For thousands of years, the camas lily provided to parts of the West what the potato gave to 17th-century Ireland: carbohydrates for the masses. Could this nutritious purple plant make a comeback?
This story took me to rural Minnesota, where two organizations — the Jefferson Center and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy — are leading conversations about the politically charged subject of climate change in conservative, rural communities.
For 47 years, Harvey Krage lived in a white farmhouse with red shutters on the side of a bluff about 11 miles from the Mississippi River in southeastern Minnesota. He and his family kept ducks in a pair of ponds and drank water from the springhouse in their backyard. For three decades, Krage commuted from the farm through a woodland of red cedar and black maple, past corn and bean fields, to the small city of Winona, where he retreaded massive, heavy construction tires for Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company. Then for another decade, he drove the company’s semitrailers, passing the long hours with talk radio, especially the diatribes of right-wing commentator Rush Limbaugh. That’s how he first heard about climate change, “about how crazy these scientists were.” [Read more.]
A story about the decades-long quest to develop “perennial wheat.” Now one perennial grain, called Kernza, may be about to hit the big time.
On an August morning in Minneapolis, I sat at a wooden table inside the Birchwood Cafe, a bright, cheerful restaurant a few blocks from the Mississippi River waterfront, tasting an éclair as attentively as I could. The flavor I wanted to detect was partly obscured by more conspicuous ingredients: a high-pitched, jammy blueberry glaze painted across the top of the pastry, and the sweet song of a yellow corn custard. But beneath that, there was a subtle and earthy background note: the grain. [Read more.]
Over the course of a full year, I talked with scientists in national parks about what it means to steward nature as climate change exerts more and more influence.
… After all, even as tens of millions of tourists throng through their gates every year to get a glimpse of the “wild,” official policy has, for decades, directed scientists and managers to keep the parks they oversee as untainted as possible, looking as nature would if humans had never intervened. But how do you preserve the wilderness when nature itself is no longer behaving like it’s supposed to? How do you erase human influence when that influence is now everywhere, driving up temperatures, acidifying oceans, melting glaciers, and rapidly remaking the landscapes we’ve come to know as our national parks? [Read more.]
A story about a fight over the value of quiet on the Olympic Peninsula:
… To find quiet means more than merely to escape noise. There is external stillness, when the din subsides and you can hear the gentler world beneath it—the stirring of wind, the susurration of water, the rush of your own inhalation. Then there is inner calm, when all of the jangling thoughts in your mind dissipate, and you can unclench your muscles and open to your senses. The latter kind of silence tends to require at least some of the former. Both are hard to find in a society whose increasing mobility is powered by the drone of internal combustion engines and the clamor of technology. [Read more.]
Another installment in a series about climate change in Alaska: While reporting this story, I spent two and a half days stranded in a tiny airport in Bethel, Alaska, before finally arriving in the remote village of Newtok.
… Even in the early days at Newtok, its residents could see that the tundra was warming and thawing, and that the river was eating the land around them. In the past few years, they have become famous, heralded by the international press as “America’s first climate refugees”(along with residents of two other Alaskan villages and a tiny Louisianan island community). Newtok is one of the first places in the United States that could be erased by the impacts of climate change. The US Army Corps of Engineers has estimated that erosion will ravage much of the village within the next decade. [Read more.]
One of a series of stories I pursued on a visit to rural Alaska a few months ago, some of the most challenging reporting I’ve ever done. This story appears in Audubon‘s January-February special issue on the Arctic.
… The Bodfishes are Iñupiat hunters, a native subsistence culture that has dominated Alaska’s North Slope for more than 10,000 years. When I arrived at their home at dusk one evening in September, the yard was strewn with hunting equipment—outboard motorboats, a snowmobile, an ATV—and a partially carved-up caribou lay on top of a wooden table. [Read more.]
There was a sense of idealism in the air in 1971 when Craig Ramey, a psychologist in his late 20s with a newly minted Ph.D., took a job in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to launch what would become one of the longest-running educational experiments in history. … Conventional wisdom said you were either born smart or you weren’t (a misconception that lingers in the public’s imagination even today). But in the 1960s, evidence mounted from a few small parenting and education projects for young children—combined with laboratory tests on rats, cats and monkeys—that the first years of life could shape your intelligence. …
It was a seminal moment—the first chapter in whole line of research that is still changing how we think about intelligence, poverty, and the child brain.
Ringed by the white-capped Cascade and Olympic Mountains, Puget Sound looks pristine. But four decades after the Clean Water Act passed in 1972, regulators haven’t kept up with the pressures of growing populations near America’s shorelines, here or elsewhere in the country. [Read more.]
Riley Morton and John de Graaf also produced this stunning companion video, in collaboration with me and Frank Reynolds at The Nation.
Eduardo Blumwald’s genetically modified plants don’t look much like “Frankenfood.” Filling four modest greenhouses in a concrete lot behind Blumwald’s laboratory at the University of California, Davis, the tiny seedlings, spiky grasses, alfalfa, and peanut and rice plants in plastic terracotta-colored pots look exactly like the ordinary varieties from which he and his fellow researchers created them. Blumwald’s lab lies just ten miles from Monsanto’s 90,000-square-foot vegetable seed building, a glassy edifice larger than the hangar for a 747. The Monsanto facility is one of the largest centers in the world for plant breeding and genetic engineering. But in the fourteen years that Blumwald, a professor of cell biology, has worked here studying the DNA of crop plants, he has hardly ever spoken to anyone from Monsanto.
Blue-eyed and round-faced, with a lilting Argentinian accent, Blumwald grows exasperated when he talks about the so-called “Big Ag” companies, which he says have been arrogant in dealing with the public, contributing to a distrust of biotech research. But he also doesn’t appreciate the activists who’ve been challenging not only the Monsantos of the world but the entire field of genetic engineering.
“You want to penalize the multinationals; I have no problem with that,” he tells me in his office at the university’s plant biology building. “But because of your political stance against multinationals, you are going to condemn maybe the only viable solution we have for our future? It’s wrong—absolutely wrong.” [Read more.]