Dispatch #31: The Desertification of Mali

By Alex Shoumatoff

January 10, 2006.  A somewhat different version of this appeared in the winter 2006 Onearth magazine.

Five of the ten days I was in Mali last March, I never saw the sun.  It was blotted out by an epic dust cloud that spread hundreds of miles in every direction, borne by the harmattan, the southwesterly gale that blows down from the Sahara during the dry season. Sandstorms have always been a part of life here. They can be so thick you can’t even see your hand.

Historically, the harmattan blows in December through February.  But since l968 Mali and the rest of the Sahel (the semi-arid band below the Sahara and above the humid savannas and forests to the south, that stretches from Senegal to Eritrea) have been experiencing a prolonged, devastating drought. Precipitation has dropped 30 percent — the most dramatic decline on earth—and the rainy season has been truncated to two months, July and August.

At the same time, the population of the Sahel (“shore” in Arabic) has been exploding, compounding the demand for firewood, the main source of cooking fuel. A million acres of trees a year are being cleared and burned in Mali alone. Both these things— the drought, amplified by the deforestation — have brought catastrophic desertification to the Sahel. The sandstorms have increased tenfold since l968. They pick up an estimated two to three billion tons of Sahara sand and dust a year and now can come any time from September to June. The finest red particles are whipped up into the upper atmosphere, to 12,000 feet and higher, and are transported across oceans by the prevailing winds. In January 2004, cars in Florida and South Texas were coated with Sahara dust.

In June a similar “blood rain” fell in England. In February the sun was blotted out in Austria. NASA satellite photos showed a cloud larger than Spain off the coast of Morocco. Sahara dust travels to Toronto and even Greenland. It is snuffing coral reefs and sea urchins in the Caribbean. So the Sahel’s desertification is not just a matter of local concern.

During the first five years of the drought, until l973, 250,000 people and 3.5 million head of cattle in the Sahel died. In l984-5 rural Mali (a parched, land-locked country nearly twice the size of Texas whose top two thirds—from Timbuctu north—are in the Sahara, and whose bottom third is in the Sahel) again became uninhabitable, and many of the villages, where three-quarters of the population live, were vacated. Most of the environmental refugees poured into Bamako, the capital, whose population has grown from 800,000 to two million in the last 20 years.

In 2003, the first good rains in 50 years fell, and 2004 was also a relatively wet year. But the rains triggered the emergence of billions of pink African desert locusts, which skeletonized whatever vegetation they landed on. In Niger, the next country to the east, where the rural population was already at the edge after three decades of drought, the scourge last summer produced a famine of Ethiopian direness.  This year, too, the rains would be good, but there were still these epic sandstorms before they came. The drought may have subsided for now, but most scientists are in agreement that the processes that are desertifying the Sahel have reached the point where they are unstoppable.

Bamako, where my quest to understand these processes began, sprawls unprepossessingly on both sides of the Niger River.  Few houses are more than one story. The city seems more like a big village, an anarchic collection of bougous, or neighborhoods, where Mali’s various ethnic groups live in vast extended families—the Bamana with the Bamana, the Songhai with the Songhai, the Peulh with the Peulh. The women cook on charcoal braziers in the courtyards. The charcoal smoke mingles with the diesel fumes and the Sahara dust, so the pall over Bamako was particularly thick.

The latest United Nations Human Development Report (released in 2003) ranks Mali as the 184th worst country in the world out of 187 to be living in terms of its annual per capita income ($350), mean education level (fourth grade), average lifespan (49), and infant mortality rate (119 out of 1000 live births). Yet Mali’s art—particularly its music and wood sculpture—ranks high among the world’s cultural treasures. And perhaps because there is so little to steal, there is very little crime in the country’s Sahel region (although there are Islamist terrorists and bandits in the north). Its government, though cash-strapped, is one of Africa’s most promising new democracies. Many families have a member in New York or Paris who wires home money,
which bolsters the actual economic picture. But many villages are barely surviving.

      There are two schools of thought about the desertification, I discovered. The “degradation narrative,” as it is referred to by one of its critics, was first proposed during the Ethiopian famine of l972-4, which actually gripped the entire Sahel and was run with by the media. It attributed the desertification to rampant deforestation, which is still going on: When the trees go, the grass below them dies; then the ground dries up, the soil blows away (adding to the dust in the atmosphere) and any remaining condensation in the soil  is evaporated or runs off  immediately. The other school, drawing on  recent studies of climate data, attributes desertification primarily to “the remote influence”— a cyclical shift in the world’s climate,  exacerbated by the accumulation of greenhouse gases warming the earth’s atmosphere. In fact both factors are involved.  The remote influence is the main cause, but it is enhanced by deforestation. 

One morning, I went to the Institute of the Sahel, which was founded in l973, after the first famine took a quarter of a million lives.  Its members consist of the eight Sahel countries (Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad, Gambia, Mauritania, and Senegel) and Cabo Verde, the island out in the Atlantic, which is desertifying because the Sahara’s dust clouds are suppressing the winds that bring it rain. I was taken down a dark, empty corridor the length of a football field to the office of Dr. Bouboucar Diallo, the institute’s economist and coordinator of food security, who laid out the degradation narrative.

“Malians have always had droughts to contend with,” he explained in such calm, measured tones that a listener could be forgiven for not grasping the gravity of the situation. “There were droughts 10,000 years ago and in the 13th century that made the Sahel uninhabitable. But now there is also the problem of overpopulation.

The Sahel’s population is currently 50 million and is growing by 2.7 percent a year.  By 2050 it will conservatively hit 100 million. This is because the  women continue to have seven children. Before there was  equilibrium because of infant mortality and sickness, but now, with the availability of modern medicine, demographic growth is unchecked.

“For the people in the villages,” he went on, “wood is the only fuel and the only source of income, and the forest also provides traditional plant medicines, the first line of defense against disease.

So there is a lot of harvesting. And in Bamako almost everybody cooks with charcoal, which produces only one third of the energy that raw wood does [though it is lighter and more portable, and easier to ignite]. So abandoning the countryside doesn’t alleviate the deforestation. It actually accelerates it.”

The institute tried to “politicize” the villagers: “We showed them pictures of what it was like 30 years ago and now, so they could see the degradation,” Dr. Diallo explained. “But it hasn’t worked. They keep cutting and having lots of children.  The same piece of land that used to feed five people now has to feed 20, and it has deteriorated, so the farmers”—pretty much every village grows its own food—“are venturing into more and more marginal, waterless land.” The institute was now concentrating on raising the productivity of the land already under cultivation, by introducing new, improved strains of millet and other crops, fertilizers, and anti-erosion and water-retention techniques.  This slowed down the clearing for farming, but it didn’t stop the clearing for firewood.

“Stopping the desertification is impossible,” Dr. Diallo concluded. “All we can do is try to slow it down.

It isn’t caused only by local deforestation. Global climate patterns are implicated. The whole world is slowly becoming a desert. That is why everyone should be concerned about what is happening here. This is the future.”

According to the United Nations Environment Program,  half of the world’s land surface—28  million of its 57 million square miles—is “dryland”:  plains, grasslands, savannas,steppes, or pampas with a modest water supply compared to the world’s forests.

Four million square miles are hyperarid desert, and another 19 million are becoming desert or are threatened with desertification.  Desertification is proceeding  worldwide at a faster rate than any other time in recorded  history, with disastrous effects for vegetative cover, biodiversity,  and the existence  of 1.5 billion people in more than 100 countries.  Twenty-seven percent of China is desert, and the country’s  Gobi and Taklimakan deserts are expanding at a rate of 2,800  square miles a year, despite the most massive tree-planting campaign ever undertaken (42 billion trees have been planted by 560 million people since l982). And so what is happening in the Sahel is a frightening model, an advanced case of what much of the earth’s surface is going to turn into.

I have hired a Land Cruiser with a driver named Shek Koulibali, and we are heading upcountry with two young Peace Corps volunteers, Alison Trafton and Thomas Betjeman. The niece of an old friend, Alison has been living in a Bamana village for 14 months. The Bamana are the largest ethnic group, almost half Mali’s population. Thomas has been doing the same in a Dogon village. The Dogon have one of the most idiosyncratic traditional societies left. Many of them live under a 125-mile-long escarpment, like the Anasazi cliff dwellers in the American Southwest a thousand years ago.

Our plan is to make a five-day tour of the Sahel, up as far north as Douenza, where the escarpment ends, talking along the way with villagers and foreign aid workers who are combating the desertification. Above Douenza, the Sahel begins to give way to the desert, and there is danger of being set upon by Islamist rebels or bandits. On the way back to the capital, Shek and I will drop off Alison and Thomas at their villages.    We soon leave the smog of Bamako, but the visibility  is  still only a few hundred yards. The sun, when it appears, is a pale disc, more like a full moon behind the dirty reddish-grey cloud of dust, which Shek says is called the kungoforoko, the fog of the bush. One unobtrusive, flat-roofed Bamana mud town passes after another, each with its multi-spired mud mosque. Processions of women are balancing large clay jars of water or huge loads of firewood on their heads. Stacks of firewood line the road. Some villages are entirely devoted to the production of firewood and charcoal. We pass pick-up trucks, long caravans of donkey-drawn carts, all manner of conveyances piled with towering, teetering stacks of firewood, minivans bulging with faggots—all headed for Bamako.

“There are stiff fines for cutting and slash-and-burn clearing without a permit, but the people do it anyway, because they have no alternative,” Thomas explains. “Malians see so little money, and they’re so focused on where the next meal is coming from, they don’t have the luxury of long-term thinking. So the forest is going fast.”

Most of the Sahel was originally acacia forest, scruffy and dense in places, once extremely diverse in species of flora and fauna, but very fragile. The greater part of what is left of the acacia forest, as we can dimly see, has been thinned out, trampled, overgrazed, or converted to agriculture. The wildlife that once thrived in it is now scarce. We will see no antelopes or gazelles, warthogs, leopards, or tortoises, none of the three species of monitor lizard, one of which gets seven feet long. “The animals have all been shot and eaten,” Shek says. “There are none left to kill.” The only wildlife we see are long-tailed starlings coasting saucily over the road right in front of us, and assorted birds of prey circling high above.

  We pass fields of cotton—a thirsty crop that requires the pumping of ground water and is bleeding down the already drought-stressed water table—and other fields with gigantic white calabashes lying in them, mango groves, commercial plantations of neem, tamarind, and kalia tea. One hundred and fifty miles northeast of Bamako, cultivation gives way to rock desert. The rock strata have been eroded into stacks of brown wafers—curious artifacts known as torres, or towers. In the crevices between the torres stand big baobab trees, with bloated trunks and stubby, bristle-tipped branches. The baobab is a very useful tree for the people here. Its inner bark is twisted into rope; its fruit is ground into a cereal and made into candy. Wherever we stop, children run up with plastic bags of white baobab candy, their eyelashes and lids coated with red dust from the kungoforoko.

  Goats have penetrated every corner of the landscape. Every reachable plant not protected by thorns or toxic alkaloids has been clipped by their teeth. I wonder how many species have been chewed to extinction. The Sahel is hardly a “natural” landscape any more. It belongs to the goats.
  We stop at Alison’s village, near the trading center of San, 180 miles northeast of Bamako. It is called Koroguelenbougu and is down to 300 permanent residents, less than half of what it
 once had. Most of the young adults have gone to try their luck in Bamako or one of the other cities. They have chosen the path of education, of trying to break into the modern world,
 over the increasingly marginal viability of traditional agriculture and only come back at harvest time. It is bone dry here and baking hot, but nothing like what it will be like in two months, when he dry season climaxes with ground temperatures of 110 degrees F and higher.

   “The forest is pretty much gone,” Alison says as we motor through a flat, desiccated landscape devoid of plant life except for a few tall trees along what appear to be property lines. It is hard to conceive how anyone could manage to eke out a living here. “Each family has a piece of land, and takes care of what trees and medicinal plants remain on it, and they don’t poach each other’s, so private ownership offers some protection for the vegetation that is left,” Alison explains.

   We pull into the village. A crowd gathers around the car and she and the villagers exchange long, traditional greetings: Has there been peace in the day? Is your family healthy? How
 is your mother, your father, your children and relatives?   How’s the wife? How were the people in Bamako? I am growing impatient because I am having the runs. A boy is sent off
 to collect some leaves that are brewed into a bitter tea, which works.

 The Malian herbal pharmacopoeia can be highly efficacious, as Western researchers have discovered. Alison, a 23-year-old blonde in a sun bonnet, has won the villagers’ hearts with her selfless dedication and beautiful manners but is finding it a “huge challenge” learning the language and how the villagers see things and what they need. Water, of course, is the biggest issue.

 “The three village wells are filling with sand because the water table is sinking,” she explains, “so I’m helping repair their walls and line their bottoms with rocks.” Any day she is expecting a pump from World Vision, an American Christian organization that has an office in San, 25 miles away. “It’s going to be huge for women,” she continues. “They spend two hours in the morning and another two in the evening hauling up buckets from the wells.”  Last year before the rains, the village ran out of food, as it had repeatedly since l968. But this time the villagers had stored millet, their main crop, from the previous year’s harvest in a bank that Alison’s predecessor had started, so they could borrow enough to get through the worst of it, and when the new crop came in they restocked it.

We find several elders in the one-room school, relearning their ABC’s, which they were taught in the French colonial schools in the late 1950s but have forgotten. The literacy rate in Mali is shocking: 79 percent of the men and 85 percent of the women can’t read. The old men, sitting at tiny desks in their frizzy grey beards and skullcaps, beam the imperturbable good cheer that I often encounter in Africa, even in the most horrible circumstances. Sacks of millet take up half the room. The school doubles as the grain bank.

 One of the elders reminisces about the terrible drought in the early 1970’s. Alison translates his Bambara (the language of the Bamana). “The first year we were reduced to eating roots and leaves, but we stayed. The next year we finally gave up and abandoned the village and went to the cities.”

 Why has everything been drying up? I ask. “We don’t know,” he says. “It is the will of Allah. You can resist what men want you to do, but you can’t fight your destiny.”

 Overpopulation, deforestation, overgrazing—do these have anything to do with it ? I ask. 
“No,” says another man. “When we were growing up in the forties and fifties, we cut a lot of wood, but still the rains came. When the rains stopped, the trees died. The cutting of trees did not stop the rain. Allah gives rain. He is so old. He knows better than us.” 

“Last year we planted 1,500 Acacia senegalensis trees around the village,” Alison says.  “They’re good for the soil, and PDO  a French organization, says it will buy the wood. But the problem is that a tree crop takes longer to come in than an annual food crop, and a big drought can wipe it out. These people don’t have the luxury of waiting 10 years to be rewarded with the fruit of their labor, of investing time and energy in something that they may get a return on in the distant future but that every year they have a chance of losing. So not enough trees are being planted.”

  “When the rains come, we have to plant millet and other crops every day, from sunup to sunset, for four months. We don’t have time to plant trees,” a third elder says.

  This explains why none of the reforestation programs in Mali have been catching on in the villages. And the first man’s contention that the desertification has more to do with the lack of rain than the lack of trees is borne out by the most recent scientific findings, that the remote influence is a more important factor than the degradation narrative.

 The drought in the Sahel clearly correlates with El Niño, a cyclical warming in the Pacific Ocean that causes a disruption in global climate conditions.  During an  El Niño year,  a complex, non-linear system of “teleconnections,” or atmospheric feedback loops,  interacting over vast distances causes the harmattan to blow hard, suppressing the moisture-laden winds that come up
 to the Sahel from the Atlantic during the summer monsoon season and bring rain. (The southwestern U.S. is on a similar El Niño-driven drought cycle.) There is consensus among 
climate scientists that the current global warming trend, the almost vertical rise in the world’s mean temperature since l970, has a distinct human “fingerprint.” (See the previous
Dispatch on Dr. Camille Parmesan). 

 The current desertification of the Sahel may therefore be doubly anthropogenic—caused not only by the physical removal of its vegetative cover, but by far-away emissions from smokestacks and cars that, according to a growing number El Niño of climate scientists, are acting on the El Ninos.

  We continue to Djenne, in its heyday the biggest city in West Africa, as big as medieval London until 800 years ago, when a big drought drove everyone out (the population at the time was not large enough for deforestation to have played a role). It is still recovering from the l983-4 drought, when all the herds that sustained the city were lost and there was nothing to eat. Most of the buildings are made of mud and are hundreds of years old, including its mosque—the largest adobe structure on earth and one of the wonders of Africa.  Its imam is like the Archbishop of Canterbury, and there are some 60 Koranic schools in the city, which is visually
 little changed from the 13th century. A colorful cornucopia of ethnic groups in turbans and boubous is bartering in its numerous bazaars. Camels saunter down its dusty streets. Djenne’s fortunes depend on the annual flooding of the Niger’s inland delta. From here on up to Timbuctu, the northeast-flowing Niger spills its banks during the rainy season, forming the world’s second-largest inland delta (after the Okavango River’s in Angola), becoming a labyrinth of lakes and one of the most fecund freshwater fisheries in Africa, with raucous nesting colonies of water birds. There are 359 bird species, 147 of them endemic to the Sahel, in the delta. But the 1969-73 peak of the drought destroyed almost all the nesting colonies, and half a dozen species disappeared. In the old days flood-recession agriculture, a simple but ingenious practice, enabled Djenne, and later Timbuctu, to flourish. After the delta had flooded, as soon as the water seeped into the ground and the soil was gleaming with a rich new layer of sediment, the people sowed their crops. There was enough residual moisture in the soil to produce prodigious harvests without a drop of rain. The American organization World Vision revived the practice on eight square miles up near Gao, the port of Timbuctu, and grew bumper crops of sorghum, but the project was phased out in 2003 because of security problems, like the danger of being kidnapped, and because World Vision decided to  focus on drilling wells and providing each village in Sahelia Mali with a dependable source of clean water.  With the recent rains, flood-recession agriculture is returning to the delta.  It may save the day for Mali, or at least buy it some time, although parts of the  country where it hasn’t rained are still in trouble.

The next morning, after spending the night in a nice little whitewashed adobe hotel run by the cranky son of someAmerican missionaries,  we reach Sévaré, which is on the edge of Dogon country, where 300,000 of these small, pygmoid people live in villages of mud scattered over 5,000 square miles (about the size of the Navajo Reservation) of mostly bare rock.  The ones who live under La Falaise, the Cliff—as the escarpment is called—mummify their dead up on its ledges and believe that they reincarnate as the little children playing on the valley floor. They dance with masks and stilts like the Zuni of New Mexico   and are extraordinary wood
 sculptors. An old Dogon piece can fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars in Paris.

Several hours later, we reach Thomas’s village, which he prefers not be named to protect it against intrusion from outsiders; The three of us constitute the great number of   toubab, or whites, who have ever visited there at one time.  We sit with the chief and several elders on sisal mats in front of his house, in a narrow alley lined with cylindrical adobe granaries with rakishly tilting conical thatch roofs. The men are swathed in turbans that can be quickly rewrapped around their entire heads, except for the eyes, when the sand is flying.  “It has always been dry here,” says the only one of the men who speaks French. “C’est un pays désertique.  This is desert land. But in the 70’s and 80’s things weren’t going well at all. There was a drastic reduction in the number of trees. The water table sank below their root systems and they just shriveled up and died in place.” Thomas is helping the villagers build stone retention walls around
 the 100-foot-high knolls where the millet fields are, to keep the soil from blowing off and going down into the crevices between them, where it has to be brought back up by mules. “Life is harder because there used to be a lot of fruit trees,” says another, Thomas translating his Dogon. “Munju with little fruits. Lemon trees, mangos. Sa berries, which are like grapes. Add a little sugar, it’s good.” 

“There is less rain,” says a third, “because there are more people now, and they are doing things that Amba [the supreme deity in the Dogon’s animist pantheon, who has been merged with Allah] doesn’t like, and it is Amba who brings rain. 

The people are not obeying the unifying principles. You tell them they can’t burn their fields and they go ahead and do it anyway. The young people aren’t listening to the old people any more.
 They just want to go to Bamako. 

“It used to rain before,” the old man continues, “because everybody did what they were supposed to do. They prayed for rain and it was in their hearts. But not everybody’s heart is
 in their prayers now, so Amba doesn’t listen to them.” 

The elders have stopped giving initiations to the young men because they don’t think they’re worthy to receive them, so in another generation, if not sooner, the traditional Dogon belief system will only exist in the ethnographies of the early anthropologists. 

At least 59 organizations have anti-desertification programs in Mali, each with a different approach to the problem. We visit ALCOP, a Canada-backed Malian group in Douenza, and talk to its chef de projet, Modibo Goita.

  ALCOP, he tells us, is growing and distributing saplings of Boscia senegalensis, a tree that sets fruit just during the most stressful weeks of April and May, when the temperature hits 110 and the villages run out of millet and money. It is also combating “genetic erosion,” the loss of traditional varieties of millet and other food plants, by collecting seeds from the villages and growing them in experimental plots to see which do best in the drought-shortened growing season. It is collaborating with Israeli arid-land specialists from Ben Gurion University of the Negev on techniques for getting the most out of each drop of water, like waffle gardens. In this strategy, each plant grows in its own little water-retaining box of mud. In others, the sprouts are covered with a moisture-retaining layer of straw, or with a plastic sheet with holes that they can grow up through; or hoses with holes poked in them at intervals are placed so that only the immediate area around each plant will be watered.

  The Traditional Medicine Center in Bandiagara, which we visit on the way back down, was started by the Italian government’s international aid agency in l984 and is now entirely run by Malians.  The center prepares and packages 20 species of native plants that Dr. Pakay Pierre Mounkouro, its director, tells us work in some cases better than Western drugs for such ailments as hemorrhoids, hypertension, malaria, constipation, dysentery, and hepatitis.  

“These plants are in big demand all over the country, and are a major cause of deforestation,” Dr. Mounkouro explains.  “We are training the women in 40 villages to grow them and to make cuttings of the trees in the forest without killing them: If the bark is stripped, cover the gash with mud; if it is a root that you want, don’t take the biggest one. 

There are 300 species of medicinal plants in this forest, but we have already lost 20 to 25 of them because of deforestation, lack of rainfall, and la récolte inconsciente, heedless harvesting.

 And once a plant is gone, the knowledge goes. C’est fini. The old people die, the young don’t get it. So our botanists are in a race against time.”

  “The medicinal-plant initiative is a win-win situation,” Alison observes.  “It protects the forest and reinforces the people culturally, so they are not so dependent on pharmaceutical products from the outside.” 

Another strategy is to reduce population growth. The New York-based Population Council, which has centers in Bamako and Mopti, is trying to persuade Malian women not to marry so young. “Those who stay in the villages often become by the age of 14 the last wife of someone 30 years older,” its director, Judith Bruce, told me. “If their parents can be persuaded not to marry their daughters off right away, but to send them to work in one of the cities until they are 18, the girls are able to build a trousseau and develop savoir vivre and acquire some bargaining power, which will serve them well when they become wives and mothers, and this four-year delay has a staggering effect on demographic growth. It lengthens the span between generations, and the later a woman has her first child, the fewer she will have down the line.”

  There is some effort to make more efficient cooking stoves and ovens available, but not enough. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization had just given a grant to a community of 100 fishermen on the island of Woyowayanka, three miles down the Niger from Bamako that enabled the women to buy four Chorken [a traditional design whose origin I haven’t been able to find out] of fish-smoking ovens, which have double burners that circulate the fumes, and they are using much less firewood to smoke the fish the men bring in.

 Efficient stoves, if widely utilized, could be 25 times more effective than tree planting in taking the pressure off the native forest, according to the traditional agroforester David Farrelly.  But they are not out in the villages.

   Despite all their efforts, most of the organizations I talked too remained pessimistic. The general consensus was that the villagers will continue to multiply and cut trees until the Sahel becomes completely denuded and desiccated and uninhabitable—that nothing more can be done about the degradation narrative than about the remote influence. So the Sahel seems doomed.

       Darkness fell as Shek and I, alone now, were still 90 miles from Bamako, and the Sahel in every direction was soon ablaze with illegal fires. The degradation narrative was in full apocalyptic swing.  “The functionaries of the Service des Eaux et Forets who are supposed to control the fires only work from 7:30 AM to 4 PM, so the people clear and torch their fields and cut their firewood at night,” Shek explained as we ploughed through a thick curtain of smoke billowing across the road. “To make a field you are obliged to set fire to the forest. That is why
 the Service, when it gives you a permit to clear a field, taxes you for replanting the trees you burn. But nobody wants to pay the tax, so they do it clandestinely, and in actuality no trees are being replanted.”

  I mentioned to Shek the primatologist  Alison Joly’s remark about how the people of Madagascar are sacrificing their future so they can survive in the present, and he said, “Do you know why the people here are sacrificing their future? Because their religion says the future is uncertain. It is even uncertain that you are going to live to see it, whether it will be good or bad. The duration of your life, who can know, so you just have to live in the present, and the future belongs to God. That is how they think.”     

After this tirade against the ignorance and fatalism of his countrymen, Shek told me how the searing second peak of the drought, in l983, was “ended by the capture of a sirène [a mermaid] by some Bozo fishermen, who held her hostage until she unleashed a tremendous deluge that caused floods, then they let her go. I personally saw her,” he assured me. “She was dark brown, the color of hippo skin, and a meter long. She was covering her face, but I could see that it was somewhat elongated. She was not a god, but a génie fétishe [a luck-bringing demi-goddess] of the water.”

We stopped at a roadblock manned by the Service des Eaux et Forets. “Everyone who passes with wood must have a permit,” Shek explained. “You go to the Service and they ask what kind of trees are you going to cut, and how many? You say only Caritea trees, and if they find you with a tree that is not Caritea, you pay a fine. But in all this there is la corruption. So it is impossible to stop the desertification and the future of the Sahel is not good.”

The latest news from Mali, after three summers of good rain, seems more encouraging. Saplings have sprouted in the desertified land around Alison’s village, and in Thomas’s village only the old people can recall when it was so green. The inland delta has been flooding extensively. Dense rookeries of water birds are beginning to fill the inundated treetops again, and as the water recedes, crops are being sown in the new coating of  sediment as the water drains off.  But Dr. Bouboucar Diallo, the Institute of the Sahel’s economist, was not overly optimistic about this let-up of the drought. “The immediate picture for the Sahel is looking wetter,” he allowed, “and the food security situation is better than it has been in years. But this is only a temporary respite.” 

The long-term, overall picture is that the worldwide warming and drying trend will continue, the El Niños will become more frequent and intense, and the forest will continue to disappear, until Malians will have to find somewhere else to live.

 The Sahel will be one of the first places to go, and the rest of the earth’s desertifying land surface will follow suit.   One night, at one of Bamako’s numerous night spots, I heard a musician named Jimmi Jakob perform a song he had written called “Ghigi Chyena,” which means “all hope is gone” in the language of the Bamana. It was a haunting rendition of the degradation narrative, a Malian blues for the Sahel. “If the trees are gone, what will become of the birds, and what will become of the streams?” 

Jakob explained afterward. “And if the streams are gone, what will become of the fish? What will become of us and all that lives?  If you don’t have a mother or father, what can you do? We are the orphans of the world. When the population cuts the forest, there is no hope. Everything is spoiled. The world is going bad. That is what this song means.”

 But as if to temper his catastrophism, to remind us that the ways of nature, or Allah, are inscrutable, an unseasonable torrent of rain began to pound on the tin sheets of the little dive and to pour down through the numerous holes in them on to the dance floor, where couples were slowly gyrating in the darkness. They moved away from the splashes and kept dancing.

Dispatch #30: A Profile of the Lepidopterist Camille Parmesan

By Alex Shoumatoff
A somewhat different version of this appeared in the September-October 2005 Audubon Magazine.

  In the  l970s I was the resident naturalist at a nature sanctuary in Mount Kisco, New York, an hour north of the city. On our Sunday morning bird walks we noticed  species that were unusual in this far north, : mockingbirds, tufted titmice, Carolina wrens, turkey vultures. They were moving up and becoming part of the local mix.  One morning, drawn to juicy clucks, punctuated by drilling,  coming from a  massive dead chestnut oak, we spotted the first red-bellied woodpecker ever reported in Westchester County. What is driving these new arrivals ? I wondered. A paper was published in l976 about birds that were moving north  in Europe, and attributing it to the warming trend that Europe, like North America, was experiencing, but the warming was assumed to be natural, and that was the main theory about what was happening in Westchester as well : that we were still in the upward arc of an interglacial warming period. These birds had been here long ago, before the last glaciation, and they were returning. These cyclical range shifts were all parts of nature. 
There was already speculative talk that something else was driving up the temperature : the “greenhouse effect” from all the carbon dioxide being spewed into the atmosphere by enormous fires in the Amazon,  tens of millions of cars on the road in America at any given moment, and a host of other human activities. Scientific evidence that the global warming trend was anthropogenic, not natural, began to appear in the late seventies and early eighties, but it was not until l996 that hard scientific evidence of an animal’s range  moving northward was provided by an  ecologist at the University of Texas delightfully named  Camille Parmesan.  Parmesan had been tracking a  species of butterfly called the Edith’s checkerspot, which ranges on the PACIFIC coast, west of the Rockies,   from Baja California to southern British Columbia and up along the continental divide with Alberta, to the east.  She reported that it was almost extinct in Mexico and was thriving in Canada. The progress of this shift could only be explained by the greenhouse model of climate change. 
        Having spent four and a half years studying this one species,  Parmesan then tracked 52 species of butterfly in Europe and found that thirty-four of them were also moving northward.  The message these insects were sending, as indicator species, was clear : the entire global ecology is being destabilized by man-induced climate change.   Last year, Parmesan was the lead author of a metanalysis for the Pew Center on Global Climate Study of the impacts of  climate change on North American wildlife.  It reports that pikas, rufous hummingbirds,  starfish, and red foxes and many other species across the zoological spectrum are doing the same. About half the species on earth, Parmesan estimates, are having poleward shifts or other responses to global warming. 
       Parmesan’s seminal work  catapulted her into the news. Hundreds of newspapers around the country have run stories about her, and she has become  a frequent guest on radio and t.v. talk shows.  Thomas Lovejoy, the tropical and conservation biologist who coined the term “biodiversity,” and includes two papers by Parmesan in his new book, Biodiversity and Climate Change, commends her for presenting “some of the very first nicely documented examples of responses in nature. What this does is to take the subject from single example and anecdote to statistical significance and sound generality.”  

      The implications of her findings are very disturbing. For some species,  there is no viable habitat to the north. It has been usurped by agriculture, cities, or sprawl, or in the case of  many displaced British birds and butterflies,  all there is  is the Atlantic Ocean. Other species  are being pushed up and off mountaintops, and unless there are more mountains to the north that they can get to, they, too, are doomed. The monarch,  North America’s best-loved butterfly, which makes the longest migration of any insect, may be doomed, because north of the volcanic mountains of Michoacan, Mexico, where it overwinters, but will not be able to much longer, there is nothing but desert for four hundred miles. 

      So global warming is  another cause of the extinctions that are occurring worldwide at a rate unprecedented in the historical record–  a subtler, more insidious one, because it can’t be stopped and is much harder to detect,  than outright habitat destruction, contamination by pollutants, or outcompetition by introduced species.

       Recently I spent twelve hours, spread over two days, talking with Parmesan, mainly at her lab  in Austin, at the university’s Department of Integrative Biology, where she is an associate professor. Built in the twenties, the rooms are high-ceilinged and spacious. Parmesan, a handsome, raven-haired, petite woman in her early forties, spends her time of her time there at the computer,  managing and analysizing databases, writing up her findings and doing graphics. She is rearing checkerspots in an environmental chamber. We sat in the cozy little area where she meets with her students.  

      Parmesan grew up in Houston, the grandchild of Sicilian and Swedish immigrants. “My mother was a geologist with a minor in botany,” she recalled, “and every summer she would take me and my sisters hiking for two weeks and would tell us every rock and plant.” 

     Parmesan enrolled as a pre-med at the University of Texas, but “I realized that I was not any good at anesthetizing cute little white rats and cutting them open to learn from them, so I switched to animal behavior. I studied the social behavior of captive primates, bees’ foraging behavior, and the belted kingfishers along the Little Colorado River [which flows through Austin], to see if the kids could recognize their mother’s specific song. In the summer of l983, before her senior year,   she went to California with Mike Singer, a lepidopterist at the university who specialized in the Edith’s checkerspot, and “I fell in love with butterflies and eventually with him.”

       Singer, a long-time professor in the department, showed me three raggedy live Euphydryas editha he had in his greenhouse.  They were small, with inch-and-a-quarter wingspans, but strikingly mottled, with  bands of  red,  brown, and yellow spots— warning coloration, Parmesan explained. Checkerspots  mainly eat plants in the snapdragon family that are chock-full of nasty compounds, so birds leave them alone.

     The Edith’s checkerspot, she continued,  spends its entire life in an area the size of a football field. It is only a butterfly for two weeks. For most of its life cycle, almost eleven months, it is a caterpillar. It is  highly variable, with at least fourteen subspecies, and is one of the best-studied butterflies in the world, by legions of lepidopterists, including Singer, going back to l959. 

      Parmesan followed individuals in the rubicunda subspecies on the wing at two sites in the Sierra Nevada, and her work was so good that it was published in Behavioral Ecology and Animal Behavior—a rare honor for an undergraduate. “I was encouraged to go into graduate work in the editha system, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life,” and it wasn’t until l987 that she returned to Austin, butterflies, and Singer, whom she married. 

       NASA  had put an RFP, a research funding priority, for science on biological responses to global warming, and Parmesan got a three-year grant to study the whole editha complex. It was the ideal species, because its biology was so well known, and because you could start in Mexico in March and end up in Canada in July and hit half a dozen subspecies during their month- to six-week-long flight seasons (the individual butterflies emerge at different times for their fortnight with wings) so you could get a lot of data in one field season. A l962 study already reported that editha’s populations were driven by climate. They are wiped out fairly frequently by extreme weather events—drought, sudden freezes at weird times of the year, very heavy snow—and such events, especially on the hot and dry end of the  weather spectrum, are becoming more frequent and intense because of the greenhouse effect. 

       Parmesan started with the southernmost subspecies, Euphydryas editha quino, which  lives in the coastal foothills of southern California and Baja California. “I read in a diary from the fifties how quino used to be so thick at times that you had to run your windshield wipers to be able to see,” she told me. “There were so many populations that no one bothered to mark them. Quino was simply described as ‘ubiquitous.” Each mesa top in San Diego had a population, but they were all wiped out by housing development. Now quino is down only six pathetic populations, from literally hundreds.” 

        The populations on the  densely settled coast were gone, but it was impossible to say how much this was attributable to climate change and how much to land use change. She needed to find pristine habitat, with no statistical “noise.”  Combing the records of  collectors in the thirties, she did–   on federal and ranch land in the interior of Baja California and  of Riverside  County—gorgeous quino habitat. But there were no quinos. .“Crawling down on my hands and knees during what should have been quino’s flight season,  I looked under thousands of little grass-like plantanes and Indian paintbrushes and other potential food plants, and just didn’t find any butterflies or larvae, except in a couple of places. Most of the populations in Mexico had gone extinct. I couldn’t say what had caused the extinctions or when they had happened, but there was evidence of 80% extinction on the southern edge of editha’s range. Matching them with the extinction records for the last forty years that Mike was compiling, I could see a definite correlation with what you would expect from global warming. It  was very likely that the warming and drying trend had shortened the window of time in which the host plant was green, so that it was out of phase with quino’s  life cycle.  Quino’s  hatching as a half-grown caterpillar is triggered by  rain, and so is the greening of its food plant. But now the plants were shriveling up, because no further rain was falling, or they weren’t coming out at all, and the caterpillars were starving. There had been droughts in the past, of course, but rarely ones so frequent or severe. The precipitation data for northern Mexico and southern California showed that it was gradually going down. The region had always been marginal for quinos. They had had lots of crashes and booms, as is typical at the edge of any organism’s range,  but most years they  had been able to make it. But now they had been pushed over the edge, out of their climate envelope. 

        Parmesan then went to the northern edge of editha’s range, in southern Alberta . Here the main subspecies is beani. She found the extinction rate in the known populations to be only 20%, within the sustainable range of what many butterfly species normally experience over the years. There had not been enough collecting to be able to talk about colonization or expansion.  Throughout editha’s entire range,  the various subspecies had moved on average two degrees of latitude north from the places where they had first been identified. So Parmesan had evidence of a biological response from editha and she suspected that it wasn’t an isolated case, but part of a general trend affecting flora and fauna around the world. She wanted to assemble the big picture, and the place to do it,  if you were using butterflies, which were admirably suited to the task, was  Europe.  “It took me four and a half year to get data on a single species here, but in Europe everything was in place,” she told me. “There are records in the northern countries going back to 1760. Collecting is much more part of British and German culture. It was the Victorian thing to do on your vacation. The governments provide money for thousands of amateur lepidopterists every spring to monitor the state of the butterflies.”

      In short order  Parmesan learned that the showy white Parnassius Apollo, an alpine species, had moved 200 kilometers in only ten years. The spectacular purple emperor, Apatura iris, had arrived in Sweden in the early l990s, and now there was a strong population and the butterfly was spreading inland. African species like Danaus chrysippus, a cousin of the monarch,  had come up to Spain, while a blue called Glaucopsyche alexis and the sooty copper, Heodes tityrus were disappearing from the southern edges of their ranges. “This tells you that it’s not just editha,” explained Parmesan. “It’s a much more systematic response of wildlife. 

        Habitat destruction was even more of a problem in Europe than it had been on the west coast. Parmesan found the least disturbed habitat in the mountain valleys and meadows of Spain and France, where traditional haymaking was still widely practiced—the grass was cut only once a year with a scythe, and the sheep were moved in and out, and there was more continuity and harmony in the way things were done—than in Germany and Austria, “where they want everything to be tidy.  Tidy destroys nature.”

         In l999 Parmesan and twelve European published a paper  called “Poleward Shifts in Geographical Ranges of Butterfly Speices Associated with Regional Warming.” “The Europeans were thrilled because  all their running around and spotting butterflies with binoculars– what they loved to do– had meaning. Museum people came up to me and said the paper legitimized their collections, which they had been getting a lot of flak about. [During her long run as prime minister, from l979 to l990] Margaret Thatcher had said something to the director of the British Museum like ‘Why do we need all this old dead stuff ?’”  referring to the rooms after rooms full of pinned butterflies, birds skins, and other mouldering specimens. 

   So why should we care if editha and a bunch of butterflies in Europe are moving north ? I asked.   “Because it’s more significant that just editha. Editha is  an indicator species.   It’s being affected so anybody who is empathetic to other forms of life needs to be worried. Do you want there to be bears in the Rockies, dolphins in Monterey Bay ?

     “Editha is also important to study because it’s a  bioindicator for other insects, and insects carry a lot of diseases. Mosquitoes are as temperature-sensitive as butterflies.
The West Nile virus as of last year is already carried by 22 of the roughly 50 species of mosquito in Quebec, and it only arrived in the U.S. in l999.  The U.S. and Europe are going to get malaria in the wild. So humans are affected by wildlife, like it or not.

    “In the past,” she continued,  “when there weren’t humans around, there was a lot of shifting. Between each of the Pleistocene glaciations, whe there was a four to six-degree centrigrade shift, species of shrews and picas were moving a thousand kilometers north and shifting back again, spruces and oaks were going up and down mountains. The problem is that we’ve taken all the habitat away. It’s not possible any more for an animal or a plant  to shift gradually through the scenery and end up in some spot thousands of miles away. 

     Parmesan showed me a graph in the IPCC, the U.N.’s  Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s  most recent, 2001 report, which concludes that current, ongoing warming trend is definitely human-induced.  The graph showed a vertiginous, nearly vertical spike beginning in l971. “As you can see,” she said,  “we are very close to the point where it is going to be hotter than any time in the last 400,000 years.       

       “Climate change is fundamentally different from the other causes of extinction,” she went on, “because it is the only one you cannot locally do anything about. There is no restoration technique or local management option that allows you to reverse it. It will take a huge collective effort, globally, and that makes it very scary for conservation. With enough money you can deal with other problems. We are recovering quino’s habitat, for instance, and reintroducing it on  protected land, so there will be new, healthy populations. But all that will come to naught if climate change continues. The formula   is  one meter up equals one kilometer north, and a rise of one degree centrigrade equals 150 meters up or 150 kilometers north.

       “You can’t stop it but you can keep the progressive warming to a minimum. If we can keep it down for another two degree until 2100, then we may lose some species, but I’m hoping we can still maybe keep coral reefs. I’m crossing my fingers. But if it goes over that by much we will simply lose coral reefs, because their little algal symbiot can’t persist above a certain temperature.  And alpine environments will no longer exist because there will be no more mountain for them to go up.

      “The sea level has risen from four to eight inches in the last century (estimates vary) and will keep rising anywhere from five inches to a meter in the next one.  When New York City, Florida, Houston, and San Francisco Bay are flooded, people are going to finally demand action, but by then it will be too late. The climate system has a long lag time and we can’t reverse the effects that are happening or are in motion even now. So climate change is unlike any other environmental crisis we face in that it is global and slow-moving. It’s like trying to stop the trajectory of a planet. It has a lot of momentum, and once it gets going you’re not going to stop it. Carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. What we’ve already put up we’re not feeling the full effects of, so even it we stop it now, we will still feel its effects.  

      “But global warming is also the thing that the individual can do most about, without  asking anybody’s permission, like trading in their SUV for a Honda Civic that gets forty miles per gallon.  If everyone just did that, it would make a huge dent.”

      Parmesan struck me as a basically  up-beat person. She was just someone who by the typically circuitous route that our lives take, happened to come into possession of this information.  As she flipped through the massive, two volume IPCC report, with  its  disturbing graphs and maps, she was actually humming to herself. I wondered if she was trying keep her spirits up. People in this line of work must do a lot of humming. 

Dispatch #29: The Grand Cascapedia and Its Endangered Atlantic Salmon

By Alex Shoumatoff

January 11, 2006     A version of this, in which Hoagy was changed into  moi, ran in  the July, 2005 Travel + Leisure magazine.

        Hoagy Carmichael Jr. was up to his waist  in the Grand Cascapedia, the Pebble Beach of salmon rivers, on Quebec’s Gaspé coast. With the effortless grace and  unerring precision of a Zen archer,   he cast  a loop of line  a hundred feet out over the amber green water. The loop uncurled in slow motion and softly, unobtrusively dropped his gawdy Lady Amherst fly right  into a riffle  where a big Atlantic salmon had just rolled. Then he watched intently, his left hand  on his hip,  elbow crooked, and neck craned slightly forward, to see if the fish was going to take it. 
         “It doesn’t get any better than this,” he called to me, trying my luck further down  Little Camp Pool, one of the 87-mile-long river’s  150 named pools.  The laid-back, clubbable Hoagy’s father composed some of the  immortal jazz standards, and he gets royalties  every time  a new version  of “Stardust” or “Georgia on My Mind” is recorded. This  has enabled him to indulge his passion for this highly ritualized aristocratic blood sport.  Every summer he comes to this majestic river, as do some three thousand  salmon. They come back to spawn in the river where they were born, after years of  epic, uncharted peregrinations in  the North Atlantic. 
       There are  23 salmon rivers on Gaspé Peninsula, and 150  in Quebec, but the fish that return to the Grand Cascapedia are a particularly robust strain of Salmo salar, the biggest in Canada, or anywhere except Norway’s Alta River. They average twenty pounds. Three forty-pounders had been already caught this summer. The record is still the 54-pound fish caught in l886 by R.G. Dun, of Dun and Bradstreet, the New York credit-checking firm. 
          Hoagy is writing a history of the river, so he is on top of these facts. “Sometimes I think of all the interesting people who have fished this pool,” he told me : “Chester Arthur, Jimmie Carter, Mike Mansfield,   Bing Crosbie, Benny Goodman, the hockey great Bobby Orr, the sculptor Joel Schapiro, various Vanderbilts, three generations of Fricks. Just recently I found  the diary of Dr. Weir Fisher, an eminent Philadelphia surgeon. Sitting in his canoe in l896, he wrote,  ‘Ah ! the sweet green peace of it all.’ To me that is a perfect summation of what this river is  about.”
       The shimmering reflections of the towering, closed-packed trees crowding its banks brought to mind the thumping dactylic hexameter of Longfellow’s  Evangeline,  

This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks
Bearded with moss  and in garments green indistinct in the twilight
Stand like druids of old, with voices said and prophetic.

This was the wilderness he was describing. But to me there was nothing gloomy about it. It was radiant, glorious, this maritime boreal forest—nature in its purest, cleanest, almost untrammeled splendor. 
     “People have enormous respect for this river because of its rich heritage, its big fish, and its beauty,” Hoagy went on. “You feel privileged when you take a fish from it.” For me it was privilege enough just to be here. Whether or not I a caught a fish was secondary. In fact, I was secretly hoping I didn’t. There are so few of them left, and they come such a long way, down from the outer banks of Greenland and Labrador, guided by their noses, which imprinted on the river’s unmistakeable geochemical olfactory signature before they took to sea, as six to eight-inch par. In the best of worlds, these fish 
should be left in peace while they go about the critical business of  reproduction. But a whole subculture and economy has evolved around them. Their hopes for survival have now come to depend totally on the forbearance and  wise management of the people who catch them, who want their to be enough fish to catch next year.  This is one of the ironies of  conservation, and has  been  since the movement  began, in the late nineteeth century, as an alliance between the birdwatchers and the hunters. The trout and ducks’ most  powerful advocates are sportsmen’s organizations called Ducks Unlimited and Trout Unlimited, and the much more imperiled Atlantic salmon look to the St. Andrews, New Brunswick-based Atlantic Salmon Federation and locally to the Cascapedia Society, whose memberships overlap heavily.   


      After the French lost their colony on the Plains of Abraham in l760, and New France became Canada, the British administrators arrived with their rods and reels and guns and racquets and golf clubs. It didn’t take long for word to reach their ears   about the humongous salmon in the Grand Cascapedia. Sport fishing on the river is documented back to the l840s, but it didn’t really take off until the Marquis of Lorne,  the Governor General of Canada from 1878 to l883, and his wife, Queen Victoria’s daughter Princess Louise, steamed down the St. Lawrence River from Montreal  and around the Gaspé Peninsula to the Baie des Chaleurs,  which the Grand Cascapedia pours into. There they were met by the Micmac Indians who had been living at the river’s mouth since time immemorial and trapping and spearing the fish at night with torches. Their settlement was called Gesgapegiag, “Where the River Widens.” It is still there, home to 550 Micmacs.
Cascapedia is a corruption of it. 
        The Micmacs  poled the party  from Montreal up the treacherously strong and swift river in long birchbark canoes. The Marquis of Lorne was, in the words of his biographer Sandra Gwyn,  “a member of the homosexual set” who “lacked the capacity for sustained concentration,” and  Princess Louise was the lady Di of her time, a great outdoorswoman who had “a favorite guide” who posed in the nude for her (and that is not all, according to gossip); she rewarded him with a ranch in Alberta when she went back to England. 
       Princess Louise secured for a few pounds an exclusive ninety-five-year lease of the river for the governors general, and  a fancy fishing camp called Lorne Cottage was built for the  couple fourteen miles up the river. The Micmacs were forbidden to hunt the salmon—poaching what were now the governor general’s fish was punishable with jail time–  and many departed for factory towns in New England. The bottom fell out of their culture, and they remain deeply demoralized and marginalized to this day. While I was there, the chief’s teenage daughter killed herself.  
        A jaunt in the Canadian wilds became the in thing for English nobles. “Camps” was a facetious term for the   seven splendid compounds that were eventually built on the Grand Caspedia. It was hardly camping out. Each camps had its staff of guides, cooks, servers, shoreboys, cleaners, smokers (who filleted your catch into orange-pink slabs and hung them to cure in the beech-fired  smokehouse) to attend to your every need. An elaborate camp and pool etiquette evolved. Special flies were designed : besides the Lady Amherst,  the brainchild of  a Rochester investment banker named George Bonbright, there were blue charms and green highlanders. Thick,  sixteen foot long bamboo rods were made to play the huge fish (although Hoagy and I were using single-handled eleven-footers, as most anglers do now). The reels went from wood to brass to hard rubber and nickel silver and are now mostly aluminum. A good one can easily set you back a thousand dollars.    
       The next governor-general, the Marquis of Lansdowne, built an equally fancy camp that he called New Derreen after his estate in Ireland. In four seasons he and his guests caught 1245 salmon. Then Lord Stanley, who created the Stanley Cup, built Stanley House, an 18-bedroom Queen Anne mansion, on the bluff overlooking the bay because his wife couldn’t stand the black flies up the river. Then came Lord Aberdeen, followed by Lord Minto, who relinquished the rights to the river in l898 to a syndicate of  American millionaires, “high-living, cigar-puffing products of the age of unfettered capitalism,” according to one writer (Robert Stewart), who  “pursued salmon with the same relentless zeal as they pursued the almighty dollar” (according to another writer, quoted but not named by Stewart). These plutocrats founded the Cascapedia Club, which controlled the river exclusively until the early seventies.
       Lorne Cottage was acquired after some decades by the obese, carrot-haired South African gold and diamond merchant Charles Englehart, who was the inspiration for James Bond’s hideous archfoe, Goldfinger. Ian Fleming was a regular guest at the camp. After Englehart ate himself to death in his early forties (he was well over three hundred pounds), Lorne Cottage passed to his five daughters. The one who was married to Oscar de la Renta had  just left, and her snitsy sister Susan, who lives in Missoula, Montana, was there, “in camp” now. We ran into her husband, Roy O’Connor, at Mrs. Guest’s pool. It was named for Mrs. Winston Guest, the daughter of Henry Phipps, Jr., Andrew Carnegie’s business partner. Her brothers built the 400-foot-long Camp Chaleur in l922, which was burnt to ground by two disgruntled locals on a snowmobile in the dead of winter fifty-five years later. The incident precipitated a Steven King-like tragedy that no one in the local community wants to talk about, “and I wouldn’t either, if you ever want to set foot here again,” a woman advised me. 
      New Derreen’s present owners are Royal Victor IIIrd and Walter Shipley, the ex-c.e.o. of Chase. Tracadie has passed from Frank Goelet, who owned “half of Manhattan,” to his nephews. Hoagy and his seven guests were staying at Middle Camp, the most accessible of the seven private camps. “But you still have to know someone to get in,” he told me. 
     Leonard Schlem, a refreshingly unsnitsy Montrealer,  had just acquired Horse Island from the ex-wife of the previous owner (she had gotten the camp in the divorce but didn’t fish and had put it on the market). Schlem has a chain of 305 health clubs in the U.S. and a minority interest in 200 more in Europe, and 18 in Europe. “My twelve-year-old boy just caught a fifteen-pounder,” he told me when I visited him and his American wife Sandy one afternoon, “and his sister caught a seventeen-pounder last week, but if we don’t take care, by the time they get to be my age, there will be no fish.” 
      In the seventies access to the fish in the  Grand Cascapedia was somewhat democratized. The Parti Québécois, which was trying to secede the province from the rest of Canada, succeeded in gaining public access to some pools, and the MicMac sued for the restoration of their aboriginal fishing rights and won the right to trap the equivalent of 350 large fish at the mouth. The MicMacs also acquired one of the seven camps and started an outfitting company whose native guides take fishermen on the river. But also in this decade the number of large Atlantic salmon started to go into steep decline, from an estimated 800,000 to 200,000 today.

      I journeyed to the headwaters of the river, in the Chic Choc Mountains, which are in the interior of the Gaspé Peninsula and are almost 4000 feet high, a series of tabular peaks of volcanic origin that were sheered off by the glaciers. The two branches of the Grand Cascapedia come down from them in ever-deepening crevices, plunging over a series of tilted terraces, sliding sideways in glossy metallic sheets of water with such tremendous force that a few years ago  a couple fishing one of them was swept away and drowned. It’s as wild as Alaska back up in there, more moose and caribou and bears and mountain lions than people. The fish spawn up to 17 Mile Falls, 125 kilometers from the mouth, where I found a game warden named Joshua Philbrick sitting in a little cabin overlooking the river gorge and carving a thunderbird mask. A 26-year-old Micmac, Philbrick had lost both this parents to alcohol and drugs when he was little and had become a traditionalist; he was in training as a healer. “I had reached the point where I didn’t know who I was,” he explained. “A lot of people are walking around who don’t know who they are,  because they don’t understand their connections, their relations. We believe that all the animals  are our relations. Every animal has a medicine.”
     “What’s the medicine of the salmon ?” I asked.
     “Salmon have the stimulation not to give up,” Joshua said. “They travel all the way across the Atlantic just to spawn here. If people have that connection with Salmon, they get his medicine, and don’t give up. But people are losing touch with the Earth. They don’t have that feeling any more.  We’re all part of the vicious cycle now and are doing vicious things. These rich, self-centered people who are forking up for conservation—it’s blood money. Six companies are clearcutting the trees up here. They think they can take it away and it will come back, but once it’s gone, it’s over. That’s it.”
      The erosion from the clearcuts is the most serious immediate environmental threat to the survival of the Grand Cascapedia’s salmon. It is washing down into the river and silting over the gravel bottom that the salmon need to spawn. With the trees gone, the spongy, mossy floor of the forest is drying up and less rain is falling, and what does is running off more quickly, so the river is much lower than it has ever been, and its temperature and biology are changing. Most of the sediment is carried, suspended in the rushing water,  all the way down the river,  being precipitated  into the bay, which is filling up with mud; there are only a few channels left that the salmon can swim up. 
      In l981 the Cascapedia Society took over the management of the river. It is a tri-cultural organization  of the camp owners, the Micmacs, and the residents of St. Jules and Cascapedia,  villages on either side of the river  six miles up  composed of English-speaking descendants of “empire loyalists”– American colonists who refused to join the revolution and fled north– mixed with Francophones whose fugitive Acadian ancestors had managed thirty years earlier to avoid being deported to Louisiana. The Society is trying to get the logging companies to clearcut only 35% and not 50% of the sub-basins in the headwaters, and to observe the law about not cutting within 500 meters of anywatercourse, which they have been flagrantly violating, and to put in better culverts where there roads cross streams and most of the erosion is taking place. It also tried to get the Grand Cascapedia declared a catch-and-release-only river, but the local Gaspesians vetoed this because they want to keep their fish. So at this point releasing is strongly encouraged but voluntary, and you can keep up one fish per day, and a total of two. Last year 2800 large fish were counted in a diving census. This was twice as many as they year before. About 1000 were caught, and 300 were kept. Some of them were given to the society’s hatchery, where 350,000 fry were raised from their eggs and milt and released into the river. But very few of these will make it to adulthood. Predation begins the moment the alevin, as the first-year fry is known,  hatches from its egg, laid in the gravel at the well-oxygenated tails of the pools. Kingfishers, otters, brook trout (which are also sea-running), bald and golden eagles, ospreys, black-backed gulls,  and above all mergansers take a huge toll. The par, or second-year fry,  leave for the sea,   to return as two-to-six-pound grilce and later as full-grown adults (three or four times if they make it to the end of their 12-to-14-year lifespan). But once in the open ocean, they are subject to 61 factors  that are  contributing to the species’ dramatic depletion. So under the circumstances,  it seems ecologically irresponsible not only to keep the fish, but to even be fishing for them at all, except that  much of the money that the society makes from the anglers goes to the conservation effort. Hoagy told me about a new threat to the salmon : the Micmacs are trying to get the right to catch the “black salmon,” the fish that spend the winter in the river, after spawning, living off their body fat and gradually turning from gleaming silver to a dull slate, as they head back out into the Atlantic the following May. “Nobody every bothered with these spent fish before,” he told me. “It would be really horrible if this is allowed to happen.”
      But here I was, guiltily enjoying myself casting streamers into  Little Camp Pool.  “This can be a fabulous pool,” Hoagy told me, and the following week he caught two big fish in it. But this afternoon they weren’t hitting anything. Why they ever do at all is a mystery, because they don’t eat  while they are spawning. Hoagy’s theory is that flies remind them of when they were par and grilce (which I did catch two of)  and snapped at anything that moved. It’s just like that song of your Dad’s, “Some Days There Just Ain’t No Fish,” I suggested.  
       “But they’re there, Alex,” Hoagy said. “That’s the silly part of it. Quite often the fly will be six or eight feet on either side of the fish, and he won’t move.”
       “You’re covering the fish,” one of our guides, Barry Coull, whose father had also been a guide, told me. “If he don’t take it, there’s nothing you can do about it.” And Homer Labrett, our other guide, said of my casting, “I seen worse,” so it wasn’t a question of my technique. 
        But I wasn’t complaining. The experience didn’t need to be crowned with the ultimate, vulnerable prize to be complete. I didn’t mind being skunked one bit.  


To get on the river, you need a license from the Cascapedia Society, in Cascapedia, across the river from St. Jules,  which also has a nice little museum. Call Phyllis Caldwell at 418 392 5079 to book a guide cum 26-foot-long Chestnut or Sharpe canoe (specially designed for this river and the nearby Restigouche and Matapedia), who will take you to some of the most legendary and exclusive pools, which are fished in rotation with the private camps and which you can’t get on on your own. This runs $650-900 a day (all prices in Canadian $), depending on which sector of the river you fish.  You can also get time on some of the upper pools for $60 dollars a day without a guide by submitting your name to a drawing held on the first of November the year before. Time on these pools may still be available on 72-hour notice if you call Phyllis. There are also other rivers with not as large salmon and trophy-sized searunning brook trout, like the Nouvelle, the Petit Cascapedia, and the Bonaventure,  and further south, in New Brunswick, is the Miramishi, which has a run of 70,000 salmon and  vast stretches of good public water.

Gear :

Sexton & Sexton, in St. Jules, has everything and then some. It’s heaven for the serious salmon fisherman and the Orvis/Abercrombie & Finch/Patagonia aficionado in general.


Rivendell, owned and superbly catered by Cathy Dimeck (418 392 5560), the last Dimeck in Dimeck’s Creek, just above the Gesgapegiag, the MicMac, at the mouth of the River. $450 a day all included. Not kid-friendly.         
Auberge La Maison Stanley, Lord Stanley’s spectacular camp on the bluff of the bay,   
Wainscoted throughout and little changed in 120 years, run by a lovely old couple, M. and Mme. Edgar le Blanc, 418 759 3969, $60 a night with continental breakfast but no other meals. Kid-friendly and path down to private beach, as with the even more spectacularly sited

Cascapedia Lodge, also on the bluff, closer to the mouth, run by a nice French-Canadian couple who don’t speak much English. $125 a day with full breakfast. Other meals extra. View across the bay from the bluff here is worldclass. In July and August the Baie des Chaleurs has the sultry lushness of the Great Lakes of Central Africa.

Dispatch #28: The Fall of General Stroessner

By Alex Shoumatoff

And now, for a change of pace, a blast from the past: a piece called “The End of the Tyrannosaur,” about the overthrow of Paraguay’s long-time despot, General Alfredo Stroessner, that was published in the September, l989 Vanity Fair, with Goldie Hawn doing an exuberant shimmie on the cover. Not many American journalists were writing about the rest of the world, and Tina Brown, impressed by my ability to move around in exotic places, had me writing about a succession of tropical dictators who were toppled in the late eighties and  nineties: the Central African Republic’s Emperor Jean-Bedel Bokassa, Paraguay’s Stroessner, Ethiopia’s Mengistu Haile Meriam, and Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko. It was a new genre for me, having been attracted to the tropics by their  flora and fauna and traditional people, but I was beginning to realize that everything in these places– including saving their rainforests and native people– depended on politics, as everywhere.  To delineate the trajectories of these bad guys, I developed a more worldy and ironic voice than the gentler, more lyrically descriptive natural-history travelogue of my far-flung New Yorker pieces.

Here is Tina’s Editor’s Letter for that month: 

An environmentalist or cultural preservationist might ask what
is this piece doing as a Dispatch? Because it is about flux, and what this site is really about is the flux and diversity of  the life on this planet (for now, until we get some extraterrestrial input),
whether “natural” or “cultural” — a distinction that I don’t find, in
the end, necessary or very useful. The era of these grand monstres
is over, Tina Brown left Vanity Fair in l992 and ran the New Yorker
for a few years, then started her own magazine, Talk, which went
under, and I don’t know what she’s doing now, except probably going on weekends to my mother’s best friend’s house in Bedford, which she and her husband Harry Evans bought in the nineties. Looking back on her, I realize that I was never sufficiently grateful to Tina for her efforts to make me a star.  The world of 15 years ago already seems so innocent and quaintly passe. The modern culture is flipping every year and a half now.

As dictators go, General Alfredo Stroessner was about a seven. He couldn’t compare with Pinochet or Galtieri; he didn’t eat his enemies, as Bokassa and Idi Amin did. I saw him only once, in 1979, at the inauguration of Joao Baptista Figueiredo, the penul¬timate president of Brazil. He was in classic dictator garb: brocaded aviator cap, white uniform with sash streaking like a comet tail across a chest blazing with decorations-the Argentinean and Brazilian orders of military merit, the Order of the Chaco, a bejeweled star the size of a dinner plate over his rib cage, a medal bestowed for unknown reasons by a visiting American gener¬al in the fifties. His face-the thin mustache, the full, sensu¬al lower lip drooping slightly below the lower teeth, the steady, piercing dark eyes-was unmistakably German. He looked like a Bavarian butcher. On this occasion he seemed to be ostracized by the other guests. Brazil was opening up after two decades of oppressive military rule, and Stroessner seemed the very embodiment of everything Latin America was trying to put behind it. 

The aura of evil was undoubtedly enhanced by Paraguay’s reputation as a haven for Nazis and by his German name, which no one seemed able to pronounce correctly. One heard Stressner, Strohssner, Strussner as in strudel, Streuzner as in the Kreutzer Sonata, when in fact it was Stroessner, as in Goebbels. A South American who has never been there once described Paraguay to me as Nuremberg with a mambo. Jo¬sef Mengele, the Angel of Death, had been approved for citizenship. There were rumors that he was a close associate, a bosom buddy, of Stroessner, that at the very least Stroess¬ner had known where he was and didn’t tell. 

One morning this spring, a few months after Stroessner’s fall, I drove around Asun¬cion with a man I’ll call Roberto. A scholar of the regime and of the black hu¬mor it engendered, Ro¬berto was nervous about being identified even now, in the heady days of rela¬tive openness following the coup. “Please-don’t quote me,” he pleaded, “or I might become a so¬prano.” 

We were making a tour of the capital’s oligarchic residences. For a city of only 800,000 in the swampy, urticating heart of South America, Asuncion has a surprising number of pa¬latial homes. The first wave of mansion-building began in the 1860s, when squat, megalomaniacal Francisco Solano Lopez, the third in Paraguay’s unbroken succession of dicta¬tors after it shook off Spain in 1811, brought over architects from Italy to design palaces for the local gentry. Those along the A venida Mariscal Lopez are now embassies and offices for the civil and military bureaucracy. Roberto pointed out several of their delicate-columned fac;ades that had been strafed during the eight-hour firefight leading up to Stroessner’s abrupt departure for Brazil on February 5, after which Paraguay emerged with a new president, General Andres Rodriguez, the father-in-law of Stroessner’s coke¬addled son, Freddy. 

Asuncion’s second wave of mansion-building occurred be¬tween 1978 and 1982, when the world’s largest hydroelectric dam, Itaipu, was being built across the Parana River, which separates Paraguay from Brazil. Financed entirely by Brazil and by multilateral banks, the project pumped around $2 bil¬lion into the Paraguayan economy, half of which is “infor¬mal” -a thriving trade in contraband whiskey, cigarettes, soybeans, VCRs, P.c. :s, counterfeit Rolexes, stolen cars, smuggled Brazilian babies, you name it. Most of the Itaipu money slipped under the table and after a year or two of frenzied untraceable transactions-kickbacks, shakedowns, payoffs, all manner of usury, graft, and carruptela-several thousand garish new villas of prodigious square-footage ap¬peared in Asuncion, especially along the airport road and in the barrio of Villa Mora. The houses were built in an exuber¬ance of styles-Swiss chalet, tropical-alpine kitsch, Neo¬Gothic, neo-Niemeyer, neo-Khashoggi, neo-Trump. Their only unifying elements are a satellite dish on the roof and a Mercedes in the driveway. The size and flamboyance of one’s mansion depended, of course, on how close one was to the Tyrannosaur, as Stroessner’s subjects called him, on how high up one had risen in the hierarchy of corruption that he had institutional¬ized and was fond of de¬scribing as “the price of peace.” 

Roberto drove me past a walled Arabian palace, known locally as Aladdin’s Castle, that belonged to Stroessner’s flamboyant former son-in-law, Hum¬berto Dominguez Dibb. The Dominguez Dibb fam¬ily controls the casinos, the slots, the baccarat tables, and the Loteria Paraguaya. Humberto, whose latest plaything is the newspaper Hay, tools around in a white Rolls-Royce con¬vertible. There was a ru¬mor that he was behind the 1980 assassination of Anastasio Somoza Debayle, the ousted dictator of Nicara¬gua, to whom Stroessner had given asylum in Asun¬cion. Roberto discounted this theory, although he said that it was true that Hum¬berto was furious because Somoza, who was un peli¬gro, a terrible womanizer, had stolen his beautiful young mistress. 

We pulled up behind a Volkswagen Voyage with Paraguayan plates. It had probably been stolen from Brazil, since no Volks¬wagen dealer in Paraguay sells Volkswagen Voyages. Indeed, half of all the cars in the country are said to be hot. They are either stolen outright in Brazil, or their owners sell them to Para¬guayans, report them stolen, and collect the insurance. Ro¬berto was explaining the logistics of such transactions as we cruised past the stately manse of the former main whiskey and cigarette smuggler (Kents, Marlboros, and Johnnie Walker Black are cheaper in Paraguay than they are in the States), and the even statelier manse of the new booze and butt king, President Rodriguez’s son-in-law Gustavo Saba. Then we hit some heavy-duty ostentation, the compounds of the four men-the so-called cuatrinomios-who ran Para¬guay during the final two years of the regime, when Stroess¬ner had lost it physically and mentally and the ruling Colorado Party split into two factions, the tradicionalistas, who wanted him out, and the militantes, who remained loyal to him. Led by the cuatrinomios, the militantes succeeded in purging the tradicionalistas, and in 1987 and 1988 there was a new eruption of corruption that was impressive even by Paraguayan standards. 

Soldiers were guarding Mario Abdo Benitez’s home, which had been impounded by the state. A remote second cousin, Benitez was the Rasputin of Stroessner’s court. “All our Polish jokes are about him,” said Roberto. “He was a dum-dum, but he wielded incredible power.” Benitez started as the president’s valet and worked his way up to private secretary. He controlled access to the president, as Eva Pe¬ron’s brother did to Peron. In his last years in power, Stroessner had stopped signing documents, but his signa¬ture-an ‘unforgeably idiosyncratic chicken scratch-was needed for everything. No corporal could be promoted to sergeant, no foreign diplomat’s car could be exempted from duty, without it. Benitez kept blank documents ready for Stroessner to sign on the rare occasions he was up to it. Traffic in the signature was one of the most profitable activi¬ties of Benitez’s entourage. 

“If Rodriguez had not staged the coup,” Roberto ex¬plained, “Benitez would have become president of the party and would have secured the presidency of the republic for [Stroessner's elder son] Gustavo. This was his pro¬gram.” Gustavo was a col¬onel in the air force. He specialized in flying C-47 transport planes. It was widely believed that he was also gay, and that he had started arranging high posi¬tions in the military for his boyfriends. “Paraguayans are conservati ve in these matters,” said Roberto. “They never would have stood for the country being run by Gustavo and his co¬ronelitas. So the coup was inevitable. “ 

“Where’s Benitez now?” I asked. Roberto pulled down his left earlobe, a Par¬aguayan gesture meaning he’s in prison (as a teacher might haul off a misbehaving pupil by the ear). “He’s cleaning the First Cavalry Divi¬sion’s stables.” 

 Benitez’s place was quite modest compared with the com¬pound of Sabino Montanaro, a very greedy man. Montanaro had raked it in every way he could: drugs, money laundering (it had just come out that there was a discrepancy of a billion guaranis, a million dollars, in the public-works budget of the Ministry of the Interior, which he had headed for decades), and trafficking in passports. Middle-level Hong Kong busi¬nessmen, anticipating the collapse of that commercial hub in 1997 but not influential enough to get visas to the States or Europe, were re-establishing in Paraguay, and Montanaro had charged them $5,000 to $10,000 apiece for the proper papers. (This was one of Stroessner’s dreams, that Paraguay would become the new Hong Kong.) 

Nearby was the residence of the Honduran ambassador, where Montanaro had taken asylum. And what about the other two cuatrinomios, Eugenio Jacquet and Godoy Jime¬nez? I asked. Roberto pulled down his left earlobe again. 

But no house in Asuncion could hold a candle to President Rodriguez’s replica of Versailles, which climaxed our tour. It was built in the early seventies, when Rodriguez was thick with Auguste Ricord, the heroin kingpin of the’ ‘French con¬nection,” who smuggled $145 million worth of the stuff from Marseilles to New York via Paraguay, overseeing the operation from a nightclub in Asuncion, until-despite Ro¬driguez’s efforts-he was finally extradited in 1972. Rodri¬guez provided the planes and the landing strip on his ranch, and Montanaro the fake passports. But now, following the coup, Rodriguez was eager to bury the past. “You can be sure that at no moment will it be possible to demonstrate that I really had any connection to these things,” he told the press three days after he overthrew his mentor. Asked how he had managed to build a house like this on an army salary of only 
$500 a month, he is said to have replied, “I gave up smoking some time ago.” His other assets include a money-changing house that nets $25,000 a day, farms and ranches totaling a hundred thousand acres, a brewery, and shares in several banks and construction companies. After the Stroessners, he is the richest man in Paraguay. 

Down the street from Rodriguez’s opulent vision of Euro¬pean haute culture, a member of the Chinese Mafia had erected a pagoda. In an adjoining lot was the vine-smothered shell of a mansion started by someone who had apparently suffered a reversal, and looming in the background was the windowless concrete hulk of the Central Bank, which sprawled over twenty-five acres and from which the militantes had made off with $100 mil¬lion. The president of the bank, Cesar Romeo Acosta, was arrested at a cheap motel, his pockets bulg¬ing with dollars and incriminating documents. 

The official story was that Rodri¬guez had turned over a new leaf. Having delivered the country from Stroessner, he was genuinely com¬mitted to leading Paraguay into a new political era. Two things had al¬legedly effected his transformation. One, his miraculous survival some years ago in the crash of a small Brit¬ish experimental plane, and, two, the terrible suffering his daughter had endured from Freddy’s drug addic¬tion. (This had been another factor in the bad blood between him and Stroessner.) He was said to be really down on drugs now. 

The amazing thing ‘was that the Paraguayan people, who have been deceived so many times, who live in what may be the most refined culture of deceit on the planet, except possi¬bly for Hollywood, seemed willing to believe this story. “Our only hope is now that they’ve got enough for them¬selves, maybe they’ll start thinking about the country,” Ro¬berto said. 


Finding it hard to believe that this was the Third World, 1 had taken a cab from the strikingly modem Presidente Stroessner International Airport, as it was still being called then, to the swank, wood-paneled Excelsior Ho¬tel, which is owned by Stroessner’s longtime friend and busi¬ness associate, Nicolas Bo. Bo belonged to the group of intimates that lunched with the Tyrannosaur every Thursday. He had started out poor and had been rewarded for loyal service with the newspaper El Diario, the Fiat dealership, an insurance company, and a TV station. Eo was now one of the ten richest men in Paraguay, a gran sinvergiienza, as Roberto described him-completely unscrupulous. “He doesn’t approve pf drug smuggling, because he wasn’t cut in.”

The phones at the Excelsior were bugged—on whose instructions, I wondered, the government’s or Bo’s? But apart The first Nazi from that the postcoup loosening-up, or apertura, seemed to guay in 1932 , be for real-or a very convincing facsimile. Things that had hundred thous been absolutely ineditos, unheard of in Paraguay, were going brands of beel on. There were actually two candidates from different parties German descei campaigning for the presidency. Asuncion’s four dailies who were part were givihg balanced coverage to the race without fear of the ear.” The censorship, and the people in bars and living rooms were from Africa’aft sitting speechless before TVs as the opposition candidate, nies there. The hoarse, bearded Domingo Laino, who had spent many of the ed converting Stroessner years in exile or prison, railed against the neo- prairie, swamp colonialism of the superpowers. Laino was the choice of the two-thirds of the Authentic Radical Liberal Party, which had split from the Radical Liberals in 1977 when the constitution was re¬amended to give Stroessner yet another term. 
If it was a euphoric time, it was also a time of internal crisis, as the full horror of the last thirty-four years came out and the people confronted their complicity in it. Bodies were surfacing like locusts in a plague year. The papers were full of photographs of bones being disinterred from secret mass graves and of the testimony of those who had been tortured. The human-rights organization Americas Watch had docu¬mented only 47 desaparecidos, but it looked as if the final death toll would be closer to 1,500. 

Paraguay has a long tradition of torture, going back to the regime of Jose Francia, El Supremo, who was dictator for life from 1814 to 1840. But there are apparently no particu¬larly Paraguayan torture techniques. In the nineteenth centu¬ry something called the uruguayana, in which the victim was trussed up with half a dozen muskets stacked on the back of his neck, was used a lot. Under Stroessner the police weren’t scientific, like the Argentineans. They used the usual whips, cables, belts, cattle prods, cigarettes. One of their favorite techniques was the pi/eta, immersion in a tubful of urine and excrement, also known as el submarino. Graphic testimony of what they did comes from victims like Maria Baez, a hairdresser who was accused of belonging to the pro-China wing of the Paraguayan Communist Party and was taken to the Departamento de Investigaciones for questioning in 1982. Baez was suspended by her wrists for six days without food or water, then for forty-two days she was tied to a chair at night in a room full of biting ants. The interrogation of prisoners was often supervised by Pastor Coronel, the infa¬mous chief of investigaciones. One of his victims, Regina Chaparro, a maid accused of theft, described how he tor¬mented her with la corriente electrica. Sitting by a phone before Chaparro, who was lashed to a chair with wires attached to her pinkies, he would lift the receiver and give her the shock of her life. Coronel was now “by the ear,” cleaning the stables of the First Cavalry Division with Benitez. 


The centennial of Hitler’s birth occurred a few days after my arrival, and I thought it might provide a show. Ex¬treme right-wing and Fascist organizations thrive in conservative Paraguay-not only ex-Nazis but Spanish and Argentinean Falangists who do the straight-arm salute. The first Nazi Party in South America was formed in Para¬guay in 1932 and it wasn’t dissolved until 1946. There are a hundred thousand ethnic Germans in the country. The two brands of beer are Munich and Pilsen. Stroessner was of German descent, as were Generals’ Clebsch and Johansen, who were part of the Thursday lunch group and are now’ ‘by the ear.” The Germans came in several waves. Some came from Africa after World War I, when Germany lost her colo¬nies there. The Mennonites arrived in the twenties and start¬ed converting the Chaco, the godforsaken wilderness of prairie, swamp, and thorn forest that takes up the northern two-thirds of the country, into orderly farming communities. “But as for ex-Nazis,” a Lutheran priest who worked with the Indians told me, “there may be a barbecue or two on the Fuhrer’s birthday. There are always some locos. Some peo¬ple still think it was a gran epoca. But, please, how many years has it been since the war? What’s your expression? Give me a break. “ 

Nevertheless, that day I drove out to San Bernardino, the oldest of the German colonies, twenty-five miles from Asun¬cion, and had lunch with Luisa Buttner, whose grandfather had been one of its founders, on the porch of the gracious old Hotel del Lago. It was here in Nueva Bavaria, Miss Buttner told me as butterflies skipped from flower to flower, that Nietzsche’s brother-in-law, Bernard Forster, killed himself. In 1881, Forster, a schoolteacher in Berlin, had been one of the leaders behind a petition designed to limit the participa¬tion of Jews in German life. Discouraged by the lack of immediate progress along these lines, he came to Paraguay and tried to create a pure German utopia. “But within a generation the intellectuals who came with him degenerated completely and he got a mezcla instead of a pure race-just what he didn’t want. There are two theories about why-he killed himself. Either because his wife was having an inces¬tuous affair with her brother or because he was broke and Nietzsche refused to send him any money because he thought he was crazy.” Miss Buttner wasn’t even aware whose birthday it was. There had been no mention of it in the Asuncion papers. 

As for Stroessner, “1 never heard that he moved in the German environment,” she told me. Stroessner’s father had come with a group of Bavarians to visit Hohenau, one of the colonies in the South. There he met a beautiful dark-skinned Basque-Guarani woman named Heriberta Mattiauda. The others went on to Buenos Aires, but he stayed and married her. They settled in Encarnacion, where he started a brewery and became part of the rural Paraguayan bourgeoisie. Their son, Alfredo, who was born in 1912, had little contact with the German community. It was only later, in the thirties, when his ideological development took place, that he was influenced by the Fascism of Hitler and became more of a Germanophile. When he was president, he would often speak about “the Paraguayan race.” 


One of Stroessner’s German buddies was Hans Rudel, a flying ace in the Luftwaffe who flew more missions than anyone, destroyed a cruiser, a battleship, 519 Russian tanks, was shot down twice, lost his right leg below the calf but continued to excel at tennis and waterski¬ing, was the idol of the postwar German right, the embodi¬ment of Aryan perfection. Hitler created a special medal for him-the Knight’s Cross with Golden Oak Leaves. After the war he tried out planes for the Argentinean government, and when Peron fell in 1955 and was given asylum by his friend Stroessner and Argentina was no longer safe for ex-Nazis, Rudel weat to Paraguay as well and worked in the Ferreterfa Paraguaya in Asuncion, selling BMWs, telephones, cement, and iron. He also worked for ODESSA, the secret organization for smuggling former officers of the Waffen SS out of Eu¬rope and finding them new lives in South America. 

One evening I called on Rudel’s good friend and colleague at the Ferreterfa Paraguaya, Colonel Alejandro von Eckstein, a bullet-headed, barrel-chested, remarkably robust eighty¬four-year-old Russian whose ancestors had come from Prus¬sia at the invitation of Peter the Great; all that was missing was the monocle. Von Eckstein was the last living veteran of an all-Russian volunteer company in the Chaco War-a senseless border conflict between Bolivia and Paraguay that took 85,000 lives in 1930. He showed me his photo album: himself in pith helmet, arm around bare-breasted Indian girl in feather headdress; Bolivian casualties skeletonized by army ants. His friendship with Stroessner went back more than fifty years. He had taught the Stroessner children how to water-ski. Gustavo, he told me, was a khoroshii sportsmen¬a good athlete (the interview was conducted half in Spanish, half in Russian). But von Eckstein had not joined the band¬wagon, to judge from his modest house in a not particularly elegant part of town. 

One day in 1959, he told me, Rudel brought a fellow German to the office. He was very cultivated and correct and he was selling manure spreaders for his family’s firm in Germany. His name: Josef Mengele. “I didn’t know he was a doctor,” von Eckstein assured me. He didn’t know that Mengele had conducted grotesque experiments on 1,500 sets of twins and fatally injected blue “dye into the eyes of Gypsy children in an effort to perfect the Master Race. Did he know him well? “We knew each other,” von Eckstein went on. “He was very suave but not very alegre. He didn’t seem to have much of a sense of humor.” How many times did you meet? “Maybe twenty. It was always at the office. We talked about business, never about the war. Rudel had brought by others like them and helped them settle in Para¬guay. I figured he didn’t want to talk about it. “ 

But von Eckstein knew Mengele well enough to sponsor him for citizenship with another colleague at the Ferreterfa Paraguaya, Werner Jung. I asked von Eckstein if Stroessner knew Mengele, and he said no, which seemed strange, be¬cause Rudel was a good friend of both of them. In any case, Mengele left Paraguay for good in 1960 and hid in Brazil, lonely, tormented, undetected. He drowned in 1979. “Look at how he ended his life, poor devil,” said another old ac¬quaintance. “Do you think if he had been under Stroessner’s protection he would have lived that way?”

Colonel Thomas Chegin, who was the military attache at the American Embassy in the late fifties, believes he met Mengele in Filadelfia, one of the Mennonite communities in the Chaco. “I was shown a medical dispensary,” he recalls. “A doctor came out in a white smock. I’m pretty sure it was Mengele. He said hello and kept out of sight. A lot of guys with shady pasts have hidden in Paraguay. It’s a good place to get out of the mainstream.” There are stories that Martin Bormann and Eduard Roschmann, the Butcher of Riga, melt¬ed into the German community in Paraguay, but none of them have been confirmed. 

Another scoundrel welcomed into the bosom of Stroess¬ner’s Paraguay was the Croatian anti-Communist terrorist Miro Baresic, who killed the Yugoslav ambassador in Stock¬holm. Baresic was teaching martial arts at a military college outside Asuncion when he mistakenly killed the Uruguayan ambassador to Paraguay while trying to get a visiting Yugo¬slav official. “Stroessner was a friend of Muslim, Mason, Jew, white, Indian,” a close associate told me. “He only drew the line with blacks. As long as you had plenty of hard currency, he didn’t care how you got it. Another pirate on the pirate ship was always welcome.” 


In 1929, at the age of sixteen, Stroessner was enrolled in a military school. Three years later the Chaco War broke out, and he joined as a young artillery officer, command¬ing by the end of it his own mortar group, already attract¬ing notice as a hard worker and good leader. His pastimes were nauseatingly wholesome: chess, fishing, flying, a weekly poker game, the matches of his favorite soccer team, Libertad. In 1940 he married a schoolteacher several years his senior, Eligia Mora, who in later years would come to resemble Mrs. Khrushchev. Settling into the life of a sober, churchgoing family man, he produced three children. Also in 1940 he was selected for further training at a Brazilian mili¬tary college. Returning home as a major, Stroessner was hailed by his superiors as “a complete offi¬cer with a great future in the army” who was “discreet and circumspect. “ 

In 1947 there was a bloody civil war.  Around a fifth of the population fled to Argentina. (Argentina and Paraguay are the traditional countries of each other’s exiles. At the moment, Paraguay is play¬ing host to 10,000 Argentineans.) Over the next two years there were half a dozen coups and countercoups. Stroessner took part in four of them. In 1954 it was his turn. With the support of the military and the conservative “democratico” wing of the Colorado Party, he grabbed the presi¬dency. The coup took place while all of Asuncion society was at the Philharmon¬ic. Legend has it that the shooting started just at the thunderous beginning of Bee¬thoven’s Fifth-da-da-da DUM-and ev¬eryone thought it was part of the show until soldiers burst onto the stage and an¬nounced that a coup was under way. 

Thus began the stronato, the Stroessner era. But making it to the top was one thing, and staying there was another. Poli¬tics in Paraguay is governed by the princi¬ple of mbarete, a Guarani word meaning clout, the law of the strongest. It is very Darwinian. Take, for instance, the case of Napoleon Ortigoza, an attractive, upper¬class cavalry officer who ended up being the longest-held political prisoner in Latin America. The theories about why he was arrested are many and baroque, but some of them involve a sinister plot to over¬throw Stroessner. When a young cadet, Alberto Benitez, was killed-either by other officers to cover up a homosexual claque or because he was being tortured by the police as encouragement to reveal the details of the coup plot-the minister of the interior, Edgar Ynsfnin, or so one theory goes, hit upon the brilliant idea of pinning the murder on Ortigoza, who was not actually involved in any plot yet, but was just the sort you had to watch out for. Putting him away would be what is known as an aca pete, a “warning slap,” to any¬one who got ideas about moving against the president. Ortigoza’s insistence on his complete innocence fell on deaf ears. He was not allowed to be present at his trial, and one of his lawyers was arrested and beaten. He was condemned to death, al¬though Stroessner later commuted the sentence to life imprisonment after a priest threatened to break the seal of confession and tell who the real murder¬ers were. 

Such perversions of justice wouldn’t have been so easy to pull off if Paraguay hadn’t been in a state of siege in which the right of habeas corpus was suspended. The state had to be renewed every ninety days, which Stroessner did until 1987, cit¬ing the threat of international Commu¬nism. In fact, a state of siege had been in effect almost continuously since 1929. It is important to realize that none of the techniques Stroessner used to stay in pow¬er were invented by him. Let’s not give the man more credit than he deserves. The code of power, the mad vision of perfect order, the acts of arbitrary cruelty fol¬lowed by sudden unpredictable acts of kindness, the ubiquitous spies, known in Guarani as pyragiies, or “feet with feath¬ers” (usually translated as “hairy soles”), the incondicionalismo that he demanded because he was Paraguay, the paternalism that he justified because the people were like children, weak, ignorant, not yet ready to take charge of their lives-this was pure El Supremo, techniques used by Dr. Francia in the nineteenth century. 

Communism was absolutely verboten. In 1958 an anti-Peronista general, Te¬ranzo Montero, attempted a guerrilla inva¬sion of Paraguay. Four hundred and fifty¬eight subversives trained in Argentina and pretending to be campesinos infiltrated the province of Alto Parana. But the govern¬ment got wind of their arrival and sent six thousand soldiers to take care of them. Three months later only seventeen of the subversives made it back to Argentina. There were no prisoners. The others were dropped from planes, fed to the piranhas. Their bloated bodies were floated down the river to Asuncion as an aca pete. In 1975 the secretary of the Paraguayan Communist Party, Miguel Soler, was me¬thodically dismembered by chain saw in the presence of Pastor Coronel. 

Some responsibility for this kind of ac¬tivity must be laid on the United States, because Stroessner would never have sur¬vived without its support. The early word from American intelligence sources had been that he was “a known friend, austere and honest, a hero of the Chaco War.” His government had been recognized quickly. A month later U.S. development aid to Paraguay increased 50 percent. Be¬tween 1954 and 1960 the country got $23.8 million, and the figure kept going up. American and Taiwanese advisers were sent to Paraguay, as they were to Uruguay and Brazil, to train the police in counterinsurgency and interrogation tech¬niques-like how to jog the subject’s memory by grinding your thumb into his jugular below the ear. In fact, the United States contributed more to the state terror of stronismo than the ex-Nazis did, and intelligence from the C.I.A. station in Asuncion, which monitors transmissions in the Southern Cone, helped Stroessner stave off four of five attempts to remove him. In 1958 Nixon stopped by on his way to Caracas, where he would be stoned by demonstrators. He got a much friendlier welcome in Paraguay. There are pictures of him and Stroessner hugging, standing side by side in a finned convert¬ible whose hood is draped with the flags of both countries.


The mid-fifties was an age of expan¬sion and optimism in South America.   In Brazil, Juscelino Kubitschek was build¬ing a new capital in the middle of no¬where, airlifting the first bricks to the empty central savanna. In Venezuela, Marcos Perez Jimenez dreamed of “con¬quering the physical environment,” of blasting tunnels through mountains and running aerial trains to hotels on their summits, of bridging gorges and stitching the countryside with four-lane highways. In As.uncion there was no running water; it was brought in on the backs of burros. The only electricity came from a wood¬burning generator. There were no storm drains. Stroessner tackled these problems energetically, addressing himself to what one of his policymakers calls el determi¬nismo geogrGfico. “We have a glorious river,” the old bureaucrat told me in Asuncion, “but it was the only way in or out of the country. ” So Stroessner floated an old project-a road to Brazil. Kubi¬tschek offered to finance the building of the Friendship Bridge over the Parana gorge in a spirit of integration, and in gratitude Stroessner named an avenue af¬ter him. 
Stroessner brought stability and growth to a country that hadn’t known much of either. He turned the guarani into real money. For twenty-five years, while all the other currencies in South America kept adding zeros and losing ground to the dollar, he managed to hold it at 125 to one. But there was a price for all this. When student and labor groups demon¬strated in the recession of ’59, he crushed them. When the Congress objected to po¬lice brutality against students protesting a bus-fare increase, he dissolved it. The downside to order and progress with Stroessner was one of the largest military¬and-police-to-general-population ratios in the world, and the highest proportion of unsentenced prisoners in the Western Hemisphere. He purged the old generals and four hundred of the old democraticos and replaced them with loyal members of the bandwagon. Membership in the party became compulsory for military officers and civil servants, and strongly advised for anyone else who wanted to get any¬where. In the various sham elections, he received more votes in some rural areas than there were registered voters. The heavy leonine face of El Gran Lfder was posted everywhere, and radio stations be¬gan the day with the Don Alfredo polka, followed by the message’ ‘The constitu¬tional president of the republic, General Alfredo Stroessner, salutes the Para¬guayan people and wishes them a pros¬perous day. “ 


The current American ambassador, Timothy Towell, had arrived in Asun¬cion last September expecting a quiet post that would demand not too much more than getting on the Tyrannosaur’s case about human rights and drugs every once in a while. A conservative Yalie, he was hardly the human-rights zealot that his predecessor, Clyde Taylor, the son of missionaries, had been. Taylor’s hatred of Stroessner had been so undisguised that it was rumored that the State Department brought him home lest it be thought the United States had something to do with a coup. Not that it would have. Paraguay was “a throwaway country that nobody gives a rat’s ass about,” in the words of one veteran of the Latin-American desk.

But it turned out that Towell had lucked into one of the most exciting experiments in democracy in the hemisphere, and he was a major player. The Rodriguez gov¬ernment was being extremely responsive to American wishes. When Towell and a visiting congressman mentioned that it might be about time to release Mella La¬Torre, a Chilean photographer who had been in prison for years on suspicion of involvement in the assassination of So¬moza, the next day LaTorre was a free man. “Your wish is my command,” I had heard one of Rodriguez’s aides tell Towell with mock obsequiousness over another matter. 

“This man Rodriguez just might do something truly historic,” Towell mused one afternoon between sets on the embas¬sy’s green tile tennis court. We played al¬most every afternoon that I was in Asun¬cion, which probably got back to the palace, since the Paraguayan staff at the embassy were undoubtedly all “hairy soles.” Towell was a veteran of the Washington political-tennis scene, and his forehand was unreadable. 

On Saturday morning Towell invited me to fly with him to a mission way out in the Chaco where several hundred Indians of the Ayoreo tribe were being brought into the fold by a group of American Bible Belt evangelists. The missionaries were getting a lot of flak from anthropologists, who were accusing them of genocide and ethnocide and wanted them thrown out of the country. It was apparent as soon as we got up in the missionaries’ Cessna-”Fa¬ther, we just want to thank you for the opportunity of going up there,” the pilot said as we prepared for takeoff-what a bubble Asuncion is. Just north of the city the landscape becomes a prairie dotted with islands of thorn forest and pools of water whose surfaces gleam like tarnished mirrors, with an occasional wildly looping river vanishing into the sand to break the monotony. 

We flew over Sabino Montanaro’s es¬tancia, which was as big as Rhode Island, and a ranch that had recently been picked up by Marcos Perez Jimenez, the Venezu¬elan dictator who was ousted in the fifties. Most of the departamento of Presidente Hayes, which took the first half-hour of flying time to pass over, belonged to friends and followers of Stroessner. Ruth¬erford B. Hayes was the most famous and best-loved Yanqui in Paraguay, more fa¬mous even than J.F.K. or Muhammad Ali. It was he who had kept the country from being annexed by Brazil or Argenti¬na after the War of the Triple Alliance. 

After an hour we were over Filadelfia, the Mennonite community whose medical needs had been taken care of by Dr. Men¬gele. Until the Mennonites came along, the Ayoreo, nomadic hunter-gatherers about whose vision of the world almost nothing is known, had had the Chaco pret¬ty much to themselves. They wore long ponytails and sandals they made from tires left by oil companies in the twenties. They burned down wooden bridges to get the bolts, which they ground into spear¬points, and they stole the Mennonites’ cattle. This particular clan, which called themselves the Pig People, had been “brought in” ten years ago, one of the missionaries told me. “They worshiped a bird that they had to keep appeased be¬cause if anybody died she probably killed them,” he went on. “They also believed in invisible snakes, so our worm medicine worked out well, because they finally got to see them.” 

On the twenty-fourth of December 1986, Dean, the pilot, spotted a previous¬ly unknown village to the north and the Pig People went up to bring them in. The villagers thought the Pig People were a raiding party, but they let them come cl~e anyway. After the ritual touching of friendship, the Pig People put down their spears, but as soon as they had done so one of their wild cousins picked up his spear and plunged it into one of the Pig People’s backs. Four more of the Pig Peo¬ple were killed before they finally per¬suaded the villagers to come back with them to the mission. That bit of treachery by the wild Ayoreo was interesting. So it wasn’t just the Spanish-Moorish conquistador influ¬ence that created Paraguay’s incredible culture of deceit, I realized. The Indians themselves were into it.


In phase one of the dictatorial syn¬drome, as a Paraguayan diplomat post¬ed abroad described it to me, Stroessner was the caudillo militar who gained popu¬larity with the people and control of the party and the army. Phase two was “more of the same.” By phase three he had “oc¬cupied the total panorama of the coun¬try, ” and had become so used to wielding absolute power that he could not conceive of giving it up. “He wanted to be eter¬nal.” The next-best thing was to set up a dynasty. Of his two male offspring, Freddy had’ snorted so much coke and drunk so much alcohol that he was, ac¬cording to Roberto, a cirrhosing vegeta ble, a drooling zombie who was in and out of institutions. He was obviously not pres¬idential material. That left Gustavo, who was very ruthless, even more ruthless, perhaps, than his father. The only real problem was his reputation for being a ho¬mosexual. 

All this seems right out of Shakespeare or Sophocles. Phase three is the “over¬reaching” or “hubris” stage. The story is like that of one of the late Roman emper¬ors in Gibbon: The old emperor is losing it. He is surrounded by flatterers and no longer getting the real picture. The crown prince is a degenerate, and the country is really being run by a corrupt triumvirate, so an upright general (Andres Rodriguez, after a heavy makeup session) comes in from the provinces and overthrows him. The general had been a trusted protege. Et tu, Brute. And the dissidents, to complete the picture, are like the Christians thrown to the lions, except that their pinkies are wired by Pastor Coronel. 

There was also an element of opera buf¬fa in the recent goings-on in Asuncion. On the morning of the coup, when the city was buzzing with rumors, Rodriguez was supposed to attend a meeting of the high command, but he learned that one of the officers, Colonel Mieres, had orders to shoot him if he did, so he put his right foot in a cast and stayed home. Several curious militantes went to see what was wrong and reported that the general had broken his leg, so there wouldn’t be a coup that day. In the evening Rodriguez removed the cast and overthrew Stroess¬ner. This is very Paraguayan. 

The presidential palace, another of the light neoclassical fantasies of Solano Lo¬pez, is itself like an opera set. An insom¬niac and workaholic, Stroessner would arrive at the palace punctually at the crack of dawn. Newly posted diplomats had to get up at an ungodly hour to present their credentials. Rodriguez’s day also started early. I got to the palace late-7:30. After being frisked by dark-suited guards with walkie-talkies on their belts and Colorado Party buttons on their lapels, I was shown into the huge high-ceilinged sala de au¬diencia, where dozens of petitioners sat along the walls, staring into space as cat¬tle grazed and the river glided past tre¬mendous open windows. I waited six hours and at the last moment my ap¬pointment with the president was can¬celed so he could congratulate the new Miss Paraguay. 

I stayed to talk with Rodriguez’s chief of staff, Conrado Pappalardo, who had also been Stroessner’s chief of protocol¬an incredibly smooth transition, but then, men like Pappalardo don’t grow on trees. Pappalardo had been rewarded by Stroess¬ner with the Ford dealership for his good work, but in the end he was one of the men who put the money on the table for the bullets for the coup. As a precaution¬ary measure Stroessner had left the First Cavalry Division with enough rounds for only an hour of fighting, but he hadn’t taken into consideration how fluid the borders are, even though he had made them that way, how arms and ammunition are routinely smuggled in. One of the offi¬cers was sent to usher in the shipment from Belgium. 
“You want to know the truth?” Pappa¬lardo asked. “This was a great president until 1982, but something happened to his head: a hemorrhage. The militantes appro¬priated the country. If the coup hadn’t happened by June the social problems would have exploded. Stroessner had low¬ered the illiteracy rate from one in three to one in five. He had raised the educational and cultural level of the country to that of Italy, and enough of the money that c.ame in from the dam had filtered down to create a significant middle class. Such people logically want more, but he couldn’t accept that. He fomented the problems that brought him down. He did it to himself. “


The political landscape of Paraguay is littered with survivors like Pappa¬, tough birds who are either still in power or back in power, or lurking some¬where on the periphery of power. At the Colorado Party headquarters I sat for a while with Edgar Ynsfnin, Stroessner’s minister of the interior until 1966. Yns¬fran’s name was often preceded by the epithet tenebroso, sinister, and his nick¬name was Dracula. He had recently been indicted on torture and murder charges that were later dismissed because of the statute of limitations. He is very smart. After being out of the political picture for almost twenty years he had now been re¬accommodated as second vice president of the party. The pale, refined old man who looked just like the vampire count asked me with a warmed-over smile if I wanted some coffee, then chatted politely about his plan to have Communism legalized, because “they are acting underground, in¬filtrating other parties. They are doing more harm hidden.” I wondered what was really going on in his mind. Was he just trying to stay alive, to get in sync with the new Paraguay, or was it some¬thing really devious? We talked about his old boss. “Stroessner was intelligent, but he didn’t have political morals and he ruined his career because of his ex¬cessive greed for power, his large itiner¬aries. By 1983 the regime was enfranca decadencia. He lost lucidity, and his political sense was greatly weakened. His infirmity led to age, and age is a sickness. “

Ezequiel Gonzalez Alsina, who had been the chief ideologist of stronismo and the editor of Patria, its official mouth¬piece, was another survivor. But he was out of the picture now, rusticated to his estate in Lambare, where I called on him one afternoon. Watch out for him, Ro¬berto had cautioned. He is charming and brilliant and a complete charlatan. He’ll probably tell you some incredible cowboy story. And he did: sipping lemonade, he claimed that he had been one of the great advocates of democracy, that he’d “al¬ways pushed for organic pluralparti¬dismo,” when in fact it was he who had deviously doctored the constitution so that Stroessner could be president indefinitely. On a desk was a Spanish edition of Vir¬ginia Bouvier’s book on Stroessner, Decline of the Dictator. “Time,” he said, waving the book. “That’s what brought him down. El tiempo que pasa. No one can have it forever. “ 


Stroessner was no doubt aware of the inevitable waning of his powers, and his solution to the problem seems to have been schoolgirls, muchachitas. They were his elixir. Maybe he thought that the inter¬cambio de hormonas would keep him young. He wasn’t alone in his predilection for this therapy. His friend Peron (who liked boys as well) consoled himself with a fourteen-year-old after the death of Evita. In the opinion of Stroessner’s fam¬ily surgeon, Manuel Riveros, there was nothing abnormal about an old man hav¬ing a soft spot for nymphets. “Youth is contagious,” he told me. Trujillo cruised the streets of Santo Domingo looking for girls, Bokassa cruised the streets of Ban¬gui, Stroessner cruised the streets of Asuncion. It went with the turf. The girls were Don Alfredo’s droit du seigneur. 

It is hard not to notice the schoolgirls¬slender, tan mestiza beauties budding in their white uniforms, who pour into the streets of Asuncion at noon. After a long morning Stroessner would park near one of the schools and watch them come out. When he had made his pick, his aides would find out who the girl was and ap¬proach the parents with an offer of cash or real estate. If all else failed the girl was kidnapped and given an injection that made her more cooperative. If she got pregnant she was sent to the best hospi¬tal and treated by the best doctors. How many children the Tyrannosaur pro¬duced is unknown, but there are thought to be many. 

One of his procurers was Colonel Leo¬poldo Perrier, who scoured the country¬side for eight- to twelve-year-old virgin peasant girls and brought them to various safe houses and suburban villas that had playgrounds to keep them amused. One of Stroessner’s conquests was the fifteen¬year-old daughter of the head of the na¬tional cement industry. As part of the seduction she and her brother got a trip to Disney World. 

When the muchachitas grew up he lost interest in them and distributed them to his young lieutenants. The only one he didn’t get tired of was Stella Legal. Stel¬la’s nickname was Nata, which means “flat-nosed.” She became his mistress and gave him a second family. He set her up in the contraband business and gave her brother the governorship of a departamento. He had been involved with her mother first, and then started with her when she was fourteen. Now she is in her forties. Everyone in Asuncion knew that he went to see her on Thursdays in her sumptuous low-slung ranch on the Avenida Aviadores del Chaco.

The story of Stroessner’s statutory pec¬cadilloes was broken by Jack Anderson in a column in The Washington Post in 1977, the year Carter cut aid to Paraguay because of human-rights abuses. Malena Ashwell, the dal!ghter of a Paraguayan•of¬ficial stationed in Washington, told an as¬sociate of Anderson’s that two years earlier, when she and her husband were living in Asuncion, they were having lunch at the home of one of her husband’s colleagues when they were summoned to an adjacent backyard and shown the un¬conscious bodies of three girls, two of them eight, the other nine. The girls were bleeding from between their legs and they showed signs of sexual abuse. Ashwell called the police, who came but then quickly left when they were told by a caretaker that he was employed by a cer¬tain Colonel Perrier. Ashwell learned that Perrier kept such girls for the use of high¬level military figures, and that General Stroessner was one of the habitues of the place they were housed. She reported her discovery to a newspaper editor, who was later arrested for Communism. Her un¬published denunciation was found among his papers and she was taken to Investiga¬ciones and tortured for three days. Only her parents’ connections saved her.


It was in phase [wo of the dictatorial syndrome, the “more of everything” stage, that the seeds’ of collapse were sown. One day a French Bolivian by the name of Degrave explained to Stroessner how profitable government monopolies could be; up until then the government it¬self had been involved only in small-time schemes of enrichment. 

The first government monopoly, REPSA, refined Shell and Esso gas and sold it at inordinately high prices that Par¬aguayan motorists had no choice but to pay. Stroessner himself skimmed off mil¬lions, and many others on the bandwagon became very rich. REPSA bred other state monopolies: in steel, cement, river trans¬port, telecommunications, electric power, a national airline. As the cost of maintain¬ing them grew from 19 percent of total public expenditures in 1980 to 43 percent in 1985, they and the galloping corruption of the militantes began to severely undermine the nation’s economy. Suddenly merchants who had been dealing contra¬band with impunity found themselves be¬ing hit up for taxes by three separate collecting agencies. 

New problems had been created in 1982, when the major work on the Itaipu dam was completed. Twenty thousand workers were laid off, and they began to clamor for land at the same time that the empresarios who had grown rich from the project were trying to acquire vast estan¬cias commensurate with their new status. Campesinos who already had land and were thus in the way of the rich were evicted by several methods: their villages were declared “centers of delinquency and subversion” and they were forced to evacuate them, or they were simply driv¬en out. As a result of this, Stroessner lost the support of the peasantry, and as a re¬sult of the activity of Gustavo and his co¬ronelitas, or “paragays,” as they were called, he lost the support of many in the military who were already disgruntled by low salaries and the refusal of the senior officers to retire so that mid-level officers could move up. Then he alienated the Church, which since the advent of liberal theology in the seventies had grown more vociferous about human rights and de¬mocracy. 

Last year, 20,000 protesters marched silently through Asuncion to show their solidarity with the Church. On December 10, during a march to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the universal decla¬ration of human rights, seventy-two peo¬ple were arrested and ten were wounded, including Roberto. Stroessner was clearly on the defensive, as he had been in 1986 when a hundred goons stormed Radio Nanduti, manned by the bravely outspo¬ken Humberto Rubin. A band played the Don Alfredo and Colorado Party polkas to drown out the sound of breaking glass. (Rubin has a tape of the assault that he loves to play for visitors to the station.) Compounding the deteriorating economic, social, and moral pictures was the politi¬cal crisis precipitated in 1987 by the mili¬tantes’ takeover of the Colorado Party convention. 
Tradicionalistas were pre¬vented by police from entering the con¬vention hall when key votes were being taken, and the party ultimately split into several factions. 

But the real problem was Gustavo. On top of everything else, he was deeply in¬volved in drug trafficking. No sooner had the heroin trade been brought under con¬trol by the extradition of Ricord in 1972 and heat from the U.S. (though it is very unlikely that some heroin doesn’t continue to come in with all the other stuff from Asia) than cocaine started coming through as neighboring Bolivia got into ‘the busi¬ness in a big way. A kilo of coke worth $2,500 in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, could be flown out to one of more than four hun¬dred landing strips in the Chaco and sent up the well-worn smuggling trail to Mi¬ami, where it was worth fifteen to twenty¬five grand, or flown to Madrid, where airport security is lax. Paraguay became not only an important conduit for drugs but a processing station. In a single opera¬tion in 1985,49,000 gallons of chemicals from West Germany-enough to make eight tons of cocaine-were seized at the border. Senior military officials were im¬plicated. 

In 1981 the U. S. Drug Enforcement Administration closed down its office in Asuncion because there was “no activi¬ty” (there must be a story behind this be¬cause there was a whole lot of activity), but when I got there it had been reopened. A few days earlier, helicopters had sprayed hundreds of acres of marijuana on the Brazilian border. “The pilots say it’s ten feet tall, the healthiest stuff they’ve ever seen,” Jimmy F. Bradley, the D.E.A.’s new man in Asuncion, told me. “They’re growing it in rain forest at a thousand feet, just like in Colombia, so it gets a bath of moisture every morning, then the fog lifts, and it gets sun the rest  of the day.   I asked who the big people in cocaine were and Bradley said, “The mil¬itary isn’t into direct trafficking anymore, but it’s still into ‘Pay me and I’ll look the other way,’ because you can’t cross the Chaco without them knowing about it. In¬formation of unknown validity says there are at least eight major trafficking ‘lines,’ and maybe one or two people running the show. I think Gustavo may be one of them, even now that he’s been thrown out of the country. There’s no way anyone can keep him from using the phone. “ 

In 1986 the D.E.A. had almost pulled off a sting operation aimed at Gustavo. An undercover agent in Argentina posing as’ a member of the California underworld had arranged to buy a thousand kilos of coke a month from a middle-range Boliv¬ian operator. The coke, he was told, would flow through Paraguay, and the de¬tails would have to be worked out with Gustavo. The three of them were going to meet in a little town over the Argentinean border, and the D.E.A. was going to be on hand for the party. But at the last moment the American ambassador in Asun¬cion, Clyde Taylor, killed the plan, even though he had been outspoken about the Paraguayan government’s failure to com¬bat drugs. The days were past when American operatives could get away with busting the son of another country’s presi¬dent on a third country’s soil. 


Clearly, Gustavo was about as choice presidential material as Noriega. And as Stroessner’s dynastic intentions became more apparent, his relationship with Ro¬driguez, who had for some time seen him¬self as the successor, became increasingly strained. Rumors of an impending revolt began to circulate in Asuncion last De¬cember. On the morning of Thursday, February 2, they intensified to such a pitch that there was a rush on the super¬markets. By 9: 15 P.M. the next day, Sher¬man tanks and Brazilian-made Urutu and Cascavel armored cars were rolling out of the First Cavalry Division barracks near the airport and heading for the A venida Mariscal Lopez. Soldiers came in shoot¬ing through the back door of Nata’s house. As bodyguards held them off, Na¬ta’s family, including her daughter by Stroessner, and the daughter’s Virginian husband, John Reid, hid under beds. Stroessner bolted out the front door, jumped into his limo, and streaked away. The soldiers, frustrated that they had missed him, kept shooting. Several people were killed at Nata’s house. The official body count of the coup was twenty-nine, but the government has ac¬knowledged burying fifty, and the casu¬alties were probably more like several hundred. 

The shooting lasted until four A.M. The following day, as part of the terms of sur¬render, Stroessner and Gustavo were al¬lowed to leave the country. At the airport the family was tearful, but the ex-presi¬dente himself was lucid, calm.,He walked up into the plane without pausing or wav¬ing good-bye. 

Within a few days there was a new pol¬ka-the Rodriguez polka. Its words: 
“May God help you and also the Armed Forces. ” And Rodriguez called for elec¬tions in three months, just as Stroessner had done when he came to power in 1954. 


To the scheme of the dictatorial syn¬drome the Paraguayan diplomat had outlined for me, I would add a fourth and final phase (assuming the subject lasts that long): ousted. In this phase the dictator becomes a pathetic figure, a shadow of his former self. No country will have him, his health problems multiply, and he goes down fast. The Shah is a classic recent example.
Who wanted Stroessner? The first re¬ports said that Pinochet had given him asylum in Chile, but that didn’t pan out. Where he really wanted to go was Miami, the retirement home of so many deposed Latin-American heads of state, aquel valle de los cardos, that valley of the fallen, as Omar Torrijos of Panama once called it. The advantages of Miami are many: your money is safer, and so probably are you. While there weren’t any actual deposed heads in Miami at the moment, there were all kinds of relatives, assorted Somozas, Duvaliers, and Batistas, and no end of lesser right-wing exiles to commiserate with. So who wouldn’t have opted for a cushy retirement in this no-hitch, push¬button lalaland, a Polynesian palace in Coral Gables, maybe, with a Chris-Craft in the backyard fingerfill?

In fact, the Stroessners already had a pied-a-terre at the Key Colony in Key Biscayne, a garish condo in a Mayan temple right on the beach. Stroessner’s daughter and wife, Graciela and Dona Eligia, had arrived on six-month tourist visas and were waiting for the men to join them. 

But that was not in the cards. Uncle Sam wasn’t welcoming lesser evils and old allies in the war against Communism into his bosom anymore, especially ones who were linked to drugs and ex-Nazis and who had repressed the democratic fe¬ver that was sweeping the hemisphere. To have let in Stroessner would have sent the wrong message to the world, especially to the current regime in Paraguay, which might have changed its mind about coop¬erating on drugs and democracy. Plus Stroessner would probably have attracted innumerable lawsuits under the Alien Tort Claims Act, which would permit his vic¬tims to sue for financial damages in American courts. 

Even so, there was a rumor that Stroess¬ner was going to Miami “next week.” On my way south I had spent a few days at the Sheraton Royal Biscayne, which shares the Key Colony’s beach, playing shuffleboard, waiting for an introduction to the family that didn’t materialize. Colo¬nel Thomas Chegin was supposed to set it up. Chegin, the ex-American military at¬tache to Paraguay, had become so thick with Stroessner that he was made the Par¬aguayan consul in Miami-quite a feat for a gringo. He took care of the Stroessner family’s Florida business. A State Depart¬ment source told me that Chegin “loves intrigue.” He kept dangling the hope of seeing the family, and retracting it. At last he told me that they weren’t seeing any¬body, because they “didn’t want to rock the boat,” and that there were no plans for Stroessner or Gustavo to come to Mi¬ami anytime soon. The rumor had been started by Gustavo and was “wishful thinking. “ 

I was already in Latin America. I had been in Latin America, in fact, the minute I stepped on the plane in New York. Ev¬erybody was speaking Spanish. A foul¬mouthed Colombian dripping with gold chains refused to surrender his oversize suitcase to the stewardess, and they had a little tug-of-war. “You can’t have it,” he kept telling her. “There’s lotsa mon¬ey in here.” 

The Stroessners-the general, Gusta¬vo, and Gustavo’s wife, a blonde Finnish amazon named Marfa Eugenia Heikel whom his father had virtually or¬dered him to marry in 1984-had been reluctantly given asylum in Brazil by President Sarney. The exiles were first put up at a government guesthouse in the state of Goias. Outside the walled, heavily guarded compound the Workers Party staged a protest. “Why do we have to take in all this garbage from abroad?” their placards read. Mengele, Ronald Biggs (who pulled off the Great Train Robbery in England and became the dar¬ling of Rio society), and now Stroessner. The rich right-wing ranchers of Goias who are destroying the Amazon staged a counterdemonstration in his favor, and Stroessner held a rare press conference. “It’s very difficult to know what the fu¬ture has in store for us,” he said. “Noth¬ing can be definite.” 

These were melancholy days for the old general. The Rodriguez government, hav¬ing recently discovered how much money Gustavo had stolen from Paraguay-may¬be $500 million or so-started extradition proceedings. It was unclear whether Bra¬zil would give him up, but the Stroessners felt uneasy, and they were looking into alternatives. Switzerland was a possibili¬ty. Stroessner was rumored to have $2 to $3 billion in Swiss banks, and Nata was already there, waiting for him. But the Swiss are muy vivos, very shrewd and greedy, a Paraguayan who was following the situation told me. They want the mon¬ey of the corruptos, but not the corruptos themselves.

Meanwhile, Freddy and his wife, Mar¬ta, had got their American visas but had kept delaying the trip to Florida. For a long time Marta had wanted a divorce, and had always been told to wait until af¬ter Stroessner stepped down. But now that he was out she didn’t seem to want it anymore; in a curious change of heart, she had shifted her loyalty to the Stroessners. Chegin told me that when at last they flew up to Florida they went straight to Disney World.

After several weeks in Goias, the Bra¬zilian government allowed Stroessner and Gustavo to move down to their house on the beach in the southern part of Brazil, in a little place called Guaratuba. The house, according to the Brazilian press, whose veracity quotient is not the highest, had a blue carpet that rolled out to the sea. A few days after I arrived in Asuncion, El Diario reported that Stroessner had had an episode of tachycardia and had flown up to Sao Paulo for treatment at the Instituto do Cora<;ao. There was a photo of him leaving the hospital, waving a hat and try¬ing to look chipper and hale, but in fact he looked awful.


As I drove over the Friendship Bridge into Brazil, I felt a surge of relief.  This in spite of the fact that Brazil was having deep problems of its own. Because of budget cuts, I discovered when I caught a plane from Foz do Igau<;u to Rio, hijack¬ing-and-bomb surveillance at the airports had been suspended for six days of the week. “But don’t worry,” a guard who waved me past the idle X-ray machines said, “the only terrorists in Brazil are the president and the militares.” That morn¬ing, in fact, somebody had blown up a statue to the workers that had just been erected in the city of Volta Redonda. The explosion, which shattered many windows, was so powerful it was thought to have been the work of terrorists of the right; only the right had access to such good explosives. 

The chances of ending up an anony¬mous corpse in the morgue of one of Rio’s hospitals were improving daily. Twenty people-two and a half times the rate of the Vietnam War-were being killed a day. But everything was copacetic in Co¬pacabana. Teenage gatinhas who would have made Stroessner’s mouth water were lying on the beach in dental-floss bikinis. A street vendor was selling sunglasses from Paraguay for “only one cruzado, which isn’t worth a thing anymore.” 
I flew down to Curitiba, the beautiful capital of the southern state of Parana, rented an ethanol-powered Volkswagen Gol sedan, and drove to Guaratuba. It was a steep two-hour descent to the coast through gorges frothing with rain forest. I saw for the first time in their native habitat araucaria trees, primitive, majestic flat¬topped relatives of pines whose branching pattern is like a menorah. The road was full of trucks driven by madmen. Guara¬tuba is just down the coast from Parana¬gua, the free port where most of the contraband in Paraguay comes in-whis¬key, cigarettes, and Asian stuff from the Miami free-trade zone, hot German cars, cocaine chemicals, German, Israeli, and Taiwanese arms sold to South Africa through Paraguayan middlemen to get around the embargo.

Guaratuba was a gem. It had not yet been overcondominiumized and overrun by Eurotrash like the coast north of Rio. There was a very rich man named Trom¬bini who owned a lot of paper mills and had a house there, but the Stroessners were the only celebrities. I checked into a nice hotel right on the beach. I was the only guest. It was fall, when the tempera¬ture drops to the seventies and Brazilians complain of the cold.

The Stroessner house had a sentry box, but there were no guards. Across the street was a cheapo condominium com¬plex called Asa Delta, from which you could have seen over the walls and into Stroessner’s courtyard and blown him away with a bazooka as easily as Somoza had been in Asuncion. There was no blue carpet that rolled out to the ocean, as far as I could see. I hiked up my belt and rapped on the door. Stroessner and Gustavo were supposed to have returned from Silo Paulo earlier in the week. The door was opened by a barefoot house girl who said they had just gone back there. When are they returning? “They didn’t say.” 

But I recalled that they had stayed at the Caesar Park when the old man got out of the hospital. So I put in a call to the Cae¬sar Park for Gustavo Stroessner. An aide answered. I explained that I was in Guara¬tuba, and fifteen minutes later Gustavo himself called me back. Amazing. I couldn’t believe it was him. He was in¬credibly warm and polite, but this was, I soon discovered, because he thought for some reason that I was a certain General Chin, a Taiwanese military historian who was apparently writing a military biogra¬phy of his father. When he found out that I was a journalist, his voice changed com¬pletely. I could feel his temper rising as he hastened to bring the conversation to a conclusion. Father is talking to no one, he said. Try again in forty days. How about you? I asked. What if I flew up to Silo Paulo and we had a drink for an hour. 

No, he said emphatically. I’m not talk¬ing to anyone, either. Thanks so much for your interest and ique ldstima, que molestia!, what a pity, what an inconve¬mence.


It goes without saying that a week later Rodriguez won by a landslide. Not only is it axiomatic in Latin-American politics that the candidate of the party in power always wins, but Rodriguez had overthrown the Wicked Witch of the West and modern polling techniques had con¬firmed that he was a very popular man. Of course there were irregularities-a couple of the old rustic bosses couldn’t refrain from tampering with the ballot box. In an effort to discourage people from voting twice, the U.S. State Department had contributed bottles of indelible ink that proved to be not as indelible as had been hoped, but The Economist reported that it was “the cleanest dirty election in Para¬guay since 1926.” Even Roberto voted Colorado. “Rodriguez will be a good capo,” he explained. “He knows the mil¬itary and the drug businesses from the in¬side, and-who knows?-in a country with imitations on every corner, maybe he can achieve a convincing imitation of de¬mocracy.” 

Two months later I called my contacts in Paraguay to see if the bloom was still on the rose. “It isn’t easy,” Ambassador Towell told me. “The judges have to practice being independent jurists, the legislators have to learn to legislate, the people in the executive have to practice dealing with legislative and judicial bodies. There are serious economic and land-reform issues to address. But it’s looking positive-the state-owned white elephants, for instance, that were creat¬ed as payoffs for party Pooh-Bahs and have been hemorrhaging at the rate of $9 million a month are being priva¬tized. “ 

Roberto also sounded cautiously opti¬mistic. “There are coup rumors, rumors of a return of the stronistas,” he reported. “Last week someone called the radio sta¬tions and said forces loyal to Gustavo were about to storm the palace, but it was either a ruse by some of the military to remind people that something like that could happen, or someone was playing a very bad joke. I’d say the chances for an actual coup now are close to zero. Every¬one seems to have accepted that Rodri¬guez will be there until 1993. He is the caudillo. There is no number-two general strong enough to threaten him. But this is Paraguay. You never know. “ 
My thoughts returned to the night of the coup, when Stroessner was pinned in the barracks of the presidential guard. For a long time, apparently, he refused to be¬lieve that Rodriguez, his old protege, was trying to overthrow him (particularly since he was under the impression that Rodri¬guez had a broken leg and that the First Cavalry Division had only an hour’s worth of ammunition). He thought that Rodriguez would be in there with him helping fight off an assault by junior offi¬cers. But finally he understood. Rodri¬guez was himself thirty-four years earlier, the once loyal general who had come to terminate the weak regime of his presi¬dent. He was the true successor.

Dispatch #27: Manitoba’s Many-Headed Hydro

By Alex

Original Magazine Article

The Bloodvein, a Canadian Heritage River, flows 186 miles through Manitoba’s roadless wilderness to Lake Winnipeg.

Manitoba Hydro wants to build transmission lines (that no one needs) through a proposed World Heritage site. First Nations and conservationists have a better idea.

It is the beginning of September, and my 10-year-old son Oliver and I have flown from Montreal to Winnipeg, the capital of central Canada’s province of Manitoba. We are going to spend eight days canoeing a river called the Bloodvein. This is the third Canadian river I’ve run this summer. I’ve been trying to get a sense of the vast wilderness known as the boreal, which covers 53 percent of the country’s land surface and is blanketed by one of the last still largely undisturbed forests on the planet. Dotted with 1.5 million lakes and drained by innumerable rivers, the boreal drapes across the continent, from the Yukon to Labrador, like a green collar 3,000 miles long and 600 deep.

Eleven others are going down the Bloodvein, and we all meet at the downtown offices of the Boreal Forest Network, a small but vociferous not-for-profit whose executive director, Don Sullivan, has put the trip together. Sullivan is a droopy-mustached, slow-talking, chain-smoking 49-yearold who, for 15 years, has been in the trenches advocating for the boreal and its native people, grappling with multinational corporations and provincial bureaucrats.He is a winner of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal for making an outstanding contribution to his commonwealth country, but it doesn’t seem to have gone to his head.

We first met several months earlier, when he took me and a group of activists to visit two native communities north of the Bloodvein, one of which—the Pimicikamak Cree of Cross Lake—is fighting a new series of dams that Manitoba Hydro, the province’s energy utility, wants to build. I’ve come to think of it as Manitoba’s many headed Hydro: You don’t quite know where this serpent is going to strike next, and it isn’t telling you. In addition to the new dams, Hydro wants to run several high-voltage transmission lines that would cut across a proposed UNESCO World Heritage site: 10.6 million acres, virtually untouched, on the east side of Lake Winnipeg.

The Bloodvein winds right through the proposed site, which is why we are here. It is considered by canoeing cognoscenti to be one of the top runs in Canada, not because of the technical challenge of its rapids but because of its beauty. David Pancoe, a young outfitter who is supplying the canoes, tents, and food,will be responsible for getting us down the river in one piece. Louis Young, the 48-year-old former chief of Bloodvein First Nation, a community of 1,100-some Ojibways at the mouth of the river, will be escorting us through his people’s traditional territory, which includes both banks of the Bloodvein for three miles back.

The World Heritage designation is crucial, because it would offer added protection from not only the transmission lines but also the timber and paper and mining companies, the vacation cottage developers, the hunters and snowmobilers who are dying to get in here. There are currently 788 sites in the World Heritage system. These are places of “outstanding universal value” for either natural or cultural reasons. But it is up to the 134 countries where they are located to protect them with whatever conservation laws they have in place. Canada already has 13 World Heritage sites; none include any part of Manitoba’s vast boreal forest. There are still a few years of bureaucratic hurdles that have to be cleared in Winnipeg, in Ottawa, and at UNESCO before the 10.6 million acres in question receive World Heritage status. The problem is that Hydro would love to get its transmission lines in before the designation is secured. So the race is on.

On our first night we drive about three hours northeast from Winnipeg to an old gold-mining town called Bissett. It is an isolated outpost in the forest and the farthest in you can get by car, a jumping-off point for the roadless primary wilderness. Our headlights shine into the blazing orange eyes of a great gray owl standing right near the road—the largest owl and one of the most elusive in North America: a lucky sighting. I’d love to see a merlin, too, but those little falcons are as furtive as the wolves and foxes, the pine martens, lynx,wolverines, and fishers, the abundant moose and black bear that roam the proposed World Heritage site.The largest remaining herd of woodland caribou, 500 strong, is scattered in the depths of this forest as well.There are only 7,000 of these animals, a different species from the caribou up in the tundra, and the transmission lines would traverse their migratory routes, setting the stage for their possible demise.

In the morning we fly in shifts to a lake 55 miles up the Bloodvein. Pancoe lashes the canoes to the pontoons of our float plane. Ollie and I are in the last group, and as we wait for the plane to come back, he casts a Mepps spinner into the water off the dock and ties into a thrashing 26-inch pike—or jack, as they are known in these parts—and then another. They are like freshwater barracuda, long and thin with big eyes and lots of retrorse teeth.

From the window of the float plane an ocean of trees, spattered with lakes and riddled with rivers, spreads east to the hazy vanishing point.Low granite domes,bristling with jack pine and balsam fir,offer the only visual relief.These domes are surrounded,wherever there is enough soil, by pure stands of trembling aspen, and by sinuous brown bands of muskeg with clumps of sedge, dwarf birches, and stunted tamaracks.After 20 minutes we reach the Bloodvein.

We can see that the river meanders a lot and has long stretches of quiet water. Every few miles,where it steps down another five or ten feet on its leisurely 200-mile westward journey to Lake Winnipeg, there is a rapid.Pancoe takes Ollie and me with him in the 18-footer, the largest of the six canoes, and hands me a beautiful wooden paddle, a modified beavertail made by a friend of his. Its blade widens at the top, where you grab the most water. Pancoe’s blade is short and broad, better for the quick manoeuvring that will be called for in the rapids. For five miles the river weaves serenely through marshes and muskeg. There is a lot of wild rice standing in the shallow water along its banks, and each time we round a bend, we scare up a gaggle of Canada geese that have been flattening it with their floating bellies and gobbling up the kernels, fuelling up for the long trip south they will soon be taking.

We glide past bulrushes, tall cranberry bushes sagging with fruit, eutrophicated ponds that have become shimmering green meadows of equisetum, water lilies with chalices of luminous white petals like small artichokes. It is so peaceful that after a few hours I realize my head has been cleared of all the mental spam that I came here with. I feel a calm that in the days to come will only deepen.

By the end of the afternoon the river is sliding quietly and darkly between 10-foot-high walls of pinkish granite. It has entered the trough that it will stay in for the rest of its course, an east-west fault line in the glacier-scraped, half-a-billion-year-old bedrock known as the Canadian Shield. This Precambrian rock, which underlies 1.6 million square miles of boreal forest, is some of the oldest on the planet. Eons of winter freeze-ups and thaws and torrential spring runoffs have fractured and prized it, shearing off sharp-pointed boulders that stand in the water like miniature mountain peaks. Some of the rock is encrusted with rubbery brown rock tripe, which Pancoe says is edible in a pinch—after you’ve eaten your shoelaces. He steers us into a side channel that the canoe can barely squeeze through, to an alcove where barn swallows have plastered a nest on a little ledge. The rock below it is covered with a bright orange lichen that he calls poop lichen. It grows only where swallow droppings streak down the rock, because it needs the enzymes in them—a very specialized lichen.

Ancient, twisting jack pines are growing in the narrowest cracks and leaning out over the river; 50 feet back from the banks are thickets of close-packed jack pine, but ramrod-straight. It is hard to believe that all these trees, so variable in their physiognomy, are the same species. The boreal has been described as the Amazon of the north. Both forests are vast and teeming with life, but the boreal teems for only half the year, and there are far fewer species. They have been edited by cold. Where there are five models of kingfisher in the Amazon, here there is only one, and only during the summertime. Where there may be 200 species of trees per acre in that mind-boggling rain forest, some of them perhaps not even identified yet, here there are half a dozen or fewer. Only plants and animals that can handle a 110-degree temperature swing live here, and this scarcity of life forms makes each of them stand out. Everything in this pageant of flux that we are paddling through, each bizarre cleavage of the granite, each tortuous branch pattern of a pine, has a luminous singularity, a distilled, heightened purity. It is a Zen landscape, sculpted by chance and the laws of cause and effect, by processes that have been going on for millions of years in which we are nothing. There is little conversation among the 13 of us. We are in awe.

We pull the canoes ashore and pitch our tents on a granite dome that is covered with blueberry bushes. Ollie and the three other hard-core fishermen go off to catch supper—seven chunky, succulent walleyes. They also catch a 20-inch dusky brown black catfish and a moonfish: discoid, with enormous milky eyes. The river is choked with fish. It has the sort of pullulating abundance that was once everywhere and is now found in only a few places on earth.

I wander down into the elfin forest on the back side of the dome. Half the trees are dead, and there is a flourishing community of detritivores: pallid, saprophytic Indian pipes and many kinds of mushroom. I nibble a bright crimson russula, and it is very peppery. Not one of the good russulas. There are several kinds of lactarius, and a yellow boletus that is partial to the caribou lichen, but its porous undersurface bruises blue when I press my thumb into it.Not a good one either. But I find three species of boletus that are, including the delectable Boletus edulis, and two kinds of chanterelle. This will be my gastronomical contribution to the expedition: to provide mushrooms to be sautéed with the walleye, which Louis Young deftly fillets. We wash it down with Labrador tea that Young has picked and brewed. Dessert is blueberries, and as we sit around the crackling fire, agreeing that this was one of the best meals any of us has ever eaten, the clear, liquid fluting of a hermit thrush, close at hand but hidden in the trees, pierces the gathering dusk. It is a song of the most exquisite purity, its sustained tonic embroidered with brilliantly improvised rising and falling arpeggios.

Don Sullivan and Gaile Whelan-Enns lead the efforts against new dams.

None of us has to be persuaded that this is a version of Eden, one of the last great wildernesses to have barely known the hand of man, and unquestionably worthy of World Heritage designation. But what about the average Joe, who will never get to go on a trip like this? Why should he care about a wilderness in northern Canada? What does it matter to him if the boreal forest exists or not?

To begin with, it is a vital habitat for birds, and thus for the overall biodiversity of the Western Hemisphere. Three to five billion birds, including a hundred million shorebirds, millions of ducks, half a billion warblers, a billion sparrows, and one-third of all North American land birds summer and raise their young in the Canadian boreal. Precious, too, are the trees. The boreal forest, especially its bogs, soaks up vast amounts of carbon dioxide and therefore acts as one of the world’s most important defences against global warming. If you cut the trees down, as loggers are doing elsewhere in the boreal and are threatening to do here, the effects are swift and calamitous. The whole ecosystem collapses. The mossy floor shrivels up, the rains wash the soil into the rivers, and there is less rain because there is less moisture in the air,  so the entire moisture regime changes. The rivers become lower and opaque with sediment, which means the fish can’t see their prey, and the gravel beds where they lay their eggs are silted over. In northern Alberta, 62 million acres of boreal forest have been clearcut since 1975 by multinationals, much of it to produce toilet paper, so Manitoba’s huge, pristine tract is especially significant and worth fighting for. The removal of the boreal forest could have far-reaching effects on continental, perhaps even global, weather patterns, exacerbating the droughts already afflicting the American West and the Midwest, for instance.

But to really understand what is at stake, and the possible consequences of losing this magical forest realm, you have to comprehend the power and reach of Manitoba Hydro. Canada is the world’s largest producer of hydropower—15 percent of the total. There are already 279 large dams in the boreal; 85 percent of its river basins have been altered by hydro development. Most of the dams are in First Nations’ territories and were built without the native people’s consent or even consultation. Now Hydro wants new dams and new transmission lines—an assault not seen in Manitoba for the last 30 years. But this time, the opposition is also strong: a coalition of First Nation activists and several environmental groups in Canada, led by Don Sullivan’s Boreal Forest Network and another scrappy little Winnipeg-based organization, Manitoba Wildlands, whose executive director, Gaile Whelan-Enns, also received the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal. They’re getting significant support from two groups in the United States— the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Minnesota- based organization JustEnergy. “We in the U.S. are the main consumers of Canada’s energy, its paper and wood products,” says Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, a senior attorney at NRDC who is leading the group’s Manitoba campaign.“ The U.S. market is driving this need to exploit the boreal. There’s a clear link.”


In the 1960s and 1970s Manitoba Hydro undertook massive hydroelectric projects in the Nelson River system, 150 miles north of the Bloodvein. The Nelson drains Lake Winnipeg, running from its northeastern corner up to the vast Hudson Bay, and is the biggest river in the province. Seventy-five percent of the flow of the Churchill, the next big river to the north of the Nelson, is diverted into the Nelson via the Rat and Burntwood Rivers, and five dams with a total output of 3,925 megawatts were put in along the Nelson itself, producing more than enough juice to power a metropolis the size of Minneapolis–St. Paul. Two channels were dredged at the beginning of the Nelson to speed up and strengthen the outflow from Lake Winnipeg, and a control structure called Jenpeg was installed 40 miles downriver to regulate the releases of water from the lake into the rest of the Nelson.

These alterations unleashed a cascade of consequences, most of them unforeseen. The flow and level of the Nelson were now artificially controlled at Jenpeg, and their natural, seasonal fluctuation patterns were reversed. There were, and still are, sudden releases in the middle of the winter, when the demand for electric heat in Winnipeg (where 60 percent of the province’s population lives) is at its peak.“ You get different layers of ice forming, and you can’t go out to your trap lines in a Ski-Doo because you’ll fall through,” explains Jackson Osborne, a 53-year-old member of the Pimicikamak of Cross Lake, a nation of 3,000 Cree living on the Nelson, only five miles below Jenpeg. “Animals get caught between the layers. In the spring when the ice breaks the stench is unbearable.” He shows me a picture of himself standing between layers of ice, one at his knees, another over his head, and a third layer that he is standing on. Osborne produces another picture, of seagull eggs lying in a foot of water, taken right after a torrent was suddenly released from Jenpeg. He doesn’t know how many other nests have been drowned, but a study at South Indian Lake, the Cree community most affected by the first round of dams, concluded that most of the aquatic birds there were wiped out. In the same vicinity, a herd of woodland caribou, swimming across the Rat River at its historic crossing, was swept to its death because the Rat’s flow had been strengthened about tenfold after Manitoba Hydro diverted the Churchill into it. The accelerated flows and more frequent fluctuations have eaten away at the banks of the Nelson and the shores of South Indian Lake, toppling trees into the water and creating floating islands of mud. One evening during our June visit Osborne shows us a documentary he’s made about an old burial site that was washed away by the rising water. “I filmed the skulls and bones of my ancestors in the water,” he says. “When I saw our human remains desecrated like that, I got really mad. Many of our cultural and burial sites have been destroyed since the dams were put into service.”

All the trees and other eroded vegetation build up and rot behind the dams, and the tannic acid they release lowers the pH of the water and leaches out the naturally occurring mercury in the bedrock. Bacteria turn the mercury into methyl mercury, explains Daniel Green, an environmental toxicologist with the University of Quebec in Montreal, who consults for Sierra Club Canada. “Methyl mercury accumulates and bioconcentrates at higher levels in the tissue and muscle of fish, delivering a lot of mercury to whoever eats them—minks, loons, or humans,” Green says. The mercury levels of the fish that are caught at Cross Lake are so high that breast-feeding mothers are warned not to eat them. “If a company had a pipe that discharged as much mercury as these dams do, it would be prosecuted for toxic pollution,” Green goes on. “So there’s a double standard. We’re getting the mercury out of car emissions, hospitals, and thermometers, but these mega hydroelectric projects are one of the most efficient ways to contaminate the boreal ecosystem, and once the mercury is in the food chain, it takes a very long time to get rid of it. Birds carry it south, so there is also the problem of biological transport of contaminants.”

Manitoba Hydro’s Jenpeg generating station, left, regulates the flow of water from Lake Winnipeg into the Nelson River system; above, the resulting fluctuations in water level seriously erode shorelines along its waterways.

“The beauty, we cannot get it back,” 82-year-old Charlie Osborne, Jackson’s father, tells me in June as we are getting a tour of the devastation. Charlie speaks in Cree, which someone has to translate for me; he has forgotten the English he learned 40 years ago, when he worked for the crew that was scoping out the site for the Kelsey Dam, the first that went in on the Nelson. “We had no idea what the dams were going to do until much later. The engineer from Hydro promised that the water level would not go up any more than the length of his pencil. Our land was very beautiful and healthy. Our water was clear. If you dropped an object into Cross Lake, you could see it on the bottom. Now you can’t see nothing. The fish is not the same quality. It tastes different. Even today, if I don’t eat fish, I don’t feel well. When you eat it, your body rejuvenates. There’s a lot of medicine in that fish. But now you boil the meat and it kind of dissolves, like sugar in water, and tastes mucky, like silt.”

“You have to be here year round, season to season, to get the full picture,” the younger Osborne says. “In the fall,when the river is lowest, the pollution gets concentrated and the kids who swim in it get scabs and rashes.”

The dams, because of the mercury and the fluctuations, destroyed the flourishing whitefish industry of five native communities, including South Indian Lake and the Pimicikamak Cree of Cross Lake. “In the 70s personal income in those native fishing communities was on a par with the rest of Manitoba; today it is about one-third,” says Don Sullivan. “The social infrastructure for these people to have a traditional economy—the entire culture, which depends on a healthy ecosystem for everything—was wiped out.” As the dams destroyed the river systems, Coke and junk food, welfare checks and big TVs, took the place of fishing and hunting and trapping, and people sat at home and became obese and developed diabetes and got in trouble—depression, drugs, spousal and child abuse. There was an epidemic of suicide at Cross Lake in the 1980s.

Hydropower at work: Sudden elevations in water levels at places like Cross Lake, above, can submerge nests and destroy the eggs of sandpipers, plovers, and other waterbirds that nest along the Nelson River system.

These acts of despair cannot be attributed directly to the dams, as much as to the process of cultural evisceration that has been going on much longer. First came the Hudson Bay fur traders, then the Anglican and Roman Catholic missionaries in the nineteenth century, competing for the natives’ heathen souls. They forbade the people to conduct their ceremonies and even to use their medicinal plants, while trying to convince them that everything about their culture was bad. Then in the twentieth century, from 1920 to 1960, several generations of children were taken from their communities and forced to attend residential schools, where they were beaten if they spoke their own language. The dams were the coup de grâce, the final flail.

“The way we have treated our First Nations is our dirty little secret,” Sullivan says. “These people should be the richest in Canada—they have all the resources—but they’re the poorest, because they’re not getting any of it. It’s all going to you guys.”

Roughly 85 percent of everything Canada exports flows to the United States. Denver-based Xcel Energy, the fourth largest energy company in the United States, buys about 40 percent of the electricity exported by Manitoba Hydro. This represents only 4 percent of Xcel’s total energy grid. But it is one reason why Manitoba Hydro is such an important cash cow for the province. In 2002 the provincial government took an additional $162.5 million from Hydro to cover its spending for 2002–2003. (Manitoba’s government is entitled to requisition funds from its utility as needed.) Hydro and the other “crown corporations,” or public utilities, are schizophrenic enterprises, ruthlessly capitalistic and profit driven, yet ultimately socialistic in intent: The profits help fund services like free health care and education, and the electricity itself is very cheap. “As the government becomes more dependent on Manitoba Hydro to make up its shortfalls, there is a strong incentive to build more dams,” says Sullivan. “It’s hard to wean a baby off a bottle once it has had it for so long.”

Hydro’s plans bear this out as the company prepares for a new round of dam building.Hydro hopes to start with a $720 million, 200-megawatt dam on the Burntwood River called Wuskwatim. (These new dams, ironically, have Cree names, a sort of consolation prize to the Cree for having their homelands compromised.) But Wuskwatim is only the beginning. Hydro wants to build another dam to go into service by 2013, the 640-megawatt Keeyask, and another one by 2017, the 1,250-megawatt Conawapa. Both would be located on the Nelson, with Conawapa way up near the river’s mouth at Hudson Bay. All told, Hydro has identified 12 new sites for dams and generating stations.

I want to understand the rationale for all these new dams, so I sit down with Manitoba Hydro’s CEO, Bob Brennan, in his office in the corporation’s glass headquarters in Winnipeg. A man who strikes me as supremely comfortable in his own skin, he has been at Hydro for 40 years. Brennan assures me that “Wuskwatim is going to flood only 0.2 square mile—smaller than a golf course—and it’s purely for domestic consumption. The juice will flow to northern population centers like Le Pas and Flin Flon, down as far as Dauphin. Electricity is like water flowing through a tube: It goes wherever there is an opening.”

In a second conversation in February Brennan tells me that Wuskwatim’s energy, and that of the two other proposed dams, is going to be exported until 2020, feeding a revenue source that has become crucial for both Hydro and the province. But so far, no one has signed up for the new offering. Xcel renewed its contract with Hydro in 2002, but for no more than what it is already buying. Other utilities serving Minnesota, which lies just south of Manitoba, are feeling pressure from state officials, and from the grassroots outfit JustEnergy, to ensure that sources of electricty would do no further damage to Canada’s boreal wilderness or violate the rights of the native people who live in it. “We don’t know who the energy will be sold to— Saskatchewan, Ontario, or the States—but there will be a market for sure,” Brennan says with genial optimism.

This sounds to me like speculative capitalism, supply in search of demand—not a good enough reason to destroy more of the boreal or to do further damage to its rivers. Ken Adams, Hydro’s vice president in charge of power supply, seems to agree. He tells me, flatout, “There’s really no need for these new dams, in the sense that the energy for Manitoba isn’t going to run out.” Hydro’s plan is to maintain its levels of revenue from exports (even though there is no on to sell the energy to at this point) and to build dams because it is still profitable to build them.

What is most dubious about Hydro’s agenda is that there are more sensible choices. Even Adams is able to tick off alternative ways that Hydro can produce more energy without putting in these new dams. It has already created a 292-megawatt “virtual dam” by helping its big industrial customers do simple things like replace their commercial T-12 lighting with energy-saving fluorescent T-8 bulbs, and it has initiated a conservation project that will provide 640 more megawatts within 13 years. Hydro has signed a contract to buy 99 megawatts from a private wind-energy company and is expecting to buy at least another 150. At the moment, 10 percent of Hydro’s electricity is lost in the transmission lines—a solvable problem. But Brennan claims that building the dams now rather than later fixes the price of energy for the lifetime of those plants. “It’s like building a house and selling it in 10 years. You can’t help but make a profit.”

“To a certain extent you are fixing the price of energy 10 years from now by building now, because with inflation the construction costs are bound to be higher,” explains Philip Raphals, an expert on the economics of dams and director of the Helios Centre, a research group in Montreal. “But if by the time you’ve laid out your construction costs your cost to generate energy is six cents per kilowatt-hour and the Midwest is paying only four cents, you’re in trouble.”

Political leaders in Manitoba and neighbouring Ontario support the new spate of dam building, though they have their own reasons. Last September the premiers of both provinces unveiled Manitoba Hydro’s $1.6 million feasibility study for Conawapa to a gathering of industrialists and potential investors at the Empire Club in Ottawa. Manitoba’s premier, John Doer, argued that Conawapa would provide the single largest reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in the country. Canada, unlike the United States, is a party to the Kyoto Protocol and is taking seriously its commitment to return its emissions to l990 levels by 2010. If energy from Manitoba Hydro were to replace coal-fired plants In Ontario—and that is a big if—it would reduce the country’s greenhouse gas emissions by 7 megatonnes per year. But toxicologist Green points out that if you flood forests and bogs to create reservoirs for dams, you lose significant carbon sinks; and flooded bogs release methane, whose global-warming impact may be 20 times more potent than that of carbon dioxide.“ It is true that hydropower’s carbon emissions are much less than coal power plants,” says Casey-Lefkowitz at NRDC. “However, hydropower’s impact on the environment and people has to be measured in more than carbon emissions; it must also be measured in terms of its impact on the land and the people living there. We don’t need to choose between the land and climate change—that’s as false a dichotomy as the old division between economic development and the environment.”

A great gray owl (Strix nebulosa) lurks in a black spruce in northern Manitoba.


After nine weeks of heated public hearings, Manitoba’s Clean Environment Commission last fall recommended the licensing of Wuskwatim. “This is the first domino; if it goes, the next all go with it,” says Don Sullivan.“Wuskwatim would be the only dam so far subject to environmental review. The prior ones never went through any provincial, federal, or public review process and have no environmental licenses. If they get an easy ride with this one, they’ll keep on going.”

But Hydro could face other opposition: Five Cree nations, including South Indian Lake and the Pimicikamak Cree of Cross Lake, which were slammed by the previous dams, have the right of advise and consent on any large hydro project that would have an impact on their territory.“ You can drive a Mack truck through our environmental laws,” Sullivan asserts. “They’re full of weaselling out language. But since the Canadian Constitution of 1982, aboriginal rights are inviolate.”

Hydro knows this, of course, and has been assiduously courting these ravaged communities to get them on board. In 1975, prior to the new constitution, the utility, along with the federal and provincial governments, was pressured to sign a compensation package called the Northern Flood Agreement with the Cree nations. But by 1992 most of this treaty’s terms had not been fulfilled. Four of the nations—including the Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation (NCN) and Tataskweyak Cree Nation—agreed to a cash settlement, which is referred to in official documents as an implementation agreement. Others refer to it as an “extinguishment agreement,” because it potentially frees the company of everything it was obligated to do by the 1975 pact, thus weakening the nations’ leverage to resist Hydro’s new projects. But one nation, the Pimicikamak, did no sign an implementation agreement and therefore remains in a stronger position to oppose the construction of Wuskwatim.

The Pimicikamak are not alone in their opposition to Wuskwatim. The dam would lie in the territory of NCN, whose 5,000 members are bitterly divided over a statement of understanding the leadership signed with Hydro. Elvis Thomas, a pro-development and pro-dam member of the band council (as some First Nations call their deliberative body), explains the terms he negotiated for his community: To gain one-third ownership of the dam, according to Thomas, NCN would invest $59.3 million in Hydro; $39.8 million of that would come in the form of a 25-year loan from the company. NCN would have to raise the other $19.5 million. Once the dam is built, the First Nation could expect to earn $21 million to $46 million per year in energy revenues.

“Hydro in the 60s and 70s made the decision to tap into the existing river system with no discussion or involvement of the native people,” Thomas says. “The federal and provincial governments gave their blessings and proceeded as if we didn’t exist, and caused a lot of damage to the Nelson River system, which we live in. People have been scarred and impacted in ways you wouldn’t believe. As the leaders of today, we have to contend with that. But that was done, and these dams have been in existence for 34 years. I can’t live in the past and complain about it forever and a day, because I have real live human beings that I represent who are pressing on me their needs in today’s life— health care and other services that modern society takes for granted.”

In order for Hydro to proceed, the Wuskwatim deal has to be approved by a referendum of the whole community. Its critics claim that the leadership has delayed the vote until this summer because it is afraid Wuskwatim won’t get enough votes. One critic is Carol Kobliski, spokeswoman of the opposition group Nelson House Justice Seekers—and Thomas’s sister.The dam hasn’t even been built, but already it is dividing families.

“Elvis is on the other side of the fence,” Kobliski says. “It’s very hard, but I have the support of the community, and we’re getting help from all over. We don’t want Wuskwatim because it’s going to destroy our land and water even more. Money isn’t going to give back what’s gone or make our people happy.”

Susan Casey-Lefkowitz at NRDC emphasizes that since 1982, when the new constitution was ratified, aboriginal rights, as affirmed by Canada’s Supreme Court, have been the best means to achieve conservation goals and to foil Hydro’s plans, so she and the Canadian groups are supporting these First Nations’ rights. Still, it’s too early to predict the outcome. “Manitoba Hydro is a state unto itself,” Sullivan tells me. “It’s even more powerful than the provincial government, and it’s always gotten a get-out-of-jail card for its transgressions. I wouldn’t count it out just yet.”

Among the collateral effects of the dams are the three or more transmission lines—perhaps running in two separate corridors— that Hydro wants to run straight through the proposed World Heritage site. Each corridor would cut a swath 150 yards wide, for hundreds of miles through undisturbed wilderness. The lines would cut across caribou migration routes and curtail their seasonal, food-driven movements (caribou rarely venture out of the woods so they don’t become easier prey for wolves and other predators). The swaths could then open the way to roads, which eventually open the door to large-scale exploitation of minerals and timber. “That’s what always happens,” Sullivan says dolefully. The visual impact alone would be horrific— a procession of monstrous metal bipoles marching across the landscape, over hill and dale, shattering the wilderness. But Premier Doer of Manitoba seems to be coming around. In December he said that a World Heritage site would be great for the province, although he stopped short of saying that the transmission lines should be kept out.Was he speaking with a politician’s forked tongue, or does he think he can have it both ways? Stay tuned.


Floating down the Bloodvein is like time travel—returning to the primordial boreal, the forest primeval, where there are no dams or transmission lines. But it also offers a glimpse (if reason prevails) of a different future—one of undisturbed splendour.

All the ominous projects and prospects seem very abstract and far away as we make our way down the hauntingly beautiful river. There are 43 rapids, and we run all of them except four that we portage and six that we line, leaving the canoes in the river and pulling them along the rapids with ropes. All of us capsize at least once and are baptized by the Bloodvein, and in this way we are gently reminded that we’re all here on nature’s sufferance. I begin to imagine that the river has a spirit—a capricious one who, while we are having our coffee, is having hers and figuring out the fun she will have with these foolish mortals today. Our canoe swamps in one choppy stretch, not because we’ve done anything wrong but because there is too much weight in the bow: moi. As I sit on the bank like a wet rat, Louis Young joins me and asks, out of the blue, “Whatever happened to Ollie North?” The question hits me like a funny koan, a Zen riddle. When I recover from laughing, I say, “You know, Louis, that’s the best question anybody’s asked me in years.”

The weather is extremely variable. One day the sky is clear blue, the next day there is driving rain. I have never seen such lavender-pink sunsets as are mirrored on the glassy surface of the river. One night we see the aurora borealis. Auroras are caused by charged solar particles hitting the upper atmosphere and glowing as they are deflected by the earth’s geomagnetic field. No two are the same. This one is like a huge green curtain tinged with reddish purple; it starts in the north and moves across the sky like a spotlight, disappears, and returns after 10 seconds or so.

Charlie Osborne, a member of the Pimicikamak Cree, says even the fish in Cross Lake don’t taste the same.

We see lots of beavers and their lodges, and the sharp spikes of aspens and jack pines that they have gnawed off. Once, in a scalloped bay, three otter stand up on their hind legs and chatter adorably, like a vaudeville conga line. But it is probably a threat display.

Up in the front of the canoe, my field of vision unobstructed by anything human for eight days, I get into a rhythm of maybe a stroke a second, not using the muscles in my arms but letting the rotation of my torso move my paddle through the water. It is meditative, almost trancelike. “This is what the body is made for,” David Pancoe, our outfitter, says when I ask him why he has chosen this arduous, ill-paid line of work. Between getting us down the river and doing the cooking, he’s been putting in 12-hour days.

On my knees, I focus on how the paddle makes a little swirling whirlpool as it bites into the water, and how it casts off two more little whirlpools when I take it out at the end of the stroke, with a slight twist of my wrist that turns the blade vertical and makes it easier to take out of the water. For long stretches the only sounds are the drops of water falling from the paddle as I bring it forward and bite the water again, and the little straining sound, like a tiny, trickling rivulet, that the bow makes as it parts the water. “Soft is the song my paddle sings,” Canada’s beloved, half-Mohawk poet E. Pauline Johnson wrote. Canoeing is one of the gentlest, least disturbing, and most unobtrusive ways of moving through physical space, and these rivers are the corridors that the native people have used for many centuries, their blue highway, their county road.

I can see in my companions’ faces that they, too, are in a rapturous state. We are going to be together for only a short time, and most of us probably are never going to meet again, but we are experiencing something that will be with us always—an order of wildness and purity, a system so vast and ancient that the distinction between individual existence and nothingness is almost meaningless. By the time we get to the Bloodvein community, where several of Young’s female relatives have prepared a fabulous feast of goose and moose, wild rice and blueberry pie and where Louis will heat some boulders red hot and conduct a sweat lodge ceremony for us, a powerful, unspoken bond has grown among our group.

Many have been drawn to the mysticism of canoeing, including Pierre Trudeau, Canada’s charismatic prime minister in the 1970s. Trudeau had fantastic technique and liked nothing better than to take off alone in his cedar-strip canoe and his fringed buckskin jacket. “Paddling a canoe is a source of enrichment and inner renewal,” he wrote. “It carries a man to the truest part of himself.” It was Trudeau who urged young Canadians to participate in the Wild River Survey from 1971 to 1974, which led to the creation of a conservation program called the Heritage River system and to the Bloodvein’s eventual inclusion in it, along with 38 other rivers of special magic and merit.

Rivers like this are our lifeblood, not only ecologically and economically, but also spiritually. We need them—as is. This is a time not only of massive extinction of the myriad forms of life on this planet, but of extinction of experience, particularly of the natural world, for those of us who are living in modern society. Perhaps this is why the river trip has been so powerful for all of us—we were nature-deprived, and all these dormant responses were reawakened. It may not be my place, as an American, to tell Canada that the age of dam-building is over, or that it is being criminally short sighted to sacrifice its boreal wilderness and its magnificent gushing rivers so that the United States can have a backup source of power that it may not even end up wanting. On the other hand, my family and I live in Montreal these days, and, in any case, aren’t we all citizens of the world? What happens to the boreal affects us all, wherever we happen to call home.



These organizations can provide more information on the campaign for Manitoba’s proposed World Heritage site:

-          Natural Resources Defense Council: www.nrdc.org

-          Manitoba Wildlands: manitobawildlands.org

-          Boreal Forest Network: www.borealnet.org


Don Sullivan e-mailed me with the great news, as per the article below, that the provincial government has nixed Manitoba Hydro’s plan to run Bipole III down the east side of Lake Winnipeg, because it would compromise the proposed World Heritage Site. He thinks that this Dispatch/onearth piece may have played role in turning the government around. He also points out several errors: the premier of Manitoba is Gary Doer, not John Doer, and that he (Don) is 47, not 49. “Let’s not make me any older than I already am, if you don’t mind.” Another important point is that the boreal in the last ten years boreal forests have switched from being a carbon sink to a contributor of atmosphere carbon due to climate-meditate increases in water stress, pest outbreaks, and wildfires (see the Pew Center on Global Climate Change’s November, 2004 publication,  “Observed Impacts of Global Climate Change in the U.S.,” by Camille Parmesan and Hector Galbraith).


Hydro won’t get cheapest route

Province rejects line down east lakeshore

Sunday, May 29th, 2005

Winnipeg Free Press

By Dan Lett


THE province has ruled out construction of a power line down the eastern shore of Lake Winnipeg, dashing a plan Manitoba Hydro has touted for nearly two decades. Energy Minister Dave Chomiak says his government will not allow construction of Bipole 3 — a third major transmission line to bring power from Manitoba Hydro’s northern generating stations to the south — through the pristine wilderness east of the lake.

“I think that in life, as in politics, you never say never,” Chomiak said in an interview. “But the reality is that when we weighed all the options, we couldn’t support going down the east side. It’s not going to happen.”

Hydro has long argued it needs to build a new transmission line, preferably along the eastern edge of the lake, to shore up its aging main lines that run through the Interlake region.

The east side route is Hydro’s choice because it would be hundreds of kilometres shorter and hundreds of millions of dollars cheaper than routes around the west side of Lake Winnipegosis. It is also more secure for Hydro than running it along the path of existing lines in the Interlake.

However, Chomiak said an east-side route for Hydro’s new line would bisect a tract of virgin wilderness that is being considered by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for designation as a World Heritage site.

Environmentalists applauded Chomiak’s statement as the biggest step the NDP government has ever taken to protect the wilderness east of the lake.

“This is a very big deal,” said Don Sullivan, executive director of the Boreal Forest Network, a major supporter of the UNESCO World Heritage designation. “(Chomiak) made a definitive statement and we commend him for taking this bold step and taking the flak for this. It’s not every day that the government goes up against the interests of Manitoba Hydro.”

Sullivan said less definitive messages from the province have allowed Hydro to continue quietly encouraging support for Bipole 3 among aboriginal communities east of the lake.


In fact, a campaign by the Island Lake Tribal Council to form a native consortium in support of an east-side route, led by former MP Elijah Harper, is receiving limited support from Hydro.

Harper said he is aware the NDP government has rejected an east-side line but has been told by Manitoba Hydro a final decision has not yet been made.

The potential spinoffs from a transmission line, including greater all-weather road access, make this the most important economic-development project for the region, he added.

“We are the poorest region in the country,” Harper said. “We can’t continue to look at government handouts. We have to look at developing the resources in our own backyards.”

Manitoba Hydro president Bob Brennan said he is aware that an east-side route is not supported by the current government. Brennan said the utility is currently committed to studying other transmission routes that would avoid the east side of Lake Winnipeg.

However, Brennan said the east-side route will likely have to be examined again in the future. ”

At this point we couldn’t entertain anything involving the east side,” Brennan said. “That doesn’t mean we’re ruling out the east side. But we’re looking at other options at this time.”

Development of the lands east of Lake Winnipeg has been a political lightning rod for decades.

Despite a strong message from the province, government sources confirmed Manitoba Hydro has never lost its appetite for a transmission route east of the lake. The sources said Hydro is preparing updated feasibility studies on the Interlake and western Manitoba routes that will show how much more expensive these options are. The end game, the sources said, would be to embarrass the province into re-thinking its policy.

Chomiak said he is fully prepared for some backlash from Hydro, political opponents and the business community for using environmental concerns to trump economics.

“It would be cheaper to go down the east side,” Chomiak said. “But you don’t make these decisions on the straight economics …We’re going to stand on our environmental concerns.”


Secondly, here is an interview with Peter Kulchyski, head of the Department of Natives Studies at the University of Manitoba, which gives a good dispassionate overview of the rights of  native people in the province with respect to their land, water, and resources :

“There have been aboriginal rights since 1763, before the formation of Canada. The British royal proclamation of l867 said it was the federal government’s responsibility to protect Indians and their land. Between l870 and l921 numbered treaties, each covering a particular geographical territory, were made. All the first nations in the new dams and World Heritage dispute are in Treaty 5. After l877, when the Indians were subdued and posed no military threat, the government increasingly and systematically ignored the treaty rights. The minister of the interior in l910 or 12, I think it was Siston, said, “we will never let an Indian right become a white man’s wrong.” Treaty 5 “ceded, released, and surrendered to the crown all rights, titles, and interests” to the Indians’ land.” But it says nothing about the water, as later treaties do, so it could be argued that they still have aboriginal water rights to the Nelson River system, and thus grounds to sue Hydro for violating them. And the treaty also says that the aboriginals can “pursue their avocations of hunting and fishing on the surrendered lands,” so in effect they have rights to them. But it also says that the government can take any part of the lands and use them for any purpose.

“During the first round of dams, Manitoba Hydro, like Hydro Quebec, just went ahead and built them, and as the communities realized their impacts, they formed the Northern Flood Committee in the early 70s to fight what was happening. There were six communities, including South Indian Lake, which is a sub-community of Nelson House. It got it the worst and was completely flooded out [now it is in its third relocation. The Displaced Residents of South Indian Lake are stridently opposed to Wuskwatim]. This fight never got the international attention that the one over the first set of dams in Quebec or the pipeline in the Northwest Territories did, but with help from people all over, they forced Hydro, the province, and the feds to sign the Northern Flood Agreement with a hefty compensation package for each community. The feds were in support of Hydro and the province. They were shirking their responsibilities to the aboriginals; officially they said they were taking a position of “alert neutrality,” as they did in Quebec.

“Over the next 15 years, after the signing of the NFA in l975, the aboriginal communities thought the promises they had been made were much broader, that there was going to be money to solve all their problems, even ‘the eradication of poverty.’ Hydro read the NFA very narrowly and dragged its feet on implementing it. By the late 90s the frustrated communities were picked off by Hydro by “implementation agreements,” which were actually cash buyouts; I call them “extinguishment agreements,” because the  communities that took them had all their rights under the N.F.A.  extinguished. One of the clauses said the communities will not take hydro, province, or the feds to court over anything having to do with the NFA.

“In l982 the aboriginal treaty rights were recognized and affirmed by the new Canadian constitution. This means you need a constitutional amendment to change any particular right. One clause says that the Charter of Freedom’s can’t be interpreted in a way that limits aboriginal rights, and section 35 says that existing treaty rights are recognized and affirmed. The supreme court is now saying that there should be a liberal interpretation, “a liberal and generous view,” of the spirit of the treaties, because the aboriginals did not understand their legal nuances. The ‘honor of the crown’ is at stake in interpreting these treaties compassionately. The courts are looking at the oral history of the treaties, what the aboriginals were orally promised. If a chief told his son we were told we could maintain our lifeways forever, and the son told this to his son, this has documentary weight in court. It is the courts in their liberal interpretation that have developed the doctrine of meaningful and bone fide consultation.

“Cross Lake did not sign an implementation agreement, so it has the right to protest Wuskwatim. As one of the six communities, it has the right to be consulted in  any project in their collective area. In Treaty 5 they didn’t surrender their water rights, so they do have a veto on Wuskwatim or any of the dams in their territory. But nobody is pursuing this argument. I plan to bring it into play.

“Pauingassi and Little Grand Rapids are not in a position to fight the dams because they are not in their territory. But they can fight the power lines. They, too, are in Treaty 5. If they have the right to pursue hunting and fishing, and they can make the case that the lines will destroy enough habitat, they could stop them. Practically, they are trying to create the World Heritage Site so it will be very difficult for Hydro to drive lines through their traditional territories. They have a much better chance of stopping the lines on the east side than the opponents of Wuskwatim do. But Nelson House has to have a referendum, and the leadership has agreed that if they vote against the dam, they will not partner with Hydro in the project. It’s hard to call the [outcome of the] referendum, but the fact that the leadership isn’t holding it suggests that they know they don’t have the necessary votes. Hydro is doing the hard sell in Nelson House, offering jobs right and left. The Premier even went up there.

“There’s a better chance to stop the lines on the east side because Hydro is more committed to and has invested a lot of resources in Wuskwatim and is more prepared to bite the bullet on the lines and send them down the west side. Poplar River has been very smart to get its protection status 10 years ahead of time, and it’s going to be hard for Hydro to fight them. Interim park status gives you more protection, and being enshrined in World Heritage status builds up the notion that this is sheer wilderness. The Manitoba government belatedly and begrudgingly last November supported the site, and that becomes something for hydro to work around [as Bob Brennon says himself in the same words]. They can drive the line from Conawapa to northwestern Ontario, which will avoid the site, and run the others down the west side if they have to. As long as they can go along with their projects they’re happy and willing to put up with some constraints.”

One very important point, which did not get its due in the Dispatch/onearth piece solely because of space constraints, is the seminal role that Poplar River First Nation played in putting together the World Heritage proposal. It began with Poplar River getting interim park protection for its own traditional territory, in response to an invitation to the province’s first nations from the Manitoba Parks department to propose wilderness areas for protection. Here is the section on Poplar River that didn’t make the final cut :


The route and impact of the transmission line from Conawapa  was the next issue on our delegation’s itinerary.

[This was in June, 2004, the first of three trips I would make to the boreal that summer]  Leaving Cross Lake, we flew two hundred miles down to Weaver Lake, fifty miles up the Poplar River, in the heart of the proposed World Heritage site.

If Ontario ends up buying the dam’s 1200 megawatts,  Bipole 3, as the succession of behemoth steel towers strung with fourteen sets of interbraided high-voltage wires is called, would run southeast for 1200 kilometers, to the nearest point where Ontario’s grid can be upgraded to take the juice, and it would not pose a problem for the Ontario site. But if it ran for 1000 kilometers due south to the existing line between Ontario and Manitoba (this was the “critical east-west juncture” Doer was referring to), it would run right through the proposed site and have a whole concatenation of ghastly impacts. Hunters would pour in in four-wheelers and skidoos, hewers of wood, miners of ore, and developers would run off side roads, and the wolves would have an advantage over the woodland caribou, whose numbers are already parlous. It would be the beginning of the end for that magnificent wilderness. But Bob Brennan and the two premiers clearly felt this was the sensible way to go, not only because it was considerably cheaper, but because it would integrate with the mid-western grid more effectively at this point.  “As far as the World Heritage site is concerned,” Brennan told me, “we can work around that when we get there.”

The story of how this particularly tract of the boreal shield’s impenetrable vastness became a candidate for World Heritage designation begins in l995, when the provincial Parks Department invited the twenty-six first nations in the province to propose new areas for protection.  Poplar River First Nation decided to take it up, and started by proposing its own traditional territory, as defined by the trap-line districts that its extended family groups had historically worked. The proposal was accepted, and in l999 their homeland was declared a provincial “park reserve,” a provisional status that had just been renewed for five years, buying time for Poplar River and its partners, which include the NRDC,  to work on securing the World Heritage status for it and the territories of Pauingassi, Little Grand Rapids, and Pikanjikium first nations and the Woodland Caribou and Atitaki provincial parks of Ontario and Manitoba, respectively.

This would save 4.3 million hectares—more than ten million acres—but it is by no means in the bag. There are quite a number of bureaucratic hoops that have to be gone through. At this point the Woodland-Caribou-Atitaki-four nations accord cluster, as it is mellifluously called, is on Parks Canada’s  tentative list of sites that may be nominated in the next ten years. The cluster has in its favor that is it the only example of the boreal shield ecozone, and that it would be partly managed by the provinces, and partly by the local native people, which is sexy these days (the conservation movement has come a good way since the days of the old African game parks of the twenties, from which the local people were evicted and their hunters became poachers). Also in its favor is the fact that the IUCN has done a study of the entire boreal and identified it as an area of special concern and high priority from the global conservation standpoint. Once it is nominated—which will require advocacy and political pressure in Ottawa—UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee has to decide whether to place it on the World Heritage list. But before it goes to UNESCO, both provinces have to be on board, and it was not clear from talking with Gordon Jones, the head of  Manitoba Conservation’s parks department, that Manitoba is yet.

Jones told me that he appreciated where Pauingassi and Little Grand Rapids (Pikangikum is in Ontario) were coming from when they proposed their traditional trapline districts for provincial protection, but “we can’t recommend it in the context of our protected areas initiative, which has a scientific basis for where a park should be established. Ours is a representative protected-area system,” he went on, “with twelve percent of each ‘landscape unit’ designated for protection. With the existence already of two provincial wilderness parks and a park reserve [Poplar River], we can say this boreal forest type is adequately represented, so we don’t have the rational to say that Pauingassi and Little Grand Rapids should be protected as well.”

So you’re not endorsing the candidacy ? I asked. This doesn’t sound like it would be very helpful to the cause.

“I’m not saying that,” Jones said. “The World Heritage business is kind of another layer. I’m just saying that it can’t be justified at the provincial level. But we need to think how the site would be managed. It would be the first World Heritage site in Manitoba. The thirteen existing sites in Canada have highly-protected management regimes because many of them are national parks. So this proposed site will have to go a whole process [employing scores of people, generating thousands of pages of reports, and taking years, I thought] to get a clear understanding of what a site might mean. What are the other land use interests and what do they mean ? There is a possible hydro line—how does that get factored in ?  Poplar River may end up a provincial park or something new entirely, like a first nations preservation area.”

Don Sullivan said that Jones’s “heart is in the right place, but he is incapable of making his mind up about anything. The twelve percent solution, as I call it, was part of a biodiversity inventory of all of Canada commissioned from the World Wildlife Fund. The program is defunct, but  the provinces still use it. But the WWF recommended a minimum of twelve percent, and the provinces are adhering to it as the maximum. It has some objective criteria, but it basically a bunch of hooey that has less to do with science than politics and chutzpah. It depends on whether you’re for it or not.”

Unlike Cross Lake, Weaver Lake was absolutely pristine. We hopped off the float plane onto a granite slab  draped with half a dozen  yard-long jack (northern pike in the states) caught that morning. This was  the heart of the boreal (as NRDC has called its biogem, which embraces the 4.3 million hectares of the World Heritage Site and an as yet undefined part of the surrounding area), a spectacular wilderness teeming with the abundance  of life that was once everywhere.

Here the Poplar River First Nation runs a traditional healing camp, and its director,  Ray Rabliauskus, welcomed us along with fifteen others, including a group of  giggling women who were frying up some scrumptious pickerel (walleye in the States) under a tarp. The twelve hundred people of this nation are Ojibway, or Anashinabe, as they call themselves, historically mortal enemies of the Cree.  Originally from Sault St. Marie, between Lake Superior and Lake Huron, the Ojibway moved west, spurred by the fur trade, across the forested boreal shield to the eastern shore of Lake Winnipeg and down into Wisconsin, where they displaced the Lakota and are known as the Chippewa. This was  one of their northernmost communities.  Until they were sedentarized at the mouth of the Poplar by missionaries at the turn of the nineteenth century, they had been semi-nomadic, spending the summer fishing at the mouth of the Big Black River, the next one up the lake, and hunting and trapping on showshoes  around Weaver Lake, in the winter.

A gentle, softspoken man, Ray wasn’t Ojibway, but the son of Lithuanian immigrants to Ontario who had come to the community twenty-five years ago and stayed because it needed a licensed carpenter to qualify for a housing grant and because he fell in love with Sophie. By now he  an “albino Indian,” one of the men kidded. He was living the way of humility and reverence and had a sort of Gandhian glow about him. Ray was also spearheading the World Heritage Campaign. Don Sullivan said that Poplar River decided to join the provincial protected-area system “to make them play by their own rules, so  there wouldn’t be any nasty surprises like development licenses.”  But Ray  described the collaboration in a much less confrontational way, “We’re partnering with the Manitoba government, and they’re good people. The Ojibway way is not to fight, but to work with people, to go with the flow instead of against it; we don’t believe in negotiating in anger. But if they do come to log, we’ll die for it. Poplar is a unique place, and the people’s strength and humility and way of operating in the world has kept it that way. Every living thing has a job, and so far humans are the only ones who aren’t doing it right. The sun comes up every day; it does its job. The leaves come out and clear the air, and all the insects do what they’re supposed to do; it’s only us.”

I was dying for some exercise, after three days of one feast after another, so Don and I and a young woman named Juanita Murdoch went for a walk in the woods, but the path stopped at the outhouse, and it was hard slogging, with brambles and brutal, bloodthirsty mosquitoes, and every fifty feet a huge pile of moose droppings, so we only went till we came to a muskeg, a marsh with tall brown sedge and a few small trees in it , and turned back.  300-pounds, with a beautiful, child-like, open face Juanita had been born in Poplar, but at the age of two had gone with her mother to Winnipeg, where she grew up in the mean streets of the North End. I’d driven through the North End, seen the drunks and the sniffers of  aerosols in plastic bags passed out in doorways, the fathers selling their daughters. It is the most depressing native ghetto in Canada, like Gallup, New Mexico,  or Sidney, Australia, where  Navajos and  aborigines stumble  between cosmologies.

Juanita had got into a  gang called  Indian Posse, and “I lost my four kids to care,” she told us. She had come back to Poplar to regroup and get back to her roots. “We’re just getting to know Juanita again,” Ray told me. Buoyant, brimming with laughter and irrepressible joie de vivre, she was clearly going to make it.

These were the kind of people who came to the healing camp. Diabetes, drug addictions—all the modern toxins were treated by traditional means,  with the help of modern psychotherapy. There was a big teepee where everyone sat in a talking circle, with a fire burning in the middle, and let it all out. Some of the sessions were  heavy, like when a woman would vent her pain to her father, who had had incest with her when she was little. As with all the native people in Canada,  the people of Poplar were sent away to residential schools, where they were beaten if they talked their own language and sometimes sexually abused. “Two or three generations lost the knowledge of how to nurture and be a parent,” Ray explained, and they were taking out what had been done to them on their kids. The worst time was from the twenties to the fifties.  Forbidden to use their medicinal plants and to have their ceremonies, they went deep into the woods to do their drumming and dancing, but the drumming and dancing and the knowledge of the medical plants gradually died out. But they still had their language and  this small group was trying to recover the old ways. Don called them “born-again traditionalists.” The largest religious group in Poplar were the hundred-or-so born-again Pentecostals, the Shakers, as they were called,  who held revivals almost every night.  The Shakers regarded the healing camp as pagan and satanic, which is why the chief hadn’t come; it would have gotten him in political hot water.

We had several talking circles, each of us explaining why we were here and getting comfortable with each other. There was some drumming and dancing, but it was pretty self-conscious and inhibited,  because it was not a living tradition, but something they were trying to reconstruct. One of the young drummers kept losing the beat and with a look of desperate mortification trying to get back into it. But still you could hear that this was something very ancient, an exulting in being alive, a declaration of the right to be here,  that went back ten thousand years,  to the paleo bands that followed the caribou. Something that was at first alien to Western ears, too “primordial” than anything he was prepared for,  as  D.H.Lawrence described the singing and drumming he heard at Taos Pueblo, New Mexico,  in 1921.

“Listening to the pat-pat of the drums, and the hie-hie-hie-away of the singers, an acute sadness and a nostalgia, unbearably yearning for something, and a sickness of the soul came over me. The gobble-gobble chuck in the whoop surprised me in my very tissues. Then I got used to it, and could hear in it the humanness, the playfulness, and then, beyond that, the mockery and the diabolical, pre-human, pine-tree fun of cutting dusky throats.”

The elders, one of whom  sang some old mournful country songs, accompanying himself on my little traveling guitar, had helped a botanist from Winnipeg put out a little book of Poplar River’s medicinal plants, but they hadn’t told her everything. These people hadn’t lost the core of their  culture, I realized. They were taking back control of their lives,  dealing with the modern world on their terms, like the Pimicikimak. They would make perfect stewards of the World Heritage site.

The next morning the delegation flew out, and I stayed on for a couple of days, knowing how faulty impressions from quick zips through unfamiliar terrain can be.   We all  sat around in the teepee, joking and chilling, until the time came to leave. Without a word, everyone got up and switched into on-the-move mode, swiftly and surely packed the boats, slid them into the water, pull the starting cords of the outboard motors, and headed down the river. Aluminum outboards had arrived only fifteen years ago, but the men had already become experts at shooting rapids in them, which they hadn’t been able to do in their canoes, so we only had to portage four of the twelve rapids in the fifty miles between Weaver Lake and the community of Poplar River and were able to make the trip in four hours. It was a thing of beauty to watch how they read and unerringly threaded the roiling water, the grace and pride with which they all worked together, the women just as hard and effectively, sliding the boats over the log skids at the portages. The Saulteaux, the People of the Rapids, as the French Voyageurs called the Objiway, were in their element. Juanita was in another boat, and had never done anything like this. Tripping over roots and rocks, she was having the time of her life.

The river was as wild as a remote tributary of the Amazon, or the Epulu, which flows through the Ituri Forest in eastern Congo, only there were no crocodiles or colobus monkeys hurtling through the trees. Up here, edited by cold, there were far fewer species, and their sparseness accentuated their purity and perfection. The only fauna we saw in any number were bald eagles. There was another one around every bend, perched in a tree or winging over the water. We must have seen a hundred.

The only outside intrusions were from Thunderbird Lodge, on a lake above Weaver, which American fishermen paid big bucks to be flown into, and once a year a party of Swiss teenage prisoners was taken down and put through a three-week wilderness survival ordeal in the hopes of straightening them out. Perro had heard the success rate was high. At one point several miles of forest along the left bank, ignited by lightning, had burned during last summer’s severe drought. Already a thick sea of luminous green poplar saplings was competing to replace the charred poles. But this was natural (unless the drought was linked to global warming, which it probably was), and we are told good for forest regeneration that sections of it burn down every once in a while.

How lucky these people are, I thought, despite their sense of irreparable loss and the  social and environmental havoc that came with the arrival of  Europeans. They have what they need from the modern world, and they still have their homeland, their language, and  the basic continuity, though minus many elements, of  a culture that goes back thousands of years. Unlike us Salty Ones, as the Cree call white European people (those who came from across the ocean). Most  Salty Ones—there are two hundred “cultural communities” of us in Montreal alone–   are exiles who have lost our culture, our homeland (which we usually had to leave under duress), our community (in our post-industrial  neolocal society, we don’t  settle down and raise our families in the place where we grew up if we can help it), or our family (our grown-up children having scattered to the winds). Maybe it was because we lost a deep spiritual connection to a natural landscape, internalized and developed over many generations,  that we treated so horribly the people who still had one. Or maybe we just wanted the riches and the land they were on.

The river made the case for itself. Anybody who made this trip would leave with the certain conviction that this wilderness is very special and eminently deserving of World Heritage designation.  I have been to many World Heritage sites around the world, and this richly drained (not poorly drained, as the boreal shield is often described, but swiftly and strongly drained by a web of seething torrents) woods is right up there.  There was a  logic and an unfathomable subtlety  to the flow of the land and the water. The shape and placement of every tree and rock,  every sound that pierced the silence, seemed completely random, yet just right. It was not hard to believe, as the Ojibway, Cree, and all native people do, that there was a Creator, because this was a creation. “Everything has a spirit, even  rocks,” Ray Rabliauskus had told me. “The goose knows when to go south. This is how nature works. The Creator [Semanito, for whom Manitoba is named] made a system better than any we can devise.”

He was right, I mused.  Nothing anyone could do to this boreal Eden could possibly make it any better than the way it was. I was glad it was in the hands  of people who believed , as Victoria explained, “that the Creator gave us these resources to take care of them. This is what defines us as first nations.” and the best way to do this was to disturb and take as little as possible, to let it be for all of us.

“Well keep it up,” I told her. “You’re doing a beautiful job.”

Dispatch #26: A Profile of Monaco

By Alex Shoumatoff

I wrote this back in l997, when the Grimaldis were celebrating their 700th anniversary on the Rock. It is being published here, now, for the first time.  Prince Ranier’s death a few weeks ago reminded me of its existence. He was a lovely man, and we really hit it off. His eccentric family– his sister with her stray cats,  the Victorian interest in natural history,  the grandfather the oceanographer– reminded me of my own, and indeed we discovered that we were distantly related, through the Beauharnais. Plus Igor Markevitch, a closer cousin, had been the conductor of the Monaco Philharmonic for many years, so Ranier recognized that I was not another trash-seeking paraparazzo and introduced me to some of his oldest and closest friends. This is another unexpected turn on the dance floor of loss– the death of a prince, the resurrection of a lost piece from a different kind of oblivion, the tenacious struggle for survival of a family and of the culture it invented, “a sunny place for shady people,” in Maugham’s famous description.


“Monaco c’est le top,” gushed the gorgeous, young masseuse in fetching Franglais. She worked at The Thermes Marins de Monte Carlo, a futuristic spa adjacent to the Hotel de Paris. Her job was to administer “thalassotherapy,” slathering warm, brown, ground seaweed all over her wealthy clients’ bodies and wrapping them in plastic sheets. It was not hard to imagine James Bond on her table. The entire 482-acre principality of Monaco resembles a set for a James Bond movie, which it has been, in fact, three times–movie titles tk. The Hotel de Paris, where I was staying, is the grande dame of Old World luxury hotels. Built in 1864, it is a white Belle Epoch confection of cupolas, porthole windows and caryatids resembling ship figureheads. There are 250,000 bottles, on a kilometer of racks, in the wine cellar. In the restaurant you can order up a bottle of Petrus Pomerol l945 for a mere 49,000 francs ($10,000). Every time I went up the grand staircase to the hotel’s front door I imagined myself colliding with Winston Churchill or Jacques Offenbach, Jules Verne or Marlene Dietrich, or perhaps Edward, Prince of Wales, incognito with his latest paramour. While I was staying there,  one of King Fayed’s sons had taken an entire floor for the month, and many of the 41 deluxe suites were rented to the new Russian rich (we will avoid the loaded term Mafia). 
My fifth-floor balcony looked down on the harbor bristling with yachts, including the 335-foot Atlantis II, which had once belonged to Stavros Niarchos, the Greek shipping magnate. Prince Rainier, Monaco’s head of state, told me it was currently being chartered out by Niarchos’s three sons and daughter. The Van Gogh, Renoir, and other Impressionist paintings that had made the boat a floating museum were stashed in a bank vault, he had heard, and replaced with copies. Niarchos had been a frequent visitor to this elegant little country on the Cote d’azur, but unlike his rival, Aristotle Onassis, he never invested in it.
Early in the morning, from my balcony, I watched the sun rise out of the sea, bathing the harbor and small thicket of high-rises behind it in a rose wash that slowly ascended up the corniche–the limestone crags that loom two thousand feet above. Monaco consists almost entirely of this small, perfectly scalloped, intensely built-up bay, enclosed by two points: the Rock, where the prince’s palace is, and Monte Carlo, with the casino and the Hotel de Paris. On the other side of the Rock is Fontvielle, the new sixty-three-acre residential and light-industrial district that Rainier built out into the sea in the early eighties, increasing the principality’s size by 14%; on the other side of Monte Carlo are the artificial beaches whose gravel he trucked in date tk. The beautiful pastel villas and gardens with needle cypresses that one sees on vintage travel posters have largely disappeared. In their place tower glass-and-steel apartment canisters containing the pieds de terre of “people who have made a pisspot of money elsewhere,” as one woman characterized the more than 20,000 foreigners who have established residence here. The draw: no income, property, or inheritance taxes since 1869. 
Among “Rainier’s guests” have been thirty-five tennis stars, including Boris Becker, Bjorn Borg, and Vitas Gerulaitis (who moved out in the late ‘80s after the acrimonious end of his affair with Ranier’s eldest daughter, Princess Caroline). To obtain citizenship as a foreigner you have to open a $100,000 bank account and pass muster with the selective Rainier. The Shah of Iran was not welcomed after he lost his throne, even though, during his glory days, he had helped add luster to Rainier’s royal reputation by including him in his circle. But Placido Domingo is here, as are Ringo Starr, Julian Lennon, Claudia Schiffer, Karen Mulder, Karl Lagerfeld, and Helmut Newton. The Duke and Dutchess of Bedford come for two months of the year, go to the galas, spend a lot of money, and are well-liked.  
 The casino and what Prince Rainier described to me as “a certain confidentiality” practiced by Monagasque banks have attracted some unsavory types over the years. Arms-dealers, money-launderers for the Colombian cartels and the Italian Mafia (the businessman Enrico Baggiotti, who is wanted by the Italian government for money laundering, is still at liberty here) have slipped through the screening process, lending credence to Somerset Maugham’s famous description of Monaco as “a sunny place for shady people.” Maugham himself lived for many years in a villa on nearby Cap Ferat. The principality has also been a haven for artists: Ravel, Picasso, Cocteau, Balanchine, Bakst, and Anthony Burgess all produced important work here. Colette was a longtime resident of “this little country whose borders are flowers.” 
 Some years back Prince Rainier explained that his goal, when he inherited the throne 48 years ago, was to transform a sleepy colony of overwintering British and White Russian emigres into “a reduced model of perfection.” To a remarkable degree he has succeeded. Monaco’s economy, measured in terms of annual turnover, rather than g.n.p., is currently about five billion dollars and though it is impossible to verify (no one has to declare his earnings), the per capita income may well be the world’s highest. The streets of Monaco are purged of all malodorous funkiness. Policemen, in uniforms designed by Karl Lagerfeld, and closed-circuit cameras are ubiquitous. There is one carabinier for every 67 residents. If you are going to be run over here, it is probably going to be by a Mercedes. 
 This modern-day fairy tale owes much to Rainier’s marriage in l956 to the Hollywood movie star Grace Kelly.  Grace was one of the best things that ever happened to Monaco. She was glamorous and dignified as a first lady, and she dedicated the second half of her life to being the perfect wife for her prince. He, his children, and the country have never really recovered from her death in an automobile accident on the corniche tk years ago. 
 In l963 Rainier reluctantly agreed to the formation of an eighteen-member National Council, elected every five years by those Monégasques with voting privileges (currently about eight hundred how determined tk), thus making him in theory a constitutional monarch. But there is no mistaking who is the boss of the Rock- le propriétaire, as everyone calls him; he refers to himself as the C.E.O. He is Europe’s senior monarch, and the House of Grimaldi, of which he is the thirty-third head, is the continent’s oldest unbroken dynasty. This year it celebrates its 700th year in power. In two years Prince Rainier will have been on the throne for fifty years, making him the longest-reigning, and in many ways the greatest Grimaldi of them all. Far more powerful dynasties have bitten the dust after much shorter runs, and only six of the myriad European mini-states have survived into the modern era, the others being (one recalls from the most from the most spectacularly colored and exotic specimins one’s childhood stamp collection) Andorra, San Marino, Luxembourg, Leichsenstein, and the Vatican. What is it about this little Faberge egg of a country, only half the size of Central Park, that has enabled it to hang in there? 
There is nothing esoteric about the Grimaldis,” a marquis of my acquaintance told me. “They had position in the court of Versailles, but in Parisian society their circle is not the top. They’ve always been considered a little louche. In the first place, they are not royals, but serenes. You can’t compare them with great titles of France, the grandees of Spain, the English dukedoms, the princes of Germany, Austria, and Italy. But now that the Italian royal family has married down, and the Windsors have been besieged by scandal, the Grimaldis, by default, are serious aristocracy.”
 “The peculiar thing about the Grimaldis,” explained the Comtesse de Chantrelle (as I will call her), “is that they don’t to have to make calculated marriages to better their strain. They can marry commoners, they can marry for love, they can marry whomever they want, and they have, repeatedly, which sort undermines the whole premise of aristocracy, so they’ve always been considered a mongrel lineage.”
 Like the Windsors, Rainier’s children have had difficulty connecting with suitable mates. Albert, the prince héritier, is thirty-nine and still unmarried, and according to the Comtesse de Chantrelle is “curiously lacking in backbone and personality. People say he’s gay, and he keeps denying it.” His once-divorced, once-widowed elder sister, Caroline, has lately been having a stressful affair with the married Prince Ernst of Hanover, which caused her hair to fall out in clumps last October, or so everyone was saying. Meanwhile her rebellious kid sister Stephanie had married her bodyguard, Daniel Ducruet, á la Patti Hearst. But last August, paparazzi photographed and videotaped Ducruet in flagrante with a former Miss Nude Belgium beside and in a pool at Cap D’Ailles, just up the French coast. The photos were splashed all over the Italian magazine, Eva Tremilla, and the 90-minute video of their poolside passion was aired on a Rome porno station. Prince Rainier was reported to have had a crise cardiaque when he was shown the proof of his son-in-law’s dalliance. Princely wrath expediting the process, Stephanie and Ducruet were hastily divorced. 
Rainier is seventy-three years old. He underwent double-bypass surgery two years ago, and people have been asking him for the last ten years when he is going to step down and pass the baton to his son. But the Prince probably intends to stay on the throne until his golden anniversary in l999. One of his hobbies is making drawings of circus clowns, the greatest one having been named Grimaldi. He supposedly has had an r.v. custom-made for his retirement, in which he plans to follow the circus. He is a talented sculptor, and an internationally recognized authority on primates. He doesn’t play golf anymore, however. 
  Rainier and Grace shared a passion for golf, and they used to play at the Monte Carlo Golf Club, below Mont Agel, up on the corniche. Robert, the old Irish pro, who has been there since l947 recalled their lively rounds with David Niven, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, and Frank Sinatra. “I was the prince’s [golf] doctor,” he told me. “I had him down to a fourteen [handicap]. He’s never got over Grace’s death. Her clubs are still in the clubhouse. He never even picked them up.” 
 At the Cathedral in Monte Carlo last January, where a Te Deum was sung for the family on the 700th anniversary of their ancestors’ storming of the Rock on January 9, l297, Rainier seemed a broken man; at one point he appeared to be dozing off, which he is famous for doing at official functions. Virtually all his closest friends are dead, including Noel Coward and Niven.
 Ranier is often depicted in the press as a cold, brooding autocrat given to violent fits of temper. His son is said to be so intimidated by him that he stutters in his presence. So it was with some trepidation that I entered his office in the crenelated tower of his palace. The Prince was sitting at a table, looking dour. But, after a few minutes of polite small talk, he brightened visibly and began to reveal a quality that my grandmother used to call “coziness.” Still, he seemed perfectly aristocratic, as one would expect the possessor of 147 titles, among them the Duc de Valentois, Comte de Carlades, Baron de Oalvinet, Baron du Buis, and Sire de Matignon to be. He spoke an improvised, continental version of upper-class English and was brimming with anecdotes. One was about Churchill, who, toward the end of his life, was a familiar sight on the sidewalks of Monte Carlo, as he painted the sea and puffed on his perennial cigar. No one bothered him. One evening he came to the palace for a screening of Lawrence of Arabia. “I knew that man,” Churchill had said with mischievous twinkle in his eye. 
 “The British aristocrats would come for two or three months in the winter,” Rainier recalled. “They’d play tennis and ride horses in white flannels. I remember the Flêche d’Or, which brought them, and the Bleu Wagon Lit, which would depart Paris every evening; its cuisine was superb. But Monaco was affected by the success of skiing and winter resorts, and the opening up of flights to the Caribbean..        “That was the first challenge,” Rainier explained : “to adapt Monaco from a winter to a summer resort. We weren’t equipped for summer tourism. In the nineteenth century women had wanted their skin to remain light. Now they began to take bains de soleil, and their husbands were being given paid holidays in the summer months.” So Rainier brought in gravel and created the artificial beaches of the Monte Carlo Beach Club in 19tk. 
 What about Monaco’s reputation as a haven for questionable financial activity? I asked. In the casino a few months back certain croupiers had been discovered easing the odds for some appreciative Italian businessman. It wasn’t Mafia money, but “black money,” undeclared income the businessman could say they won at the tables. 
  “I asked my attorney to make an inquest and he said maybe there is some money laundering, but– I always remember his expression–. ‘it is being done in an artisanal, not a big manner.’ To do it on a big scale, you’d have to own the casino, so I was tranquilized on that subject. 
 “The extent of dirty money that comes in here is greatly exaggerated,” he went on. “The banks are told not to take money that they are not clear where it comes from or they will be in trouble. A commission watches over this.”
 It was Rainier’s proud boast that the casino, in the fifties the principality’s greatest moneymaker, now only provides four percent of its revenues. “The nature of gambling has changed,” he observed. “I was in Las Vegas with Albert, and I noticed they couldn’t get up a baccarat table. It’s the same here. It’s hard to make up a table with 6-7 gamblers who will play all night long any more.”
 After Grace’s death, Ranier devoted himself to the one other thing that mattered to him, being the Builder Prince and turning what he called a pays d’operettes, a country of operettas, into what he described as “not only a nice place to live, but to work.” Today there are over a hundred light industries and twenty thousand wage earners. 
The press started to get excited after Ranier was seen a few times with the flamboyant “business princess” Ira von Furstenberg, but he has never given serious thought to remarriage. When I brought up the death of Grace and its effects, the familiar look of grief-stricken devastation came over his face, and he fished out a thin cigarette from his jacket pocket and lighted it. “Her death has been very tough on the children, which is obvious,” he explained. “One can’t replace a mother. One can be a good father, but there is a gap. What I can’t understand is the resurgence of nasty books in America that say Grace was not happy and I was fooling around all over the place, which is absolutely untrue and grotesque. And that she became a drunk. We had the same laughs and the same attitude about each other right to the end—even more so, because the children were becoming teenagers. She was deeply involved in social and charitable events. I’m astonished by this dreadful man Lacey [Robert Lacey, author of Grace, published in 19tk, one of several recent books that chronicled her many premarital affairs and estrangement from Rainier toward the end]. Why try to destroy a very beautiful image and a wonderful person?” Rainier had wanted to sue Lacey but his advisers had dissuaded him with the argument that the suit would only boost sales. The book, excerpted in VFtk, claims that Grace sought comfort from at least four young lovers when her looks started to fade and her weight ballooned as she hit fifty. 
  I saved his daughters till last. “Stephanie is very much wounded for this [the Ducruet affair] to happen to her,” he said. “But the fact of having these three children [ages tk] and herself dedicated to them— that may be the good part of it. I find her much more self-conscious and self-dependent. I always felt that it should be a rule as a parent to leave the door open. However one feels and whatever is said, kids have to know home is home and that they can come back any time they want to.”
 At this point rumors were still flying about the filming of Ducruet and the former Miss Nude Belgium. The general consensus was that it must have been a coup monté, a set-up. I heard from several sources that Rainier himself may have been behind it; he wanted to get rid of the Ducruet. It was true that Rainier had made it hard on other men who had married into the family like his sister’s first husband, the Monégasque tennis star, Alecko Noghes, and Phillip Junot, Caroline’s philandering first husband. But to get rid of Ducruet in a way so embarrassing to the family was preposterous.  
 “I don’t want to talk about Ducruet,” the prince said, sparing me the discomfort of having to ask about the rumors. “When he says he was set up in Ville Franche, you don’t go and stay there and get undressed. That’s not being trapped. But,” he added, “it’s probably just as well that he’s out of the family.”
None of Ranier’s children are currently married. This is also true of Rainier’s sister, Atoninette, and her daughter, name tk. Some attribute the difficulties to a curse put on the Grimaldis, by a young woman, spurned by an ancestor centuries ago. She supposedly became a witch and decreed that no Grimaldi would ever be happy in marriage.
 In the family tree there have been plenty of good old-fashioned sibling rivalries and Dynasty-type family feuds. Ranier’s nephew, Christian de Massy, laments that he was born into “a legacy of father hating son, mother hating daughter, children hating parents, sisters hating brothers, a tradition in the blood of our family of constant conflict.” 
There was a particularly vicious period at the beginning of the sixteenth century when Jean II, the seigneur of the Rock, was stabbed to death by his brother Lucien, who was in turn killed by his nephew. Lucien was a friend of the Florentine diplomat Nicolo Machiavelli, author of The Prince, the ultimate treatise on political immorality. 
In the 17th and 18th centuries the Grimaldis spent most of their time at the court in Versailles, where they were important foreign princes et pairs, and at their beautiful Chateau Marchais in Champagne, an hour and a half outside of Paris.
  “The essential reign,” Rainier told me, “was that of Charles III [1818-1889]. He decided to develop the quartier of Monte Carlo, which was then olive and lemons groves. The bold scheme worked because Charles had the idea to exploit roulette, which was banned in France.  After a railroad was built in 1868, the casino at Monte Carlo really took off, particularly with the Russian aristocracy. One night in l911 no less than four Romanoff grand dukes were seen dining at the Hotel de Paris. The Russians came down in private railroad cars and lost millions in a night. “A few Russians— the most reckless gamblers in the world—constitute the elite of Monaco society,” the Daily Telegraph reported in 1870. “To be a Russian count, or better still a countess, is to have the homage of every croupier. Waiters fawn… Officials salute. They have the most perfect facilities for ruining themselves”  
 The Thursday night I visited the casino, the only customers were a smattering of low-stakes Russians and Hungarians. The decor was fabulously rococo, whorehouse red predominating. I felt in the presence of a dying vice receding into history like, say, the fashion for laudanum drops. This is one of the last places where you can play baccarat or chemin de fer.  I had to force myself to remember that this was where Mata Hari was unmasked, where Dick gave Liz an eye-popping tk-carat diamond necklace. The atmosphere was cheezy—the only place in Monaco I encountered that didn’t live up to the glamorous image. It’s probably been that way from the beginning. Here is Guy de Maupassant on the casino in l887 : “Around the tables a horrible riff-raff of players, the scum of the continents and of society, mixed with princes or future kings, ladies of the world, bourgeois, usurers, wasted young women, a unique melange on earth…”
Charles III’s son Albert I (Ranier’s great-grandfather) succeeded him upon his death in l889. An austere, imposing man, he married a well-born Scotswoman, Lady Mary Victoria Douglas-Hamilton. At this point things get a little murky in the family bloodline. According to one source, Mary Douglas-Hamilton became pregnant, not by her husband, but by the dashing Hungarian Count Tassilo Festetics de Tolna, She gave birth to a son, Louis, in 1870 in Baden Baden on her honeymoon, and left her husband after only a few months of marriage to live with the count happily ever after. So if Louis is not a Grimaldi, neither are Rainier and his children. Regis Lecuyer, the curator of the palace archives, seemed highly uncomfortable with this line of inquiry. “All I know from the archive is that Albert the First was the father,” he said. “I’ve heard of the Count Festetics, but gossip doesn’t interest me. I don’t know how it got started.” 
 What is known is that Louis bore no resemblance to Albert, and that Albert despised him. Louis, like many an unwanted son, joined the French Foreign Legion, where he repeatedly demonstrated fearlessness and sangfroid in life-threatening situations. Later, in Paris, he fell in love with Marie Juliette Louvet, who was working in a nightclub in Monmartre. In l898 Louis and Marie had a daughter, Charlotte, known in the family as Mamou. Lecuyer had no information, and no photographs of Marie Louvet, la blanchisseuse, the laundress, as the Comtesse de Chantrelle, and others familiar with the Grimaldi family tree, call Louis’s paramour. 
 Mamou was Louis’s only child, and it soon became apparent that she was the only heir in sight. If there isn’t any heir, Monaco reverts to France according to the treaty of l861. So Albert legitimized Mamou when she was twenty. To make her more respectable, she was married to Count Pierre de Polignac, a society dandy. Mamou and Polignac had two children, Antoinette in l918, and three years later, Rainier. Once the heir had been produced, Comte de Polignac was eased out. He lost even visitation rights after his 15-year-old daughter Antoinette accused him of abusing her. Mamou and Polignac divorced in l933.
At the end of her life Mamou took up with a famous jewel thief, René Gigier, formerly France’s public enemy number one, known as the Walking Stick, due to his peculiar stiff, hobbled gait. She even brought Gigier to Rainier and Grace’s wedding. Princess Caroline strongly resembles Mamou, who had no interest in running the principality. Upon her father’s death in l948, she abdicated immediately in favor of her son, Rainier III.

Rainier’s sister, Princess Antoinette, known in the family as Tiny, lives in a modest villa under the corniche in outlying Eze sur Mer with thirty-five old or abandoned dogs, eighteen stray cats, and, when I called on her, two young maids from Yorkshire. “She’s completely mad,” one of them told me. The livingroom had an almost overpowering dog odor. Tiny greeted me in the foyer, chasing two dachshunds behind a gate. “Bloody dogs. Excuse my language. My grandfather was in the foreign legion.” Family photos took up every available surface, snaps of her young self at galas, of her third and last husband, the balletmaster John Gilpin, who supposedly had danced the best Spectre de la Rose since Nijinsky. 
 “My grandfather Louis brought me up,” she told me. “He was a love. On summer holidays in Switzerland he would take us out in his bright yellow Hispano-Suizza convertible. He would sit in front with the chauffeur, Rainier and I in back with nanny (Kathleen Wanstall, a cousin of Churchill’s), waving at and pretending to know the dumbfounded Swiss. You know the Swiss are not particularly rapid. My brother and I had great fun doing naughty things. Grandfather would take us to Franz Carl Weber’s famous toy shop in Lauzanne and would tell the attendant to ‘give them whatever they want.’ While we were choosing, he would sit down, take out his pince-nez, put his silver tobacco case on one knee, his case with papers on the other, then he would wet his fingers and roll himself a cigarette, pinching off the tobacco on the fag end. The Monégasques loved him because he was very simple. He fretted for the Foreign Legion.” 
 Late in life, at the age of 67, Louis took up with a buxom actress thirty five years his junior named Ghislaine Dommanget, whom he married three years before his death and to whom he left everything. Rainier successfully blocked the will, using his power as absolute monarch and the argument that his father’s fortune was not personal but belonged to the Crown and was therefore not his to give away. 
 Hoping there would be photos of her grandmother, la blanchisseuse, I asked if I might look through a row of albums on a shelf. She took them out. Their edges had been chewed into shavings by mice who were nesting behind them. Tiny said, “One’s never sort of bothered about that part of the family. I don’t even know the name of my grandmother. 
 “My mother was a character– strong-willed, her own person,” Tiny went on. “Mother founded a home in Menton [up the coast] for the White Russians who were milling about. Lost souls, they were totally helpless. They didn’t even know how to lace their shoes. In those days Monaco was very elite, and one had to be frightfully posh. Mother threw galas to help the Whites Russians and got involved in Diaghilev’s ballet. [The ballerinas] Tcechinskaya and Karsavina would come up to the palace and teach us steps, and my grandfather would imitate Nijinsky’s famous leap to amuse us.”
  Anne Edwards, in her book The Grimaldis of Monaco, with which the palace was extremely displeased, claims that when Rainier was born, Tiny felt cheated out of the throne, and in the early fifties, before Rainier married Grace, she spread rumors that his then mistress, a French actress named Giselle Pascal, couldn’t have children. She even supposedly plotted a coup to put in her six-year-old son Christian. When she later married her second husband Jean-Charles Rey, the fiery head of the Monégasque opposition, she continued to work actively to undermine and unseat her brother, according to Edwards, and to Christian’s even more distressing memoir, Palace, for which he was banished from Monaco. But when I brought up this period of her life, Tiny said, “It’s absolute trash that I was trying to get the succession for Buddy [as Christian is known in the family]. I’ve always been perfectly satisfied with my own lot.”
  Buddy is the blackest of the family black sheeps. Even Albert, the most compassionate of Buddy’s generation, had nothing good to say about him. “He’s pretty much of a bum,” Albert told me. “He blew it in every sense of the word, not only with the book, but he gave a lot of mean interviews.” Albert wasn’t sure where Buddy was, maybe Italy, he said, but Tiny claimed he was living in Miami, about to have a baby with his fourth wife, “a very nice colored girl from Jamaica. I’m going to be the grandmother of a little black boy and it’s going to be fun.” But she didn’t have his number. She said to try the consul in Miami. But there isn’t any Monaco consul in Miami. (There was a Christian de Massy in Miami information but his number was unlisted.) 
 I asked Tiny if she saw much of her brother these days. “Very seldom,”she replied. “But when we do see each other, it’s always like we had just been together the day before. I’m always behind him, whatever position he takes politically or with our kids. His kids are much younger, more independent, and more spoiled, but I’d throw myself over the deep end for them like I would my own. Rainier and I were very close as children, but in sovereign families always people try to get between to get the power”.
 Fluent in six languages, an avid reader and supporter of the arts, Princess Caroline is the most intellectual of  Ranier’s children. But she is also a tough cookie. What’s she like? I would ask people who knew her. (Furious at the coverage of her most recent affair, she is giving no interviews to the press.) “Trés sympatique,” they would invariably say. But dure? “Oui.” 
 Caroline is often remembered for her youthful rebellious phase–at the age of twenty, to get out of the palace and to spite her mother, as she would later say, she married the 38-year-old boulevardier Phillipe Junot. According to her shoe designer Christian Louboutin, “Junot and another old playboy Alix Chevassu decided one night to marry the girls most en vue. Alix married Maria Niarchos, the only daughter of Stavros, and Junot took Caroline to the altar. It was very jet set.”
 After sixteen months the marriage was over. According to Louboutin: “In the mid-eighties [her younger sister] Stephanie started getting media, while Caroline had divorced Junot and disappeared, so the media dropped her. So she had time to reconstruct a new elegance and beauty while the attention was on Stephanie. When she reappeared she was completely transformed.”  
. After several liaisons (including Guillermo Vilas) she fell deeply in love with Stefano Casiragi, a rich, handsome, Italian three years her junior. They married and had three children. On August 3, l987, he got into a sixty-foot-long speedboat shaped like an elongated shoe box and flipped at 120 mph, killing himself instantly.  It was several years before Caroline was ready for another relationship—with the 37-year-old British actor Vincent Linden. Linden adored her children, and after five years it got to the point of marriage, but Linden balked at the nine points to which he had to agree in order to join the family, among them converting to Catholicism (he was Jewish), wiping his feet on entering the throne room, and not speaking to Rainier unless spoken to.  
 Caroline’s latest beau is Prince Ernst August of Hanover, a forty-two-year-old German nephew of Queen Elizabeth and the head of the German House of Hanover. He is rich, with a fortune estimated at $162 million. The trouble is that Ernst is already married—to the beautiful Chantal Hochuli, a daughter of the high Swiss bourgeoisie. Supposedly, last fall Chantal had a big scene with Caroline, asking her to leave her husband alone, and telling her she was destroying the lives of the Hanover’s two innocent children, Ernst, 13, and Christian, 12. This so upset Caroline, or so those in the know were saying, that a few weeks later, her hair began to fall out in clumps. The medical term was alopecia areata, la pelade nerveuse, thought to be related to stress or a sudden shock. Prince Albert tried to calm everyone down: “It’s a skin problem, a dermatology thing. It’s nothing serious, and her hair will grow back… Other than that, she’s fine,” he told tk.  
Alopecia, your basic baldness, is a dominant trait, i.e. it is transmitted directly from generation to generation. An obvious predisposition comes from the Kelly side. Grace’s father was bald, and Grace herself had very thin hair, which she often braided with artificial hairpieces.  Albert is almost completely bald. When and if the hair of a person visited by alopecia areata will grow back is completely unpredictable. Areata means patchy, and Caroline’s baldness was not of the chic Michael Jordan/Sean Connery variety, so she cut all her remaining hair off, apparently in the presence of Ernst. One of her daughters applied the shaving cream, claims someone who got it from someone who was there. 
  Valerie La Londe, a close friend who has a country mas near Caroline’s in St. Rémy, told me that the alopecia had nothing to do with Ernst’s wife. “She caught a skin thing in Turkey,” explained La Londe. The entire subject has become somewhat moot, because “now her hair is growing back really well,” the palace told me. And indeed recent public appearances show that her hair is cropped, but dark-brown and healthy. 
“Caroline has her own tastes and values,” the photographer and writer Francois Marie Banier told me. “Everything she does, she does perfectly. We first met in l974 when she was only a little girl, but already showed extraordinary strength of character. When she speaks about her life she is very frank and honest. She knows values. She is very attentive to others; she’s completely other-directed and absolutely pas conventionelle. When I was with her in St. Remy she was playing with her kids [names and ages tk] morning noon and night in extremely creative ways. She’s completely different from celle des magazines.  Sometimes she comes to my atelier to talk literature. One time I went with her and Agnes Good to a Jasper John show and we discovered she already knew a lot about him.”
 The latest news in Caroline’s quest for happiness is that the paparazzi, with whom she has struggled for control over her life from the day she was born, have finally, if unwittingly, done her a good turn: one of them caught her and Ernst smooching in a field of wildflowers. When the photo ran in Paris Match, Chantal was so infuriated that she sued for divorce, paving the way for Caroline to wed the man her mother pointed out years ago as the perfect husband for her.

Prince Albert’s first impression, as everyone had warned, was not impressive. Our first meeting took place in the Monaco Embassy in Paris. He seemed strangely lacking in pizazz. One of my uncharitable colleagues had gone so far as to call him a “dork.” He wears glasses, giving him a Clark Kentish appearance. During his early thirties, the curly locks of his youth receded from his frontal and parietal regions, and he is now, at thirty-nine, bald on top. Two years ago, on a dare from the captain of the Italian bobsled team, he shaved his hair off completely-an interesting footnote in light of his elder sister’s experience.  
After fifteen minutes of our meeting he started to yawn uncontrollably, which I found rather surprising in that Royals are supposedly taught to listen attentively, heads cocked, no matter what you are saying. Was this some kind of hereditary narcolepsy? I wondered, recalling his father’s penchant for falling asleep in public. In the middle of a long disquisition on the history of Monaco’s relationship with France, Albert completely forgot what he was talking about. As I left, he shook hands with me twice. .  If his father is a fox, Albert is more like a springer spaniel. The things people say about him, that he is completely accessible and unstuffy, are absolutely true. But he is also bland. Grace was slightly bland. Albert is really bland. The second time we met in the palace, however, Albert began to relax, and I started to get a warm feeling about him. He is even, in his own way, quietly charismatic. 
 Rainier obviously put more pressure on him as only son and heir than on the girls, but it was Grace who was “the government,” as Rainier put it. Her approach to the children was, according to Buddy, “velvet-gloved discipline.” 
 After tk boarding schools and Amherst College, Albie, as he is known in the family, did a stint as a tk at Morgan Guaranty in New York in 19tk. For most of his adult life, though, he has merely been waiting to ascend the throne. Passionate about sports, he has put his own stamp on the principality as the president of its swimming, track, and bobsled federations and of the yacht club (where he feels most at home, a friend of his told me). He has a black belt in judo and is the only member of the International Olympic Committee who has competed in the games (his bobsled came in 35th at Lillehammer in 19tk). Once at a black tie ball at the Waldorf in New York my friend the marquis went into the men’s room to find Albert doing push-ups on the floor, with his bodyguard standing by.
 Albert blames his not being married on the paparazzi, who, he claims, have unsettled his various girlfriends, especially the American swimmer Mary Wayte, a Sharon Stone-lookalike who won a gold medal the l984 Olympics. Albert was crazy about her, he says, and evidently she felt the same way about him, but “she was one of the ones who got scared.” That his bride would inevitably be compared to Grace makes this not an easy family to come into.
 Albert takes after his mother, which may account for his almost feminine softness. As Buddy wrote: “Albert continues to astonish me in how he resembles his mother in his correctness, his sense of balance, order, and dignity.” This has given rise to speculation that he is gay. “There were rumors about boyfriends when he was in the Marines,” the Comtesse de Chantrelle told me, “and a moment when he was said to be having an affair with Pierre d’Arenberg id tk, but I’ve never been under his belt, so I wouldn’t know.”   
At our second meeting we addressed the rumors of his homosexuality. Prince Albert had clearly heard them before. 
 “Several things happened,” he explained. “Part of the rumor originated in Paris. Some guys were jealous that I stole their girlfriends.”
 So they put out disinformation.
 “Secondly, I have lots of gay friends who are artists, very creative people, and people see pictures of me chatting with some of them at a gallery opening, and they conclude I am gay, too. And at official events for a long time my parents did not want me to bring any dates, so people automatically assume I’ve never seen him with anybody so he must be gay.” In fact Albert has been seen with many beautiful women, including Catherine Oxenberg and Claudia Schiffer, about whom he said, “We’re just friends. We only had a few dates.” 
 “I’m nearing 40,” he went on. “It would be nice to have kids. I don’t want to be too old for them. I’m getting pressure from friends and from Caroline’s kids, and Caroline would love to retire as first lady.” Privately the palace has been spreading word that Albert will marry this year. Obviously, a big wedding would be a nice cap to the septicentennial. 
  At a buffet lunch for invited guests at the auto museum after the Te Deum, I found myself sitting next to Albert, Stephanie and Rainier’s libel lawyer, Thierry Lacoste, who told me that Albert can’t go to California because he would have to face a paternity suit there. I was amazed that Albert’s lawyer would reveal this sensitive piece of information to a total stranger, and a journalist at that, which he knew I was because I had told him so. Maybe this was a planned leak, a clever attempt to beef up Albert’s lusty hetero image. But it wasn’t planned seating. Lacoste and I just happened to sit down at the same table. If there is a child in California, this could change the succession. As it now stands, if Albert has no children, or were not to become the prince for some reason, the line of succession would go to Caroline, then to her eldest son, Andrea. But a child who could be proved to be Albert’s would be legitimized, as happened with Mamou, and then it would go to him or her. 
 “I don’t think Albert will have the guts, intelligence, and toughness of his father,” the Comtesse de Chantrelle told me. “But you never know.” This retiring late-bloomer could even become a great ruler. Rainier was extremely shy when he took the throne at the age of twenty-six, and he only “revealed himself in stages,” as I was told by Raoul Bianceri, the president of the Societe des bains et mares, which owns the Hotel de Paris, the casino, the golf club, and everything that makes Monte Carlo the chic resort that it is.
Stephanie is the most complex of Ranier’s and Grace’s children. “Obviously a disturbed kid,” pronounced a person who knew her. An adorable tomboy, the apple of father’s eye, she was spoiled rotten. Even as a child she was unmanageable. “I could have struck her with a gong and it wouldn’t have made the slightest difference,” her mother recalled. Following Caroline couldn’t have been an easy act for either Stephanie or Albert because, as Tiny told me, “There’s a lot of Caroline.” Once Grace came upon Caroline holding Stephanie upside down, about to dunk her head into a toilet bowl. So perhaps Stephanie learned early on that the way to get attention was to be an enfant terrible. Buddy recalls that she “behaved like a little girl long past the age, sulking and sucking thumb until she was fourteen.” 
 As a tk year old, she was in the car when it crashed, killing her mother-there were even rumors that Stephanie was driving. What followed was a most difficult phase, as she moved to Los Angeles in 19tk. Having gone out with the relatively respectable sons of the actors Alain Delon and Jean Paul Belmondo and with Rob Lowe, she fell in with what the Comtesse de Chantrelle called “a collection of creeps.” She got engaged to Mario Jutard, a twice-divorced club-owner with a criminal record (for rape plea-bargained down to tk), then to Jean Yves Lefyr, an ex-boyfriend of supermodel Karen Mulder, whom she ditched for Ron Bloom, a scruffy record producer 16 years her senior. Then she took up with a property dealer??? who allegedly had a record for fraud and whom she sued for the cost of their 19tk engagement party. 
 Sexy in a masculine, Amazonian sort of way, square-shouldered, long-legged, and muscular, she become a sort of Princess Rock and Roll . She had a hit single, name tk, designed a line of swimwear, Pool Position, launched her own fragrance, name tk, and was on her way to becoming a top model until the career was nixed by her father. Buddy wrote in l986 : “Today Stephanie does not exactly project the classic image of the young, aristocratic family girl reassuring and gratifying her parents. Unlike Caroline, she does not enjoy being a princess. She is resolutely, aggressively modern, endowed with a futuristic allure and beauty. Dressed in leather or in her disco outfits… she seems to step out of a space-age fairy tale.” 
 None of her relationships or her careers took, and in l991 she returned to Monaco, where she soon became involved with Ducruet. According to a friend of the family, it was just like the Whitney Houstin/Kevin Costner movie, Bodyguard. Ducruet was a local boy, a native of Beausoleil, who had joined principality’s security force after being a fishmonger. Already married, he betrayed his post and seduced Stephanie. They had two daughters, Louise and Pauline, out of wedlock, and while she was while was pregnant with their third child, and Ducruet was having a child by another woman, Stephanie lobbied her father strenuously for permission to marry him. Finally Rainier consented. “She worked hard on him,” a palace source told me. “Ducruet had very low-class attitude. Stephanie rebelled against the rich and famous people that she had to live with, people who seemed to be unreal. But Ducruet’s type was even worse, he was opportunistic. He could have learned the lessons of the palace, how to say thank you and to drink a cup of tea, but he didn’t make the slightest effort.” The wedding invitations were uncrested, and only 30 close friends attended the private ceremony, at which a grim-faced Rainier supposedly said, “This young man has put my daughter back on the right path.” 
 Last summer Stephanie sank $3 million into a clothing store with a restaurant called the Replay Cafe in partnership with her husband and his brother, Alain. It is on the Rue Grimaldi, in the quartier of La Condamine, right below the palace. 
 The European press was rife with speculation about who could have set the fishmonger up until last January when Paris Match revealed what really happened. Two years earlier, while still a bodyguard, Ducruet had bodily ejected the famous paparazzo Stephane de Lisiecki from a Palace event, and de Lisiecki had plotted his revenge ever since.  He hired Fili Houteman, who was working as a topless dancer, to seduce Ducruet last summer at the SPA Francorchamps formula race in tk, in which Ducruet was a contestant. He gave Fili his cellphone number there. A month later, with everything in place, Fili called and said she was at a villa with a friend and there was something she needed to talk to him about right away. Ducruet went there with his bodyguard, Alain Launois. Fili took him out to the pool, where two still and one video photographers were secreted behind blinds. The couple put on a riveting show of naked lust, and the photographers captured every moment of it. “When I saw Fili posing with her sunglasses on her head and her gut sucked in, I knew it was a coup monté,” Christian Louboutin told me. “No one pities anyone so stupid.” 
  I stopped by the Replay Cafe at lunchtime, hoping Stephanie would be there. Since her divorce she’s been throwing herself into the business and can often be found at the store where she’s a big draw for secretaries on lunch breaks and tourists who come to see her behind the cash register. (Her private secretary had already made it clear she not want to be interviewed. She has made no comments about Ducruet except a terse “His life no longer has anything to do with mine.”) The cafe is part of a chain of 150 Replay clothing stores started five years ago in Italy by Stepahnie’s friend, Claudio Buziol. It was Stephanie’s idea to add a restaurant to the Monaco store. 
Ducruet and his brother still came in all the time, a man behind the sales counter told me. According to the New York Post, Ducruet was “said to be weighing an offer of one million to make hard core porno with Fili.” But in June, as a guest on a German talk show, he trashed the set and stormed off, when Fili suddenly walked on. 
 A bartender at Le Texan, a night spot in La Condamine, told me, “Ducruet lost everything. He got two hours of pleasure for fifty years of regret. Stephanie has recovered. She threw a big party the night of the divorce [October 4] and danced at Jimmy’s till three o’clock in the morning.” Last tk Paris Match ran a spread of a bikinied Stephanie romping with her kids on a beach on St. Maarten. She was alone, except for a bodyguard (not the one I met in the Replay Cafe), a femme libre. To celebrate her freedom she had gotten a new tattoo, a discreet flower on her left wrist. As Albert told me, she is doing more ceremonial work these days, taking over First Lady duties when Caroline is out of town. She owes her dad. 
 Why has the press coverage of the Grimaldis become so abusive? I asked Gonzague St. Bris, the editor of Femme and a self-described Monacologue, or Monacologist.
 “At the court of Versailles there were pamphleteers who examined the vices of the court, who was sleeping with whom, le coté romanesque,” he explained. “The chronicles of St. Simon and the Comtesse de Ségur were of much higher quality. They were belles lettristes, literary antecedents of Proust.”  
  Today’s paparazzi, however, are a different breed. The term was invented by the great Italian moviemaker Frederico Fellini, who showed a pack of journalists following around Anita Ekberg in 8. “The top paparazzi,” St.Bris told me, “are only half a dozen. They have no fear and are completely immoral, like mercenaries or cold-blooded contract killers.” One good indiscretion, one peak behind the curtain, one sensational scoop can be worth a hundred thousand dollars, many times more than a prize-winning combat picture. The magazines calculate whether it will still be profitable, after the anticipated lawsuit, to publish the picture. 
 It was Paris Match, St. Bris reminded me, that brought Rainier and Grace together in the first place. “The dynasty was started by a photojournalist, which is why they feel they own the story [of the Grimaldis],” he explained. “It was idea of Pierre Galante, who was married to Olivia deHaviland, to have Grace, who was at Cannes for the film festival, do a shoot at the Palace with Rainier. We will take Grace to Rainier to make une belle photo.”
 But all the bad press doesn’t seem to cause any resentment in Monaco; The Monégasques, as far as I could tell, seem still to love their princely family. The present fascination with the Grimaldis, St. Bris theorized, has to do with “the transplantation of daily unhappiness to big people. Le malheur of people at the top brings people closer to them. Monaco, au fond, is a l9th century novel of Balzac or Dickens. But when the royals have more problems than we do, it becomes a problem.” 
  Monaco and Prince Rainier have survived far worse crises than bad press. In the late fifties Aristotle Onassis arrived on the scene and before anyone realized what was happening, he had become the majority shareholder of the Société des bains et mer. “Onassis was interested in profit, and the S.B.M. is an old lady,” the prince recalled. “He said we must do away with the Salle Garnier [Charles Garnier’s opera house, finished in l875, a masterpiece of deuxième empire neo-baroque excess, with bronze angels and nude limestone voluptuaries; operas, concerts, and ballets are performed in it but there are only three hundred seats] and put in a big modern opera house. He already had some architects up his sleeve. But I was dead against it.” It ended with Rainier in l964 nationalizing the S.B.M. by creating out of the blue 600,000 new shares, which were to be held by the state. A simple move but a very effective one: Onassis was no longer the majority shareholder, and he sold his shares and steamed out of Monte Carlo in his yacht the Christina shortly thereafter. “But with all the trouble,” Rainier continued, “we remained on good terms. He was a pleasant man.” 
 A more nerve-wracking crisis “when General De Gaulle got angry with us” had come to a head four years earlier. Many of France’s wealthiest citizens had established residency in Monaco to avoid paying French taxes and the government was losing millions of dollars, so De Gaulle threatened to terminate the l863 treaty recognizing Monaco’s sovereignty. To avoid being “asphyxiated,” as Ranier put it, he agreed that French residents would no longer be tax-exempt. “And there again it passed over,” he reminisced. “I was young and maybe got angry. A few years later De Gaulle came for an official visit, and he insisted on seeing the children. Grace charmed him. In Paris he often invited us to dinner.
 “Now there is a new possible crisis,” he told me : “the European Union and la monnaie unique. The union could require all residents, being members of the union, to pay taxes like the French. That’s why we’re staying out of it. But how are our treaties with France, which are all in francs, going to be affected ? What will become of the compte de partage [at present 95% of the principality’s revenues come from its share of this French value-added tax on any business transacted within its borders], which recession-plagued France is threatening to reduce. If our customs disappear, what are we going to do? France can’t stay out of the EU, but we can’t be asphyxiated or drowned. This is a problem for all small countries with no resources. There have to be a few small exceptions. It is important that we represent certain securities for our investors. Last year we had 80 billion francs [$32 billion] in our banks. A third of the investors were in France. If we can’t give the advantages we now offer, attractive interest rates and a certain confidentiality-not the complete secrecy the Swiss used to offer, but the certainty your money is not going to be investigated for no reason at all—I don’t know how we will survive.” Even more ominously the SBM lost $30 million last year and looks as if it will be in the red again this year.
 Yet Rainer is optimistic a way will be found. “My ancestors were very inventive. Each time they found the right way, and they were helped by important women who came into the family.” Even Ranier, it seems, is putting his chips on Albert finding a stunning new princess, a successor to Grace, for the next chapter in the Grimaldi’s 700-year-long old fairy tale.

Dispatch #25: A Blues Lover’s Pilgrimage to the Motherland

By Alex Shoumatoff

Bamako : A Blues Lover’s Pilgrimage to the Motherland

There is at first glance nothing about Bamako to suggest that it is one of the hottest music spots on the planet. Bamako is the capital of Mali, the parched, land-locked West African country, two thirds of which is in the Sahara desert, which was just ranked by the U.N. Development’s Human Development Agency as the 184th worst country to be living in out of 187, on the basis of its annual per capita income ($350), the mean education level (fourth grade) and average lifespan (49) of its citizens, and the infant mortality rate (119 per 1000).
Bamako has to be one of the world’s most unprepossessing capitals, more like a big village, really, an anarchic collection of bougous, or neighborhoods. During the past decade of severe drought, its population has doubled to a million as villagers have streamed in from the dessicating countryside, and the city has grown swiftly and chaotically.
The bulk of Bamako sprawls up from the right bank of the Niger River to a tiara of tall red cliffs atop which sits the presidential palace. The president, General Amadou Toumani Touré, known as ATT, is widely perceived as someone who is not out for himself and has the best interests of Mali at heart. He led a coup of junior officers that ended the bloody, despotic 23-year rule of General Mousse Traore in l991, and then retired. He didn’t want to be president and only ran eleven years later because the people were clamoring for him, it is said, and won by a landslide, 64% of the vote. As Howard French points out in his new book on Africa, the democratization of Mali is one of the positive recent developments on the entire continent.
Most of Bamako’s structures are single-story, with courtyards where the women cook food on charcoal braziers. There are six main ethnic groups in Mali, with many sub-groups and the Bamana live with the Bamana, the Sangha with the Sangha, the Peulh with the Peulh, in large extended families and clans that take over entire blocks. The toubab, or whites (also known as ferenji), have their own bougous, too– the nicest ones, of course– with bougainvillea dripping over their walled, guarded compounds.
I am staying in a new luxury hotel called the Kampinski El Farouk. The glassy green Niger slides past my window, on its way up to Timbuctu. The downtown is a five-minute walk, so I set out to find the money-changers. Within a hundred and fifty yards blaring Cuban son, Jamaican rap, and bluesy-sounding ballads in Bambara (the language of the Bamana, Mali’s largest ethnic group), are competing for my ears. No music evolves in isolation any more, I reflect. Fusion is happening all the time. The music of Africa and the Americas has crossed and back-crossed and hybridized so many times that is no longer possible to identify what exactly comes from where. But there is a widespread perception that the music known as the blues, which emerged in the Afro-American South in the l890’s and fathered jazz and rock n’roll, and is so infectious and cathartic that it is the world’s dominant popular music form, originated here, in Mali. This perception has been reinforced by a recent seven-part PBS series on the blues, which begins in Mali; and by such cross-cultural collaborations as Ry Cooder and Ali Farka Toure’s Talking Timbuctu and Taj Mahal and Toumani Diabete’s Kulanjan, and the anthology album, From Memphis to Mali. Whatever the truth of it is, there is a lot of great music in Mali that has little or nothing to do with the blues, as I soon find out, entering the labyrinthine central market, which takes up most of the downtown, flowing out of buildings, across streets, spilling into alleys and courtyards. Every few yards a different blaster is playing a different cd or cassette, the stars of whatever part of Mali the person manning the next stall is from. The haunting melodies and intricate rhythms of Wassoulou, Mandinke, bogolon, and a host of other styles mingle with the steady low hum, punctuated with periodic eruptions of laughter, of people bartering with each other in mutually unintelligible languages. The visual assault is no less riotous : the thirty kinds of mango that that are grown in Mali are on display with the protocubist wood sculptures of the Dogon cliffdwellers, who live along a 100-mile-long escarpment upcountry; the dazzling, boldly patterned tissus that the women wrap themselves in; the sumptuous turquoise or green or yellow boubous, or frocks, that the men wear. My head is swimming in the joyous hullabaloo. Is this one of the world’s poorest countries, I wonder, or one of the richest? Perhaps the fact that there is so little for anyone to make off with is a blessing in disguise.
It is certainly one of the calmest and safest countries in Africa, or anywhere, and one of the few where Americans are still liked. This is because many families have a member living in Queens or some other Malian enclave in the States who is sending home money, and because the French, whose heavy-handed colonization is not remembered fondly, are so hated. With the national unemployment rate at 60%, there’s a huge pool of people who don’t have to get to work in morning, so they party in the city’s numerous clubs, which are hopping till three a.m. most days of the week and have names like the Bozo Club and the Bla-Bla Club (named not for empty chatter, but a town in the interior) and are like juke-joints in the American South in the twenties. Bonnie Rait, who made the blues pilgrimage to Mali in 1999, compared them to Texas roadhouses.

THE CHAIN OF EVENTS that has brought me here begins in l961, when I was fifteen and incarcerated in an exclusive all-boys prep school in New Hampshire (St. Paul’s—the same one John Kerry went to). We were allowed to go into town on Wednesday afternoon, and on one of these trips I bought a record of a black country blues singer from North Carolina called Pink Anderson. There was a photo of him on the cover, an old black man with a strong, kindly face, standing with his guitar in bib overalls on the porch of his shack.
I connected immediately with Anderson’s raw, lacerated voice and his throbbing, searing guitar-picking. As the sixties progressed, a lot of other white middle-class American kids had similarly powerful reactions to the blues, perhaps because we, too, were culturally eviscerated. As Alan Lomax writes in The Land Where the Blues Began, his l992 book about the recordings he made for the Library of Congress in the Mississippi Delta during the thirties and forties : “All of us… are beginning to experience the melancholy dissatisfaction that weighed upon the hearts of the black people of the Delta… feelings of anomie and alienation, of orphaning and rootlessness, the sense of being a commodity rather than a person; the loss of loved ones and of family and of place—this modern syndrome was the norm for the cotton farmers and the transient laborers of the Deep South a hundred years ago… Rage and anxiety pervade the emotions and the actions of both the haves and the have-nots. And the sound of the worried blues of the old Delta is heard in back alleys and palaces, alike.”
I decided I had to learn how to play this music, and the next time I was in New York City, I went to Manny’s, the musical-instrument emporium on 48th street and bought myself an eighty-dollar, bottom-of-the-line Epiphone steel-string guitar. Then went I down to the Folkore Center in Greenwich Village, a one-room operation presided over by a man named Izzy Young, where Bob Zimmerman, soon to become Bob Dylan, and other unknown musicians were hanging out and trading licks. I asked Young who could teach me how to play the country blues guitar, and Young sent me up to Harlem, to a blind old man named the Reverend Gary Davis, who was living with his wife in a shack behind a row of condemned buildings [see my Rolling Stone profile of him in the Music From Many Lands section of Past Dispatches]. Davis was one of the legendary masters of country blues, ragtime, and gospel fingerpicking. He had made some amazing “race” records in the thirties (the artists were paid with a bottle of whiskey), but these were long forgotten, and he was playing in the street and in the numerous storefront revival churches in the neighorhood. Soon he would be rediscovered. Peter, Paul, and Mary sang one of his songs, followed by the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, and Hot Tuna, and he and Annie were able to buy a little house in Jamaica, Queens, where I visited them every chance I could until his death in l973.
Davis became my guitar teacher, and one of the three or four most influential people in my life. The first tune he taught me was not a blues, but a haunting spiritual that was from a much older tradition. As in much of his music, you can hear echoes of Africa. 42 years later, I’m still trying to play the tunes he taught me, and lately, in Montreal, I’ve been doing them with a saxophonist named Jody Golick. Jody has a fabulous collection of Malian music; he spent two months in Bamako in l994. Every once in a while, when he plays me a cut from one of his cassettes or c.d.’s, I’ll hear a lick or a riff that is strongly reminiscent of Gary Davis. This is not surprising. Lomax recorded polyphonic fife and drum bands in the Deep South that were completely African (even though they were playing popular numbers from the Twenties like “After the Dance is Over”), and he discovered that “black African nonverbal performance traditions had survived virtually intact in African America.” Davis was one of the last living links to these traditions. So I decided to go to Mali and see how his music went over with the local musicians.
January and February were some of the most bitter cold months Montreal had had in years, and Jody and I got through it by jamming and listening to Malian music and jazz in the afternoons. I would send him e-mails like :

Can we say that Africa music is polyphonic, the same chord of melodic sequence is played over and over again hypnotically, joined by other instruments and voices chorically, antiphonally, syncopatically, until a dense polyphonic loop is created, while Western music is monophonic, following a single melody line that is more complex and follows a progression of chords and harmonies ?

To which he answered :

African polyphony works through a collection of rhythmic and melodic interlocking sequences or loops (called by theorists ‘ostinati,’ singular ‘ostinato’). Loops can be of different metres and lengths but all are based on a strict, often unstated, underlying rhythmic pulse. The resulting polyphony can be extremely complex and sophisticated and very difficult for the uninitiated listener to parse. For a Western musician the challenge is not learning a part, which may be fairly straightforward, but learning where to come in, which can be incredibly tricky and counterintuitive. Patterns seem to move in and out as they shift against each other, sort of like the famous Necker cube. When African music moves from traditional context to popular context it sheds complexity.
(In my opinion) there are two uniquely African contributions to Western music. 1) the polyphonic approach to organization which gave us the modern pop rhythm sound with bass and drums and especially backbeat. Also the 12/8, three-against-four metres that run through American music (e.g. the shuffle, the hiphop beat). 2) the metronomic approach to rhythmic pulse which made it swing.

It was mid-March when I got to Bamako. The weather was perfect, 80 degrees and bone-dry during the day, and the night cooled down to just the right temperature for sleeping. In a few months the ground temperature would hit 110.

Having swapped some greenbacks for Central African francs, I flagged a cab to Mali Cassette in Quizimbougou, where I loaded up on cassettes of Habib Koite (a fabulous Mande singer/guitarist who comes from a family of griots ), Salif Keita (an albino from a noble Mande family who broke taboos and became a professional musician and Bamako’s most progressive, out-of-the-box artist), and my new discovery but a veteran of the scene, Boubacar Traoré. On the counter was a weekly broadsheet listing who was playing where. Whatever you want to call it, the music of Mali is some of the most beautiful on earth. I am listening now (in Montreal, a year later) to Mali, a cd of singer/kora player Seckou Keita. Music doesn’t get any sweeter. Habib Koite came to Montreal this winter and heated up the place for a few nights at Kola Note, a club on the Avenue du Parc. If you ever get the chance to hear him live, don’t miss it.

That evening I went to the Hogan Club, where Toumani Diabete, a master of the kora (the twenty-one-stringed harp with a calabash for a sounding box), plays regularly, but that night some college students had commandeered it for a disco dance. They invited me to join them, but I was looking for Toumani and found him at a large open-air club called the Espace Bouna, which cost three dollars to get into. This was too steep for most Malians, and the audience was comprised of the elite, with a smattering of expats.
Toumani comes from a family of Bamana griots, or djele, as they are called– the oral historians and praise-singers of West Africa like the one in the Gambia from whom Alex Haley learned about his ancestor, Kunta Kinte. He says he is the 71th generation of kora players in his family. His father, Sidaki Diabaté, who died in l994, was known as the King of the kora; his grandfather taught the instrument at the University of Washington; and his twelve-year-old son is already spending so much time on his kora that he is neglecting his studies. I understood the fascination, how mastering this instrument becomes your life, when Toumani started playing, his two first fingers weaving delicate, ethereal, incredibly rapid and intricate arpeggios and tremolos on the two rows of strings, while his thumbs plucked alternating base lines. The kora is typically tuned diatonically (the white keys of the piano), to C major, but there is a mode of playing C major Toumani kept slipping into called the Dorian pentatonic (you leave out the fourth so that it can be played in either major and minor modes) that can give it a bluesy feel, if you want it to.
After the show I introduced myself to Toumani and gave him news and fond greetings from Jody Golick and Banning Eyre, PBS’s Afropop correspondant and the author of In Griot Time : An American Guitarist in Mali, the essential text for anyone interested in the music and the music scene. I told him that I had played with Taj Majal (we had a great jam for three hours in a music store in Berekley in l970. I walked in and he was playing some fantastic old-time country blues number, and we started playing and played all afternoon, then I left and I only then did I realize it was Taj.) Toumani is a very generous man, and a few minutes into our conversation he said, “What are you staying in a hotel for ? Come to my place.” So I moved to a room on the second floor of his house in the laid-back bougou of Bajala 3, sharing the hall with a dreadlocked percussionist from the Gambia living in Denmark (this was his first time back to Africa in seven years and he was “so glad to get out of that bomboclat place”); a young guitarist from Birmingham (this was his first time away from home and his loneliness was compounded by malaria); and a music writer from Great Barrington, Massachusetts, who had a deep appreciation and understanding of West African music and her Senegalese fiancé. Toumani is a big man in Bamako, and the bigger you are in Africa, the bigger your entourage. Several dozen Malians, young and old, related and not, were also living in the house. Most of them spent the day sitting in chairs out on street, moving from one side to other, depending on where the sun was. In the evening koras were brought out, and I jammed with them on my little traveling guitar until it came time to watch the Brazilian telenovela that everyone was immersed in and a television was set up on the sidewalk.
Every afternoon Toumani would appear in his Lexus with a steaming tub of rice and meat and vegetables, and we would all sit in the courtyard and eat together from it with our fingers. Then he and his entourage would go into a special room and pray, clearing out whatever impure thoughts and deeds might have arisen since the last time they prayed, a few hours before. The prayers sounded like the chanting of Tibetan Buddhist monks. It was a beautiful scene. Rarely in my travels have I been welcomed with such warmth and hospitality. “Toumani opens his doors to everyone, and Allah opens his doors to him,” one of the elders told me.
Toumani had no trouble getting into “Candy Man,” “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” or “Twelve Gates to the City”– the Gary Davis tunes that I picked for him. “We speak the same language,” he said.
But the precise transcultural process that produced the blues is impossible to reconstruct, because there is a two-hundred-year gap between the emergence of the genre in the American South cut and the arrival of the first slaves, and because the blues has returned to Africa and cross-fertilized with the indigenous music repeatedly, along with other music from the diaspora like Cuba rumba and son, Jamaican calypso and reggae, and Brazilian samba. But the echoes are unmistakable, and they are in the pentatonic scale (the black keys of the piano), which blues and much of Mali’s music are in, and in 12/8 shuffle-hiphop rhythm or the five-beat African clave (the ”Bo Diddley” or “shave-and-a haircut—two bits”) beat.
One night I went to the Matignon, a funky local dive with couples writhing slowly in the darkness and a torrential rain pouring through holes in the roof, and heard Jimi Jakob and his band, Afuni, whose members came from three countries, infusing r & b and soul classics like Stevie Wonder’s “I just called to say I love you,” and Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing,” with their own West African soulfulness. Another night I went to a very pleasant and presentable restaurant called El Torre to hear a group from the Ivory Coast called the Go girls, who had been rehearsing at Toumani’s. They sang lustily in five languages and ethnic styles : in bete and ziglibiti rhythm, from the Ivory Coast; Malenke, wolof from Senegal; sorai from northern Mali, around Timbuctu; sousou from Guinea.
Another night I went to the Jembe Club to hear Lobi Traoré, who plays what sounds like straight, hard-driving, proto-Howlin’ Wolf blues but is actually Bambara music from Segou, the capital of old Bamana empire, five hours north of Bamako, which is where Lobi is from. Most of Lobi’s songs are not about a broken heart but are devotional songs to Allah. So this is an important point : the pentatonic is not inherently bluesy. In a particular cultural and emotional context, it becomes the blues. There is eighth-century Taoist zither music from China that is meditation music, although it sounds a lot like delta blues.
I had met Ali Farka Touré, Mali’s most famous artist, at Mali Cassette, which he is part owner of. Sixty-six now, he spends most of his time on his farm in Nyafunke, up near Timbuktu. Touré was really duded out, in a blue suit with a blue hat and a blue-and-yellow flowered shirt, like a Malian John Lee Hooker, with whom he toured on the European world in the Sixties. But he took exception to his music being called blues. A lot of good-time Malian dance music is in the pentatonic. “We don’t have the blues,” he told me. “We aren’t sick. This word blues is for doctors of musicology—and nurses. The word blues doesn’t exist in Africa. The translation is African music. Our music has been modernized with European instruments and there has been some Western influence. But the big influence is our tradition.”
Toumani’s fantastic guitarist, Fantamady Kouyaté, and I recorded a gospel-highlife fusion song of mine called “One Morning Soon” that is posted on my Web site, DispatchesFromTheVanishingWorld.com. Fantamady’s inspired gleaming electric-guitar runs, which give the major rumba chord progression a moody, bluesy, Malian feel, were simply his response to the feelings he got from my singing and playing. He didn’t understand the English lyrics, yet he commented on them with exquisite sensitivity and passion. Toumani invited me to come back next winter and make a record with him. “But I’m not anywhere as good a musician as you are,” I said. “What’s important is that the music comes from the heart,” he told me.
“You always know you have a family here,” he said as we embraced and I got in the cab.
On the plane home, returning with my musical horizons expanded in ways that I’ll be working on for years to come, the Muse came over me and gave me these lines :

If you’ve never been to Bamako,
Maybe it’s about time for you to go.
You’ll never know what’s in store
For you in Bamako
If you don’t show
You’ll be glad you did
and heavy-hearted when it’s time to go.

Back in Montreal, Kate McGarrigle, one of the legendary McGarrigle sisters, and Borza Gomeshi, who has a studio in the Laurentians, have digitally remastered my low-fidelity recording of Fantamady’s soaring solos into a coherent and beautiful bed-track, and I have laid down the vocals of “One Morning Soon.” Now we need some percussion and a bass and other instruments. It will be some day, inshallah, part of a cd with my music and songs called “Suitcase on the Loose.” (Sample lyrics : “I’m a stateless suitcase/ a weightless suitcase/a loveless and a hateless suitcase/ I’m a suitcase on the loose/ that’s seen a lot of use/ flying by the seat of my pants, catch as catch catch/I’m just trying to keep one town ahead of the re’po man.”)

Allen Evans, who has put out a recording of choice Gary Davis performances on his own recherché label, World Arbiter, sent me another of his cd’s, of the above-mentioned eight-century Taoist meditation music played on a zither tuned to the pentatonic. It sounds uncannily like Blind Willie Johnson, although emotionally neutral, completely cerebral [maybe, as an outsider, you can’t resonate emotionally the way a native listener would]. Allen speculated that the pentatonic originated in China and made its way west to the Ottoman Empire and from there with the slave trade to North Africa, where the New World slave trade disseminated throughout the Americas. But after seeing the extraordinary documentary on the wanderings of the gypsies, and how their music adapted to each country they reached, “Latcho Drom,” I think it is more likely that it originated in Rajasthan, India, with the people who became the gypsies and took it west across the Middle East and Europe to Spain, where it became flamenco and from there fused with the Moorish/Arabic music of North Africa, producing the proto-blues of Mali. The westward migration of the pentatonic is something I would like to write a book on some day.
But Jody argues that the pentatonic is everywhere. This is true. It is in pre-Colombian pan-pipes in the Andes, where it appears to have arisen independently, without diffusion, unless as some think it crossed the Pacific from Polynesia. The reason it is everywhere, he maintains, is because of acoustics, the physics of music. The octave breaks up into five harmonic steps which every ear, regardless of what culture it is in, hears. Maybe he is right. And this scale, in its many variations, sometimes produces and is the expression of a melancholy state of mind. [True of some pentatonic modes but not others.] The same or a similar sequence of notes produces analagous emotions in every culture. [A big claim to make …] That is why Toumani feels a complete affinity with the huaynos of the Peruvian Andes, the most famous of which is El Condor Passa. Music is truly the universal language, as Pythagoras and countless people after him have pointed out. But this doesn’t rule out the possibility that there is an ancient connection between the music of Rajasthan and that of Mali, via the gypsies, that the origin of the blues is really in India, if you take it back far enough. [Some hypotheses of cognitive evolution see music as a precursor to language. So maybe the origins of the blues are with early African hominins… It’s purely speculative and no one will ever know.]
The guitar is thought to have evolved from the stringed instruments of North Africa, but the most unquestionably bona fide African instrument in North America is the banjo. And yet it is almost only played by whites. (Gary Davis played a six-string banjo tuned like a guitar that he called a “gitjo.” I have one of his custom-made gitjos. And Taj Majal plays very rootsy southern country bluesy banjo, but there aren’t many others). The explanation for this is that the banjo was played in the minstrel shows on the plantations of the old South that the slaves put on for the masters, and the minstrel show was later appropriated by white musicians in black-face, and the banjo became not cool for blacks to play and a virtuoso instrument for white country musicians like Earl Scruggs. The Grand Old Opry is an Anglo-American metamorphosis of the minstrel show, and in bluegrass, too, you can also pick up distant echoes of Mali.

A distilled version of this ran in the December, 2004 issue of Travel & Leisure.

Postscript :
I sent this to Jody and he e-mailed me back : “I’m not crazy about ‘the universal language’ cliché. I don’t think music is very like language. Music is a human ‘universal.’ But the experience of a piece of music by a cultural insider versus a cultural outsider will never be the same. You and I will never experience Malian music quite the way a Malian does. What is universal is that music always evokes by entraining parts of brain and body. The wonder is how this entrainment evokes such a powerful emotional response. I don’t believe it’s a mystery, but I do think it’s wonderful.”
A few days later, we went together to McGill to hear a talk called “The Cognitive Nature of Music,” by a professor at Tufts named Jamahed Bharucha. Montreal is a mecca for the study of music as a major brain function, Dr. Bharuca said. Everybody likes music. The question is why ? How much of the response is from learning, how much is innate ?
I am aware that I have cognitive limitations when it comes to music, particularly to performing it. I don’t keep the beat and I don’t have a natural sense of pitch and sometimes sing off-key. My performance depends entirely on my energy level and state of mind. I am not a good listener. Listening skills are not one of my endowments. Perhaps I am a little deaf. I am like the glukhar, a bird that my grandfather hunted in Old Russia, as recounted in Russian Blood (posted in Past Dispatches). This bird had the unfortunate trait of becoming deaf when it was singing, so you could sneak up on it and blow it away.
My father’s hearing was the first of his senses to go. He had to wear a hearing aid at the end. So perhaps this is hereditary. But Pa was an accomplished classical pianist. So I wonder if I had had some formal training in music and played with more people over the years, would I still have these limitations ? A lot of it is a matter of practice, just playing something over and over until it becomes unconscious.
Dr. Bharuca talked about the pioneering work of D.O. Hebb on what is now called Hebbian learning, the sort that takes places in the brain. There are two layers of neurological networks. The second recognizes combinations of units in the first. Hebbian learning is the strengthening of connections between active-input units. “Winning units” are pattern or feature cluster detectors.
The domain of music is very constrained. Most pop music has only three chords. Through cultural lenses we recognize chords as part of the training regimen. We activate recognition of similar chords, tones not heard but expected. A probe tone is defined by how well it fits into a context. When the subjects of Dr. Bharuca’s test report a probe tone, they are reporting activation of the automatic computational neural process. The reaction time is one way to test expectation. The context primes or activates the most expected tones. These are consonant tones, as opposed to dissonant tones.
The D chord is more often associated with the C chord in Western cultures because there are a lot of shared frequencies, shared notes. How much is expectation based on spectral similarity and how much on cultural norm ? The speed of Westerners’ reaction time from C to D is a cultural norm, and from C to E is a spectral similarity. Reaction speed is affected by contextual identity, the distance between notes, and asymmetry, the replacing of one chord with another that is out of key. Schematic activation takes place when people embedded in a culture are navigating a musical environmental and hear things that are normal. When a dissonance, an asymmetry, occurs, they activate special resources, like attention. There are schematic versus veridical expectations. You can’t violate an expectation if you don’t have one. This produces what is known as a deceptive cadence. Even if you know a culturally suprising event is coming, it is still surprising and cognitively impenetrable.
Is there neural evidence of schematic knowledge of key relationships ? [i.e. is the pentatonic scale inscribed in the brain, the way Chomsky says the dative case is ]
When there is a change of key, does the brain have this implicit knowledge ? We all have activation in the prefrontal cortex, the orbitofrontal gyrus where schematic learning is going on. There are tone-sensitive surfaces called voczals (if I got this correct) where pitch invariants are represented. Absolute or “perfect” pitch without a reference pitch very few can activate, but we all have relative pitch, pitch invariance which is comparable to visual invariance (we all see what is out there in more or less the same way, although we may process it differently, due to cultural and psychological, physiological and cognitive differences). Different cells respond to translational invariance. The major and minor modes are pitch invariant, as are the ancient Greek modes, and the modes of Indian thats and ragas. In the key of C, if you hear F# instead of F, there is an ambiguity whether it is in the key of G or a tritone. F# will be heard as dissonant or unexpected at first, but over time it will effect a key change. There is cross-cultural learning. In the West only major and minor modes exist. But the ancient Greeks’ music was in other modes, and in India you have thats, ragas, kari, todi, bairar, flatted seconds. On the sitar, you can’t change key, but you can change mode. (the same with the kora. or sort of. Though Toumani is tuned to C Major he plays many, or most, songs in F Major but it’s a funny Malian-sounding F major because of the B natural – ie, F Lydian). Can we simulate the ancient Greek or the Indian brain ? (Here the recent study of birdsong at Berkeley seems relevant : the calls are genetic, but the songs are learned).
The gestalt perception of music is that in most musical scenarios we hear the tone as a unified object, but there are multiple levels of representation and attention levels. We can consciously select (or unconsciously) because of our limited capacity for attention. Some abstract patterns are perceived as fused. The tonal centers have a mapping function, translating from absolute to relative.

Over coffee, Jody explains that the circle of fifths is everywhere, because it has to do with the physics of sound (the standard work on this, Science and Music by British physicist Sir James Jeans, written 1938 and still in print), of the frequencies of sound that a column of air makes as it moves through a tube.
Let’s take the note A 220 (cycles per second or Hertz) – A below Middle C – as our starting pitch, or fundamental. Doubling the frequency is the same as fretting a string dead center. 440 cycles per second is perceived as an A an octave above our starting note. Tripling our original frequency to 660 cycles per second (like fretting a string a third of the way along and plucking the short bit) results in the note E a fifth above our second pitch. Thus just as a frequency ratio of 2:1 always produces an octave, a frequency ratio of 3:2 (in this case 660:440) always produces an interval of a fifth. That’s all you need to make a pentatonic scale. Four intervals of a fifth produces the 5 notes of the pentatonic scale. A E B F# C#; or when transposed to a single octave, A B C# E F# : 1 2 3 5 6 of a major scale.]
The pentatonic scale is derived from the first few notes in the harmonic series, so it, too, is everywhere. The octave is divided into five unequal parts : tone, tone, tone and a half, tone and a half. For instance, the inangha, or zither of Rwanda and Burundi, has seven strings tuned to G major pentatonic, G E D B A G E. The fifths over several octaves are compressed into one. One tune keeps repeating, as the ostinato, A G E, just like delta blues. What makes it blues is not the notes, but the temperament in which they are played. The feeling is not in the notes. To say that major is happy and minor is sad is simplistic. It’s all in the inflection and the context.

Not only the performer, but the listener determines the effect of a piece of music. I realized that part of why I keep hearing the same or similar sequence of notes producing the same or similar emotions in whatever culture I am going to is because I am looking for this. I am looking for and projecting familiar referents that may not be there, or exaggerating their existence, as part of easing myself into an unfamiliar setting. “Why, this is just like…” Just an anthropologist projects the thesis he brings with him into the field on to the people he is studying, unconsciously selecting the traits that support it and ignoring the ones that contradict it. Jody explained that “patterns we know are well worn neural structures. In unfamiliar music we perceive familiar patterns. They may or may not correspond to patterns the native listener perceives. They need not evoke similar emotion. I tend to hear rhythmic units of bars in nearly all music whether or not the original performer thinks the same way. Is it analysis or perception? All perception subsumes unconscious analysis. The results of some of that analysis presents as emotion.”
So what is universal about music is that the notes are basically the same. The differences are in the mode and mood in which they are played. Some of the differences are cultural, others individual. Is this it then ? We’d love to hear from readers– producers and consumers of music.

Dispatch #24: A Slideshow from the Congo

By Craig Lapp

The collection of slideshows are in Apple Quicktime. Click here to download Quicktime if you don’t already have it.

The best way to view these slideshows is to Right click, and select “save target as” or “save file” and save these to your hard drive.
If you are using a Mac, hold the “option” key while clicking on each link to get the same menu.  Please email andre@collegeinternetsolutions.com with any questions or to report any problems.

Craig Lapp is a Montreal-based soundman who went to the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) four times over 2003-2003 to do a documentary on the U.N. peacekeeping mission in DR Congo for the National Film Board, when he took these pictures. They are accompanied by the music of Franco, le Grand Maitre, the founder of the OK Jazz band and the B.B. King of Afro-Cuban rumba guitar-picking, with its glissading silver runs high on the neck and its endless variations and syncopations of a couple of insistently repeated chords. In l981, when Kinshasa was one of the coolest, or hottest, towns on the planet for music and the Bohemian good life– I came very close to staying there–  I jammed for an hour at some club in the cite with OK Jazz, adapting the Travis pick in a way that really rocked, before Franco finally appeared.  In l987, when I was doing a piece for Vanity Fair on the source of the AIDS panedemic, which was presumably somewhere in Africa, I visited Franco in his home in the Mantonge quartier of Kinshasa. He was a huge dude, well over three hundred pounds, and he had just written a hit called “Attention Na Sida,” “Watch out for AIDS.” We sat on the  patio on his roof, where there were four separate sets of livingroom furniture, a case of what I described in “African Madness” as “redundant multiplicity.” Three years later, when it looked as if Mobutu was going to go down (but he ended up lasting another six years), I returned to Kinshasa for Vanity Fair. Franco had died– of AIDS himself– the year before, and I looked up his lead and rhythm guitarists, who were out of work, having been displaced by the younger generation of hot guitarists, who took the rumba zairois to the next level of dazzling intricacy, soucousse. The leader guitarist begged me for some money and showed me a lightning-fast series of arpeggios from the sub-dominant to the dominant, which I am currently incorporating into my latest version of “One Morning Soon” (for two previous versions, see the “Music From Many Lands” Section).

Congo is going through some very rough times, as Craig’s pictures illustrate, but the Congolais have not lost their joie de vivre, and I hope they never will. The four hundred and some ethnic groups in the country have produced some of the world’s greatest music and wood sculpture, but many cultures and species are dying out in the ongoing civil war, which has claimed three million lives since l996. It is another great part of the world with a tragic history.”Kinshasa -These are all of kinshasa. It is very  unusual to be able to take photos in the capital because people freak out. There are all kinds of things here: kids sleeping rough, training for boxing at dawn in the stadium where Ali fought Foreman, parliament, street vendors, graduating students, a leopard in the zoo, public transport, people living in car wrecks in a cemetery…  The song is infidelite mado. Waterfront Kinshasa -These are all of the Kinshasa Waterfront from the water, riding on a UN pusher. There is a market on an island, only accesible by boat. Lots of wrecks to show the state of the economy, which mostly depends on shipping on the Congo River… This pusher had just come down from Kisangani, a three week trip. Its trip essentially marked the reopening of the river by the UN, although traffic is still rare. The captain (Ricardo Delsanta, from Uruguay) said, “you don’t know the country  until you’ve been down the river”.  The song is Ou est le Serieux, again…

Kisangani - These are all from Kisangani (formerly Stanleyville, home of Mistah Kurtz).  The song is Chacun Pour Soi.

Bunia - These are photos of the UN in Bunia, capital of Ituri province, eastern Congo.  The song is by Franco, called ‘Ou est le Serieux.  (All songs are from the same album)

Black and White Images - The pictures are mostly from a town called Drodro, east of Bunia. There was a massacre here in march of 2003. About 400-500 people were killed, although the numbers are very vague. Original estimates were about 1000. This was part of the local ethnic conflict between Hema and Lendu. Drodro is a Hema town and was presumably attacked by lendu. This massacre was referred to recently in a Harper’s article. A couple of the first photos are in Bunia itself. What is happening in the other pictures is that a UN investigation team has arrived in Drodro to find out what happened.  The song is Likambo Ya Ngana, by Franco, from the Rough Guide compilation.

Craig went on each of his visits to Bunia, where a mini-genocide between the Hema cattlekeepers and the Lendu farmers is going on. The situation has deteriorated seriously since my visit to Bunia in 2000, described in Dispatch #2. Craig is one of the few people I know who has been there, to some of the places I’ve been to, that not many people from our world get to, and he has a fabulous collection of Brazilian, African, and other world music that is ten years more recent than mine, plus is a lovely man, so he is valued friend. Craig did the soundtrack for his pictures. In a future Dispatch I will tell you about Benoit Quersin, the ethnomusicologist at the Musees Nationaux in Kinshasa and a jazz bass player who played on Chet Baker’s legendary l956 session in Amsterdam and with all the cats dans le temps (Google him and you’ll see what I mean). I met Benoit on my first trip to Zaire. He went with me to Madagascar and to the Amazon to research the historical basis of the Amazon Women myth. Both trips I wrote up for the New Yorker. They are in Past Dispatches. My book, “In Southern Light,” ends with a party at Benoit’s place on Mont Ngafula, overlooking Kinshasa. Benoit died of cirrhosis, malaria, and hepatitis– a triple whammy to his liver– in l990. He was only 66, and I was 23 years younger, but we were like von Humboldt and Bonpland, and his death was a terrible blow. I  wish he was still here so I could jam with him, now that I can play halfway decently. He never even told me that he had played with everybody. I only found that out two years ago, when I was learning some of Chet’s tunes and John Rudel, a percussionist who lives up the street, happened to spot his name on three of the cuts. He had put that early European chapter of his life behind him, as many African expats do.

             – Alex Shoumatoff

Dispatch #23: Cultivating Culture: Emergence or Emergency

Cultivating Culture: Emergence or emergency? 

By Jonathan Golick 

August 2003
Copyright J. Golick 2003 ©
All rights reserved.  No use without permission.


In 1994 I spent several months in Mali, West Africa. It is a country with a rich and ancient cultural heritage where more than a dozen local languages are spoken. At first the unfamiliar social customs and elaborate interpersonal protocols made even the simplest interactions perplexing. I was dazed by the alien culture and the sub-Saharan heat. What jumped out of the blur of new experience and what I often found most arresting were oddly de-contextualized glimpses of the familiar. 

For most people who live in the capitol, Bamako, the courtyard is the place for group domestic activity. It serves for washing and cooking and eating and playing and drinking tea and socializing. When there are important soccer matches, the few who own televisions set them up in courtyards where family and friends crowd in to watch the game. When the national team scores a goal, raucous cheering can be heard all over Bamako. During my stay, on Sunday nights at 9 o’clock a hush would descend on the city as groups gathered in courtyards to watch reruns of Dynasty dubbed in French.

I got to know a musician of the traditional griot caste, Toumani Diabate, who plays the cora, a 21-stringed African harp. He is a descendant of seventy generations of cora players. He knows songs and stories that his family has preserved for more than a thousand years. In the courtyard where locals and foreigners come to him for lessons, I met a group of neighborhood kids who wanted to know if it was true that Michael Jackson was the richest boy in the world. 

Beyond the city limits, long straight two-lane blacktop roads connect the major towns and villages. Traffic is generally light — people traveling on foot sometimes following herds of curly-horned cattle, carts pulled by ox or donkeys, a few bicycles and motorbikes. Trucks, buses, cars pass infrequently. Every 100 kilometers or so there is a sturdy billboard supported by stout steel pipes bearing the familiar full-color image of the Marlboro Man in his white cowboy hat, cigarette tucked rakishly in the corner of his mouth. I suspect that at the time, this was one of very few Western images that many people encountered on a regular basis.

In fact, the spread of Western technology and culture seemed moderate. While the state religion is Islam, there are still ethnic groups who adhere proudly to their animist heritage and beliefs. The radio was completely free of American music though the broadcast fare indicated that some local musicians were undergoing an unfortunate fascination with the electronic beat-box. Most of the limited television schedule was local. Most people dressed in brilliantly colored local fashions. Yet for some reason there was a proliferation of Chicago Bulls merchandise — t-shirts and caps. There was also a proliferation of blue plastic shopping bags which blew through the ancient dusty streets like tumbleweed, past the weavers at their looms and the shoeshine boys with their wooden boxes, who can clean or mend any shoe, including a rubber flip-flop, while you wait.
Individual living things seem precariously balanced in a state of temporary dynamic equilibrium that at any moment threatens to succumb to the forces of entropy, moving the organization of the molecules towards a state of disorder, inertia, death. A small variation in the environment can precipitate a catastrophic effect. A few bacteria can bring down an elephant. Or a few grams of lead. Yet on a global scale, life is remarkable in its dynamic resilience, its adaptability and ingenuity, its unity and diversity. Dead elephant molecules are quickly reorganized as bacteria molecules.

A scientific definition of “species” that tries to encompass the characteristic properties of natural biological groupings is remarkably hard to pin down. Whether on the basis of reproductive isolation, morphological differentiation and stability, or statistical genetic relationship, all the definitions present gray areas. In bacteria, the most populous creatures on earth, where gene transfer can be lateral, between living individuals, the notion of species nearly dissolves entirely. 
In these pages I wish to present some thoughts on biology and culture, on how organisms get along together, and on human attempts to manage the dynamic relationships we have evolved with other species and within our own.

The ideas that I bring forward are assembled from many sources. In Being About, Ellie Epp sets out a detailed picture of biological and neural knowing, how a simple life-form can know, how knowing evolves in creatures that possess nervous systems, and how all knowing is physical, structural. Being About, with its insistence on seeing organisms as whole bodies in material locations, has been a major inspiration to me affording an entirely new perspective on life and human being. In her work towards achieving an integrated vision of planetary processes, geoscientist Lynn Margulis has shown the power of symbiosis as an essential source of evolutionary novelty. Merlin Donald portrays the interwoven evolution of cognition and culture as co-evolution of internal (cognitive) and external (environmental) structure; that is, the world we make in turn makes us. Edwin Hutchins writes about distributed cognition, how we use tools, “material anchors,” to coordinate collective cognitive activity. Michael Pollan’s insightful and entertaining analysis of cultivation from the plant’s point-of-view is a source of fresh thinking about domestication, species interdependence and human cultural practices that affect these interactions.
We are a young species (though trying to pin down exactly how young is the subject of continuous debate). Our special abilities and capacities emerged recently – humans have been writing for only about 5000 years. The Western scientific tradition is but a few hundred years old. Yet we behave as if we are the font and repository of all earthly and heavenly knowledge and wisdom. Our insights have often been hampered by false intuitions about simple causality. (We naturally model our understanding of causal forces on human agency.) Linear, mechanistic explanations for complex, dynamic natural processes have been offered with disappointing and sometimes disastrous results. 

In the long run, will evolutionary forces select for better, more intelligent human institutions? Will errant systems of knowledge and social organization eventually be weeded out, adapt or die? Will ecological and social pressures exert such force that they outweigh the influence of the institutions whose economic needs drive Western cultural change? I believe they will, provided humanity doesn’t commit a fatal blunder first.

While the picture I offer regarding the course of the evolution of human society may seem pessimistic, I find optimism in the remarkable dynamic interactions that emerge in all living systems – including our own. 
Cultivating Culture: Emergence or emergency?

Living organisms are tricky. They are unlike inorganic matter. Living things actively change their structure, the organization of their cells and molecules, in close correspondence with regular variations of their immediate environments. Growth, digestion, movement — all are structural alterations of an organism interacting with the world around it. Even the simplest organism is not passive. An organism is coupled to its surroundings, taking advantage of aspects of the world that it has come to depend on for its continued stability. Being alive is dynamic interaction. 

The universe is chaotic but not random. Within the ceaseless flux that surrounds us some features are constant, some relationships fixed, some processes cyclic. We can count on certain kinds of stability in nature: the rising and setting of the sun and the moon, the progress of the seasons, the density and persistence of various forms of matter. Water behaves consistently and reliably: freezing temperature, boiling point and specific gravity are physical constants which change systematically relative to contextual conditions like pressure. There are other constants associated with light and gravity. Properties and processes of the world that are stable, regular and change systematically are sometimes referred to as invariants. 

A creature responds to a particular feature of the world by changing itself in a particular way. An organism’s response and the way it co-varies with a particular world-feature is determined in evolution by interactions over many generations. Moment by moment a creature remakes itself with respect to what it is and has available — its capabilities and environmental footholds or affordances — and what it needs to continue to survive and propagate. Its current structure is dependent not only on changes that take place during the lifetime of the individual creature but on changes over the course of the evolutionary history of its species and beyond, all the way back to the first self-replicating molecules and the beginnings of life; the continuous dynamic interaction of life with the world of which it is an integral part. 

Regularities in the world are built into the very design of living things. Properties of the way water behaves are embodied in the fins and skin of fish and in the design of living cells which take advantage of such properties of water as its ability to alter or carry some molecules and its ability to pass through certain molecular arrangements and not others. 


As well, there are constant aspects of an organism’s world in continuous change. No creature lives in isolation from the other life forms that abound in the environment. Organisms interact and co-evolve in complex ways. In the most familiar case of species interaction, the predator-prey relationship, one organism is another’s food. In other cases, organisms affect each other indirectly by modifying their mutual environment, the way beavers produce a good home for frogs by creating a pond. Some of the most common and important relationships in nature are where two or more organisms become entwined in a tightly bound, long-term evolutionary relationship. When the organisms are of different species biologists call it symbiosis; when the interacting creatures are of the same species it is called social behavior. Symbiotic relationships can be parasitic, where one organism benefits to the detriment of another; commensal, where one organism benefits from the relationship and the other is unaffected; or mutual, where all players benefit — though in the real world these relationships are not so neatly categorized. Domestication, for example, is mutual symbiosis, where one species provides sustenance for another in exchange for hospitable living conditions and reproductive advantages. 

Interdependent organisms evolve in dynamic synchrony with each other over generations, mutual sources of systematic behavior which are embodied in evolving abilities. In the predator-prey relationship, a kind of evolutionary arms race can emerge, where the effective capacities of a predator put pressure on a population of prey to evolve and improve avoidance strategies: speed, visual and olfactory acuity, camouflage, or even group-level behaviors, for example where members of a herd take turns keeping watch while others graze. Improvements on one side of the relationship demand compensatory responses from the other.

In the evolution of mutual symbioses an astonishing range of complex patterns of co-evolution have emerged. Numerous insect and plant species have evolved intricate relationships. There are individual species of fig wasp that have co-evolved exclusively with particular species of fig tree.  Bearing a load of pollen to fertilize the fig, a wasp enters the fruit — in reality, a flower that evolution has turned inside-out — to lay its eggs. The fig provides a nursery for larvae which, when they emerge as adults, take a load of pollen with them. Two species working in such an exchange co-evolve very specific interlocking morphological traits. Flowers may have brush-like appendages which apply pollen to pollinators; pollinators may have basket-like structures that carry pollen.

Even more common in nature are symbiotic relationships between complex organisms and microscopic organisms like bacteria, protozoa or fungi, where a large creature becomes the preferred habitat of a small one, which in turn furnishes critical biochemical processes for its host. There are certain microbes found only in specific environments like the digestive systems of termites, where they are responsible for turning wood into usable sustenance.  Cows and other ruminants have evolved a specialized organ, the rumen, that provides a hospitable environment for micro-organisms that break down otherwise indigestible cellulose. One hundred trillion similar microbes inhabit the human digestive system. Many such organisms, in evolving specific interactions with a host, have diverged evolutionarily from their free-living forebears, so that a single species of microbe comes to exist only within a single species of host. Certain bacteria are endemic to the roots of specific plants, which, in exchange for a favorable living environment — often within the tissues of the plant itself (galls, root nodules) — provide such necessary nutrients as nitrogen in a chemical form accessible to the plant. Trees have a long-standing relationship with fungi which live in the soil tangled in the roots (occasionally producing the spore-forming bodies we know as truffles). If all the earth’s fungi were suddenly wiped out, plant and animal life would quickly disappear.

The entomologist E. O. Wilson has called ants “the premier social insects.”  Some ants excavate elaborate underground labyrinths of passages and caverns. Different classes of workers fulfilling different functions within the social structure have become anatomically distinct (polymorphic). Ants have also evolved some fascinating symbioses. The leaf-cutter (attine) ants of Central and South America are familiar by their picturesque processions of workers carrying sizable pieces of leaves above their heads like green umbrellas. These ants are notorious in the tropics for their ability to strip the vegetation from a field or a grove of trees with devastating speed. But they do not eat the foliage that disappears underground into the nest. Instead, the leaf pieces are chewed into successively smaller bits by a series of successively smaller worker ants. The macerated leaves are carefully added to the mat that forms a growth medium for a particular species of fungus which breaks down the vegetable matter and grows tiny nutrient-rich structures that form the basis of the ants’ diet. Ant colonies have been found that contain millions of ants, thousands of openings, ventilation shafts and chambers, and hundreds of mold gardens meticulously tended by tiny worker ants. Another participant in the symbiosis is a bacteria with antibiotic properties that lives on the exterior of the ants’ bodies and helps keep the garden free of parasitic micro-organisms — weeds. In fact, the most common parasite that ants have to contend with is a single species of fungus found only in ant gardens. Ants have been tending their fungal gardens for fifty million years. The most evolutionary modern genus of ants, Atta, maintains a single genetic strain of fungus that has been in use for twenty million years, transported from nest to nest as a pellet in the mouth of the founding queen.  The ants and the fungi keep each other alive.

In The Botany of Desire, journalist and gardener Michael Pollan looks at human agriculture from the point of view of plants. He observes that wild grasses possess the genetic capacity to produce forms, the edible grains, so appealing to humans as to induce them to clear away forests to make way for cultivation. Or as Pollan puts it, “agriculture [is] something grasses did to people as a way to conquer the trees.” 

Perhaps the most widespread and dramatic example of one organism indirectly affecting the evolution of others by modifying the environment is that of the earliest photosynthetic bacteria, which over perhaps a billion years gradually altered the earth’s atmospheric content, making available the oxygen that supports all the numerous and complex forms of aerobic life. 

Clearly, such processes have been absolutely fundamental to the unfolding of planetary life. Evidence of symbiotic relationships which initiated the evolution of cellular complexity billions of years ago is present in every cell of our bodies. Mitochondria, the parts of plant, animal and fungus cells that make energy available for nearly all cellular processes, were once autonomous bacteria with a particular knack for biochemical energy exchange. They formed an allegiance with another simple one-celled organism possessing little inner structure of its own. The bacteria, engulfed but not digested, found safe harbor in a new habitat; the host cell gained a new source of energy. In a process called symbiogenesis a new organism was created from the permanent union of two others. Thus began a new chapter in evolution. Cellular mitochondria possess relics of their former independence in the membrane that encloses them and in a loop of their own genetic material, separate from the DNA within the nucleus of the surrounding cell. Similarly, chloroplasts in green plant cells responsible for photosynthesis were once free-living photosynthetic bacteria that evolved a relationship with another cell, a relationship which became intimate over time until the functions of the two cells were wholly incorporated. The organisms can have no viable independent existence. Conversely, some things that appear to be single organisms are colonies of individuals, as in the case of jellyfish. Lichens, one of the most widely distributed life-forms, are in reality, an intimate alliance between fungi, algae and bacteria that has played a key role in planetary evolution turning rock into nutrient-rich soil for hundreds of millions of years. 

Biological Knowing

A simple organism maintains stability through time embodying structural responses to a small set of the regularities and properties of the world of which it is part. Homeostasis, the collection of processes for self-regulation and maintenance, is anything but static. It is the dynamic means by which a creature maintains its own internal balance with respect to its changing circumstances. It involves interactions between the creature’s functional parts in conjunction with environmental changes specifically relevant to the creature’s survival. Homeostatic functions are sometimes described as being automatic but that doesn’t really do adequate justice to the evolutionary history or the intricacy of the interdependent processes that come together in homeostasis. What is implied is that homeostasis takes place without the necessity of choice or conscious reasoning or knowledge, in our ordinary sense of the word. 

When we talk about knowing we usually reserve the term for relatively complicated creatures with central nervous systems and brains. People know their own names. A dog knows its owner’s smell. A pigeon knows its way home. A penguin chick knows its mother. But what does a jellyfish know? Or a plant? Or a one-celled creature? Or a human blastocyst bathing in amniotic fluid?

The kind of knowing that an organism like a plant does is built into the form and chemistry of its tissues. It can’t identify, remember or deliberate the way people can. The kind of knowing people do — at least the kind of knowing we know as knowing — can be conscious, purposeful. Knowing for us is internal, mental, but it is nonetheless physical, structural. 

How do the roots of a dormant plant know it’s spring? Cells in the root respond to changes in moisture and temperature and chemical composition of the soil. How does the plant know that if it starts its annual growth cycle and puts out shoots that break through the surface of the soil into daylight, it won’t meet a killing frost, squandering the stored-up energy that the plant expended on fruitless growth? We might say that it doesn’t know, not for sure. Plants make mistakes. Seasons are variable. It sometimes happens that a late killer frost wipes out spring growth.

But consider the bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis, which reliably, every spring, produces one of the first blooms on the forest floor in my nearby (southern Québec) woods. If the resources necessary for its continued survival were depleted beyond a certain point it would be unable to create the structures (leaves with chlorophyll, root systems) it needs to replenish itself and would be unable to reproduce. Yet through years of variable thaws and frosts, this particular configuration of cells that we call sanguinaria has proven flexible enough to accommodate every climactic extreme it has encountered. 

The knowledge a plant possesses has accumulated over two to three billion years of biological evolution. What a plant knows about are aspects of the world that are consistent and relevant to living, like energy and nutrients and defenses against predation. The regularities of the world are inbuilt, inherent in the design of the plant. Living things come into being in collaboration with the world. They are embedded in a consistent world whose regularities are embodied in them. Evolutionary success of an organism can be seen as a successful embodiment, a coherent coupling between a changing organism and its changing world. Survival depends on the cohesion between the organism and its world. 

A complex creature embodies many different kinds of regularities in detailed ways. Perceptual abilities allow a creature more intimate contact with the world. Vision, smell, hearing: Perception gives a creature immediate access to more of the world, embodying a greater range of salient features of the environment in its physical arrangement. The creature encompasses more of the world and at the same time is more tightly embraced by the world, more intricately bound to it. Creatures that possess such sensitivities have evolved in a kind of collaborative contact with electromagnetic radiation (light, heat), with airborne chemical traces (odors), with cyclic variations in air pressure (sound) and with the important relationships these reveal about the world. Organisms have integrated properties of these phenomena into their design and behavior. 

Central nervous systems and complex brains evolved to coordinate and integrate: to coordinate and integrate a large, complex, self-propelled creature with its surroundings, by coordinating and integrating the sensation and control of its parts (which are spaced further and further apart with the evolution of larger, more complex creatures, and which also spread as an individual grows), tightening the link between perceiving and acting. 
Social Knowing

Many species have evolved complex behaviors and practices that depend on cooperation, on the coordination of behavior and on a sensitivity to other members of the same species. The more successful creatures are in merely recognizing each other (as conspecifics, mates, offspring, relatives, group members, individuals) the more detailed and intricate will be their cooperative strategies. Creatures that know more about each other will be more successful in predicting or affecting or evoking each others’ actions, more successful in coordinating themselves — their embodied knowledge — with their conspecifics. They will be more intimate cooperators.

Ants exhibit a panoply of intricate social behaviors, from nest building and organizing to functional differentiation amongst castes to domestication of aphids and fungi. Ant communication is achieved by altering the environment with chemical traces. Bees communicate through ritualized dances. Insect colonies like ant hills and beehives are sometimes likened to superorganisms that collectively exhibit behaviors that resemble functions associated with autonomous creatures.  Even with their limited neural structures insects achieve collective intelligence through coordinated action. 

In any creature where the young are born dependent on parental nurturing, sociality of some kind is necessary for survival. This necessity lies behind the development of many elaborated patterns of familial and group behavior. In some bird species, sexually immature year-old birds will help care for newly hatched siblings.  In some mammals immatures are cared for by a collective. Some animals have evolved large-scale patterns of coordinated behavior: birds flock, mammalian predators hunt in packs, grazing animals herd. 
In these cases, patterns of behavior are stable across many generations. Behaviors may change suddenly in response to drastic environmental change, such as sudden climate shift or a move to a new habitat. But within a relatively stable environment, social behavior in these species will remain relatively stable, changes moving slowly through a population across generations by genetic distribution.


Careful observation of primates has led to the understanding that culture, the process by which patterns of behavior are spread through a population by imitation and learning, is not limited to humans. Our closest cousins, chimpanzees, have a variety of behaviors confined to specific communities and spread by imitation, for example, fishing for termites with a leaf rib or using leaves as toilet paper.  Likewise orangutans, our most distant great ape cousins, exhibit behaviors that are cultural, including the use of simple tools and ritualized greetings.  Primatologist Carel Von Schaik hypothesizes that the ability to coordinate behavior this way must have arisen at least fourteen million years ago amongst the common ancestors of chimpanzees and orangutans.

Emerging humans refined this kind of coordination to new levels of depth and detail. The multiplicity of advantages that detailed coordination afforded made it a potent force in the refinement and spread of physical and behavioral adaptations in humans. It is by means of this refinement that humans have achieved their great numbers and wide global distribution, their ingenuity in adapting to any environment by adapting the environment to themselves. 
According to the archaeological record, since the human evolutionary path split from the other primates about six million years ago, human anatomy underwent a series of alterations that led to the emergence of the familiar human form about 100,000 years ago. Changes to the skeletal structure accompanied a preference for walking upright. Changes to brain size and organization and changes in the vocal production mechanisms accompanied a preference for living together in tightly bound association. About 50,000 years ago the changes precipitated an explosion in human artifact production. Archaeologist Richard Klein has said, “There was a kind of behavioral revolution 50,000 years ago. Nobody made art before 50,000 years ago; everybody did afterward.” 

The most obvious difference between humans and our nearest relatives is in the widespread manufacture and use of complex tools and artifacts — especially symbolic and communicational tools which make possible complex social organization and the ability to accumulate and refine knowledge about the world. 
What these abilities and practices rest on, capitalize on, refine and accentuate, is our highly developed ability for coordinating our internal structure with each other.


Cognitive neuroscientist Merlin Donald of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, has developed a model of brain-culture co-evolution that shows the development of human cognitive capacities as being intertwined with our evolving use of different representational techniques, distinctive human cognitive structures emerging from interactions between people and a human-altered environment.  He identifies three distinct phases occurring with the successive adoption of imitative gesture, symbolic language and writing as strategies of representing the world for the purpose of communication. 
In Donald’s model, humans’ earliest representational strategy, based on physiology and practices most closely resembling those of our primate ancestors, were mimetic, or imitative, using physical gesture (based on neurological findings, cognitive neuroscientist Michael Corballis suggests hand signals predominated ) to indicate and refer in a non-symbolic way, what Donald calls “public action-metaphor,” probably including an expanding repertoire of facial expressions. This style of communication provided improved but still crude tools for modeling and understanding the world, and good tools for coordinating people. Music, dance and theater are practices which probably first arose as pre-linguistic, coordinative strategies based on gestures of the body. 

These are practices by which people use their shared environment to coordinate with each other — not just their behavior but their physical organization. People became more closely attuned by conjointly aligning  aspects of bodies and brains by way of an environment containing a flowering of communicative acts and objects. At the same time, the survival advantages of this increasingly more detailed alignment promoted its spread. The changing cultural environment selected for the malleable brain structures which accommodated such coordination. The faster cultural/neural communicational tools were refined and spread, the faster and more accurately they were able to be refined and spread, in a kind of evolutionary feedback loop. 


But it was with the emergence of language and true symbolic practices that early humans became like modern ones. The use of symbols is widely recognized as the adaptation which truly distinguishes people, what Donald calls “the principle cognitive signature of humans.” 
Language  provides a system of vocal and body gestures by which we can evoke meaningful structures in each other and in ourselves. The gestures we use are minimal relative to the complexity of the relations they can evoke, relying for their communicative power on the activation of equivalent structures in the communicators. 

Successful communication depends on common structure. Linguistic communication requires a shared language: equivalent associations between word sounds and arrangement and internal structures of meaning. Spoken language additionally relies on subtle visual cues between speakers which we unconsciously use all the time. For example, a common phrase like, “Hey, look at that!,” usually accompanied by a movement of the head, a mere tilt of the chin, is an invitation to share attention by directing it to something in the common environment. The phrase is devoid of meaning unless we know the setting and orientation of the speaker and have access to the object of interest. Strategies like gaze-following and sharing of attention are skills acquired from our primate ancestors, necessary for linguistic competence. Such cognitive skills, precursors for the development of sophisticated communication in early humans, were refined in evolution and are further refined in individual development. 

Paul Bloom, a researcher in developmental psychology and child language acquisition at Yale, conducted an experiment which demonstrates one way in which gaze-following and attention-sharing are used in human communication, in this case, the learning of new words by a child. 

A three-year-old child and a researcher faced each other with several objects between them. Some of the objects were novel, created for the experiment. When the researcher said an unfamiliar word while looking at an unfamiliar object, subjects understood the word to be the name of the object at which the researcher was looking and used the name appropriately. In taking this subtle cue from the researcher, a child showed the understanding that another speaker is a person like herself, possessed of knowledge and beliefs that may be different from her own. To perform this act of double inference — that the word the researcher is speaking is a name and that it is the name of this particular object — she must know that other people have an intention in speaking, and that this intention is manifested by familiar patterns of behavior that can be understood through reciprocal patterns of behavior. By looking where the researcher looks, attending to the object of her attention, the child can mean what the researcher means. 

True symbolic language gave its users unprecedented power to model reality individually and collectively, to discover, express, share, accumulate and refine new strategies and previously undetected relationships. Observations of the world and successful behaviors could be shared and refined within a community, spread to other communities, and passed on to succeeding generations. This greatly accelerated the creation and spread of new strategies for living. The ability to rapidly accrete and refine knowledge, building on what has come before, has been called a “ratchet effect.” 
Language is a strong cohesive force. It allows the creation of narratives and myths embedding knowledge of the world and social ideals that cohere a community around a set of beliefs. It gives the power to structurally organize and coordinate ourselves: to organize neural structure of the members of a group by conjoining that structure to a common, collaboratively maintained system of symbols that can be simultaneously external and internal, simultaneously collective and individual. 


The third phase in Donald’s depiction of human cognitive evolution came about independent of obvious physiological changes. The invention of writing around five thousand years ago brought with it a new set of cognitive capabilities. Writing allows us to circumvent the constraints of working memory, which is transient and limited in capacity. We can only think about a limited number of things at once, in limited detail and it takes time and effort, inner rehearsal, to sustain them. By using written symbols to keep track, we can work with an unlimited number of stable elements. 

This change in representational strategy allowed for detailed coordination, communication, and collaboration over time and distance. It made possible the collaborative construction of large and complex theoretical systems for describing and communicating complex relationships. Writing makes us smarter as individuals by giving us the ability to immediately create stable physical anchors for things we’re thinking about. It makes us smarter as a species by providing stable representations which can be shared among peers and transmitted between generations. It provides us with further means to coordinate ourselves in ever more detailed and precise ways. 


Culture is a process through which survival strategies, aspects of world invariance, and successful patterns of interaction are refined and accumulated in the creation and maintenance of public artifacts, practices and systems of organization. E. O. Wilson observed that “culture can be interpreted as a hierarchical system of environmental tracking devices.”  Practices spread through a population and pass between generations with ongoing accumulation of novelty and refinement. 

Culture evolved (and continues to evolve) as the means by which we synchronize ourselves with other members of a community. Culture is a process which gives us common systems of organization to deal with the world around us as individuals and in groups. 
Beyond the functional significance of cultural processes, the evolving cultural environment is the source of salient invariance in the evolution and development of human cognitive structures. Through our use of communicative tools and technologies we have created a human milieu, an environment of intentional objects and systems, that has changed our nature, altered our physical organization and our abilities and changed our relationships with other organisms. 

Human capacities and their functional environment emerged over a span of five to six million years in a relatively small, geographically compact population. Those conditions no longer exist. The human population is now huge, diffused into all the climactic regions of the earth. While we can easily enumerate many of the consequent abilities we have acquired, there is currently no way to find out the kinds of small-scale structural changes that may have evolved over the last fifty thousand years in response to the proliferation of symbolic artifacts. 

It seems clear that at least some of the structural change is directly attributable to the developmental environment, the culturally-structured world in which a baby becomes an adult. (It’s worth noting that ethnically or nationally distinct cultural systems are virtually interchangeable, providing a developmental environment producing adults with very similar cognitive capacities and only superficial differences.) To what extent our fundamental genetic makeup has been altered by the cultural environment over the last fifty thousand years is not knowable by current techniques. 

Modern humans are separated from a small African population by an estimated six thousand generations. While the superficial characteristics we attribute to ethnicity emerged in genetically isolated populations long ago, since then, human genetic mixing has been widespread. Our long-standing habits of wandering and intermarriage throughout history have kept the gene pool swirling. Steve Olson, author of Mapping Human History, says that “the most recent common ancestor of everyone alive today probably lived just a few thousand years ago”  An implication for evolution is that no population exists in long-term genetic isolation, which is a condition for accumulating genetic differentiation. Our pool of genetic possibility is widely shared. Humans are much more similar genetically than other species of large animals (partly due to our relative evolutionary youth, partly to our wandering ways).  It is probably impossible to discern what kinds of selective pressures are exerted on the human population as a whole in response to the kinds of changes we see in our current environment. 

As with the emergence of writing, widespread changes in response to cultural affordances are possible independent of genetic change. Even if our genes are not implicated, fundamental biochemical processes of human life are affected by our culturally defined interactions with the world. 


While it seems hardly the case today, from an evolutionary perspective, cultural practices arose from successful interactions between people and the world.   Whether techniques and technologies of communication or of hunting, farming  or child-rearing, they emerged and were refined and preserved over time because of their ability to optimize the resources of the users. 

Over generations, humans evolved symbiotic relationships with certain other species. Cultural practices emerged to optimize and perpetuate these evolving relationships. Agricultural practices that arose in a specific environment could harness complex sets of ecological interdependencies without any knowledge of the hidden complexities. Even the practice of spreading manure on a field deploys trillions of microbes, players in the intricate symbioses that produce the food we rely on. 

Over seven thousand years ago ancestors of the Incas in the Andes mountains first domesticated the potato.  During those years, agricultural practices emerged to deal with the variable geography and harsh climate. These include landscape modifications such as terraced fields and raised beds. They also include a reliance on genetic diversity. These farmers have developed over two hundred different potato cultivars of which a given planting may contain twenty or more. Where some varieties might be susceptible to disease or drought, others are resistant. The traditional systems of Andean agriculture include means for insuring the ongoing viability and fertility of plots through strategies of rotation and polyculture. The symbiotic bacteria that live within the roots of legumes planted as a rotational crop restore nitrogen levels in the soil. 

The potato was introduced to Spain in around 1570. Though at first resisted by a skeptical and conservative populace, within two hundred years it had become a staple of the European diet. Its high nutritional value, high per-acre yield and relative simplicity in cultivation gave it considerable value as a food crop. 

The potato came to Europe without its surrounding agricultural practices and without the wide genetic base that Andean farmers rely on as insurance against drought and disease. When a particular fungus arrived in Europe, it proved deadly to the few cultivars Europeans had imported. In Ireland, where social and political forces had pushed the population into total dependence on a single strain of a single food crop, the results were devastating. A million people died of starvation. 


In the industrialized world subsistence practices have been replaced by commercial agriculture. Taking advantage of economies of scale in the effort to feed an expanding population concentrated in cities, the practices that have arisen have reduced the number of people that directly interact with soil and plants and do the actual farming, but increased the numbers that expect to benefit indirectly from the production and distribution of food. Think of the number of people that derive (nonnutritive) advantage from food: the chemical and pharmaceutical industries, the petroleum and transportation industries, banks and insurance companies, processing and packaging, marketing and retailing, not to mention all of their shareholders — all part of the industrial food chain. 

Monoculture is a modern solution to the problem of feeding the masses. Millions of acres are devoted to the uniform production of genetically uniform crops. The inherent weakness in monoculture as exemplified by the Irish potato famine, susceptibility to catastrophic infection, is managed by chemical means. Fields are routinely prepared for planting by eradicating all life with a series of powerful antibacterials, fungicides, defoliants and insecticides. (One teaspoon of compost rich organic soil hosts 600 million to 1 billion beneficial microbes from 15,000 species.) The developing plants are also regularly treated. Chemical nutrients are provided via automated irrigation systems. After spraying with certain pesticides, fields are too toxic for people to enter. Symbiosis becomes antibiosis.
This type of agriculture has certain disadvantages for the long term. Modern economic strategies maximize immediate gain by ignoring future consequences. By arresting the life-processes that constitute normal soil biology, the intricate interactions of beneficial microbes are removed from the process and the soil is rapidly depleted of naturally occurring nutrients. The widespread introduction of antibiotics into the environment puts pressure on bacteria to evolve survival strategies like chemical resistance, rendering a particular antibiotic useless for the future. The loss of heterogeneous landscapes has led to the decline of many species of birds and mammals. The global pool of genetic variation is shrinking.

Monoculture extends beyond the field through industrial processing to the consumer, to whom food is presented as a uniform product. The most efficient way for a corporation to get its comestible product to market is to process and package millions of identical items and market and publicize uniform products. The very ideal of the perfect apple or French fry, that such a thing should exist and be desirable, is a direct result of the same social forces that actively promote agricultural monoculture. 
What are the essential differences between ant agriculture, traditional subsistence agriculture and modern industrial agriculture? 

One obvious difference is time scale. Whereas the ants have had fifty million years to work out the details, human farmers have had ten thousand years while the industrial system has developed over the last fifty. 

While the ants’ system is truly emergent, arising directly from evolutionary interactions between species and environment and spreading through populations slowly by genetic means, the Andean system of potato cultivation came out of deliberate human trial and error and was refined and spread by the participants amongst themselves. Subsistence farmers working intensively and continuously with plants and soil acquire a feeling for patterns of interaction that a farmer using automated means can never know. Inherent learning builds direct knowledge, even without a theoretical understanding of underlying principles, leading to successful strategies of interaction. Over a long course of trial and error, Andean potato growers have encountered and accommodated seven thousand years of environmental variation. 

The modern agro-industrial approach attempts to control those factors and systems of which it has explicit knowledge. Unfortunately, due to a sort of rationalist hubris, this knowledge, though constantly expanding, is applied as if it were complete and comprehensive. Furthermore, cultural practices are not promoted and propagated by the practitioners themselves but by the institutions that have arisen around agriculture: government regulatory bodies, financial institutions, chemical producers. In traditional societies, cultural practices are developed and maintained by the practitioners, while in a modern industrial society they are often sustained by outside agencies. 

This does not imply that traditional agriculture is necessarily better, more productive, more adaptive than modern technological agriculture. What it suggests is that a technology that has not emerged from sustained real-world interactions may not encompass real-world complexity as finely. An explicitly devised system can account for only those characteristics that are explicitly recognized and designed in. 

The cultural systems that have emerged which control modern agriculture are responding to a wide range of pressures well beyond the scope of maintaining and optimizing an intricate symbiotic economy between people, land and crops. While the ultimate goal of agriculture as a whole is sustainable sustenance, the goal of the agents who promote and propagate industrial agricultural technologies is continuously increasing returns in the shortest possible time. The details of the symbiosis, the long-term requirements of the larger biological systems, are not relevant, not part of the equation.

Hi-tech systems of agriculture are based on 19th and 20th century technologies and economies which are built on the myth of human dominance, the fallacy that humans are separate from nature and in control of it, have “dominion” over it. Current technologies, with their reliance on the laboratory, in vitro methodologies and an antibiotic practical philosophy, are not equipped with the tools (neither technical nor social) for encompassing the kind of dynamic complexity we see in real-world biological processes. Yet there is no implication that a future science with a more holistic approach to nature that includes a complete account of the complex interactions of planetary life is not emerging to provide a better understanding of the world and our place in it — as well as improved systems of agriculture. In fact such systems are emerging today with increasing interest in techniques of organic agriculture and a growing unease about toxins in the food chain.

In industrial agricultural practices we see human engineering of the modern variety proving inadequate to the task of managing complex biological systems. Responsibility for transmission of the cultural practices is situated far from the arena where such practices are applied. This is a marked change in the process by which practices are selected and disseminated.

Song and Story

Similar patterns can be seen in the way we manage other, more intimate cultural realms and resources. 

Narrative and song and artistic practice in general have been primary media of cultural interaction for millennia. No human society exists without them. Merlin Donald says, “Stories are still the only universally accessible form of human thought. They can still move people to undertake the most incredible projects and journeys, and drive people to attempt almost anything.”  I think this point can be sharpened. Stories and songs are so fundamental to our development and basic nature that it seems we have a need for them. As people and especially children have always done, we infer invariance, generalize, extract meaning and ascribe significance to the moral framework that stories reveal, weaving them into our worldview. 

For early humans narrative and song provided a significant part of the environment in which cognitive evolution proceeded. In preliterate societies such practices constitute the principal means of social coordination and knowledge preservation. Practices persist and are propagated by the users who benefit. Good songs and stories survive when people sing them and tell them to their children. Stories and songs are part of children’s developmental environment in every society, part of the complex emergent biological system by which we manage structural coordination.

For most of the people living in the industrialized countries narrative and song have been trivialized, downgraded to the status of “mere” entertainment; their primary source, electronic media centrally programmed for the sole purpose of providing ever-increasing gain to the industries responsible. The first job of a popular artist, or in the current lexicon, a content provider, is to interpret the constraints of the controlling system in order to reach the marketplace, to convince the media purveyors (TV networks, film studios, record labels) of an artist’s or project’s commercial potential. Viewers, known to the television industry as “eyeballs,” once active cultural participants, have become passive recipients, no longer part of the process of refinement and preservation. Profitable stories persist as reruns, “in syndication,” songs as “golden oldies,” but the big money is always in novelty. There is little advantage to vendors of entertainment to have a market crowded with timeless classics. As in the fashion industry, one season’s creations and their surrounding aesthetic will be quickly superseded by the next. 

In the commercialization of our cognitive ecology we see a change in the process that selects which songs and stories survive and disseminate. 

After fifty years of dominating the American cultural environment, television, the medium that sells eyeballs to advertisers, is penetrating to the farthest reaches of human settlement. Stories and songs that have persisted in human culture for millennia are being displaced by the disposable products of today’s industrial monoculture. Just as genetic diversity has its advantages, so does cultural diversity, and as we forge ahead into the future, particular cultural losses may someday prove tragic. 

While this trend may be shifting with the rise of the internet, a more cooperative medium  allowing decentralized access to a public information space, the technology is still in its infancy. Widespread computer use is confined to the industrialized world. There are a variety of experiments underway to introduce computers to people who have never had access to them before. In New Delhi, street kids quickly figured out how to surf the internet on computers in public kiosks.  A Swedish project is providing the nomadic Saami people with the technology to track reindeer herds and to keep widely spaced communities in touch with each other.  But it remains to be seen how the human-technological interaction will play out as the internet reaches beyond the industrialized world.

Human attempts to explicitly manage complex dynamic systems produce unforeseen consequences. What long-term effects electronic technologies may have on human cognitive capacities are unknown. What social effects may result from the ongoing depletion of cultural resources likewise. And the evolutionary consequences of our evolving human environment are impossible to evaluate. Yet such questions are worth considering as we refine and invest power and authority in the institutions which manage the developmental and functional environment of our most human capacities.

If cultural evolution is a directed search through design space that discovers optimal arrangements by trial and error, patterns of varying stability will emerge and evolve. If humanity’s current experiments are less successful, our future ones may be more so. But even if we blunder from an optimal peak or plateau into a Death Valley in design space and succeed in unleashing an environmental cataclysm, it is unlikely that we could destroy all life. According to the archaeological record, life has already withstood impacts that dwarf human destructive firepower. 

Evolutionary experiments will continue, even if it is left to the bacteria, once again, to carry them out.

  This discussion comes from James J. Gibson via Ellie Epp (2002)  Being About  <http:/www.sfu.ca/~elfreda/theory/beingabout/being.html>
  Richard Dawkins (1996) Climbing Mount Improbable  WW Norton
  Tom Wakeford (2001) Liaisons of Life Wiley and Sons
  E. O. Wilson (1971) The Insect Societies Belknap/Harvard p. 21
  Cameron R. Currie, Ulrich G. Mueller, David Malloch (1999) “The agricultural pathology of ant fungus gardens” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences vol. 96, July 1999  7998-8002,
  Michael Pollan (2001) The Botany of Desire Random House p. xxi
  Lynn Margulis (1998) Symbiotic Planet Basic
  For a detailed discussion see Epp, op cit.
  E. O. Wilson, op cit., p.1
  E. O. Wilson (1975) Sociobiology Belknap/Harvard p.125
  Andrew Whiten, J. Goodall, W.C. McGrew, T. Nishida, V. Reynolds, Y. Sugiyama, C. E. G. Tutin, R. W. Wrangham, C. Boesch, (1999) “Cultures in Chimpanzees” Nature, 399, 682-685
  Carel von Schaik, M. Ancrenaz, G. Borgen, B. Galdikas, C. D. Knott, I. Singleton, A. Suzuki, S. Suci Utami, M. Merrill. (2003) “Orangutan cultures and the evolution of material culture” Science 299(5603) 102-105
  quoted — and contested — in Tim Appenzeller (1998) “Art: Evolution or Revolution?” Science 282 November 20, 1998, p.1451
  Merlin Donald (1991) The Origin of the Modern Mind  Harvard
  Michael Corballis (2002) From Hand to Mouth Princeton
  Merlin Donald (1997) “Précis of Origins of the Modern Mind” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 16 737-791. <http://www.bbsonline.org/documents/a/00/00/05/66/bbs00000566-00/bbs.donald.html>
  Paul Bloom (2000) “How Children Learn the Meanings of Words” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 24 <http://www.bbsonline.org/documents/a/00/00/04/32/bbs00000432-00/>
  Michael Tomasello (1999)  The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition Harvard
  E. O. Wilson (1975), op cit., p. 560
  Steve Olson (2002) “The Royal We” Atlantic Monthly May 2002 <http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/2002/05/olson.htm>
  Steve Olson (2001) “The Genetic Archaeology of Race” Atlantic Monthly April 2001 <www.theatlantic.com/issues/2001/04/olson-p1.htm>
  Kevin Laland, John Odling-Smee, Marcus Feldman (1999) “Niche Construction, Biological Evolution and Cultural Change” Behavioral and Brain Sciences  22  577-660
  The details of potato cultivation are from Michael Pollan, op cit.
  Merlin Donald (2000) “The Cognitive Foundations of Institutional Knowledge” p. 8 Working paper for the Second KNEXUS Research Symposium <http://iis.stanford.edu/docs/knexus/MerlinDonald.pdf>
  Rory O’Connor (2002) “Reporter’s Notebook: Making Connections” Frontline PBS October, 2002 <http://www.pbs.org/frontlineworld/stories/india/connection.html>
  BBC News (2002) “Hi-tech answer to reindeer tracking” November 20, 2002 <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/2491501.stm>
  Lynn Margulis, op cit., p. 12

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Dispatch #22: Matchwork by Sasha Chavchavadze


The medium of matches combined with paper is a perfect metaphor for the uncertain and volatile culture in which we live. Though the work has an anarchic aspect – the potential for destruction by fire, the need for an explosion of meaning in a culture that has lost its bearings, it is not rooted in destruction or entropy. I use matches as a tool to describe the chemistry of change often brought about by loss and upheaval. Unlit matches, tiny units of energy which can save a life or kill, evoke both the nurturing and the destructive sides of human nature. The formal appeal of the work contradicts the element of danger, implying the integral nature of impermanence. The tension of the work, as in life, is in the potential for upheaval. 
      In a series of mixed-media installations and works on paper, I apply thousands of wooden matches perpendicularly to paper with glue, interspersed with ink drawings and “splinter narratives”. Matches explore the archeology of loss, slowing down time, breaking it apart “stick by stick”, exploring it as form and matter. The process, like seeding or knitting, arrests time in the moment. The match tips float above the surface of the paper creating a delicate staccato, and an ethereal second surface, in patterns, grids or linear formations. Sometimes the paper is rolled or folded, forcing the matches to conform to the surface, and creating three-dimensional objects. 
      The work grew out of a description of a match game described by Vladimir Nabokov in Speak Memory, one of the many visual devices he uses to come to terms with exile. Matches lend themselves to the language of fragmentation and loss (splinters, shards), suggesting the shifting of patterns, both internal and external, as one life is replaced by another (match games). For Nabokov fragmentation was not an end in itself, but became a form of syncopation as he searched for geometries and “thematic designs” in the overlay of past, present, and disparate parts of the world. When placed in patterns, grids and spirals, matches lend themselves to this rhythmic language, even suggesting the hidden geometries and cosmologies of physics.
      The work is rooted in my own family history of violent upheaval and migration: my grandparents’ loss of an entire ornate life in Russia due to revolution and execution, the family’s re-composition into American immigrant culture, and my father’s subsequent thirty-year career as a CIA operative. The recent series, “cold/war/baby”, is a literal reference to my birth in Berlin in 1954 (my father would push my baby carriage while he made contact with his agents), and a figurative reference to the Cold War legacy of nuclear arms.  American and Russian history, from the Revolutions to the Cold War, are revisited and sometimes “matched.”

Click on any picture to see full-sized image:

Title List (as labeled by each file)
Medium: wooden matches, ink, on paper
1. “Nabokov’s Matches #1″
3. “Nina’s Brush”
4. “Nabokov’s Matches 2,3,4,5″
6. “Nina’s Garden”
7. “Match Knife and Spoon”
9. “Disappearing Brooch”
28. “Songlines”
29. “cold/war/baby #1″
31. “All Worlds…#1,2,3,4″
34. “cold/war/baby # 2″
37. “Nabokov’s Ring”