Weekend Reading: The Zen of Ants

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 the French Foreign Legion, floods, and running away from your problems.

The happiest creature on Earth.     Photo: kosmos111/Shutterstock

Watching them work blindly in unison, their lives laid out in neatly organized chemical pathways. They are, in a sense, freer than I ever will be.

Freedom can be defined in a few different ways. To many of you who read Outside, it may mean sitting atop a mountain or screaming down its side on a new pair of skis. It means the power to run wild, free from authority or responsibility, if only for a few days or hours. To others, that same freedom might be a curse. Some people need a purpose, if only for its own sake.

In a new Vanity Fair piece about the French Foreign Legion, a historically fascinating military organization comprised of drifters and wanderers from across the globe, writer William Langewiesche is speaking to a recruit named Streso in the South American jungle. One line in particular resonated quite deeply with me: “We’re in the Legion here,” Streso said. “Just go with the sergeant. Come on, man, you don’t have to think it through anymore.”

When I was in high school, I spent a week in a military immersion program in Israel. It was silly; a bunch of drill instructors screaming themselves hoarse at a group of insolent teenagers who knew full well that it didn’t matter whether they learned to start their march on the right foot. But I loved every minute of it. I had something to do every waking moment. My life was planned out. I immersed myself in the illusion that I was a cog in a greater machine. Of course, I didn’t have to deal with the reality of killing another human being, but at the time, I felt like I had a function. The soldiers of the French Legion are much the same way. Their mission isn’t important, only that they have one.

I’ve always admired hive creatures, particularly ants. I love nature documentaries on them, watching them work blindly in unison, their lives laid out in neatly organized chemical pathways. They are, in a sense, freer than I ever will be. My primary function as a Web producer here at Outside is the equivalent of a builder drone and I enjoy it a great deal. I take raw content and convert it into viewable material. It doesn’t bother me that my task is cosmically irrelevant. I simply enjoy the process for what it is as I strive to perfect and systematize it to the point that I can do it without thinking. When I reach that point my mind is at ease and I am, for a moment, as free as the ants.

Anyway, without further ludicrous babble, here is your Weekend Reading! The winners of last week's reading quiz are probably feeling pretty good about themselves, even without prizes.

The Dutch have lived under the threat of extreme flooding for hundreds of years with great success. Can they help save the American coast from global warming? Andrew Higgins, The New York Times.

“In recent days, the Netherlands’ peerless expertise and centuries of experience in battling water have been widely hailed in the United States as offering lessons for how New York and other cities might better protect people and property from flooding. Dutch engineering companies are already pitching projects to fortify Manhattan against storms, stressing that the Netherlands has experience with a coastline and cluster of river estuaries that resemble New York’s, and pose similar flooding risks. But Dutch officials and hydrology experts who have examined the contrasting systems of the two countries say that replicating Dutch successes in the United States would require a radical reshaping of the American approach to vulnerable coastal areas and disaster prevention.“

Meet the men of the French Foreign Legion. Drifters and wanderers from across the world who have spend hundreds of years dying in their country’s most meaningless conflicts. William Langewiesche, Vanity Fair.

“What man has not considered climbing onto a motorcycle and heading south? The Legion can be like that for some. Currently it employs 7,286 enlisted men, including non-commissioned officers. Over just the past two decades they have been deployed to Bosnia, Cambodia, Chad, both Congos, Djibouti, French Guiana, Gabon, Iraq, Ivory Coast, Kosovo, Kuwait, Rwanda, and Somalia. Recently they have fought in Afghanistan, as members of the French contingent. There is no other force in the world today that has known so much war for so long. A significant number of the men are fugitives from the law, living under assumed names, with their actual identities closely protected by the Legion. People are driven to join the Legion as much as they are drawn to it. That went for every recruit I met on the farm. Altogether there were 43, ranging in age from 19 to 32. There had been 48, but five had deserted. They came from 30 countries. Only a third of them spoke some form of French.”

Shaun Martin, a Navajo cross-country coach from Chinle, Arizona, uses running as a powerful motivator for high school students who yearn for opportunities beyond the reservation. But make no mistake: these kids race to win, and they usually do. Joe Spring, Outside.

“Martin tells his students about Romero Curley, the first state champion he coached. After Curley graduated in 2007, he had a rough couple of years. His mother, drunk, drove into a ditch and died, then his brother committed suicide. When Curley dropped out of college for the second time, Martin and his wife, Melissa, took him in. A few months later, Curley stole all their native jewelry and clothes and sold them to a pawn shop. When he refused to explain his actions or apologize, Martin told him never to speak to him again.”

Almost two weeks after Hurricane Sandy, Far Rockaway is still drowning in chaos. But life there is taking on a new form as residents must rebuild their community themselves. Marc Jacobson, New York Magazine.

“Originally from Georgetown, Guyana, Sadiq had spent the better part of the previous weekend trying to import a large quantity of what he called ‘motion lotion’ in 55-gallon drums from Scranton, Pennsylvania. ‘I thought I would be the big-time petrol black marketeer. But we had a lot of leakage. Our drums were faulty.’ Originally, Sadiq planned to sell his gas for $20 a gallon, but had second thoughts. He felt ashamed and couldn’t bring himself to ‘take advantage.’ He wound up giving the fuel away to fellow livery-car drivers, most of whom had spent the week waiting in endless lines on the other side of the Marine Parkway bridge.”

The story of Geronimo, the Apache Indian who fought America’s westward expansion with everything he had and lost. Gilbert King, Smithsonian.

“Geronimo avoided execution, but dispute over the terms of surrender ensured that he would spend the rest of his life as a prisoner of the Army, subject to betrayal and indignity. The Apache leader and his men were sent by boxcar, under heavy guard, to Fort Pickens in Pensacola, Florida, where they performed hard labor. In that alien climate, the Washington Post reported, the Apache died ‘like flies at frost time.’ Businessmen there soon had the idea to have Geronimo serve as a tourist attraction, and hundreds of visitors daily were let into the fort to lay eyes on the ‘bloodthirsty’ Indian in his cell.”

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