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arachnids Hundreds Science and Nature

Hundreds of tiny arachnids are likely on your face right now

Hundreds of tiny arachnids are likely on your face right now
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Modern Science and Nature World

The modern world edges into one of the cradles of humankind

The modern world edges into one of the cradles of humankind
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North Science and Nature

Finding the ordinary amid North Korea’s extravagant propaganda displays

This story appears in the
May 2020 issue of
National Geographic magazine.

Even by North Korean standards, the final event of the country’s 70th-anniversary celebration in 2018 was a jaw-dropping spectacle. Many thousands of torch-wielding students marched in waves around Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung Square. The electric flame on top of Juche Tower glowed while the sound of the students’ chants and the fireworks’ explosions echoed across the immense plaza.

These mass displays have happened often over the 20 years I’ve spent covering North Korea. I photograph them not only because they’re very visual but also because they offer a way to understand the image that the regime wants to project to the world. They present an idealized version of the country—sanitized, curated, united, strong.




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Young North Korean children play guitars for foreign visitors at the Pyongyang Kyongsang Kindergarten.

North Koreans expect photographers to be purposeful propagandists, not photojournalists with a critical eye. That makes working in North Korea as a foreign photojournalist a challenge. While there, I’m always accompanied by a government-appointed guide whose job is to facilitate my visit and monitor my movements.

On my first trips it seemed that North Koreans expected that a photographer like me, from the adversarial United States, would judge them unfairly, deliberately taking photographs to make them look bad. They closely watched what I was doing. The intense scrutiny led me to be more improvisational with my camera to capture more authentic moments. Often I took photos on the fly, shooting from the hip or from the windows of a bus or car on my way to or from scheduled events. The most interesting pictures—the ones that were candid and real—simply showed regular people doing regular things. And this type of photography eventually allowed me to open a small window into the everyday lives of North Koreans.




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The unfinished Ryugyong Hotel dominates the view from Juche Tower in Pyongyang, North Korea. Off to the side stands a government-appointed guide. Guides accompanied photographer David Guttenfelder wherever he went in North Korea.

I believe that over time the guides I worked with began to understand what I was trying to do: give a fair and honest look at their country, however unvarnished, however gritty. I was searching for the universal, for everyday life, for real people with real lives worthy of understanding.

Traveling to North Korea as a photographer is even more difficult now than in past years. In 2017 the United States banned travel to the country for U.S. passport holders. When I visited as a journalist to cover the anniversary celebrations a year later, I needed special authorization from the State Department, which issued me a single-use passport to enter. Once I was inside the country for the events, I was confined with other foreign journalists to the area of Pyongyang around the square. Behind me, row upon row of uniformed officers sat on risers. In front of me, the students carried glowing flames and marched.




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Soldiers march past an audience of North Korean military officials during the celebration of the country’s 70th anniversary.

The images I made during that visit are the kind Westerners have come to expect from North Korea, but to understand the country, we need to get beyond them.

When I look at these photographs now, I think of the people through the years who told me about taking part in grand shows when they were students—who described the experience as an exciting rite of passage in their lives—and I remember that behind the most extravagant spectacles are ordinary people.

David Guttenfelder helped open the Associated Press’s bureau in Pyongyang, the first Western news office in North Korea. For the April issue, he photographed a
U.S. road trip in electric cars.

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crisis Pandemic Science and Nature

The pandemic may fuel the next wave of the opioid crisis

There’s usually a stream of people headed into the unassuming brick building in the Cedar Rapids neighborhood where Sarah Ziegenhorn runs the Iowa Harm Reduction Coalition. In 2016 when she moved back to Iowa to begin medical school, Ziegenhorn started the small nonprofit to help people who use drugs. Today, the drop-in center provides medical testing, counseling, and free supplies to more than 5,000 people a year.

But during the COVID-19 pandemic, that work has only gotten harder, both in Iowa and nationwide. Amid widespread strains on the health-care system, the United States remains in an overdose crisis—more than two million Americans use opioids, and half a million use meth every week. A staggering 46,000 Americans died of overdoses in 2018. While COVID-19 has a disproportionate impact on various vulnerable populations, people with drug addictions are facing unique challenges in response to COVID-19.

Among those challenges, people who use drugs are more likely to be alienated from traditional news sources, and so are not as likely to hear information about risks and best practices during a pandemic. Some users also are skeptical of authority due to previous interactions with law enforcement, and they distrust the government’s health advisories.

Even when users do receive public health messages urging social distancing or frequent handwashing, they may lack the resources to adopt such practices if they’re financially insecure, living in shelters, or incarcerated. People with addictions are also more likely to be immunocompromised and have reduced access to healthcare.

In short, “the people who are already the most vulnerable are made even more vulnerable in a pandemic,” says Corey Davis, a public health lawyer at the Network for Public Health Law.

Dangers of withdrawal

Border closures and travel restrictions spurred by COVID-19 likely are disrupting drug markets. So some harm reduction clinics have been preparing their clients for interruptions in the supply of illicit substances.

“Overdoses go up, paradoxically, as supply goes down,” says Daniel Ciccarone, a professor at the UCSF School of Medicine. During shortfalls, people will substitute drugs they’re less familiar with, or change their habits, making dosing less reliable and potentially causing a spike in overdoses. A chagrined Ciccarone predicts that the pandemic may usher in a fifth wave of the opioid crisis.

Tom Sloben, a former heroin user who started using meth after his partner died of an overdose, says COVID-19 has made it harder to buy illicit drugs. He’s now struggling with the fallout of reduced meth use: “It’s like you got two 300-pound weights on each side of your body—it just brings you down,” he says.

Suddenly stopping crystal meth can cause intense anxiety and depression, and withdrawal from heroin and fentanyl are notoriously difficult. “I know people who have killed themselves going through it,” Ziegenhorn says.

For people with dependencies, there’s also risk associated with reduced access to legal drugs such as alcohol. When liquor stores shut down—as happened for several weeks in Pennsylvania in March—people are more at risk of withdrawal seizures, which can be fatal, says Kimberly Sue, New York-based medical director at the national nonprofit Harm Reduction Coalition.

That’s why harm reduction organizations have long advocated for easier access to medications such as methadone and buprenorphine, which can help minimize withdrawal symptoms, reduce cravings, and prevent opioid overdoses. In the United States, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) regulate access to these medications, and their requirements have long presented obstacles to accessing the drugs.

Previously, people who wanted to take methadone, for instance, had to visit an authorized opioid treatment program, where the drug can be administered under daily supervision. That can be impossible for people who have childcare issues or inflexible work hours, or who don’t live near the clinic. Physicians also faced hurdles in providing patients buprenorphine, because the DEA required additional training and a waiver in order to prescribe it.

Over the last month, SAMHSA and the DEA have eased these restrictions to help reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus. People who are in treatment for addiction but considered “stable” are now allowed to take home up to 28 days of methadone, and get a new buprenorphine prescription after a telephone call rather than an in-person visit.

“We were hearing from some of our states that they were seeing clinics having trouble maximizing the amount of care they could provide, because they had staff getting sick,” says Assistant Secretary Elinore McCance-Katz, the head of SAMHSA. She says she hopes the eased restrictions on telehealth become permanent. Compared to the same time period a year ago, the administration’s disaster distress helpline has seen a nearly 900 percent increase in calls over the past month, McCance-Katz says.

But advocates say that treatment programs have been slow to adopt the new guidelines, and the rollout has varied by state. Daliah Heller, director of drug use initiatives at Vital Strategies, a global public health organization, calls COVID-19 “the perfect storm for folks who are substance dependent.”

Problems in prisons

Not only does COVID-19 make addiction services harder to access; people who use drugs may be at higher risk of infection given the dangerous overlap between addiction, incarceration, and the rapid spread of infections within confined spaces. The Rikers Island jail complex in New York has already reported at least 365 COVID-19 cases—roughly nine percent of its population.

Campaigns to get nonviolent drug offenders released during the pandemic may not be sufficient, says Leo Beletsky, professor of law and health sciences at Northeastern University. He says prisoner re-entry into regular society is difficult and dangerous from a health perspective, even during normal times. As the economy collapses, shelters and food banks have been overwhelmed, with already limited resources stretched thin.

Family support structures may also be vanishing during the pandemic, says Jonathan Giftos, the medical director of addiction medicine at the nonprofit Project Renewal. During COVID-19, “people’s lives are more difficult in ways that make it harder to be supportive of family struggling with addiction—which is already baseline challenging.”

Even when self-isolation is possible, it can be hazardous for drug users, who may overdose with no one around to help them. That’s a tragedy Ziegenhorn has experienced personally.

She met her fiancé, Andy Beeler, just after he was released from prison for drug-related crimes, and not long after the IHRC launched. They bonded over the common goal of “keeping people alive,” she says, and frequently talked about harm reduction advocacy over the phone. The first time they met in person, “I thought, OK, we’re going to get married,” says Ziegenhorn.

Beeler tried to overcome his occasional heroin use, but it was a struggle. Because he was on parole, he worried about taking medications such as methadone or buprenorphine and having a false-positive drug test. The couple had been together a year when Beeler fell on the ice, dislocated his shoulder, and quickly became opioid dependent again.

Ziegenhorn caught and reversed Beeler’s overdoses several times. Then one day, she had to go to the hospital early for a surgery rotation. Beeler was still asleep when she left. Later that day he didn’t reply to her texts. Ziegenhorn asked a friend to go check on him. Beeler was dead; he had overdosed.

Knowing that “unbelievable, unimaginable pain” of losing a loved one, Ziegenhorn and her co-workers are keeping the Iowa clinic running during the pandemic, offering services even with the heightened risks that they face. She fears that if the clinic closes, the people it helps won’t have anywhere safe to turn.

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Science and Nature

Ten years later, BP oil spill continues to harm wildlife—especially dolphins

On April 20, 2010, an explosion at the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig released over 130 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. It was the biggest oil spill ever in U.S. waters and remains one of the worst environmental disasters in world history.
Eleven rig workers lost their lives. So did untold millions of marine mammals, sea turtles, birds, and fish. While the world watched, helpless, oil gushed into one of the planet’s most biodiverse marine habitats for 87 long days.

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Boats use absorbent booms to corral the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in May 2010.

Photograph by Tyrone Turner, Nat Geo Image Collection

A decade later, many species, such as deep-sea coral, common loons, and spotted sea trout, are still struggling, their populations lower than before. By contrast, a few Gulf inhabitants have shown a robust recovery—among them, menhaden fish and the brown pelican, Louisiana’s state bird. (Read how the Gulf oil spill has harmed dolphins and turtles.)
Scientists say it’s still too early to tell definitively what the impact has been for longer-lived species such as dolphins, whales, and sea turtles.

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A loggerhead sea turtle feeds on an oil-contaminated Portuguese man-of-war in the Gulf of Mexico on May 5, 2010.

Photograph by Carol Guzy, The Washington Post/Getty Images

Even so, “based on our science to date, if you were a marine mammal alive in the Gulf at the time of the spill, it doesn’t look good for you,” says Cynthia Smith, a veterinarian at the National Marine Mammal Foundation. “Animals that weren’t born yet, those are the hope,” says Smith, who traveled to the spill as an animal caretaker.
Smith is one of many scientists whose careers pivoted after this event. Funds from the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act, the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative—and more recently, the $16 billion settlement between BP and the U.S. federal and state governments—have enabled a legion of researchers to undertake long-term projects investigating how the spill affected Gulf wildlife.
Many species have been difficult to study. But after a decade of close monitoring, Smith feels that she and colleagues have a clear picture of what is going on with that most gregarious of cetaceans, the bottlenose dolphin—and it’s grim.

About a thousand dolphins died in the months following the spill, after they ingested toxins from the oil. Many others apparently have been sick ever since. (Read about a die-off of baby dolphins in the Gulf.)

Recent research, not yet published in a peer-reviewed journal, has revealed that only about 20 percent of pregnancies among the dolphins in Louisiana’s heavily oiled Barataria Bay are successful, compared with 83 percent in unoiled regions. This number remains unchanged from 2015 findings.

Ten years out, Smith is also seeing higher rates of reproductive failure, lung disease, heart issues, impaired stress response, and death in bottlenose dolphins.
Interestingly, says Smith, these symptoms mirror the most common health issues faced by another large mammal exposed to the oil spill: humans. Two recent studies, both published in 2018, found impaired lung and heart function and strained breathing, respectively, among cleanup workers and U.S. Coast Guard personnel who had been in contact with the oil.
“You don’t necessarily think of a dolphin as being representative of yourself or a human being representative of a dolphin, but our lives overlap,” Smith says. “We’re in this space together, and there’s a lot to learn from that.”

Listening for life
Kaitlin Frasier remembers the day in 2010 that her Ph.D. adviser told her he thought she should focus her career on the recent Deepwater Horizon spill.
At the time, Frasier, couldn’t have imagined where that journey would take her. Today, she’s an assistant project scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, and has spent the past decade listening for signs of life in the Gulf—namely, the clicks and clacks of echolocating marine mammals.
“We can’t really see the seafloor, so we don’t really know how [the oil] has affected whales,” Frasier says. It’s hard to tell, she says, whether or not oil from sediments is getting resuspended into the water and affecting cetaceans’ food. (Here’s why “shocking” amounts of oil fell to the seafloor.)

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Deepwater corals in the Gulf of Mexico, such as these bubblegum and bamboo corals, were well studied before the spill, giving scientists a better idea of how the oil harmed them.

Photograph courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Gulf of Mexico 2014.

The Gulf of Mexico is home to 21 species of marine mammal, most of which humans rarely see—so scientists have to listen. The sounds these animals emit can reveal which species are still active many years after the spill, and which have declined.

One species Frasier hears less and less these days is the pantropical spotted dolphin.
“It is a surprise in some ways,” Frasier says, “because they used to be so commonplace. The visual observers called them rats because they were crawling all over the Gulf. And now, we just get way fewer encounters on our acoustic data.”
For many species, results are not this clear. In part, that’s because scientists knew little about the habits of many deepwater marine mammals before the spill, so have trouble detecting changes from current data.
Take the little-studied dwarf sperm whale: It’s unclear how to interpret the short, high-pitched clicking sounds Frasier can associate with them now. Likewise, sperm whales, which emit longer, lower-frequency clicks, haven’t been detected recently near the spill site, but this may just mean they have moved.

Marine mammals are important indicators of the overall health of the ocean, so studying them can tell scientists a great deal about their environment.
“We have all these different pieces of the puzzle, but it’s hard to know how they fit together,” Frasier says.

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A Kemp’s ridley sea turtle digs a nest on a beach in Rancho Nuevo, Mexico. This spill seems to have thwarted the critically endangered species’ recovery.

Photograph by Sandesh Kadur, Nature Picture Library

The silent behemoths
Some of the longest-lived animals of all sit silent and sessile at the bottom of the sea.
Peter Etnoyer, a marine biologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Hollings Lab, studies deep-sea corals. Some were thriving very near Deepwater Horizon’s wellhead before the spill, according to seafloor surveys. After the spill, scientists found that half of those coral colonies—colorful, fan-shaped creatures called gorgonian octocoral—surveyed had been injured to some extent.
“We don’t know how long it’s going to take these coral colonies to recover,” Etnoyer says. “They grow very, very slowly. The ones we found to be injured are on the order of decades to hundreds of years old.” (Learn how the Gulf oil spill was even bigger than thought.)
Corals are important habitat for species such as shrimp, crabs, grouper, and snapper. And because they exhibit growth rings like those of trees, corals act as “little environmental monitors, recording conditions over time,” Etnoyer says.
Now, his team is preparing for future disasters, mapping deep-sea corals and developing a coral database with more than a million records so far. The team also has a seven-year plan to help coral rebound, which includes traveling to the seafloor using divers or a remotely operated vehicle and cloning or transplanting a few hundred coral from one spot to another.
“It’ll be the first time it has ever been attempted to transplant these specific corals at an industrial scale,” he says.

A setback for endangered turtles
The Gulf of Mexico is home to five species of sea turtle, all of which are protected under the Endangered Species Act.
Leatherbacks and Atlantic hawksbills roam offshore waters, while loggerhead, green, and Kemp’s ridley sea turtles frequent near-shore habitats. A 2017 study estimated that of at least 402,000 sea turtles exposed to oil during the spill, 51 percent were Kemp’s ridleys, the smallest and most critically endangered species.
Before the spill, the Kemp’s ridley population had been projected to grow at a rate of 19 percent per year. Instead, the number of nests on Gulf beaches—the species’ main nesting location—dropped 35 percent between 2009 and 2010, and plummeted again in 2013, according to a 2016 study. That research also suggested that Kemp’s ridley females have struggled to maintain the weight and health necessary to reproduce.
A new version of a federal recovery plan for the Kemp’s ridley was signed in 2014 in response to the spill. The move resulted in new protections for nesting beaches in Texas and Mexico, and requirements that shrimp fisheries in the Gulf use excluder devices to prevent the reptiles from being captured in trawls.

A bright spot for birds
Birds were among the hardest-hit animals immediately after the spill, says Erik Johnson, director of bird conservation for Audubon Louisiana.

“We know the number of birds affected was somewhere between 100,000 and one million. Unfortunately, we’ll never know the true number,” he says. (See photos of birds and other wildlife coated with oil.)
That statistic includes common loons, northern gannets, double-crested cormorants, royal terns, Wilson’s plovers, black skimmers, and seaside sparrows, to name a few. Also affected: Up to 32 percent of laughing gulls and up to a quarter of all brown pelicans. (Learn how nature can bounce back from an oil spill.)
Many birds that weren’t killed outright by the oil coating their feathers have since shown higher rates of oil-related cancers, reproductive issues, and a reduced ability to regulate their body temperatures due to feather damage, according to a 2020 study.
But just as birds overall were most devastated, in some cases they seem to be showing some of the strongest recovery. Settlement money was put to use restoring Louisiana’s Queen Bess Island as bird habitat. The project was completed this past February and is being hailed as a success for brown pelicans, with up to 20 percent of the state’s population already nesting there, along with great egrets, roseate spoonbills, royal terns, and tri-colored herons.

Oily fish
What was a bust for birds turned into a temporary boon for some fish: Scientists think that the lack of birds in the skies over the Gulf of Mexico is one reason some populations of fish exploded after the spill.
There were twice as many Gulf menhaden, for example, in the years following the spill as in four decades before, likely because so many fish-eating birds were absent.

Other fish species have shown evidence of having been harmed by oil, including nearly two thirds of all Gulf sturgeon, a threatened species. Studies of the economically valuable spotted seatrout and red drum found that fish in oiled areas showed reduced reproduction, and that even years after the spill, oil remaining in the environment is still toxic to fish larvae. (Read how some fish deformities have been linked to the spill.)

Recent research that tested 2,500 different fish across the Gulf found evidence of oil exposure in all 91 species sampled, suggesting that the impacts of the spill are widespread and ongoing.

Looking ahead

For Smith, Frasier, Etnoyer, and others involved in spill research, this event has become career-encompassing. Their research will be devoted to monitoring and understanding the Gulf for many years to come—particularly if these ecosystems remain vulnerable.

Meanwhile, Kaitlin Frasier will remain at her desk, listening for the chirping sounds of Risso’s dolphins and the long, low vocalizations of sperm whales.
“If there was one thing I could do, it would be to take people out to the deep Gulf and show them all the wildlife that is out there,” Frasier says. “Most people never get the chance, but it’s the most amazing thing.”

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Science and Nature

The uplifting tale of these tiny island foxes, nearly wiped out by disaster

In winter calm, sheets of sleek oil neared the beach. From hillsides, the island’s little foxes must have watched, maybe frightened by the stench or by the dying birds. Though the foxes must have been uneasy on this confusing, deadly Southern California day in January 1969, at least they were safe on the hills. Or so it seemed.

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Santa Cruz Island, about four times the size of Manhattan, lies 20 miles off the coast of Southern California. The largest of five islands in Channel Islands National Park, it’s made up of rolling hills, mountains rising to nearly 2,500 feet, and mostly rocky shorelines.

Photograph by Melissa Groo, National Geographic

The foxes were watching from a large island called Santa Cruz, as the Santa Barbara oil spill—still the third-largest spill in United States history, which led to the first Earth Day, in 1970—spread three million gallons of oil on the sea and shores. I too watched the oil as if it had nothing to do with me as I drove the mainland coast in my little red Volkswagen to cover campus conflict and civil rights for my college newspaper while friends went off to be wounded or killed in Vietnam. The 1960s were bad times. To me, the oil was just another stain.

But things happened in that dark era that were not dark. Choices made by groups and individuals would, half a century later, lead to a story about those island foxes and some humans who loved them, a story that would look small and sadly familiar at first. But in the end, the story of the foxes would mean the opposite of the familiar tale of the canary in the coal mine, whose death warns of folly and disaster. Because to all of us who wish for better ways to live with this battered planet, those little island foxes are less like dead canaries and more like larks in the morning sun.
THE STORY BEGINS WITH A BOOK, a baby, and a high school girl who talked too much.
The book was Silent Spring, a best-seller from 1962 by Rachel Carson, which planted the seeds of the modern environmental movement with dire predictions of a spring without the songs of birds because of chemicals such as the pesticide DDT.

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A clear-eyed island fox is held by biologist Juliann Schamel before being checked out and vaccinated near a Channel Islands National Park campground on Santa Cruz Island. Fox populations on all five of the park’s islands are regularly monitored through a trapping and vaccination program.

Photograph by Melissa Groo, National Geographic

The girl was a Michigan kid named Kate Roney, who got caught chatting in the library and was sent to a class called Man and Nature, where she read Silent Spring and visited national parks. She decided to study biology, because nature needed women too.
The baby was the daughter of a Canadian biologist named Kees Vermeer, who studied bald eagles, which were dying out, as Rachel Carson predicted in Silent Spring. The baby’s name was Lotus, and she was born in British Columbia on the very same week that oil hit the beaches in California.
As Lotus learned to walk, and Kate Roney went to college, and Rachel Carson testified in Congress on behalf of life as she was dying of cancer, the ’60s turned to the ’70s and some big choices came out of the darkness. President Richard Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act, Senator Gaylord Nelson created Earth Day, and in 1972, DDT was largely banned.
Then Kate Roney went to Alaska and became a national park policy wonk and a bush pilot. And Lotus Vermeer went with her dad to study birds on chilly mornings in Canada and dreamed of saving sea turtles on warmer sands.

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An island fox is groomed by its mate near a national park campsite on Santa Cruz island. The foxes’ diet includes insects, worms, mice, even ticks.

Photograph by Melissa Groo, National Geographic

Before I knew it, we Boomers were not “the kids” anymore, and I was writing environmental stories for National Geographic, and the new generation was coming along. Then, 33 years after the first Earth Day, Lotus Vermeer, with a Ph.D. earned studying sea turtles, arrived in Ventura, California, for a brand-new job trying to restore a huge island she never even knew existed called Santa Cruz.
“There I was,” she told me later, “five-foot-two, 110 pounds, purple pants, ponytail, a fresh-off-the-boat look.” Some of the men who saw her arrive started taking bets about how soon she’d leave.

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Laura Shaskey, head of the Channel Islands National Park fox project, takes notes while biologist Juliann Schamel checks a fox for ticks and assesses its body condition. The mask helps keep the fox calm.

Photograph by Melissa Groo, National Geographic

Lotus’s new job was with the nonprofit environmental land management organization called the Nature Conservancy (TNC). She was hired to manage one of the nonprofit’s biggest properties, three-quarters of Santa Cruz Island, the largest of five islands in Southern California’s Channel Islands National Park. Until only months before, Lotus thought that the Channel Islands meant a British dependency off the coast of France, but suddenly here she was, in charge of a place four times the size of Manhattan.
This was no California dream. When Lotus started, she told me, it was like stepping into a hailstorm. Crises fell out of the sky each day—stories of damaged landscapes, washed out roads, silenced communications, invisible eagles, and bizarre herds of feral pigs that rooted and ate and popped out feral piglets as fast as a berserk video game, pigs that for some mysterious reason were tied to a problem involving foxes—and all of it happening in a place so big and wild that if you got lost there, they’d just find bones.
How could Lotus fix things when she didn’t even understand what was wrong? “I would lie on my office floor, thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, I don’t know how I’m going to survive this.’”
But she stuck with it, trying to learn everything she could. Once when I asked her to describe herself, she said immediately: “Stubborn.” Later she thought it over, as she often does with words, and wrote me an email that said: “Tenacious.”
ONE DAY, Lotus walked into the Channel Islands National Park offices, and there was the bush pilot policy wonk, Kate Faulkner. She had come from Alaska 13 years before and was now the chief of natural resources for the park. Lotus met her and thought, “Calm, even, rational.” Kate met Lotus and thought “Good.”
Over the next weeks, Kate briefed Lotus about the hailstorm.
Compared to Alaska, Kate told Lotus, the islands here were all fixer-uppers. Santa Cruz was one of the worst. Hillsides had been pulverized by sheep, and the feral pigs, which had escaped from pioneer ranchers as many as 150 years before, were plowing under the island’s diversity with their busy snouts. Yet Santa Cruz wasn’t just any old fixer-upper. It was a magnificent ruined mansion, haunted by dreams and lost chances and the sounds of scuttling decay.

When Kate got to the park in 1990, she told Lotus, pretty much the only part of the Santa Cruz ecosystem that looked healthy was the foxes.
Lotus knew about the foxes. They were the icon of the islands. They were officially called island foxes and were smaller than almost every other species of fox. They hunted in daylight, probably because they were the islands’ top land predator and didn’t need the cover of darkness. So visitors would see them often, and would fall in love.

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These little foxes are an example of island dwarfism, in which a species evolves to be smaller than its ancestors because of unique conditions on its home. Island foxes are usually between 14 and 18 percent smaller than the related grey foxes on the nearby mainland.

Photograph by Melissa Groo, National Geographic

People apparently had loved the foxes across a vast arc of time. One of the earliest dated human remains in North America was found on these islands, reaching back 13,000 years. And from archaeological work, it appears that the foxes go back about that far, too. Many scientists think the foxes evolved linked to island people. Archaeologists once found two fox skulls in the ancient grave of a child, as if as spiritual companions to guide the most precious of souls.

Lotus knew the foxes were in trouble, but Kate gave her the details. Only a few years before, the foxes had started to disappear. Fast. Across the islands there had been thousands of foxes. By 2000 on one of the smaller islands, the total dropped to 15. Even on broad hillsides of Santa Cruz, estimates went as low as 70. The park’s beloved icon tumbled toward extinction. And nobody could figure out why.
Kate described a detective drama. Biologists caught foxes, counted foxes, tested foxes. Distemper? No. Heartworm? No. Some kind of tick issue? No. The puzzle went on for one year, then two. “Rare Island Foxes Dying; Scientists Mystified” read a headline in 1998.
“It’s a crisis time,” one of Kate’s staff members, a biologist named Tim Coonan, told the newspaper.
The park put radio collars on foxes. Within two months, half the collared foxes were dead. But the carcasses revealed what a TV detective would call a modus operandi, an M.O.: Each carcass was turned inside out. This was the mark of a bird of prey. But what bird? Hawks weren’t big enough, and the bald eagles that once patrolled these skies had been gone for decades.
Tim took carcasses to a scientist in Los Angeles. The guy showed Tim talon marks on the skin. They were the size made by golden eagles, but golden eagles normally lived far away, in California’s interior.
“How could we miss something so major?” Kate said.
It turned out that golden eagles, as big as they are, are easy to miss. A bald eagle eats fish and carrion; it soars high, its white head vivid against blue skies or brown hillsides. Golden eagles hunt land animals, so they’re built to hide, even in the sky. They fly low, tawny feathers blended into tawny hills. They’re stealth birds.
But why did they get here only now?
The main reason went all the way back to Silent Spring and studies Lotus’s father had done in Canada. The islands’ fleet of bald eagles, which prefer fish to foxes, once chased golden eagles away. But DDT residues in the eagles’ diet weakened their eggshells, and by the late ’60s, it had brought an end to the entire line of bald eagles on the islands.
The foxes’ air cover was gone. Gradually, stealthily, golden eagles moved in.
But foxes alone didn’t offer enough food to draw many golden eagles. Their most abundant food source was piglets.
“They set up shop because of the pigs,” Tim said later, “but they were also hitting everything else.” A day-hunting fox made easy snacking.
“It was almost a hopeless moment,” Tim told me about being shown the talon marks. “It was a moment I knew would change everything.”
THIS WAS THE GRIM STORY in which Lotus was suddenly immersed. Briefings from Kate, Tim, and others helped her understand it better, but that didn’t mean the hailstorm of crises was over.

Shortly before Lotus arrived, the park staff had made a difficult decision. The foxes were disappearing so fast that the team had to make a last-ditch move: catch most of the foxes and put them in pens to breed so there would be some left if they could figure out how to make the islands safe again.
No national park had ever had to try to save a species by capturing it. Nobody even knew if island foxes would breed in a cage.
“This is a despairing moment for a biologist,” Tim said, “when you have to bring members of a wildlife population into captivity because they can’t handle the environment the way it is.” It was an admission of failure.

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An island fox released from a physical checkup and vaccination by national park biologists dashes across a meadow toward sheltering brush.

Photograph by Melissa Groo, National Geographic

This effort had already started on park grounds by the time Lotus got there. Now she needed to build TNC’s own breeding center, a field full of wire-roofed cages. But as soon as she began wrestling with the crazy logistics of getting fencing, posts, and builders across 20 miles of temperamental sea, she got swept up in a fierce debate over what to do if the breeding program actually worked.
It was driven by tough puzzle no one had yet solved: If you breed lots of foxes, what if the park isn’t safe for them when they’re ready to go? Aren’t you just raising eagle snacks?
Practical efforts to solve things like this were largely led by Kate on behalf of the park and by Lotus for the Nature Conservancy. But to focus high-level expertise, Tim Coonan, who found a bunch of management talents in his biologist’s backpack, gathered experts from dozens of institutions. They came from colleges, from zoos, from the Smithsonian Institution, from all over the University of California system. Tim called it cooperative conservation.
In 1999, the experts formed an island fox working group that started meeting once a year for intense, three-day-long discussions to analyze situations and produce recommendations. Many of the organizations also donated expertise in specific needs, such as figuring out a diet for pregnant captive foxes. The group’s wide-ranging knowledge gave Kate, Lotus, Tim—and their bosses right up to national leadership—assurance that decisions were based on good science.
Lotus started working with the group soon after she arrived. But she was appalled at one of its first recommendations: that, if necessary, the golden eagles should be killed.
Lotus knew now that this job was going to test everything in her, even her heart. “There’s no way we’re going to kill eagles,” she thought. “No way!” But that was the what the team said, though the whole notion was disturbing to everyone. Kill one endangered species to save another? Wow.
“To get to that point,” Tim told me later, “you have to fight every nature of your soul.”
Now a bunch of high-level administrators from government organizations and TNC wanted to meet and talk about this awful choice. Because TNC owned so much of the island and had ranch buildings large enough for groups, Lotus hosted the meeting.
Everyone gathered in a cavernous room to have a meal, then talk. Tim presented the group’s reasoning to the assembled decision-makers, one wedge of the rationale at a time, adding up to the harsh mental image of a rifle scope trained on a bird. The decision-makers disappeared into another room. “The jury was out,” Tim said later.
The windows in the room where everyone else waited did not let in much light. To Lotus it felt too dark. She went outside.
It was late afternoon. The mountains at the ranch are set back just enough to make the valley feel spacious, but close enough for grandeur. In the late sunlight, even the sheep-damaged hillsides looked golden. It’s dark inside, she thought, but it’s bright out here. This is beautiful. This work is worth doing.

She went back in. The jury was not out long. No, the administrators said. They would not approve killing golden eagles. There was a silent sigh in the room. Did that mean that the foxes would die? If other minds were running as Lotus’s was, it did not. “It just meant that we had to find another way.” But that was easy to say.
The group went back to the mainland. Lotus Vermeer stopped looking for other jobs. She was in for whatever it took.
What followed was a kind of arms race with the eagles. The working group would try new ways to catch and remove the eagles, then the eagles would figure them out. Lotus’s favorite was an inventive biologist’s idea that Lotus called “injecto egg.” A fake egg would be made with a tranquilizer needle in it. When the eagle sat on it, a scientist watching from a distance would push a button.
Boing! Ouch! Squirt! The eagle wakes up a few hours later in another part of California.
It was tested in a nest where a remote camera let everyone see. “It went off,” Tim told me later, “and it missed, and the egg was rolling around in the nest, and the mother eagle stood up and watched it.”
Injecto egg was retired.
A solution was eventually found. A fast helicopter would follow an eagle, and when the bird grew tired and came in to land, the helicopter would launch a big net over its wings to keep it on the ground, and it would be bundled into the helicopter and flown away.
This worked. Eventually 44 golden eagles were captured. Not one died, and not one ever chose to came back to this exceedingly strange place.
BUT FOR LOTUS, that was just the beginning. As she supervised management for everything from fox breeding to road maintenance to fuel shipments, one of her happier moments came as a kind of tribute to her father’s work. The working group, worried about how to keep golden eagles away, recommended trying to bring back bald eagles, because residual DDT levels were low and now eggs held together.
The bald eagle recovery wasn’t easy. “I didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” one biologist told me wryly. “There’s a lot of hazardous work here.” It involved bringing young bald eagles from elsewhere, and sometimes even climbing into tree-top nests, and no one was certain that the eagles would even stay. But figuring out how to save the foxes had an even tougher phase.
Biologists estimated that up to 3,000 feral pigs were shoveling their way through Santa Cruz’s 96 square miles of rugged landscape, each sow producing multiple litters of up to 10 piglets each. The working group’s conclusion was that all the pigs should be killed.
This was almost as hard on a biologist’s soul as the call to kill the eagles.

“We all love animals,” Lotus would tell groups of concerned citizens while trying to earn their support for the plan. “We got into this field because we have a passion for animals.” But domestic pigs were bred by humans over 10,000 years mainly to multiply, not to mesh with any ecosystem.
They sure didn’t mesh with this one. In the 150 years since the pigs had escaped from early ranchers, they’d gone through horrifying cycles of boom and bust. At the end of each population boom, fields would be dust, and thousands of starving pigs would be so weak they’d sometimes only be able to drag themselves around by their front legs. Was that kind of mass die-off any more humane than quick death by bullet?
But rationales like that still didn’t make killing pigs easy to accept. Even Kate, fully behind it, knew it was one of those agonizing choices that no one ever wants to make but sometimes must. No argument, Kate told me, “would necessarily cause everybody to choose one option over the other. It wasn’t that black and white.”
Both the park and TNC approved the cull. Without it, all the other efforts might have been in vain. If the pigs were still there to lure the golden eagles back, released foxes would be doomed. And the pigs were the last major impediment to the patient majesty of evolution. Taking out the pigs would put the natural world back in command.
This argument did not prevent lawsuits and harsh press from people who adamantly opposed the killing. One daily newspaper published photos of several individuals involved, including Kate, in what it called “The Hall of Shame.” Kate found the attack personal and unsettling, but it didn’t erode her resolve.
“I was always on,” Lotus told me. “Twenty-four hours a day.” She talked to TNC members who were queasy about all this killing. She spoke with animal rights groups. She brought people to the island to see the devastation firsthand. To her, it came down to real face time, not the computer kind, and to treating people equally—“connecting on a basic human level.”
Meanwhile, up in the hillside cages above the old ranch buildings, foxes brought forth babies. Occasionally, Lotus went up there to check on them. They were just dozing or looking steadily back at the busy humans—small, calm beings at the center of the storm.
Eventually, in March 2006, a judge dismissed the final lawsuit. Lotus didn’t celebrate. In a complex, rigorous operation, 5,036 pigs were killed. After that, the recovery work was still complex, but the hardest part was over: The big decisions had been made. The rest was simply about getting it done, and they did.
In the end it took 25 years, $21 million dollars from many sources—private donors, agency budgets, and mitigation funds for the damage done by DDT—and the work of hundreds of people with the same kind of determination that drove Lotus, Kate, and Tim. Finally, in 2016, the foxes were taken off the endangered species list.
“IF I TELL YOU TO JUMP,” Lotus Vermeer said, “then jump!”
We were in a big old pickup truck on Santa Cruz’s steep and scary dirt roads. Lotus wasn’t positive the truck would hold on the hillside. It was a day in January 2020, almost 51 years since I saw that oil darkening the shore.

Lotus drove. She’s working for a university now but still collaborates extensively with TNC. Kate Faulkner rode with us. She’s now retired.
We were surrounded by flowers. Ceanothus bushes were coming out, tiny blooms carrying so much pollen that I was surprised not to see golden clouds drifting by. Big manzanita bushes, many of them yards across, were fully abloom, each flower a tiny white bell, so bright it was as if the bushes were ringing with light.
Occasionally a fox darted across, but more often we just saw little piles of fox poop in the middle of the road, reeking to the world: I am here. This is mine.
When I asked about great moments in the story, Kate and Lotus mentioned well-known milestones: When the first bald eagle chick hatched, in 2006, right in front of a web camera. (There have now been more than 20.) And the day the last captive fox was released on Santa Cruz, in 2007. Tim Coonan had sprung the cage door. VIPs were everywhere, but the little female fox didn’t seem to want to leave. She just lingered by her cage.
“It’s like, dude, this is it!” Tim told me. “Go! Go! Come on, you’re going to be fine. Write when you get work!”
But the fox recovery was never just about foxes. The foxes were simply a beloved icon that brought focus to something more subtle but grander. This was about an entire ecosystem, which had only just begun to recover when the last captive fox was released but was now in full bloom. It was not about going back to some imaginary past ideal world. This was a new kind of world in which humans, who now have the power to change everything, tried to become more cooperative, not just with one another, but with the power that built the world to begin with.
Lotus drove the truck to an open slope. The wind blew, and a bald eagle rode updrafts in the distance, its white head shining against a dark blue windswept sea. Lotus and Kate sat on a hillside, among fox trails, above a treetop eagle’s nest in the valley below, now occupied every year. From a distance I heard one of them say, “You remember when…?” but I didn’t hear the rest. They laughed.
Kate got philosophical. She said that the foxes were saved because of choices people made in the ’60s and ’70s, hard choices they wouldn’t live to see out, that have since saved many species, lives, and places. There was Rachel Carson, testifying during her final illness in spite of virulent attacks on her reputation by industry, then the banning of DDT, passage of environmental protection laws, and every year the steady reminder, and assessment, of Earth Day.
“But each generation has its challenges,” she said. “Are we going to make the kind of choices now where 30, 40 years from now our children’s children will say, Oh, thank goodness they made that choice?”
On this afternoon, there was another one of those great moments in the story, happening right here. The two women who had led so much of this had not been back recently. Now they were seeing the full scope of the change for the first time, from the fox poop to the ceanothus pollen to the eagle in the sky. They were in awe. They sat on the hillside in the fresh wind from the sea and just looked and listened.
Spring would not be silent on Santa Cruz Island this year.
Later, Lotus Vermeer walked on a trail near the shore. She had a sprig of ceanothus in her hand, covered with blossoms. “In my wildest dreams,” Lotus said, spinning the flowers in her fingers, “I could never have imagined Santa Cruz could be so, so—lush.”
But she thought about that word later. It wasn’t just lush, she said the next day. The right word was “alive.”

Michael Parfit
is an independent writer and documentary filmmaker who has been a frequent contributor to National Geographic
magazine and television. His most recent work is “Call of the Baby Beluga,” aired worldwide on Nat Geo Wild in 2017. He lives in British Columbia.
Melissa Groo
is a wildlife photographer, writer, and conservationist based in upstate New York. She writes a bimonthly column on wildlife photography for Outdoor Photographer,
is a contributing editor to Audubon,
and an associate fellow with the International League of Conservation Photographers. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook.

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Alpine Science and Nature

How absinthe made a comeback in its Alpine homeland—after a century-long ban

Absinthe is still a drink that strikes fear into the heart of some liquor lovers. During the heady days of the belle epoque, La Fée Verte (The Green Fairy) acquired a reputation as the mind-bending tipple of choice for van Gogh, Zola, Rimbaud, Toulouse-Lautrec, and a host of other bohemian artists and writers active in Paris. Then, following a notorious 1904 incident in Switzerland, the spirit was banned in that country and many others. For nearly a century, its toxic reputation remained.
Even in places where it wasn’t banned, absinthe has always been something of a daring novelty—an edgy ingredient in cocktails like the Sazerac and Corpse Reviver No. 2 or a flaming shot knocked back by fearless hell-raisers. It’s true that absinthe, with an alcohol content typically ranging from 50 to 60 percent, isn’t for the fainthearted, but in moderation it can be enjoyed just like any other spirit.
My first taste occurs a world away from any cocktail bar. I’m standing in a forest at Fontaine à Louis, a spring-fed woodland fountain in the Swiss Jura, the region where absinthe originated.

It was at tree-shrouded springs like this that absinthe was covertly sipped during the ban, explains Yann Klauser, head of the local absinthe museum, Maison de l’Absinthe, as he adds spring water to his shot glass. I half expect the police to jump out and arrest us, but this is all aboveboard. Switzerland legalized the spirit in 2005, and France did so in 2011 (though France had permitted the sale of absinthe under a different name since 1988).
My trip to absinthe’s heartland on the French–Swiss border has convinced me that the drink’s notoriety is undeserved. Here you find the good stuff: a refreshing spirit distilled with up to 10 botanicals—including aniseed, mint, and lemon balm—to disguise the bitter taste of the key ingredient, wormwood.
Traditionally, it’s served à la Parisienne—an elaborate ritual centered around an absinthe fountain (a large, ornate jar with spigots, resting on a stand). From this, ice-cold water is dripped through a sugar lump perched on a slotted spoon lying on the rim of a glass of absinthe. The moment the water is added, the spirit turns cloudy, like pastis.
Although seldom encountered in the region’s watering holes, the sugar-and-spoon ceremony is a big part of the experience at the bars and tasting rooms of local absinthe distilleries. Yet for all the industry’s fondness for nostalgia, it’s also looking to the future and is enjoying a renaissance not unlike the gin revolution in the United Kingdom. Dozens of small, family-run distilleries are blending their botanicals in the traditional absinthe areas of Switzerland and France.

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In addition to wormwood, La Valote Martin distillery uses an array of botanicals—from fennel and hyssop to mint and coriander—as flavorings for absinthe.

An undeserved bad rap
My journey begins in Pontarlier, a laid-back town at the foot of the Jura Mountains in eastern France. Its ties with absinthe are strong, and by all accounts the town was once awash with the stuff. By the end of the 19th century, there were 25 distilleries in and around Pontarlier producing absinthe and providing a living for some 3,000 of the town’s 8,000-odd inhabitants.
Today, at the Pontarlier Museum, a whole floor is given over to the drink. According to the museum’s cultural liaison officer, Elise Berthelot, absinthe’s popularity didn’t go down well with people in the wine trade, especially as the local vineyards were suffering from an insect blight that was pushing prices up. Absinthe’s consumption was soon being vigorously campaigned against by the church and the authorities. Chilling posters from this time—also on display—made it clear that the Green Fairy would spell certain doom for all who dared to consume it.

“The ‘dangerous’ ingredient was thought to be the thujone [a toxic compound] in the wormwood plant. Their ‘proof’ was found by injecting it into mice’s brains; however, this obviously isn’t how humans consume it,” explains Berthelot, rolling her eyes.
When, in 1904, a Swiss laborer killed his family after drinking absinthe, it was the last straw. Switzerland banned it, and over the next decade many other countries followed suit, including France and the U.S. (the American ban was reversed in 2007).
While most absinthe distilleries were forced to close, some—like Distillerie Guy, in Pontarlier (run by the Guy family for five generations)—survived by diversifying into other aniseed-flavored aperitifs such as pastis. These days, the family is bringing absinthe back to life at its buzzing distillery where gleaming copper stills are admired by the numerous visitors on their way into the tasting room for a sample.

Secret sips and brazen bootleggers
Over lunch with Fabrice Hérard, who heads up the French part of the Route de l’Absinthe (a Franco-Swiss absinthe tourist route), we tuck into a steak flambéed in the spirit and served in a deliciously aromatic absinthe sauce. As we chat about the approaches of distillers on either side of the border, Hérard says he finds it interesting that the French, for all their reputed rebelliousness, simply accepted the ban, whereas the Swiss—often typecast as rule-driven—carried on in secret in Val de Travers. If they hadn’t, the recipes and production methods could easily have been lost.
Val de Travers is a wide green valley, peppered with villages whose histories are bound to absinthe. Klauser, head of Maison de l’Absinthe, in the village of Môtiers, meets me in the museum’s bar. Lines of shelves showcase bottles from local distilleries, and the sleek modernity of the bar makes quite a contrast to the quaint Swiss village outside.

It’s too early for a drink, so Klauser shows me around. The museum, set in a former judge’s office, tells how absinthe never really went away. “They used to drink ‘Ovaltine’ in the bars in opaque mugs,” he says. “But inside it was absinthe.” The exhibits explore the ingenious methods used to hide the distillation process (tires were burned and silage pits stirred to disguise the smell) and the various ways the finished product was concealed (for example, in recycled pineapple tins).
One audacious flaunting of the law occurred during the visit of then French president François Mitterrand in 1983. A local chef prepared a dessert for the president: a cold soufflé, with one special ingredient—absinthe. According to Klauser, a French journalist covering the visit was so taken aback he blurted out, “But isn’t absinthe banned?” The chef was unmoved, replying nonchalantly, “Oh yes.” When I try the dessert later, at lunch, it’s delicious—the absinthe lending a spearmint flavor to the delicate cream.

Back in the bar area, I admire the 28 different brands made by 17 different Swiss distillers—all with labels beautifully adorned with fairies, art nouveau curves, or scenes from historic posters. While most distilleries here create a clear spirit, there are a few brands of green absinthe. “The green color comes from chlorophyll in the nettle or mint, or hyssop, or even spinach, but it’s very difficult to get the balance and the color right,” explains Klauser.
In the next village, Boveresse, Philippe Martin runs his family’s once-clandestine distillery and grew up with absinthe ever present. “My father was a bootlegger, his uncle as well; someone in the family was always involved. I remember, as a kid, the bathtub always being used for the stills’ cooling system.”

A spirit on the rise again
Martin’s distillery, La Valote Martin, is one of very few that oversees the whole process, from growing the plants to drying them and using them in the spirit. Set in a large chalet building, his copper stills take pride of place in one of the huge fireplaces. In the walled garden, the gray-flowered wormwood plants grow alongside the other vital herbs and flowers.
For the herbs to be used in the stills, they must first be dried, which Martin does in the attic of the building. We climb the creaking stairs, past peeling 1970s wallpaper, before we reach a final flight that’s almost as steep as a ladder. At the top, the drying racks come into view. On lines of musty wooden beams, the gray flowers hang in bunches. A light, herbal aroma reaches our nostrils, while shafts of light from the windows give it a slightly creepy air; I almost expect Miss Havisham to be sitting in a corner.
We finish with a tasting in the small bar area, where Martin explains how many distillers today are making blends that are sweet enough to be drunk without the sugar cube. As I’m driving, I take only a sip, but the flavor is refreshing, the tartness of the aniseed softened by a gentle blend of other botanicals.
Later, I meet Klauser back at Maison de l’Absinthe, and we drive to a trail in the woods that leads to one of the town’s former illicit drinking dens. Fifteen minutes later, we arrive at the spring, top up our glasses of absinthe, and raise a toast. “Santé!” we say—good health. After this foray into the Green Fairy’s heartland, I know both my santé—and my sanity—are safe.

Carolyn Boyd often writes about French food and drink. Follow her on
Twitter. Photographer
Clara Tuma focuses on travel and lifestyle, and lives part-time in France. Follow her on
Instagram.

This story was adapted from the May 2018 issue of
National Geographic Traveller Food (UK).

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Science and Nature

She discovered coronaviruses decades ago—but got little recognition

When June Almeida peered into her electron microscope in 1964, she saw a round, grey dot covered in tiny spokes. She and her colleagues noted that the pegs formed a halo around the virus—much like the sun’s corona.
What she saw would become known as the coronavirus, and Almeida played a pivotal role in identifying it. That feat was all the more remarkable because the 34-year-old scientist never completed her formal education.
Born June Hart, she lived with her family in a tenement building in Glasgow, Scotland, where her father worked a bus driver. June was a bright student with ambitions to attend university, but money was scarce. At 16, she dropped out of school and started working as a lab technician at Glasgow Royal Infirmary, where she used microscopes to help analyze tissue samples.

Four coronaviruses seen through an electron microscope. The spokes around the edge reminded researchers of a halo, which inspired its name corona, or crown in Latin.

Photograph by BSIP, UIG/Getty

After moving to a similar job at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, she met the man who would become her husband, Venezuelan artist Enriques Almeida. The pair immigrated to Canada, and June got a job working with electron microscopes at the Ontario Cancer Institute in Toronto. There she developed new techniques and published several papers describing the structures of viruses previously unseen.

New way of seeing the microscopic
The microscopy technique Almeida developed was simple, yet revolutionary for the field of virology.

When working with microscopic particles, it’s hard to know exactly what to look for. An electron microscope blasts a specimen with a beam of electrons and then records the particles’ interactions with the specimen’s surface. Since electrons have much shorter wavelengths than light, this shows scientists an image with much finer, smaller detail. The challenge is discerning if a tiny blob is a virus, a cell, or something else.
To solve the problem, Almeida realized she could use antibodies taken from previously infected individuals to pinpoint the virus. Antibodies are drawn to their antigen-counterparts—so when Almeida introduced tiny particles coated in antibodies, they would congregate around the virus, alerting her to its presence. This technique enabled clinicians to use electron microscopy as a way to diagnose viral infections in patients.
Almeida went on to identify a host of viruses including rubella, which can cause complications during pregnancy. Scientists had been studying rubella (aka three-day measles) for decades, but Almeida was the first to see it.

Discovering the coronavirus
As her skills gained recognition, Almeida returned to London for a position at St. Thomas’s Hospital Medical School. There, in 1964, she was contacted by Dr. David Tyrrell, who oversaw research at the Common Cold Unit in Salisbury, Wiltshire. His team had collected samples of a flu-like virus they labeled “B814” from a sick schoolboy in Surrey, but had considerable difficulty cultivating it in the lab. As traditional methods failed, researchers began to suspect that B814 might be a new type of virus altogether. (There are more viruses on Earth than stars in the universe. Why do only some infect us?)
Running low on options, Tyrrell sent Almeida samples, hoping that her microscope technique could identify the virus. “We were not too hopeful but felt it was worth a try,” wrote Tyrrell in his book Cold Wars: The Fight Against the Common Cold.
Though Almeida had limited materials to work with, her findings exceeded Tyrrell’s best hopes. Not only did Almeida find and create clear images of the virus, but she remembered seeing two similar viruses earlier in her research: one while looking at bronchitis in chickens and the second while studying hepatitis liver inflammation in mice. She had written a paper about both, but it had been rejected. Reviewers thought the images were just poor-quality pictures of influenza virus particles. With the sample from Tyrrell, Almeida was confident they were looking at a new group of viruses.
As Almeida, Tyrrell, and Almeida’s supervisor gathered to discuss their findings, they wondered what to call the new group of viruses. After looking over the images, they were inspired by the virus’s halo-like structure and decided on the Latin word for crown, corona. The coronavirus was born.

Expanding her vision
Almeida retired from virology in 1985 but remained active and curious. She became a yoga instructor, learned how to restore fine china, and developed a sharp eye for antiques, which she often hunted for with her second husband Phillip Gardner, also a retired virologist.
Before her death in 2007 at the age of 77, Almeida returned to St. Thomas as an advisor and helped publish some of the first high-quality images of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
Hugh Pennington, an emeritus professor of bacteriology at the University of Aberdeen, worked with Almeida at St. Thomas and describes her as his mentor. “Without doubt she is one of the outstanding Scottish scientists of her generation, but sadly largely forgotten,” Pennington said in an interview with The Herald. “Though ironically, this COVID-19 outbreak has shone a light again on her work.” (Here’s why a COVID-19 vaccine could take longer than a year to develop.)
Today, researchers are still using her techniques to rapidly and accurately identify viruses. Fifty-six years after she first saw a coronavirus through a microscope, Almeida’s work is more relevant than ever.

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Categories
Science and Nature

Trips: 10 Yummy reads for food lovers

No tickets? No bookings at a bistro that is new that is hip\? No problem. When you can not eat your way the next best thing may be pulling a stool up to your kitchen counter tops and breaking open a globetrotting novel\. From culinary memoirs (with recipes around the side) to a comic book that gorges on Italian cooking, these 10 books ought to satisfy your appetite for words–and the food destinations outside of your doorstep.
This is the latest entry (or maybe, entrée? ) ) Within our series”Around the World in Books,” and it serves up tomes with prose so detailed and deliciously wrought, you can almost taste what’s on their pages. Don’t begin reading on an empty stomach; you may end up taking a bite of your book.
Cooking with Fernet Branca (2004), by James Hamilton Paterson. Razor-sharp humor, abject absurdity, and absurd recipes (Garlic and Fernet Branca Ice Cream!?) Electricity this farcical book as it romps through the countryside. The over-the-top misadventures are a hilarious contrast to caloric and picturesque\ travelogues such as Under Eat or A Tuscan Sun , Pray, Love.

The Food Explorer: The True Adventures of the Globe-Trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats (2018), by Daniel Stone. This visceral biography traces the experiences of 19th-century botanist David Fairchild because he travels the world sourcing now-beloved plant varietals for American farmers, such as peaches, avocados, and cashews. He brought back kale from Austria-Hungary, unintentionally occupying than a century after his departure.

Dirt (2020), by Bill Buford. After befriending the always great (late) French chef Michel Richard, the Italophile-turned-Francophile writer pops at a cooking school in Lyon analyzing the nation’s gastronomic secrets. Finally, he walks off with”learned the taste of great food. That comes from a location, as it has for centuries, from a soil that’s a testament to its history.”

Like Water for Chocolate (1989), by Laura Esquivel. Place in turn-of-the-twentieth-century Mexico, this publication blends magical realism with meals sensualism to tell the tragicomic story of Tita De La Garza, a rancher’s daughter with kitchen skills–but no chance at love. Each chapter starts with a conventional recipe (oxtail soup, turkey molé) tied to the narrative.
The Spice Necklace: A Food-Lover’s Caribbean Adventure (2010), by Anne Vanderhoof. As an intrepid couple pilots their sailboat, the Receta (Spanish for recipe), around the Caribbean, they dig in to local delicacies along the way. The will cause you to want to go to the tropics–or at least your kitchen–to attempt chilled curried pumpkin soup or toothsome coconut-custard tarts.

Bon Appetit: Travels with Knife, Fork, and Corkscrew through France (2001), by Peter Mayle. Snails and truffles and gallons of rosé, oh my! After a childhood spent \cooking, Mayle fell for the culinary culture of France. It turned out to be a lifelong journey \recorded the of the novels, in this memoir and that he\.

Longthroat Memoirs: Soups, Sex, and Nigerian Taste Buds (2016), by Yemisi Aribisala. This lip-smacking, fact-filled deep dip into cuisine richly explores the history and culture of the country. If the vividly etched essays make you hungry (they will!) , the accompanying recipes will satiate your cravings for fare such as thick egusi (melon seed) soup or isi ewu (hot goat goat mind ).

Sharks Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China (2008), by Fuchsia Dunlop. By immersing herself in Chinese culture Dunlop faces her own preconceptions and squeamishness–just one pig’s kidney and reside caterpillar at one time.
The Man Who Ate Everything (1997) by Jeffrey Steingarten. The Vogue author jet sets around the globe looking for epicurean epiphanies winding up to lose the weight he gains along the way. Through it all, Steingarten remains a self-deprecating observer, therefore even very low points make for humor that is high. Case in point:”Subsistence, I am pleased to report, isn’t much of a issue for me. I might probably subsist for a long time or more on the food energy I have thriftily wrapped around different parts of my body.”
Buttermilk Graffiti: A Chef’s Journey to Discover America’s New Melting-Pot Cuisine (2018) by Edward Lee. The award-winning American boxer turned into James Beard Award-winning writer travels to left-of-the-dial locations from the United States to acquire a better understanding of the diverse food customs and culinary founders that bind us together–from a Lebanese–Christian community from Clarksdale, Mississippi, to Cambodian restaurants in Lowell, Massachusetts.
What books are you reading? Speak with our well-read neighborhood by tagging us on Twitter with all the hashtag #natgeotravelbookclub or email amy.alipio@natgeo.com, and we are going to incorporate some of your favorites in our weekly Travel newsletter.

Nevin Martell is a Washington, D.C.-based food writer and the author of many cookbooks. Follow him on
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Science and Nature

See germs can be launched by a sneeze much farther than 6 feet

For anybody who develops anxious at the sound of a cough or a sneeze nowadays, Lydia Bourouiba’s research provides little comfort.
A scientist in MIT, bourouiba, has spent the past couple of years using light and high-speed cameras to show how expulsions in the \body is able to spread pathogens, like the novel coronavirus. Slowed to two,000 frames per second, video and images from her laboratory reveal that a fine mist of saliva and mucus can burst out of a person’s mouth at nearly a hundred miles an hour and traveling as much as 27 feet. When the sternutation is finished, a tumultuous cloud of droplet-containing gas may stay suspended for several moments, depending on the size of the droplet.

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High-speed
Video pictures of a sneeze recorded at 1,000 frames per second revealed occasionally in seconds: a) 0. 006, b) 0. 029, c) 0. 106, d) 0. 161, e) 0. 222( and f) 0. 341 seconds.

Images by Lydia Bourouiba

Understanding how these clouds traveling and disperse is critical to containing infectious respiratory diseases like COVID-19. Many knowledge gaps remain over how it spreads. The research of bourouiba highlights an ongoing debate about the new coronavirus goes suggesting such transfer may be more probable than formerly believed.
Guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that recommends individuals stay at least six feet apart from one another, probably falls short because it doesn’t take liquid dynamics into account, Bourouiba says. Her and her colleagues have documented a droplet out of a yearlong journey more than four times that distance\. While coughing is not one of the common indicators of COVID-19, an asymptomatic person who has seasonal allergies or a random sneeze may still spread the germ.
“That has consequences for how a lot of people you’re able to put in a space,” she states. “It has implications for how to take care of teamwork and meetings, especially if the airflow isn’t changed regularly.”

Droplets small and large

It’s contained within a droplet of saliva and mucus, when a virus which infects the system leaves the body. For decades, scientists have categorized these as large droplets–bigger than five to five 10 microns–or little droplets, called aerosols.
After it is expelled, the larger the droplet, the more probable it is to quickly fall into the ground or on objects. If somebody touches these droplets \then rubs their face, they can contract the virus, which is the reason why it’s essential for folks to frequently wash their hands. Droplets that are smaller, however, are predictable. Though they will evaporate they could travel greater distances.
Agencies such as the CDC and the World Health Organization classify diseases as being predominantly spread by large particles or small particles; COVID-19 is believed to spread chiefly through large respiratory particles.

However, Bourouiba’s study suggests that dichotomy might be random. Her study suggests that a sneeze can expel droplets of different dimensions 23 to 27 feet by a nose. Exactly before evaporating, how long they stay depends on several conditions, including humidity and humidity. Small droplets can last for minutes, although aerosols typically dry out more quickly.
And experts don’t know precisely how much of this coronavirus must make someone ill. “We don’t possess an infectious dose however, so the number of particles could you’ve got to be exposed to? It is Difficult to say,” says Joshua Santarpia of the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Studies of influenza reveal that not all transmission channels are equally likely to make you sick, and droplets carry doses of virus, making infection more likely.
“The jury is still out on whether COVID-19 spreads by aerosols,” states Ben Cowling, an epidemiologist at the University of Hong Kong. In a study published this month in Nature Medicine, Cowling and his research team found that influenza can spread through aerosols, and he guesses that the novel coronavirus can propagate through the air across distances.
“Influenza in many ways is comparable,” says Donald Milton, an aerosol transmission specialist from the University of Maryland. “We’ve been analyzing influenza for a hundred decades, and there’s no agreement on how it’s transmitted because it’s hard to nail down this”

Cover your cough
Much of what we know about the way this coronavirus spreads throughout the atmosphere is based on samples collected from rooms of people infected with COVID-19. But conducting these kinds of studies comes with doubt.
“It’s fairly hard to collect virus out of the atmosphere because collecting fine particles through a filter tends to wash out them,” Milton says. “Whatever you can tell is there’s RNA there, and it is not obvious that it is still infectious.”
Health experts believe it’s not likely that activities which cause heavy breathing, such as jogging or cycling, increase the odds of transmission, however a study published yesterday in the New England Journal of Medicine found that loud talking can expel respiratory droplets as much as three feet in the speaker.

Masks might decrease spread, but they’re most effective when worn out by people carrying the virus, and they must be used properly to safeguard others. There is now no evidence that wearing a mask prevents individuals from contracting respiratory infections, according to the WHO. However, people who show no symptoms from COVID-19 could still spread the illness, so the CDC has recommended the use of fabric masks in public.
Given that which the research shows concerning the distances people of Bourouiba may start respiratory droplets, among the things everyone can do is be sure to cover their mouth and nose when they sneeze or cough.

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