Sarah M. Broom’s “The Yellow House” in The New Yorker
It’s the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina this month, so a lot of stories have been coming out about what was lost, what’s been rebuilt, and the unfortunate, indelible mark the disaster left on the city of New Orleans. In the August 24 issues of The New Yorker, Sarah M. Broom uses deft, economic prose and stunning imagery to tell the history of her large family’s complicated relationship with the city. The story centers on her mother’s home in New Orleans, which was washed out by Hurricane Katrina, and then razed by the government. Now ten years on, the plot of land remains empty and her mother still in limbo. It is a story of flowering trees and lawn care; of resilience and hope in the face of loss, uncertainty, and red tape. It is a story of going home to a house that no longer exists in a city that never really felt like home.
“When I made the drive to New Orleans from upstate New York, where I live now, I began as I had dozens of times before, from various starting points, cradling a longing to see what, if anything, had changed. These returns always seem necessary, as if I were a rubber band, stretched to its breaking point.”
As a writer, I find Broom’s creative use of language invigorating. As someone whose grandmother died shortly after Katrina—cleaning up the wreckage on her farm on the other side of Lake Pontchartrain proved more than her heart could handle—this piece hit close to home.
Helen Macdonald’s On Nature column in The New York Times Magazine
I can’t be the only writer who gets a little suspicious—ok, a little jealous—when another writer is praised to the skies, right? That’s how I felt about Helen Macdonald, whose recent memoir, H is for Hawk has been widely praised. It was out of skepticism that I turned to her column, On Nature, in the New York Times Magazine this week. I was interested in reading about her topic, rescuing wild animals (and specifically a British woman who rescues swifts, a common bird in England), but I doubted Macdonald could bring anything new to the topic. How wrong I was! She captures not just the expected sweetness and care that Judith Wakelam uses in her rescue mission, but also explores the relationship between humans and animals in a way I’d never read before, but which felt entirely correct. “The flat green beneath it has nothing to do with it all,” Macdonald writes of the swift about to take off into freedom. This ability to be almost inside the animal’s head is a spectacular gift to Macdonald’s already-impressive writing ability. I’ll be picking up that book that everyone loves next.
Veronique Greenwood’s “Beyond” in Aeon Magazine
I love an essay that examines the human urge to explore. Vela started as a magazine that, initially, was “inspired by travel,” and I think the words of one of Greenwood’s sources in “Beyond,” psychologist Marvin Zuckerman, would ring true to many of our contributors: “Writers tend to be high in experience-seeking.” Greenwood herself reflects on her own peregrinations as well as her often unclear reasons for, well, going:
I tried to explain what I was doing, moving across oceans for unclear amounts of time, without the excuse of a job to make me go. ‘You mean, like a vacation?’ they’d ask. No, I’d say, but then fall silent, unable to explain why this seemed like a good idea.
In “Beyond,” Greenwood hinges a deep historical and psychological examination of exploration (and exploitation, noting that the two share similarities) on a story about going to visit the desolate–or, dreamy-sounding if you’re an experience-seeker–island of Anegada in the British Virgin Islands. In lulling prose rich in description, she takes us on a philosophical journey that brings us to Polynesia, the Arctic, Mars, and, briefly, into Robert Peary’s summer house on Eagle Island, Maine where in his little tower study you can still read the excerpts from the log books he kept on his missions.
Summer Brennan’s “Just Below the Surface” in Longreads
Environmental journalism, when done well, has a particular chilling undertone that alerts us to the startling changes in the habitats around us. Such pieces often turn environmental degradation into a more complex question, rather than providing an obvious answer or relying on old assumptions. Summer Brennan’s book, The Oyster War, looks into the histories of Point Reyes, California and the Drakes Bay Oyster Company in light of the national controversy that’s emerged regarding attempts to restore the bay to its natural state. In this excerpt, she brings up questions of wilderness and nature while artfully describing the grunt work of oyster farming, a portrait of a less-discussed sector of the meat industry. In this section, which focuses on oysters themselves, Brennan ties together the many larger questions at play in the oyster war, and brings them to life:
Eaten live and whole, and tasting strongly of their specific environment, raw oysters are perhaps the most wild of modern foods. To eat a raw oyster for the first time, one must dare to. What other meat do we consume while it is still living? Though bloodless, they nevertheless carry the sweet metallic taste of animal life. Famously linked to opulence and sex, they were also once considered a protein staple of the seaside-dwelling masses. The working stiff, if you will. Recently rescued from the realms of aphrodisiac cliché, oysters are simultaneously romantic, adventurous and very real. Something about them just feels authentic, a sometimes elusive quality that more and more people are endeavoring to pursue. Part of the oyster’s considerable mystique comes from the fact that you can’t grow a good oyster artificially. They need the living tides of the wild world.
Brennan’s investigation into the oyster wars is a fascinating microcosm of science, environment, politics, and industry, and worth a read for its attention to precise, vivid detail about the functioning of an industry amidst controversy: “Was the company causing environmental harm? Or had it been framed, the victim of government fraud?”