Weekend Reading: Tree Huggers

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 tree-hugging aliens, Michael Jordan, and a few meteors.

The original cover art for Ursula K. Le Guin's The Word for World Is Forest.     Photo: Putnam Publishing

They must confront the fact that even if they survive, they will never be the same.

This week, Salon published an article by Alexander Zaitchik on the struggles of Ecuador’s indigenous Shuar population against its own government and the foreign powers pulling its strings. It’s well-written and detailed in its depiction of the timeless conflict between nature and industry. The article’s only real shortcoming is its repeated reference to the film Avatar, in which the author sees frequent parallels to the plight of the Shaur.

This doesn’t really bother me as a writer as much as it does as a fan of science fiction. As far as “invader goes native” narratives go, Avatar is barely any more nuanced than Disney’s Pocahontas. Much of James Cameron’s 2009 epic is very similar to Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1976 novel, The Word for World Is Forest, the tale of an intelligent, tree-dwelling simian society at one with nature under assault by human industrial interests that have taken hold of their planet. There’s the indigenous species’ heightened bond with nature; a stubborn, xenophobic, hate-filled army commander with a personal agenda; and some precious resources to be mined. Sounds very familiar, no?

Yet TWFWIF would have been a far more appropriate reference point. Like the Shaur, Le Guin’s Athsheans are led by a figure from within their own ranks, not, as in Cameron’s film, by a white savior from beyond. But more than that, as both Le Guin and Zaitchik point out, the damage to these indigenous societies goes deeper than just the land they live on. In TWFWIF, the humans bring not only industry, but the very concept of violence, and the Athsheans weigh the cost of retaliation against their own souls. They must confront the fact that even if they survive, they will never be the same. With the Shaur girding themselves for armed conflict, it would seem they have already answered this question.

Anyway, on with the Weekend Reading!

Ecuador is sitting on a cache of minerals worth tens of billions. Only the Shaur stand in the way of a host of international entities hell-bent on reaching it. Alexander Zaitchik, Salon.

“‘We have been coming to these sacred cascades since before the time of Christ,’ said Ankuash, preparing a palm-leaf spread of melon and mango. ‘The government has given away land that is not theirs to give, and we have a duty to protect it. Where there is industrial mining, the rivers die and we lose our way of life. They want us to give up our traditions, work in the mines, and let them pollute our land. But we will give our lives to defend the land, because the end is the same for us either way.’”

What was the HMS Bounty, a leaking replica of an 18th-century ship doing in the middle of Hurricane Sandy? Kathryn Miles, Outside.

“Barksdale was responsible for maintaining the Bounty’s engine room, two diesel engines on either side of the hull topped by complementary generators that spun electrical power for the vessel. A large fuel bay supplied each. Walbridge had just rebuilt the starboard generator, and he told Barksdale to use the port one as much as possible—so they’d have a fresh generator if anything went wrong. Meanwhile, a supplier’s snafu meant that Barksdale had the wrong fuel filters for the generators—two-micron instead of 20-micron ones, which captured more sediment. But he wasn’t too concerned. ‘We just decided to be really vigilant, since we knew they’d clog up a whole lot faster,’ Barksdale told me. ‘Everything was running smoothly. It seemed like it was going to be fine.’”

What does Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest American sports icon of the last 30 years and owner of the worst team in basketball, going to do when he turns 50? Wright Thompson, ESPN.

“He's in his suite at the Bobcats' arena, just before tip-off of another loss, annoyed that one of his players is talking to the opponents. Tonight he's going to sit on the bench, to send a message that the boss is watching. He used to sit there a lot, but he got a few phone calls from NBA commissioner David Stern telling him to chill with the screaming at officials. Mostly he watches in private, for good reason. Once, when he was an executive with the Washington Wizards, mad at how the team was playing, he hurled a beer can at his office television, then launched whatever he could find after it, a fusillade of workplace missiles. Now, 10 years later, he mostly just yells.”

Chernobyl, thought by many to be an irradiated wasteland, has blossomed into one of the most bizarre wildlife refuges on the planet. What will emerge when we are finally gone? Henry Shukman, Outside.

“There are also some 300 people living in the zone: villagers who've been coming home to their old farming lands since not long after the disaster and teams of radio­ecologists from around the world who've come to study the effects of radioactive fallout on plants and animals. They've effectively turned the zone into a giant radiation lab, a place where the animals are mostly undisturbed, living amid a preindustrial number of humans and a postapocalyptic amount of radioactive strontium and cesium. On the outside the fauna seems to be thriving: there have been huge resurgences in the numbers of large mammals, including gray wolves, brown bears, elk, roe deer, and wild boar present in quantities not recorded for more than a century. The question scientists are trying to answer is what's happening on the inside: in their bones, and in their very DNA.”

A meteor landed in Russia this week, injuring over 950 people. Later this weekend, an asteroid will pass within our orbit. Just what are we doing to make sure the unthinkable never happens? Gregg Easterbrook, The Atlantic.

“In 1980, only 86 near-Earth asteroids and comets were known to exist. By 1990, the figure had risen to 170; by 2000, it was 921; as of this writing, it is 5,388. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, part of NASA, keeps a running tally at www.neo.jpl.nasa.gov/stats. Ten years ago, 244 near-Earth space rocks one kilometer across or more—the size that would cause global calamity—were known to exist; now 741 are. Of the recently discovered nearby space objects, NASA has classified 186 as ‘impact risks.’ And because most space-rock searches to date have been low-budget affairs, conducted with equipment designed to look deep into the heavens, not at nearby space, the actual number of impact risks is undoubtedly much higher. Extrapolating from recent discoveries, NASA estimates that there are perhaps 20,000 potentially hazardous asteroids and comets in the general vicinity of Earth.”

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