The Last Word

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Photo of a drawing of a child playing on the beach
Remember this? Sometimes summer is like this.

September 12 – 16, 2016

Autumn is almost here, which may be a relief to Helen, who suffers through sultry weather in Washington, D.C. (a place which “does not do summer gracefully.”) But never fear, she’s come up with a list of recommendations to get herself through future summers. In 2017, no matter the temperature, you may see Helen outside, in a kayak, out of town, or walking home from work–and she will not be wearing pants.

Jennifer has focused her career on animals and conservation—but wrestles with what that means at the meat marketOnce, a snotty 10-year-old kid at a talk I was giving asked if I was vegetarian and, when I said no, he chided me for this conflict of interest. (Really, kid? I could just hear his mother’s voice coming out of his mouth. This was in Seattle, after all.) I was annoyed and kind of wanted to punch him in the nose. But he was kind of right that I was mixing my messages. Love and respect animals, I was saying, but steak sure is tasty.

Erik provides a short primer on how to read ancient Mayan: What is amazing is that there were rules and from one city to the next, people used roughly the same complex written language. And so can we. Though admittedly it would be infinitely easier had the Spanish missionaries not decided that Maya writing was Satanic and burned the thousands of Maya books including, I assume, one about grammar. 

People write to Craig to ask what they should do with artifacts they’ve collectedWhen the woman wrote me about her feather-like arrowheads a few days ago, I took her query more pointedly than at other times. My house had just been broken into. . . Along with river gear, crampons, a chainsaw, and artwork, the one thing that got me was the contents of a small, 1950s greeting card box. The box had held potsherds, arrowheads, clay pipes, and a couple fetching, polished Desert Archaic pendants.

Cassie tries to harvest her tomatoes and gets bitten insteadMosquitoes are the worst. They spread malaria and Zika and dengue. They suck our blood. They drive people batshit crazy. So why not wipe them out?

Photo and drawing by Helen Fields


Bomb the Bloodsuckers?

mosquitoTwo weeks ago, tomatoes began splitting on the vine. Days of hard rain had left them dangling plump and heavy, and their cellophane skin couldn’t hold together.

I wanted to harvest them. I tried on several occasions. But each foray into the backyard brought forth swarms of mosquitoes. By the time I reached the edge of the patio, they had already picked up my scent. As long as I was running, I was safe. But the moment I stopped to pluck tomatoes, they descended and slipped their hypodermic mouths into my flesh. Fact: Hands can either hold ripe tomatoes or swat mosquitoes. They can’t do both.

The dog was in her own special hell. She stood in the yard enveloped in a swirling, droning cloud of insects. Occasionally, she would whiplash her body around to confront her invisible attacker. But there was no one. All she could do was stare at her butt with haunted eyes. Eventually, it all became too much. She ran to the middle of the yard and began digging. Before we could stop her, she’d carved out a watermelon-sized hole. And who could blame her for trying to go underground? Continue reading

Letters from the Dead

obsidian-arrowheadA recent email from a stranger posed a query as to what to do with Native American artifacts in her possession. I’ve never found the answer to be an easy one.

The woman didn’t take much. She called it, “a small box of artifacts, a few really nice perfect arrows and a couple that where truly made by an Indian artist.  They were made to look like feathers.”

She wrote that she had collected them when she was a kid on a sandy beach outside a small town in Iowa. Not knowing what to do with them now, she feels as if she has something important in her possession, something centuries or thousands of years old, and they don’t belong to her. “My choices,” she wrote, “keep it in the county, local library, conservation office?  Give it to the State, give it to a museum out of the county?  I’ve ruled out grandsons and family.  Right now I feel like taking it back and dumping it in the lake but the lake has been drained and the county conservation waiting for it to refill?” Continue reading

How to Read Ancient Mayan

img_0515In this month’s issue of National Geographic, I tell a story of an ancient dynasty of Maya kings who made perhaps the region’s best attempt at creating what we might call an empire. It’s a twisting tale of political maneuvering and ambition unlike any other in the Pre-Columbian world.

It’s actually kind of incredible that we have the story at all. The reason we do is because the Maya were the only culture in the Americas to devise a complex form of writing. Originally, archeologists thought the bizarre scribbles on the sides of pots or walls was either pictograms – more of a stick figure cartoon – like the Mexica (Aztecs) used or else maybe a series of spiritual astronomical images – more of a drug-addled vision quest. But it wasn’t until the 1970s and 80s that experts realized that these bizarre pictures were neither, rather they were a complex form of writing that I could theoretically use to write this post.

So what is this form of writing? Isn’t it just a bunch of squiggly lines and wacky pictures? Well yes. And no. As I have written before on this blog, our own form of writing began in a similar way – a series of pictures of swords and oxen and other images. And just like the Maya, ancient peoples in the fertile crescent started adding rules and sounds to their collection until we ended up with the modern alphabet you are reading now. Continue reading

Market Day

Believe me, this is way less icky than some of the other offerings.
Nothing goes to waste at the Tomohon market.

Change is good. And today, here on LWON, I’m announcing a personal change. I’m coming out. As a vegetarian.

Some of you may be surprised that I’m not one already. With my career focus on animals and conservation, and my adoration for all creatures great and small, it might seem wrong for me to eat cows and chickens and pigs. Once, a snotty 10-year-old kid at a talk I was giving asked if I was vegetarian and, when I said no, he chided me for this conflict of interest. (Really, kid? I could just hear his mother’s voice coming out of his mouth. This was in Seattle, after all.) I was annoyed and kind of wanted to punch him in the nose. But he was kind of right that I was mixing my messages. Love and respect animals, I was saying, but steak sure is tasty.

Most living things are food to some other living thing somewhere in the world. We hunt because our ancestors hunted, and because animals are nutritious. In many parts of the world, meat is a vital part of the human diet. Animal consumption is deeply cultural, usually healthful, and often celebratory.

Continue reading

A Letter to Myself: Summer is Survivable

Photo of a drawing of a child playing on the beach
Remember this? Sometimes summer is ok.

A letter to myself, to be read in spring of 2017, when it starts getting hot again.

Dear Helen:

I know. The weather report is scary. It’s going to be in the 80s this week. Could be 85 by Friday. It means the worst: Summer. Is. Coming.

Yeah, I know. Summer is the worst. Washington, D.C. does not do summer gracefully. Washington, D.C. does summer sweatily, grumpily, heat-island-ly. Your apartment in particular does summer like a solar oven, and yeah, the air conditioning pretty much has to run from March to October without a break. Once you even had to run it on Christmas Day, but that was because you insisted on making a pot roast even though it was sunny and over 40℉.

But here’s the thing: Summer is survivable.

Continue reading

The Last Word

14541876022_da5913d74b_cSeptember 5 – September 9, 2016

Death weighed heavy on LWON this week — the death of a cardinal, the death of a Laotian activist, the death of yellow cedars, the probable death of a fox, and the looming death of a space probe.

On Monday, guest Rebecca Boyle took us from the tiniest tragedy in her backyard all the way to a neighboring solar system. Will we find intelligent life there? No one knows, but maybe “intelligence” isn’t quite what we’re seeking.

Two years ago, Michelle told us the story of the English teacher who helped Laotian organizer Sombath Somphone transform himself from subsistence farmer into environmental leader. This week Barack Obama became the first sitting US president to visit the country, so a redux seemed particularly fitting.

Michelle took Wednesday too. On an isolated Alaskan archipelago, where climate change has been particularly hard on yellow cedars, scientists are finding ways to turn the story of their deaths into music.

On Thursday, Ann answered that age-old question: What does the fox say? I’ll give you a hint: It’s not ring-ding-ding-ding-dingeringeding! Wa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pow! Joff-tchoff-tchoffo-tchoffo-tchoff!

And on Friday, Jessa introduced us to the animated series that helped her family and many others bond with a hopeful little European spacecraft, a spacecraft that now has to say a final goodbye.


Photo by Oliver Truckle, via Flickr

Rosetta and Philae: Plucky siblings for life

rosettaOn September 30, the Rosetta orbiter will make a controlled collision with Comet 67P/C-G. It is not designed for landing, so this is the last we will hear from it. This date also marks an end to a happy period for my family that started in 2013 when my son was just four years old and the European Space Agency released the first of its “Once upon a time…” cartoons about the mission.

In the animation series, Rosetta is depicted as a calm pilot, older sister to the lander Philae. In the voice of an American grandfather, the narrator takes us through all of the latest developments in the mission as if we are sitting on his knee and he is reading a bedtime story. Historical context appears in the reading material the pair packed for the long journey, and other space probes are retroactively anthropomorphized, given relationships — grandfather, cousin — to Rosetta and Philae. Continue reading