Enter to win a signed paperback copy of MY LAST CONTINENT on Goodreads! The giveaway is open until October 2. 2017.
Enter to win a signed paperback copy of MY LAST CONTINENT on Goodreads! The giveaway is open until October 2. 2017.
It’s frustrating to go to an fundraiser for an animal rescue and find animals on the menu. Many organizations that believe in saving cats and dogs unfortunately do not believe in sparing cows, pigs, or chickens. Slowly, education and progress is happening — Animal Place‘s Food for Thought program offers wonderful tools to help organizations see that all animals matter — yet many organizations still resist.
Likewise, very few environmental organizations make the connection between animal agriculture (which is responsible for more greenhouse gases than all forms of transportation combined) and the environment — and yet this is a vital connection to make, especially during a time when our government is rolling back environmental protections. We as citizens and consumers can do so much good simply by making wiser choices — not only in how we get to work but what we put on our plates. Consider these statistics, from the Cowspiracy website (Cowspiracy is a must-see film about the connections between environmental degradation and animal agriculture):
There is good news, however: Increasing numbers of animal rescues see the myriad benefits of protecting all animals, and some environmental organizations do realize that saving the planet means being plant-based. I reached out to many of them to learn how they came to this realization and how they deal with those who challenge them … and most of all, to thank them.
All rescue and environmental organizations need to consider their food policies in order to truly do their best for animals and the planet. Oceanic Preservation Society executive director Louis Psihoyos puts it well: “You have to walk the walk in the environmental movement. I don’t believe in gray areas in this issue…People are starting to understand that the best way to make changes for the environment is to change what’s on your plate.” And GREY2K USA president Christine A. Dorchak says, “Helping dogs while hurting cows, pigs, or chickens just doesn’t make sense.”
I spoke with Barbara Troyer of Food for Thought, as well as the executive directors of Alley Cat Allies, Animals Asia, the Beagle Freedom Project, Foster Parrots, Grey2K, Oceanic Preservation Society, St. Hubert’s Animal Welfare Center, Sanctuary One, and the Washington Federation of Animal Care and Control Agencies. I ended up so inspired by their passion for and dedication to the animals, the environment, and to making the world a better place. You can learn more about all these wonderful organizations in these two articles in Barefoot Vegan Magazine and in VegNews.
The International Association of Antarctic Tour operators (IAATO) has released its data for the last Antarctic travel season, and the numbers are what most expected — which is still to say they are quite staggering, when you think about the sheer number of visitors to this fragile and isolated place.
The total number of visitors reached 44,367 in 2016-2017, an increase of 15% over the previous season, and IAATO’s estimate for next season, 2017-2018, increases by another 5% to 46,385. If Antarctica sees this number next season, it will pass the largest number of visitors the continent has ever seen (which was 46,265, reported by IAATO in 2007-2008).
A few other tidbits: Americans still represent the largest number of Antarctic tourists, with the Chinese in second place. Australian, German, and British travelers represent the third, fourth, and fifth highest numbers, respectively.
The good news is that 98% of travelers take ships from South America to the Antarctic Peninsula, and the majority of these vessels carry fewer than 500 passengers. As many familiar with the Antarctic know — including readers of My Last Continent! — it’s the gigantic ships carrying thousands of passengers that are most at risk in the Southern Ocean. Fortunately, as IAATO reports, this type of “cruise-only” tourism (i.e., larger vessels with more than 500 passengers who do not go ashore), declined by 8%.
IAATO is a force for good in Antarctica, and I’m so glad the organization not only tracks such numbers but that it works so hard to keep tourism safe and sustainable, even as the desire to see Antarctica keeps growing. As Bob Simpson, Chair of IAATO’s Executive Committee, says, “Visiting Antarctica is a great privilege for anyone. Our goal is to provide our guests with a safe, enriching experience while leaving no discernible evidence of our visit.” This will be ever more important in the years to come.
Happy World Penguin Day!
One thing I’m celebrating today is having met my seventh species of penguin: the little penguin. Ever since meeting four species of penguins in Antarctica, I’ve become a little obsessed: Next I went to Argentina to volunteer with the University of Washington’s Penguin Sentinels, counting the Magellanic penguins of Punto Tombo. On more recent visit to the Galápagos Islands, I was able to see the elusive and endangered Galápagos penguin. And last year, one of the best things about visiting Australia as part of the My Last Continent tour was meeting my seventh species.
The little penguin is also called the “fairy penguin” in Australia, and in New Zealand it’s known as the “blue penguin” or “white-flippered penguin.”
All names fit this little bird, as it is no more than a foot tall, and its feathers are a lovely bluish-gray and white. These penguins appear in several places in Australia, one of them being Manly, where you can see signs like this on the sidewalks, alongside indicators for bikes and pedestrians:
The little penguins forage at sea all day and come ashore when darkness falls. One of the best places to see them is the (terribly touristy) Penguin Parade on Phillip Island, which is a two-hour journey from Melbourne and completely worth it, especially if you can ignore the other tourists (some of whom are respectful, far too many of whom are noisy, take photos (which aren’t allowed), and otherwise flaunt the rules of the park and disturb the birds).
Once it gets dark, no photos or videos are allowed, but on a daylight walk we glimpsed this little penguin, near the natural and man-made burrows created to provide nesting opportunities for them.
Years ago, the little penguins’ numbers here on Phillip Island decreased dramatically when a bridge was built and humans began inhabiting and vacationing on the island, bringing foxes, dogs, and other predators, including traffic; even now, many penguins are run over by cars. Foxes have now been eliminated, and while the birds’ numbers are still down in Australia, we can hope the conservation efforts pay off. One effort is the building of nests for them; below, you can just barely see a little penguin inside one of these man-made burrows.
The little penguins are adorable to watch. After the sun sets, they come in from the water in “rafts” — groups from five to ten penguins to dozens — because there is safety in numbers, and they shake off the water and waddle up the sand to the scrubby brush where they have their nests. Perhaps because they’re so small, they always look as though they’re walking in a huge hurry, as if being chased; it’s particularly cute to watch, as they’ll often take a tumble or bump into one another in their rush. Fortunately, being so small, they don’t have far to fall. If you focus your eyes on the burrows, you’ll see dirt and sand flying out as the penguins dig out their nests.
Sometimes the penguins will stop or turn back to pick up pebbles and seashells for their nests. (If you do visit Phillip Island, sit tight and wait until the crowds disperse and until the rangers tell you at least three times that it’s time to go. This is when it gets quiet and peaceful, and you can hear nothing but the sounds of the penguins scuttling to their nests and calling to their mates. The rangers will, eventually, escort you off the premises; they turn off the lights at the same time every day to give the penguins consistency and peace. Even as you leave, you’ll be able to hear the birds’ “ecstatic cries” from the darkness as they reunite with their mates.) The next day around dawn, they will head out to sea again, then return home for the same nightly ritual.
Another place to see the little penguins is much closer to Melbourne is the breakwater at St. Kilda, where the penguins come to shore every night after sunset. Guides are there to enforce similar rules (no photography, no approaching the penguins), and it’s about a half-hour away from downtown Melbourne by bus or light rail.
To celebrate World Penguin Day, here are a few links where you can learn more and support conservation efforts for penguins around the world:
Wishing you a very happy World Penguin Day!
In My Last Continent, when the fictional tourist ship Cormorant arrives at Whaler’s Bay on Deception Island in Antarctica, Deb observes …
…a shantytown of enormous oil containers and abandoned buildings—relics of the Antarctic whaling industry—so old and suffused with rust that they blend into the lava-blackened cliffs behind them. This reminder of whaling’s gruesome past makes me shudder: the whalers removing the blubber on the ships, then bringing the remainder of the bodies to shore, where they’d boil them down to get every last bit of oil. And the whaling industry isn’t even history—though the International Whaling Commission banned whaling in 1986, the Japanese have continued hunting in the Southern Ocean, killing minke and fin and even endangered sei whales under the guise of “research,” even though they haven’t published a paper in years and continue to sell the whale meat commercially.
It’s true that whaling has been banned by the International Whaling Commission since 1986 — and it’s also true that Japan is still killing whales in Antarctica. That’s because there is indeed an exception for “research” — but the slaughter of hundreds of whales a year by Japanese whalers can hardly be considered research.
In 2014, the International Court of Justice ruled that Japan’s whaling program did not meet the research qualifications, and Japan was ordered to stop whaling. But this only lasted one year — and, as this NPR story reports, Japan just returned from its 2016-2017 season with more than three hundred whales, all needlessly slaughtered.
It’s not enough that the whales are vital to the ecosystem in the Southern Ocean and should not be taken at all — but the methods are barbaric. Whaling vessels go after the calves, because they know the mothers (the real target) will not leave their babies. A member of Sea Shepherd Australia describes the way the whales are killed: They are “hit with an explosive harpoon that goes straight into their body; hooks come out, and shrapnel is sent through their body; it’s a terrible, bloody death… these whales can take up to 30 or 40 minutes to die.”
As Humane Society International Executive Vice President Kitty Block tells NPR, “It is an obscene cruelty in the name of science that must end.”
Visit the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society to learn more about how this organization helps protect the oceans, especially from those who violate international law.
My friend Judy sent me this article on the “scandalous” sex lives of penguins, which mentions many of the penguin stories we’ve heard over the years, from the two male chinstrap penguins who raised a baby chick, to a nasty fight between two Magellanic penguins competing for a female. And indeed, the love lives of penguins are really so similar to our own: there is love, there is marriage for life, there is the raising of children; there is also divorce and cheating and all sorts of other drama.
The article references the observations from a scientist more than hundred years ago, buried because it was so scandalous at the time: George Murray Levick documented acts among penguins including necrophilia and group sex. Back in the early 1900s, editors cut the graphic descriptions of penguins’ behavior from Levick’s published work. As the article notes:
It took until 2012 for ornithologists at London’s Natural History Museum to finally dig up Levick’s “Sexual Habits of the Adelie Penguin”—by which point scientific inquiry had matured enough that they were able to publish it.
Of course, it should come as no surprise that penguins (or any animals) have such varied sex lives, or that their love lives mirror our own in so many ways. Humans often forget that we, too, are animals. We all just want to find love and share our nests with that special penguin, or person … and maybe raise a chick or two.
I was delighted to discover this project from the British Antarctic Survey.
Data as Art shows sea ice, krill (seen below), the ozone hole, and other scientific data as works of art.
In keeping with the British Antarctic Survey‘s mission to “engage a wide range of people in science through a variety of methods,” these works of art — which use real Antarctic data sets that explain important scientific research — are wonderful to look at. Even more important are the stories they tell about this continent and how important it is to fight climate change and increase conservation.
“Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?” Elizabeth Bishop asks in her poem “Questions of Travel”—the same question I asked myself upon learning, when I was in the Galapagos Islands last year, that more than 200,000 tourists visit this small archipelago every year. These islands, virtually undiscovered until the sixteenth century, are now bursting at the seams.
For all who venture to the Galapagos, it’s the trip of a lifetime—yet it’s also resource-intensive: I had taken 10 flights in 8 days to reach a place that is among our world’s most affected by climate change. And right now another travel season is wrapping up in Antarctica, another remote and increasingly popular travel destination. Antarctica, which 20 years ago saw fewer than 10,000 tourists, will likely have counted upwards of 40,000 this season, more than 90 percent of whom travel on ships.
According to the World Tourism Organization, international travel increased in 2015 for the sixth year in a row, to a record 1.2 billion tourists, with 1.8 billion forecast for 2030. Only a week after a long-awaited marine protected area was established in Antarctica, the United States elected a president who has called climate change a hoax and seems intent on dismantling the EPA. Can the planet’s most vulnerable places handle much more? Perhaps it’s time we ask ourselves whether should do our part for the planet and leave a few of our bucket-list destinations in the bucket.
Instead of traveling to Antarctica—which can be as extreme financially as it is environmentally—perhaps we can get glimpses in other ways. Web-based citizen science programs like Zooniverse offer virtual experiences—a chance to count penguins and identify individual humpback whales in Antarctica, in addition to myriad other adventures. From our computers, we can “travel” the world, see incredible sights and creatures, and contribute to ongoing research efforts.
And even if we do travel to these fragile environments, we can help the oceans by playing a role in conservation and research. The website iGalapagos.org depends on travelers’ photos of the elusive and endangered Galapagos penguins to further their research toward protecting this species. And those of us who love the oceans can reconsider the role of seafood in our diets, as nearly 90 percent of the oceans’ stocks are extinct or depleted.
Not all travel is inherently bad, of course, and if you’re like me and you can far more easily give up seafood than a trip, how we travel can make a big difference in minimizing the impact of our presence—by choosing green hotels, using public transportation, buying local. Even the little things, like packing a reusable water bottle and shopping bag to minimize plastic, help a lot. Those traveling on ships can check out Friends of the Earth’s Cruise Ship Report Card before booking a trip (in its latest report, in 2014, no major cruise line earned a grade higher than a C; most grades were Ds and Fs).
Sometimes it takes visiting a place to fall in love with it and become inspired to help save it—and this may well justify our carbon footprints in the end. Which brings me back to the question: Should we stay home? There is no easy answer. But those of us who have the luxury of asking the question might consider that, for the sake of the planet, the oceans, and for future generations, the road less traveled—or not traveled at all—does make all the difference.
Among the most amazing things about Antarctica (and there are so many) are the sounds. You can listen to the sounds of icebergs rubbing together here. It sounds a bit like furniture breaking apart, and then a little like a penguin colony from far away, and finally it becomes something completely otherworldly.
This wonderful article from Huffington Post offers a few sounds as well — including the voices of an Adélie penguin colony and the wind sweeping across the ice — as well as gorgeous photos and a glimpse of what life is like as a researcher on the continent.
These Antarctic sounds are incredible, but perhaps what’s most remarkable about Antarctica is the silence. The sounds of no human presence at all. It’s impossible to capture in a video or audio, but I did try to capture the feeling in My Last Continent:
” … we listen to the whistling of the wind across the ice and the cries of the birds. I savor the utter silence under those sounds; there is nothing else to hear—none of the usual white noise of life on other continents, no human sounds at all… “
Last weekend, the least-populated region of this planet held a women’s march. For the penguins, this was the most important march of all.
The women’s marches taking place around the world last Saturday eclipsed the presidential inauguration in numbers and passion. The most far-reaching protest took place in Antarctica—and while this shipboard protest boasted only 30 marchers, it was one of the biggest in that this number represents the highest percentage of the continent’s population.
There should be so surprise that the protests extended this far south. As I write this, the President of the United States has been in office for only a week, having already removed any mention of the environment from the White House website and having signed orders to move forward with the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines. He not only does not believe in climate change, he has picked Scott Pruitt—who likewise doesn’t embrace the unequivocal science behind the reality of climate change but also has a longstanding reputation against regulating pollution—to head the Environmental Protection Agency (which, by the way, he has sued no fewer than 14 times). And meanwhile, for weeks the world has been watching (or should be) as the Larsen C ice shelf in Antarctica threatens to break off into the Southern Ocean, which in the short term will change the landscape of the Antarctic Peninsula—and in the long term will leave the Antarctic glaciers vulnerable to flowing into the ocean, potentially raising sea levels by several feet. (And this is only the new administration’s environmental offenses…when it comes to human rights, it gets even worse.)
Environmentally, Antarctica is becoming one of the most important regions in the world. And this is why scientists and travelers held “Penguins for Peace” signs in Antarctica last week.
The number Adelie penguins on the Antarctic peninsula have already decreased by 70 to 90 percent. Climate change, pollution, and the fishing industry are all factors, and unless each of these is controlled, the penguins will not survive. The new administration is poised to ensure that these birds become extinct.
What can we do for the environment? Keep protesting. Write our representatives. Donate to causes that are on the ground working to protect the environment and its creatures (such as Sea Shepherd Conservation Society). And don’t forget that we can each can make a difference for the environment (check out Cowspiracy for the very best individuals can help). And, of course get ready to get out the vote next time around—2018 is right around the corner (and can’t come soon enough).
This bookstore is nearly always included on lists of the world’s best and most beautiful bookstores — and for very good reason. It is spectacular, inside and out.
El Ateneo is undoubtedly the grandest bookstore I’ve ever seen in person. This Buenos Aires treasure was a theater in the early twentieth century, and in the early twenty-first century it was redesigned into a bookstore.
The theater’s 1,500 seats were converted to book alcoves, and a cafe has taken up residence where the stage used to be. As you can see below, this stunning bookstore proudly maintains its history as a theater, from the lighting to its balconies to its gold-leaf carvings.
There are cozy reading nooks throughout the store, and even if you’re not fluent in Spanish, the browsing is unbelievably fun. For all bookstore geeks, El Ateneo is a must-see if you’re in Buenos Aires, or anywhere remotely close.
I was saddened to read that “the father of Pinyin” died this weekend in Beijing (though he did live to be 111 years old). While until now I never knew very much about the man himself — who daringly criticized the Chinese government, wrote dozens of books, and was exiled during the Cultural Revolution — I was very familiar with (and grateful for) Pinyin when I began learning Chinese.
Pinyin, a romanized version of the Chinese language — which allows non-native speakers a much, much easier way to learn the language — was adopted by China in 1958, replacing the former Wade-Giles system. (Wade-Giles had been conceived by two British diplomats, and its pronunciation guide was very different and far less accurate — for example, the Wade-Giles word for Beijing is the far-less-accurate Peking.) And, as Zhou’s New York Times obituary notes:
Since then, Pinyin (the name can be translated as “spelled sounds”) has vastly increased literacy throughout the country; eased the classroom agonies of foreigners studying Chinese; afforded the blind a way to read the language in Braille; and, in a development Mr. Zhou could scarcely have foreseen, facilitated the rapid entry of Chinese on computer keyboards and cellphones.
I began to learn Chinese in the early 1990s, before moving to Asia to teach English as a second language. I began in the States with an introductory university class in which we were required to memorize characters, which was insanely difficult. In addition to that, our Chinese teacher was Taiwanese, which meant he used traditional characters as opposed to simplified characters (adopted in mainland China to increase literacy). Here is the word for beautiful in simplified Chinese:
And here is the same word in traditional Chinese:
Notice how many more strokes are required in the traditional version. Also note: There is no way for a native English speaker to tell, just by looking at either character, how to pronounce the word. This is where Pinyin comes in. If it weren’t for Pinyin — that is, if I’d had to go by Wade-Giles’ pronunciations — no one I spoke with in Taipei would’ve been able to understand a word of what I said (and it was hard enough as it was; Mandarin Chinese also has four tones for every character, and getting those wrong is all too easy for a foreigner).
Once in Taiwan, I realized I had to focus on spoken Mandarin rather than the written language — most important to survival was learning how to talk. I did have to learn a great many traditional characters, however — this was necessary for everything from eating (in places with written menus, though I ate mostly from food carts) to banking (all transactions on ATMs were in Chinese characters) to finding my way around the country (all of the road signs and bus signs were also in traditional characters).
The language was so different that I learned to “forget English,” as my Chinese tutor taught me; the only way I could grasp the language was to approach it not by translating things in my head but by thinking in Chinese. And this was fascinating…the Chinese language is beautiful, complex, and vast, and when you start to think in Chinese, it’s easier to learn the language, as each character is built from a combination of ideas. To use a simple example, here is the simplified character for the word America:
And here is the traditional character:
It is pronounced Mĕi guó, which is translated as “beautiful country” — as you can see, the first part of the character (美, mei) is from the character above, for beauty.
When I returned from Asia after two years, I was so used to thinking in another, very different, language that I found it hard to put English sentences together; I often spoke in simple sentences, as if I were translating my thoughts from Chinese back into English. It took a long time to sound like a normal native English speaker again.
I reflect on all this as my first book, Forgetting English, is released in its third edition. The title story, while fictional, has many moments — including the one with my Chinese tutor — inspired by my time in Asia.
It’s been especially enlightening to reflect on the extraordinary life of Zhou Youguang; as you’ll read in his obituary, he was so much more than the father of Pinyin. Sent to a labor camp during the Cultural Revolution, he remained an open critic of Chinese communism. His many accomplishments include overseeing the translation of the Encyclopedia Britannica into Chinese, and he wrote more than 40 books (some of them banned in China), at least 10 of them published after he turned 100 — truly inspiring.
Before last summer, it had been years since my last event at Warwick’s, and, as always, it is fabulous to visit this quaint bookstore in the heart of La Jolla…I’ve missed it both as a reader and a writer.
Warwick’s is the oldest family-owned and -operated store in the country. Above the door is printed: “Independent minds need independent bookstores,” and this store lives by this motto in its diversity of visiting authors as well as its curated selection of books and gifts. We had a fantastic crowd on the balmy summer evening I was there, and I wasn’t able to browse as much as I normally would have, but I noticed that the store has a new look since I last visited, and the layout was very open and welcoming, even with the event set-up.
The staff of Warwick’s are friendly and helpful, and I was especially delighted by the gift of signature wine Admiral Byrd and I received.
We look forward to returning long before the next book!
I was delighted to have the opportunity to visit the iconic Readings bookstore in the Carlton neighborhood of Melbourne on the night of a book launch.
I found Australia to be a magnificent country for book lovers; each city I visited has so many bookstores and each neighborhood at least one, if not several. Readings is an independent bookstore chain that has seven stores in Melbourne — and it clearly has a large and loyal following.
The launch, for Anna Snoekstra’s thriller Only Daughter, was festive and celebratory; the store was filled with standing-room-only friends, fans, and readers.
While I was there, I not only enjoyed the author discussion and a glass of wine, but I signed a few copies of My Last Continent as well.
The staff is friendly, welcoming, and knowledgeable, and this is a store (and neighborhood) I look forward to revisiting next time I’m in Melbourne.
The Elliott Bay Book Company was one of the first places I read when my first book, Forgetting English, was published in 2009, at its charming former location in Pioneer Square. Elliott Bay moved to its Capitol Hill location (cedar bookshelves, stained glass, and all) in 2010, and this setting is just as beautiful and welcoming.
On my book tour last summer, Admiral Byrd joined me in exploring the light, sun-filled room on the main level (it was a perfect, sunny day in Seattle). I highly recommend visiting this treasure in person, but those who can’t visit Seattle can order books to have shipped to you. (For example, you can order a signed copy of My Last Continent).
The event space downstairs is lovely, and especially lovely is being able to bring along drinks from the cafe. Admiral Byrd and I had a great evening and so appreciated all those who braved Seattle summer traffic (and left the sunshine to venture inside!) to join us.
It’s wonderful to know that Elliott Bay continues to thrive in its no-longer-new neighborhood, and I look forward to visiting again soon. This is a don’t-miss Seattle landmark for every visitor, especially book lovers.