Dispatch #45: Tracing the interconnected origins of world music from flamenco to the blues.

Tracing the interconnected origins of world music—from flamenco to the blues—Alex Shoumatoff travels to India in search of the Gypsy music of Rajasthan.
By Alex Shoumatoff

The overnight train from New Delhi to Rajasthan is called the Pink City Express, and at nine in the morning it pulled into the big, seething capital city of Jaipur. After changing trains, I continued into the Thar Desert, past red dunes, mud huts with thatched roofs, women in veils, men in turbans, the scant vegetation clipped by goats. Wild peacocks, the males’ fans folded into long, streaming tails, were trotting around in the desert scrub like flamboyant roadrunners. At 1:30 we reached the last stop: the ancient desert citadel of Jaisalmer.

The main gate to the city opens onto a cobblestoned courtyard, and on the far side of it loom the walls of the 12th-century inner city, with intricately filigreed balconies projecting from them, and bell-shaped guard towers. A Bollywood movie was in the process of being shot. The director was barking instructions at a little boy in a turban who was playing the young maharajah and standing under a sumptuous canopy. They would be at it, take after take, for the entire week I was there. The cast members’ costumes were gaudy, but no more so than those of the locals. Rajasthanis dress like human butterflies or flowers, explained a Jaisalmer native: “We try to make up in our clothes, art, and music for the lack of color in the desert,” he said. “The men wear bright orange turbans, their long shirts green like calyxes, and their pants white like corollas. The women wear long green or yellow robes with tie-dye patches, and outline their eyes with mascara.”

My interest was in the music. During my far-flung travels over the past 40 years I have always taken along a little guitar and played with local musicians, from pygmies in the Ituri Forest to flute players in Kathmandu and charango strummers in Ayacucho. There’s no better icebreaker—the language of music is universal. Over the past few years, I’ve been tracing the historical connections between world musical cultures, and not long ago, I saw the wonderful 1993 documentary Latcho Drom, about the music of the Gypsy diaspora. The people known as Gypsies, or Roma, mostly left north India a thousand or more years ago, but a few remained behind. The film starts in Rajasthan, with a woman twirling under a tree, accompanied by men playing various instruments, then proceeds to Gypsy bands in Egypt (from which the word Gypsy is derived), Turkey, Romania, Hungary, France, and finally Spain, with guitars, castanets, and flamenco dancing. The whole film is just music, no words, and the music in each country is very different, but you can always clearly hear echoes of India.

That was what I was doing in Jaisalmer: looking for the Gypsies who never left.

Squeezing past sacred cows in narrow alleys lined with all sorts of intriguing wares made by local artisans, I made my way to the Deepak Rest House. There was a nice restaurant on the roof, where a bearded old man in a turban came every night at six and sang while playing the kamaica, a stand-up fiddle with a banjo-like skin resonator box. Instead of pressing the strings down on the neck while drawing his bow across them, he raised their pitch by inserting the nail of his index finger under them. There was an unmistakable Appalachian flavor to his mournful tunes, which may not have been entirely coincidental.

The hotel’s owner, Deepak Vyas, belongs to a Brahmin family that has inhabited the citadel for three generations, and he sketched the history of Jaisalmer for me. The fort was built in 1156 for the Rajput (warrior caste) maharajahs, who still control much of the action in Rajasthan. The city was attacked by the Moghuls in the early 14th century, peace was subsequently established, and it became part of a new, more southerly trade route that ran across the Thar Desert into what is now Pakistan, only 85 miles to the west. Jaisalmer’s maharajah grew rich from the taxes he levied on the camel caravans that passed through laden with silk, spices, gold, and opium.

Today the entire inner city is given over to tourism. The merchandise on display every step of the way is the product of the local traditions of weaving, painting, ceramics, and metalwork that tourist dollars keep alive. There are two groups in Jaisalmer and the surrounding desert thought to have ancestral connections with the Roma: the Kalbelia tribe and the Manganiyar caste. It didn’t take long to find some of them.

The Manganiyar are completely dedicated to music and have been for generations. The best performers play for the Rajput maharajahs and are known as alamkana, the musicians of the king. They are Muslim, like 28-year-old Amin Khan. Khan has played with Malians in Paris and flamenco musicians in Barcelona, and felt a strong affinity for both. He lives in the artists’ colony below the fort, with four or five hundred other Manganiyar families. While I was visiting his compound, various male members of his extended family dropped by to play. Khan sang in a passionate, quavering voice that wandered up and down all kinds of strange and wonderful scales I had never heard before, most of them consisting of widely spaced half-tone clusters rather than the familiar Western melodic sequences. The fingers of his right hand flew over the keys of his harmonium (his left was doing the pumping), and various kinsmen played the dholak (a type of drum) and khartal (flat wooden clappers flicked together with incredible speed and syncopative dexterity; they may well be the ancestors of flamenco castanets).

A lot of Khan’s repertoire was Sufi, and he played and sang in a semi-trance, his eyes rolling, “a little out of mind, but not fully,” he explained. One song was in the classic blues scale with the flatted fifth. I had no trouble getting into it with my Guitalele. A dozen other tunes were ear-openers for my musical sensibility, rooted in standard Western harmonic progressions.

One afternoon I drove into the desert with Magh Singh, the Deepak Rest House’s general manager. Passing white goats with black heads and veiled women on their way to a wedding in another village, we stopped in Kanoi, 20 miles from Jaisalmer. The elders were sitting on carpets in an open-air covered patio with carved sandstone pillars. They all had turbans and handlebar mustaches that looked as if they had been pasted on. We spent a few hours listening to local singers, including an eight-year-old boy with a piercing, high-pitched voice, and an extraordinary performance on the morchang, or jaw harp (or Jew’s harp, as it is called in the States). It’s one of the world’s oldest instruments, with many names in different cultures, and the sounds that this man got out of it—he had three different tracks going on at once—were astonishing.

I took a bumpy camel ride out on the dunes in Sam, and then continued to the village of Damodra, where some nomadic Kalbelia people camped in the desert performed for us. They are snake charmers and go from village to village, begging and trading cobra venom. “They are always on the move,” said Singh, who has great affection for the Kalbelia. “They have no solid house and sleep under the stars.” Two young women named Marua and Midja danced with unfettered joie de vivre, exulting in their vibrant beauty, writhing like cobras, their voluminous skirts swirling and ankle bangles tinkling, while a fakir in an orange turban played a reedy double pungi clarinet and another man slapped out a rhythm on a plastic jerrican. The pentatonic scale was the same as the one used in a Celtic reel.

Back in Jaisalmer, I wandered the streets below the fort. At the maharajah’s residential and administrative palace, a couple of German shepherds poked their heads out of ornately carved windows on the top floor. Two elders were sitting under a tree in the courtyard. I joined them. One was named Hasan Khan, and he was the alamkana, the musician of the royal family. A genial-looking man in his late fifties (my vintage), he didn’t speak English, or his ears would have turned red from what his friend was telling me: “Hasan Khan is the tiger of singing. All the others are copiers. He sings songs about the maharajah, he performs the king’s morning puja, his waking song, his leaving song, and his welcome song, his drinking song, and his wedding song.” The Manganiyar, Hasan’s friend explained, “followed the camel caravans to Iraq and Persia centuries ago and became the alamkana in the courts of the shahs and the caliphs there.”

That night I went to the Gorbandh Palace and heard Hasan Khan perform; he was sitting on a carpet on the rooftop restaurant with two of his sons backing him up, while a full moon came up over the fort. It was a scene that I imagine has not changed much in a thousand years. The following morning I went down to Hasan Khan’s house and listened to a bhairav, a morning raga that had many exquisite melodic variations. He played me one of his own compositions, which I would have guessed was a good-time northeast Brazilian accordion dance tune had I not been where I was—hearing it live from the harmonium of the alamkana of Jaisalmer.

To my ears, there was certainly evidence to support the hypothesis that Gypsies have been principal transmitters of common melodic patterns in Eurasia and the European cultures of the Americas. But then again, a lot of the melodies I heard had no connection to Gypsy music at all. That’s not surprising, since the octave and the five-note pentatonic scale, based on the cycle of fifths, are considered universal. They are the way the human ear organizes melodic sound in every culture. There is eighth-century Taoist zither meditation music that sounds like Delta blues, with the same pentatonic runs minus their emotional weight, and the Incas had pentatonic panpipes. Neither of these had anything to do with the Gypsy diaspora.

Music is the most elusive form of human expression, and its transmission is never a one-way street. The kamaica that the Manganiyar were playing here, for instance, probably originated in Persia. Modern Malian music is influenced by American blues. Cuban rumba affected Zairean music and was in turn affected by it. (Zaire is now the Democratic Republic of Congo.) All this crossing and back-crossing really muddies the waters, so it is almost impossible to establish what came from where. You cannot say this is where it all began, any more than you can say this is where the first drums were beaten. As I listened, I eventually stopped imposing what I was looking for and began to enjoy the music for what it was: beautiful, alive, and present.

Dispatch #44: How to Reduce Your Footprint in Motion

Coming from a long line of Russian naturalists and explorers, it’s not surprising that I  should  have ended up making my livelihood by traveling to the world’s kamchatki, as Russians call faraway places– remote, inaccessible corners of the planet like the Amazon, Madagascar, and Tibet– and writing about them. Had I been born a hundred years ago, into the generation of Joseph Conrad, I might have slaked my wanderlust as a merchant seaman, but my vehicle for the last forty years has been glossy magazines, and there is no shortage of  incredible stories out there, once you get off the modern grid and start poking around in the back country,  to furnish them with.

I learned at an early age to travel light, because my dad was a mountain climber. In the late fifties and early sixties he took my brother and me up some serious routes in theAlpsand the Tetons. We had to carry our own gear, so naturally we kept it to a minimum.

For several years after a nine-month stint in the Amazon rain forest in l975-6, I schlepped my gear in a canvas duffel bag, using the strap as a tumpline, the way the Indians I had been with did. The duffel bag, which I spent two months in the Congo rain forest in l982, running around with pygmies, contained a hammock, a mosquito net, a poncho to put over them in case it rained in the night, and my extra clothes. If you’re traveling deep into a rainforest, there are two crucial things to have with you :  a bottle of rubbing alcohol, which cleanses insect bites and reduces the urge to scratch them, and a cocktail of the antibiotics kotexin and doxycycline, or their equivalents, in case you come down with resistant malaria in the middle of nowhere. They make the difference between a sweaty night and dying. I took a  sidebag  with secret compartments that no security check or customs search ever discovered (it and the duffel bag both from Eastern Mountain Sports) for my valuables, passport,  notebooks, small cheap camera and tape recorder, field guides to the bird and mammals, background material on the country or biome I was going to be casing out. I tried very hard not to look like a tourist (although of course that is what I was) and to blend in with the locals, to live and move with them, at their level. This is not easy in Africa, where you arrive in a village and are swarmed by kids screaming mzungu, mzungu, white guy, white guy. I avoided the luxury tourist compounds. You seen one you seen ‘em all. The whole point of traveling is to experience a different part of the world,  new landscapes and ways of looking at things, to put yourself in the path of  the unpredictable and the unexpected,  not to have your path smoothed and everything  carefully prepared for your arrival. On all of my trips it’s been the chance encounters, the things I didn’t plan for, that were most informative, sometimes even transformative. To expand your understanding of what is really gone on, of what we are doing here,  the first thing you have to do, like young Prince Siddartha 3500 years ago, is get out of the palace.

When I first started going toNew Delhi, in 1990, I stayed at the Oberoi, one of the most exquisitely palatial hotels on earth. But after a dozen visits, I discovered a small, cozy hostelry in Pajar Gang, the seething quarter near the railroad station, called Lal’s Haveli.  A room there with a ceiling fan, air-conditioning, hot shower and t.v. with remote is $10 a night,  and you’re in the thick ofIndia. Breakfast is on the roof. You can watch the sun come up and the city come to life and have deep discussions with your fellow guests, a Nepali horse trader perhaps,  or a textile importer fromNigeria. There’s an Internet café in the alley and a great south Indian restaurant across the street. What more could you want ?

In the eighties, having moved up in the magazine world,  I started writing stories  that entailed meeting the presidents of  the countries whose indigenous forest people I had been hanging out with (most of them didn’t even know they had a president).  Government ministers in Africa andSouth Americaare sharp dressers,  so I had to look the part, and to carry my dark suits and  cap-toed oxfords and dress shirts,  I switched to a suitcase. I schlepped the same black hardshell Delco around for fifteen years or so until it was all scratched up and plastered with stickers and remnants of tape. The more beat-up it got, the less I had to worry about anybody making off with it.  I also took along a small cheap guitar to break the ice and jam with the locals and to pass the inevitable down time like sitting on a platform inLahorefor four hours waiting for the train to come. The Delco inspired the lead song of  soon-to-be-released cd, “Suitcase on the Loose.”

The arrival of fast-drying, wrinkle-proof  threads, made of nylon, polypropylene, capylene, and other synthetics,  which I didn’t become hip to until this millennium but which have been around for twenty years, caused a major downsizing of my travel kit. It was no longer necessary to schlep a suitcase, even if you were going to meet the president. I outfitted myself at Tilley’s with a wardrobe of their stylish “endurables” that  covers me for pretty much every sartorial situation I’m going to run into. One is a suit and nice shirt, the other a safari jacket with unzippable sleaves and a million pockets, cum  long pants with unzippable legs. Whichever outfit ever I’m not wearing fits into a small bicyclists’ backpack, so I can carry it on, as well as my diminutive six-string Yamaha Guitalele, which I switched to after 9/1l and the check-in agents started to insist that I check my guitar. Layered with long-johns and a sweater, the expedition outfit is good up to 18,000 feet, as I discovered in the Peruvian Andes last September. So I have the art of traveling light down pretty well, just as my dad did by the time he was my age, having started with fifty-pound packs. In his latter years, he was taking off for the Pamirs or the Caucasus with a pack no bigger than mine. The more you travel, the less, you realize, you have to take.

But traveling light doesn’t just mean reducing your baggage, it means reducing your footprint, or rather footprints : your carbon footprint, your ecological footprint, your footprint on the local culture.  Most of your carbon footprint comes from the planes you take. A gallon of combusted airplane fuel produces 40 times more greenhouse gases than a gallon of gas. You can take consolation in the fact that if everyone in the plane drove to the destination in their cars, their collective footprint would be greater, but still, airplanes account for something like five percent of the total “anthropogenic” (human) contribution to the rising temperatures that are wreaking havoc with the planet’s ecology and weather systems. Driving is not an option, of course, if you are crossing an ocean, which I’ve done  hundreds of times. I would never have gotten to all these amazing places if it wasn’t for the airplane.  I met my wife of the last 17 years on the October 11, 1987 AirEthiopiaflight fromEntebbetoRome. We had both changed our flights at the last minute, and had I not been kicked out of my seat by the Ugandan minister of youth, culture, and sports and plunked myself down beside her, our three boys would not have come into this world. Our family’s destiny is entwined with the passenger airplane, going back to the l920s, when my father was the business manager of  fellow émigré Igor Sikorsky’s aircraft company, which was developing what became the Pan American Clipper Ship.

There may not be much you can do about the airplane emissions component of your footprint in motion, but once you get there, there are plenty of ways you can make yourself a more responsible traveler. Starting with the things you should be doing at home, like switching off the lights and air conditioning when you’re leaving the room, refusing plastic bags, not ripping off two feet of toilet paper. With the advent of ecotourism, there are loads of companies and operations that do it right now, and they are the ones you should be booking. Are the local people getting anything out of my visit ? Is it helping preserve or erode the local ecosystem and culture ? These are the questions you should be asking. Some cultures, like the Balians and the Bushmen of the Kalahari, handle the presence of tourists better than others, but you have to be really careful. I’ve seen some real horror stories, like a jungle cruise I took in the late seventies to avillage of Boraand Huitoto Indians,not far up the Amazon fromIquitos,Peru. They had been primed with Aguardiente, the local sugarcane fire water, and were so drunk by the time I got there that half the dancers couldn’t stay on their feet. These were the same Indians, I later learned, who had been enslaved and subject to unspeakable cruelties during the rubber boom earlier in the century.

A year later, I was hired as the “expedition leader” of the first adventure cruise up the Amazon. We would take off into the side channels of the main river in zodiac rafts. One morning we came upon some Tikuna Indians who had had little contact with the outside world and  sold us an extraordinary tableau of  forest animals they had painted  on an eight by ten canvas of  bark cloth. Fifteen years later, at Harvard’s PeabodyMuseum’s gift shop, I found a stack of “Tikuna bark-cloth paintings.” Their work had become worthless kitschy tourist crap. Tourism turns traditional cultures into ersatz replicas of itself. The classic example is the turning of the Hopi’s sacred kachina dolls into souvenirs.

When I passed through Bandiagara, Mali,  the main trading center for the Dogon people, in 2003, well-intentioned tourists were giving young freelance guides their sleeping bags and clothing and had created a culture of dependency, so that young Dogon were living off their handouts rather than participating in their own culture, and the elders were no longer initiating them into manhood because they didn’t think they were worthy of being given the secret traditional information, so there’s another fascinating culture  on  the way out . In Madagascarin the mid-eighties I went into the rainforest to see a certain species of lemur called the indri with a young guide from the local village who, it quickly became apparent,  had a special, deep love of nature that some people seem to be born with—it’s not a common trait in any culture. He had taught himself the names and calls and physiognomies of over a hundred species of bird, and he didn’t even have a pair of binoculars. So when I left, I gave him my little Nikons, which I was very attached to, but I could always buy another pair, and I felt great, thinking I had a positive impact on this lovely young Malagasy’s life.  But some years later I read in David Quammen’s Song of the Dodo (in which Quammen recounts his trip to the same forest to see the indri) that he had been killed by jealous people in his village, because the tourists were giving him all this stuff, and they weren’t getting anything.

But tourism doesn’t have to have a negative impact. The Amazon Research andConservationCenter, in the Peruvian Amazon, is completely staffed by local Indians. Jack’s Camp inBotswanaoffers  “dignified tourism” among the Bushmen. The Masaai of Shompole Group Ranch inKenyaare partners in the conservation business with the hip white Kenyan who built a luxurious ecolodge in the hills above them, which they own thirty percent of and staff. They don’t kill the lions any more, because they realize a lion is worth $20,000 in tourist dollars alive, and the money flowing into the community has brought running water to every hut and is helping maintain their culture. Everyone is benefiting.

For the tourist who can’t be bothered with all these niggling little green do’s and don’t,  I offer the following South American folk tale (which I got from Wangari Maathai, the Nobel prize-winning founder of  Kenya’s Greenbelt Movement and a very powerful and courageous woman) : There is a terrible forest fire. All the animals are fleeing the conflagration except Hummingbird, who is flying back and forth, dumping  little slivers of water  on the flames that it is scooping up in a spring. What do you think you’re doing, stupid little bird ? the other animals ask derisively, and Hummingbird says, I’m doing what I can. That’s what we all have to do at this critical juncture. The way you travel, as an individual, absolutely does matter, especially when you multiply your footprint by the  1.1 billion tourists who are expected to be in circulation  by 2010. What might be called “extinction tourism” — taking a last look atTibet, theGreat Barrier Reef, the polar bear—is becoming increasingly popular. Which inescapably puts the tourist in the awkward position of contributing to the extinction with his airplane fuel and presence on the ground.  So let’s each of us do our bit and tred as lightly as we possibly can.

Dispatch #38: An Ecosystem of one’s own

By Alex Shoumatoff


DUDE-ZILLA – Americans consume paper at an annual rate of 740 pounds per capita, seven times that of the world as a whole. The advent of the computer has paradoxically generated vastly more paper consumption.

Your unwitting complicity in the degradation of the planet begins the moment you wake up. You switch on your nightstand light, sending a message for increased demand to the power grid. The amount of energy is minute, it’s true, but remember that you’re sharing America’s grid with 301 million people—the 5 percent of the world’s population who collectively consume a quarter of the earth’s energy.

More than half of this grid is powered by coal-fired plants, which account for 40 percent of our national output of greenhouse gases. Their emissions regulations gutted by this administration, power plants belch out mercury, nitrogen oxide, and sulphur dioxide, an active ingredient of both acid rain and smog. Some of this pollution is drifting all the way up to the Arctic and poisoning fish, ringed seals, polar bears, and pregnant Inuit women.

If you live in Southern California, your little shot of wattage could have come from one of the old, unrenovated coal plants—there are dozens in the Four corners region alone—that are blanketing the Great American Desert in a red haze of toxic pollution. This is all the more deplorable when you consider that twothirds of the energy from whatever turbine you’re drawing on is lost between the plant and your lightbulb due to friction in the power lines. One easy thing you can do is spring for compact fluorescent bulbs. They last longer than incandescent bulbs and use a third of the energy.

If you live in the Northeast, a lot of your power comes from massive hydroelectric dams in northern Quebec. Canada is the world’s largest producer of hydropower, and the U.S. is its biggest customer. There are already 279 large dams in the vast wilderness, seething with rivers, known as the Boreal, which blankets 58 percent of Canada and is homeland to the Cree and other “First Nations,” as Canada’s native ethnic groups call themselves. Sudden releases from some of the dams, triggered by such things as a spike in air-conditioner use down in the States, drown countless thousands of nests of migratory water birds every summer, and have swept at least two caribou herds away to their deaths at their historic river crossings.

Hydro-Québec, the agency that provides the province of Quebec with its electricity, now plans to divert as much as 72 percent of the 380-mile-long Rupert River’s torrential flow into the Eastmain Reservoir, so that it can generate an additional 888 megawatts for New England. Critics fear that this diversion will ruin the river, turning it into a trickle, and will poison the Cree’s traditional fishing areas with mercury leeched out of the bedrock.  You’re not even dressed yet, and look at all the chaos you’ve wrought.

Excrement of Oil

Still not fully awake, you stumble into the bathroom and slip out of your cotton pajamas.

The usual way of growing cotton is highly petrochemical-intensive, requiring 110 pounds of nitrogen fertilizer per acre. Some of the fertilizer is broken down by soil bacteria into nitrate, a toxic and highly soluble chemical that can leach into groundwater or get washed into lakes, creating oxygenless dead zones. Absorbed into the air, nitrate turns into nitrogen oxide, another ingredient of acid rain. Cultivating cotton, unless it’s organic, also requires copious amounts of water. Center-pivot irrigation systems flinging water on the cotton fields in the High Plains are sapping the region’s vast Ogallala aquifer.

Water conservation is probably not uppermost in your mind as you empty your bladder. The average flush uses from one to four gallons, but some toilets have eight-gallon tanks. This is almost criminal when you consider that 1.2 billion people around the world, including one of seven Europeans, don’t have access to clean, potable water. According to the U.N., more than 2.7 billion people will face severe water shortages by 2025. Many social scientists predict that the next big wars will be over water. Nevertheless, the average American family blissfully consumes 300 gallons a day, when you add in watering the lawn and washing dishes, clothes, and cars. This works out to 495,000 gallons per person every year. Compare this with 193,000 gallons in Japan, 153,000 in Germany, and 44,000 in Mali.

And before you rip off three feet of toilet paper, consider that each year 500,000 acres of virgin boreal forest in northern Alberta and Ontario are being clear-cut to make the stuff. These forests are home to some 500 First Nation communities, as well as caribou and bears, moose and wolves, and billions of songbirds. As Allen Hershkowitz, an expert on paper consumption at the Natural Resources Defense Council, once explained to me, “We’re wiping our asses with endangered habitat.” (See the N.R.D.C.’s web site for brands that use recycled paper.)

Now for your shower, which means more water. After drying off with your cotton towel, you fire up your battery-powered toothbrush. Since it costs only $6 and the bristles are wearing down, you’ll probably throw away the whole unit when the battery runs out—which is just what the companies that make these gizmos want you to do. The battery will likely end up in a landfill, releasing its corrosive acids and heavy metals, including lead, into the eco-system. The toothbrush itself is plastic, as is most everything in your indoor environment. America’s insatiable appetite for oil is not just about fuel. It has a lot to do with petrochemicals, including the more than 30 major categories of plastics—what Norman Mailer called “the excrement of oil.” Plastic production accounts for 4 percent of U.S. energy consumption. Meanwhile, just 4 percent of plastic products are recycled.

Putting on deodorant? Fine, but stay away from anti-perspirants. They zap you with aluminum, or compounds in the aluminum family. The process of mining bauxite and refining it into aluminum is environmentally devastating. It involves decapitating hills, gouging pits, and releasing vast quantities of toxic waste in gas and solid form. And yet, only half of the beverage cans in the U.S. are recycled.

If you’re a shaving man, you can take comfort in the fact that your shaving cream is no longer compressed with ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, which were phased out in 19 95 by the Montreal Protocol. But your razor is probably a disposable composite of metal and plastic. chances are, it will end up at the incinerator, where its heavy-metal-based coloring and stabilizing agents (usually cadmium, lead, or antimony) will be released into the atmosphere.

Instead of chucking your disposable razor after four or five shaves, why not get an old-fashioned straight razor and a blade sharpener? They haven’t been popular since the 1950s, but a vintage Stag safety-razor sharpener, which I found on eBay for $9.95, keeps a single blade sharp for a whole year. No wonder they stopped pushing them.

The day we dispose of the idea of disposability will be a great one for the planet.

The gorilla—cell-phone connection

Suddenly, a ringtone shatters the morning calm. The first cellular-telephone call was made on April 3, 1973, and now there are more than 200 million wireless subscribers in the U.S. filling the airwaves with a billion minutes of chatter a year. You answer the cell phone, not realizing that the popularity of this device is helping to kill some of the last wild gorillas on earth.

Cell phones, laptop computers, and electronic appliances contain a thin strip of metal called a capacitor, which controls voltage and stores energy. These capacitors are made of tantalum, a metal extracted from a mineral composite called coltan. Coltan is found in only a few places in the world.

Eighty percent of it is in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire). Some of the richest deposits are in the same national parks in eastern Congo where the gorillas dwell. The miners don’t get much for the long hours they put in ripping up streambeds. They are fed bush meat from the forest: okapi (the exceedingly rare “forest giraffe”), elephant, and lowland gorilla—all mowed down by hunters with Kalashnikov rifles. So maybe there should be a disclaimer on every cell phone: with apologies to the gorillas.

Done with your call, you go to the closet and slip on some wool trousers, which come courtesy of vast herds of sheep belching and farting methane—a greenhouse gas that’s 20 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. New Zealand, where there are about ten sheep for every person, is one of the world’s greatest mammalian-methane emitters. For that matter, all kinds of clothing have impacts. Fur and leather, as everyone knows, mean slaughtering animals. One type of rayon is made from a particular kind of wood pulp called “dissolving pulp,” which is milled mostly in Indonesia, at plants that are huge consumers of rain-forest resources.

Fortunately, eco-friendly fashion is coming into vogue. You can buy organic-cotton garments at H&M now, and in 2005 Bono of U2 launched an all-organic line, called edun.

Pulp Facts

You open the front door and pick up your newspaper. Let’s say it’s The New York Times, the heftiest rag of all. The impacts of publishing All the News That’s Fit to Print are horrific. Each Sunday edition eats up 62,860 trees. It takes 17 trees to make a ton of newsprint, and the U.S. consumed 10.6 million tons in 2005—25 percent of the world total. For his 2002 book, Bronx Ecology: Blueprint for a New Environmentalism, Allen Hershkowitz compared the amount of paper refuse in New York City to the biomass of the Brazilian rainforest and found that the city had almost as much cellulose fiber per acre as the forest.

The paper industry is the world’s third greatest industrial polluter, behind the manufacturers of chemicals and steel. The mills emit tons of toxic chemicals, including mercury, lead, and dioxins. Dioxins are carcinogens that can combine with other toxins to make them mutagenic—meaning that they alter your DNA. Not only dioxins, but 100,000 synthetic compounds have made their way into eco-systems far and near, infecting food chains and accumulating in their top carnivores—eagles, polar bears, humans.

Americans consume paper at an annual rate of 740 pounds per capita, seven times that of the world as a whole. From 2000 to 2005, the global consumption of paper increased by more than 20 percent, from 300 million tons to about 366.

The advent of the computer has paradoxically generated vastly more paper consumption. One reason is that almost no businesses or government agencies print on both sides of the page. If you recycled the Times every day for a year, that would keep more than 6,000 tons of pollution out of the air. But of the 62 million newspapers that will be printed today around the country, 44 million will be thrown away. This week, the equivalent of 500,000 trees will be dumped into landfills or incinerated.

Most of them are grown in the South, which produces a quarter of the world’s paper. The last native forests in Dixie are being sacrificed for plantations of pine that has been genetically engineered to yield the most pulp in the shortest time.

Sugar Shock

Now it’s time for breakfast. Cornflakes sound pretty harmless, but unless your milk is one of the expensive organic brands, it comes from cows pumped full of bovine growth hormone, which makes them 10 to 15 percent more productive but shrinks their life spans and wrecks their reproductive systems. Corn is grown in an unholy stew of fertilizers and pesticides, and much of it is genetically modified. The impact of G.M. crops on the genetic integrity of the natural environment hasn’t been properly studied. Europe wants nothing to do with them, but in the U.S. more than 100 million acres of farmland are devoted to growing G.M. crops.

So maybe you want to skip breakfast and just have a cup of coffee, one of 500 billion drunk worldwide each year, a fifth of them in the U.S. Coffee makes you alert. It gives you ideas. But this beverage has a lot of bad historical Karma. Brazil is the world king of coffee production, and by 1816 three-quarters of a million Brazilians, a sixth of the population, were enslaved and working on plantations to quench the West’s already burgeoning thirst.

Coffee’s social-justice issues persist. For every $2.50 cup sold at yuppie hangouts, the grower gets just a few pennies—unless it’s fair-trade coffee, which currently guarantees growers $1.26 a pound. Most plantations, meanwhile, are carved out of rain forests and treated with ecologically damaging pesticides.

Do you take it with sugar? The average American consumes 110 pounds of the stuff each year, and no wonder—it’s in everything, from bacon to vegetable juice. The Karma of sugar is even more ghastly than coffee’s, and it is still accumulating. In the Dominican Republic, tens of thousands of Haitians are slaving as debt peons on sugar plantations, their papers confiscated so they have no way of escaping.

Let’s hope you’re drinking your coffee out of a ceramic mug. A single polystyrene cup, which most of us know by the brand name Styrofoam, can take several hundred years to decompose. In 2003, Americans went through 73 billion plastic or polystyrene cups and plates and 64 billion paper ones, generating 1.7 million tons of waste. Styrene molecules migrate into your food from containers and, once in your system, become estrogen mimics.

These have bizarre effects on reproductive anatomy and fertility (precocious puberty, undescended testes) and may increase your chances of getting breast or testicular cancer.

GULLIVER GULPS – The latest study predicts that all the world’s fisheries will fail in the next 40 to 50 years. The best thing for the fish would be another World War. Many species rebounded dramatically during the last one.

On the Road

Time now to hop in the car and put yourself into circulation with the 241,193,974 other registered vehicles in the land. During the typical weekday rush hour, there are at least 50 million cars and trucks on the road.

We have more cars than anybody in the world, and they are collectively responsible for 30 percent of our greenhouse-gas emissions. America’s 34 million sport-utility vehicles spew up to 30 percent more carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons than passenger cars, and up to 75 percent more nitrogen oxide. Pickup trucks are an even greater problem. There are more of them—39 million—and they don’t get any better mileage.So here is where you can make your single greatest contribution to the health of the planet: trade in your mighty guzzler for a car that gets 40 miles to the gallon.

Until hydrogen-cell and electric cars hit showrooms, fulfilling at last their promise of emissions-free driving, you have two choices: hybrid or, surprisingly enough, diesel. Every gallon of gas you burn puts 20 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and for every additional mile you get to the gallon, you keep one ton of CO2 out of the atmosphere in a year. In traffic, hybrids get 50 m.p.g. or more, which explains why they’re taking off with conscience-stricken Americans. Susan Sarandon made headlines in 2004 by pointedly driving up to the Oscars in her Prius. This year, le tout Hollywood arrived in eco-friendly hybrids.

The new generation of diesel cars and trucks have the potential to be even greener. A gallon of diesel gets 30 m.p.h. more than a gallon of gasoline, emittting up to 20 percent less CO2. There’s a new Volkswagen—available only in Germany, for now—that gets 70 m.p.g. Diesel engines can also run on biodiesel—an extract of vegetable oil that singer Willie Nelson is trying to bring the stuff to a pump near you.

Combine these two approaches and you get the greenest ride yet: the turbo diesel hybrid, an idea that’s said to be gaining traction among the Big Three.

After the usual hour or so in bumper-to-bumper traffic—traffic that could be reduced if more of us carpooled, rode bicycles, or took mass transit—you arrive at the office. Here you are exposed to many more toxic petrochemicals than at home. Almost everything you touch is “the excrement of oil”: your keyboard and mouse, the copy machine, the coffee machine.

You log on and download your e-mail. Your computer screen, like your TV screen at home, contains thousands of toxic chemicals, lead being the worst. As for your printer, it would be easy to make one that could last for decades, but that would be suicide in an economy based on ever more production and consumption. E-waste is the fastest-growing segment of the human waste stream. Most of America’s discarded equipment is shipped to China, India, and Pakistan, where it is stripped by women and children working under appallingly hazardous conditions. Instead of throwing your old system away, log on to the Environmental Protection Agency’s eCycling page to find the nearest E-waste recycling facility. Some of them take cell phones too.

Questions About the Menu

After a morning exploring the Web’s infinite possibilities for procrastination, you’re ready for lunch. But what to eat? you wonder, perusing the menu. Everything’s a no-no.

Fish is supposed to be the healthiest, but most fish is contaminated with mercury released by power plants and industrial factories. In adults, mercury in sufficient quantities can cause memory loss, baldness, blindness, and infertility. In unborn babies, it has also been linked to cerebral palsy, deafness, blindness, mental retardation, shortened attention span, and learning and developmental disabilities.

The most mercury-loaded fish are tilefish, shark, swordfish, king mackerel, grouper, orange roughy, marlin, and albacore tuna—fresh, frozen, or canned.

But this is about the planet’s health, not yours. Huge factory trawlers are hovering up fish, then processing and canning them even before returning to port. Gigantic nets are dipping all the way to the benthic zone, a mile down, and hauling up marine life that hasn’t even been identified, then grinding it into dog food. Twenty-mile-long baited lines are hooking more seabirds, including albatross and petrels, than fish.

Twenty-four percent of the world’s marine fisheries are over-extended, depleted, or recovering. The latest study predicts that they will all fail in the next 40 to 50 years. Cod, which used to swim in schools of hundreds of millions known as “mountains,” are down to the wire; by 1995 all the major cod fisheries on the Grand Banks off Newfoundland were closed, and they have shown few signs of recovery.

There are plenty of Maine lobsters, now that the cod, which prey on their young, are gone, so dig in. Wild Pacific salmon—king, coho, sockeye, pink—are O.K., too, but don’t go looking for wild Atlantic salmon: there are only a few thousand left, and the fisheries are all closed. What is passed off as wild is usually farmed. Sinking waste and uneaten food from the salmon farms create anoxic dead zones in their coastal waters.

The best thing for the fish would be another World War. Many species rebounded dramatically during the last one, when the seas were unsafe for fishing.

What about red meat? Americans are the most insatiable beef consumers in the world, eating more than 6.7 billion hamburgers a year. But the production of beef is incredibly inefficient and resource-intensive. Eighty percent of the grain produced in the U.S. is fed to livestock. A 1,050-pound steer eats 2,700 pounds of feed during the three years it gets to live. The rangeland of the American West is turning into desert after so many years of use, and other countries are clearing rain forest to run cattle for a few years, until the soil gives out.

But let’s end lunch on a positive note. You can eat all the chocolate you want—as long as it comes from Bahia, Brazil. (Most U.S. chocolate is from the Ivory Coast, which has child-labor issues.) In Bahia, the cacao trees are planted in the understory of the Atlantic coastal tropical forest, in the shade of the big trees, giving local farmers an incentive not to clear it. This is helping to protect the four species of lion tamarins and many other species endemic to this fast-disappearing emerald forest.

Bottlenecks

Following an afternoon of frantic e-mail exchanges, you inch your way home through the same traffic. Ten thousand exhaust pipes are oozing carbon dioxide, the crankedup air conditioners adding to the very heat they’re designed to relieve.

Stressed out by the gridlock, you decide to take a detour to the gym and sweat away your frustration. At the front desk, you grab a bottle of water. It has been only 10 or 15 years since bottled water was popularized as a healthy alternative to sugary soft drinks, and now you can’t imagine life without it. The plastic water bottle has become, along with the cell phone, an accessory of modern life, like the 18th-century aristocrat’s powdered wig and snuffbox.

Global consumption of bottled water rose 57 percent between l999 and 2004. The U.S., not surprisingly, is the largest consumer, downing 6.9 billion gallons in 2004. The bottles are made mostly from polyethylene terephthalate. Those sold in America require 1.5 million barrels of oil a year, enough to fuel 100,000 cars. Worldwide, 2.7 million tons of plastic a year are used to make water bottles, which have become a monumental waste problem.

Recycling helps, but before you recycle, why not re-use? It may be healthier to refill your empty bottle from the drinking fountain than to buy a new one, since municipal water supplies are obsessively checked for safety, while water bottlers operate with little or no oversight. Some bottled water is just tap water anyway, spiked with a few minerals that have no appreciable health benefit.

You do your weekly shopping at the supermarket and help the checkout girl load your provisions into plastic bags. Americans go through 380 billion of these throwaway totes a year. They are used for an average of just 25 minutes each, and they are not biodegradable.

Freighter-loads of them are dumped in huge slicks out at sea, internally strangling dolphins and sea turtles that ingest them. Schlepping canvas bags is a minor inconvenience, but one that will make a huge difference if enough of us do it.

Happy Endings

At last you make it home, adjust the thermostat, and settle in for a couple of hours of relaxation in front of the TV. But you’re having trouble concentrating on the latest round of So You Think You Can Dance because you’re freaking out about all the debt you’re in.

A quarter of Americans are compulsive consumers, addicted to the rush of coming home with stuff they’ve bought—be it a new handbag or a $2,000 plasma TV. Before long, the feeling wears off, so they buy something else. In the U.S., average household debt has almost doubled over the past decade, while the average credit-card balance per household is approaching $10,000. Meanwhile, the square-footage of the American house has ballooned over the last 10 years, leading to a commensurate demand for energy, and more rape of the boreal and Amazon forests.

Finally it’s time to hit the sack. But your complicity doesn’t stop even when you’re dead to the world: for the next eight hours, your appliances and the thermoregulation of your space continue to suck energy from the grid.

The incredible spurt in American consumption since the 1970s would not have been possible if we didn’t have the world set up so that the lion’s share of its resources flow to us, and if we weren’t so rich. The U.S. economy is so massive that in gross domestic product each state is comparable to a foreign country: Mississippi to Peru, Florida to Brazil, California to Italy, Texas to Canada, North Carolina to Sweden.

It is this affluence, and the unnecessary discretionary spending that it sucks you into, that is driving much of the destruction of the planet. As many as a million flights a year are taken by passengers solely for the purpose of keeping up their elite status, so they can hang out in the business-class lounge at the airport, get pre-boarded, and collect their luggage first. Airplane fuel adds 600 million tons of carbon dioxide a year to the atmospheric mix—3.5 percent of the global human total.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that sooner or later an economy based on more and more consumption is going to collide with the reality that the earth has only so many raw materials to offer. How can I reduce my ecological footprint? People are beginning to wonder, as they realize that we are bringing the roof down on ourselves.

What can I do to make myself carbon-neutral? The sad truth is that real carbon neutrality is impossible because, apart from everything else, each of us takes 26,000 breaths a day, and each breath removes oxygen from the atmosphere and replaces it with carbon dioxide.

As far as I am aware, no one has gone so far as to sacrifice himself for the environment, but you could do the next best thing and go belly up. Lose your credit cards or, if you must have one, make it an “affinity card” that applies a percentage of your purchases to a green cause—say, planting mango groves in Indonesia. Get re-po’d. That will take care of your automobile emissions problem, plus having to walk or bike everywhere will do wonders for the waistline.

Then there are all the things that you can do without—from plastic bags to blood diamonds, to digital and electronic appliances containing coltan. Slip a ceramic mug in your handbag, fold your toilet paper as many times as you can, turn the lights off when you’re not in the room, and, if you really want to be a self-policing Nazi, pick up one of these new scales that monitors the carbon you emit, instead of the calories you’re burning.

If all that cramps your style somewhat, consider this: even if we don’t release another molecule of CO2 into the atmosphere, what’s already there is going to take 100 years to cycle out—and we haven’t even felt its full effects. But if we can keep warming to 2 degrees centigrade through 2100, we might save the coral reefs that are left. We might also forestall the rest of the ghastly crashes projected for this century (no glaciers, no fish, no Amazon rain forest, etc.), so it’s worth doing everything we can.

The U.S. is responsible for 30 percent of worldwide carbon emissions since industrialization, and almost half of those in the last decade—more than China, India, Africa, and Latin America combined.

Thanks in part to our oblivious hyper-consumption of oil, trees, minerals, and other natural resources around the world, species are disappearing 100 to 1,000 times faster than they have in millennia. Our belief in the “myth of superabundance,” a phrase coined back in 1963 by Secretary of Interior Stuart Udall, now has to be retired.

The sooner America gets it, the fewer of our fellow creatures are going to die, and the more hospitable and habitable the planet we be.

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Dispatch #36: A Miraculous Meeting With My 22nd Cousin

By Alex Shoumatoff

This originally appeared in the January, 2007 Travel + Leisure, and is reproduced from travelandleisure.com.

In search of family history—and to meet a long-lost, distant cousin—Alex Shoumatoff crosses the country to the ancient city of Novgorod and finds a place of exhilarating beauty and personal resonance.  From January 2007
I think of myself sometimes as the last of the wandering White Russians—one of the last full-blooded descendants of the so-called Russian “nobility,” which was liquidated or driven into exile during and after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. All but a handful of my generation, the grandchildren of the émigrés, have been absorbed by the gene pools of our adopted lands. My two older boys are half-Brazilian, and the three younger are half-Rwandan. They will not be plagued, as I sometimes am, with a vague longing for what Nabokov called “a hospitable, remorseful, racemosa-blossoming Russia” that hasn’t existed for decades.But now, here in Novgorod, an ancient, lovely city of 250,000 about 100 miles south of St. Petersburg, I was home. My son Nick was at my side, and we were being led by my cousin Alex Grigorov—my 21st cousin, our family lines having separated sometime back in the late 15th century—a man whose existence I’d only recently discovered and whom I’d come to Russia to meet. We crossed the bridge over the ­Volkhov River to a long wall of white arches, which was all that was left of the old marketplace. Historically, foreign traders were only allowed to be on this side of the river. An oarsman in a scull pulled himself under the bridge, through the crystalline afternoon air, with broad, sweeping strokes. Behind the market was a cluster of onion-domed churches—the Yaroslavsky Court, which flourished from 1045 through the Middle Ages. The churches were locked; today, there aren’t enough believers to make up congregations for them.We walked down Ilina Street, which was lined with gracious but rundown prerevolutionary houses. Novgorod was heavily bombed by the Nazis, but this side of the river is mostly intact. As we passed linden-lined side streets, it was like going back in time, to somewhere in the mid 19th century. I felt totally at ease, as if the last of the wandering White Russians had finally come back to where he belonged, to the source of his vague longing for a Russia that had not entirely vanished after all. This was where our ancestors—Alex’s, Nick’s, and mine—had ruled, and this was where they were killed.In 1982 I wrote a book called Russian Blood. Both of my grandmothers— one living in Locust Valley, Long Island, the other in Baltimore—were in their nineties, and I wanted to get their stories about who we were back in the old country and how they had “gotten out” and established new lives in America, while there was still time. I learned that my paternal grandmother’s family, the Avinovs, had been the doges, or posadniki, of Novgorod, one of the oldest cities in Russia, from the 12th century until 1477, when Ivan III of Moscow conquered the city-state and they were put to death. One person who managed to escape into exile was Ivan Zakharievich Ovinov (the O was later changed to A). It was from this man that we were descended. We were the senior line, an unbroken succession of male Avinovs, generation after generation, that had enjoyed an exceptionally long run of about eight centuries, from before 1200 until 1949, when my great-uncle, Andrey Avinoff, who was gay, died childless. I had always thought the name died with him—until a year ago, when I received an intriguing e-mail from Moscow.

The message was from a doctor named Alex Grigorov, who had come across The New Yorker’s two-part excerpt of Russian Blood, which I had posted on my Web site, and learned of my existence. “How glad I am to learn that members of the senior branch of the Avinovs somewhere have survived,” he wrote. Grigorov explained that he was also a historian, and had been working on a history of the Avinovs for several years, and that the two of us were distantly related: he, too, was descended from Ivan Zakharievich Ovinov, but his line had changed its name a few generations after Ivan’s escape. We were 21st cousins, our two lines having diverged when Ivan Zakharievich had children, sometime around 1477.

Grigorov said that he had collected the names of more than 3,000 Avinovs so far. Eighteen hundred of them were still alive, scattered all over Russia. Grigorov told me about his research into the Ovinovskaya Icon, which two angels were said to have given to one of the Avinovs in the early 15th century. He also sent me a list of 29 Avinovs who had been killed by Stalin in the 1930’s, including my great-uncle Andrey’s brother Nika, who had remained in Russia, and complicated genealogical charts of Avinovs cascading down the centuries that were a study in the lottery of survival. So many had been picked off by war or disease or had failed to reproduce for other reasons. Many more lines, actual and potential, had been extinguished than had carried on. That Grigorov and I, two Alexes, had run the genealogical gauntlet and found each other across an ocean through the illusory medium of cyberspace seemed perfectly amazing.

After a flurry of subsequent e-mails, Grigorov and I decided to meet and tour the ancestral sites together. I flew to Moscow with my second son, Nick, 25 years old and eager to connect with his Russian side. We spotted Grigorov standing at the exit of Sheremetyevo Airport with a sign: SHOUMATOFF. He was a bearded, balding, bespectacled 40-year-old with a gold upper incisor, obviously a member of the intelligentsia; he looked like a Russian D. H. Lawrence. Grigorov had a grueling itinerary planned for the next 10 days. He was like a man obsessed. He wanted to show us everything, to transmit everything he knew.

In Moscow, we went to the Scherbatovsky Palace. It’s now a concert hall at the Bolshoi Theater; before the Revolution it was where my great-uncle Nika and his wife, Masha, lived. Soon they would be sharing it with dozens of other comrades. Nika could have gotten out with the rest of the family, but he was sympathetic to the Revolution’s professed goal of eliminating social injustice and stayed to do his part for the new Soviet state. He designed coal-fired power plants for the accelerated industrialization program and was rewarded for his patriotism by being executed, on December 10, 1937.
Grigorov had learned the details from the KGB’s archives, some of which were opened after the collapse of Communism. He led us to the apartment on Povarskaya Street where Nika was arrested by Stalin’s secret police. Then we took a train to Butovo, outside Moscow’s city limits, where, two weeks later, he had been shot by a firing squad, one of the million killed during 1937 and 1938—a forgotten footnote among the 20 million Russians that Stalin is estimated to have killed. “Somewhere here lies your Nika,” Grigorov said, as we wandered in a field crisscrossed with the ditches the condemned had dug to be thrown into—more than 20,000 in all. Roses had been planted there. We lit a candle in a small log church that had been built on the site for the deceased, including eight members of Grigorov’s own family. I collected some dirt in a plastic bag to bury beside Nika’s brother and sister in our family plot on Long ­Island.

The descendants of our exiled common ancestor, Ivan Zakharievich Ovinov, gradually made something of themselves, and in the 17th century they were given an estate by one of the czars in the province of Kasimov, 150 miles southeast of Moscow. I rented a car and drove out there by myself. Nick had met a beautiful young Russian woman at our hotel and wanted to stay in Moscow, and Grigorov had to work. My cousin had been the head of the department of resuscitation in a hospital, but after perestroika he was only being paid $60 a month, and so, adapting to the new reality, he went into private practice treating narkomani, drug addicts. He had more business than he could handle.

The road to Kasimov ran for 50 miles through a deep forest of pine and white birch. Every 100 yards I saw a kerchiefed babushka sitting behind a basket full of chanterelle mushrooms, and jars of blueberries and raspberries. I passed through one village after another of centuries-old izbas, log huts with intricately stenciled, gaily painted gingerbread window casings. Kasimov itself proved to be a sleepy provincial town of 35,000 on the banks of the Oka River, visited only by the occasional busload of German tourists, and little changed since the 19th century, with beautiful 300-year-old churches whose gleaming gold cupolas caught the sun, and columned prerevolutionary mansions and bureaucratic buildings.

Descendants of the Tatars who invaded in the 14th century still live in Kasimov (some Muslim, some Christian, some atheist), and a community of gypsies has been here for generations, and everyone gets along, I was told by the delegation of local officials that welcomed me. In the morning I was taken to a high school that had a tiny museum celebrating the career of my great-great-grandfather, Admiral Alexander Pavlovich Avinov (1786–1854), one of Kasimov’s most illustrious native sons. Distinguished military careers are the rare thing from the czarist period that kept their luster through Communism and perestroika.

The next day, Nick and I caught the overnight sleeper train from Moscow to Galich, 250 miles away. In the 14th century, Galich was more important than Moscow, but it has fallen on hard times and is now like a depressed town in upstate New York. Half of the buildings are derelict. Thousands of villages in Russia have been abandoned in recent years, and the population has been shrinking by a million a year because no one can afford to have children, Grigorov told me. But six of Galich’s 60 churches have been restored since perestroika and are full of resplendent icons encrusted with precious stones and silver, recycled from jewelry that locals, believing they had been cured by the icons, had given in gratitude over the centuries. The icons were hidden by the faithful during the Communist years.

We went to the Paisiev Monastery, built by my relatives on their land in the 14th century, and saw the Ovinovskaya Icon, which depicts the Virgin and Child, with Galich in the background. The icon disappeared during the Revolution and was found in the woods by some children in the 1940’s and placed in another church in town, where, three years ago, Grigorov saw and identified it and returned it to the monastery. The monastery itself was newly restored. Five years earlier it had been a ruin with chickens running in and out of it. There are 20,000 churches in Russia, a priest in Galich told me; the main task of the country’s remaining clergy has become restoration.

In St. Petersburg, we visited the Voskresensky Novodevichy Convent, also being restored—a huge, magnificent complex on Moskovsky Prospect. Grigorov took us to Admiral Avinov’s grave, a monument draped with an anchor and chain. His wife and five of their 10 children were buried around him, but the children’s headstones had been made off with (Grigorov knew this because he had found a plan of the cemetery). He told us that he loved nothing better than to spend hours in archives, poring over obscure documents. “It isn’t just my hobby, it’s a kind of personal mission,” he explained. “The archives stop at 1918, so there’s a gap of 70 years. Eighty percent of Russians don’t know anything about their family history. They want to connect with previous generations, but they can’t.”

Suddenly, it started to rain. It almost seemed as if our ancestors were trying to communicate, in a liquid shower of applause, their gratitude to us for remembering them. All these people live on in us, I said to Nick, and he said he was going to have “Avinov” tattooed in Cyrillic on his arm.

I had been in Novgorod once before, 25 years earlier, when I was researching Russian Blood. The local historian had been floored to meet an actual descendant of the posadniki. But that had been a quick visit, at a time when it was not a good idea to ask too many questions about the czarist past. This time, there were no such restrictions.

Novgorod’s story begins in 862, when a Viking named Rurik, who belonged to a tribe called Rus—hence Russia—was invited by the local people to put order into their lives. According to family legend, one of the three men who went to Sweden to get Rurik was an Avinov, but the verifiable family tree doesn’t start until the 12th century, with a man named Misha, who became one of Novgorod’s rulers. By 1136 Novgorod had become a boyar republic and one of the most influential city-states in Europe. It belonged to the Hanseatic League, along with Cologne and other cities on the Rhine. Ships came sailing up the Volkhov River from Holland and England to trade for amber and furs. At its height Novgorod spread north from St. Petersburg into what is now Finland, even up to the White Sea, its influence extending east beyond Vologda and as far west as Pskov—covering a good part of modern-day European Russia. This area contained some 200 estates belonging to boyars, or noblemen, from among whom a group of posadniki were elected. Misha and his descendants, who were known as the Mishinichi, were head posadniki.

In time the Mishinichi acquired the surname Ovinov, which eventually became Avinov. Grigorov took us to Pruskaya Street, where Misha had lived, and we walked along the crest of an earthen wall from where, in 1170, the city repelled an invasion by neighboring Suz­dalians, supposedly zapping them with the powerful Znamensky Icon, for which a special church was later built: the frescoes were commissioned by our 14th-century ancestor Felix Ovinov.

We proceeded into Novgorod’s kremlin, a 30-acre inner city surrounded by a high, thick brick wall with periodic guard towers, plus a moat on three sides and the Volkhov River on the fourth—some of the most advanced and formidable fortifications of the time in this part of the world. The main attraction inside the kremlin’s walls is the Cathedral of St. Sophia. In its dim, high-vaulted, candlelit interior, babushkas were prostrating themselves before the Znamensky Icon, which was moved here from its own church in the 20th century. We saw a 14th-century bronze door on one side of the cathedral, blackened by the centuries, with embossed panels representing various important people and events. The panel in the lower right corner depicts a centaur turning back and firing an arrow. This, Grigorov said, was Felix Ovinov.

A hundred and fifty yards from the cathedral, under the kremlin wall, was a yard where Felix’s great-nephews Zakhary and Kusma were decapitated by an angry mob in 1477 (Zakhary was the father of Ivan, Grigorov’s and my common ancestor). Ivan III was about to descend on Novgorod, and the mob wanted the head posadniki to ask the Lithuanians for military help, but the two brothers wanted to negotiate. This was the beginning of the end of Novgorod’s independence.

On the other side of the cathedral was the museum, which has a monumental collection of medieval icons, many of them four or five feet high. Not far off was the 17th-century Cathedral of Our Lady of the Sign.

This is a place for churches: we visited the Yurievsky Monastery, whose cupolas, on tall white towers, you can see from the bridge, gleaming five miles upriver. To Nick they seemed like rocket ships ready to take off to paradise. The flatness of the landscape was broken every five miles or so by one of these celestial launchpads.

Near the monastery was the Vitoslavlitsy Museum of Wooden Architecture, to which centuries-old log churches, masterpieces of wooden construction, some four stories high with seamless dovetailed corners, and beautiful log izbas had been moved from the surrounding villages. We took a boat trip up to Lake Ilmen, passing Gorodische, the original settlement where Rurik was welcomed (hence Novgorod—the “new city” that he founded). The banks were crowded with willows, white terns swooped and dived after fish, and fishermen in inflatable rafts snoozed at their poles.

We visited the outlying Khutynsky and Viazhischsky monasteries—the former on the site of a viper den (the snakes were expelled by a saint who attracted so many pilgrims that he had to turn bread crumbs into loaves), the latter nestled in beautiful woods. Our last stop was Kolmovsky Monastery, a nice but not particularly impressive place of worship next to the abandoned psychiatric wing of the main hospital. But this was where Zakhary, Kusma, Yuri, Grigory, Mikhail—the whole clan—were buried. Somewhere in the overgrowth between the church and the river is where our people lie, Grigorov told me.

“Now I have shown you everything I wanted to,” he said when we returned to the hotel. The last I saw of my dear, long-lost cousin, who had really put himself out for us, reconnected us with our severed rootskis, was him hurrying to the train station with his Adidas bag slung over his shoulder, at his customary double-time clip. Our distant lines had briefly intersected, and now we two Alexes were going our separate ways, resuming our lives in the very different countries where the lottery of life had cast us. I wondered if we would ever see each other again. But even if we didn’t, we would be comparing notes for the rest of our days. We had become part of each other’s story.

Dispatch #35: Reinhold Messner’s Longest Ordeal

By Alex Shoumatoff

This article originally appeared in the UK edition of Vanity Fair
and on VanityFair.Com, in September of 2006.

Reinhold Messner at Castle Juval, his home in South Tyrol, Italy, 2001. Photograph by Jonas Karlsson.

 

 

 

A decades-old mountaineering scandal has bubbled back up to the surface: did climbing legend Reinhold Messner—who made his name by being the first to climb all 14 of the world’s highest mountains—leave his brother Günther to die on Nanga Parbat, in Pakistan, in May 1970.   By Alex Shoumatoff, September 11, 2006
Reinhold Messner secured his status as the most phenomenal mountaineer of all time in 1978, when he and his Tyrolean countryman Peter Habeler became the first climbers ever to reach the top of Mount Everest without supplementary oxygen. Two years later, Messner soloed Everest—at 29,035 feet the world’s highest peak—again without an oxygen mask. By 1986 he would complete climbs of the 14 highest mountains in the world—all the “eight-thousanders,” 8,000 meters (26,240 feet) or more. Since then, only a handful of climbers have matched these superhuman feats of endurance and survival.But in 1970, Messner was 26 years old and still unknown outside the small community of European extreme rock climbers. Two years earlier, he’d gotten their attention on a group expedition to the vertiginous granite Aiguilles of the Mont Blanc range, in the Alps. Some of the best climbers in the world stopped their ascents and watched through binoculars, aghast, as Messner hacked his way up Les Droites, then regarded as the most difficult ice wall on earth, in only four hours. The fastest ascent until then had taken three days; three previous expeditions had met with disaster and death.

Messner was able to move so quickly because he climbed alone, alpine-style—meaning he took only a rucksack. Not having to bang in pitons (thin metal wedges to secure protective ropes), or rappel back down each pitch to pick them up, saved him a lot of time and energy. But it meant that he had to have absolute confidence in himself. There could be no hesitation, no uncertainty in his movements.

Another factor in Messner’s success was his artistry at route finding. Picking a way up thousands of feet of sheer rock is like designing a large, complicated building, and Messner’s lines were elegant and innovative. He was in superb condition, from running for hours at a time up alpine meadows and practicing moves on a ruined building in St. Peter, the little village in the Dolomite mountains of Northern Italy where he lived. “Reinhold never made a move until he had studied the weather conditions,” says Doug Scott, one of the top Himalayan climbers of Messner’s era, “and when everything was right, he went for it and pulled it off because of his phenomenal fitness.”

But most important, Messner had the mysterious drive, the ambition, the single-minded focus that separates the world’s Lance Armstrongs, Michael Jordans, and Tiger Woodses from the merely talented. He had decided in his mid-teens that he was going to become the greatest mountain climber ever, and from then on was a man obsessed, pushing himself to the limit, then pushing the limit out some more, “learning the world through my fear,” as he puts it in one of his many books.

By 1969 the Alps had become too small for Messner, so he went to the Peruvian Andes and pioneered two ascents there. Now he longed for an opportunity to tackle the big boys: the 14 eight-thousanders in Central Asia—in the Himalayan, Karakoram, Hindu Kush, and Pamir ranges.

The chance came late that year, when a climber dropped out of a German expedition that was going to Nanga Parbat, the world’s ninth-highest mountain (26,658 feet), and Messner was invited to take his place. Nanga is in the Himalayas, in Pakistan, near the Kashmir border. It was the holy grail of German mountaineering. Thirty-one people had died on it by 1953, when Hermann Buhl finally reached the top, and 30 more have died since. A solo-climbing pioneer, Buhl, with the Italian Walter Bonatti, was Messner’s main role model. But the southern, Rupal Face was still unclimbed. Fifteen thousand feet of mostly exposed rock from top to bottom, it is the highest vertical wall on earth. Even Buhl considered it to be suicide. Starting in 1963, the best German climbers had pitted themselves against it. Four expeditions had failed. This was the fifth.

“This I was interested in,” Messner told me recently.

At the last moment, another climber dropped out, and Messner was able to get his brother Günther on the expedition. Reinhold and Günther had done easily a thousand climbs together, starting as little boys in their valley in South Tyrol, a German-speaking enclave at the border of Austria and Italy that has been under Italian rule since the First World War. Günther was very strong, but his rock climbing was not at the Spider-Man level of Reinhold’s. He was a few inches shorter and hadn’t been able to put in the same hours of practice and training because of his job as a bank clerk. Reinhold, who was teaching high-school math and making a desultory effort to get a degree in building engineering at the University of Padua, had his summers free. When Günther asked for a two-month leave of absence to go on the expedition, the bank wouldn’t give it to him, so he gave his notice. He was going to find a job that would let him do more climbing when he got back.

In May 1970, the expedition’s 22 climbers and their teams of high-altitude porters began working their way up the Rupal Face, setting up tent camps along the way. Reinhold quickly demonstrated that he was the strongest climber, and on June 27, after days of being snowbound by a blizzard, the death of one of the porters, and other setbacks, the expedition had one last chance to make the summit: it all came down to Messner making a solo dash up the last 3,000 feet from Camp Five. He set out before dawn and by the end of the morning had climbed the Merkl Couloir, a nearly vertical slit of snow and ice above Camp Five, and started on a long traverse off to the right, skirting the lower, south summit. Suddenly, he noticed another climber below him, coming up fast. It was Günther, who was supposed to be stringing fixed ropes in the couloir to ease Reinhold’s descent. But Günther had decided he wasn’t going to miss out on this.

The brothers reached the summit late in the afternoon and shook hands, as they always did. Elated by their triumph, and befuddled by the thin air, they lost track of the time and stayed too long on top. This happens in the “death zone,” above around 23,000 feet. Without an oxygen tank, you start to experience “rapture of the heights.” Günther had come up from Camp Five too fast and was completely spent. He told his brother that he didn’t think he could make it back down the Rupal Face. He didn’t trust his footing. One slip and it was 15,000 feet to the valley floor, and they didn’t have a rope, so there was no way Reinhold could hold him. Reinhold finally looked at his watch and realized that there was only an hour of daylight left. They were in big trouble.

What happened after that has been the subject of speculation ever since. Four days later, Reinhold appeared on the other side of the mountain, at the foot of the western, Diamir Face, which is encrusted with hanging glaciers and seracs (precariously poised blocks of ice) that are forever breaking off and causing avalanches. Reinhold was delirious and badly frostbitten; he would end up losing all or part of seven of his toes. He was also alone. According to Reinhold, he and Günther had spent three freezing nights on the mountain without food, water, or shelter and had made it almost all the way down the Diamir Face. Reinhold had gone ahead to pick the safest route across the avalanche chutes, while Günther staggered behind or sat resting until he got the O.K. to come. At last Reinhold reached safety, jumping off the lowest glacier into a grassy meadow. He waited there for Günther, but Günther didn’t come. Reinhold went back to the place, a kilometer back, where he had left Günther and found it smothered by a roiling mass of fresh snow—the aftermath of an avalanche. Reinhold spent a night and a day looking frantically for his brother, in case Günther had survived. By now Reinhold was hallucinating: he imagined a third climber walking next to him and felt separated from his body, as if he were looking down on himself from above.

But there was no sign of his brother. Over the next three decades, Reinhold returned to the Diamir Face many times and spent days searching, but Günther remained lost without a trace, joining a distinguished roster of climbers that includes A. F. Mummery, the greatest Victorian alpinist, who disappeared high on the same face in 1895; George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, who disappeared on Everest in 1924 (Mallory’s body was found in 1999); and Reinhold’s hero, Hermann Buhl, who disappeared on Chogolisa, in the Karakoram range, in 1957.

Messner has written and spoken about what happened on Nanga Parbat in 1970 again and again (sometimes contradicting himself in minor details). In 2002 he revisited the subject in his book The Naked Mountain. But in the summer of 2003 two members of the 1970 expedition came out with books attacking Reinhold’s version of events and accusing him of choosing ambition over saving his brother’s life. They are Between Light and Shadow: The Messner Tragedy on Nanga Parbat, by Hans Saler, and The Traverse: Günther Messner’s Death on Nanga Parbat—Expedition Members Break Their Silence, by Max von Kienlin, neither of which has appeared in English. The latter claims that Reinhold had left his weakened brother on the summit and sent him down the Rupal Face alone, so that he could cover himself in even more glory by descending the Diamir Face. Reinhold’s was the first ever traverse—climbing one face and coming down another—of Nanga Parbat.

This was not a new accusation. It was first made by the leader of the expedition, Karl Maria Herrligkoffer, who was attacked upon his return for not going to look for the Messners on the Diamir side. Herrligkoffer tried to deflect blame onto Reinhold, claiming he had planned the traverse all along and had abandoned the expedition, and his brother.

But now there were fresh allegations: von Kienlin claimed that he had found his old diary of the expedition in the wine cellar of his castle, in South Wittenberg. One of the entries recorded that Reinhold, when he finally met up with the rest of the expedition, had frantically shouted to von Kienlin, “Where’s Günther?” This was proof, von Kienlin argued, that the two brothers did not go down the Diamir Face together.

Von Kienlin also claimed that Reinhold had expressed his desire to make the traverse days before he went to the summit. After the disaster and their shocked reunion, Messner told him, according to the diary, “I knew how much Günther wanted to get to the warmth of the tent, but I had to think that the opportunity to make this traverse would not come again.” (Messner vehemently denies this.) Von Kienlin said that they had agreed to keep what really happened secret, for Reinhold’s sake. After von Kienlin’s book came out, another member of the expedition, Gerhard Baur, came forth and said that Messner had also told him he was planning to do the traverse. The charge was gravely serious: the worst thing a climber can do is to abandon his partner. In essence, Messner was being accused of fratricide.

Von Kienlin and Messner have a tumultuous history. A year after they had returned from Nanga, von Kienlin’s wife, Uschi Demeter, ran off with Reinhold, who had spent months recuperating from the expedition at their home. Van Kienlin claimed this had nothing to do with it; the marriage was already over. “It was more Reinhold’s behavior [on the mountain] that upset me,” he told the London Sunday Times.

I did a lot of climbing in my teens—enough that I became the youngest person to make several ascents in the Alps. And I had once been in a situation very similar to that of the Messners, in which we had no alternative but to go down a different face of a mountain in Switzerland, To me, Reinhold’s account of what happened on Nanga made perfect sense. I asked Doug Scott, who climbed Mount Everest in 1975 and has known Messner for 30 years, what he made of this latest controversy, and Scott said, “If Reinhold says that is what happened, I see no reason for not taking him at his word. Everyone likes to bash the icon, so I would take all this with a pinch of salt.”

Ed Douglas, a journalist-climber who is the former editor of The Alpine Journal, told me, “I don’t think anyone seriously says he killed his brother. But it is possible he doesn’t know himself what happened. When he came down from the Diamir Face he was completely strung out. Memories become fixed along certain lines. So how can he be sure about anything that transpired up there after all these years?

“German mountaineering is fraught with tensions,” Douglas added. “It’s very Wagnerian. And Messner was knicking off with one of their wives. Everyone wants to take him down because he is so astonishingly arrogant.”

The controversy, it seemed, would never be resolved until Günther’s body was found—which it finally was, in July 2005. But even this discovery has not closed the book on this bizarre and sad saga—at least as far as von Kienlin is concerned.
Messner agreed to meet me in Brussels at the European Parliament, to which he was elected in 1999 as an independent in the Green faction for Italy. (His term ended in 2004.) Since doing Everest without supplementary oxygen, he has not had to worry about money. With his lucrative endorsements, highly paid lectures, and book royalties, he is worth millions. He has a castle, a vineyard, and several small farms in South Tyrol. Most of his old climbing companions are either dead or eking out a living by guiding, or repairing roofs.

What impressed me was not only that he had had all these incredible adventures, but that between expeditions he had written 40 books about them—including one arguing that the Abominable Snowman of Himalayan lore is actually a rare species of long-haired Tibetan bear. The reactions to My Quest for the Yeti ranged from skepticism to outright ridicule when it was published, in 1998. Several critics invoked an old charge against Messner—that his brain had been damaged by anoxia, or lack of oxygen, during all those high-altitude climbs. But five years later a Japanese scientist presented evidence that had brought him, quite independently, to a similar conclusion.

Now in his early 60s, Messner has a thick, wavy head of hair that is starting to turn gray. He wore his shirt open, with a clutch of Tibetan good-luck beads at his throat. There was nothing wrong with his mind that I noticed, except that he had a tendency to say whatever was on it, sometimes making life more difficult for himself. In fact, I found Messner to be one of the sharpest and most focused people I’ve ever met, with a photographic memory of all the major routes and who climbed them and when. Maybe we should all undergo a little oxygen deprivation.

To understand what this was really all about, Messner explained, I had to go back to the Nanga Parbat expedition that the German Alpine Club sponsored in 1934. With more than 600,000 members, the German Alpine Club is the largest organization of its kind in the world and a bastion of conservatism and “good German values.” It was known for its anti-Semitism and in the 30s became associated with National Socialist ideology. The Nazis wanted all Germans to be comrades, and mountain climbing, which forges Kameradschaft (camaraderie), was the perfect model.

The leader of the 1934 expedition was a man named Willy Merkl. He expected unquestioning obedience from his climbers and had a Wagnerian obsession with conquering Nanga Parbat, “with its bright golden adventures, its manly struggles and austere mortal dangers,” as Merkl wrote. He tried to get eight climbers to the top, but they all died, as did Merkl. The bodies that could be recovered were brought down wrapped in flags with swastikas, and from then on Nanga became synonymous with the idea of Kameradschaft.

In 1953, Willy Merkl’s much younger half-brother, Karl Maria Herrligkoffer, led another German expedition to Nanga Parbat. A doctor, Herrligkoffer regarded the climbers as little more than chess pieces to be moved up and down the mountain from his command center at Base Camp. But his strongest climber, Hermann Buhl, was a soloist and soon found himself at odds with the cold, aloof expedition leader. Buhl ended up taking off for the summit alone, and Herrligkoffer sued him for disobeying orders and writing his own book. Herrligkoffer, who always made the climbers sign the rights to their stories over to him in his expedition contracts, would sue Messner for the very same reasons in 1970.

Herrligkoffer had led a second successful ascent of Nanga, by the Diamir Face, but he had failed three times on the Rupal Face. His career was on the line in 1970, so he had little patience for the insubordination that the Messner brothers soon manifested. The Field Marshal, as the brothers nicknamed him, tried to separate them and put them on different ropes, but they refused. When, midway up the face, they got word that the Field Marshal was thinking of aborting the assault because he was having doubts about its success, they told Gerhard Baur and von Kienlin that they would stay and do it themselves—and maybe even go down the Diamir Face. “But there was no plan to do the traverse,” Messner assured me. “It was something I discussed like a future dream, like something that would be nice to do someday if it was possible.”

Part of the conflict was a culture clash: South Tyroleans aren’t as regimented as Germans from the fatherland. Messner hates rules and Teutonic nationalism. “I am not an anarchist, but I am anarchistical,” he told me. “Nature is the only ruler. I shit on flags.” His personal philosophy is not unlike Nietzsche’s idea of the Übermensch—the “self-overcoming” person who approaches life on his own terms—which the Nazis appropriated and spun to their own Aryan-supremacist ends.

Messner was undoubtedly affected by what World War II did to his father. Joseph Messner had joined the Wehrmacht, along with thousands of other naïve young South Tyroleans, and came home embittered, a shell of his former self. Young Reinhold began to think that blind obedience, the Führer principle, was the tragic flaw of German culture—a conviction that was reinforced when he learned about the Holocaust. When Reinhold returned to South Tyrol from his triumph on the Rupal Face, some local politicians had gathered a crowd to give him a hero’s welcome. After one of them said, “What a victory this is for South Tyrol!,” Messner took the microphone and said, “I want to correct something: I didn’t do it for South Tyrol, I didn’t do it for Germany, I didn’t do it for Austria. I did it for myself.” After that, Messner was spat on in the street. He received death threats and letters containing feces. The local newspapers called him a Heimatverräter (a traitor to his homeland) and a Nestbeschmutzer (someone who besmirches his own nest).

So it was inevitable that friction would develop between Messner and the German Alpine Club. In 2001, a new biography of Herrligkoffer was presented at the club’s museum in Munich, and Messner, who had written the foreword, was asked to say a few words. He started magnanimously, saying, “It is time for me to bury the hatchet with Herrligkoffer. He was wrong to accuse me of leaving my brother on Nanga Parbat, but he did bring three generations of German climbers to the Himalayas.” Yet Messner could not stop himself from adding, “But I do blame my former comrades for not coming to look for us.”
According to Messner, Gerhard Baur and another surviving member of the expedition, Jürgen Winkler, who had come to the book party, jumped to their feet and said, “This is an outrage.” A few days later, von Kienlin says, Baur contacted him and asked him to defend the group against Messner’s claim of being bad comrades. It was this appeal, von Kienlin says, that prompted him to write his book.

Von Kienlin had not been one of Herrligkoffer’s climbers. He happened to have been born on the very day in 1934 that Willy Merkl met with catastrophe, so he had always had a fascination with Nanga Parbat. When he read in the paper that Herrligkoffer was leading an expedition up the Rupal Face, he arranged to come along as a paying guest. It cost von Kienlin 14,000 marks (about $17,500 in today’s currency), and he stayed at Base Camp while the climbers made the ascent.

Messner says he and “the baron,” as they all called him, hit it off immediately. (Von Kienlin is not actually a baron, but his lineage is impressive.) Von Kienlin had never met anyone like Messner, and he became absorbed in his new friend’s triumph and tragedy. In the expedition’s aftermath, when Herrligkoffer started to attack Messner, von Kienlin was Messner’s biggest defender. “He was the real hero of the story then,” Messner told me. Von Kienlin invited the other climbers to his Schloss and got them to sign a letter of support for Messner.

One evening Messner and the baron went to a beer hall in Munich to hear Herrligkoffer lecture on the expedition. In the middle of it, Messner got up and said, “That’s not true.” Von Kienlin stood up beside him and said, “Here is someone who really knows what happened—Reinhold Messner.” And they both went to the stage, to Herrligkoffer’s mortification and the enthusiastic applause of his many enemies in the audience.

But when Messner and von Kienlin’s wife started their affair, in 1971, the baron felt understandably betrayed. He said nothing about the controversy for years, but in 2000 he agreed to help his comrades, he says, after being approached by Baur and Winkler. He prepared a statement and sent it to all the important newspapers and magazines in Germany, Austria, and South Tyrol, saying that Messner’s former comrades were breaking their silence about what had really happened: Messner left his brother on the summit or on the Merkl Gap, an icy notch above the Merkl Couloir, and had been planning the traverse all along. Messner’s reaction was, “All my former comrades wish me dead.”

“If I had planned to go down the Diamir Face,” Messner told me, ticking off the reasons for the umpteenth time, “I would have brought along my passport and some money and a map of the face. [A descent down the Diamir Face would eventually lead to Rawalpindi, the city they'd flown into.] And I wouldn’t have waited all morning on the Merkl Gap, shouting for the others to come up and help me get Günther down. That we didn’t go down right away is proof that we were still trying to get down the Rupal Face. What other choice did we have? It was impossible to go down the Rupal Face from where we were without a rope and help. We couldn’t go back up to the summit, because Günther wouldn’t have made it.” Günther had started hallucinating during the night, fighting with Messner for a nonexistent blanket as they huddled together on the Merkl Gap, and was barely able to walk.

“He had to get lower,” Messner went on. “We couldn’t continue along the southwest ridge either, because it is very long and up and down. And we couldn’t wait for the others to come, because they couldn’t have gotten to us until the following morning, and another day and night at that altitude would have been fatal for Günther. That left only the Diamir Face.” As Messner writes in The White Loneliness, his second book about Nanga Parbat, published in 2003, “We had a choice between waiting for death and going out to meet it.”

“The others”—the second summit team, who heard Messner shouting for help as they came up the Merkl Couloir—were Felix Kuen, an Austrian soldier, and climber Peter Scholz. Reaching the top of the Merkl Couloir, Kuen and Scholz saw Messner shouting and waving from the overhanging cornice of the Merkl Gap, 300 feet above them. But there was a sheer cliff between them, making it impossible to reach the Messners.

Realizing this, and accepting that he and his brother were on their own, Messner shouted—this is all that Kuen could make out in the whipping wind—”Alles in Ordnung” (“Everything is O.K.”). So Kuen and Scholz continued to the summit, reaching it at four p.m. Kuen later wrote that the brothers, with their “little prank” of going down the Diamir side, had “alienated themselves from our company” and “perplexed the leadership.”

It is undisputed that Herrligkoffer had given the order to pull up Base Camp and head home without the Messners on the assumption that no one in their condition, without oxygen, food, or a sleeping tent, could possibly get down the Diamir Face alive. (Messner himself has put the odds of his making it at 1 in 2,000.) When the returning expedition met Messner by accident five days later, “they were all of course happy to find me still alive,” he told me, “but Kuen was happy and he was also unhappy. Because the hero of the Rupal Face was not him, but me.” In 1974, Kuen committed suicide, for reasons not related to Nanga Parbat. Scholz fell to his death on Mont Blanc a year after the expedition.

The books by von Kienlin and Saler came out a few months after they made their public statement, in 2003. Von Kienlin argued that Messner had been shouting down not to Kuen and Scholz but to Günther, who was somewhere below him on the Rupal Face. This fit in with his theory that the brothers had separated the night before—with Günther heading back down the Rupal Face and Messner proceeding to the Merkl Gap en route to the Diamir Face.

The Alpine Museum, in Munich, hosted a big party for both von Kienlin’s and Saler’s books. There were many who wanted to see Messner fall, and the moment seemed to have arrived. The bad boy was going to be punished for breaking the rules and being a bad comrade. This had been his real transgression, I was starting to think.
“Only one person knows what happened on Nanga Parbat, and that is me,” Messner told me. As for the statements attributed to him by von Kienlin, Messner insisted, “I never said these things.” So Messner sued von Kienlin and Saler and their publishers. In German libel law, if you state something as fact that negatively impacts someone, you have to prove that it is true. Saler was unable to substantiate his allegations, and his publisher withdrew his book. Von Kienlin’s publisher was ordered to remove from the second edition of his book 13 of 21 passages to which Messner had objected, including his alleged remark about not wanting to miss “the opportunity to make this traverse.”

In December 2003, Messner took me to his stunningly sited castle, in Juval, South Tyrol, on a knoll guarding the head of the Schnalstal Valley, which was one of the main routes north through this part of the Alps for a bunch of armies, from Charlemagne’s to Napoleon’s. Built from the fifth century through the Renaissance, it was the original seat of the Herzogs, or dukes, of Tyrol, and was in ruins when Messner bought it for $30,000 in 1983; it is now fully restored and worth millions.

Up the Schnalstal Valley is the Similaun Glacier, where the 5,300-year-old Iceman was found in 1991. Messner has a yak farm near the glacier that is now the site of an “ice museum,” where people can experience the world of glaciers. It is part of his ambitious project to create five mountain museums in South Tyrol, four of which are now open. “After the museum, there will be a new challenge,” he assured me. He was already planning a 1,000-mile trek across a desert whose name he wouldn’t tell me. (It turned out to be the Gobi.) Deserts are his new arena of adventure, since he has climbed practically everything.

He took me to Villnöss, the valley in the nearby Dolomites where he grew up. His father’s people have lived in Villnöss for generations, and half the people in the valley are called Messner. “I climbed every [mountain] wall in Villnöss by the most difficult route by the time I was 18,” he told me. The tiara of spires at the head of the valley was breathtaking and intimidating.

His father had climbed many of the walls in the valley in the 30s with his schoolmates, but when he came back from the war his partners were all dead or gone. He became the local schoolteacher and married an intelligent, kindhearted local woman named Maria. They had eight sons and a daughter: Helmut, Reinhold, Erich, Günther, Waltraud, Siegfried, Hubert, Hansjörg, and Werner.

“My father lost the ground under his feet with the war,” Messner told me, “and he was very insecure. Inside he had tremendous anger, but he couldn’t express it, so he took it out on us.” Once, Reinhold found Günther cowering in the dog kennel, unable to get up because he had been whipped so badly. “Günther was more submissive than I was, so he got beaten more,” Messner continued. “I stood up to my father, and after I was 10 he never touched me.”

The mountains became the brothers’ secret kingdom, their escape from their brutal father and the stifling provinciality of the South Tyroleans, their way of transcending “the confines of the valley and our home, into which the lottery of birth had thrown us,” as Messner writes in The Naked Mountain.

It was his father who pushed Reinhold to get Günther invited on the Nanga Parbat expedition. “Help him so that he can also have this chance,” Joseph Messner urged. Coming home without Günther was the most difficult moment in Reinhold’s life. “Where is Günther?” his father asked. For a long time he would not talk to his son. “But my father would have said the same thing to Günther if he had come home without me, and gradually he accepted what had happened.” As Reinhold’s fame grew, Messner père basked in the reflected glory. “Reinhold thinks he can get up Everest without oxygen? He’s crazy,” a local barfly would say, and Joseph would tell him, “You wait and see.” He died in 1985, the same year his son Siegfried was killed by lightning on a climb in the Dolomites.

We stopped to pick up Uschi Demeter, who was living in a farmhouse she and Messner had purchased for a song and fixed up in 1971, after she left von Kienlin. She and Messner married in 1972, and she got the house when they divorced, five years later. Demeter went on to marry a textile designer named Peter Seipelt, and they were helping Reinhold put together his mountain museum. “Reinhold and I have a strong friendship that survived divorce,” she explained. “We are an invincible team—an ideal combination for projects.” Demeter is four years older than Messner—a classy, highly educated, very emotional and attractive woman. It is not hard to understand why Messner fell for her, and she for him. They are both free spirits.

Messner rejects the idea that his affair with Demeter broke up a blissful union. “No one leaves a man unless there is a problem,” he told me. “Surely Uschi did not leave her family, the castle, and a wealthy German nobleman to live with a poor South Tyrolean climbing freak unless she was very unhappy.”

When von Kienlin and Demeter divorced, von Kienlin obtained custody of their three children, and from 1971 until a few years ago, Demeter had little contact with them. By the time they reconnected, all three children were in their 30s. After Demeter and Messner got married, she suffered terribly from being separated from her kids, and Messner was gone a lot of the time, climbing in New Guinea, guiding some rich Italians up a 24,000-foot peak in Nepal. (“I started the whole Into Thin Air thing—nothing I’m proud of,” he told me, referring to Jon Krakauer’s best-seller about a disastrous guided climb of Everest.) Demeter went on several of Messner’s expeditions, but it was boring for her sitting at Base Camp and watching 30 men climbing up and down. In 1977 she left Messner and went to Munich. “I left him because he was a man-eater,” Demeter explained. “He eats you up. Reinhold loved me very much, but he absorbed me completely, and there was just no more space for my own creativity.” Werner Herzog, another German obsessive, made a stark film called Scream of Stone, about a fictional triangle based on Demeter and two climbers, one or both of whom could be Messner.
The breakup with Demeter was like an emotional evisceration for Messner—the most traumatic event in his life after Günther’s disappearance. It took Messner a year to recover his equilibrium, which he did in the most dramatic fashion—by climbing Everest maskless with Peter Habeler. “I’d learned that life can be borne alone,” he wrote.

In 1980, Messner and Demeter got back together, but it didn’t work. “As Sartre says, if you get the chance for a new beginning, you commit the same things and there is never an escape,” Demeter told me. They stayed together until 1984. That year, in a mountain hut, Messner met a pixie-like Austrian woman 18 years his junior named Sabine Stehle, and they have been together ever since. “Sabine has been the most important woman in my life,” he told me. I met her and their three children in their enormous duplex apartment in one of the grand old resort hotels in Merano, a 19th-century spa town once popular with the Hapsburgs and other European royals. Stehle struck me as a prim, immaculately coiffed, perfectly mannered mother and homemaker. A friend told me that Stehle is “willing to be content with the little of Reinhold that she can have.”

Max von Kienlin lives on Kaulbachstrasse, in a nice but not fancy part of Munich. When I visited, his flat was cozily cluttered with antiques and old paintings, including a few minor Old Masters; most of them were from the Schloss. It was like a Merchant Ivory set, and Max himself was not of this century. At 69, he was flamboyantly clad in tweed and felt, like a central-casting baron.

He met his wife, Annemarie, in a café in Baden-Baden; she had waited on him then and had since taken to the role of the modest, adoring wife of a nobleman. Now a radiant blonde in her 40s, Annemarie brought us some tea and crumpets, and we got down to business.

I had brought my copy of his book, and he explained that the “Traverse” of the title had a second, moral implication: the “transgression,” like Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon and setting off the bloody civil war that established the Roman Empire. “Reinhold is ambitious, like Caesar,” the baron said. “But this is not a world-political question. It is about the death of a young man, friend, and comrade.” He got up and started pacing and declaiming and expostulating, and kept it up for eight hours without a break. The next day, he continued the same way for another six hours. It was a commanding performance.

He gave me the latest edition of his book, from which contested passages had been removed by court order. Among the excised material was the “special page,” as Messner called it, an addition to von Kienlin’s diary detailing Messner’s supposed confession that he left his brother on the summit. The special page had been reproduced on the back endpapers of the first edition of the book but was gone from the second. Von Kienlin had refused to submit to the court the original document, which he said he’d written in pencil on Pakistan Airlines stationery in Rawalpindi a few days after Messner’s surprise reappearance.

Iasked to see his original diary. Von Kienlin’s book includes 80 pages of his diary entries. Herrligkoffer had given each of his climbers an orange hardbound journal to write in, but von Kienlin claimed that he had stopped writing in his early on in the expedition because Messner told him that he would eventually have to turn it over to the Field Marshal. After that, von Kienlin said, “I wrote on loose sheets, even napkins.” Yet he could produce neither the hardbound diary nor the loose sheets for me to look at. How, I asked, had he reconstructed the polished, lengthy diary included in the book from notes on scraps of paper?

“I never said it was a perfect diary,” he told me. “It is just a conglomeration of loose notes.? They are like a puzzle, just little notes to jog my memory. One will only say, for instance, ‘Got to Camp Three on June 17.’ And I had to reconstruct what happened from that. It took time and concentration and a good memory to put the puzzle together.”

“But these direct quotes of Reinhold—how could you remember exactly what he said more than 30 years later?,” I asked.

“Everything he said is burned in my mind. How could I forget?” von Kienlin answered.

I asked if I could see some of these loose sheets and he said, “I won’t show anything—first, because many of them are private thoughts about my problems with Uschi; second, because they are only of help to me; and third, because my hypothesis is not from the diary. It is the logical consequence if someone thinks.”

“Where are these loose sheets?,” I pressed, and von Kienlin said, “They aren’t here. They are in my daughter’s Keller, 50 kilometers from here. No, 46 kilometers. My own Keller is too stuffed with carpets and paintings. There is no room for them.”

In conformity with the German stereotype, von Kienlin was meticulously organized. He had all the documents from the lawsuit, for instance, chronologically filed in a thick binder. So I found it surprising that the diary pages wouldn’t be close at hand, especially when they were the only substantiation for his claims about what he had been told by Messner. I also wondered whether he would have absentmindedly stuck something as crucial as the special page in a scrapbook of press stories about the expedition (which he showed me) and forgotten about it until 2002, when he started writing the book and “accidentally discovered it.” I wanted to see something in his handwriting from 1970, so I could compare it with the handwriting of the facsimile of the special page in the first edition’s endpapers. But von Kienlin didn’t want me to see the loose sheets.

He realized that he had to show me something or he would lose credibility, though, so he decided to show me the special page, which was in his study. “No one has seen this, not even the judge,” he told me. We spent three hours going over every word and discussing each point.

It had entries for three separate days, but it appeared to have been written in a single shot, with a neatness and a uniformity suggesting that it was not the first draft. It seemed odd that right after the really explosive parts—Messner’s incriminating remarks about planning the traverse and his “Where’s Günther?” outburst—von Kienlin writes that he plans to go to the market the following day and buy some hats for his children.
“If this is a forgery, Max, it’s a very good one,” I said, and he laughed. We were having a good time with each other.

Von Kienlin’s book takes its life from this diary, and especially from the special page, which he would be forced to submit to the court in 2005, as part of an appeal. “I wrote the book for the sake of my living comrades and the children and grandchildren of my dead comrades,” von Kienlin told me. “Reinhold said many times it is O.K. to leave others if it is a question of your own survival. But this is absolutely ugly and not a good example for young people. The true human being is not this raptor mentality, eat or be eaten.” (Messner denies this charge, saying, “Nobody would leave his brother or anybody dying, but in the case of no possibility, you are not going to sit beside a dead man and die yourself. You go down. Instinct forces you down.”)

One entry in the diary shows a different side of von Kienlin from the endearing ham that I was seeing, one that was capable of self-righteous maleficence. He sees a porter eating snow and writes: “This is very dangerous, as dangerous as it is to drink rain water without minerals, because when you sweat, you lose the rest of the minerals in your body. I criticize the porter, and he stops. But shortly afterward, he starts again, so I beat him with a ski pole. All eight porters are speechless and look at me. But in their looks I don’t see criticism but appreciation. When we reach the foot of the mountain, the punished porter comes close to me and thanks me with folded hands and remains by my side and does not leave me any more. In the afternoon comes the sirdar, the head of the porters, and thanks me again. For Western Europeans this may be difficult to understand, because today we see in such a deed humiliation and a dishonoring of the person. Not so there. The porters saw in what I did a necessary engagement and an element of caring.”

As someone who has encountered sudden trouble during a climb, I found logical problems with von Kienlin’s theories about what happened on Nanga Parbat. Take his explanation for why Kuen and Scholz heard Messner shouting above them from the Merkl Gap as they were making their way up the Merkl Couloir. Von Kienlin claimed that Günther had gone down the Rupal Face alone the afternoon before, and that Messner was shouting down to him. But if this had been so, wouldn’t Kuen and Scholz have found Günther farther up the Rupal Face, after Messner waved them on? Except that Messner probably wouldn’t have waved them on and shouted, “Alles in Ordnung,” if Günther had been on the Rupal Face; he would have made sure Kuen and Scholz knew that his brother was above them. Not only that, but Messner wouldn’t even have been on the Merkl Gap if he’d been descending alone; he would have bivouacked farther down the Diamir Face.

And yet, despite my misgivings, I liked von Kienlin—as indeed I liked Messner and Demeter. Perhaps their disagreement was not so surprising: we are all the heroes of our own novels, after all.

The only character in this story who never had a chance to tell it his way was Günther. According to von Kienlin and other expedition members, Günther always carried a heavier load than Reinhold and set up their tent and cooked for him. He was his factotum, his grunt, and he already owed Reinhold for even being on the expedition. But Messner disagrees: “Günther and I always shared the work. Each of us carried his own sleeping bag and tent, and porters carried the rest, until the highest camp, when we were on our own. Nobody helped us up there.”

“Günther is often portrayed as the smaller brother who was misused by Reinhold like a marionette,” Demeter told me. “But he was a strong, gifted sportsman, and he wanted to get to the top as much as Reinhold did. It is wrong to repeat this victim kitsch.” When Günther threw down the hopelessly tangled rope that he was supposed to be fixing the Merkl Couloir with and said to Gerhard Baur, “The hell with this. I’m not going to let my brother take all the glory this time,” says Demeter, “it was a spontaneous reaction but a beautiful one. He paid for it with his life, but it was a triumph. It was the first time he wasn’t obedient. Nobody talks about this because it is so practical to have Günther as the victim. But he must have been a lovely man and merits a better reputation.”

In the fall of 1971, Messner took Demeter to Nanga Parbat, and they went to the Diamir side to see if they could find any trace of Günther. “Reinhold went up on the glaciers, and he did not come back and he did not come back and there were avalanches coming all day long,” Demeter told me. “Finally, very late at night, he fell into our tent and he couldn’t eat and he just cried and cried for hours, and that’s the reason why I do know he’s not a liar. It was so terrible.” And she started to cry herself, just thinking about it.

Messner showed me pictures of the Günther Messner Mountain School he had built in the village of Ser, which sits at 10,000 feet, at the foot of the Diamir Face. “I built it between 2000 and 2003, and for five years I have been paying the teacher. I have told the people of Ser where to look in the summer, when the snow is gone, and have offered a reward for whoever finds anything,” he told me.

In 2000, Messner took his brother Hubert, a doctor, to Nanga with an alpine guide named Hanspeter Eisendle and two other climbers. The two brothers had crossed Greenland together the long way, from north to south, and now the five of them were trying a new line up the Diamir Face, but they bailed out high up on it because of the avalanche danger and spent several days looking for traces of Günther further down. Eisendle found a human femur a kilometer and a half below where Messner had last seen him, but it was very long—longer than Reinhold’s femur, and Günther was several inches shorter than his brother—so Hubert said it couldn’t be Günther’s.

Maybe it was Mummery’s. Mummery had been missing for more than a hundred years. Or maybe it was that of a Pakistani climber who was lost at the bottom of the Diamir Face in the 80s. Messner took the bone home and kept it in his castle and didn’t think much about it until the fall of 2003, when he went back to Ser, and the villagers showed him photographs of the Pakistani climber’s body, which they had since found there with both femurs intact. Messner remembered the bone. “I gave it to the scientists in Innsbruck who are studying the Iceman,” he told me in January 2004, “and they sent it to a laboratory in the United States along with DNA samples from Hubert and me. I’ve just heard that the bone is Günther’s, with a margin of error of 1 in 575,000.” Agatha Christie couldn’t have come up with a better ending.

“In 2002 and ’03, Max and I had an exchange in the papers,” Messner told me. “I said, ‘Someday, maybe not in my lifetime, my brother will be found on the Diamir Face.’ And Max said, ‘If Günther is found on the Diamir Face, we are sheepsheads and liars.’ And that’s exactly what they are.”

But if Messner hoped that the discovery would rid him of von Kienlin, he was mistaken. “I did not say ‘if Günther’s body is found on the Diamir side’ but ‘where Reinhold said it was,’” he told me, adding that he is about to come out with another book, advancing his new theory—that Günther had been abandoned at the top of the Diamir Face. “Reinhold is a very talented climber, and his problem was not on the mountain but on the flat land,” von Kienlin went on. “He talks too much. In the end we may all be sheepsheads, but no one so much as Reinhold.”

So von Kienlin will keep up his attack. Whether anyone will notice remains to be seen.

In August 2005, Messner returned to the Diamir Face after climbers found the rest of his brother’s body, minus the femur and the head, which he told me in December 2005 “probably washed away in the water. The body was 100 meters lower in elevation than the bone and more than three kilometers from where my brother was lost. So in 35 years it had traveled more than three kilometers inside the glacier, which is in complete agreement with a study of the glacier—that it is moving more than 100 meters a year [partly owing to global warming]. The scientists in Innsbruck have determined that the body is Günther’s within a probability of 17.8 million to one. We also found one of his boots. I have a relic of Günther in my museum. Just the boot and a sentence by Ernst Jünger: ‘In history the truth always wins.’”

This August, I spoke to Messner again and asked him about the status of his lawsuit. “There is still no final answer from the court in Hamburg,” he told me, referring to von Kienlin’s appeal of the 2003 ruling which required him to delete the special page and other contested passages from his book. The court’s handwriting analyst recently determined that she cannot accurately gauge when the special page was written, except to say that it was most likely sometime before 2002.

When we spoke, Messner was at his Schloss. Later that month, he said, he and 24 members of his family, including his five surviving brothers, his sister, and some of their spouses and children, would make a pilgrimage to Nanga Parbat in memory of Günther. Messner planned to take them to the Rupal Face and then to the Diamir Face, where he would show them where Günther died and where his body was found. Then they would pay their respects at the Chörten, a pyramidal Tibetan shrine where Reinhold placed his brother’s ashes. “I built the Chörten for Günther,” Messner told me, with a surge of emotion that was palpable even over the crackling transatlantic connection.

Dispatch #34: Gallery

Dispatch #34: The Improbable Jew

By Clara Castelar

 

Click here to see the photo gallery, including images of places and people related to the topic.

My mother’s family has a talent for the improbable. This is something I only came to appreciate when I tried to chart the paths that led my Melo and Oliveira ancestors from Iberia to sleepy little towns on the Cear-Paraiba border in Northeast Brazil. 

Mine is not a complete map. The paths twist, turn and often vanish. When I began my quest for my elusive ancestors, almost thirty years ago, all I had to go on was a watch and a prayer. The watch had belonged to my grandfather’s, Joo Laurentino Melo, son of Laurentino Jose Cabea de Melo. It had a rampant lion engraved inside its lid and it was said to be a family heirloom; the prayer was my grandmother’s, who passed it on to me when I turned thirteen.  She told me that traditionally, it was passed on from father to son, but her father had taught it to her cautioning not to repeat it before strangers. She was the eldest daughter and so was I.

A decade or so later, I had moved to Shepherdstown, West Virginia when I met Zohara Muchinsky Boyd, a Holocaust survivor from Poland.  It surprised me how quickly we bonded, considering the cultural differences I believed to exist between Catholic Brazil and Jewish Breslau. 

It turned out that as children we had read some of the same books and that some of her mother’s domestic habits were very much like my own mother’s, which we took to be nothing more than universal mommyisms, but what absolutely awed me, was Zohara’s kindness. 

I quizzed her about her values. She told me that her Jewish upbringing shaped her and that kindness was the heart of Judaism.  It was to honor Zohara that I went to my first Rosh Hashanah service. There I found out that my grandmother’s secret prayer was
the U’Netaneh Tokef Kedushat Hayom, Let Us Tell How Utterly Holy This Day Is.

“On Rosh Hashanah it will be inscribed and on Yom
Kippur it will be sealed how many will pass from
the earth and how many will be created; who will
live and who will die; who will die at his
predestined time and who before his time; who by
water and who by fire, who by sword, who by
beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by
storm, who by plague, who by strangulation, and
who by stoning. Who will rest and who will
wander, who will live in harmony and who will be
harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will
suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be
enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted.”

The puzzlement of  Judaic tradition existing in what seemed to be a Catholic family, stayed with me for many years. As I continued to inform myself about Judaism, it became clear to me that my family followed many Judaic-based practices–just how many I would not find out until the advent of the internet. I had never heard of New Christians, Marranos, Conversos, Anoussim or Crypto-Jews until I posted a message on a Jewish website asking if anyone had information on the Jewish roots of the Oliveira, Melo, Barros, Pereira, Dantas, Bezerra, Nunes, Sousa, and Monteiro families from Northeast Brazil. Bob Feron, head of the translation section at the Brazilian Embassy, responded. He was a member of Kulanu, Hebrew for all of us, an outreach group whose goal is to find and assist dispersed remnants of the Jewish people. Bob put me in touch with Karen Primack, editor of the
Kulanu Newsletter, and Jack Zeller, Kulanu’s president. They, in turn, led me to Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, whose rabbinical thesis dealt with Brazilian crypto-Jews and who is a leading authority on the subject. I also heard from Professor Judith Laiken, in the American
Southwest, Crypto-Judaism  scholar Schulamith Halevy, and journalist Inacio Steinhardt, in
Israel. An intense exchange of e-mail  followed  and for the first time I became aware of a  part  of history, consistently left out of  Brazilian textbooks.

Folk traditions say that Jews arrived in Iberia as traders and settlers, in King Solomon’s ships. That tradition also maintains that Jews came to Iberia following the  Babylonian Captivity.  Jewish historian Josephus quotes Greek geographer Strabos, to prove following the destruction of the Second Temple, Jewish migration extended to every corner of the known world. But there exists proof of Jewish presence in Spain, in the 3rd Century BCE and in Portugal, the 6th. Century, CE. Judaism was a religio licita, a legal religion, throughout the Roman Empire, but once the Visigoths supplanted the Romans as rulers of
Iberia and converted to Christianity, things took an ugly turn.  In 615 Visigothic King Sisebut ordered that Jews who refused to convert be given a hundred lashes. Should they continue to resist, all their property would be confiscated and they would be banished. Sisebut also instituted the death penalty for Jews who reverted to Judaism, thus creating the need for Jews to hide their true religious identity.

In the 8th. Century, the Islamic invasion of Spain ended Visigothic rule and inaugurated an
era of deliverance. For approximately seven centuries, Jews were able to worship openly.
However, as Christian monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella supplanted Islamic rulers, in 1492,
conversion obsession took hold in Spain.

Non-Christians were no longer protected minorities. Faced countless sanctions, many Jews
and Moslems outwardly embraced Christianity while continuing to follow Judaism and Islam in secret.

By 1492, the Christians’ crusading zeal reached a climax. Jews and Moslem had to convert or leave. Approximately 175, 000 Jews chose to leave.  For a hefty fee, King Joao II allowed 600 wealthy Jewish  families to come to stay in Portugal for eight months. He later he changed his mind and offered them a choice to convert or become slaves. He ordered the children of those who refused conversion to be sent to the island of Sao Tome, in West Africa. Nearly all the children died.

Joao’s successor, Manuel, freed the Jewish slaves. He seemed to have no interest in forcing his subjects to adopt Christianity until he decided to marry a Spanish princess, the daughter
of Ferdinand and Isabella. She agreed to do so if he rid Portugal of the Jews. Manuel was not enchanted with that idea. He needed literate subjects with good administrative skills and with contacts at major commercial centers throughout the world. His solution was to kidnap and baptize Jewish children between the ages of four and fourteen. Parents who refused 
baptism would never see their children again. As the Jews continued to resist, he told them they could leave the country if they assembled in Lisbon. When they did, some were dragged to baptismal founts, others were simply sprinkled with holy water.

This made them  Christians in the eyes of the king and in the eyes of the pope. It was 1497,
the year my ancestors went underground as Jews.  They became New Christian, in the parlance of the time. Later they would be known as Anoussim, the Hebrew word for the forced, Marranos, the Spanish word for pig, Crypto-Jews, and, pejoratively, Jews without a Past. There is great irony in the latter appellation given that many of their Judaic traditions would endure for five hundred years.

My maternal grandmother was gravelly ill, and geographically out of reach, by the time I had talked with enough people and read enough books to be able to identify the traditions she passed on to my mother and to me. Some practices were altered, such as the celebration of the holiday of Succoth when Jews build a succah, a shelter covered in greenery. My mother’s family retreated into the woods and planted trees unknown in ancient Israel–bananas and papayas–around their succah. Following the death of a relative, they emptied all containers of water in the house, and then they washed and groomed the corpse and dressed it in a winding sheet. On the way to the cemetery, the wailed as they walked behind the coffin, listing the deceased’s qualities in heart
rending laments. Their first meal, after a funeral, included an egg, a symbol of mourning–my mother fasts and does  not eat meat for days following a death in the family. They sat shivah, the seven day morning period, but rather than sit on low benches, as normative Judaism requires, they reclined in hammocks. They remained in seclusion for a week and during that time they would comb their hair. The men would not shave and the women kept their heads covered with a shawl. Every one of their life cycle ceremonies included some remnant of their Judeo-Iberian past. For example, when I was born, relatives perfumed my clothes with the smoke of burning lavender blossoms and my mother placed gold jewelry to the water in which I had my first bath.

It took David Gitlitz years to compile the Crypto-Jewish practices for Secret and Deceit, his 505 page-long compendium of Crypto Jewish practices had yet to appear when I prepared a list of questions for my mother, Josefa de Melo Castelar, who is a good, if occasionally reluctant source. At seventy nine she is very much taken with the present as races from a class to another, in Fortaleza, Ceara, constantly searching for a new outlet for her apparently inexhaustible creative energy. She agreed to talk about her  family, but she did not know her father very well. She was three when he left her mother and resettled in Mato Grosso. She was closer to her Oliveira and Bezerra–B’tzur, in Hebrew–relatives whose property straddles the Cear-Paraiba border.  Before he died, my grandfather, Joo Laurentino Melo, sent  me four handwritten pages on his genealogy. He also wrote
lyrical descriptions of my great-great-parents’ farmhouses. There was no discussion of his people’s religion.

It has never been sexy to be Jewish in Brazil. Besides inheriting the Iberian obsession with
purity of blood–Jews, Moslem and Brazilian Indians were known as racas infectas, infected races, in Colonial Brazil–many Brazilians grew up hearing Jews described as  Christ killers.  Google the word judeu, Jew, and more Brazilian hate sites pop up than references to Jesus. In a bizarre example of the oppressed turning on the equally oppressed,  many Brazilians of color blame slavery on the Jews and the internet is a
convenient repository for much of their misdirected anger.  But it is not only those with
spurious grievances who wax anti-Semitic. The Portuguese language itself reflects a cultural
bias again Jews.  Recently, publishers of the Aurlio, Brazil’s most popular dictionary finally
saw fit to remove an entry that equates Jews with evil, but to many Brazilians, Jew means usurer, exploiter. As far as I know, the word safado, which derives comes from the word sefardita, Shephardic, and which means dishonest rascal will remain in the dictionary. So will the verb judiar, which means to torment, to mistreat, to torture, will apparently remain in place.

Antonio Pereira de Almeida’s Dona Adriana do Santa Rosa, a hagiography of Adriana de Oliveira Ledo, daughter of pioneer Teodosio de Oliveira Ledo, makes no mention of Jewish roots. Almeida bemoans the difficulty of finding Adriana’s ancestor Bartolomeu Ledo, “a man of somewhat humble origins.”  He goes on to say that in 1594, Bartolomeu had been summoned by the Inquisition to “due to his marriage to a Brazilian Indian mestiza.”  His brother-in-law, Manuel de Oliveira, son of Jorge de Albuquerque Coelho, was summoned at the same time, and so was Bartolomeu’s wife, Ana Lins, whose grandparents were Francisco Caldas, reputed to be a vicious enslaver of Native Brazilians, and a Brazilian Indian woman. Her parents were Filipa Roiz (Rodrigues) and a German aristocrat, Roderich Linz, of the Linz von Dorndorff house of Ulm, Bavaria.   Roderick  Linz, arrived in Brazil around 1550. He was the son of Hans Lins, whose father was Zimprecht Lins, son of Konrad Linz, and Ursula Scheffer grandson of Johan or Hans Linz. The latter was the son of Albrecht Linz, whose father was Heinrich Linz.  Zimprecht married Bárbara Gienger, in Ulm, Bavaria, in 1490. She was the daughter of Mathaeus Gienger and  Úrsula Hutz, paternal granddaughter of  nobleman Jacob  Gienger, and  maternal granddaughter of  Hans Hutz, who lived in Bavaria in 1380, and whose
father was also called Heinrich Linz. The Bavarian Linzes descend from Heinrich der Linzer, registered  in Ulm, 1296.

Whether intentional or unintentional, there is a certain amount of obfuscation going in Almeida’s book.  It is unclear whether the Jorge to whom he refers  was the son of Duarte Coelho Pereira or Jeronimo de Albuquerque’s, but he seems to be certain that Jorge’s mother was a Brazilian Indian, brought up by Brites de Albuquerque. There is nothing humble about the Albuquerques. They  were old Iberian nobility linked by marriage to the royal houses of Portugal and Spain. So says Armorial Lusitano, which lists Portuguese aristocrats and their crests.  Brites married explorer  Duarte Coelho Pereira, the illegitimate son of  navigator Gonalo Coelho and his Portuguese mistress, Ana Catarina Duarte, of
the Minho aristocracy. Gonalo may have been a Jew, but only one of my sources hints at that possibility. Whatever his religious background, he seems to have cherished Duarte Coelho Pereira. 

Together they took part in the 1503 exploratory expedition Brazil financed by New Christians such as Fernando de Noronha. Goncalo provided the
navigational skills he had acquired in Pisa and  Americo Vespucci drew maps of the recently discovered land. Map in hand,  the King of Portugal carved up Brazil into fifteen
capitanias, hereditary fiefs. He gave the first to Noronha. In 1553,  he rewarded Duarte Coelho Pereira’s services to the Crown in Goa, Siam and the South China Sea by granting him the capitania of Pernambuco– 60 miles of coastal land. The newly appointed donatrio, proprietary landlord,  founded Olinda and brought Jewish technicians from  Madeira to help develop Pernambuco’s sugar industry. He subdivided the land,  part of which went to the Old Christian Joao Pais Barreto.   Bartolomeu Ledo fetched up  at Barreto’s mill at Cabo Santo Agostinho . Though the author of Dona Adriana claims that Bartolomeu’s origins
were “somewhat humble,” Armorial Lusitano describes the Ledos as “a family of apparent
Spanish origin, adding that “Fernandes Ledo,  father of Bartolomeu Ledo was one of the
principal figures of Ponte de Lima,  in Portugal’s  Minho, in the late 1500s, sufficient
time for to blur genealogical details.

All immigrants reinvent themselves. Ledos and Mellos seem to have done so with a vengeance. Records at the Torre do Tombo, Lisbon, say nothing of Bartolemeu’s ancestry. They list him as a sugar cane planter and oleiro, a word that can mean potter, tile and brick maker or owner of brick works. He was charged with practicing Judaism. The charge against his brother-in-law, Manuel Oliveira (de Albuquerque Coelho) is not known. Ana’s was that of dallying with a New Christian priest. It is not clear how the three extricated
themselves from the deadly claws of the inquisitors. There is no record of the family for
another 150 years.  Supposedly Manuel and Bartolomeu’s children intermarried thus
establishing the Oliveira Ledo family. That seems plausible. Marriage between cousins was a common practice in Pernambuco sugarocratic families well  into the 20th. Century.  In her book, Politics and Parentela in Paraiba, Linda Levin writes that “Twentieth Century data indicates that the interior of the Northeast is still the most inbred area in Brazil.”  She attributes this prevalence of endogamous marriages to Portuguese traditions and a shortage of white women. She neglects to add that marriage between cousins was an old Judaic practice. Tangled family webs are the bane of those who research Brazilian genealogy. Add to that documents that disintegrate due to the climate, the depredations of insects, and arson.   Factor in elaborate fraud, an incomprehensible formula for naming children-in some families each child has a different surname and fraud designedt to prevent future generations from learning about ancestors who did not measure up to accepted social standards–Jews Moslems, Indian, Africans and manual laborers–and you have a researcher’s nightmare. Things get truly complicated with the Anoussim, who usually discarded the baptismal
name. My mother’s Hebrew name was to be  Rebecca, my aunt Aureli’s was Leah. Sephardim sometimes changed the name of a person who had suffered a severe illness, and families on the run from the Inquisition, were not eager to flaunt names usually associated with Jews. Here seems to be a good place to add that names in themselves are not proof of Jewish descent. Some Brazilians believe that all Jews took the names of trees and
fruit, but not every Brazilian Moreiras, Carvalhos, Pereira and Oliveira is  a descendant
of Anoussim. Jews took place names–there are at least three towns called Oliveira in
Portugal–and some took the name a godfather. Some used different surnames on different occasions. Sometimes, Christian surnames such as Batista, Cruz, Paixo, Santo, and de Jesus indicate Judaic origins, but that is not a reliable guide,  either. Historian Elias Lipiner
coined the word genealogicidio, genealogicide, to describe the suppression of Judaic roots in Brazilian descendants of  Crypto-Jews. In O Nome e o Sangue: Uma Fraude Genealgica no Pernambuco Colonial, Evaldo Cabral de Mello was able to show how ancestors of the Mello family nearly excised their Judaic roots. For whatever reason, descendants of Bartolomeu and Jorge do not surface in Northeastern Brazilian history until 1630 when the
Dutch  invaded Pernambuco. Along with many other sugar planters, they fled Pernambuco to Bahia where they  joined the anti-Dutch resistance. For years, they engaged in the guerilla war  led by Andr Vidal de Negreiros until, by 1649, the resistance coalesced into an army powerful enough to vanquish the invaders. It was at that point, that the Oliveira Ledos began their real ascent into the northeastern Brazilian socio-economic elite. They capitalized on the alliances they had  made during their stay in Bahia to regain what they had lost during Negreiros’ scorched earth campaigns. With the blessing of  Garcia d’vila, Bahia’s  most powerful landowner– himself married to a Jewish woman–they marched into Paraiba, decimating the natives and taking over the land.  They founded Campina Grande,
Pombal and many towns in Paraiba, Ceara and Rio Grande do Norte. Pleased with their performance, the king of Portugal rewarded Antonio de  Oliveira Ledo with and the
title  capito-mor,  military governor,  of thesertes and with a land grant of  4, 000 kilometers, to be shared with his sister and brothers.  Within a century of the oleiro’s arrival,  the Oliveira Ledos became “the most important ancestral pool for ‘the first families of the serto. ‘”

My mother has Jewish ancestors on both sides of her family. The history of my maternal
great-grandfather’s is better documented. The  Mellos are a huge family of sugarocrats–my
great-great-al times with owned a sugar mill near Recife. In Brazil their roots intersect with
those of Chico Buarque de Holanda through either Joo Cabeia/Cabeza/Cabea de Mello–Evaldo Cabral de Mello makes it clear that it is Joo, not Rui, who is the ancestor of the Paes Barretos from whom the Brazilian Mellos descend–whose family fled the Portuguese Inquisition  for La Rochelle, in Protestant France,  in the 1550s. Cabral de
Mello says that when the Duke of Alba invaded Portugal and placed the King Felipe II of Spain, on the throne, the Cabeias/Cabeas, the army Catarina di Medici dispatched to Ilha Terceira, in the Azores, to  support Antonio, Prior do Crato, Pretender to the Portuguese throne. Antonio was the  grandson of son of Portuguese King Manuel I and the son  Prince of Portuguese of Prince Luis and his Jewish mistress Violante Gomez. Coincidentally, one my closest friends in Shepherdstown was Zora Kuznitch Leimbacher, granddaughter of a Hungarian baron and daughter of a Yugoslavian Jew, who happened to be a close friend of Chico’s aunt, Gilda Alvim. Madame Alvim lived in Paris and Zora met Chico and his sister
Miucha at her house several times without realizing that their were internationally known composers and singers. After leaving Viana, Portugal, the (Barbosa Tavares Cabea  Rodrigues) Mellos spread out through  former Ottoman Empire–the Macedonian branch perished in Auschwitz–and far flung places such as the Congo. They are writers, doctors, politicians, diplomats and  plain folks such my grandfather whose pride was his horsemanship–he excelled in jousting–and his elegant handwriting. 

For better or for worse, Oliveira Ledos and the Mellos, as well as other B’nei Anoussim, such as the Barbosas, Bezerras, Coelhos, Dantas, Melos and Monteiros, to whom my mother is also related, made Northeast Brazil, what it is today. Tarcisio Dino has done extensive research on the Oliveira Ledos. He has  this to say, “One can assert that there is not a single town in the serto that did not originate from a farm owned by a member of the Oliveira Ledo family, even when { that person} did not use the original surname. Such is the case of Brejo da Cruz and Catol do Rocha,  whose owners, Manuel Oliveira da Cruz and Francisco da Rocha Oliveira {used} surnames which do not evoke the clan, though the former was the latter’s uncle. They were, respectively, son and grandson of Anto da Cruz Portocarreiro and Ana de Oliveira Ledo, Teodsio de Oliveira Ledo’s sister.” 
Dino could not tell me  exactly where my great-grandfather Joo Antonio de Oliveira fit
into the Oliveira Ledo family tree. He wrote me to say that several family members dropped the Ledo surname.  Joo Antonio’s documental proof of the exact connection vanished in a fire. However, the extent of his property in Ic, Cedro, Lavras da Mangabeira, Umari, Bananeira, Misso Velha, Baixio and Ipaumirim, and his hereditary privileges as a Lieutanant Colonel for  National Guard,  indicate that in all probability he was a direct descendent   of Capito-Mor Teodsio, who settled Cajazeiras, Paraiba in the 17th. Century.

Map of Paraiba, showing several of the towns that made  up part of  the Oliveira Ledo’s fief.

  The B’nei Anoussim’s influence was not always positive. One of Dantas, the lawyer Joo
Duarte,  shot and  killed his political opponent,  the governor of Paraiba, Joo Pessoa Cavalcanti de Albuquerque, precipitating a national crisis that culminated with Getlio Vargas’s dictatorship.  Joo Pessoa had allegedly empowered his underlings to break into Dantas’ office to steal documents. The underlings found a cache of poems and letters between Dantas and his lover, which the Pessoa supporters promptly published in the local paper newspaper.   Dantas might have forgiven the break-in, but by allowing the letters to be published Pessoa turned a political struggle into an affair of honor. In my corner of Northeast Brazil the prickly Iberian notion of honor survives–mess with it and all hell breaks loose. 

Courtly behavior towards members of the clan each other is just as integral a part of in my
mother’s culture as is the notion of honor. My grandmother used to tell me a story that
exemplifies that behavior. My grandfather’s cangaceiro, brigand, cousin, Z Dantas and his
band  once attacked a train in which my grandparents were traveling, unbeknownst to him.
Once he saw them, Z apologized profusely and cancelled the robbery. The notion of a robber’s honor may seem oxymoronic, but  a family such as mine can be extremely  tribal. Ultimately, what counts is what the tribe thinks and to hell with the others. It is the rare Albuquerque, Coelho, Bezerra, Monteiro,  Mello, Oliveira and Dantas who took to unsanctioned brigandage. As for plundering in the name of the king, that was the honorable way, though not the Jewish way. Afonso de Albuquerque did so in Bab-el-Mandeb,  in Sri Lanka, in Goa, along the coriander coast, accumulating piles of gold as high as the piles of decapitated heads his army left behind. But all in all, mine is an honorable group. That is as should be,  for ours is the tribe of Judah, to which King David and Jesus of Nazareth belonged–symbolized by the lion engraved on my grandfather’s watch lid.  We Mellos are of the house of  Bar Rosh, Aramaic for head, as in head of the family or tribe.  Cabeza
de Mellos were known in Castile nearly a thousand years ago.  We kept the faith, changing it when we had to, in order to survive. Between the late 1500s and the 1700s hundreds, the Inquisition killed 338 Ibero-Brazilian Anoussim and their descendants. We have endured. We  lost the Hebrew language before we lost our homes in Sepharad. Later we lost their prayer books. Against the law of probabilities, we did more than survive.  We still have  the U’Netaneh Tokef,  Passover’s  Had Gaddiah, and the joy of making the house beautiful and of putting on festive clothing for the Sabbath. In our family, my grandmother,  passed on Judaic traditions to two generations–her grandmother was the Stone Age Brazilian Indian whom my great-great-grandfather, a member of the Coelho family, kidnapped her with the help of his hunting dogs. Soledade, my grandmother,  saw to it neighbors got platters of especially prepared food around Passover. She saw to it that the milk from family cows was shared with the poor. She supervised births, making sure that the new mother remained secluded for thirty days. She salted and soaked meat to remove all traces of blood, before it was cooked.  She taught us that game, eels and seafood were unclean.  She ate pork–not to do  so was the undoing of many an Anoussim–but she insisted that  it was unclean and bad for one’s health. She did not mix dairy products and meat and she forbid her children and grandchildren to eat  in the home of strangers. She had  all sorts of prayers and formulas–many of which duplicated those compiled by Isaac Jack Lvy and Rosemary Lvy-Zumwalt in Medical Lore of Sephardic Women–to ease ailments and heartbreak.

She spoke a Portuguese full of archaisms and she had little book learning–her father tended to dismiss the tutors she disliked and she disliked them all–but she knew that continuity, dor l’dor, generation to generation matters. Little of my  maternal great-grandparents’ material world survives. The great houses gone, photographs lost, trinkets vanished. What I have is glimpses of that world, seen by my grandmother and my mother’s eyes. I know  that my maternal great-grandfather Oliveira had blue-grey eyes, wore denim suits, and was not fond overly of bathing–since bathing often was one of the habits that distinguished Jews from Christians, some Anoussim learnt to avoid it the hard way. I know that he had a Lieutenant Colonel patent from the National Guard, one of the perks of the oligarchy, and  a small army of retainers. He had a big house with thick walls and high towers and he loved his Passo Fino horse Meia de Seda, his dog Rompe Ferro, and his cats Basto, Bastim and
Bastio. I know bandits had to kneel at his feet, kiss his hand and ask permission to cross his
little fiefdom. Yet he was no kingmaker. In the Twenties he was just influential enough to call the shots, politically, in a few towns. After his death,  his eldest son, Colonel Francisco Moreira de Oliveira,  got to decide who won the election for deputed estadual, not too little a thing in the backwoods.   I know very little about my great-grandmother, Maria Jose Barros, whose mother was a Native Brazilian captured by an Indian  slave raider’s hunting dogs. Maria Jose was blind–trachoma was endemic in that part of Brazil when she was
growing up–and she supposedly was a great beauty. She and my grandfather met her when he was a widower in his fifties. She was thirtyish and married. There two versions of what happened next. Version number one says he bought her from her husband for a cartload of sugar which seems a paltry price. My mother blames the disaffected children of her  grandfather’s first wives for this version, though she knows that Native Brazilians were not worth much to landowners in Brazil. She prefers version number two, according to which
great-grandma’s husband just up and disappeared when he realized that she was being courted by a powerful landowner. When pressed for more information, my mother adds that most probably, my great-grandfather’s retainers cut the unfortunate husband at strategic places, then dumped into sauva anthill. “He was never seen again,” she says. I think that version number two is credible. By all accounts, great-grandpa had no qualms about inflict pain on outsiders who failed to see his point of view–a very unJewish quality, in my opinion. The thousand cuts and burial in anthills figure in more than one story about  him.

         “My grandmother was a wild Indian,” my grandmother Maria Jose da Soledade once whispered to me. “She was caught by hunting dogs. You mustn’t discuss this with anybody,” she added.  I remember feeling confused about this revelation. I did not know why it was bad to be a wild Indian. Many years later I would recall that my father had a large store of anecdotes which Native Brazilian cannibals and their many recipes for human barbeque. The irony is that Unlike the Tupi -’warani, the G Nation, to which my great-great-grandmother most probably belonged–Ic branch of the Gs was one of the tribes living in Joo Antonio’s land–did not eat -its captives. In any case, by 1820, when my
great-great-grandmother was born, the tables had turned on Indian peoples of northeast Brazil.  They were no longer a threat to white settlers whose Predatory practices would eventually lead to the extermination of most of both the Tupi Nation and that of the Gs.

My great-grandmother died giving birth to her third child. Her first child was my grandmother, also named Maria Jose, was four years old. Devastated by his loss, he gave little Maria Jose a new name, Soledade, loneliness. He kept her and her siblings close to him. As the Eldest and dearest of the three children, she got the greater share of his attention. He hired tutors for her, he was the one who taught secret prayers, bits of ancient songs, and mysterious rituals. She was fifteen when he decided to remarry. Soledade was
appalled. She resented his new wife with whom she quarreled often. Tired of trying to mediate between wife and daughter, Joo Antonio sent Soledade to live with his sister Maria Manuela, in the nearest town. She stayed there for four years. Unprotected by her father’s
small army of retainers, she had no freedom to come and go. She pined for the rustic towers of her father’s fortress and she chafed at the limits her aunt set for her. But for women of her generation marriage or the convent was the only acceptable options. She chose marriage.

At eighteen, she caught the eye a young man from a family of landowners in nearby
Paraiba. Blond, blue-eyed and handsome, my grandfather de Melo does not seem to have had much to recommend him except his good looks, his superior skills at shooting and riding. But he was a Melo, related to the influential Dantas and Albuquerques clans. The wedding took place when grandma was nineteen. Six years and five children later, handsome grandpa lit out for Mato Grosso and never came back. My grandmother’s family
provided for Soledade and her children. When my parents got married, her uncle, Sebastio Bezerra provided the trousseau. Providing for a fatherless bride is good Judaic practice. And never mind that the bridegroom might not be comme-il-faut.

On his mother’s side, my father comes from landed gentry, but his father, whose beaky North African profile and dark skin he inherited, was only a merchant–rich, but still a merchant. My father must have used every bit of his considerable charm to persuade my mother’s family to accept his suit. He had an excellent job, managing the largest cotton gin in the area; he was generous, courtly, well spoken and impeccably dressed.

True, he spoke with a careful, excruciatingly grammatical correctness that seemed to mock their archaic, hispanicised Portuguese, but he was, after all, not one of them. On the minus side, he had no interest in owning land, riding horses or shooting. He carried no weapons, and he spent his spare time reading and writing. That he had the guts to put Catholicism at the top of his list of laughable superstitions, even though one of his maternal uncles was a canon of the Church, might have tilted the balance in his favor. My family had no great love for priests other than those to whom they were closely related–many Anoussim families
selected one son for the priesthood. They made safe confessors. 

My mother’s relatives were hardly the most devout Catholics. They preferred to worship in their own chapels.  Their rituals only began to seem unusual to me when I left home at age thirteen to go to a Catholic boarding school in the Ibiapa hills, miles away from the little town where I grew up. My father was no longer managing the cotton gin by that time. In the early fifties, he moved into a house across the street from his noisy family to all the law books needed to pass the bar, which he did, easily. He might not shoot or ride, but at eighty nine he still knows more about the law then many a young lawyer. It still amazes me that parents packed me off to school in the care of driver my father had defended successfully from a well deserved murder charger–the guy had fatally shot someone through a closed door, in the dark. Maybe my father thought his client was no worse than my mother’s vast tribe of cousins, hordes of whom would gallop into town at least once a week. They would converge upon my parents’ house–  honey colored women in long-sleeved dresses down to their ankles, their long black hair covered by shawls, handsome grey-eyed boys in somber clothes and hats, frightfully long daggers dangling from their belts. They would not come to the table to eat. They did not sit on chairs nor did they use silverware. Instead, they sat on the ground with their legs crossed, tailor-fashion, and they used their fingers to fish out tidbits from huge bowls. My father thought this was barbaric beyond words.

Colgio Santa Teresa, in Crato, Cear, the school I attended, was a place in which a little savage could learn a little French, a little English, impeccably grammatical Portuguese and passable table manners. Chapel was compulsory and I overdosed on Mass. I read silly French novels, got horrible marks in math and drawing, and very good ones in languages. After reading a book about Egypt I decided to become an archaeologist. I never got Egypt and my only excavation project has been my family history.  A few years after meeting Bob Feron and Karen Primack, and Jack Zeller I asked my mother if we were Jews.

      “Yes, we are,” she said. “I am proud of it.” Hers is not textbook Judaism. She is proud of her ancestors but cares nothing about genealogy, except to disown impeached Brazilian resident Fernando Collor de Mello–for having bad manners–and to say that Mazal Navon, sister of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Navon should feel honored to be related to us, not the other way around. Navons are rumored to be related to the Mello family, but Mrs. Navon, whose family includes smugglers from Gibraltar,  is said to
discourage inquiries on the subject. Earlier this year, I took part in the National
Geographic project designed to explore early human migration and deep ancestry.  Subsequently I had a high definition mitochondrial DNA test with Family Tree DNA.   Bennet Greenspan, president of FTDNA, takes great interest in Crypto-Jews and he says that has helped several of them solve genealogical conundrums. He was very generous with his time when I approached him about the results of my MTDNA test. I had hoped that somewhere in my mother’s line a genetic marker would point clearly to a female Sephardic ancestor.

Such was not to be. Greenspan himself says that maternal DNA is more useful for tracking
migrations than it is to trace genealogy. Information on the genetic signature I inherited through my mother’s family is not conclusive. It links one among thousands of my maternal
ancestors to ten percent of the population of the Middle East. My ancestor might have been a Tunisian Berber–many members of the Zenata tribe which ruled parts of Moorish Spain seven hundred years ago belong to same haplogroup. I know that there is a Moorish slave way back in  the  Melo family tree. But my DNA match  might have been a Yemenite Jew, Libyan, Moroccan or Ethiopian. Bennet adds that mine could be very old DNA–MTDNA mutates very slowly–and he suggests that it could have been inherited from a slave brought to Iberia by the Romans.  Jews often married  non-Christian women and converted them,
he says. The genetic signature detected by the test I took comes from one of these women. The science is too new to yield  precise information about her birthplace. What does that say for my identity? I am the product of Anoussim culture, an Ibero-Brazilian-Indian West Virginian Jew–an improbable mixture, but it suits me fine.
______________________________________________________________
Clara de Melo Castelar was born in Baixio, Ceara. 
She studied at the Universidade Federal do Cear,
in Fortaleza, Brazil, at North Dakota State
University, in Fargo, North Dakota, at The School
of Mines and Technology, in Rapid City, South
Dakota, and at Shepherd University, in
Shepherdstown, West Virginia. She works in
Shepherdstown, where she lives with her daughter,
Ilana de Melo Bjorlie. She publishes News from Old Unterrified,
a web magazine which seeks to record  the effect
of rampant growth on the social and political
life her beloved, Macondo-like village.
www.oldunterrified.org

Dispatch #33: The Amazon Research and Conservation Center on the Rio de Las Piedras, in the Peruvian Amazon

By Alex Shoumatoff

From the plane we catch glimpses of the Urubamba River, below Machu Picchu, plunging thousands of feet, then snaking through an ocean of trees that spreads east until it is lost in haze—the Amazon, the world’s largest and most diverse rainforest. We land in the humid furnace of Puerto Maldonado, the fourth-largest city in the wooded eastern half of Peru, known as the selva (the jungle). The airport is full of foreign tourists, mostly European and American, in jungle safari garb, and the parking lot is packed with kitschy jungle safari buses with thatched roofs, waiting to chauffeur them to boats on the Tambopata River, 15 minutes from here. One or two planeloads of tourists a day are shuffled in and out of 15 ecolodges with capacities of 16 to 60, or more. My 11-year-old son, Zachary, and I are embarking on a more unusual adventure. We’re on our way to the Amazon Rainforest Conservation Center (ARCC), an ecolodge and research center located eight hours up the Rio de las Piedras, a left-bank tributary of the Madre de Dios that has almost no other ecotourism. Within a half-hour of landing, we are speeding down the Madre de Dios in a roofed-over, 50-foot boat with a 60-horsepower outboard engine. It’s a strong, brown river, but only one of the Amazon’s thousands of sub-tributaries. The Amazon Rainforest Conservation Center was built, with financing from the U.S. conservation group Tropical Nature, by Pepe Moscoso Garcés, a strapping 41-year-old local Peruvian of European descent. Pepe is accompanying us with his 12-year-old son, Frank, a playmate for Zach. Also on board are Juan de Dios, the head of the guild of Puerto Maldonado ecotourist guides; an Ese’eja native woman named Daisy, who will be our cook; a Machiguena Indian named Narciso; nature photographer Mattias Klum; and his assistant, Lars-Magnus Edjeholm. There are 52 forest tribes in the selva speaking 25 different languages. The native people on the Rio de las Piedras are called the Yine or Piro. The rest of the boat is crammed with boxes full of fresh Yine or Piro. The rest of the boat is crammed with boxes full of fresh fruit and vegetables, meat, and drink that will enable us to live in style for the next five days.We pass a small floating gold-mining operation that is sucking up the river bottom with a thick hose. Inside, in a room full of diesel smoke, shirtless men, glistening with sweat, are picking the mud over for nuggets or gold dust. Then we enter the mouth of the Rio de las Piedras, which is 100 yards wide after its 200-mile journey. The river is way down because the Amazon is experiencing the worst drought in its recorded history, and the rainy season is overdue. Tree trunks, snags, and the occasional sandbar that Narciso pries us off with his pole slow our progress. Narciso is a smallish, lean, muscular man who never speaks but is always there when you want him, and he wears a perpetual mischievous smirk.

Two russet-backed oropendolas are flying around in panic as five black caracaras raid their sock nests. None of our field guides does justice to the extraordinary vocalizations of the oropendola. They sound like watery gurgles fired from a creaky slingshot.

Two russet-backed oropendolas are flying around in panic as five black caracaras raid their sock nests. None of our field guides does justice to the extraordinary vocalizations of the oropendola. They sound like watery gurgles fired from a creaky slingshot.

For the first four hours few native trees are visible except on the inner banks of bends, where solid stands of cecropia and another pioneer species called pájaro bobo have sprouted in the mud precipitated from the slower water. The forest has been converted to plantations by homesteaders from the Andean highlands. In the early 1990s the government of Alberto Fujimori gave 74 acres, with 984 feet of river frontage and 3,280 feet back into the forest, to any family willing to make a go of it in the selva.

We pass through blizzards of lemon-lime and orange sulphur butterflies and small, striped brown swallow-tailed nymphalids known as many-banded daggerwings. Thousands upon thousands are puddling on exposed sandbars and on the lowered banks. “I have never seen so many butterflies,” says Pepe. 

Two russet-backed oropendolas are flying around in panic as five black caracaras raid their sock nests. None of our field guides do justice to the extraordinary vocalizations of the oropendola; they sound like watery gurgles fired from a creaky slingshot. 

Capybaras, the world’s largest rodents, can be more than four feet long and top 100 pounds. They are herbivores and eat mostly grasses and aquatic plants. Courtesy of WildlandAdventures.com

We put in at dusk at Tipishca Camp, a small overnight lodge Pepe built a few hundred yards in from the river on one of its cast-off loops that is now a small eyebrow-shaped lake. Something is missing: the searing pungency of leaves decomposing on the forest floor that is so characteristic of rainforests. In fact, there is no smell at all, only the crackle of shriveled leaves underfoot, and the usual birdsong that I’d expect after spending years traveling in the Amazon is much muted. Juan identifies the catcalls of a screaming piha; the low, minor-key melancholy whistles of a tinamou; the doglike yelps of a white-throated toucan; and the vocalizations of jacamars, trogons, wrens, antbirds, and nunbirds. But compared with the usual din, it’s eerily quiet. “The silence is because of the secas, the drought,” Pepe explains. “The last rain was two weeks ago, and before that there wasn’t a drop for two months straight. It is mid-September. The rainy season should have started by now.”

The camp has screen walls, a thatched roof, and two rows of alcoves with beds canopied with mosquito netting. Pepe was clever to make use of one of these oxbows that the river abandoned for a new, faster route on its seaward descent. The lake is like a lost world, a teeming microcosm of one of the planet’s most intricate and complex ecosystems. Even in its present drought-stressed state, the biodiversity here is mind-boggling. Zach and I paddle a dugout in the failing light, looking for caimans and anacondas in the marsh grass that is closing in on the open water, but we see only a pair of sungrebes paddling around. Distant relatives of rails and coots, they are small and boldly patterned. After dark Zach shines his light on the blazing orange eyes of a yard-long caiman on the lake’s edge and catches an enormous canetoad. 
At 4:00 a.m. we are awakened by a chorus of red howler monkeys from the other side of the lake. It sounds like wind rushing through the portals of Hades. We continue upriver, passing an intently motionless white-necked heron standing knee-deep in water, then 20 jabiru storks having a confab on a sandbar. One of them seems to be their cacique and is strutting around like a dictator. Thirty red-and-green macaws, headed for their clay lick, overtake us. Every mile or two there is another flock of these glorious, large vermilion parrots, which Juan calls guacamayos rojos. This river should be called the Rio de los Guacamayos.

We pass through blizzards of lemon-lime and orange sulphur butterflies and small, striped brown swallow-tailed nymphalids known as many-banded daggerwings. Thousands upon thousands are puddling on exposed sandbars and on the lowered banks. “I’ve never seen so many butterflies,” says Pepe..

The last finca, or plantation, of the Andean homesteaders ends, and the river becomes pristine, a corridor winding between two walls of densely packed trees, some 130 feet tall. Juan points out a king vulture—huge, with a bare, highly colored blue and orange neck and face—a kestrellike plumbeous kite, a sunbittern, and a yellow-headed vulture. Rounding one bend, we find 30 swallow-tailed kites, more than I have ever seen in my whole life, circling gracefully over the water. White heads and underbellies sharply contrast with their black forked tails and outer wing feathers. 

Pepe tells me he grew up on the edge of what is now Manu National Park, upriver from Maldonado. “My father was a logger.  I studied electric engineering in Cuzco, but there were no jobs, so I set myself up as a river merchant, running food and beer to gold miners up tributaries of the Madre de Dios. They paid me in gold, and by the time I was 24, I had a small fortune: $45,000.” But Pepe went through it all mounting expeditions during the next two years to look for the lost city of Paititi, the legendary Inca city in the jungle. All he found was a couple of stone towers. 

Ecotourism was beginning to boom in the selva, and for eight years he worked on the Tambopata for Rainforest Expeditions, “until I became aburrido—sickof it,” he continues. “Moving all those bodies in and out becomes like a human zoo. But I loved meeting people from all over the world and showing them the beauty and the richness of the forest. So I decided to start my own company with funding from Tropical Nature and a 40-year concession from the government for 15,000 acres on the Rio de las Piedras.” The land includes a large eyebrow lake, Lago Soledad (“solitude”), named for a little settlement of which there is no longer a trace. “We are taking a big risk, because the Las Piedras is in a free zone,” Pepe says. “There are no restrictions. The river turtles are not protected, and the loggers and Brazil-nut gatherers live off peccaries, tapirs, and macaws, whose flesh is unfortunately delicious.”

A small sign on a tree marks the ARCC’s boundary, and 10 minutes later we dock at an inconspicuous set of wooden stairs coming down to the water from a dark path that leads into an emerald-forest Eden. There are six bungalows set back from the lake and a large lodge with a kitchen, dining room, bar, and lounge. The facility has a capacity of 16, and after two years of business, it is hosting 200 guests a year. “I want to keep it a low-volume, high-quality experience—no more than 600 a year,” Pepe says. 
The most visible and dramatic action is on the lake, which is ruled by three giant otters, seven feet long from snout to tail. They drape themselves like leopards on dead tree branches sticking up in the water, frolic incessantly, and cruise the lake with their heads held high, sending rings rippling out over the still surface. There are a few 12-foot caimans here, which look like floating logs, approaching imperceptibly until they’re within striking distance of their quarry.

The border of the lake is packed with soaring trees and shrubbery cabled with vines that sag with the vegetation of other plants using them for scaffolding. As we paddle along, a mixed troop of squirrel and brown capuchin monkeys comes out of the understory. One curious squirrel monkey teeters out to the tip of a branch, 10 feet from us. Seeming no less threatened by our approach, the hoatzins flap to a perch 50 feet away. They are primitive birds with unkempt cockades. Young hoatzins have claws on  their elbows to pull themselves up branches. We pass a wattled jacana picking its way over the vegetation tumbling into the water, and a rufescent tiger heron standing on a low branch a hundred feet from a juvenile agami heron. With its wispy, light-blue crest, glossy green and chestnut back, and long rapierlike bill, it is one of neotropical America’s most dazzling birds, as well as one of the rarest members of the heron tribe. 

It rains hard through our second night, breaking the drought. By daybreak the forest has sprung back to life. Joyous bursts of birdsong blend with the pulsing quake of frogs and insects. Rising with the howlers, we head up the still mist-shrouded river to a ccollpa (clay lick) visited by half a dozen species of parrot. The ccollpa is a smectite- and bentonite-rich, yellow-brown cliff on a bluff 300 feet above a sweeping bend. Pepe has built a blind 150 feet from it, and we spend the morning inside being as quiet and still as possible. We watch a tapir swim across the river below, and, rounding the bend, a thatched peque peque, a river skiff with a lawn-mower engine, carrying a family of loggers with some beams in tow.
At about 6:30 a.m., 30 white-bellied parrots (actually golden-green), with a few mealy parrots mixed in, land on the cliff and peck out balls of clay. The clay is thought to help the parrots’ digestion, neutralizing the alkaloids and other toxins in the seeds they eat. At 7:00 two red-and-green macaws come flying up the bend and double back, apparently scouting out the situation. They fly over the blind several times, seeming to note that there are humans in it. The question is, what kind of humans: hunters or birdwatchers? They land in the crotch of a cecropia tree that is growing out of the cliff. We can see the red lines on their white cheeks.

The Peruvian Amazon is rich with birdlife, including blue-and-gold macaws. Courtesy of WildlandAdventures.com

More macaws arrive in twos and threes until there are 30 of them. Several couples hang upside down from branches and groom and snuggle, stealing glances at us. Then by turn they swoop down to the cliff and return to their perches with clay balls, which they hold in one foot and nibble. After half an hour they all leave, and it is the turn of a similar number of smaller scarlet macaws. At the ccollpa there seems to be a literal pecking order.

More macaws arrive in twos and threes until there are 30 of them. Several couples hang upside down from branches and groom and snuggle, stealing glances at us. Then by turn they swoop down to the cliff and return to their perches with clay balls, which they hold in one foot and nibble.

Zach and I walk along the six miles of trails that loop around the lake with Juan and Narciso, who moves slowly and quietly, pointing out things that Juan interprets for us. Juan could be mistaken for an Indian with his mixed Japanese and Brazilian parentage, but he is a modern, urban Peruvian. He is a step removed from the world of the forest, but he has fallen under its spell and is good at spotting big birds like a Spix’s guan (a dark-brown, turkeylike bird with a featherless ruby-red throat), the razor-billed curas-sow (sheeny steel-black with a red bill), and a herd of collared peccaries that we creep up on and watch from behind a huge garlic tree until they sense our presence and bolt. He shows us medicinal plants for treating arthritis and rheumatism, diarrhea and constipation, kidney and prostate ailments, hangover, headache, and fever, as well as the cashapona, or walking palm, with a mesh of thin, splaying prop roots that, like the adjustable legs of a tripod, move the slender, straight trunk around to give it the best shot at the sunlight. 

Zachary is focused on the forest floor. He notices things that elude even Narciso, like a yellow-footed tortoise and a five-inch-long baby fer-de-lance, the snake responsible for the greatest number of fatal bites in the Americas. Juan and Narciso agree it is a type of fer-de-lance known as the jergonsacha. Its dark- and light-gray diamonds blend perfectly with the sun-mottled leaf litter. Narciso nudges it with a stick, and it plays dead.

Zach picks up a batrachian the size of a fingernail—a toad, he pronounces. How do you know? I ask. “Frogs are wet, and toads pee on you,” he says. He discerns a nightjar so well camouflaged among the leaves that it is only an outline. You could spend your life—and some do—studying just one category of the organisms on the forest floor: the seeds, the snails, the spiders, the beetles, the ants, the sapitos and the ranitas—the little toads and frogs. On a fallen tree we find a rubbery pink earlobe-shaped fungus that Narciso says is delicious. Iridescent blue morpho butterflies patrol the forest, flashing creamy blue. Resting on a leaf is a small blowtorch-blue metalmark butterfly with red along its hind wing.

Cabanas as the Amazon Rainforest Conservation Center in Peru’s jungle. Courtesy of WildlandAdventures.com

A whole set of different life-forms inhabits the canopy. Pepe has built a platform 130 feet up in the crown of a massive ironwood tree that we reach by being hauled up one at a time in a canvas chair by everyone below. As I rise above the lake I can see an unbroken sea of green spreading 100 miles north to the Acre River, the border with Brazil. I have an urge to just take off into it with Zach, Narciso, and Juan. We could probably reach the river in four days.

When I first set foot in the Amazon 25 years ago to write about this incomparable, incomprehensible wilderness, a fire bigger than Belgium was raging out of control. The forest was being cleared, and its flora and fauna, much of which is still uncatalogued, was going up in smoke in order to produce a few years’ worth of beef. The land would then be abandoned, to bake into brick-hard laterite. 

The assault has continued unabated, and 18 percent of the forest has disappeared in 50 years. A sophisticated satellite system monitors the clear-cutting and the fires, and laws restricting deforestation are in place, but stopping it is another matter. 
Still, the Amazon rainforest is so enormous that 82 percent of it is estimated to be, more or less, intact. Now there is another threat, more remote but no less devastating, as became evident when we flew over the Andes. The mountains looked like melting ice cream cones, their snow and ice reduced to small patches. The Peruvian National Council for the Environment has predicted that there will be no glaciers in Peru by 2020. All the world’s snow and ice is melting, but none so fast as tropical glaciers and ice fields. What will become of the Amazon with no snowmelt to feed its headwaters, and ever decreasing rainfall? Will it be a savanna again as it was 100,000 years ago? 

In fact, the dehydration of the Amazon rainforest is already under way. While we were able to reach the ARCC, 40,000 ccaboclos, the mestizo backwoods people of the Brazilian Amazon, were stranded up rivers that had gone dry. The waterways are still the only roads in most of the Amazon valley. The world’s land surface is progressively dessicating as a result of global warming—even here, one of the wettest places of all.

And in a few years theInteroceánica highway will be completed, providing long-sought (and long-fought by conservationists) access to the Pacific and Asian markets for the Amazon’s wood and minerals. Puerto Maldonado will be overrun with marginal Brazilians, Pepe predicts—the homeless from cities who are already pouring into the Madre de Dios region. “Maybe I will move out to the ARCC and live there full-time,” he says. Every day trucks and boats bring more people with visions of El Dorado, carrying all they own in a tote bag to this fast-growing city of 50,000. Most of them will start out trying their luck at gold mining and end up cutting trees down for one of the lumber companies or collecting Brazil nuts. So if you want to experience the Amazon, you’d better get there fast, and I can’t think of anywhere better than Pepe’s five-star gem. 

Alex Shoumatoff is the author of three books on the Amazon and publisher of DispatchesFromTheVanishingWorld.com.

PERU Making the Trip

The Amazon Resources Conservation Center (ARCC) is remote but relatively easy to reach through a series of air, land, and river connections. Frequent and direct international air service is available from several major U.S. gateways, including New York, Miami, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Los Angeles, to Jorge Chavez International Airport in Lima, Peru. Daily flights from Lima over the Andes Mountains connect through Cuzco to the jungle town of Puerto Maldonado. From there it’s a comfortable seven- to eight-hour ride in a motorized dugout up the wildlife-rich Las Piedras River. Before embarking on the river journey to the ARCC, you could plan to spend a night in the colonial Hotel Antigua in the Lima suburb of Miraflores (www.peru-hotels-inns.com) or in the luxury Monasterio Hotel in Cuzco (http://monasterio.orient-express.com). Leave time in your Peru itinerary to visit Inca ruins and native Quechua Indian villages in Cuzco, the Urubamba Valley, and the ancient Incan citadel of Machu Picchu. Birders and botanists will appreciate staying overnight at the Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel (www.inkaterra.com/mpph/index.html), located in a subtropical cloudforest of bromeliads, ferns, flowers, and orchids that’s filled with butterflies and birds. Seattle-based Wildland Adventures (www.wildland.com) is an award-winning ecotourism company that has been working for 20 years with conservation organizations and naturalist guides throughout the rainforests of Tambopata and Manu. It offers guided excursions for individuals, families, and small groups throughout the Andes, the Amazon, and the Galápagos Islands.

Dispatch #32: The Tribulations of St. Paul’s School

This article originally appeared in the January of 2006 issue of Vanity Fair Magazine.   All photographs by Jonathan Becker, Vanity Fair’s ‘Photographer at Large,’ with exception of the opening aerial photo by Vincent Laforet.

About the Contributor

Names of past graduates on display in a hallway of the Upper School.

For the past 150 years St. Paul’s School, the “exclusive” (as it is invariably called) boarding school in Concord, New Hampshire, has been the Eton of America’s upper crust. Or perhaps it is its Hogwarts; as Harry Potter’s fictional academy is called, providing the country with many of its most accomplished wizards-not just at making money, although that is what its graduates have tended to do, but in practically every endeavor. Its main constituency has traditionally been the conservative old Wasp families of New York, Boston, and Philadelphia-the plutocracy that has been running the country for generations. But this is changing. Since the first black student was admitted-in my class, which graduated in 1964- the school’s admissions policy has been progressively more meritocratic. The “natural aristocracy,” based on virtue and talent, to use Thomas Jefferson’s distinction, has been displacing the “artificial aristocracy,” based on wealth and birth. Every year there are fewer “legacies,” fewer fourth- or fifth-generation Paulies, among the 533 students, who now come from 37 states and 21 countries. Despite its reputation for being a breeder of staunch, old-line Republicans, St. Paul’s uas arso turne6 out a msimguls’ne6 roster of liberals, including the cartoonist Garry Trudeau and Senator John Kerry. Kerry was in the class of ’62, two years ahead of me, and even then he seemed to be plotting his run for the presidency. When he finally got his chance, many of us alumni were hoping he would win, not only because we felt . the Bush administration was such a disaster but also because St. Paul’s has yet to produce a president, whereas Groton prepped ED.R., Choate J.EK., and Andover both Bushes. But Kerry was a terrible disappointment. He simply lacked the common touch-which is not something you acquire at St. Paul’s. Last November, while Kerry was underperforming at the polls, a series of crises was rocking our alma mater. Elements of the trouble had been brewing for several years, but what busted the whole thing open was an article in the August 25, 2003, Wall Street Journal which revealed that the rector, as the headmaster of this venerable Episcopalian hall of learning is called, was being paid $524,000 a year in salary, pension, bonuses, and perks that included having his daughters’ tuition at the University of Chicago picked up by the school. Parents, students, and alumni were stunned, and a rumor went around that the amount was more than the president of Harvard is paid. (It’s actually a little less, and some prep-school headmasters get even more.) The rector, as his name implies, is supposed to be a pillar of rectitude, especially if, as Craig Anderson was, he is also a bishop of the Episcopal Church. But “the Bish,” as he was fondly called by students, had been accused of using the rector’s discretionary fund-which is supposed to be reserved for school expenses-to pay for personal ones, including his membership in a yacht club in Maine. (“It was not a fancy yacht club,” Anderson says from Minnesota, where he and his wife now live. “The dues were minimal-$I,OOO to $1,200 a year. In my contract, there were certain provisions for memberships in clubs. One year, this was used for the yacht club, but when this was brought to light and felt to be inappropriate, I repaid it fully.”) On top of this, the trustees who were managing the school’s $364 million endowment were accused of having “cozy relationships” with some of the companies they had it invested in, although an investigation found nothing illegal. All of this prompted an investigation by the New Hampshire attorney general’s office, which put the school’s finances under review through 2008, even though the rector and vice-rector had cut their own salaries by 10 percent. It also prompted an audit by the I.R.S., which has yet to be concluded. Not one but two scathing articles about the school eventually appeared in The New York: Times, the paper of record. Not good for the old image, especially when you are competing for top students against other well-endowed institutions such as New Hampshire’s Phillips Exeter Academy, Connecticut’s Choate Rosemary Hall, and Massachusetts’s Groton School, Phillips Academy Andover, and Milton Academy, not to mention the excellent private day schools and public schools that are attracting a growing number of high-performing teenagers. This embarrassing spot on the school tie was still painfully fresh when, a few days into the 2004-5 school year, 15 sixth-form (senior) girls were suspended for hazing some of the new girls. The worst thing that happened was that some of the younger students were forced to simulate fellatio on bananas. Not such a big deal, compared with the 15-year-old girl at Milton Academy who performed oral sex on five members of her school’s hockey team in succession a few months later. (Not such a big deal either, apparently, judging from a recent S.PS. graduate’s response: “The question is: Did they win?”) Or compared with the student at Northfield Mount Hermon School, in Massachusetts, who had the word HOMO carved into his back by two jocks in 1999. Or with the freshman football player at McGill University, in Montreal, who was prodded in the rear with a broomstick during a hazing ceremony last August 27, prompting the school to ‘cancel its entire 2005 football season. But the banana incident violated New Hampshire’s hazing law and had to be reported to the police. Groton’s trustees had gotten into hot water a few years earlier for trying to keep the lid on sexual-abuse allegations. So there was an investigation, and the papers got wind of it, and the school suffered a second public-relations disaster. Then, on November 7, only five weeks after the school’s monumental new, $24 mil-lion gym and fitness center opened, a boy in the fourth form (the 10th grade) drowned in its Olympic-size swimming pool. While this appeared to fall into the category of pure tragedy (although the parents have sued the school), it couldn’t have happened at a worse moment. One couldn’t help thinking that the Lord was not smiling on this devoutly Christian school, where attendance at chapel four times a week is still obligatory. The fourth element of the St. Paul’s calamity had been incubating for years: the allegations that, from the late 1940s through the early 90s, dozens of the school’s masters (as the teachers were known until women joined the faculty, in 1972), including several revered ones, had sexually molested students. Perhaps this shouldn’t have been surprising, given that molestation-or “inappropriate boundary-crossing by a teacher,” as it was more delicately described by Dean of Faculty Candice Dale-is a problem in schools the world over. Some of the alumni of Selwyn House, a private all-boys day school in Montreal that has educated much of the city’s Anoglophone elite, for instance, have filed a class-action suit against the school for abuse they elite, for instance, have filed a class-action suit against the school for abuse they allegedly suffered from a teacher in the 70s and 80s. Both Andover and Exeter have also had sex-abuse incidents in the past 15 years. My heart went out to the school. I had a great time there and learned so much that I entered Harvard as a sophomore. St. Paul’s really gave me a leg up, as it did almost everyone who went there, including the ones who were kicked out or ran away and went on to have stellar careers. So it was distressing to see the treatment it was getting in the press. As one scandal followed another, none of the news articles that my classmates disseminated to one another in hundreds of mass e-mails conveyed what the school was actually like. Many of my media colleagues seemed to be taking relish in tearing down the reputation of one of the sanctums of American elitism. It was such a juicy target, how could you not go for the jugular? But anyone who has gone to St. Paul’s knows what a magical, and surprisingly democratic, place it is. My interest was piqued because I knew many of the players, including one of the most notorious of the accused masters, who is now living in disgrace in another state. At least I thought I knew him. (He had never come on to me.) I knew the new, interim rector, Bill Matthews, who had been an exemplary sixth-form supervisor in the Lower School when I was in the third form. And I knew the new head of the board of trustees, Jim Robbins, because we’d grown up together in Bedford, New York, in the 50s. Both of them had taken office after their predecessors resigned in June. We hadn’t seen one another in years, but I remembered them as good men. I also knew one of the lifetime trustees who had been on the secretive, too powerful Executive Committee and had stepped down, and the investment adviser who had done the report on the school’s governance for the state A.G.’s office. The New England prep-school world of 40 to 50 years ago is a small one. I had also written the history of two other private schools, attended by my five sons over the years-St. George’s School of Montreal, and Rippowam Cisqua School, in Bedford, New York-so I knew that schools are fascinating microcosms. They act out what is happening in the society at large. As the parent of a former student told me, after I started writing about the crises and their repercussions, “Everything that happened at St. Paul’s is symptomatic of what our society has become.” The St. Paul’s campus spreads over more than 2,000 acres of deep woods, spotted with dark ponds, on the outskirts of the state capital. On the largest pond, Turkey, the crews of the rival rowing teams, the ‘Halcyons and the Shattucks (every student belongs to one of these, whether or not he or she goes out for crew), race each spring. When they are good enough, usually every other year, the best oarsmen go to Henleyon-Thames, in England, to compete in the Princess Elizabeth Challenge .Cup against the crews of Eton, Harrow, and other British public schools. The Halcyon jacket is maroon, the Shattuck cerulean blue, and the lapels of both are fringed with white. Straw boaters, white ducks, white oxfords, and white shirts with the Halcyon or Shattuck tie complete the after-the-race outfit. Hogwarts has Quidditch; St. Paul’s has crew, hockey, and squash .. The central part of campus is bisected by a broad, straight road which becomes a cer-emonial way on Anniversary Weekend each June, when the alumni parade..down it, class by class. It is the gratitude and the generosity of its 7,441 living graduates that keep the school going. But, as a classmate of mine who hails front one of the nation’s oldest families told me, “Those who give like the idea of their kids and grandkids going there, but this has been a problem since the late 80s, when the school turned into some kind of a hothouse that only the creme de la creme can get into anymore.” My six-day visit to the school in October coincides with one of those glorious little windows known as Indian summer, a combination of Gershwin’s “Summertime” and Johnny Mercer’s “Autumn Leaves.” Each morning the ponds are swathed in mist. I watch students running across the bridge from the Coit Upper dormitory, where they have just had breakfast, to chapel. If they aren’t inside by the time its Westminster chimes toll eight times, their names will be taken and they will get a “bag,” which was called a demerit in my day. Back then, enough demerits put you on a work crew, which was run by a little man who was known to us as “the Toad.” The Toad used to take some of the boys from the best families on a tour of whorehouses in the summer. As far as I know, no one who participated in these outings has ever complained. “The Toad was not a pedophile,” says an alumnus who has .made it his mission to expose abusers among the faculty. “At worst he was a voyeur-facilitator.” By nine o’clock the mist has burned off, to reveal massive white pines, flecked with the flaming oranges and reds of turned hardwoods, leaning out over the ponds. One golden, sun-flooded day follows another. The campus is as idyllic as I remember it. On my first day there, a Friday afternoon, the form directors-who get their classmates to come to reunions, and shake them down for checks-and the trustees have gathered for a “volunteer leadership weekend.” I find everybody in the Schoolhouse, wearing the school tie-black with red and white diagonal stripes. It’s a very bright, high-powered group, like a meeting of the Templars. Marvelous-looking old Wasps, including one who could be the twin of Ben Bradlee, mingle with other distinguished men of less obvious provenance. (Bradlee himself went to St. Mark’s School, in Massachusetts.) There are a few African-Americans and Asian-Americans, and a few women, but it still seems like an old boys’ club. A lot of the people in the room are very pissed off. The class of ‘ 55, which had its 50th reunion in June, deliberately failed to meet its $2 million goal as a protest against the board and administration that allowed all these things to happen. But the treasurer of the class of ‘ 56′s upcoming 50th tells me, “We have a couple of million at least in the bag already. We’ve got a good momentum going.” And after the Bish was sent packing, donations shot up dramatically. It has turned out to be a banner fund-raising year. “Our return is higher than any endowment out there,” reports the new treasurer of the board, Bob Lindsay (’73), who is a nephew of former New York mayor John Lindsay (’40) and is also head of the search committee that will choose the next rector. By all the metrics-the number of applications, the percentage of students accepted, the proportion who get into the Ivies, the amount of money being raised-the school is in vibrant health. Jim Robbins, the new president of the board of trustees, is at the lectern, fielding questions like a White House press secretary during a hurricane. Robbins runs his own media company in Atlanta. “Are you going to tell who did what, when, or is that protected?” asks one form director, and another says, “Let’s cut to the chase. How much did the Bishop rip us off for?” Robbins says coolly that what is released will be what is best for the school, and that Anderson is repaying every penny of his questionable expenses. Robbins would be happy to discuss the exact sum, he says, but he doesn’t want to publicize it lest it trigger another article in The New York Times. I have heard that the dubious expenditures add up to around $300,000. Peanuts by Enron standards, but it’s enough to pay for more than eight full scholarships for a year. (Annual tuition at St. Paul’s is $35,000, plus fees.) Anderson later tells me he is constrained by the I.R.S. audit from saying how much he is paying back. He says the $300,000 figure is wrong but won’t say whether the actual number is more or less. Robbins and I have known each other since we were kids. In the summer of 1963, my father and I took him and another boy to climb a small mountain called Les Diablerets-the Little Devils-near Villars, Switzerland. We ran into trouble, as can happen in the mountains. Robbins was very brave and really pulled his oar in this life-threatening situation, so I have faith that he is capable of “righting the good ship St. Paul’s,” as he puts it. But not everyone is convinced that the housecleaning within the board has been thorough enough. One member of the class of ’69 would later complain in a mass e-mail, “Much is being said lately by the board leadership about clearing the air and restoring trust. That’s a difficult thing to accomplish when many are still on the board who signed ‘unanimous’ declarations of support for Anderson, and managed to heap praise on themselves at the same time. A boatload of trust would return quickly, and much air clear, if those board members would demonstrate their sincerity by resigning. There’s really no other way to ‘clean break’ with the past; those are honoured who fall upon their swords.” Robbins apologizes to the form directors for the way all the trouble has made their jobs harder, and tells them, “The problem was that the board did not do due diligence in checking out Anderson before he was hired. They fell in love with the candidate and suspended disbelief, and that can’t happen again.” He cites other problems: concentrated power in the Executive Committee-the board’s five-member administrative body, which has since been shaken up and expanded-and a lack of communication among the rector, the board, and everyone else. Then he adds, “The school is phenomenal, but this murmur-this noise at the top-we need to establish a disconnect with it. The students’ experience is unencumbered by whatever noise there has been at the top of the organization. But it’s going to take a while to get out of this ditch.” There is a lot of talk about getting new blood on the 23-member board, but it already seems to be somewhat diverse. In addition to classic Wasps such as Robbins and Lindsay, there is an African-American judge who serves as the clerk and a Jewish New York investment banker who heads the audit committee. There are also Sabrina Fung and the Nigerian-born Dr. Olufunmilayo Falusi Olopade, as well as Trinka Taylor of Dallas, originally from Midland and a dear friend of the president’s. And there is Julie Frist, a relative of Senate majority leader Bill Frist, who is under investigation for dumping his stock in HCA Inc., a company his father helped found, a few days before it tanked. Lindsay tells the room that “the view that the trustees were enriching themselves is not true.” This will be confirmed a few days later by Harold Janeway, the investment banker who did the report on the school’s endowment management for the A.G.’s office. “There was nothing that was a chargeable offense or even close to it,” Janeway says. According to the report, one trustee, George Baker, had been managing the endowment for more than 25 years, with very little oversight. He had invested it in more than 50 “instruments,” many of them hedge funds and private venture-capital firms, so the money was very difficult to track. “It wasn’t so much what they were doing, but the way they were doing it,” Janeway says. Reached at his investment firm in New York, Baker confirms that he ran the en-dowment committee almost single-handedly from the late 70s to 2005 and had “pretty much carte blanche” because “few trustees were trained in the business.” He adds, “Those were simpler times.” During this period, Baker says, he grew the endowment sixfold and shielded it from the dot-com bust that clobbered many other schools. It is a relief to know that the alleged financial improprieties seem to have been lim-ited to Anderson. Even he didn’t think he was doing anything wrong-just getting what he was entitled to in his contract. “The current climate, with Sarbanes-Oxley [the federal regulations imposed on corporations in the wake of Enron's collapse, in 2001] migrating to the nonprofit sector, has brought schools like S.P.S. under a lot of scrutiny, which is probably good,” he says. “But to judge the past in terms of the new government regulations, to suggest that people acted inappropriately, is insensitive. There is just a new way of operating.” Wondering how the whole thing got started, I began to piece together the bizarre and rather sordid chain of events that ended with Anderson’s resignation and vice-rector Sharon Hennessy’s indefinite sabbatical. Hennessy, whose salary also nearly doubled in the eight years she was there and whose perks included a membership at the Canyon Ranch spa-which reportedly cost between $20,000 and $30,000-and an annual trip to a pedagogical conference in Cannes, was not charged with any wrongdoing, but after she left, the position of vice rector was abolished. The chain begins in the fall of 1974, when a revered teacher named Lawrence Katzenbach (whose uncle Nicholas had been deputy attorney general under President Kennedy) allegedly dropped his trousers’ and exposed his erect penis to a senior girl who was babysitting his newborn baby. “His wife was in the hospital,” says the victim, who asked not to be named. “He said, ‘Come on, touch it,’ and I ran out of the house and just kept-running until I stopped somewhere in the woods, shaking.” Deeply traumatized for years, the woman was unable to tell anyone what had happened until her 25th reunion, in 2000, when she decided to finally get it off her chest. Ursula Holloman (’75), now a screenwriter in L.A., describes the scene to me: “I was sitting on the lawn with [the victim] and a couple of other women in my class when she started to tell us what Mr. Katzenbach did to her. I was stunned. I took Modern Novel with Mr. Katzenbach, and he was one of the best teachers I had at S.PS. So we started talking and we remembered that another teacher had a bad reputation as an abuser, and there he was on prominent display right there at Anniversary.” The teacher in question, who has never been charged with any crime, had worked at the school for decades. By 2000, he was retired but still involved with the school, and was one of its best-regarded masters. “We decided, Something has to be done about this, so, using the e-mail chain for our 25th, in the fall of 2000 we started our pro tempore task force on student molestations.” Alexis Johnson (’76), a native-rights lawyer in Flagstaff, Arizona, who says he had been propositioned by this teacher, joined the task force, which collected eight reports on the retired master and nine on Katzenbach. The former was accused of forcibly holding hands and of physical assault, but not of any sex acts or fondling of private parts. “His victims ranged from some who felt slimed to others who felt completely destroyed,” Holloman says. Eventually the group gathered allegations of abuse by 29 masters over a 50-year peri-od, including 5 who were active in the early 60s, when I was there. “Many who are abused have had their boundaries violated already,” Holloman adds. “Predators can smell a victim.” In the fall of 2000, a delegation from the task force, consisting of some of the alumni who had been abused and some who had not, presented the rector and the board with numerous signed, firsthand accounts of abuse-”just to give them an idea of what had been going on,” Holloman says. “They said, ‘This is ancient history. It could never happen now.’ They were concerned with, basically, covering their butts. They asked if any of the teachers were still at the school, and we said, ‘Yes.’ And it all became about [the unnamed teacher]. The dead and long-departed teachers they didn’t care about. They never asked for the list. They were not interested. He was the only one they had to protect themselves from.” Anderson disputes this, saying, “I complimented the work of the task force …. I never said the incidents were ancient history. I said, ‘We want to do everything in our power to ensure that this never happens again…. We were not interested in just [the one teacher].” (The school declined to answer a number of questions for this article.) Even when the teacher cut his remaining ties with St. Paul’s, no reason was given. The school’s policy in such situations appeared to be absolute confidentiality, which deprived the victims of the closure they sought in all the other cases. “It was pretty similar to the Catholic Church,” Holloman says. “All we got was lip service: ‘We’re formulating a new policy on this. It’s under control.’ We were accused by one trustee of plotting to sue the school, but we were just trying to bring this out into the light so people could talk, because we discovered a culture of secrecy among teachers and students that kept these things hidden and enabled the abusers to keep abusing-a whole repeating pattern.” Katzenbach’s victim adds, “The thing that became really appalling is that the administration knew it had been happening over. a very long time.” As its 25th-reunion gift, the class of 1975 gave a sizable amount of money for bound-ary training for the faculty and other measures to enhance the security of the students. These have been implemented, according to Dean Dale. But boarding schools attract sexually conflicted adults. Over the years, at least one statT member suspected to be preying on students at St. Paul’s was dismissed, but the administration didn’t implement a zero-tolerance policy until the early 90s. Frustrated by what he saw as stonewalling, Johnson says, “I started to wonder: If there is a lack of candor on the crucial issue of the children’s safety, what else aren’t they being candid about? So I started to look into the financial operation.” At the same time, Eleanor Shannon, a wealthy parent from Hanover, New Hampshire, who co-chaired the Parents’ Committee with her husband, David Salem, was also looking into it. The couple had been on the verge of giving a six-figure gift to the school when a fellow parent familiar with fund-raising efforts told Shannon at a squash match that she had better take a look at the school’s finances, starting with the rector’s salary. Shannon’s husband is the founding C.E.O. of a big investment fund for nonprofit organizations, and she believed that, as head of the Parents’ Committee, she could be legally liable under New Hampshire law if there were any financial impropriety. Using the Internet, she pulled up St. Paul’s statements, as well as those of Andover and Exeter and Deerfield Academy, in Massachusetts, and noticed some unusual expenses in St. Paul’s $30-million-plus annual budget that Shannon says were not in those of the other schools-such as $932,118 for legal fees and $3,909,861 for “other.” The school explained that there had been an error in filling out the forms but that the problem had been subsequently addressed. According to an alum familiar with the situation, “Shannon asked for more detailed stuff than what was on the 990 [the statement the school, as a nonprofit institution, was obligated to file], which she was entitled to do.” A 30-page exchange detailing her frustrated attempt to get answers to her questions was posted on an alumni Web site, and she soon resigned from the Parents’ Committee. Then she really started digging. Another alumnus started an online chat forum that detailed all sorts of damaging revelations and allegations, which sped around the alumni and ultimately reached the media. At that point, the momentum leading to the downfall of Anderson and Hennessy and the Executive Committee was unstoppable. As myoid blue-blooded classmate reflected, “A school administration used to be able to handle the news. But now there are blogs and cell phones that spread rumors, and the school has to react. The ability to keep information private is gone, -and that is really hard for the administration of a school. Something happened at St. Paul’s one night at II o’clock, I don’t remember what it was, but there was an accurate account of it in the Andover student newspaper the next morning. God, I’d hate to be a headmaster and have to wake up every morning wondering, What have the little fuckers done now?” The faculty was also at odds with the rector and the board. Partly it was because the teachers were liberals, and the trustees were for the most part stodgy conservatives “who have not crossed the postmodern line into the world with the rest of us,” as one faculty member put it. And partly it was a class issue: the trustees acted as if the teachers were underlings, when- in fact it is the teachers who – dedicate their lives and careers to fulfilling the school’s mission. The questions about the school’s financial operations were brought to the attention of The Wall Street Journal, possibly by an ex-teacher; and a three-inch-thick dossier entitled “St. Paul’s School: Legally Actionable Acts of Commission and Omission” was sent to the New Hampshire attorney general’s office. Some of the claims cited in the dossier have the whiff of shadiness, but few Paulies seem eager to go into it. As another classmate told me, “There’s probably more bad stuff to be uncovered, but nothing really salacious.” People would prefer to let sleeping dogs lie-as long as they don’t become rabid again. Hoping to gain some insight into how these events fit into the flow of the school’s history, and that of the country at large, I spent every minute I could at the fabulous Ohrstrom Library, sampling its enormous collection of books. Designed by Robert A. M. Stern and finished in 1991, the library is one of the masterpieces of late-2Oth century educational architecture. I didn’t have the slightest interest in the school’s history when I was a student there, but, as I now discovered, it is quite fascinating. The school was founded in 1856 by a Boston doctor named George Shattuck, who hoped to implement the beliefs of an early19th-century Swiss pioneer in progressive education named Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi. Pestalozzi espoused the Rousseauian idea that society was irredeemably compromised but that children were a fount of natural goodness. The only hope for reforming society, therefore, was to begin with children and give them a “natural” education. This meant removing the sons of the Gilded Age’s ruling class from their corrupting environs and building a school for them in some pristine place where they could experience the sublime directly through their senses. Green fields and trees, streams and ponds, beautiful scenery, flowers and minerals, are “educators,” Shattuck wrote. Nature was character-forming, and so was what Groton’s legendary headmaster Endicott Peabody called “corrective salutary deprivation.” So the boys had to take cold showers and live in spartan alcoves and were completely cut off from the outside world and the opposite sex. In 1911, Dr. Samuel Drury became the fourth rector and ushered in the school’s golden age-the days most people would like to bring back-which lasted until his death 27 years later. Dr. Drury was a feared and revered, larger-than-life headmaster in the mold of Peabody. When Gary W. Hill, president of the American Tobacco Company, visited his son at the school and lit up a Lucky Strike, Dr. Drury struck it out of his hand. Dr. Drury had been a missionary and had seen the misery that most of the world lives in; the main thing he tried to instill in his privileged charges was the notion of service. He was always reminding them, “From those to whom much is given, much is expected.” But already the campus was becoming quite grand. The chapel and the Gothic Upper Dining Room, with its high, vaulted ceiling, were positively Hogwartsian. Money was corrupting the mission, despite Dr. Drury’s best efforts. “[The school] must not become a place of fashion, an exclusive retreat, where like-minded sons of like-minded parents disport themselves,” he expostulated. “Our function is not to conform to the rich and prosperous world which surrounds us but, rather, through its children, to convert it.” Nevertheless, St. Paul’s was beginning to resemble the St. Midas’s School”the most expensive and the most exclusive boys’ preparatory in the world” -of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1922 short story “The Diamond As Big as the Ritz.” Nelson W. Aldrich. Jr. (’53), in his book, Old Money: The Mythology of Wealth in America, describes his time at the school as “the St. Midas Ordeal.” One observer said of the recent scandals, “St. Paul’s has always been a melange of church and money, and money won out, because the church is dying.” In the 60s, the complexion of the school began to change. More scholarships were awarded, and the first minority students were admitted. A revolt of 162 sixth-formers along with a teacher named Gerry Studds, who later became a congressman, led to a relaxation of the dress code and the admission of girls in the early 70s. The new, secular rector, William Oates, espoused the prevailing educational and developmental thinking of the day, that schools should not be repressive and that adolescents should be free to experiment and try out different identities. In the 80s an impressive performing arts center was built, and the school became more artsy. Thanks to Manchester Airport and the improved interstate highway system, the school was no longer so remote and tucked away. And now that greed was good, some felt the notion of service barely received lip service. The school had an enormous ability to raise money and to scour the country and find the best and brightest kids. To keep up with rival prep schools, monumental building projects were undertaken, architecture that will one day be seen as late-imperial, climax-of-the-consumer-culture. By the mid-80s, however, the board was getting alarmed that the students were out of control and the faculty had too much leeway, so they brought in David Hicks, the headmaster of a day school in Dallas called St. Mark’s, to tighten things up. Hicks, who now lives in Montana, recalls, “One of the mandates I was given was to improve the quality of the school academically. Nobody had gone to Harvard in five years, except for legacies. I was also mandated to get control of student behavior. The students were polled and 80 percent of them said they were using drugs. It was very obvious to anyone who walked around the school on Saturday night that many of them were under the influence of something …. On my watch, some prospective parents from Philadelphia walked into the student center and found a boy and a girl having intercourse on a couch. I expelled them, which was not popular. “The original parents of the Gilded Age, who knew what it was like out there, wanted their children to be hardened and not spoiled, but by the time I got there, silly faddistic ideas encouraged them to think they were something special, that the rules didn’t apply to them, and that was not good. The kids would have been better off in a more meritocratic environment.” Hicks alienated the faculty by firing some of its most prominent members as part of a program to streamline the curriculum, and was so disliked by the students that the Christmas tree in front of the Rectory was torched and a steaming turd was left on the doorstep. When the faculty voted in favor of a no-confidence motion, Hicks left in the middle of the’ year. In 1996, he published an article in The American Scholar called “The Strange Fate of the American Boarding School.” It includes a thought-provoking passage: “Although the old-monied families still exert a considerable influence and control over their alma maters, they often do so in ways that reflect their own social and financial insecurities ….To some extent, the selfishness born of mounting social and financial anxiety among this class has caused the boarding school to do what it has often been accused of doing, but now with more reason—namely, to serve private rather than public interests. This may seem to increase its appeal, but it also undermines its integrity and contributes to its destruction.” Hicks was suggesting that the moral slippage at the school was related to the deca-dence of the old Wasp establishment. One can certainly draw a parallel with what was happening to the country as it entered the era of Enron, but it wasn’t just the old money that was greedy, and the extent to which the old Wasp establishment is actually declining is also questionable. The man who replaced Hicks couldn’t have been more different. Bishop Anderson was ready to deal-with the parents and the board. Physically, he was the rector from central casting-san exceedingly handsome, square-jawed guy with a great smile who knew how to wear the miter and had a closetful of the most splendid vestments in the church. And he had a way with words. Even after he came under fire, he couldn’t resist closing a sharply worded letter to Eleanor Shannon with a grand ecclesiastical flourish: “In the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life, I wish you a blessed Eastertide.” “He was the most narcissistic man who ever came to the school,” a teacher told me. The nurses in the infirmary, which is right next to the Rectory, used to watch him primping in the upstairs bathroom for a half-hour before morning chapel. (“Yes, I did shower and shave every morning, but I hope this could be seen as good hygiene,” Anderson says. “And when we realized [the nurses could see us], we pulled the shade.”) A parent of a former student found the Bish “very glossy, like a used-car salesman.” Anderson, 63, had started out in marketing at Procter & Gamble, and he had been an infantry officer in the army before entering the ministry. He had risen to be the bishop of South Dakota and then became the head of the General Theological Seminary, in New York City. There, he had performed expensive renovations on his residence, and that was one of the first things he did at St. Paul’s after the school hired him away. “The Rectory was built in 1872,” Anderson explains, and the renovation “was almost all structural, not cosmetic …. That’s part of running an institution.” But Anderson’s arrival coincided with the tanking of the dot-com boom, and money became harder to raise. In an effort to cut costs, the board let go longtime staff and adjusted benefits to the children of faculty. No one seemed to realize that implementing such measures when the rector and the vice-rector were still getting whopping salaries was bound to create resentment. When the stories about the school’s financial irregularities surfaced in the national press, the board rallied behind the Bishop. “I find it incredible that people who have affection for this school would go to these kinds of levels … to tear down its leadership,” Jim Robbins, who was by then on the Executive Committee, protested to The Wall Street Journal. But two years later, with the A.G.’s investigation concluded and the I.R.S. audit in progress, the board felt compelled to demonstrate that it was taking steps to rectify the situation, and just two weeks before graduation and Anniversary, it announced that the Bishop had resigned. A man who was there for the alumni procession that weekend recalls, “We all thought, How ghastly and embarrassing, and surely he’d be gone by the time we got there. But we show up and there’s a cocktail party in the afternoon and there is Craig An-derson front and center, representing the institution. I’ve been married to a Wasp family for 25 years, and I’ve seen the power of politeness and repression, but for stiff upper lip this really took the cake. A lot of kids were wearing a T-shirt that said, ‘I heart the Bish.’ So the general sense I got was that, whatever Anderson’s peccadilloes were, the kids real-ly loved him and were in a rebellious mood that he had been shown the door.” Dr. Shattuck’s ideal of keeping out the outside world has long since been abandoned. The Internet, cell phones, and the rules allowing DVD players in the dorms made sure of that. But Jim Robbins’s wish to shield the students from the “noise at the top” is coming true. One night I went to the school’s $2 million observatory to look at a few stars and get some perspective on the antics of us foolish mortals. The observatory has six telescopes in four domes. One of the school’s two astronomy teachers, Dr. Tom McCarthy, took me into the Lowell Dome. Untold Lowells have gone to St. Paul’s over the decades. I asked McCarthy if the dome was named for Percival Lowell, the eccentric 19th-century as-tronomer who moved to Flagstaff, Arizona, and from his observatory there claimed to have seen water-filled canals on Mars. McCarthy said it was named for Lowell Swift Reeve (’69), who had died tragically in his youth. McCarthy is clearly passionate about the sky, the kind of teacher who is so enthusi-astic that he can change a student’s life. “With these telescopes we can find supernovas and extraterrestrial planets. We can spot near-earth asteroids, the ones we fear could slam into us one day,” he said. Two students arrived. McCarthy was taking one of them down to Harvard in the morning to receive some kind of award. McCarthy trained the telescope on Alpha Andromedae, the brightest star in its constellation. It looked like a dazzling rhinestone. The instrument, I noticed, was called the St. Paul’s Alumni Telescope. “Just what we could use,” I said to him, and he laughed. I asked him what he thought about all the re-cent goings-on, and he said, “That’s administration. The school is rock-solid as far as its mission goes.” I sat in on a Greek class for second-year students. You don’t find Greek being taught at too many high schools anymore. The students, who included one African American boy and two Asian-American girls, were extremely bright, as were all the students I talked to. And so polite and welcoming. When I asked how they liked the school, they invariably said it was awesome. And who wouldn’t feel the same way? How many high schools have a harpsichord and a corps de ballet? I jammed with a “frelk,’ a new category of student since my time who might be de-scribed as a latter-day hippie or freak. Frelks (the word is derived from “frolic”) are really into the Grateful Dead. This frelk had a head on his shoulders. He was an excellent musician and had already recorded a CD. His plan was to move to New York and get into the music business. I had lunch with Ike Perkins, the son of some filmmaking friends of mine and the great-nephew of Maxwell Perkins, the fabled editor of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott . Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe. Scads of Perkinses have gone to St. Paul’s. Since arriving at the school, Ike had met eight cousins with other surnames whom he never even knew he had, and he was having the time of his life, A fifth-generation Paulie who graduated last year told me .that “there is a lot of fucking, but it’s all safe.” Apparently, most students are wise enough to choose condoms over diseases and unwanted pregnancies. There are still “preps,” like the one in my Class who used to turn over your tie and snicker if the label wasn’t Brooks Brothers. Most of the preps live in Simpson House. “The preppiest ones are not the old-line kids, many of whom are not preppy at all,” a student told me, “but the wannabes who have new money.” Chapel; which I attended twice, had become a totally different experience. It had become fun, an opportunity for the kids to express themselves rather than have the word of God stuffed down their throats. Both times, a conga line of girls started bumping and grinding in the center aisle. Dr. Drury would have rolled over in his grave if he had witnessed this sacrilege. But the old hymns whose words I knew by heart, though I hadn’t sung them in years, were being sung, as was the school anthem, an overt paean to capitalism taken from Psalm 122: O pray for the peace of Jerusalem; they shall prosper that love thee. Peace be within thy walls, and plenteousness within thy palaces. I found myself whispering the wonderfully consoling words of the closing blessing as they were delivered by the new, interim rector, Bill Matthews: “0 Lord, support us all the day long, until the shadows lengthen and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done.” After chapel, Matthews met me at his office in the Old Schoolhouse. I had not laid eyes on him in 44 years, since his days of supervising my form-mates and me, but he was just as I had imagined he would be: a sweet and unassuming 62-year-old with a grizzled crew cut, dressed in a tweed jacket and a tie that he must have worn a thousand times before. This is the standard uniform of the New England prepschool teacher, like that of the masters in my day, and in sharp contrast to the Bish’s spiffy attire. Matthews went to Bowdoin, where he majored in Latin, and returned to St. Paul’s in 1966. Except for a sabbatical year in Paris, he has been there ever since. He taught Latin and Greek, coached hockey and baseball, and served as the director of college placement, the director of admissions, the vice-rector of students, the executive director of the alumni association, and, for the last five years, the director of development (in which capacity he staved off Eleanor Shannon’s request for clarification on the school’s finances with a letter saying: “It would be simpler if you just trusted us; we’re not perfect, but I do think that we are a place of integrity, and that does have a fair amount to do with Craig Anderson and our Board as its leaders”). Two of Matthews’s children attended St. Paul’s. He is of the schoo!’ He understands the values, the joy, and the tremendous responsibility of nurturing vibrant young minds. He is not a guy who is out for himself. Nevertheless, the school has enlisted Wickenden Associates, an executive-search company that has installed headmasters at more than 200 independent schools, to find a permanent rector to replace Matthews next fall. In October, the firm circulated an admirably frank 12-page job announcement that includes a section titled “Opportunities and Challenges Awaiting the Next Rector,” warning prospective candidates that whoever gets hired will have to: 1. Lead the school with absolute integrity, humility, and transparency. 2. Make a concerted effort to rebuild bridges with disaffected alumni…. 3. Support the Board’s continuing efforts to strengthen its own governance and communication practices…. 4. Counter the effects of negative publicity and restore the school’s external reputation through a carefully considered communications and public relations plan. In the meantime, Matthews’s motto for the 2005-6 school year is “Do the right thing.” “This is a school that has a soul,” he told me, “and it always has.” I went for a walk in the woods, where I had spent so much time four decades ago. There hadn’t been a course to teach me the names of the trees and birds back then, but there is one now. Some of the animals are even wired so that their movements can be radio-tracked. Sitting down, I soon attracted a half-dozen curious, nervously chirping chickadees. I felt glad that the school had weathered its storm and that the kids had come through pretty much unscathed, although there are still plenty of issues that need to be addressed. The unifying thread among the various constituencies that are always doing a Darwinian dance in any school—the teachers, the students, the alumni, the trustees, the administration, the parents—is that all of them obviously care deeply about the place. And, in the words of John Buckston, a former vice-rector at St. Paul’s, “Everybody is the hero of his own novel.” A number of alumni have characterized Anderson’s regrettable tenure as a case of “hubris” –the tragic flaw of overreaching that has brought down mythical kings such as Oedipus and money kings of today. It seems to be the big word of the moment. The other day, a commentator on CNN was expounding on the “hubris” of the Republican Party. Hubris seems to have affected not just the Bish but the board too. “They’re an arro-gant, snotty bunch, and not very smart,” one teacher told me. Their fatal error was to blow off donors, alumni, and teachers who care about the school and were trying to raise important questions about its direction. Some stodgy old Paulies think the school itself has a case of hubris. In their view, it was the extravagance of the new gym that brought about the drowning of a student in the swimming pool. The school had survived for almost 150 years without a pool. Now money is being raised for a multi-million-dollar boathouse. Where is it going to end? Instead of building a new boathouse, why not use the money to make an inventory of all the products the school uses, and get the kids involved? It could even be a course. Maybe they would think twice before ripping off three feet of toilet paper once they found out that a million acres of old-growth boreal forest in northern Alberta are being ground up every year to make the stuff. Why not have the kids follow the money trail-find out how the money coming into the school was made, and in exactly what sort of “instruments” the endowment is invested? Have them look into how much of the oblivious hyper-consumption taking place not just here but across America is made possible by the backbreaking labor of millions of Third World peasants. How many ecosystems are being degraded and destroyed by our way of life? Get the kids to print their homework on both sides of the page, case their dorms for energy leaks, and take quick showers-and be grateful that the water’s hot. A course like that would produce some responsible citizens, and it would save the school a lot of money. St. George’s, the quirky little progressive school in Montreal that my three youngest sons attend, got the whole student body involved in a consumption-and-waste inventory of its physical plant, and has saved a bundle as a result. Once the St. Paul’s inventory is done, the kids can go forth and get the whole country to do it. If the school could get that going, and implement a little “corrective salutary deprivation,” then it would be a complete Utopia, and Drs. Shattuck and Drury would be proud of it once more. The chickadees cheered.

POSTSCRIPT

I had said, in a sentence that didn’t make the cut, “I hope the Search Committee will take a very long time before they choose the next Rector,” because they couldn’t do any better than Bill Matthews, and that is who they ended up going with. Made of the sparse old Yankee stuff that is the backbone of America’s erstwhile greatness, he will be a welcome antidote to the  hyperconsumption and moral obliviousness that are eroding our society.

I was amazed by the hundred of e-mails that this piece elicited. It must have touched a nerve. Why were so many people so fascinated by the scandals this exclusive boarding school? It wasn’t just that it’s the sort of place that the nouveaux-riches are doing everything they can to get their kids into.  My rant in the last paragraph especially seems to have hit home with a lot of readers. Americans are being to realize that each of us has to reduce his personal ecological footprint, as our consumption is responsible for a quarter of the global warming problem that may be irreversible at this point and is already clearly wreaking havoc with the biosphere, while Bush, like Nero with the flames of Rome leaping around and engulfing him, fiddles as the world burns. The 20-somethings, recently called  “the Greenest Generation” in the New York Times, are particularly concerned, because this is the world they are going to inherit and will have to do something about as the shit continues to hit the fan. Students are Williams College have been having a contest to see who can use the least amount of energy by cracking their books during daylight hours, etc.

As if to ram this message home, in May, St. Paul’s, the breeder of so many of the ruthless and selfish Republican fat cats who are destroying this country and the planet, was slammed by a “biblical flood,” the likes of which it had never seen in its 150 years– another of the extreme weather events that are happening around the world with increased frequency and violence due to the increased amount of electric energy into the atmosphere from our emissions (as explained in Dispatch #5, “What Have We Done to the Weather?“). Or due to greedy capitalism, if you want to look at it politically, or if you’re a Christian (or a Muslim or  a Jew) you might be tempted to think, maybe the Lord, or Allah, or Jehovah, is trying to tell us something here. I prefer to think that nature is sending  a very strong message to the very heart of the society that is the main problem, the outlaw state that has no respect for its laws or even its own. The lines in my piece about the Lord not smiling on this venerable institution and the hybris of its monumental late-empire climax-of the-consumer culture building spree now seem to have a prophetic resonance.  Maybe the voice I somehow had the temerity to speak in was not mine. Maybe I was John the Baptist sent in the guise of a journalist alumnus to give the school and the society a reality check.
– A.S.

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.