Going Paleo in Florida

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The Florida panhandle got some big press this week, yet another early human find confirmed in North America, people entrenched along the Aucilla River south of Tallahassee 14,550 years ago. This came from an underwater excavation where archaeologists have been plumbing a sinkhole through which the river flows. Artifacts and megafauna remains have gathered in the hole. A mastodon tusk shows clear butchering marks while it was fresh, and stone tools were collected in the vicinity.

When you hear news of these finds, what picture comes to mind? What kind of landscape are we in? It’s an important question to me. Archaeological finds are not what is seen in collection drawers and display cases, not photos in textbooks. They lose their color and context when they leave a place. They lose the sounds of the night, the burble of water. These objects are more than themselves. They tell a story of the earth around them, which in turn tells the story of the artifacts.

I visited the Aucilla River a few years ago in the lowland pine and palm forests of Florida’s Big Bend country. The river disappears holes; I’d never seen anything like it. It would come up again in a quarter mile, where it traveled a short distance through crowded palmettos and ferns, and went under again. Like stitching through fabric, the Aucilla flows in and out of a chain of sinkholes and skylights in dark and karstic earth. This is what preserves the archaeological and paleontological remains. The sinkholes act as time capsules. Archaeologists go down with SCUBA gear and spotlights, swimming into the underworld to find the past. Continue reading

Environmentalism Lost

Somewhere there is an old recording of me. I can’t find the tape, but I’ll tell you what I remember.8692671353_af139441fe_z (1) I’m young — maybe sixth grade — and inexplicably wearing a burgundy blazer. My school is holding some sort of an event for Earth Day. The local TV reporter asks me why I’m participating. “I think it’s important to save the Earth for my children and my children’s children,” I say, my voice shrill and shaking.

Ok, I can’t remember exactly what I said, but I remember the feeling. I was full of righteous indignation. Grownups seemed intent on fucking up the planet, the planet I was destined to inherit. And I was pissed. “Screw the humans,” I remember thinking. “We have to save the dolphins.”

Back then, environmental issues seemed solvable. Stop throwing trash on the ground. Stop using hairspray in aerosol cans. Stop cutting down the rainforest.

But now I’m the grownup who is fucking up the planet. And the concrete, tractable problems that I remember from my youth have been overshadowed by the mother of all environmental catastrophes — climate change. Who has time to worry about gum wrappers or dolphin-safe tuna when we’ve pumped enough greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere to alter the fate of every being on the planet? Continue reading

Redux: Lost in the Cloud

This post first ran on September 26, 2012.My mother sent me an old letter recently. It was a handwritten note scrawled across two pages that she’d written to her sister more than 30 years ago. My family had just moved to West Germany, where my dad was stationed in the Air Force, and in the letter Mom describes for her sister the tiny Eiffel village where we’d taken up residence. The letter’s contents are interesting in their own right, but its three-dimensional nature is what struck me first.

The letter was a physical object — a piece of paper that she’d scribbled upon and then neatly folded into an envelope and sent across the ocean to her sister in Kansas. It was a relic from a bygone age. In the age of email and text messaging, most correspondence no longer lives on scraps of linen that you can feel in your hands, but in the “cloud,” that nebulous modern ether. In fact, the letter Mom sent me was not the object itself, but a scan of it. I read it first on my phone, though I felt compelled to print it on paper for the second reading. Continue reading

The Last Word


May 9-13

This week, Richard set out to prove, unscientifically, that slow readers are slow language learners. When he failed, he realized his method was scientific after all — just not in the way he expected.

Jennifer discovered she was just fine with being woken up in the wee hours by hysterical laughter, so long as it was coming out of a particularly charming Australian bird.

Science fiction writer H.G. Wells was a bit less charming, Michelle writes, when working with “Darwin’s Bulldog.” But at least his writing critiques came in the form of a poem.

Meanwhile, drinking water treatment is essential when people pack tightly together, even in the remote Peruvian jungle. But the fix that saves kids’ lives doesn’t have to be techy and expensive, reassuring news for mom and regular guest poster Emma Marris.

The secret to the happiness of a one-eyed amphibian in a mayonnaise jar? Maximize her frog existence — by finding her some, er … friends, says guest poster Chris Arnade.

Kookaburra image from Shutterstock.

Guest Post: Pip, Part Two

Pip too big(Pip too big for jar)

One year ago I rescued a one-eyed tiny frog, a spring peeper, from my pool.  Since then I have gone to lengths to not only keep it alive, but also to try and make it happy, as if that is something that is doable, rational, or admirable.

I have long been into frogs, and when I moved into my new home surrounded by marshes, I was attracted by the intense noise of thousands of tiny spring peepers chirping, confused why something so loud was so hidden.

When I found the tiny frog in my pool, it was the first time I had seen one. Excited to study it, and worried about his ability to survive with only one eye, I built a small terrarium from an old mayonnaise jar. I placed the jar near my computer, on the desk in my study, and gave him the name of Pip. One I.

My first goal was keeping him alive. Since spring peepers live amongst low lying grasses and mosses of swamps, I collected a small bit of swamp — mud, water, plants — to turn the mayonnaise jar into a familiar eco system.

That also meant catching what spring peepers eat, tiny spiders and insects. I caught bugs around the porch lights, which evolved into raising fruit flies in a jar, which as Pip grew, evolved into catching crickets, which when the winter came, evolved into buying crickets at the pet stores.

It had all started as a scientific curiosity, a silly hobby to pass the time and to bond with my kids, and then it started becoming an obsession. It was absurd, but I started worrying about Pip. Continue reading

Guest Post: Water in Yomibato

Alejo with his arrows, just in case. (c) Glenn Shepard

Last November, I went to the Peruvian Amazon on assignment for National Geographic. (The story is out today). I focused on a group of indigenous people, the Matsiguenka, living inside Manu National Park.

One of these people is Alejo Machipango, a hunter, farmer, and member of the water committee for the village of Yomibato. Alejo is about 32, but I would have guessed his age at 22. He is married and has several kids. He is a jokester. He likes chewing coca, drinking manioc beer. He takes his arrows with him most places, just in case. I saw him shoot at some birds, but never hit one. And he always laughs when he misses.

One day, Alejo takes me to see the spring where Yomibato gets its water. The water system in the village was installed by a charity called Rainforest Flow* between 2012 and 2015.

A few generations ago, the Matsiguenka used to be more dispersed on the landscape. Each family lived apart, and households moved often. The whole community would gather together once a month, on the full moon, and have a big party with manioc beer. But many families decided to move to Yomibato to be near the school and clinic. As the community grew to several hundred, the local river and streams became contaminated with bacteria and waterborne illness became a chronic problem. Continue reading

H.G. Wells’ Advice on Science Writing

pjimageH.G. Wells is remembered today for his science fiction, but he had a solid foundation — and an enduring interest — in science fact. As a university student in London in the 1880s, he was deeply influenced by a course with Thomas Henry Huxley, a biologist so fiercely committed to evolutionary theory that he was known as “Darwin’s bulldog.” In 1926, Wells recruited Huxley’s grandson Julian, also a distinguished biologist, as his collaborator on an encyclopedic project called The Science of Life.

Wells, already famous for The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, and more than two dozen other novels, had just published The Outline of History, a massively successful work of popular history. Now, with the help of the younger Huxley, he wanted to produce a similar translation of the life sciences, creating what he described as a “real text-book of biology for the reading and use of intelligent people.” Huxley (the elder brother of Aldous, another great writer of speculative fiction) was intrigued by the challenge and by Wells’ nervy intelligence, and he signed up for the job in the spring of 1927.

The trouble began immediately. Continue reading

Funny Bird


shutterstock_336230168Here comes dawn. The sky yawns and the sun flicks its lids above the horizon. But just before the lights come up on Virginia’s rolling hills, the sound of morning commences. Can we call it a song? That might be a stretch. There’s a certain musicality to it. You’re no doubt familiar with its silly refrain.

Loud and untidy, cock-a-doodle-doo is an enthusiastic drunkard’s karaoke. It’s also a wake-up alarm in much of the rural U.S. If you’re still asleep when this barnyard bird opens its beak, as you should be, you may start dreaming of rooster soup for breakfast. Few of us still have to get up to milk the cows, Cock, and regardless, your rise-and-shine call is awfully brash for a first act.

In parts of Australia, dawn has a very different theme song. Meet the kookaburra, specifically Dacelo novaeguineae. As a visitor, I found it hard to be irritated at the sound of hysterical laughter, even as a 5 a.m. alarm. These stocky, big-beaked birds laugh every day like clockwork around dawn and dusk—plus now and then in between—and they do so as a family. It’s kind of charming: One starts to crack up and then the rest join in, as if just getting the joke.

A not-a-morning-person Aussie may beg to differ on the charm thing. The dawn racket is probably just damn annoying. But as a tourist, I woke up extra early and sat by the window in the dark, waiting for the cackling to begin.

Continue reading