Weekend Reading: Cave Trolls

In this weekly roundup, we scour the Web for our favorite long-form articles, collecting them here and on Longreads and Twitter. This installment focuses on hermits, cults, and hangings.

John Bauer's 1915 rendering of Outside's cave trolls.     Photo: Wikimedia Commons

There are bound to be some downsides being that isolated: no heavy metal, no football, no Alien, rotting teeth.

Welcome to the 20th edition of the Weekend Reading! Obviously, the column existed before my arrival but 20 editions is a personal milestone for me and you’ll have to excuse me for wanting to acknowledge it in some way. Thinking of all the episodes that brought us closer together, from the Redbull space jump to my long list of dead pets, well, it brings a tear to my eye. It takes a lot of people to keep Weekend Reading up and running, and I’d like to take a brief moment to thank Outside’s legions of cave trolls, cursed to shovel coal into our furnace day and night with their bare hands. Keep up the good work.

We’ve got a great show for you this week. I admit I’m a bit behind the ball on my favorite story from this edition, but Smithsonian’s account of a Russian family that managed to remain isolated for 40 years (missing out on WWII entirely) is too weird to pass up. Reading the story, I almost envied them. Sure, there are bound to be some downsides being that isolated: no heavy metal, no football, no Alien, rotting teeth. On the other hand, they probably never had to fill out a W9 or sit through every technical category of the Oscars with their significant other. Just saying.

Anyway, here’s your 20th edition of Weekend Reading, brought to you by the good people of the troll furnace.

When the body of 51-year-old-census worker William Sparkman Jr. was found hanging from a tree in the Kentucky woods with the word “Fed” scrawled on his chest, all eyes turned to the notoriously isolated, poor, and paranoid county of Clay. Rich Schapiro, The Atlantic.

"When details of Sparkman’s death exploded in the media, Clay County was thrust back into the spotlight; the story led off The Rachel Maddow Show on September 23, received nationwide newspaper coverage, and drew breathless commentary from bloggers and talking heads. Suspicion that Sparkman had been slain because of his affiliation with the government fueled the coverage. Antigovernment sentiment was on the rise, and the Tea Party movement was fast gaining momentum. President Obama had been in office eight months, and Glenn Beck had recently told his followers, 'The time for silent dissent has long passed.' Five months before the hanging, a Department of Homeland Security report titled 'Rightwing Extremism' had warned of the growing potential of violence from domestic fringe groups."

The story of a Russian family, discovered in 1978, cut off from all contact for 40 years and completely unaware of how the world had changed around them. Mike Dash, Smithsonian.

"Led by Pismenskaya, the scientists backed hurriedly out of the hut and retreated to a spot a few yards away, where they took out some provisions and began to eat. After about half an hour, the door of the cabin creaked open, and the old man and his two daughters emerged—no longer hysterical and, though still obviously frightened, 'frankly curious.' Warily, the three strange figures approached and sat down with their visitors, rejecting everything that they were offered—jam, tea, bread—with a muttered, 'We are not allowed that!' When Pismenskaya asked, 'Have you ever eaten bread?' the old man answered: 'I have. But they have not. They have never seen it.' At least he was intelligible. The daughters spoke a language distorted by a lifetime of isolation. When the sisters talked to each other, it sounded like a slow, blurred cooing."

Before his death, cult figurehead Sun Myung Moon of the Unification Church had his followers venture into the wilderness to construct an ecologically-friendly utopia. It hasn’t worked out exactly as planned. Monte Reel, Outside.

"In the beginning, the colonists hoped they would be joined by their wives (as well as many, many more followers). Every August, they invite children of Japanese church members to visit for a couple of weeks, but so far none have chosen to stay on. 'My wife thinks that it is not realistic for her to move here yet,' Mister Owada says, 'because we still have to raise the standard of living more.’' When I press him on how tough and lonely this must get, Mister Owada says it doesn't bother him. Moon sanctified his personal sacrifices, promising the men that spiritual rewards would make up for their suffering. 'Even if you die, what regret will you leave behind?' Moon asked the founders in 1999. 'We're risking our lives for this cause,' Mister Owada says, his left eye twitching convulsively. 'I like to risk my life,' he continues. 'That is doing something worthwhile. We have continued to stick with this.'"

North Dakota’s shale gas boom has helped secure American energy and provided unprecedented opportunity for some of the state’s residents. Is it still worth the damage to our world? Edwin Dobb, National Geographic.

"Of everything that’s happening here today—of all the change and growth—what will last? Will the enduring things be the most desirable things? These questions haunt Dan Kalil, chairman of the Williams County Board of Commissioners. 'Oil is a rental business,' he says, meaning that it doesn't stay in one place, doesn't owe any allegiance to the traditional farming and ranching way of life, which Kalil's family has been doing west of Williston, the county seat, for more than a hundred years. Perhaps nothing better symbolizes the contrast than the two most iconic structures on this part of the prairie—the itinerant drill rig and the steadfast grain silo. 'When the industry goes south, and it will go south,' Kalil says, 'they just walk away.'"

The story of 832F, the female alpha wolf whose death sparked a controversy unlike any in the history of Yellowstone Park. Jeff Hull, Outside.

"The '06 Female learned to do it by herself—running alongside until she sensed the elk was tiring, then sprinting in front, whirling, and seizing the animal by the throat, an incredibly dangerous undertaking wherein flailing hooves can crack femurs or scapulas and effectively down a wolf. But the '06 Female survived and ran her pack with cool efficiency. She eventually coerced her mates—755M emerged as the alpha male and 754 a very privileged bet—to help out more with the hunting, too. Though she led by example rather than aggression, as the pups grew to adults and a second litter filled in behind them, it was apparent they all did exactly what she wanted them to do. She led with a clear intelligence, successfully defending her territory from other packs in part by knowing when to fight and when to slink away if outnumbered."

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