Posts Tagged ‘writing’

Thoreau and the value of mangroves

June 3rd, 2009

There are no mangroves in Massachusetts. What brought me to New England was a mangrove expert at Harvard, a photographer in Lexington and a pond in Concord.

Harvard ecologist Aaron Ellison edited a major review of mangrove knowledge in 2008 and has as good a grasp of the big mangrove picture as anyone I’ve met. (He also bakes mean ginger cookies.) One of the subjects we discussed was the growth of ecological economics, a discipline which attempts to assign a monetary value to the ecological “goods and services” provided by organisms and habitats. Mangroves, for example, might be valued at so many dollars per hectare for their contribution to erosion control, so many dollars for fish nursery services, carbon storage, wave mitigation, crab food, migratory bird roosts, and so on.

Site of Thoreau's hut at Walden Pond.

KENNEDY WARNE
Site of Thoreau's hut at Walden Pond.


Aaron is wary of taking this utilitarian approach to conservation. He argues that treating nature as a resource—an apparently inexhaustible resource—is what has got us into the mess we’re in, so how can assigning a dollar value to nature’s various components get us out of it? He showed me an editorial from a recent issue of the journal Conservation Biology, in which Matthew Child contends that the conservation movement is becoming bogged down in “soulless financial rhetoric.”

“Conservation was never meant to become another latch in the ratchet of progress,” writes Child. “Its primary purpose has always been to transcend the notion of economic progress.”

Thoreau, says Child, “would have balked at the tragic incongruence of conservationists using an economic framework to justify the existence of the movement. He was an unapologetic and nonviolent freedom fighter for nature who decried the societal dictum that ‘fruits are not ripe until they are turned to dollars.’”

The gist of his argument is that if conservationists want to sup with the devil of capitalist economics they’d better use a pretty long spoon.

How's the serenity?

KENNEDY WARNE
How's the serenity?


Thoreau’s literal stamping ground was Walden Pond, and that very morning I had made a dawn visit to the pond with photographer Tim Laman. Tim was my collaborator on the National Geographic mangrove story that launched me on this journey. Catching up with him in Lexington was the first chance I’d had to see the hundreds of outtakes that weren’t published in the magazine: tigers in the Sundarbans, trees packed with scarlet ibis in Trinidad, mud crabs in Indonesia that are so large they have to be speared rather than captured by hand—they would take your fingers off.

We spent the evening savouring pictures and dreaming of publishing a coffee-table book of mangrove photography and got up early to visit Walden, just a few miles from Tim’s house.

I peeked in the windows of the replica cabin-in-the-woods with its three chairs—“one for solitude, two for friendship, three for company”—and added a stone to one of the memorial cairns near the site of the original hut, where an inscription over the old fireplace says, in typical Thoreauvian prose, “Go thou my incense upward from this hearth.”

Tim stalking the elusive pink ladyslipper.

KENNEDY WARNE
Tim stalking the elusive pink ladyslipper.


Walden is still a place of solitude, despite the hum of commuter traffic through the trees. The only people besides us were swimmers, wetsuited against the cold, and a lone sculler taking the morning freshness. We looked for pink ladyslipper orchids, which flower at this time of year, and Tim was pleased to find a photogenic pair of blooms not far from the walking path.

Thoreau’s contribution to the environmental movement is beyond measuring. It was he who wrote the call to arms for nature’s defenders, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” I am glad for the chance to visit the site that spawned such thoughts, before heading to Cuba to see the state of wildness and preservation in the mangroves there.

Pilgrim at Key West

May 31st, 2009

“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.”

This sentence, the first line of The Old Man and the Sea, always thrills me—the simple way it sets up what is to come. Hemingway is one of the reference points I have as a writer. Like a GPS satellite, he’s someone I use to triangulate my position, to consider my direction, to consult when I’m lost. I don’t know how many times I’ve alluded to the “built-in, shock-proof shit detector” that Hem said is the most essential gift of a good writer. Or how many times I’ve recalled his advice to “write the truest sentence you know.”

Seeking inspiration in Hemingway's house.

KENNEDY WARNE
Seeking inspiration in Hemingway's house.


So I was happy to pay my $12 to have a look through his house in Key West. I had driven to the “Conch Republic” from Miami to catch up with my friends David Doubilet, the great underwater photographer, and Jennifer Hayes. The two of them were on assignment for National Geographic, photographing a story on artificial reefs. A really big artificial reef in the form of the ship Vandenberg had just been scuppered six miles offshore, and David showed me some spectacular images of the sinking from two remote cameras he and Jen had attached to the bow and the bridge.

But back to Hemingway. The first surprise was how many people were queuing to take the tour. Not bookish types trying to get in touch with some literary ambience residual in the walls—or possibly in the cats, of which there are dozens lounging about the place—but standard-issue Hawaiian-shirt-and-suntan-lotion tourists. Either the man’s celebrity is undiminished, or the Hemingway marketing machine is highly effective—or, I suppose, both.

Hem's house, a place of pilgrimage.

KENNEDY WARNE
Hem's house, a place of pilgrimage.


I stood at the steel grille blocking entry to the sanctum sanctorum, Hemingway’s study, and imagined myself tapping at the ancient portable typewriter on the desk, or reclining in the faded green lounger when the words weren’t flowing (probably more of the latter than the former), or strapping on the canvas backpack stashed under the window and heading for the snows of Kilimanjaro.

I glanced at the titles on the bookshelves in the main house. Danger is My Business, The Great American Novel, The Tumult and the Shouting. Muscular titles for a muscular writer. Though for Hemingway the inner tumult grew too great. Another title on the shelf gave me pause: When Night Descends.

Ground zero: Hemingway's study.

KENNEDY WARNE
Ground zero: Hemingway's study.


According to a sign on the wall, half of Hemingway’s library is in Cuba, where the man’s memory is also revered. A Google search brought up a story about finding Hemingway in Cuba by Wright Thompson in the Kansas Star. He writes about a bar where Papa’s followers raise a glass to his memory:

“Yet they also know that this might be as real as it gets. The Hemingway McDonald’s isn’t here yet, and the drinks do go down easy. They’re made the same way as back then. The waiters probably dress the same. So what if the prices are higher. They don’t come for a historical dissertation. They come to feel adventure, something they’ve otherwise traded for the safety of a cubicle and a 401(k). They come for a feeling, for that one moment of one day when they get it. When the lights dim and the band plays and the smoke curls, this place delivers.”

In a week I’ll be in Cuba, looking for my own adventure, not in a bar, nor in a fishing skiff in the Gulf Stream, but among some of the best preserved mangrove forests in the Caribbean.

Correction: When I first published this post I got the name of the Kansas Star author wrong: it’s Wright Thompson, not Wayne Thompson (which happens to be the name of my solicitor). I also couldn’t get the link to work, but it seems to be OK now.

Words and expressions

May 19th, 2009

I’m back in Brazil. After a week of saying “Gracias” it’s back to “Obrigado.” Instead of shrugging apologetically and saying, “No hablo español,” I have reverted to shrugging apologetically and saying “Na falo portugués.” Interestingly, some words stay the same. Por favor is por favor, whether you’re speaking Spanish or Portuguese.

The classy Spanish word for tyre repair shop.

KENNEDY WARNE
The classy Spanish word for tyre repair shop.


During the last couple of weeks I’ve been collecting the odd phrase or word that amuses me. For example, when driving in Ecuador you often see a tyre standing on the roadside with the word vulcanizadora painted on it. Show me a tyre repairman who wouldn’t prefer to be called a vulcaniser. It sounds almost operatic.

I also saw a number of ferretarias. Ferret farms, I wondered? No, ironmongers, after ferrous, for iron.

Local colloquialisms are always fun to discover. Speed bumps in Brazil are called “molar breakers” or “sleeping policemen.” There are lots of them. On each side of a town, the main highway will have two or more, sometimes not signposted, in which case they really do jolt your jaws. They are often preceded by a sonarizador, literally sound-maker, what we call a rumble strip in New Zealand. The word for pothole (of which Brazil also has a plethora) is the same as for crab burrow, which I appreciated, of course.

There must be dozens more. Any suggestions?

Travels with Alex

May 6th, 2009

On the flight to Brazil I’m taking an old friend. A very old friend. Alexander von Humboldt, who died 150 years ago. I’m somewhere over the Southern Ocean, midway through the diabolical 6415-mile Auckland-to-Buenos Aires leg of my trip, reading his Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent. It seems appropriate. Almost exactly 200 years ago, Humboldt explored Latin America and the Caribbean, which are my destinations, too.

Humboldt was the most famous naturalist of his day. He was a polymathic overachiever, the kind of person whose existence makes the rest of us question ours. Whereas I will spend a modest seven weeks among the mangroves, he spent five years in the field, and amassed so much scientific data on so many subjects—geology, botany, climate, astronomy, zoology, magnetism, electricity, not to mention human cultural diversity—that it took him 27 years to write it all up. No wonder he was one of Darwin’s heroes.

Humboldt was one of the first of a new breed of scientific explorers, pursuing knowledge with a heroic disregard for personal comfort and safety. What fascinates me about him is how modern he seems. He believed that to understand the world you had to look at all the individual phenomena the earth has to offer, and discover how they are connected. “I must find out about the unity of nature,” he wrote. That was his driving force, and for this reason he has been called the first ecologist. Anyone who studies ecosystems and how they fit together and function is walking in Humboldt’s footsteps.

What did he have to say about mangroves? I’ve skipped ahead to the last chapter, about Cuba, and found there a dramatic incident which occurs in the mangroves of Batabano Gulf Bay. The sailors on Humboldt’s ship, frustrated at not being able to find any lobsters, start slaughtering nesting seabirds. Blood streams from the trees, and the ground is littered with dying birds. But here’s the line that struck me like a thunderbolt: “When we arrived on the scene it was strangely silent, as if saying ‘Man has passed this way.’” Two hundred years on and the mangroves continue to fall silent—those that are left—for humankind still passes this way.

Leave the suntan lotion, take the umbrella

May 4th, 2009

The news out of northeastern Brazil, my first port of call, isn’t good. Floods and mudslides from heavy rains have killed at least 14 people and made more than 60,000 homeless. The Parnaiba Delta, where I’m heading on Wednesday, is on the border of the states of Maranhao and Piaui. In Maranhao, 40,000 people are living in shelters. And meteorologists predict two more weeks of downpours!

The heavy rains are probably good for the mangroves, which like a bit of fresh water with their salty diet, but will be challenging for the three of us who are visiting the area: myself, Elaine Corets, my translator and guide, and my son Jeremy, who is coding this site until his cyber-Neolithic father gets the hang of it.

Nothing daunted, we proceed.

Return to the mangroves

May 2nd, 2009
Kayaking down Belize's Rio Grande—from the rainforests of the land to the rainforests of the sea.

KENNEDY WARNE
Kayaking down Belize's Rio Grande—from the rainforests of the land to the rainforests of the sea.

A cold rain is drumming on my roof in Auckland as I write this first post to the Last Stands blog. In a few days I’ll be leaving the chilly temperatures of a New Zealand autumn for the sticky heat of tropical mangrove forests in Latin America and the Caribbean. It’s a journey that has been four years in the making, and I’m excited to be sharing it with you.

The idea kicked off in 2005, when I was researching mangroves for a story for National Geographic magazine. I spent six weeks wading, wallowing, boating and diving my way through mangrove forests in Belize, Bangladesh, Brazil, Tanzania, Zanzibar, Malaysia and Eritrea. I got to see some of the amazing creatures that live in mangroves (including deer and a tiger in Bangladesh – more about that in a later post). But even more importantly, I visited communities of people who rely on mangroves for their food and livelihood. Their world is disappearing. And that tragedy is the catalyst that made me want to write a book about mangroves. Now I am—and that’s what this Last Stands journey is all about.

It’s going to be an incredible trip. Here are just a few of the things I’m looking forward to:

Giant mangroves of the Esmeraldas

MANGROVE GARDEN FOUNDATION
Giant mangroves of the Esmeraldas

  • visiting the giant mangroves of the Esmeraldas, in Ecuador—some of the tallest mangroves in the world
  • meeting the Ecuadorian concheras—the women and children who gather cockles from the mangroves, and whose livelihoods are taken from them by the encroachment of shrimp farms
  • taking part in a shark-tagging survey in the mangroves of Bimini Island, in the Bahamas, where an environmental battle is raging between developers and mangrove conservationists
  • discovering how the indigenous and Afro-Brazilian culture in Caravelas has incorporated mangroves into the art, dance and music of the region
  • traveling to Florida’s Ten Thousand Islands wildlife refuge by airboat with an expert in mangrove mapping
  • catching up with Candy Feller, a mangrove scientist who started her career drawing illustrations of marine life underwater—yes, underwater!—before falling in love with mangroves and going on to spend her life researching them
  • seeing a very special species of mangrove in Panama which has flowers as big as magnolia blossoms that are pollinated by hummingbirds

(more…)