Still Searching for Michael Rockefeller

I've got a new piece over at Outside today that goes back to an old subject of mine: Michael Rockefeller's disappearance in Dutch New Guinea in 1961. You'd think ever angle of the story has been covered by now, but a new documentary, "The Search for Michael Rockefeller", now on Netflix, has unearthed some previously unseen footage and interviews from the 1960s. It doesn't change what we know about the story, but it's still fascinating. I talked with the film's director, Fraser Heston.

Read the rest of the piece at Outside.


New on The Bat Man of Mexico

It sounds like the setup for a bad joke: a Mexican bat biologist and a British filmmaker walk into the Explorers Club... In fact, it was the premise of my first piece for the New Yorker's website.

The piece involves me tagging along while renowned Mexican bat biologist Rodrigo Medellin, and British Director Tom Mustill attend the US premiere of their BBC2 film The Bat Man of Mexico, at the Explorer's Club on Manhattan's Upper East Side as part of the New York Wild Film Festival. The event also featured a tequila tasting, which probably had something to do with this photo:

Amy Cooper, Rodrigo Medellin, and Tom Mustill. (Photo by Nancy Rosenthal.)

Amy Cooper, Rodrigo Medellin, and Tom Mustill. (Photo by Nancy Rosenthal.)

Read the full article here.

Reality TV Comes to Bristol Bay

Tonight, a "reality" show about fishing in Bristol Bay premieres on Animal Planet. For the past few years, lots of fishermen, myself included, have fielded calls from producers trying to make a show like this. Most of us had little interest, reasoning that the end product would bear little resemblance to reality and could only misrepresent Bristol Bay and do harm to its reputation as the producer of the world's best wild salmon.


And while I haven't seen the show, it seems, judging from the few clips posted online, that we were more right than we knew.

"Battle on the Bay" seems to combine all the worst elements of the Reality TV genre into a sensationalistic mash up that does not represent what the Bay is about. The teaser clips are full of ginned up drama, people performing for the camera, and line-fishing blowhards who care more about shouting at each other than catching fish.

Perhaps the show will prove my initial, hasty reaction wrong, but click through to see the clips and see what you think.

Monadnocking for the New Year

Anxious for some perspective on the new year, I sought out higher ground with a scramble over frozen trails to the top of Mount Monadnock (3,165 feet), the highest point in southern New Hampshire. The mountain has an impressive geological prominence, rising more than 2,100 feet from the surrounding valley floor, as well as a cultural prominence out of all proportion to its relatively modest elevation. The first trail to its summit was set in 1706, and the mountain has since proven a persistent beacon to generations of writers, artists, geologists, and philosophers, and was a particularly popular playground for the Transcendentalists.

So, taking my lead from Ralph Waldo Emerson's long poem Monadnoc, composed, according to legend, atop the mountain on a May morning in 1845, I broke my sloth and marched: 

Up! where the airy citadel
O'erlooks the purging landscape's swell!
Let not unto the stones the Day
Her lily and rose, her sea and land display.
Read the celestial sign!
Lo! the South answers to the north;
Bookworm break this sloth urbane;
A greater spirit bids thee forth,
Than the gray dreams which thee detain.

I escaped gray dreams into a gray day, cold and cloudy with intermittent flurries. But the lack of visibility troubled me little, as I was taking Henry David Thoreau's advice, as recorded in his journal during his climb in August 1860:

They who simply climb to the peak of Monadnock have seen but little of the mountain. I came not to look off from it, but to look at it.

This was not my first climb up Monadnock, but then Thoreau climbed it four times, so I suspected there would be a benefit to returning. And there was: clarity, as Emerson also found:

Man in these crags a fastness find
To fight pollution of the mind;
In the wide thaw and ooze of wrong,
Adhere like this foundation strong,
The insanity of towns to stem
With simpleness for stratagem.

Happy New Year.

President Obama Protects Bristol Bay from Oil and Gas Drilling

Up now at Outside online and sitting front and center on the home page (see below) is my analysis of President Obama's announcement earlier this week that Alaska's North Aleutian Basin, including Bristol Bay, would be off limits to future oil and gas exploration and drilling. It's a huge win for those who have been fighting to protect the Bay from the threat sandwich of offshore drilling and inland mining, but the threat of the Pebble Mine still looms. Click through for the full story.

(Those are the fine folks of Iliamna Fish Co. hauling in some Bristol Bay Sockeye. Photo by Corey Arnold.)

Judge Orders EPA to Halt All Work on Pebble Mine

In a ruling issued Thursday in Anchorage, a federal judge ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to cease all work pertaining to its investigation of whether to block development of Alaska’s controversial Pebble Mine. The order, dated December 4, was in the form of a Case Status update that clarified the terms of a preliminary injunction issued by the same judge, H. Russel Holland, Senior Judge for the US District Court in Alaska, on November 24.  

The preliminary injunction pertained to a lawsuit filed by the Pebble Limited Partnership against the EPA, alleging that the EPA had used an anti-mine team of experts during its study of the Bristol Bay watershed, thereby prejudicing the process towards what the mining company has called a “pre-emptive veto” of the as yet undeveloped mine. The EPA had begun a multi-step process whereby, under powers granted it by Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act, it may prohibit dredge and fill activities that would have “unacceptable adverse effects” on fishery areas. The injunction ruled in Pebble’s favor, seeing enough merit in the lawsuit to ask EPA to pause its process; it also requested amendments and clarifications to Pebble’s complaint.

Following the injunction, there was some disagreement over whether the EPA could continue work on the 404(c) process while Pebble revised its complaint and EPA prepared a response. The Pebble Partnership believed all work should cease, while the EPA maintained that they could continue internal work on the process.

Judge Holland sided with Pebble: “Defendants may not,” he wrote, “engage in any activities related to the 404(c) process.” In addition, the order lays out a timetable for moving forward: Pebble will submit an amended complaint by December 19; EPA will file its motion to dismiss by January 23, 2015; Pebble will respond by February 17, followed by another EPA response by March 6, and a hearing to follow.

In a statement, the EPA reiterated that the injunction was only preliminary and that the court had not yet made a ruling. “EPA is complying with the preliminary injunction as set forth in the court's Dec. 4 update,” the statement says. “We are pleased the court set a swift schedule to move forward. We are confident in our case and look forward to a prompt resolution.”

The injunction is the latest chapter in the now decade-long fight over development of the controversial mine. The Pebble deposit, a low-grade copper and gold deposit worth potentially hundreds of billions of dollars, sits amid spawning grounds that feed the legendary Bristol Bay salmon run. It has been the target of a years-long effort by a consortium of Native groups, commercial fishermen, sport fishermen, conservation groups, and other Bristol Bay stakeholders to halt its development.

The EPA’s involvement in Bristol Bay dates back to 2010, when a number of Bristol Bay Native groups and other stakeholders petitioned the agency to take action under section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act to protect the Bristol Bay watershed from the perceived threat of the proposed Pebble Mine. The Agency undertook a three-year study of Bristol Bay, eventually releasing its peer-reviewed Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment in January of this year. In February, it issued notice of its intent to propose protections for Bristol Bay, and in July, it issued the proposal and initiated a public comment period that ended in September. The next phase of the process would be to either recommend moving forward with protection for Bristol Bay or withdrawing the proposal.

The EPA’s “veto” power under Section 404(c) has been infrequently invoked: the process has been initiated only 30 times in the 42 years of the Clean Water Act’s existence, with only 13 of those processes leading to final determinations to block a permit. In the case of Pebble and Bristol Bay, the agency argued, their study showed that such action was merited.

In response, Pebble soon filed three lawsuits. The preliminary injunction remains silent on two of them but saw enough merit in one to call a halt. In a statement issued last week after the preliminary injunction was announced, Pebble CEO Tom Collier called it an important “procedural victory.”

“This means that for the first time EPA’s march to preemptively veto Pebble has been halted,” he said in the statement. “Last,” Collier’s statement concluded, “one criterion that must be met as a prerequisite for a Preliminary Injunction is that we have a ‘likelihood of success on the merits.’ EPA argued strongly that we could not meet that test. The court disagreed and granted the Preliminary Injunction.”

The EPA noted when the preliminary injunction was announced that it is just that—preliminary—and does not represent a decision. “EPA is waiting to see the court’s written order on the preliminary injunction,” the Agency said in a statement at the time. “EPA hopes the litigation is resolved expeditiously so the agency can move forward with its regulatory decision-making.”

And while the injunction represents a rare win for Pebble, the mine’s future prospects remain murky. Beyond the open question of how these suits are eventually decided, the Pebble Partnership currently has no backer after multinational mining company Anglo American pulled out of the project in 2013, followed by Rio Tinto’s divestment of its 19% stake in April of this year, leaving Northern Dynasty, the junior partner, as sole owner. Northern Dynasty has neither the money nor the capacity to develop the mine itself. Adding to the problems, in a statewide referendum on the November ballot, 65% of Alaskan voters approved the so-called Bristol Bay Forever Initiative, which gives the state legislature veto power over Pebble, taking it out of the hands of the state and federal agencies, including the EPA, that usually handle mining permits.

(A version of this story also appears on The Huffington Post.)

Feds Crack Down on AK Mining Co in Clean Water Act Indictment

I had an advance tip on an interesting indictment coming out of Alaska, where a Platinum mining company trying to re-process the detritis of decades-worth of mining near remote Goodnews Bay had been polluting the Salmon River with compolete disregard for the environmental impacts or the requirements of its mining permits. From my HuffPo piece:

In a first for extraction-friendly Alaska, the Department of Justice last week announced an indictment against mining company XS Platinum, Inc. (XSP), and five of its officers and employees. The XSP executives stand accused of five felony counts centered on a conspiracy to knowingly dump mine waste into Southwest Alaska's Salmon River, a violation of the Clean Water Act. Further, according to the indictment, they deliberately misled regulators and submitted false statements to hide the pollution that they knew was occurring. The indictment is also noteworthy because XSP marketed itself as a "sustainable" mine that would get its platinum from mining waste rather than fresh excavation, and, as such, signed a contract with Tiffany & Co, which has positioned itself as a leader in responsible mining by signing on to a "No Dirty Gold" campaign directed at another Alaska mine.

"This is the first criminal indictment of a mining company for federal Clean Water Act charges in Alaska," said Kevin Feldis, First Assistant United States Attorney for Alaska. "This is part of our ongoing commitment to aggressively enforcing environmental law in Alaska."

The 28-page indictment centers on alleged criminal activity that occurred primarily in 2010 and 2011 on public lands around remote Goodnews Bay, where XSP's Platinum Creek Mine operated from 2008 to 2012. It's the culmination of a cooperative investigation involving a number of federal and state agencies and led by the EPA's Criminal Investigation Division and the BLM's Office of Law Enforcement and Security. They began building the case in 2011, shortly after XSP was initially cited for violations by the Alaska Department of Environmental Control.

The indictment names the company's top three officers, Chairman and CEO Bruce Butcher, 59, and Director and Executive VP Mark Balfour, 62, both Australian, and both Australian corporate attorneys; and James Slade, 57, a Canadian mining executive who served as Chief Operating Officer. In addition, Robert Pate, 62, an American geologist who was the mine's general manager and James Staeheli, 43, an American and a manager at the mine, were also indicted. All five of the men were charged with violating the permit and conspiring to cover up the violations, and all but Staeheli also face the charge of submitting a false statement.

XSP's holdings consisted of nearly 200 mining claims spread across more than 4,000 acres, mostly clustered around the Salmon River just upstream from where it flows through the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge and empties into the Pacific in Kuskowim Bay. The Salmon, like other rivers in the area, is an essential spawning habitat for all five species of Pacific salmon. The vast majority of the mining claims are on land managed by the BLM, while a small number of undeveloped claims lie within the Togiak Refuge.

XSP's plan was to reprocess the scrapheaps left over from the Goodnews Bay Mining Company's platinum mine (1937-1979) and extract residual platinum from the 45 million tons of tailings--mine waste--left behind over the decades it had been in operation. The company said it would do this all on a "zero-discharge" basis, filtering and reusing the massive amounts of wastewater created by the reprocessing, and thereby protecting the surrounding natural resources.

Click over to the Huffington Post to read the rest of my piece.

Pebble vs. EPA gets the Fox News Treatement

It's no secret that politicians on the right aren't particularly fond of the EPA, viewing it as an overreaching, industry-hobbling agent of Big Government, and it's proven a particularly attractive bogeyman for right-leaning media outlets.

So it should come as no surprise that they found cause for celebration in the recent temporary injunction stopping EPA's work to block the controversial Pebble Mine. Fox News latched onto the ongoing investigation over lost EPA emails in addition to the injunction, and capped it all off with a quote from Rep. Don Young (R-AK) who was predictably anti-federal and proprietary. "Allowing a federal agency to have this control over private land is a taking," Rep. Young said, even though Pebble sits on public land owned by the state. "And they can argue all they want about this, [but] this is really a taking." Full clip: 

It should be noted that many of Pebble's opponents would dispute the "thousands of good-paying jobs for many decades" that the Fox correspondent mentions, among other details.

The Daily Caller got in on the action with a piece full of loaded language.

The small legal victory, combined with a federal investigation, could present huge problems for the EPA, which is preventing Pebble from getting a key federal permit needed to operate. PLP can now obtain documents through discovery and depose individuals in their pursuit to show that the EPA’s veto of the Pebble Mine was biased. ... But that’s not all. As Pebble supporters celebrate their legal win, investigators with the EPA inspector general’s office are continuing their probe into the agency’s decision on the Pebble Mine to discover if the process was rigged and influenced by environmental activists.

This should be interesting to watch in the new year, when the new Congress is seated and we can expect a renewed round of attacks on the EPA's authority, as well as further developments in Pebble's various lawsuits.

AK Judge Sides with Pebble, Issues Prelminary Injunction Against EPA

In Anchorage on November 24th, a federal judge issued a prelminary injunction blocking the EPA from taking further actions to block the controversial Pebble Mine project. The Pebble Limited Partnership had sued the EPA for, in effect, colluding with anti-mining activists to begin the process of blocking the mine, which the EPA contends it can do under powers granted it by section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act. The Pebble Partnership disagrees, but the injunction, from Judge H. Russel Holland, Senior Judge for the US District Court in Alaska, remains silent on the ultimate legitimacy of EPA 404(c) action. As Lisa Demer of the Alaska Dispatch reported,

Activists fighting the mine noted that U.S. District Judge Russel Holland rejected two of Pebble’s three arguments to halt EPA over a theory that it colluded with anti-mine activists and scientists. Rather, the judge determined that Pebble had a chance of winning on one claim, that EPA improperly turned to an anti-mine team as it worked on its study of how a big mine would affect the Bristol Bay watershed.

The EPA in July announced that it intended to take extraordinary steps to protect Bristol Bay’s world-class salmon runs and proposed restrictions that would prevent the mega-mine from being advanced by the Pebble Partnership. While it stopped short of an outright veto of the project, the EPA said it would place caps on how many miles of streams and acres of wetlands could be lost if the mine were developed.

Pebble responded with three lawsuits.


Read the rest here. And though this is only a temporary measure, Pebble CEO Tom Collier called it an important "procedural victory" that meant that "for the firs ttime EPAs march to preemptively veto Pebble has been halted."

Much more to come on this, I'm sure.

Bristol Bay Outlook 2015: Lots and Lots of Fish

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game released its Bristol Bay salmon forecast for 2015 this week, and it is a doozy: in what's predicted to be the biggest run in 20 years, some 54 million sockeye salmon should return to the Bay in 2015.

That's a lot of fish. Click through for full report.

To put that in perspective, the historical average over the past 20 summers is 34.7 million, and the 2014 run, which was a strong one, saw 40.6 million sockeye return to the Bay. It should go without saying that Bristol Bay remains a shining example of what can be accomplished via diligent and intelligent fisheries management, and ADFG should be commended for the way it manages the run.

And to put that number into further perspective, if the 2015 run lives up to this forecast, the overall 2015 harvest will be nearly as much as the total run was in 2014. Amazing.

But fishermen being fishermen, not everyone's jumping for joy just yet. As Robert Heyano, who's fished Bristol Bay since he was a boy and is now president of the Bristol Bay Seafood Development Association, told the Alaska Dispatch, "They are paper fish until they show up."

Here's to hoping they all show up.

Bristol Bay Salmon Report: Lots of Fish

Me and a net full of sockey. Photo courtesy of Corey Arnold.I've just returned from a quick but productive trip to Bristol Bay, where I teamed up with my old partner in crime Corey Arnold (the talented photographer behind the image above) for the peak of the Bristol Bay commercial salmon season. It was a quick, exhausting, exhilirating trip, with none of the gradual ramp-up that you have in working the full sockeye season. This year, it was out of the plane and into the fire: 24 hours after leaving Newark, I was hauling in nets with salmon hanging off of them, as someone once wrote, like grapes off a vine. The fishing hardly let up the entire time I was there, as the Kvichak River experienced a particularly robust run this year. The weather was perfect, the midnight sunsets memorable, and the company, as ever, varied but enjoyable. More to come on all of this soon, including photos.

Gone Fishing: Bristol Bay 2014

It's that time of year again--the salmon are returning to spawn in the rivers of Alaska's Bristol Bay region, and I'll once again be joining the shadow migration of fishermen drawn there in their wake. I'm headed out tomorrow to join my old co-conspirators at the mouth of the Kvichak River to work the peak of what is shaping up to be a rather impressive season for the east side of Bristol Bay. It'll be a short trip for me, two weeks of tides and mud and mosquitoes, no showers or electricity or internet or cell phones, long days and very little sleep and grinding work and thousands and thousands of fish. I'm looking forward to it.

Last of the Young Men: Robert Sallee Dies


Anyone familiar with Norman Maclean's masterful Young Men and Fire, a stunning recreation of the events surrounding the deaths of 12 smoke-jumpers in the legendarily tragic Mann Gulch fire in 1949, will likely recall Robert Sallee, one of only three survivors from that doomed crew. Sallee was just 17 years old at the time of the fire, and was the last living link to it until he passed away last week in Spokane, WA, at the age of 82.

Sallee returned to the site of the fire with Maclean in 1978, and that visit is captured beautifully in the book, though, as the Times obituary observes, the eyewitness testimony proved inconclusive:

[Maclean's] detailed account of their recollections and their court testimony fails to unravel precisely what happened; rather, it succeeds in illustrating the terror of being caught in such a monstrous natural maelstrom.

Mr. Maclean wrote: “Sallee talks so often about everything happening in a matter of seconds after he and Rumsey left Dodge’s fire that at first it seems just a manner of speaking. But if you combine the known facts with your imagination and are a mountain climber and try to accompany Rumsey and Sallee to the top, you will know that to have lived you had to be young and tough and lucky."

The book, published posthumously in 1992 (MacLean died in 1990), won the National Book Critics Circle award. I remember the first time I read it, when I was about the same age as many of the young men of the title and thought myself young and tough and lucky. I recall being entirely entranced by the craftsmanship of the book, by the attempt to put the pieces of the puzzle together even if the end result is bound to be inconclusive. But I was also warned by its content of the limits of the seeming invincibility of youth:

“They were still so young they hadn't learned to count the odds and to sense they might owe the universe a tragedy.”

I'd encourage any reader at any age to pick up a copy. In fact, it may be about time I re-read it.

Savage Harvest Review Essay on Slate

My review essay on Carl Hoffman’s Savage Harvest and the enduring quest to solve the Michael Rockefeller mystery is now up on Slate. It’s partly a book review, partly a recollection of my own Asmat adventure, and partly an attempt to grapple with the problematic questions—historical, cultural, linguistic, colonial, narrative—that underlie this seemingly evergreen story. An excerpt:

“I believe I’ve solved it,” says Carl Hoffman in the book trailer for Savage Harvest, his investigation into the mysterious disappearance of 23-year-old heir Michael Rockefeller off the south coast of New Guinea in 1961. It’s a bold claim: The Rockefeller disappearance has become known as one of the 20th century’s most enduring unsolved mysteries, catnip for generations of journalists and adventurers, all looking to answer the same question: Did Rockefeller drown trying to swim to the marshy shore of the Asmat region after his boat capsized (the family’s official story), or did he make land, there to be killed and eaten by the very Asmat people whose art and carvings he had been collecting? His last words before diving in and swimming toward shore, uttered to a companion who stayed with their overturned craft and was rescued the following day: “I think I can make it.”

Did Michael make it? Probably. Has Hoffman solved it? Sort of. In both cases, it’s complicated.

Read the rest here.

And if you’re looking for a more straight up review of Savage Harvest, there’s no shortage of them out there. Joshua Hammer reviewed it in the New York Times Book Review this past weekend, following Bill Gifford in the Washington Post, Roger Lowenstein in the Wall Street Journal, and a host of others.

And while my review is less straightforward than the others, I generally agree with their assessment: this is a book worth reading.

Rio Tinto Backs out of Pebble Mine

At the head of the Kvichak River, Bristol Bay, 2012.

In another blow to the already beleaguered Pebble Mine, Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto announced Monday that it was ending its involvment with the controversial project and gifting its 19.1% stake in Pebble prospect owner Northern Dynasty Minerals to two Alaskan charities, the Alaska Community Foundation and the Bristol Bay Native Corporation Education Foundation. This leaves Canadian mining company Northern Dynasty without a partner for development of the mine, a process it cannot afford to undertake on its own.

There were hints that Rio was headed towards this decision--in December they announced a strategic review of their investement in Pebble, and then in February, the Rio representative on Northern Dynasty's board resigned--but the announcement triggered another fall in Northern Dynasty stock prices nonetheless. This comes on the heels of a tough six months for Pebble's prospects: In September, Anglo-American, which owned 50% of Pebble, pulled out of the project, taking a loss of $300 million; soon after, layoffs began for Pebble's Alaska staff; then in January Alaskan Sen. Mark Begich came out in opposition to the mine; in early February, the Pebble Partnership replaced its long-time CEO; and then the bombshell in March, when the EPA, which had been studying the potential effects of a large-scale mine on Bristol Bay's salmon run, announced that it was invoking its power  under section 404c of the Clean Water Act and intiating a process that could lead to a "veto" of mine permits, and which effectively blocks the mining companies from applying for permits for the foreseeable future.

According to Rio's press release, their divestment is the result of the strategic review's  conclusion that "the Pebble Project does not fit with Rio Tinto's strategy", and its decision to give away the shares was an effort to insure that Alaskan stakeholders have a voice in the process. But the more likely explanation is that they simply could not find a buyer.

Pebble opponents were jubilant--"Thank You, Rio Tinto" ran the headline of a post by the NRDC's Joel Reynolds on HuffPo--and even optimistic. "Rio Tinto's divestment from Pebble may not be the final nail in the coffin," Bonnie Gestring, Northwest program director of Pebble critic Earthworks, told the Washington Post, "but it's surely one of the last."

Of course, not everyone's so happy, and Alaska Governor Sean Parnell took the opportunity to once again hammer the EPA for what he sees as an unprecedented encroachment on Alaskan sovreignty, which he blames for scaring off companies like Rio. “It’s disheartening to see a company like Rio Tinto take its business elsewhere as a result of the current federal regulatory environment,” said Gov. Parnell in a statement released by his office. “Even more troubling is the EPA’s efforts to preemptively veto a project before any proposal has been submitted and before a public permitting process has even commenced."

The oddest part of Rio's move, though, may be how they have chosen to dispose of their shares, currently valued at about $16 million. "By giving our shares to two respected Alaskan charities," said Rio Tinto Copper CEO Jena-Sebastien Jacques in the company's release, "we are ensuring that Aaskans will have a say in Pebble's future development and that any economic benefit supports Alaska's ability to attract investment that creates jobs."

Having local stakeholders more involved will be a good thing, but there are two salient, though unspoken, ironies here: first, Northern Dynasty's share prices tumbled after the announcement and have dropped nearly ten percent from close of trading Friday through today, eroding the value of the gifted stock by $1.5 million; and second, and more interestingly, the Bristol Bay Native Corporation (BBNC), whose Educational Foundation will receive half of Rio's stake, has been a powerful and vocal critic of Pebble, which could make them particularly interesting as an owner.

"This gift provides an example of what open discussion and relationship building between stakeholders with differing views can accomplish," said BBNC President Jason Metrokin, according to the Anchorage Daily News. "However, BBNC's opposition to the proposed Pebble mine has not changed."

Read more here:

For their part, Northern Dynasty remained stonefaced as ever. "We look forward to meeting with the leadership of the Alaska Community Foundation and Bristol Bay Native Corporation Education Foundation in the days ahead," said Northern Dynasty President & CEO Ron Thiessen in the company's statement, "to better understand their long-term goals and aspirations, and how their ownership interest in Northern Dynasty and the Pebble Project can make the greatest possible contribution to the people and communities they serve."

Is it just me, or does that not sound entirely enthusiastic? Watch this space for more on this story. 

More Stories to Chase: A Remembrance

(When news reached NYC that journalist Matthew Power had passed away while on assignment in Uganda--NY Times obit here for further details--tributes began popping up almost immediately, which makes sense for a man who was so generous and cultivated so many friendships. And cultivate is the right word: an avid gardener, Matt knew that some effort, attention, and nourishment were as necessary for friends as for plants. When a call went out for essays and remembrances of Matt, with the suggestion that Matt would have wanted us to write through the grief, all I could think of was the last afternoon I spent with Matt. The vignette below is the result. --TS)

The last time I spent an afternoon with Matt was on a sunny, crisp day in December. After a couple weeks of emailing back and forth, trying to make our schedules mesh, we met for lunch at a coffee shop a few blocks from his house in Lefferts, the day before Matt was to head off to South Sudan for a story about a remote Doctors Without Borders post there.

It was a sort of too-hip-for-its-own-good place—“A beachhead of the coming gentrification,” Matt said, before steering me towards the grilled Portobello sandwich.

We spent the lunch discussing what we always did, writing and the work and the pieces in front of us and the ones coming down the pike and the ones we hoped some day to get to. Matt was a star in our world of magazine writers, out-working, out-producing and out-writing most of the rest of us, but with a humility that never sought to outshine anyone. He gave of his time generously and genuinely, and on that afternoon, there was never any inkling that we were anything but equals having a lunch, sharing stories of the highs and lows of this writing life.

Except that for Matt, the lows always paled in comparison to the prolonged high of getting to tell stories and be paid for it. He seemed to do the job so much better, more fluidly, with less hand-wringing than others of us, at least partly because he never lost that initial sense of joy. He never stopped believing that what we do is a privilege, and that it’s important.

It wasn’t until after lunch that we moved on to what both of us considered the more exciting segment of our two-part itinerary: we went back to Matt and Jess’s house on Hawthorne Street. I’d recently begun a renovation project, and when Matt caught wind he invited me over so he could show me what he’d done at his place. I knew going in that it would be incredibly informative, and I suspected it would be also be entertaining. It was both, but it was also something else: motivating.

If ever I was tempted in the months that followed, while embarking on my own renovation, to overlook a detail, or to claim that whatever deadline I was on had left me without enough time for housework, I thought back to that afternoon. To his attention to every unloved cranny of that house. To his soliloquies about the oddest home-ownership minutiae. To him, standing in the back garden, pointing up at the tin can he’d jury-rigged to catch overflow from an ill-fitting downspout that had flooded his bedroom while he was off on a story and someone else was staying there. To his crooked smile as we stood in the dungeonesque “gym” in his basement, contemplating a residency program centered on voluntary imprisonment in such a space, with no release until a satisfactory number of pages had been generated. 

It was a nothing moment but it encapsulated many things: the willingness to dream; a recognition of the discipline required to produce good work; the attention to detail, in both writing and home improvement; the giddy appreciation of the absurd; and the generosity both of time and of spirit that made him such a positive influence on me and literally hundreds of others.

As it wound on towards late afternoon, we said our goodbyes. I had a deadline and he had to pack for Africa. As I walked off to the subway, Matt called after me with one last suggestion. “Better start thinking about your spring planting,” he said. “We’ll talk about it when I’m back.”

We never did connect for the planting tutorial, and since hearing the shocking, tragic news that Matt had passed away while on assignment in Uganda, I’ve been thinking often of that December afternoon. Looking back through the email chain that preceded it, all the usual Power hallmarks are there: prompt responses, answers to every question, and a refusal to let the vicissitudes of our schedules defeat our efforts to meet up. There were also, embedded in the messages in a subtle, older-brotherly sort of way, kernels of advice.

I’d been beating myself up about a book that was about to come out—I was writing a review, but it was a story I had a long history with, and I was kicking myself for not having churned out a book on the topic years ago. Matt was typically gracious, typically useful.

“I can totally empathize, but no use beating yourself up about a book you didn’t write,” he wrote. “There are always more stories to chase.”

Early days: That time I wrote about Viagra

Back when I was starting out and hungry to get my name in print by whatever means necessary, a kind editor at Outside named Grant Davis started letting me write portions of our monthly, Front-of-Book fitness roundup, The Pulse. It was a break, and I tackled it with all the juvenile gusto you might expect, assaulting the editors with countless awful ideas. But enough of them stuck that I snuck into print, and got some pretty good reporting experience in the process. This entry, from March 2003, which I just came across while attempting to update some links on this site, was probably my favorite. Here it is, in all its choppy-prosed glory:

NO MORE HEAVY BREATHING: Researchers at London's Imperial College School of Medicine, working with researchers in the Kyrgyz Republic, are using VIAGRA to alleviate pulmonary hypertension, a factor in high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE), the lethal condition in which the lungs fill with fluid as a result of lower oxygen levels at higher elevations. "The assumption is that if you can prevent pulmonary hypertension, you might offset or prevent the chances of edema," says researcher Martin Wilkins. "And Viagra can do that." But how? In addition to the, shall we say, helping hand that Viagra provides for men, the drug also relaxes blood vessels running to and from the lungs that might otherwise constrict in a low-oxygen environment. This doesn't make the pill an altitude-sickness cure-all. When it comes to preventing acute mountain sickness or high-altitude cerebral edema, "Viagra is unlikely to have any effect whatsoever," says Thomas Dietz, a doctor with the International Society for Mountain Medicine. Still, it may be good news for your lungs. And the doctors say mountaineers on Viagra won't have to worry about stretching out their snow pants—unless a particularly attractive female yeti happens by.

It was my favorite less for the not-so-subtle erection jokes than for the hilarious, perfect illustration by the prolific John Cuneo. Here was a throwaway blurb, based on dubious science, but somehow, once paired with Cuneo's illustration, it became something (slightly) more:

Illustration by John Cuneo, courtesy of Outside.

At the time, this all represented, to me, a sort of amazing alchemy: I could write some text; that text would be sent off to an illustrator; this would return; they would run together. My words had put this chain in motion. My little words. Again, it was nothing, but in some part of my cub-journalist brain, it aligned exactly with my overly idealized version of what magazines might be: synergy between text and illustration, the creation of an immersive reader experience, little bits of serendipity folded between pages.

Either that, or I was 24 at the time and it made me laugh. Still does.