The Country’s First Climate Change Casualties?
Scientists predict Tangier Island could be uninhabitable within 25 years. This is the story of the people willing to go down with it—and why they've risked it all on Donald Trump to keep them afloat.
Somewhere between the docks and the crab shanties the horizon dissolves. You could see it before, the line between water and sky, aided by the few streetlamps onshore. But from the boat, the Chesapeake Bay unfurls like black satin toward nowhere.
This is Tangier Island Mayor James "Ooker" Eskridge's favorite time, right after 4:30 a.m., when the motor's gentle hum eases the world awake. You can lose yourself or find yourself, he says, "whatever is required," in the empty hour that follows. And then, around 6 a.m., a pale orange line bleeds up from the east, and water and sky again become two.
As we approach the dock, he leans out, his leathery arms stretching toward a heap of braided ropes. He grabs one and stills the boat, tying a cleat hitch. Then he steps onto the wood-planked shanty that's housed his soft-shell crab operation since 1970. There are dozens of crab shanties clustered in Tangier's harbor, and most offer a glimpse into the lives of the men who own them. For his part, Eskridge raises American and Israeli flags. After adjusting the bill of his Make America Great Again hat, he pulls on his yellow oilskin and rubber boots.
Then he works. He stands over the tank that holds adult soft crabs, the busters and peelers soon to shed their shells for the last time. He sorts through them with quick, callused hands. He tosses shells into the bay and dead crabs into a red, perforated bucket—he can use them for eel bait. And then his fingers find the spongy skin of a crab ready to be packaged and shipped: She goes in a yellow cardboard box. He moves like a driver on an empty highway—programmed by instinct, his mind elsewhere. He tells me about a scenario he imagines often, in which a hurricane destroys the island and he observes the wreckage from above, as though he were a ghost.
This has been his rhythm for decades—arguably since he was four years old, when Eskridge's father, a crab fisherman like both his father and grandfather before him, first took him out on the water. The 60-year-old knows every inch of Tangier, this 1.2-square-mile strip off the coasts of Maryland and Virginia, population about 450. So it’s with confidence when he crouches down to show me the waterline on one of the wooden pylons propping up the shanty. "It's the same as it was 30 years ago," he says. "If sea level's rising, it's not enough to where we can see it."
The question of sea-level rise in Tangier's waters has captured much of America's attention in the last few years. Back in 2015, the science journal Nature ran a study warning of Tangier's demise at the hands of sea-level rise due to climate change. The dire findings caught the attention of climate scientists and, of course, the island's residents themselves, most of whom were skeptical. But it wasn't until last June, when Donald Trump came calling, that Tangier's plight crept into popular consciousness. After his advisers showed him a CNN report about the disappearing island and its pro-Trump inhabitants, the president phoned Eskridge and personally urged him to drop any concerns about sea-level rise. And suddenly everyone, it seemed, had an opinion on what was happening on this previously obscure island, rendering Tangier a poster child for both sides in the national conversation on climate change.
The story of Tangier has largely been limited to the inevitability of an island going down—the science behind it, the politics around it. And without new infrastructure, fast, Tangier is indeed going down. What's been left out, however, is why its people are willing to go down with it—and why they've risked it all on Trump to keep them afloat. …
Story: Elaina Plott
Art: McNair Evans
The opioids are here, and meth is resurgent. When it's easier than ever to rationalize the first hit, and the options are limitless, even a community-wide effort might not be enough to stop the overdoses. A year in the heart of the addiction crisis in Rust Belt America.
In an innocuous meeting room on the south side of Newark, a small city in central Ohio, about 20 people, members of the Newark Think Tank on Poverty's leadership team, are gathered on a Sunday afternoon in late October. They are deciding on a new campaign, and Eric Lee is hoping it will focus on addiction—hoping that, as an organization, it will begin to advocate for equal treatment for all users, whether their drug of choice is opioids or methamphetamine.
The think tank, focused primarily on poverty, re-entry, and housing, is now applying its grassroots organizing model to the addiction crisis here in central Ohio, what many consider to be the heart of a nationwide epidemic. Allen Schwartz, a community organizer and one of the group's founders, is running the meeting, a wide-ranging discussion focused on Newark's problem with meth, which he says is viewed mostly as a "poor man's" drug. Only half of the crisis is being addressed in this community, he says. Unlike opioids, which dominate the headlines and produce the spectacle of an overdose, meth kills slowly—people, and families, and communities.
There's a lot of skepticism here. Some wonder if state and federal grant money is earmarked exclusively for opioids or if it can be used for meth. Some wonder if there's going to be enough money at all. And some wonder if the people who need resources will actually have access to them.
Eric sits directly across from Schwartz. He's quiet, contemplative, a little uneasy. Eric's strength is "the one-on-one" and the outreach; he's not into deliberative processes. But he was central to the think tank's first major campaign, to "ban the box," meaning eliminating questions about felony convictions on employment applications in Newark and across Ohio. He lobbied in Columbus and knocked on doors. He knew the ban would be a step toward better support for people getting out of prison. Since that campaign, the think tank has successfully placed its members on the boards of a number of groups throughout Licking County, where Newark is located, but it's struggled to recapture the energy that the ban-the-box movement generated.
Now there's an issue for it to address, one that many members have direct experience with, a collective something from which they can draw energy: how hard it is to stay sober if you're poor. They feel that the subject of meth use is being overshadowed by opioids because there's no medically assisted treatment for the former. And they're concerned that meth users aren't treated the same—in part because their demographics trend poorer and less educated.
After about half an hour, Eric finally speaks up.
"The only thing that I wanted to say was, you're leaving out taking this message to the street just like with ban the box. ... We went out, we got people it affected directly, and we had them tell our stories," he says, explaining that he's seeing a lot of meth use in the community, affirming what everyone here knows.
"The last thing I'd want to see," Eric says, "is us making all these plans, and we leave the addicts out—we leave the stories out." …
Story: Jack Shuler
Art: Will Widmer
Engineering a More Perfect World
Jacque Fresco spent decades building a life-sized model of his ideal city. The central idea? If we want the Western world to overcome war, avarice, and poverty, all we need to do is redesign the culture.
To get to the future, you must leave the coast of South Florida. Head inland on a county highway that penetrates the flat, mind-numbing expanse of the Everglades—past rock mines and cypress stands and faded billboards hailing defunct tourist traps—all the way to the community of Venus, population 1,043.
I'm driving a rented minivan down a long gravel road, my tires creating a rooster tail of dust. The air conditioning stopped working around the limits of Fort Lauderdale, and the van's interior has become muggy in the March heat. Something I learned rather late in my travel plans is that Florida has no interstate that runs anywhere near Venus. Its major highways tend to meander up the coast—channels of sunshine and commerce—which makes this trip into the state's industrial core feel a bit like going off the grid, wandering backstage on the great American production that is spring break. Outside the window, there's a montage of orange groves and decrepit barns, trees bearded with Spanish moss. Clusters of scrawny cattle plod across a withered pasture, swatting flies with their tails.
I glance at my phone, scanning the email I received from a member of the Venus Project earlier in the week. "If you're early, please wait in or near your car," it says. "Don't walk around the land or down to the water as there are alligators."
After a mile, the road becomes a lunar surface, cratered and wrecked and gray. A colonnade of lush foliage lines the road, at the end of which stands a large gate that reads:
THE VENUS PROJECT.
JACQUE FRESCO AND
I hop out of the car and futz with the rusted latch until the gate swings open, and, after puttering down the long driveway, I finally see a group of cars parked haphazardly around a sun-glazed pond. At least 15 people have already arrived, milling around and shaking hands. No alligators are anywhere in view.
I meet a young, hippyish couple from Stuart, Florida. The man, whose hair is speckled with dried paint, nods at me in the brusque, self-assured manner of alpha males everywhere. His companion wears a mirror-plated skirt and ballet flats, her hair blond and sculpted, like the bouffant of a Lichtenstein print.
"So, how'd you guys hear about Jacque?" I ask.
"Zeitgeist, originally," the guy says.
"Me too! Zeitgeist," says a gangly man who steps out of the shade wearing Jesus sandals.
I nod decisively even though I have no idea what they're talking about. The next visitors to arrive are an amiable gay couple in their mid-fifties, decked out in Crocs and sun hats. "This place speaks to our Star Trek-y tendencies, so we wanted to check it out."
The clouds part, and sunlight bursts through the serrated edges of the overhead palm trees, beaming down at schizoid angles. Geckos dash across the gravel and vanish into the shrubbery. Finally, one of Jacque's assistants fetches us from the driveway and leads us into the first building of the tour, a futuristic-looking structure made of white plaster and cement, shaped like a portabello cap. We approach a sliding glass door that reads The Venus Project in creamy stenciled letters. Just around the corner is the man we're here to see. ...
Story: Barrett Swanson
Art: Jarren Vink
Bringing the Rural Poor Into the Digital Economy
Dumas, a small town in the heart of the Arkansas Delta—where public computers and open Internet access are hard to come by—is home to an ambitious new program to teach digital literacy skills.
Dumas sits in the heart of the Arkansas Delta, just off of Highway 65 in Desha County. The railroad that once made it a busy town splits Main Street in two, a reminder of how central it was to the cotton trade and the merchants the trade brought in its wake. Today, errant bits of cotton float down the sidewalk. The trains still pass through, but the street is silent. Some windows are boarded, victims of a steady population decline over the last 40 years.
If you're looking for work in Dumas, your prospects are dim. More than a third of the population is below the federal poverty line. If you're black, as nearly two-thirds of Dumas' residents are, your chances of ending up in poverty are about equal to the flip of a coin. Unemployment hovers at around 17 percent, and more than a third of the jobs that remain are the seasonal ones that wax and wane with the agricultural cycles. Even some of those are beyond the reach of Dumas natives. Few, black or white, make it beyond high school—just under 12 percent have a college degree—and many of the remaining field jobs require technical skills. You can't operate the drones that monitor the fields for signs of pests or be entrusted with a half-million-dollar cotton picker whose controls must be perfectly calibrated if you have trouble reading or doing basic math. Those jobs tend to go to outsiders. The natives who do go to college rarely come back.
On February 24th, 2007, a tornado hit Dumas, closing down many of the businesses that had held on through mechanization. Eighty percent of local industry was devastated. The hospital was stretched to capacity—and many of those treated had just lost their jobs and health insurance. Much of the town's remaining infrastructure, public and private, fell apart. "But it was a blessing," says David Rainey, a former state representative. "We didn't build it back as it was. We built it to the future. It was how technology first surfaced in Dumas."
Rainey and I were sampling the chicken, sweet potatoes, and cornbread in Pickens Store Restaurant and Commissary. It sits in the middle of what was once Pickens Plantation, and is, in many ways, the place where the town’s business gets done.
Before the tornado, the schools in Dumas, which Rainey oversaw as superintendent until June of 2014, had few readily available Internet-connected computers. The town library had five. The only other public wireless was in the McDonald's—but you had to bring your own laptop, and most people didn't have one.
After the tornado, Rainey advocated for establishing a new, technologically equipped school and a tech center, housed in the old bank, with 24 computers for the townspeople. "We built the facility thinking technology could counteract the lack of industry," Rainey says. "Maybe it could bring resources to Dumas." When he heard about a pilot project sponsored by a non-profit called SamaUSA, the American arm of Samasource, an international organization that aims to teach digital skills to people lacking access to traditional employment routes, he thought, "Eureka! This is it. This is what we've been looking for." ...
Story: Maria Konnikova
Art: Aaron Turner
This Is Your Brain on Poverty
How behavioral economics is opening a creative new front in the fight against inequality.
Dr. Bryan Bledsoe was just trying to keep up. The emergency room at his small county hospital was always packed and the top brass had urged him to move patients through more quickly, so when a woman in her sixties came in complaining of head and neck pain, he briskly examined her, hustled her off for an X-ray, gave her some pain medication for a pulled muscle, and dispatched her home.
The next morning she was back, this time in an ambulance. Bledsoe had missed the signs of an impending stroke. The woman died in the hospital that day.
Bledsoe didn't lack training or a desire to help. The doctor, who today serves as a faculty member and physician in the trauma center at the University Medical Center of South Nevada in Las Vegas, was as eager then to see his patients get better as he is now. But in the moment, strapped for time and overwhelmed by the varied needs of so many patients, he missed a diagnosis. It would haunt him for years.
While there's no easy excuse for Bledsoe's lapse, there is something of an explanation: We all have only a finite amount of mental bandwidth, and if we use that bandwidth to concentrate on one thing, it's difficult to use it for anything else.
Given his profession, Bledsoe was in a privileged position at the time; this mental condition is even more difficult for those on the other end of the economic spectrum. While nearly all of us juggle work, our personal lives, and financial and other obligations, for low-income families the juggling involves constant, agonizing tradeoffs ("Should I pay the rent or the electric bill? Should I fill this prescription or buy food?"). The process of making those tradeoffs day after day comes at a cognitive cost — the equivalent, researchers say, of living each day as if you hadn't slept the night before.
Living in poverty, having so much bandwidth wrapped up in just making it from one day to the next, decreases a person's — any person's — cognitive function, making it harder to solve problems, resist impulses, and think long-term. If a well-off professional like Bledsoe were transplanted into a life of poverty tomorrow, he'd lose the same bandwidth too — and his brain function would show it.
The context of "scarcity" — as Princeton University professor of psychology and public policy Eldar Shafir and Harvard University economist Sendhil Mullainathan dubbed it in their influential 2013 book Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much — actually changes the way we think. We get tunnel vision, able to focus only on the present problem — the thing we lack, or the thing we need to do right now — in a kind of fire-fighting mode, leaving us with less bandwidth for anything else. ...
Story: Karen Weese
Art: Matt Chase
Failure at the EPA
The agency has left immigrants and minorities to fend for themselves at toxic waste sites across the country.
The puddles in the potholes were frozen solid the first time Sofia saw Fairmont City, Illinois. Ugly, she thought, as her father pulled off the main road just east of St. Louis into the wedge of bungalows and trucking yards that was supposed to be their new hometown. She and her parents had driven through the night from Arkansas to get here. Later they would sleep, and the next morning Sofia (whose name has been changed to protect her privacy) and her mother would wake up at 4 a.m. to stand on a packing line in a produce distribution warehouse pushing vegetables into cartons. The job was a godsend. It paid cash and didn't require English or a work visa—neither of which she or her parents had. But, all the same, as Sofia drove into town that March morning, she felt a wave of sadness wash over her.
It was her second big move in four years. The first, when she was 16, had taken her family north from adobe village in central Mexico, by bus across hundreds of parched miles, and finally by boat over the Rio Grande under the eye of the coyote they'd hired to help them evade border police. The decision to leave had felt obvious: In the village, the family had scratched out a living growing corn and beans and washing clothes. There weren't many other options. Every time someone in the village did manage to open a business, armed strongmen showed up demanding a cut. Half for us, half for you, they would say. So when two of Sofia's aunts, who lived in Arkansas, suggested the family join them, they went.. Four years later, they were uprooting themselves again, for another unknown place.
As the years rolled on, Fairmont City became home. Sofia had two sons and got a better job at a restaurant. She bought a car. The little town of 2,600 grew on her. There was a Catholic church, a library with Spanish books, and a brick town hall that looked like a miniature castle. It felt safe. And just as her cousin had promised, it didn't matter that neither she nor her parents spoke English or had legal immigration status. Whenever she needed information about navigating daily life—like how to sign her kids up for health insurance, or whether to open a bank account—she was able to ask a friend or find it herself in Spanish.
But six years into life in Fairmont City, there was still plenty she didn't know about her new home.
She didn't know that for 50 years a huge zinc plant had dominated the economy, and that, when it closed in 1967, it left behind a poisonous residue of lead, arsenic, cadmium, zinc, and manganese. She didn't know that, behind a barbed-wire-topped fence three blocks from her home, 90 of the 132 acres of the former American Zinc smelter were littered with open piles of metal-laden slag, some of it ground to the consistency of talc powder. She didn't know that many of the town's alleyways and yards were filled with the same slag, or that more than two decades ago the government had deemed the contamination a health threat to residents.
On a December afternoon, as Sofia's three-year-old son races around their living room shooting a toy bazooka, she says she's never even heard about the pollution. Like her son, she has round cheeks and a bright smile. She speaks calmly. "It's like people wanted to hide that. ... I don't think any of the immigrants living here know about it." ...
STORY: KEVIN STARK & WINIFRED BIRD
ART: WILLIAM WIDMER
The Bionic Woman of Good Science
How an ecologist of tidal communities became a global diplomat for the ocean.
On a blindingly bright autumn morning, I'm standing with Jane Lubchenco on the rocky shoreline at Asilomar State Beach, two hours south of San Francisco at the southern end of Monterey Bay. There's a camera crew with us, filming her for an upcoming documentary on large-scale global marine reserves. I mention that I'd spotted a pair of whales surfacing and spouting in the bay the previous evening, not far from where we're filming. "Oh, they were probably pilot whales," Lubchenco says with enthusiasm, turning to look offshore. The professor in her can't help but point out pelicans, harbor seals, and floating kelp in the clear waters — all vibrant signs of health in this marine ecosystem.
More broadly, she sees good news, which is no small thing for one of the world's most important environmental scientists, celebrated for her decades-long efforts to call out the ways that human activities have unintentionally disrupted environmental stability. Lubchenco is a marine ecologist who has studied the Oregon coast for close to 40 years. After President Barack Obama named her in 2008 to head up the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as part of his "green dream team," she was called the "bionic woman of good science" at her Senate confirmation hearings, where she received unanimous approval. Her research papers are among the most widely cited in ecology; among other achievements, Lubchenco has won a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" and served as the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Last year, she was given an unusually free-form mandate by the Department of State to travel the world as the United States' first ocean diplomat. So what's she going to do with it? ...
Story: Bonnie Tsui
Art: Oliver Barrett
The Afterlife of Big Ideas
How one high school—mine—explains why we keep making the same mistakes in education reform.
It is lunchtime, it is Wednesday, it is the year 2000, and the principal of Nathan Hale High School is leading 50 juniors on a march up Lake City Way.
Last year, the teachers told their sophomores that if they passed all four sections of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, the statewide standardized test, they would get a free lunch at Dick's, the burger place 15 minutes' walk up the hill from Nathan Hale.
So many students passed that the walk has become a parade: Six police escorts, a row of traffic cones blocking two lanes of traffic, the marching band leading the way. The juniors hold balloons that say, "I passed the WASL and I'm going to Dick's!" The next morning, the Seattle Times runs a story "Kudos Come in Burger Form."
Eight years ago, when Mr. Eric Benson, the principal, started at Nathan Hale, this would have been unthinkable. For at least a decade, Nathan Hale had the reputation as the worst high school in north Seattle—the only one without a waiting list, the drainage chute for students who couldn't get into, or had gotten kicked out of, more selective public schools. The last time it got a major write-up in the Seattle Times, the story was about a melee in the parking lot that had put a senior in the hospital with stab wounds.
In the early 1990s, the problems at Nathan Hale looked a lot like the ones at other troubled schools in troubled districts around the country. Decades of forced busing had pushed white, affluent kids out to the suburbs, and "gifted" programs had segregated the students left behind.
They came to be known as dropout factories: Large urban high schools—up to 3,000 students each—that weren't just failing to keep kids from falling through the cracks, but were actively opening up new ones. Nathan Hale's 1,000-plus students were divvied up between special-education, standard, and honors tracks, then taught, separately, in classes of more than 30 students each. They attended the same school, but they were in different worlds, the problem kids concentrated and the college-track kids cocooned. ...
Story: Michael Hobbes
Art: Elias Stein
Fighting Back Against Parkinson's
Individuals struggling with the mysterious, debilitating disease are finding relief in an unlikely place: the boxing gym, where patients battling uncontrollable tremors are transformed into fighters.
Through the strain on Kevin Krejci's bespectacled, reddening face, a flicker of a smile flashes as glove hits canvas, a spray of sweat punctuating every hit to the heavy bag. There is joy and fury in every swing. Pummeling the bag soothes his stress and frustration. Emotional and physical relief comes with each blow.
Thwack! Thwack-thwack! A jab-jab-cross combination pecks the bag as the trainer patrols the line, offering pointers. "Keep your hands up!" she yells. "Turn your hips!"
Krejci is in a group of boxers that includes women, septuagenarians, and every weight class from fly to heavy. They are all training to fight the same opponent.
The bell rings after a three-minute round, and the fighters circle around Kim Woolley. It is here, in the quiet of taking instruction from their trainer, where the signs of disease are easier to spot. Krejci's left arm hangs stiffly at his side as he walks over. Another boxer's right hand trembles as he listens. Some have a pronounced hunch, their spines curving just below their shoulders, while others speak haltingly. They all have Parkinson's disease.
"I love hitting the heavy bag. I feel like it's such a stress relief, and I think the symptoms are often brought on by stress," Krejci says as he unwinds his yellow hand wraps at the end of another session. "I started seeing noticeable improvements after about three months. My stiffness and walking improved."
Krejci, the father of two young boys, received his diagnosis three years ago, when he was 48, and he immediately wondered what the implications were for his family and future.
"Looking back, I probably had symptoms for 10 years, but I ignored them," he says. "All of the signs were there but I didn’t take my health seriously enough."
The diagnosis shocked Krejci into action. He vowed to be an active participant in his treatment, and do all he could to hold the developing symptoms at bay. He was the first to sign up when Rock Steady Boxing, a non-contact training program designed for Parkinson's patients, launched a chapter in San Francisco a year after his diagnosis. Krejci joined a growing movement of Parkinson's patients bucking outdated exercise recommendations. New programs that push Parkinson's patients to be more active and improve their fitness are popping up around the country and growing steadily. Besides boxing, the new movement therapies incorporate dance, drumming, golf, and tai chi. ...
Story: TOVIN LAPAN
Art: OLIVER BARRETT
The Battle for the Great Apes: Inside the Fight for Non-Human Rights
With several incremental victories behind them, animal-rights advocates are making their biggest push yet: to expand the definition of a person.
On a hot summer day at the end of January, I walked up Calle Borges from Plaza Cortázar (surrealist writers are honored in these parts) for my first visit to the Buenos Aires Zoo. As a boy, Borges himself came this way to gaze through the bars at the Bengal tiger — a beast so fantastic that it lodged itself in his imagination, haunting him ever after in his words and dreams.
I passed quickly by the pony rides and the man selling balloons at the wrought-iron entryway, and past Lago Darwin, where pink flamingos swam. Past the dark reptilario, torpid with snakes and lizards. Past the bears and the lions and the cheetah and the ocelot. And finally, just beyond the towering condor cage, I saw her: redheaded Sandra, who, in the eyes of some humans, has become the world's most important ape.
Last year, to the delight of animal-rights advocates, a Buenos Aires judge ruled that Sandra is a "non-human person" and a "sentient being" — a bearer of legal rights. Just what that means is still a matter of dispute. But, in the meantime, the case has been hailed by activists as a milestone in civil rights — another sign that human society may be ready to expand its embrace, recognizing great apes and perhaps other species as more than just things.
Standing before the glass wall of Sandra's enclosure, I looked across an empty moat into her open-air habitat — one of those Flintstones-like rockscapes that in the 1960s began replacing barred cages in the architecture of zoos. There she was, sitting alone in the shade of an artificial cliff, hiding beneath her blanket. Unlike the screaming chimpanzees nearby, orangutans are quiet creatures that guard their privacy. This was an animal I could identify with.
While waiting for her to show her face, I tried to decipher the educational signage. Orangutans, which live in reduced numbers in Sumatra and Borneo, are known by the natives as hombres del bosque —"men of the forest." Threatened with extinction, their hope for survival lies in conservación and sustentable de su hábitat. The sign, like almost everything else at the zoo, was sponsored by Coca-Cola.
As I puzzled over the words, I glimpsed from the corner of my eye a flicker of movement. Sandra? But it was just a reflection of a boy who had come with his family to see the orangutan. They quickly grew bored and moved on.
It wasn't until the next afternoon that I got a better look. Sandra had returned to the same spot, but now her head was sticking out from the blanket as she scrutinized the ground for insects, popping them like candy into her mouth.
A group of visitors approached, guided by a young woman wearing khaki shorts and an official zoo polo shirt. Sandra recognized her. She rose from the ground and ambled, as if in slow motion, across her paddock and into the building that served as her indoor quarters. Looking out through the glass, she matched hands with her human keeper, mano a mano, and I wondered, What was Sandra thinking? Was this a mindless act of imitation? A sign of affection? Or could it be an entreaty? Why do you taller apes get to be out there with the towering trees, where space appears to be infinite?
Then, as if remembering her part of the contract, Sandra walked back outside and climbed slowly onto a platform built to provide her with a semblance of arboreal existence. After a round of acrobatics, she returned to her corner to pick for more bugs. ...
Story: George Johnson
Art: Yadid Levy
Could California Become a Zero-Extinction State?
California plant lovers are finding—and nurturing—species once presumed to be extinct in the wild.
The scientists didn't blindfold me or stuff me in the trunk of their car, but they did make me swear a sacred vow that I would never reveal the precise location of their treasured, secluded, exceedingly rare shrub. So I can't tell you where or how to find the plant, but I can say that it lives on the wild western edge of this continent. I can say that it overlooks the Pacific Ocean and clings to existence on a lonesome plot in San Francisco's Presidio park. I can say that it may be the luckiest damn thing on Earth, having survived a series of freakishly close shaves with extinction. In fact, the Franciscan manzanita, with its pink blooms and sweet berries, was once considered extinct in the wild. But then, one day, it wasn't.
On the cool afternoon I went to visit this manzanita, smoke from searing fires in Sonoma and Napa in the north choked the air and gave the city an eerie golden glow. Lew Stringer, a rakish auburn-bearded ecologist who works on staff at the Presidio, was my guide. We were accompanied by Diony Gamoso, a biological science technician, and Dan Gluesenkamp, the executive director of the California Native Plant Society.
This exuberant gang of public servants and plant lovers climbed out of the car and descended into a thick hedge of native ceanothus, winding past coastal oaks and dry winter grass until we arrived at the secret destination. The manzanita stood solitary on an arid hillside, its squat body soaking up the partial sunshine.
"It looks good!" Stringer said, after listing off the various potential maladies—drought, rodents, disease—that threaten it still. He was relieved, as were Gamoso and Gluesenkamp. Together, they are the three people largely responsible for keeping the manzanita alive as a wild species. They like to know that Francie, as they call the plant, is safe and sound. Francie, after all, is a figurehead of sorts.
In May of 2016, Gluesenkamp and the California Native Plant Society, or CNPS, announced an unusual new project that seeks to reverse floral extinction in this abundantly biodiverse state. It's not the sort of de-extinction that normally grabs headlines—the group isn't using tissue samples and modern technology to resurrect critters that vanished centuries ago. Rather, CNPS believes that the 22 California plant species that are currently presumed extinct in the wild may simply be very rare and difficult to locate. They may merely be lost. ...
Story: Jimmy Tobias
Art: Gina Kiel
The Poison in Our Water
As scientists sort out the best way to capture and measure the harmful microfibers that now litter most of the world's freshwater, we have no choice but to keep drinking.
It's hovering around 10 degrees and snowing sideways in west Yellowstone, country so thick with grizzlies the state urges hikers to travel in packs of no less than four. This place is a crystalline kind of flawless, a vast wilderness where bison have roamed, uninterrupted, since prehistory. But as remote as it is, my guide has brought me here to illustrate how significantly the land has changed. Miles from our car and a 30-minute drive from the nearest civilization—and armed with a GPS tracker that, if alerted, would dispatch a helicopter to our rescue—I'm here to trace the route plastic pollution has taken as it moves through the Rockies. As the sprawling mountains straddling Montana and Wyoming have shown, there are few places in this country it hasn't touched.
Strapped into a pair of cross-country skis, I've spent the last four hours nursing my ego after careening face-first down multiple hills and struggling to claw up offensively steep inclines. Muscles in my legs that I've never before identified are screaming; I'm vaguely aware my fingers have gone numb. I'm doing this, I tell myself, in the name of science.
A dozen yards ahead, confidently barreling through the two-foot-thick layer of snow that has blanketed this side of the national park, is Ricky Jones, a longtime snowboarder with a jaunty walk and lightning smile who works at the Bozeman-based research collective Adventure Scientists. He's leading me roughly four miles into the park to the headwaters of the Gallatin River, a 97-mile-long tributary named by Meriwether Lewis, who first encountered it in 1805, and I am trying not to ask him, again, how many miles lie ahead of us.
When Lewis came upon the river system, in search of the path that would lead him to the Pacific, he described it with subdued reverence in his journal. He could've written the entry yesterday: The riverbeds were "formed of smooth pebble and gravel, and the waters are perfectly transparent. ... The low grounds were still wide but not so extensive as near its mouth." Sacagawea recognized the land, he said, and knew the native tribes who once lived there. At first glance unassuming, the Gallatin serves as the headwaters for the Missouri River, making it part of the longest river system in North America and, by proxy, one of the most intricate and vast freshwater ecosystems in the world.
To reach the belly of the watershed, Jones and I ski through a fairy tale: 15-foot-tall evergreens laced with ice and snow arch overhead in cheery ellipticals, giving the appearance that they're whispering to each other; the snow is peppered with tracks from deer and rabbits. Inky black eyes the size of lima beans, likely belonging to the white ermines that burrow underground, fix themselves on us as we trudge through their forest. And though it's snowing, there's a celestial stillness to the air—as if we're dolls gliding through a snow globe, or suspended in a decompression chamber.
This is the fourth time Jones has hiked this route for Adventure Scientists, a non-profit environmental research organization. In three trips over two years (the first of which ended in frostbite that caused the tip of his nose to slough off), he gathered samples from three different points along the river, which the group shipped off to a scientist in Maine who examined them for the presence of microscopic plastic fibers. Over 100 other volunteers for the organization collected hundreds of water samples from 72 different sites across the Gallatin watershed in the same period. The results of the study, which closed last summer, were dispiriting. Fifty-seven percent of the samples, including those from the alpine waters I'd seen, contained plastic pollutants—impossibly small debris from clothing, equipment, or other manufactured goods—known as microfibers. ...