This UFC fighter just wants to ride his hardtail (Outside)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

Patrick Cummins has been fighting in the UFC for the past five years, but the character he cultivates on his Instagram feed is less battle-hardened tough guy and more adventure-loving goofball who loves to ride old-school mountain bikes.

Patrick Durkin Cummins breaks a lot of bikes.

He doesn’t mean to, of course. Cummins is not sending massive gaps or hucking himself off ten-foot drops. The problem is that he weighs 220 pounds, has quads like concrete pylons, and makes a living pummeling people in the face with his fists. Carbon, steel, aluminum frames—all have failed under his might.

Cummins will be blissfully pedaling up a trail on one of those perfect Southern California mornings when his chain starts skipping. He’ll look down, bemused, trying to diagnose the problem. That’s when he spots the whole rear triangle flopping around. “You never think to look at the frame,” he says when I meet him for a ride high in the San Gabriel Mountains, east of Los Angeles.

Cummins, 38, has been fighting in the UFC for the past five years, but the character he cultivates on his Instagram feed is less battle-hardened tough guy and more kombucha-chugging, adventure-loving goofball. He’s more likely to share his favorite flax and chia seed pancake recipe (#pancakeparty) or post a picture of himself giggling as two butterflies copulate on his face (#notoothtuesday) than tell you about his weight-lifting regimen. “He’ll shrink himself down to mix in,” says his brother, A.J. Cummins, a chef based in Denver. “He doesn’t want to be trapped and labeled as a meathead.”

“I’m definitely not ashamed of what I do,” Cummins says. “I want that room to just be a goofy kid.”

Read the rest at Outside

Bullhead City, Arizona was a Retiree Paradise. Then Came a Biblical Plague of Flies. (Medium)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

Meet the small, greasy insects upending life in an idyllic community.

When Craig Vallon and his wife Denise moved to Bullhead City, Arizona, in 1973, he thought he was the luckiest man in the world. The two had met as teenagers in the suburbs of Los Angeles. Denise was a party girl, and her wealthy family had hoped she’d settle down with a doctor. But Craig proved irresistible to her: A sportsman with the stature of an NBA player, Craig’s career aspiration was to become a real-life version of his childhood idol, Tarzan.

Like many other residents, the Vallons were lured to this small city on the lower Colorado River by the low cost of living, the nearby casinos, and the outdoors opportunities. Craig and Denise were educators, and Craig liked to give talks costumed as Jedediah Smith, the legendary Mojave mountain man who helped blaze what would become part of the Oregon Trail. After his retirement, Craig enjoyed sitting in the back room of the house, which was stuffed with hunting trophies, and watching the river flow by through floor-to-ceiling windows.

In the spring of 2015, Craig began to notice a few moth-like insects flitting around under the lights outside. They were about the size of houseflies, dull brown in color with long fuzzy wings, big black eyes, and whiplike antennae. With each passing evening, their numbers grew. Soon they became an uncountable mass, a swirling, kinetic cloud that hung over the river’s edge like a new state of matter.

Read the rest at Medium

False hope for autism in the stem-cell underground (Spectrum and Slate)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell


In July 2017, Jodi Kaufman Perskin spotted an intriguing post in a newly formed Facebook group where parents share advice on stem cell therapy for children with special needs. She had joined the group looking for help for her teenage son Jason, who has autism.

In the post, pediatric surgeon Thom Lobe introduced himself and included a link to Regenevéda, his chain of ‘regenerative medicine’ clinics in Beverly Hills, New York and Chicago. Lobe’s profile picture shows a bald man in his 60s with a white goatee and a surprisingly youthful complexion. His clinics focus on wellness and anti-aging treatments but also offer stem cell therapy for autistic children. “I’d be happy to provide my services and knowledge as a resource for you and answer any questions that come my way,” Lobe wrote.

Jason lives in New Jersey. Lobe’s primary practice is in Chicago, but Jason’s father had taken him farther for stem cell treatments before. In 2015, he and Jason had flown to a clinic in Panama and, later, Mexico for stem cell treatments costing about $15,000 each. In Mexico, Jason was put under light sedation so that stem cells could be withdrawn from his hip bone and injected into his spine. After that treatment, Jason’s language ability clearly improved, Perskin says, but she disliked that the procedure required sedation.

Lobe’s method, by contrast, sprayed donor cells up the nose or injected them into the bloodstream. This approach seemed safer to Perskin. Lobe, too, seemed more trustworthy than the chiropractors she had heard were offering the procedure. “He’s a surgeon, and I feel more comfortable with him,” she says.

A month after Lobe’s Facebook post, Perskin and her husband took Jason to see him. “Jason did awesome in Chicago with stem cells today,” she posted in the group in August 2017. “So far, no side effects.” Lobe recommended the Perskins bring Jason four times a year, at a cost of $8,500 per visit. Perskin says she didn’t want to “overload” Jason’s body and decided to take him only twice per year.

Many parents of autistic children are, like the Perskins, turning to social media to exchange information on stem cell clinics, which have proliferated in the United States and abroad over the past few years. These forums play down the fact that only a small fraction of stem cell treatments — specifically, those for generating blood cells — have been proven safe and effective in the eyes of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

“Human suffering plays a role in driving this marketplace,” says Leigh Turner, a bioethicist at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. As of May 2017, at least 432 companies run 716 stem cell clinics in the U.S., marketing treatments directly to consumers via the internet, according to a database maintained by Turner. Only 13 of those companies made claims related to autism, but interest in the area has been growing, Turner says — in part thanks to a high-profile, ongoing clinical trial at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

One Facebook group, called “Stem Cells for Autism 2.0,” has attracted 3,600 members since it launched in March 2018. “The consensus among parents is that it’s scarier not to do anything,” says its founder, Susan, who compiled a secret list of 15 U.S. doctors who offer stem cell infusions to autistic children like her son. (We have withheld Susan’s last name to protect her privacy.) She compares her efforts to those of the “Dallas Buyers Club,” the underground group of HIV-positive people who smuggled unapproved drugs into the country in the 1980s.

Despite the approach’s popularity, the FDA has been slow to act. The agency warned consumers in November 2017 that the treatments may be “illegal and potentially harmful” and announced plans to tighten its rules in 2020. Until then, however, its primary strategy is ‘enforcement discretion.’ The FDA has sent formal warning letters to 4 companies over the past year or so, while urging 20 more to “engage with the agency.” Some state regulators and other agencies have picked up the slack. In October, a California doctor who promised to “reverse autism symptoms” agreed to pay a $525,000 settlement to the Federal Trade Commission over charges of deceptive health claims.

Meanwhile, many other doctors, like Lobe, continue to market stem cell treatments for autism. “I find it astonishing that this marketplace exists as a result of regulatory inaction,” Turner says.

Read the rest at Spectrum or Slate

John Young Rediscovered the Australian Night Parrot, but Did He Lie About His Later Findings? (Audubon)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

Much of Young's research on the nocturnal bird has been retracted over scientific shenanigans including allegations of a botched call recording, a planted feather, and bogus nests and eggs.

[This is an update to my feature on John Young]

There is no doubt that John Young rediscovered Australia’s Night Parrot in 2013. But the naturalist may have fabricated just about everything he reported about new populations and nesting sites of the birds over the past two years.

That’s the conclusion of an independent panel of experts convened by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC), to review the work of Young, their former employee, who once called himself the “Wild Detective.”

The panel, led by ecologist Peter Menkhorst of the Arthur Rylah Institute for Environmental Research in Melbourne, recommended that all of Young’s Night Parrot work with the AWC be retracted, effectively reducing the number of known populations of the critically endangered Night Parrots to three from five.

“There were too many questions for them to be considered as confirmed records,” says Menkhorst. He says that clearing up the record was critical so that conservationists could make informed decisions, but added that the investigation fell short of demonstrating scientific misconduct beyond a reasonable doubt. “We haven’t been able to prove that.”

Read the rest at Audubon

The Long Game (World Wildlife Magazine)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell


Salt water sprays across the bow as the captain steers into the wind. Bracing herself against a guardrail, Cristina Castro, a researcher with the Pacific Whale Foundation, points toward the horizon, where the gray-blue sea meets the gloomy skies above. At first, there is nothing.

But then a smooth, black form breaches the choppy water like a surfacing submarine: a humpback whale. A stubby dorsal fin, then the body grows narrow. One final flap of the tail, and the magnificent creature is gone.

Another soon takes its place. It appears there are three whales, swimming alongside what must be 40 dolphins. Castro makes a run for her camera—such mixed pods are a rare treat, even here at a prime whale-watching locale near Puerto López, Ecuador.

Ecuador, as it turns out, is less a hunk of land than a stretch of open ocean: The country’s maritime territory is five times larger than its continental one. And, in addition to being home to humpbacks and dolphins, these coastal waters host one of the world’s largest aggregations of giant manta rays. Then, of course, there are the whale sharks, the largest fish on the planet.

All of which explains why it is so troubling to see, later that day, a lone humpback surface, tangled in a tattered yellow fishing net. Seemingly exhausted, it rests motionless on the surface. Every time the boat comes close, the whale dives, dragging with it a long strand of fishing floats. Although this area is a marine reserve, the whale could have run into the abandoned “ghost gear” floating just about anywhere. The captain notifies park authorities, who deal with such entanglements more often than one would hope, and two days later they are able to save the whale.

The episode is a reminder that whales aren’t the only ones plying these waters, and protecting an ocean ecosystem is a daunting task.

“We are a fishing nation,” says Pablo Guerrero, fisheries director for WWF-Ecuador, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Along with controlling one-tenth of the world’s canned tuna market, Ecuador also has some 30,000 to 46,000 small fishing vessels, believed to be the largest artisanal fishing fleet in South America. This diversity creates a chaotic fishing environment fraught with conflicts.

From the Spring 2019 issue of World Wildlife Magazine

In California's Fertile Valley, Industry and Agriculture Hang Heavy in the Air (Undark Magazine)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

The San Joaquin Valley is the land of Big Agriculture. Stretching 250 miles from Bakersfield in the south to Stockton in the north, the San Joaquin comprises the southern two-thirds of the storied Central Valley, a plowed-over promised land covering seven million acres of irrigated fields that generate more than $17 billion a year in crops — with the vast majority coming from three San Joaquin Valley counties. In sum, the region supplies a quarter of the food on American plates.

It is also awash in air pollution. Millions of beef and dairy cattle, millions of acres of dusty crops, and the truck traffic to support these mega-operations generate fine airborne particles that linger and swirl in what is, in effect, a gigantic, pollution-trapping bowl bounded by mountains. Add in prolific use of wood stoves and barbecue pits, the second-hand smog blowing into the valley from cities to the west and the north, and emissions from some of the densest oil fields in the lower 48 states, and the result is some of the worst air pollution in the nation.

Read the rest at MIT’s Undark Magazine

This article was also published by Mother Jones

This article was part of a package that won the George Polk Award for Environmental Writing and the NIHCM Digital Media Award

The Crown of the Coast (Nature Conservancy Magazine)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

Steve Junak sits in the back seat of the Toyota 4Runner, his eyes trained on the green-gold blur of central California vegetation like a gambler glued to a slot machine. What’s just grass to most people are sedges and rushes and ryes to Junak. Those sedges might be round fruit sedge or split awn sedge. Some of them he can distinguish from a distance. Others he might have to hold in his hand and squint at.  

It’s not easy to stump a man who spent 37 years as the herbarium curator at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden—even out here on The Nature Conservancy’s new Jack and Laura Dangermond Preserve, which boasts some of the highest numbers of rare species in the region. “Is Isocoma on your list?” Junak asks his companion, Laura Riege, the preserve’s restoration manager, who is scanning a checklist of plants in a binder on her lap. “We just passed a bunch of Isocoma, coast goldenbush.”

“Sure is,” says Riege, as the vehicle pulls off to the side of the dirt road, high up on a ridge overlooking the Pacific.

“And here’s Encelia, too,” Junak says, hopping out of the vehicle and pointing out the yellow blooms of bush sunflower. “This is a gold mine.”

Junak takes a full census of the botanical jackpot they’ve discovered on this June morning: morning glories to the left, coffeeberries to the right and monkey flowers straight ahead. Riege and Junak record the GPS coordinates of native plants that will provide seed stock for some upcoming coastal prairie and oak woodland restoration projects on this 24,364-acre preserve, which TNC acquired in December 2017.

The purchase was made possible by a $165 million gift—the largest single philanthropic gift in TNC's history—from Jack and Laura Dangermond. It marked the first step toward safeguarding this iconic property at Point Conception, Southern California’s “elbow” where the coast bends northward to San Francisco. The Conservancy had tried, and failed, to purchase the property in the past. It was one of the last large, privately owned and still-undeveloped coastal tracts in Southern California, making it a rarity amid one of the country’s most expensive real estate markets.

Read the rest in the Winter issue of Nature Conservancy Magazine

On the Trail with the Wild Detective (Audubon)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

Some time ago in the Australian outback, a man who made his name as a Roo shooter—that is, someone who shoots kangaroos for their meat—arrived in the town of Winton with a headless carcass. This creature was not, as you might expect, a kangaroo. It was a dead bird.

Robert “Shorty” Cupitt came upon this mangled ball of feathers on September 17, 2006, while driving along a fence in Diamantina National Park in western Queensland. The bird had apparently clotheslined itself on the barbed wire. He tossed it in his truck bed, where it baked in the sun until he made it to the home of Paul Neilsen. Neilsen is the proprietor of the Tattersall Hotel, a rowdy pub packed with curios including a case full of opals, a terrarium of fossils, and a poster featuring Australia’s deadliest snakes and spiders.

“Is this what we’ve been looking for?” Cupitt asked, plunking down the specimen on the kitchen table. Neilsen’s eyes went wide. The squat parrot resembled a budgie that had inhaled a lumberjack’s breakfast. Its wing feathers were dark gray with yellow and green along their margins. The tail was banded like a bumblebee. The head, well, there was no head. But that didn’t matter. “Oh my God, yes,” Neilsen said. This was it, a Night Parrot, and a young one to boot.

Neilsen was staring at a ghost, a bird that the world had written off as extinct. The fact that it was less than a year old meant that there were more out there and they were breeding. The last time anyone collected a living Night Parrot, Australia was still a British dominion and the primary mode of transportation in the Outback was the one-humped camel. That was in 1912.

There had been sightings since, tantalizing leads that sent sane men on insane quests. In 1979, a birding guide said he spotted four, but lacked photographic proof. Eleven years later, an ornithologist scooped up a corpse on a roadside. After that, nothing. The Night Parrot became the Ivory-billed Woodpecker Down Under. “Every young male ornithologist has spent their holidays going out looking for the bird for the last hundred years,” says Penny Olsen, an ecologist whose book Night Parrot: Australia’s Most Elusive Bird was published in September.

Neilsen envisioned stuffing the decapitated bird and putting it on display. Cupitt, who had traded in his hunting rifle for a job as a Queensland Parks ranger, claims he immediately notified his higher-ups. But the squishy truth is that instead of passing the bird on to authorities, Neilsen stashed it in a freezer while he contacted the one man whom he could trust: John Young, a.k.a. the Wild Detective. “He’s one of Australia’s leading ornithologists,” Neilsen told me. “Except he doesn’t have a degree.”

Young was then in his late fifties, the Looney Tunes version of a naturalist with a floppy brimmed hat, white mutton chops, and drawn-on facial expressions. An egg-collecting scofflaw in his youth, Young had such a knack for finding species others thought unfindable that David Attenborough sought his services when filming documentaries, airing a segment with him on The Life of Birds. Young also spearheaded conservation initiatives, assisted on research projects, made media appearances, and had his own nature film series.

By the time Neilsen contacted him, however, Young was in a dark place. He had long been dogged by allegations that he was a world-class fibber, a spinner of bush tales. Then, in November 2006, Greg Roberts, a reporter and accomplished birder, suggested in an article in the Australian newspaper that Young had manipulated photos to support his claim of discovering a new parrot. Young’s wife then walked out on him. When Neilsen called, he loaded up his Land Cruiser and drove to Winton, in single-minded pursuit of the Night Parrot.

It took six years of searching, 200,000 miles of driving, weeks-long stretches without bathing, close encounters with venomous snakes. In July 2013, Young returned to civilization and presented to an awestruck auditorium at the Queensland Museum in Brisbane a video of a Night Parrot bounding along the ground. “The equivalent of finding Elvis flipping burgers in an Outback roadhouse” is how the editor of Birdlife Australia described the find.

The rediscovery promised a fresh start for the Night Parrot and, quite possibly, for John Young. After all, he was the only person in the bird world who knew where to find it. For the moment, at least, the fate of the species was entirely in his hands.

Read the rest in the Fall issue of Audubon magazine

Will Smith: The Jump

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

Will Smith Bungee Jumps To Celebrate 50th Birthday

WILL SMITH JUMPS FOR CHARITY: Watch live as Will Smith bungee jumps out of a helicopter over the Grand Canyon to celebrate his 50th birthday! All the proceeds go towards Global Citizen's education campaigns 🎉

Posted by NowThis on Tuesday, September 25, 2018

On September 25th, Will Smith bungee jumped from a helicopter over the Grand Canyon. I worked as a science consultant on segments related to the science of fear, the physics of bungee jumping, and the formation of the Grand Canyon. I wrote scripts, drafted interview questions, and planned graphics and animations.

Groomed to Death (Hakai and Smithsonian)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell


As Gavin Andrus takes a seat at the helm of a green John Deere tractor, it’s still dark out at the Santa Monica Pier. The stationary Ferris wheel is silhouetted against the city sky, and unseen waves crash against the pilings and lap against the sandy shore. The rhythmic onslaught brings with it the flotsam and jetsam of modern society: plastic grocery bags, cigarette butts, straws. Some of this refuse may have been expelled from the city storm drains. Some of it may have been cast off by thoughtless beachgoers the day before. And some of it may have been borne on the currents, washing in from Mexico or Japan or who knows where.

For the next five hours or so, Andrus’s job is to clean up as much of it as possible before the crowds arrive. He has the south side of the pier. Two other tractors will take care of the north. “Grandma needs a new facelift every day,” he tells me when I hop in the cab with him a little after sunrise. Behind him, the rake attached to the tractor kicks up a kaleidoscope of colored plastic and broken glass, churning in a vortex of liquified sand.

Read the rest at Hakai or Smithsonian

Anti-Vaxxers Are Targeting a Vaccine for a Virus Deadlier Than Ebola (The Atlantic)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell


Cedars Ernest was a certifiable goofball. He was a purebred Shire, a type of British draft horse that once specialized in hauling carts of ale. Nicknamed Ernie, he tipped the scales at more than a ton, and had a chocolate-brown coat with luxuriant white hair feathering his hooves. His owner, Nicole Carloss, a horse trainer in Queensland, Australia, adopted him in 2013, when he was 7 years old, and he immediately found his place in her family.

“He would burst open the screen door and try to do the dishes with you,” Carloss said. When her children played in their sandbox, Ernie would plop his front hooves down next to them. Carloss took Ernie to compete in shows throughout the state, where he would strut around with a sequined browband. “He stole everybody’s heart,” she said.

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In August 2016, Carloss came home from work and headed out to the fenced pasture to visit Ernie. He lifted his head dolefully, like Eeyore from Winnie-the-Pooh. His eyes were empty, his breathing was strange, and he wobbled when he walked. Carloss suspected he might have been bitten by a snake, but she saw no fang marks on his legs.

She called a local veterinarian and described Ernie’s symptoms. The vet asked Carloss if her horse had been vaccinated for Hendra.

“No,” she replied.

Carloss had anticipated the question, but that didn’t make it any less unsettling. Hendra is a deadly virus that is endemic in Australia and is spread by bats. Since the first documented outbreak in horses in 1994, Hendra has killed 102 of the animals. It kills people, too: On seven occasions, it has crossed from sick horses to the veterinarians and other professionals attending them, leading to four excruciating deaths. For the last six years, the animal-pharmaceutical company Zoetis—previously a Pfizer subsidiary—has sold a vaccine called Equivac to prevent horses from contracting the virus.

Read the rest at The Atlantic

How colleges can prepare for students with autism (The Atlantic & Spectrum)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell


Kieran Barrett-Snyder was a star student at his high school on Long Island in New York. He had a gift for mathematics and science, and was accepted into all seven of the colleges he applied to. He decided on New York University (NYU), both because it has a strong engineering program and because it is close to his home.

During Barrett-Snyder’s first semester in 2014, he did well in all his classes, except for labs that required written reports — a task that felt overwhelming to him. He became so anxious about his workload that at one point he started to feel his heart pounding hard in his chest. “It hurt to lay down,” he recalls.

Barrett-Snyder has autism, and he has felt anxiety for much of his life. But this was more intense than usual. His symptoms persisted for several days, until his mother took him to the emergency room, where he learned he had been having an extended panic attack. He hadn’t taken any psychiatric medications since his most disruptive behaviors had tapered off at around age 9. After the panic attack, though, he started taking pills for anxiety and depression. He also decreased his workload and got on track over the rest of the year.

Then, in his second year at the university, he ended up in a dormitory with two neurotypical students he didn’t connect with, and started avoiding the common area when they were around. One of the suitemates had his girlfriend over all the time, which made Barrett-Snyder even more uncomfortable. He stayed in his room for long stretches, stopped showering and survived on Oreo cookies. It was a vicious cycle: The longer he was in his room, the more self-conscious he felt. “I just felt disgusting most of the time, so I didn’t want to be seen,” he says.

He lost 25 pounds, felt weak and depressed, and was failing several classes. That December, his mother suggested that he take some time off. The only support NYU had offered to him was extended time on tests. “When I approached them about his difficulties,” she recalls, “their response was: ‘Maybe he belongs at a different school.’”

For any young adult, going away to college involves many firsts: the first time living alone, the first time making their own schedule, maybe the first time cooking their own meals. As difficult as this transition is for typical students, it can be especially disorienting for young people on the spectrum, who may also find it difficult to sleep enough, collaborate with others on group projects and advocate for themselves with professors.

Despite those challenges, increasing numbers of young adults with autism have set their sights on a college degree: More than 200,000 students on the spectrum will arrive on campuses around the United States over the next decade, based on statistics from the National Center for Special Education Research. And for the most part, experts say, these students are entering an educational system that is not ready for them. High school comes with a support system — family at home, therapists nearby, special-education classes — but colleges have traditionally embraced a sink-or-swim mentality.

Under U.S. federal law, college students with disabilities are permitted to receive special accommodations, including extra time on exams and extended deadlines. But these allowances usually fall short of the needs of students with autism. Many students on the spectrum require support that extends beyond the classroom into their social and personal lives, such as reminders to do their laundry regularly or help finding study partners. They also have high rates of anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts, which can worsen in new situations. “Colleges are trying to cope with this expanding mental-health crisis,” says Fred Volkmar, professor of child psychiatry, pediatrics and psychology at Yale University. “They don’t quite know what to do.”

Read the rest at Spectrum

Read the rest at The Atlantic

Hawai'i's Last Outlaw Hippies (Hakai)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

The first person I meet in the Kalalau Valley is a shoeless veteran from the Iraq War with a sun-faded REI backpack slung over his tattooed shoulders like a trophy. Barca, as he calls himself, heard that a kayaker had abandoned the pack in a beach cave and made a beeline out to the bluffs to claim it.

Visitors are always just throwing stuff away in this place. Over here, a folding chair with a broken arm rest. Over there, a half-empty fuel canister. Now, the backpack—that’s a rare find. “Do you know how much these are worth?” Barca asks me.

In, like, dollars? Ten, tops.

“A lot!” he says without waiting for my answer.

Barca, who is 34, subsists as a scavenger deep inside the Nāpali Coast State Park on Kaua‘i’s west coast. The centerpiece of this 2,500-hectare park—the Kalalau Valley—forms a natural amphitheater that opens to the ocean and the ocean alone. The valley’s steep, green walls rise up on three sides like curtains, sealing it off from the island’s interior. Glassy threads of water are tucked into every crease of these walls, cascading down from a height greater than Yosemite Falls. First farmed by Polynesian settlers centuries ago, this remote paradise is nothing short of a feral garden, a breadbasket bursting with nearly everything a crafty human specimen needs to survive. “This is the closest that mankind has come to making Eden,” Barca says. “When the avos are in season, we eat avos. When the mangoes are in season, we eat mangoes.”

Read the rest at Hakai Magazine

The California Effect (Nature Conservancy Magazine)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell


In early May, the dogwood trees in the Clinch Valley of far southwestern Virginia are in full bloom, looking like puffballs of white confetti bursting amid the tree canopy. Situated on the western side of the Appalachian Mountains, the Clinch is a special place, home to more than 100 species of trees with evocative names like sourwood, bitternut hickory and shagbark hickory that were coined back in the pioneer days when the place was Daniel Boone’s stomping grounds.

Greg Meade, a Nature Conservancy forester, is driving his pickup from the valley’s bottomland cattle pasture up into the steep hillside woodlands. “The complexity of our forests is unmatched in the lower 48,” Meade says. He can start his day in a yellow pine forest and be tromping through a fern-filled, moss-covered spruce rainforest by lunchtime.

Meade’s job isn’t so much about deciding which trees to cut but which ones to leave standing. Big ones, mostly.

He is promoting a reversal of the way that privately owned forests in Appalachia have been managed for the past century. Landowners once saw their forests as emergency piggy banks that they could tap into in times of need, bringing in loggers to chop down the most valuable hardwoods, such as black cherry and oaks, with no thought given to which trees would repopulate. This shortsighted approach led these forests to lose the diversity that sustains their economic and ecological value. Having forests with trees of different ages helps facilitate regrowth, while maintaining a mix of species can protect these forests from diseases.

The Clinch Valley Conservation Forestry Program launched in 2002 and now protects 22,000 acres, thanks largely to California’s new carbon market. The Clinch Valley program established partnerships between TNC and private landowners to better manage these working forests and ensure they remain intact rather than being developed. With the last free-flowing tributaries to the Tennessee River, the Clinch Valley boasts the nation’s highest concentrations of endangered fish and freshwater mussels, which depend on the clean water that healthy forests provide by reducing erosion.

As it happened, at the same time on the other side of the country, California’s government was confronting the state’s substantial role in contributing to climate change. If California were a separate country, it would have ranked as the world’s 12th-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, falling between Spain and Poland. In 2006, implementing new state law, California created a cap-and-trade system designed to first freeze and then reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of  power producers, transportation and manufacturers in the state.

That system has had profound effects on climate emissions and conservation in California. “When I started working on this,” says Louis Blumberg, the head of TNC’s California climate program, “California was the eighth-largest economy in the world and the 12th-largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Today California is the sixth-largest economy and the 19th-largest emitter.” And California’s program is also having a dramatic impact throughout the U.S. and Canada.

The cap-and-trade program opened up a new chapter in Virginia’s Clinch Valley. The forests that Meade manages act as a sponge for carbon dioxide. With each growing season, the trees lock away climate-warming gas in their swelling trunks. Under California’s cap-and-trade program, California polluters could offset a portion of their emissions by paying forestry projects like Meade’s to keep their forests intact.

“California recognizes that nature is a powerful tool to address climate change,” says Blumberg. “Their cap-and-trade program is catalyzing forest conservation programs across the United States.” California’s successful comprehensive program makes it one of the leading government entities to tackle climate change in a serious way.

The program is supporting scores of forest conservation projects from Virginia to Alaska, including several led by TNC. It is also demonstrating that, even as President Donald Trump withdraws the United States from the Paris Climate Accord, American states, cities and businesses can not only take action on climate change on their own, they can do so in ways that generate economic benefits and grow economies.

Read the rest in the Winter issue of Nature Conservancy magazine

Inside the Mind of Thru-Hiking's Most Devious Con Man (Outside)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell


As I learned about Caldwell’s exploits, I wondered if there was something about the outdoor community and our sympathy for such wanderers that may make us especially easy marks. When we see a man with a trail-worn Gore-Tex jacket and a decade-old Dana Designs backpack, we instinctively trust him. We can’t help but envy his authenticity, his freedom. He’s not just a weekend warrior—he’s living the life we want. Or at least, that’s how it seems.

For six weeks, I texted Caldwell at a number that Trent had given me, but he never responded. Then, on June 27, he finally sent me a text along with a photo of himself sporting a blue flannel shirt while lounging on a rolled-up fleece in a pine forest. When we spoke on the phone a couple days later, I could hear birds chirping. At first he told me he was in northern Arizona. Later, he claimed he was near the popular Barr Trail on Pikes Peak. “I know Pikes Peak,” he said, “I can hide on this mountain for a long time.”
He agreed to speak with me because he hoped that, by coming clean in public, he wouldn’t be able to take advantage of anyone ever again. “There has got to be a reason why I’m here,” he said. “There’s got to be. It can’t be to keep scamming people.”

Read the story at Outside Magazine

Can You Cure Autism? (Slate and Spectrum News)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell


From the moment her 18-month-old son Sam was diagnosed with autism, Elizabeth B., or Liz, found it difficult to accept. When Sam failed to make much progress in an early intervention program and, later, at a special-needs preschool in Manhattan, Liz consulted with his speech therapist. The therapist suggested Liz look into the Son-Rise Program, taught at the Option Institute’s Autism Treatment Center of America in western Massachusetts. (Liz asked that we not mention her last name, out of concern for her and her son’s privacy.)

The name rang a bell with Liz. She had a vague recollection of seeing a 1979 made-for-TV movie called Son-Rise: A Miracle of Love. In the movie, New York advertising executive Barry Neil Kaufman and his wife “cure” their son’s autism at home, spending more than eight hours a day immersed in his world and copying his behaviors.

The therapy seemed worth a shot. So in August 2005, Liz and her husband paid $1,623 in fees, left Sam, then almost 4, with a family friend, and drove to the institute’s 100-acre campus for a five-day Son-Rise “startup” class. The angular brown buildings scattered in the woods give the institute the look of a New Age monastery. Adding to the monastic vibe, participants are advised to leave their valuables at home because the dormitory doors lock only from the inside.

Liz hadn’t anticipated how deeply the experience would affect her. Having a child with autism can feel isolating, and because Sam didn’t participate in school activities or have friends, she had few friends herself. But on the first day of the Son-Rise Program, as she took a seat on the floor of the lecture hall with about 100 other parents, she immediately felt at ease. “You have a powerful sense that you are with cousins,” she says.

On Tuesday evening, Barry Neil Kaufman, known as “Bears,” made his rounds in the dining hall, clad in his usual getup: a blazer and a black turtleneck. Liz found his message of love and acceptance intoxicating and, for the first time since Sam’s diagnosis, felt she had a way to help her son. When Kaufman spoke of children with autism as having limitless potential, his words resonated strongly with Liz.

Over the next four years, she spent nearly $50,000 on Option Institute programs, both for Sam and for her husband and herself, and to train as a mentor for other parents. Although that amount may seem extreme, she is hardly alone: More than 30,000 families from more than 120 countries have participated in the Son-Rise Program over the past three decades, according to the institute. Some families pay full price to attend multiple courses, others receive scholarships from the institute, and a few even resort to crowdfunding. “Your generosity would allow our beloved son to experience the best treatment available,” reads one plea to raise $25,000 on the GoFundMe website.

The prices at the institute are especially steep given that states such as California and New York pay for a wide range of evidence-based interventions. Son-Rise startup classes are advertised as $2,200 per parent; an “intensive” course, attended by parents and children, can run to $18,000. “Should you be selling your house to pay for this extraordinarily expensive program?” asks Catherine Lord, founding director of the Center for Autism and the Developing Brain at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in New York. “That’s where we are getting worried.”

Investing in Son-Rise, experts say, is a little like buying a lottery ticket. “I’m not aware of any rigorous scientific evidence that supports it,” says Fred Volkmar, head of the Autism Program at Yale University. There are no independent clinical trials or scientific studies of Son-Rise to back the institute’s claims that the program “helps parents cure their children in some cases” and “achieve significant improvement in almost all cases.”

At the same time, autism researchers express frustration that the Kaufmans discourage parents from combining Son-Rise with proven behavioral therapies and direct them instead toward alternative treatments, such as horse therapy and homeopathy. Some former employees Spectrum interviewed describe the institute as rule-bound, lacking in transparency, and focused on fundraising. The Kaufmans, they say, control nearly every detail of the program and demand unstinting loyalty from staff and commitment from families.

Bryn Hogan, executive director of the institute’s Autism Treatment Center of America and the Kaufmans’ daughter, says that the center welcomes more research on its programs and that the criticism it’s received is unfair or inaccurate. “People tend to be suspicious of things they don’t fully understand,” she says.

Read the rest at Slate

Flight School (National Geographic)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell


They move so fast that human eyes see only a hovering spot of color, a blur of wings. But when frozen in time by high-speed cameras, hummingbirds reveal their secrets.

In pursuit of the world’s smallest bird, we’ve come to the backyard of a flamingo pink house in Palpite, Cuba. Ornithologist Christopher Clark has a car full of gear to unload: cameras, sound equipment, a sheer cube-shaped cage. Within minutes of arriving this May morning, Clark is spinning around in circles. He’s trying to follow the path of a bullet with wings as it whizzes from one clump of orange fire bush blossoms to the next. When the hummingbird pauses to draw sugary fuel from the flowers, his wings continue to beat a grayish blur too fast for the human eye to resolve.

Read the rest at National Geographic

Have Gun, Will Run (Outside)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

We're not saying you need to prepare for societal collapse or anything, but Brendan Borrell did feel a need to improve his game in case zombies attack. He signed up for the Survival Trial, a grueling test of field skills and marksmanship held in the wilds of northern New Mexico. Did this city feller come back in one piece?

I'm in the back office when I hear Jake's screams echo across the factory floor. We have no idea what's happening, only that there's no 911 to call--not out here.

I’ve got my everyday carry tucked into my holster—a Glock nine-millimeter semiautomatic pistol, with a bullet in the chamber and seven in the magazine. I slip extra ammo into my back pocket and yank my 12-gauge out of a bag. This isn’t your grandpa’s duck gun, either: it’s a matte black Mossberg 500 Tactical Persuader, a tough piece of metal that meets military standards. The chk-chk of the pump action is calibrated to tell all the goblins to buzz off.

I’m the last person you’d expect to see packing heat, but after the crash things have gotten freaky out here in Arena Heights, our little make-believe town in northern New Mexico. Looting, home invasions, assaults, you name it. It’s basically WROL— without rule of law. As one of my buddies at the shooting range likes to say: “The cops are five minutes away—when you need them in five seconds.”

I tell my partner to wait as I follow a pair of tire tracks to a couple of orange cones in a dusty clearing. To the west, the snowcapped Sangre de Cristo mountains seem to levitate above the horizon: a thin white mirage of tranquility. I stash my shotgun in a bush and go crashing down a fresh trail marked with neon splotches of surveyor’s paint. Around the corner, Jake is lying motion less in the dirt. He’s a meaty fellow, the size and shape of two truck tires. In fact, he is two truck tires, linked together with PVC pipe to represent an incapacitated colleague. I tug on his rubbery shoulders, dragging him back to the safe zone.

The task leaves me panting. I clutch my widow-maker, sweat burning my eyes. The four targets are lined up on the hillside. Ready. Aim. Gasp! I’m puffing so hard that I can’t hold the sight steady. I drop the muzzle. Thirty seconds pass and I raise the gun again. Pow! The first clay target explodes. Chk-chk! I send the next three back to oblivion. I’m feeling downright cocky, but those targets are only ten yards out. Next up: eight metal plates hanging from a crossbar, roughly 15 yards away. I draw my pistol and miss every one.

After racing back to the starting line and tagging my teammate, I see Jon Weiler standing on the edge of the dirt road, gazing down at the valley below like a scout watching for an ambush. He looks at me approvingly. “That was very good,” he says, Yoda-like.

Read this story in the June 2017 issue of Outside