Wall St. Journal Book Review

At the same time scientists first identified Colony Collapse Disorder–the mysterious syndrome in which honeybees disappeared from previously healthy hives–another, less-heralded bee mystery was also unfolding.

In 2006, a UC Davis entomologist named Robbin Thorp spotted a lone, yellow-topped Franklin’s bumblebee in a meadow in Oregon’s Siskiyou Mountains. When he had first begun surveying sites in 1998, this type of bee was relatively plentiful. But it soon became more difficult to find and then impossible: The bee that Mr. Thorp encountered in 2006 was the last Franklin’s bumblebee anyone has seen. … Read more

Beetles, Guns, Meth Buckets, the Smell of Death

Endangered beetles are boring. Except this one. Whose story (published this month in Scientific American) includes: a .38, a .45/.410 combo, a bowie knife, a Viking range, slate tile, feral hogs, rotting Walmart fryer chickens, frack rigs, frack tanks, meth buckets, the smell of death, (extinct) passenger pigeons, angry Oklahoma politicians, and “consultants with coolers full of dead things to attract imperiled things that no one knows is there and no one is likely to miss.”  … Read more


Last summer I spent two humid sunsets in a cornfield in Illinois, learning about the corn rootworm–which is not actually a worm, but rather a beetle. It is the most consequential pest in American agriculture. Known as the “billion dollar bug,” its costs to corn growers is estimated at somewhere just shy of 2 billion dollars, including research into GM crops that have kept the pest under control for a decade, but now are starting to fail. … Read more

Nuns, outlaws, lunatics, saints, and private eyes

I write in this month’s Smithsonian Magazine about Sister Blandina Segale, the intrepid nun who founded hospitals and schools in 19th century New Mexico, and is now being considered by the Vatican for sainthood (and who saved my great-great-grandfather from Billy the Kid). I spent some time with the man who is championing her cause, and the detective involved in Sister Blandina’s very belated background check.

You can read it here: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/next-american-saint-sister-blandina-regale-immigrants-womens-history-180960782/

Monsanto, mites and the bee wars: Wired Magazine story

There was a massive learning curve (RNAi anyone?), a lemon-soda-fried motherboard (second brand-new computer in two weeks), a back-up fail (lost reporting notes, yay), a kill fee, a resurrection, too many rewrites to count and some very odd photos involving honey and a pane of glass–but a year and a half later, this story about bees, mites, Monsanto, the culture wars, and one dogged apiarist finally sees the light of day in Wired Magazine.

Mother-Daughter Poetry/Prose Smackdown

WritersAlmanacLast week on Writer’s Almanac, Garrison Keillor read one of my mother’s poems from her new book, a poem about birth, and death, and owls, and ancestors (and ghosts). She showed it to me as I was writing American Ghost, and the scene made its way into the book as well.

It’s about the night my daughter was born — and it’s illustrative, I think, to compare how we saw the same moment, both from the perspectives of poetry and prose, and from our own and time and place in life. … Read more

Because of the Ghosts

GIGI_MemosI am re-reading my mother’s new book of poems, Memos from the Broken World, now that it’s out in the world – it is so thoughtful and poignant and illuminating. This is a poem I particularly (selfishly) love — being the daughter mentioned in the poem, and being mother to a daughter of my own now, watching her, too, “move on to her life.” And because of the ghosts, of course.

Because of the Ghosts

because we are three on the steps,
side by side, not together

because my mother pretends to read, eyes
on her book, knees drawn together over skinny
varicose veins

because my daughter’s eyes look left–she is wild
to be elsewhere–and mine rest on a space
between, as if I were riding a difficult horse,
my torso half-twisting,

because we had no chance
to compose our faces,
turn to the camera and lie,

and the ghost of another exposure
frames us in three pale windows of light
so we’re seen through shadows
we’ll someday become,

because of the ghosts,

because it shows us as we really were–already
moving on–my mother to her death,
my daughter to her life,

me, twisting between them.

Seriously, this happened

JSroomA few weeks ago, I flew down to Santa Fe for a party at La Posada. The hosts had rented out the house, and for the final night of the event, the planners moved all of the furniture out of the bedrooms upstairs and the downstairs parlors and bar, and moved dining tables into the rooms so the guests could eat there.

Including in Julia’s room.

Two members of the work crew were assigned to Julia’s suite, taking apart the four-poster bed and moving the bed, couch, divan, desk, and dresser into one of the other guest rooms. … Read more

A Dark Night with Julia

I just received an email from a reader named Jennifer, who wrote me after a long, sleepless night. She had just started American Ghost, and it brought back to her “the horrible nightmare and experiences I had when my husband and I stayed in Julia’s room 5 years ago.” The experience, she said, foretold a death in her family, and “still haunts me to this day.”

She asked if I wanted to know more.

Of course I did. And this is the story she told. It is disturbing and also very sad: … Read more

Unforgiving Lands

A National Conversation Hosted by the Smithsonian and Zócalo Public Square

June 16, 2105

by Hannah Nordhaus

Staab House on Palace Ave. SFWhen my great-great-grandmother set out for New Mexico territory in 1866, she spoke no English. Nor did she speak any Spanish.

German was her native language; Yiddish as well. Julia Staab was a German Jew from a small village in Prussia. I don’t know how her marriage to my great-great-grandfather Abraham Staab came about—if it was arranged beforehand, or if they chose each other. But I do know that they were in a hurry to begin their married life in Santa Fe—to inhabit their American Dream.

Abraham was, anyway. He had left their village a decade earlier, at 15, to make his fortune. That he did, hauling merchandise—“Hats Boots & Shoes, Hardware, Groceries etc. etc.”—along the Santa Fe Trail between St. Louis and the American Southwest. He became a U.S. citizen on July 10, 1865, only a few weeks after the last shots of the Civil War were fired, and promptly departed for Germany in search of a bride. My great-great-grandparents married on Christmas Day, 1865. Julia was 21 years old, Abraham 26.

What It Means to Be AmericanThey shipped out on the RMS Scotia, a luxury liner that was at the time the fastest ship on the Atlantic, and on January 12, they landed in New York. From there, they climbed onto a train, and then a steamboat, and then rode for two weeks in a stagecoach across the snow-cloaked Great Plains to make a life among New Mexico’s stark and rugged Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

Santa Fe, in 1866, was not yet the elegant city of artists and tourists and well-heeled retirees. It was a rough and unruly town, sandy and treeless. Its central plaza was crowded with carts, wagons, teamsters, roustabouts, soldiers, veterans, fortune-seekers, consumptives, NaJulia and Abraham Staabvajos, Apaches, Jewish merchants, freed slaves, miners, gamblers, prostitutes, shysters, horses, burros, pigs, and goats—a confusion of commerce, a babel of languages. The houses were constructed of mud, the streets clouded with billowing dust. Beyond the town’s edges stretched a bewildering landscape of uncompromising sky and chisel-topped cerritos, so different from anything a young bride from the green and gentle valleys of northwestern Germany would ever have seen. New Mexico was all tans and reds, the ground littered with rocks and reptiles, with hematite-seeped rocks and bleached bones and spiny flora—cactus, greasewood, Spanish bayonet.

This desert was, certainly, an unforgiving land. But it was nonetheless a place that seemed willing to forgive the fact that Julia and Abraham were Jews. In Lügde, the village in which they were raised, local records describe a 1866 cholera outbreak that killed “126 people and one Jew.” That Jew was Julia’s cousin Philipp Schuster—singled out because, in Julia’s time, a Jew in Lügde was not a person but an invasive species, taxed and fined and snubbed at every turn.


Not so in Santa Fe. In the New Mexico that Julia encountered in 1866, the newspapers of the territory spoke kindly of the local Jews (“Many of the best residents are of the Jewish faith,” wrote the Santa Fe New Mexican). Perhaps this was because the Jewish merchants were advertisers, or perhaps because there weren’t enough of them to seem threatening. There were, in Santa Fe, no temples, no Hebrew schools, no Jewish ghettos. The stores stayed open on Saturdays; a rabbi traveled from Denver every few years to circumcise the boys. My great-grandmother Bertha’s diaries from those days mention riding parties and sewing circles and teas and Christmas celebrations with genJulia Schuster Staabtile and Jewish friends alike—champagne and oysters, boxes at the Albuquerque opera. But not once in the diary did she mention the fact that her family was Jewish. It didn’t seem to matter.

The Staabs were American. They occupied the heart of Santa Fe, with a huge storefront right on the Plaza and a towering family mansion—a mansard-roofed French Second Empire–style brick building—just a few blocks away. The three Staab girls rode sidesaddle and carried gold-headed riding crops. The four boys wore tennis whites and striped sweaters. Abraham was elected county commissioner twice; he helped bring the railroad, the gasworks, and the territorial prison to Santa Fe. He prospered alongside this former Mexican outpost: brick by brick, railroad tie by railroad tie, he worked to transform Santa Fe from a foreign colony into an American city. The town was parched and unkempt and far from the “civilized” world. But Abraham flourished in that hard soil.

Julia did not. She struggled there; indeed, she seemed to wither in the desert. She bore seven children in quick succession, and lost an eighth. She suffered miscarriages and health problems, and from “hysteria,” as they called it then. Whenever she fell into a decline, she traveled to Germany to recover, visiting healAbraham Staabth spas and German doctors and her many sisters who lived there and tended her when she was unwell. Julia was the only one of the family’s eight girls to leave Germany. She felt terribly unlucky to have done so.

In her last years, Julia shut herself in the upstairs bedroom of the European brick home her husband had built among the adobes, and never left. While the family celebrated weddings on the ground floor, she stayed upstairs in her room, and she died there in 1896. It is said that her ghost still haunts the building. And that she was also haunted: by the life she might have lived in Germany, and all that she had left behind.

Of course we, who came after, know what became of all that she left behind—what became of her nieces and nephews and of her sister Emilie, who lived long enough to die, at the age of 81, in a Nazi concentration camp. We know how it ended. And we are haunted by a ghost life, too—the life that might have been ours, had Abraham not dragged Julia across the ocean and plains to this open desert land.

To become American is to accept a staggering loss of self—of the people we once were, in the places we once came from. It may take a generation, perhaps two. But inevitably, it transpires. The surge of conquering culture sweeps down through the generations, much as the spring floods scour the desert arroyos. Washed away, we must lay down new roots.

Julia believed her life in the desert was a curse. But five generations downstream, I find that I can’t agree with her. That sere and serrated Western landscape is the only place I have ever felt at home. My father and grandfather came from there; my great-grandmother too. The high desert is in my blood. And I can only see that it was a blessing.