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Cecily Cecily

Writing Worth Reading

Life Beyond Earth

In the past 20 years astronomers have found two thousand planets orbiting sun-like stars outside our solar system. The question is not so much whether other life is out there, but what kind of life it might be. If it is not even carbon-based, for example, how can we hope to recognise it? Astrobiologists are studying the most extreme life-forms on Earth, from Antarctic ice sheets to Mexican caves, looking for clues (4,116 words)

The Wells Of Memory

A walk through the Hejaz desert of Saudi Arabia – part of the author’s project to walk around the world. The writing is somewhat self-conscious, but the achievement is fantastic. Hejaz, and particularly the port city of Jeddah, are revealed as “a cosmopolitan and liberal corner of Saudi Arabia, a melting pot, an entrepôt”, with a culture and history quite distinct from that of the Bedouin strongholds of the centre (3,500 words)

The Ship-Breakers Of Bangladesh

Ocean-going ships are built to last; you need a lot of firepower when the time comes to break them up deliberately. The ship-breaking yards of Bangladesh use swarms of poor labourers with acetylene torches to slice hulls into pieces; 90% of the ship is recycled. It sounds like a good business — “Until you’ve met the widows of young men who were crushed by falling pieces of steel or suffocated inside a ship” (1,500 words)

Life After Death

Bruno Frohlich specialises in “the noninvasive study of just about anything nonliving”. He runs the Smithsonian Institution’s computed tomography laboratory, scanning whatever his colleagues care to bring him from dead gorillas to Stradivarius violins. By training he is a forensic anthropologist: He solved the gruesome murder, involving a frozen and minced corpse, that inspired the Coen Brothers’ Fargo (1,560 words)

Kayapo Courage

An uplifting visit to the Kayapo, “the most powerful of around 240 indigenous tribes remaining in Brazil”. They have driven invading ranchers and miners off their land. They have learned to lobby effectively for legal protections. “Their ceremonies, their kinship systems, their Gê language, and their knowledge of the forest and conception of the continuum between humans and the natural world are intact” (4,900 words)

Where Learning Is Forbidden

Stunning report from northern Nigeria, where half the children are stunted by malnutrition, most women cannot read, and decades of ethno-religious slaughter have culminated in a reign of terror by Boko Haram (“learning is forbidden”), an Islamist movement responsible for 4,700 deaths, many of them in battles with the goverment’s brutal security forces. “Boko Haram has become a kind of national synonym for fear” (5,100 words)

Congo’s Conflict Minerals

“Congo is sub-Saharan Africa’s largest country and one of its richest on paper, with an embarrassment of diamonds, gold, cobalt, copper, tin, tantalum, you name it. But because of never ending war, it is one of the poorest and most traumatized nations in the world. Militia-controlled mines in eastern Congo have been feeding raw materials into the world’s biggest electronics and jewelry companies and at the same time feeding chaos” (2,600 words)

Last Song For Migrating Birds

“To a visitor from North America, where bird hunting is well regulated and only naughty farm boys shoot songbirds, the situation in the Mediterranean is appalling: Every year, from one end of it to the other, hundreds of millions of songbirds and larger migrants are killed for food, profit, sport, and general amusement. All across Europe bird populations are in steep decline, and the slaughter in the Mediterranean is one of the causes” (5,700 words)

Australia’s Aboriginals

Portrait an Aboriginal village, and of its matriarch, Batumbil. “She does not like sand flies and she has no qualms about killing them. But she does believe she’s related to them.” Diet includes sea turtle, dugong, tree worms. “During the two weeks I’m in the bush, two people are eaten by crocodiles, a seven-year-old girl and a nine-year-old boy. I express my grief about this to Batumbil, but she remains unperturbed. These things happen” (4,886 words)

Bringing Them Back To Life

“The notion of bringing vanished species back to life—some call it de-extinction—has hovered at the boundary between reality and science fiction for more than two decades.” Now it has crossed over into reality. Scientists have cloned a goat and a frog that were previously extinct. Coming soon: mammoths. But probably not dinosaurs

Unmanned Flight

Future of weaponised drones: they will masquerade as insects and birds. “They show me an animated video starring micro-UAVs that resemble winged, multi-legged bugs. The drones swarm through alleys, crawl across windowsills, and perch on power lines. One of them sneaks up on a scowling man holding a gun and shoots him in the head”

Return To River Town

Beautiful piece of writing by former Peace Corps volunteer who taught English in Yangtse river town in 1990s, produced book, returns in 2012 to find town transformed—by Three Gorges Dam, by rising incomes, but most of all by new attitudes. “There’s a new confidence to urban Chinese; the outside world seems much less remote and threatening”

Stranded On The Roof Of The World

Life among the Kyrgyz nomads of the Wakhan Corridor in north-east Afghanistan. “Their land consists of two long, glacier-carved valleys, called pamirs, stashed deep within the great mountains. The wind is furious. Crops are impossible to grow. The temperature can drop below freezing 340 days a year. Many Kyrgyz have never seen a tree”

Into The Unknown

How Australian explorer Douglas Mawson survived a 300-mile trek across Antarctica with his supplies lost, his dogs and companions dead and dying, the flesh falling off his feet. And when he did get back to base, he missed his boat out by five hours, and had to wait a year for the next one

Crazy Far

Will humans ever travel to the stars? What would it take? To get an idea of the challenge, it would take the fastest spacecraft ever built 17,000 years to reach the nearest star. But in 100 years’ time things might look different

Restless Genes

What gives us our urge to explore? To set out on huge, dangerous expeditions or merely to look around the corner. Exploration may be practical or acquisitive, but is it also innate? If so, how so?

Good Gas, Bad Gas

Methane. “Burn natural gas and it warms your house. But let it leak, from fracked wells or the melting Arctic, and it warms the whole planet.” Arctic methane could add a lot to global warming. Is there any way of capturing it?

The Tunnels Of Gaza

The tunnel economy is what keeps Gaza afloat. All kinds of household, consumable and industrial items come in; thousands are employed; Hamas taxes the trade. But it’s grim, dangerous work. Tragic stories abound

Vikings And Native Americans

How the discovery of a few twists of yarn on a Canadian island above the Arctic circle led to the mapping of a lost culture of Viking adventurers and traders, living alongside native American hunters a thousand years ago

The Glory Of Leaves

In praise of leaves, underrated in their diversity and complexity, easy to take for granted. “Some plant leaves have become specialists in deadly tricks. Sometimes the weapons are visible; other times they lurk unseen”

Ivory Worship

Thousands of elephants die each year so that their tusks can be carved into religious objects. In the Philippines the link between ivory and the church is so strong that the word garing means both ivory and religious statue

Playing Rio

“Rio is a city of glamour and glitz—but also of poverty and violence in the favelas that climb its hills. With the Olympics coming in 2016, the slums are getting a face-lift.” In Rio they call it “pacification”

Yemen: Days Of Reckoning

Water supplies are running out. Oil reserves too. Half the population chews the drug qat every day. The government, such as it is, survives on American aid, besieged by separatists and Islamist militants. Sic transit Arabia Felix

Roman Frontiers

How did Rome’s obsession with borders contribute to its downfall? “Think of the empire as a cell, and barbarian armies as viruses: Once the empire’s thin outer membrane was breached, invaders had free rein to pillage the interior”

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