Dispatches from Abroad: Ciao Belém – foi um grande momento!

Perched in the São Paulo airport, in between Belém and Houston, thence to Boston, my 14-month sabbatical is coming to what seems an all-to-soon close. But it has been an awesome year, capped by a really excellent two-and-a-half weeks working with Rogério Silva, mostly in the rainforest at Caxiuanã. But Belém deserves mention, too. A sprawling, filthy, and yet exuberant city of more than 2 million people perched near the mouth of the Amazon River, it has a waterfront with pedestrian esplanades, museums and forts, working docks, and an iron market with all sorts of delicacies from the Amazon basin. And at least one superb restaurant. In this post, I share four of my most notable memories of Belém: a cool breeze, the flanelas, the iron market/waterfront, and a dinner out.

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The unBalanced ecoLOGist: On Getting Real about Conservation

It’s been just over a week since I published my World View, “It’s time to get real about conservation” in Nature. The response to this op-ed has been, at least to me, nothing short of astonishing and a bit overwhelming. Individuals have actually commented on it on Nature’s web page, it’s ricocheted around the Twitterverse, and I’ve gotten a handful of new followers and dozens of direct messages and emails thanking me for the catharsis (really!) of writing what others have thought about but haven’t been willing to say aloud, looking for advice on moving into conservation careers, and probing for ways to support conservation activism and activists. A few asked for additional background data, examples of biodiversity triage, and more suggestions for what to do next. So I thought I’d use some plane time between Kunming (China) and Tokyo (Japan) to provide a bit of background on the op-ed, give credit where credit is more than due, and to expand on some of the key points.

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Dispatches from Abroad: Finding Space in a Crowd

Perhaps the most inescapable aspect of being in China is the feeling one gets from being in a sea of over 1.3 billion people in a country the size of the United States (which has less than 1/3 of that number). It always feels like every last one of them is in the street at the same time I’m trying to cross it. Yet for all the traffic in its innumerable forms—cars, tricycles, pedal-powered and electric bicycles, donkey-drawn carts, and feet—going every which way at the same time, there are few accidents. The vehicles and pedestrians move at slow speeds and just seem to flow organically around one another in a Brownian dance.

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Brownian traffic flow at an intersection near Beijing’s Olympic Park

But even more noticeable to a Western (i.e., US, European) eye than the crowds is the cultural tendency in China for people to do things in groups, often really large ones. The most noticeable are the groups exercising together on the streets and in the parks, but tour groups, school groups (all in identical t-shirts), and large family groups are everywhere and personal space—so important in many Western cultures—feels painfully absent.

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Evening exercise on the plaza at Beijing’s Olympic Park

And as a visitor here, albeit one who was invited to various institutions and is being supported by the Chinese government, this feeling is accentuated by the seemingly constant companionship (or in my more churlish moods, “handling”) of friends and colleagues who appear to manage effortlessly to fill virtually every waking hour of my days here with seminars, field trips, discussions, and meals—all activities that keep me en-grouped.

So while I’ve been in China, not only have I had to work hard find and make time for myself when I’m not otherwise sleeping, but I have also found myself looking for instances and examples of how people here carve out even small amounts of personal space. Continue reading

Dispatches from Abroad: Beijing Bebop

The seminar storm has wound down – in the last 11 days, I’ve given 12 talks at 10 universities and research institutes in three major cities spanning nearly 2000 km It’s a new personal record for me that, despite the daily adrenaline rushes, I’d rather not repeat anytime soon.

flag_of_the_peoples_republic_of_china-svgSince the beginning of this week, I’ve been based at the Chinese Academy of Science’s Research Center for Eco-Environmental Research (RCEES) in northwest Beijing, conveniently down the road from the Chinese National Science Foundation offices and more-or-less around the corner from Peking University. The skies have been clear, the taxi rides uneventful as I’ve shuttled to and from seminars at the Institute for Tibetan Plateau Research [2], Beijing Normal University [1], Minzu University [1], Peking University [2], RCEES [2], the food plentiful and interesting, and the friends and colleagues wonderful. And today, October 1, is China’s National Day, celebrating the founding of the People’s Republic of China on this day in 1949.

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The unBalanced ecoLOGist: The Shenyang Shuffle

It’s been almost a week since I’ve found any time to write a post from China. As I wrote last week, I left Beijing on Monday for Shenyang: the first four days of what has now turned into a 10-day, 9-lecture typhoon (yes indeed, a lot of hot air swirling around!) / movable feast (click on any image to view larger ones in a slide show).

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Dispatches from Abroad: At the End of the (Silk) Road

It took me a while, but on the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival, it finally occurred to me, when we reached Dunhuang with its massive sand dunes and crescent-moon lake presided over by a reconstructed temple, that all of the cities we’d stopped at on our nine-day circuit from Xining to Wulan to Dulan to Ge’ermu to Dunhuang to Shangye and back to Xining tonight were oases in an otherwise parched desert. These ancient springs and watering-holes had been obvious points of layover for camel trains, traders, monks, and charlatans, and now are thriving cities living on depleted groundwater and glacial meltwater-fed rivers.

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Crescent-moon lake at the Mingshashan dunes in Dunhuang. The lake, once amply supplied by groundwater, now needs to be pump-filled from alternative water supplies.

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Dispatches from Abroad: Foraging Across the Tibetan Plateau

The last couple of days we took a break from exploring treelines to cross the high cold desert along the Silk Road between the once-oases but now thriving cities Dulan and Ge’ermu (a.k.a. Golmud). This 500-km stretch of the Xining-to-Llhasa highway provided incredible views of geology-in-the-raw, and today’s day-trip from Ge’ermu south to the Kunlun Pass added camel trains, huge herds of sheep, a glacier field, and a railroad built atop permafrost.

I’ll get to the sights later. The really fascinating part of the last two days was the foraging for wild foods in a desert that, in the main, gets < 100 mm, and in many places, < 50 mm of rainfall a year. René Redzepi could have a lot of fun here!

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Dispatches from Abroad: A First Look at, and Taste of, Beijing

Well not really a first look, but my first for this trip and this blog.1 I left Xi’an mid-morning on Tuesday on a high-speed train to Beijing. The Xi’an high-speed train station (across town from the regular train station) is its own marvel. With more than 20 platforms, the whole complex felt a lot more like an airport—complete with security checks, x-ray machines, pat-downs, and gate-checks—than a train station, and it was easily as big as a standard international airport terminal, too.

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Dispatches from Abroad: On Monumentality

A number of years ago, Alfred Runte wrote an insightful article on the rationale for the creation of the United States’ (US) National Park System (“The National Park idea: origins and paradox of the American experience,” published in the Journal of Forest History 21[2], 64-75; April 1977)   He argued that in the 19th century, the US was still insecure about its identity as a nation. We felt that we didn’t have the cultural history, cathedrals, and other iconic buildings that Europe did, but we had awesome landscapes that Europe couldn’t match. This fixation on monumentality was enshrined in the enabling legislation for the National Parks (the 1916 Organic Act), has carried forward in management strategies and policies that emphasize retaining the parks in their “original condition”, and persists in such language as “National Monuments”.

But why write about this now, from China?

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