Meg Lowman climbs trees for a living. A botanist by training, she wanted to study the rainforest canopy. The only way to get answers, she says, was to get up there herself. So back in the 1970s, using her own makeshift equipment, she figured out how.
“It’s amazing to me to think that only in the last 40 years have we explored the tops of trees,” says Lowman, the director of North Carolina’s Nature Research Center. Walking down a rainforest trail, it may seem like there’s a lot going on, but that’s really only a small slice of the whole picture, she says. “It’s almost like going to the doctor and if he checked your big toe and said ‘Oh, you’re perfectly healthy.’ It’s just such a small part of the whole body of the forest.”
Unfortunately a lot of what she’s found up there isn’t nearly as fun as the process she uses to discover it. “I’m going to level with you that I get pretty depressed about what’s going on with deforestation,” Lowman says — and it’s not just the critters that are suffering. “We’re seeing enormous quality of life disappearing for many cultures because of our greed and our lack of understanding.”
I spoke with “Canopy Meg” about her tree-climbing exploits, the power of Google Earth, and the importance of spirituality in rainforest conservation.
Published on Grist
The 9-billion person question: What kind of cities will we build? Podcast interview with Jon Christensen.
A lone rider spurs his horse as he gallops across the desolate plains. An explorer heads into the Sierras, the cathedrals of the wild. These are the classic images of the frontier and the romantic heroes who pushed into the wilderness to build the American West.
They are also relics of a time when we could imagine that the human and natural worlds were separate. “It’s as if the idea of the frontier kept open the illusion that there was more nature out there that was as yet unaffected by human beings,” says environmental historian Jon Christensen, executive director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University. “That really never did exist.”
“We now see, in the Anthropocene, that even the wilderness is a product of human forces and is very much shaped by human ideas,” Christensen says. “The city is also full of nature.”
These insights will be crucial as Earth’s population continues to grow to the 9 billion people we expect in 40 to 50 years, and as we continue to cluster in urban areas. In this brave new world, the frontiers will be urban ones, where humanity and nature mix and interact.
The ways in which we allow these cities to grow and absorb the population, thus affecting the natural environment within and around them, is “going to determine so much about the future of life on Earth for people and the way we live,” Christensen says.
Can we design cities in a way that fosters both human and ecological health? “That,” Christensen says, “is the 9 billion-person question.”
I sat down with Christensen recently to talk about the mythos of the frontier, “ecological urbanism,” and the questions that remain for Generation Anthropocene.
Originally published on Grist.
This podcast features me talking about my recent article, "More tourists head to Antarctica, affecting the region’s ecosystem and science."
[LISTEN IN HERE]
One hundred years after explorers first reached the South Pole, Antarctica’s appeal as one of the last pockets of wilderness left in the world hasn’t faded. Images of white expanses and frozen seas attract thousands of people each year to see what they think is a pristine, unaffected land.
But the resulting tourism explosion may be diminishing the very wilderness that visitors set out to experience.
_“This does not feel like Christmas,” I thought between forced gulps of hot chocolate. I looked over at my teammate Doug, hunkered next to me in our kitchenette dug out of the snow, nursing his frostbitten hands. My dad and the other climbers in our group, Wim and our guide Victor, huddled in our shelter trying to warm themselves. We were at the base of Mt. Vinson-Massif, at 16,050 feet the highest point in Antarctica. In December 2005, in the middle of my senior year of high school, between the anxieties of college applications and prom drama, my dad and I had somehow decided to journey down as far away from holiday cheer as we could possibly be to climb this peak.
I was a 17-year-old girl amongst middle-aged men, and while it wasn’t the first time I’d played that role—Mt. Vinson would become the sixth of the Seven Summits, the highest peak on each of the continents, that my dad and I would climb—I still felt an underlying compulsion to prove I was good enough to be there.
The team had leisurely awoken that morning thinking we would follow a relatively easy plan. The goal was to tag High Camp and then come back down for the night, following the mountaineer’s maxim of acclimatization, “climb high, sleep low.” While normally it’s best get a pre-dawn start for a day of mountaineering, both in order to get the most out of daylight hours and to leave when it’s the coldest so that the ice is more solidly frozen in place, neither of those considerations mattered as much here: It never gets dark in December in Antarctica, and with the mercury hovering between 0 and –20 degrees Fahrenheit, we weren’t too worried about things thawing out.
Still, when the sun was shining and the wind was calm it could feel deceptively warm. Even though it looked like we would have good weather for the day, I casually threw some extra mitts and my fluffiest down jacket into my pack, just in case, along with the bag of food I was carrying up to leave for when we returned for our summit bid.
We rolled out of camp with the sun gleaming against the pristine snow that crunched underfoot as we made our way toward the base of the headwall. Once there, we made a stop to put on our crampons, spikes that attach to the bottom of mountaineering boots to help gain traction in the ice, and then began to ascend the face that would lead us to High Camp, situated in the col between Mt. Vinson and its neighbor, Mt. Shinn.
Planting my ice axe into the incline ahead of me every couple of steps, I followed the slow but steady pace Victor set at the lead of the rope. I was giddy at the thought of being surrounded by the untouched peaks of this mystic land. Unconventional, perhaps, but not a bad way to spend Christmas day, I thought.
Cold Hard Tracks
Christmas back home was, of course, much different. The holiday season in Long Beach was announced by the appearance of colorful, tree-shaped light decorations floating out on the bay. Sometimes after the boat parade that went around Naples Island—for which we would deck out our kayaks, and ourselves, with festive strings of lights—I would paddle out to one of the platforms, just for the novelty of sitting on a floating Christmas decoration.
My brother and I often spent Christmas in Brooklyn with my mom and grandma, where the holiday fixation was on appetizing fowl. Be it pheasant, quail or duck, my mom would spend the better part of a day strategizing the sequence of events that would yield the best feast. Though we always ended up with a delicious meal, things rarely went according to plan.
Back on Vinson that dynamic was in full effect. After a couple of hours of climbing on Christmas morning, a smattering of clouds invaded the sky, blocking the warmth of the sun. We made a quick stop to adjust our layers to the lower temperature; while Victor and Wim each added a jacket, Doug and my dad said they thought they would be fine with what they had on. Feeling lazy about digging through my pack and readjusting, I convinced myself that my current garb would also suffice.
Yet as we began to climb again, the wind picked up and I soon realized that the thin gloves I had on wouldn’t be enough after all. I tried to shake off the burning cold by whirling my arms around, hoping that increasing the blood flow would be sufficient. It wasn’t. Because we were traveling in standard glacial travel style, with a single rope connecting the team, if I stopped to get my thicker mitts out of my pack, everyone else would have to stop with me. I knew that in this sport, seemingly small errors like this could result in dire consequences. If I made everyone stop, they could grow cold themselves due to the lack of movement, starting a chain of events that could end with frostbite or a fall. As part of a small team whose members were out to push their limits, I agonized that there wasn’t room for my previous laziness.
But my mind flashed on all of the things I wouldn’t be able to do, or at least not as well, if I lost my fingertips to frostbite. I may be a mountain climber here, I thought to myself, but back at home I needed those fingers if I wanted to keep playing the piano or the oboe or even be able to instant message with my friends. I convinced myself it was worth it to protect my hands.
Completely embarrassed, I called out to Victor.
“Why didn’t you change your gloves when I gave you the chance before?” he asked, clearly cross. But he stopped so I could throw off my pack and get out my mitts.
However, my punishment wasn’t complete; they weren’t at the top of my pack as I’d been hoping. I grew increasingly frustrated as I rummaged for the elusive mitts while the rest of the team waited impatiently. Victor gruffly marched up to me to aid my search by holding the bag of food and the jacket that had been obstructing my path to the gloves. By the time I finally found them I was almost to the point of tears. I apologized but still felt I would have to do something to make up for my mistake.
As we climbed on, the weather worsened. Once we got to High Camp we hastily made a cache for the gear we would leave up there and then started back down. Now in near-whiteout conditions, we were thoroughly miserable. A layer of the freshly blown snow accumulated in between some of our boots and crampons, reducing the purchase of our feet on the slope and causing us to stumble from time to time, pulling and catching each other by the rope that served as our lifeline.
Mountaineering started for my dad, and thus for me, when he climbed Mt. Whitney with a friend from work. I can imagine my dad taking his last few steps to the summit: euphoric from the endorphins, adrenaline and altitude, hardly able to believe how far he had come since that morning as he looked down at the valleys below. Standing on top of a summit triggers just the right emotional cocktail to make it the most addictive experience I have known.
After Whitney and some other California peaks, he felt ready to take on something bigger. He suggested climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro to his friends, but they couldn’t take the time off. So he brought it to the family dinner table one night.
My older brother and my stepmom both reasonably declined. But, more than climbing a mountain, the thought of going to Africa seemed incredibly exotic and exciting to me. As an animal-lover, I reasoned that if I climbed Kilimanjaro with him, which I knew nothing about, I could probably convince him to take me on a short safari afterward.
“Yeah, I’ll go!” It came out without much thought, unknowingly launching the biggest obsession of my teenage years.
Eventually, that obsession would turn into a world record. After success on Vinson, my dad and I only had one peak left to complete our Seven Summits quest: Mt. Everest. I took a gap year before college to train and prepare, and we reached the summit of Everest that spring, making me, at the age of 18, the youngest person at that time to have climbed the Seven Summits, and the first to climb them all with her dad.
I felt depleted when we got back to camp after our long Christmas day on Vinson; it took all of my willpower to help out with the chores of collecting snow to melt for water and cooking the dinner I was too tired to eat. As I laboriously cut up garlic with my pocketknife to throw in with the frozen salmon patties—our holiday dinner—Victor looked at me and said, “I bet you’ve never had a Christmas like that before, have you?” I wearily shook my head. Smirking, he added, “Somehow I don’t think it’ll be the last, either.”
After dinner I used the satellite phone to call my mom and brother. I was so exhausted, and there was such a lag in the connection between us, that it was hard to communicate anything at all. Even if I didn’t really know what I was supposed to say, how I could possibly describe what it was like to be there right then, I liked the thought of them being able to hear me. I tried to imagine them sitting cozily around a tree, well fed and warm and protected from the chilly streets of New York, as I looked across the expanse of ice in front of me that led to the bottom of the earth.
My dad and I then called my stepmom, younger brother and sister back in California. She asked how we liked our presents—we’d forgotten! Before she’d left us at the airport, she had handed my dad and me each a small package, which we’d stashed away in our sleeping bags. We hung up the phone, got into our tent and opened them. I uncovered a pair of earrings, two small silver hoops. They seemed so out of place here, but I looked forward to going back to my other life, where I could envision wearing them.
A day or two later we returned to High Camp, the point of departure for our summit bid. I had still not recovered from our hard Christmas day and was nauseated from the altitude. After we’d set up a tent, but before we’d finished all the chores of setting up camp—most importantly, cutting out blocks of ice to build into a wall for protection from the wind—Victor suggested I get inside my sleeping bag to boil some water for tea while the rest of the team continued working. A bit surprised at getting out of the dirty work but not about to complain, I obeyed. I had never loved my sleeping bag more than I did when I crawled into it then.
“You were moving quite slowly—I think you were getting a bit hypothermic,” Victor said later, explaining why he had let me off easy.
When we woke up the next morning, Victor suggested we start up toward the summit: The weather was good, for now, and we had increasingly little time before we had to be back at basecamp in order to get our ride back out. If we missed it, we would most likely have to stay an extra two weeks. He promised that if we felt we weren’t strong enough, we would turn around and rest and try again the next day.
I thought maybe I would feel better once we’d gotten started, but pretty quickly I became sure that I wasn’t going to make it. I felt on the verge of vomiting with every step. But I kept marching along, distracting myself with an internal debate over whether I had yet reached the point at which I should just tell the team I needed to turn back around. I would pick out an objective just within sight—some distinctive rock or feature of ice—and tell myself that all I needed to do was make it there, that then I could decide whether or not I wanted to keep going. But upon reaching every target, I would just decide to postpone the decision again by picking out a new one. My whole existence was pared down to figuring out ways to keep putting one foot in front of the other. I wasn’t really sure right then why it was actually so important that I did, but I figured that if a previous self had been willing to go through all of the pain and effort this mountain had required so far, then it wasn’t something I should give up on easily.
Far sooner than I expected, Victor told us that we were probably halfway there. We continued on.
We did make it to the summit that day. I trudged up, planted my ice axe into the ground, and rested my forehead on it. My dad came over and let me lean on him to rest instead.
"Good job, honey-bear," was all he could say as I quietly cried into his shoulder.
Originally published in the Santa Cruz Weekly and the North Bay Bohemian:
There’s a good reason so many chipper holidays fall in the height of winter: Spreading goodwill and cheer is the social antidote to the winter blues brought on by shorter days and colder temperatures. While we here in the Golden State come in for merciless ribbing from our fellow Americans if we’re caught complaining—after all, diehards still have the chance to surf in the morning or go hiking in the afternoon even at this time of the year—opportunities to soak up those mood-lifting rays of vitamin D these winter months pale in comparison to what we get in the summer.
Which is to say that if you’ve got a friend or loved one who’s hiding under the covers, or just stuck in a rut, sometimes a little push to get out there and test the limits of the old comfort zone can be the best thing for a person. Luckily, there are plenty of places locally that provide activities for the intrepid, from skydiving to ballroom dancing, so a gift certificate may be just the thing.
Stand Up Paddle Boarding and Kayaking
It’s dispiriting how quickly the novelty of living in a beach town can wear off; newcomers arrive imagining how good for the soul it’ll be to see the ocean each and every day, only to lose that initiative within the first month. Getting out on the water and touring the bay on a stand up paddle board or kayak with the Kayak Connection (413 Lake Ave., #3, Santa Cruz; 831.479.1121) may help reinvigorate that inspiring ocean connection. Covewater Paddle Surf (726 Water St., Santa Cruz; 831.600.7230), the local headquarters for all things stand-up paddle, has a two-hour introductory lesson special that includes photos of the proud paddler.
Go deep—up to 40 feet deeper—by giving a PADI open water scuba certification class at Adventure Sports Unlimited (303 Potrero St. #15, Santa Cruz; 831.458.3648). After drifting down into a whole new world, fledgling divers will resurface with a brightened appreciation for this landlocked one.
Want to deliver an even bigger kick? Rather than floating down to great depths, give the gift of a fall from great heights with Skydive Surfcity (160 Aviation Way, Watsonville; 831.435.5169). Strapping onto the back of one of their frequent fliers in a tandem dive one way to change perspective while soaring over spectacular ocean views.
Sometimes the struggle up is actually more rewarding than the free fall down. Scaling walls with the gift of a membership at Pacific Edge Climbing Gym (104 Bronson St. #12, Santa Cruz; 831.454.9254) can be like a vertical dance that requires a fulfilling synthesis of balance, strength, flexibility and yogic mental control.
For those who may be into the dance but not the heights, let them trade in the belay partner for a tango partner with the gift of a class at Palomar Ballroom (1344 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz; 831.426.1221).
If this present is really just an excuse to play matchmaker with the recipient and that hot Argentinean, keep in mind that getting him or her to the next level may require more than just fancy footwork. A Spanish language class at Aux 3 Pommes (765 Cedar St., Suite 102, Santa Cruz; 831.421.0898) might prove to be more fruitful.
Originally published in the Santa Cruz Weekly:
_Luis Benitez paused when he saw me coming down and leaned into the axe planted in the snow above him.
“Hey Sam, how’re you feeling?”
“Good . . . tired,” I replied, my voice weak.
“I’ll bet you are,” he said, and laughed. “Why don’t you go back to base camp, get yourself a coke, go to college, find a hot boyfriend—how ‘bout a junior—and forget this scene for a while,” he said.
That was one of the first conversations I had coming down from the top of Everest in 2007. Benitez, an experienced guide, was headed up for his group’s own summit bid, what would be his sixth summit of the peak. After our meeting he continued on to the top of the world, but once he got there, instead of the usual euphoria he felt something less pleasant.
“I felt pretty disillusioned,” he told me over the phone a few days ago as he walked his dogs around his Colorado neighborhood.
Benitez’s discomfiture stemmed from an event that had occurred about seven months before, while we were both on Cho Oyu, the 26,906-foot Himalayan giant 19 miles west of Everest. While I was high up on the mountain making my summit bid, Benitez was back at base camp, where he witnessed a tragic event unfold, an event recounted in the film Tibet: Murder in the Snow, which will screen Saturday, Oct. 15 at the Del Mar and feature a post-film discussion with Benitez. The film features first-hand footage taken by Romanian mountaineer Sergiu Matei.
On Sept. 30, 2006, Benitez and about 100 other mountaineers heard gunshots coming from the Nangpa La, a 19,050-foot-high mountain pass between Tibet and Nepal visible from camp. Still used for commercial trade, it and other passes like it historically provided the gateway for Tibetans into Nepal, allowing for the settlement of the well-known Sherpa communities in Nepal’s high Himalaya. It has now become known as the “poor person’s refugee gate.”
“Many wealthy Tibetans can buy their way out of the country,” Benitez says. “But [poorer] Tibetans can’t do that . . . their only choice is something like this pass—they can’t afford bribes, they can’t afford permissions.”
The Chinese border patrol had opened fire on about 70 Tibetans who were making an attempt to flee by way of the pass. Even with crude weaponry and aim, they managed to lodge a fatal bullet into the back of Kelsang Namtso, a 17-year-old nun hoping to escape into India in order to freely practice her religion and realize her dream of meeting the Dalai Lama.
I didn’t hear about the incident until I returned to base camp, and even then I only heard a few scattered details. “There was a body on the pass, but don’t worry, it’s been cleaned up now,” I was told. It was only after I returned to the states that I realized the irony that while I, a 17-year-old Westerner, stood on the top of a mountain under which, by some Buddhist legends, the instructions on how to save the world from chaos are buried, Chinese officials prodded the lifeless body of a 17-year-old nun who had made a desperate attempt for a better life, taking photos with her body and the summit in the background.
The event created a rift in the mountaineering community. Some of the guides, people from the Western world running a business for Western clients, didn’t want the information to get out for fear they wouldn’t be able to get permits to return the next year. The Chinese government, they reasoned, would have no reason to let climbers into the country in the future if it meant having witnesses who would report on incidents such as this one.
Benitez says he was appalled when he learned that no one else planned to report the shooting. After he wrote an anonymous article for the website http://www.explorersweb.com, a couple of other guides found out and, Benitez says, “came down on my head for speaking out. It was a cussing and screaming match.” Then they told him that the Chinese government had his name, that he’d better get out of there.
After Benitez was safely home, British journalist Jonathan Green picked up his story. “He told me that if we did the story, you’d have to name names [of who tried to cover it up], you’d have to call the whole thing out. I knew if I did it was going to change my career. I felt that something was broken [in the mountaineering community], so I chose to collaborate on the article.”
According to Benitez, the release of the event had the feared effect: it caused permitting and logistics to become much more difficult on Cho Oyu. He says the release of Green’s article in Men’s Journal, which denounced the climbers who chose to remain silent about the event, also fractured the mountaineering community—not just about whether to continue to fuel “summit fever,” the term invoked when mountaineers seemingly put their own glory ahead of helping their fellow man—but also over what would be the best course of action for the greatest number of people in Tibet.
“I get it,” Benitez says, “we provide work and revenue to Sherpas and the Tibetans. It’s a loss of income to them. It affects their livelihood. But to me, the bottom line for it all was a question of human rights.”
The net effect of publicizing the event is unclear. Benitez says the Chinese government “still calls it normal border management to this day.” What’s more, China built a new garrison port to catch refugees going over the pass. Attempts to get the incident recognized as a crime against humanity were stalled because it “was not a genocide,” says Benitez.
But Benitez says filling in the knowledge void about China’s relationship with Tibet is still important. He equates the average Chinese person’s level of knowledge about the treatment of Tibetans to what residents of the 13 colonies were told about the Native Americans. “They’re told [by the government] that they’re bringing infrastructure, health care, religion—isn’t it great?” Benitez says. “They don’t hear about border shootings or mass killings due to religion. It’s all perspective.
“This is the first time in 50 years that Westerners have seen and spoken out about it. It’s a sticky subject for climbing and human rights because we don’t know what to do with it.”
Originally Published in the Santa Cruz Weekly: