I wrote in February 2020 about an audacious plan to return Montana ranchland to the wild, pulling down fences and reintroducing buffalo. The American Prairie Reserve is seeking to create a massive protected area in central Montana and repopulate it with the wildlife of bygone days. The group is using private money to patch together 3.2 million acres, or 5,000 square miles, of private and public grassland along the Missouri River, acquiring ranches from “willing sellers” at market prices, removing the cattle that grazed the land, stocking it with bison, tearing out interior fences, restoring native vegetation, and creating the conditions in which the region’s lost wildlife could return and thrive. It is an ambitious, and also very contentious, vision of the region’s future. Read the piece in National Geographic Magazine, February 2020
I’ll be spending the next year on a National Geographic Storytelling Fellowship, chronicling a conservation group’s search for “lost species.” My itinerary still in process, but I hope to travel to Colombia to search for lost parakeets, to Kazakhstan to track a missing sturgeon, and to the Galapagos to visit with a century-old tortoise that had been hiding in plain sight on a remote western island.
The project will follow teams from Global Wildlife Conservation, an NGO that is seeking to find species that have not been seen in the wild for many decades, and in doing so call attention to efforts to save them and the crucial habitat that may support them. I plan to write about the hunt for these elusive species, and explore how stories of bold exploration and hope can spur conservation.
In 2017, a Texas-based NGO called Global Wildlife Conservation launched the “Search for Lost Species,” compiling a list of the globe’s 25 “most wanted” creatures—species that haven’t been seen in the wild for many decades. The list of the missing, compiled in consultation with dozens of IUCN experts, includes mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, marine creatures, insects, and one plant. In each case there is anecdotal evidence—such as unsubstantiated sightings, local lore, or black-market specimens—to suggest the creatures may not yet be extinct. In the two years since the campaign has launched, three species have been found, and the organization plans to announce two more rediscoveries in the coming months. These “found” species provide rare notes of hope amid a demoralizing litany of lost or disappearing species: vaquitas, white rhinos, Lonesome George the Galapagos tortoise.
Species are lost for any number of reasons: habitat destruction, disease, poaching, invasive species, human-wildlife conflict, or because they are very rare to begin with. But they are found only for one reason: because people are looking, calling attention to the globe’s vast diversity and to the importance of protecting it. These creatures’ struggles for survival—or rather, our own struggles to secure their survival—pose a number of fascinating questions: about how we find and count species; how we determine threats to them; how we help them; how we measure success; if and why we care about the survival of uncharismatic and obscure creatures teetering on the edge of extinction. In joining the hunt for these unseen species, I hope to illuminate those issues and answer some of those questions.
After a year and a half of talking, reporting, marching, conference-calling, driving, hiking, biking, horse-riding, writing, editing, agonizing, factchecking, more editing, more agonizing, more factchecking, two features I wrote ran in this month’s National Geographic magazine.
The first, the cover story in National Geographic’s November issue, tells the story of the battle over public lands in the American West, focusing on three recently created national monuments that the Trump administration targeted for reductions and the cultural conflicts that have dogged our relationship with public lands since the time they were created. … Read more
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
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
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.
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.
Last 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
I 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
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.