredibly enchanting experience. I’ve become a huge fan of her zealous writing and her ability to make science so much fun. I can’t wait to read everything else she’s written, which include books about dead bodies, sex, space and the afterlife.

Gulp deals with a myriad of topics you wouldn’t expect to find in a book about digestion including, as this particular excerpt shows, the existence of dragons in mythology. As the author says in the introduction, “I don’t want you to say, ‘This is gross.’ I want you to say, ‘I thought this would be gross, but it’s really interesting.’ Okay, and maybe a little gross.

gulp

Snakes don’t belch, but they can, under certain circumstances, create an inflammable eructation of literally mythical proportions. First, a little background: Many plant-eating animals lack rumens, so some fermenting takes place in the cecum, an anatomical pouch at the junction of the small intestine and the colon. These same plant-eaters – horses, rabbits, koalas, to name three – tend to have a larger-than-life cecum. Pythons and boas do too, which struck Stephen Secor as odd, because they’re carnivores. Why, he wondered, would a meat-eater need a vegetation disgestion unit? Secor theorised that perhaps these snakes had evolved ceca as a way to digest and take advantage of plant matter inside the stomachs of their prey.

To test his theory, Secor fed rats to some of the pythons in his lab at the University of Alabama and hooked them up to a gas chromatograph. He tracked the hydrogen level in their exhalations as they digested whole rats over the course of four days. He did see a spike, but it appeared long before the rat arrived at the python’s cecum. Instead, Secor suspected, the hydrogen spikes were the result of the decomposing, gas-bloated rat bursting inside the python. ‘One thing led to another.’ (Secor’s way of saying he popped a bloated rat corpse and measured the hydrogen that came off it.) Suspicion confirmed. The hydrogen level was ‘through the roof’. Secor had stumbled onto a biological explanation for the myth of the fire-breathing dragon. Stay with me. This is very cool.

Roll the calendar back a few millennia and picture yourself in a hairy outfit, dragging home a python you have hunted. Hunted is maybe the wrong word. The python was digesting a whole gazelle and was in no condition to fight or flee. You rounded a bend and there it was, Neanderthal turducken. Gazython. The fact that the gazelle is partially decomposed does not bother you. Early man was a scavenger as well as a hunter. He was used to stinking meat. And those decomp gases are key to our story. Which I now turn over to Secor.

‘So this python is full of gas. You set it down by the campfire because you’re going to eat it. Somebody kicks it or steps on it, and all this hydrogen shoots out of its mouth.’ Hydrogen, as the you and I of today know but the you and I of the Pleistocene did not know, starts to be flammable at a concentration of 4 percent. And hydrogen, as Stephen Secor showed, comes out of a decomposing animal at a concentration of about 10 percent. Secor made a flame-throwery whooosh sound. ‘There’s your fire-breathing serpent. Imagine the stories that would generate. Over a couple thousand years, you’ve got yourself a legend. He did some digging. The oldest stories of fire-breathing dragons come from Africa and south China: where the giant snakes are.

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach

Long Reads Pick of the Week: Love and Lies in Iran

Since I spend so much time reading long-form non-fiction online, I’m going to link to my favourite one every week for anyone who’s interested in similar reading.

Most people dream of spending their honeymoon on exotic beaches. German journalist Mario Kaiser and his American bride Gypsy opted for a road trip through Iran. The article explores love – both allowed and forbidden – and longing in Iran, a side to the country we don’t usually hear about amidst stories detailing the state of violence and repression. You can read the entire article here.

mural

It was the spring of 2009 and we had no idea of the turmoil that was coming. We couldn’t know that, only months later, people would take to the streets to protest the manipulated results of a presidential election, only to see their uprising brutally crushed. Many would be arrested, many raped, bludgeoned, shot dead. We didn’t know the face of Neda Agha-Soltan yet, the student who would lie dying in a street in Tehran, blood streaming across her cheeks, a sniper’s bullet in her chest.

We landed in Tehran and entered a quiet country. Freedom of speech was quietly suppressed. Dissidents were quietly arrested. A nuclear program was quietly developed. We detested the regime, but we believed in the beauty of the country. We believed that the Iranian people were different from the men who pretended to represent them.

Later that night, Gypsy and I walked around Kerman and saw a house with two blinking hearts on its façade, melting into one. We suspected something wicked going on behind these walls, and sneaked inside. But the club of hearts was not a hotbed of vice; one couldn’t buy love there, at least not the fast way. It was a wedding ballroom, but one with a twist. The Iranian hierarchy was turned upside down in this house — the women were celebrating upstairs, the men downstairs.

The bride was beautiful. She had eyes black as coal, and the classic Iranian nose. She was dancing in a strapless gown. I never saw her; I wasn’t allowed to go near her. Gypsy told me about her, after a group of giggling women had taken her upstairs. I was sitting downstairs with the other men, staring at our juice glasses.

I cannot write where we met her; there would be terrible consequences if the guardians of Iran’s order found her. She had a lyrical name and spoke good English; she liked the language and literature of her country’s supposed enemy. She was in her early twenties and hungry for unrestricted love. But she was afraid they might come for her. There was always the fear of being arrested for the crime of having a boyfriend.

She told us about the night everything changed. She remembered it clearly, the time, the place, the sweet taste of ice cream on her lips. They had waited until night fell, thinking they would be safer under the cover of darkness. They drove to a quiet street, with her at the wheel, pretending to be sister and brother. They had just stopped when another car slowly passed by, with two men inside staring at them. After a while, the car came back and stopped behind them. The two men got out, approached their car and dangled handcuffs in front of the ice cream-eating couple.

The men weren’t wearing uniforms and didn’t identify themselves. They didn’t have to. The couple knew that if they said a wrong word, they would be dragged to a building that everyone in the city knew — the prison of forbidden love. After their arrest, the parents would have had to pick up their indecent children. They would have had to pay a fine and sign a pledge that this will never happen again. “We don’t have the right to eat ice cream,” the young woman said, tears welling up in her eyes.

It was the saddest night of our honeymoon, but something changed as we lay on another tradition-defying bed. A delicate confidence was seeping into the way we looked at the country, especially the women. There was a subcutaneous seething, a quiet determination to turn their rage into change — with a baseball bat if necessary. It reminded us of something a man had told us at a teahouse. We were cautious not to discuss anything with the slightest political undertone, but we eagerly listened to whatever people wanted to share. What the man told us sounded incredible at the time, but his words kept coming back to us as the mothers and daughters of Iran came into sharper focus. He said, “The women will bring the mullahs down.”

Love and Lies in Iran by Mario Kaiser, Narratively