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Senior Research Editor
Maddie writes and edits stories about food, health, the environment, and culture. She oversees Mother Jones' research department and manages its Ben Bagdikian Fellowship Program. Email tips to moatman [at] motherjones [dot] com.
In the lead up to the 2014 Winter Olympics, ski jumping has taken center stage—it's the first year women will be allowed to compete, a milestone the New York Times Magazine recently explored at length. But let's not forget another extreme sport premiering in Sochi this year. That would be women's (and men's) free skiing, which encompasses halfpipe (hair-raising tricks done off the edge of an icy, steep-walled half cylinder), slopestyle (jumping off rails and obstacles), and ski cross (in which four skiers barrel simultaneously through a downhill obstacle course).
Maddie Bowman, 19, is a rising star in this new Olympic realm, one that seems to scream skate park more than professional arena. A favorite in the halfpipe, Bowman cut her teeth on the steep terrain of North Lake Tahoe. Even though thousands of viewers will be watching the sport for the first time in February, Bowman doesn't really care if they see her kind as a bunch of park rats: "I think we want people to see that side of us—just being kids goofing off. That's what we do. That's why we love what we do. That's how we've gotten so far in skiing."
Okay, but what does it take to rule the halfpipe? Here's Bowman in her own words.
On her sport's spirit animal: It's like a polar bear-grizzly bear mix—a pizzly! As the ice is melting, the polar bears are migrating south into grizzly territory and they're mating, and they have this baby that's a hybrid. So two hybrid pizzlies could make a baby pizzly. It's a new species, and it's super badass.
On whether freeskiing is male-dominated: I don't think we think about it that way. We love skiing with the guys; they're our friends. I grew up always skiing with boys. We're out there trying to do the same things and push ourselves. We're definitely all in this together.
On breaking with traditions: I was a racer before, but it felt a little too serious—a little too strict. I just kind of fell in love with the whole idea of skiing around with your friends and having fun, trying new things, and being creative. It allowed for a lot more freedom.
On mastering a trick: The first time I ever did a "left nine,"—it's two and a half spins, and I'm spinning down the wall, rotating to the left—I was so excited I completely forgot the rest of my run; I just sort of made it up.
On anxious parents: My parents are both ski race people, so when I first started switching over, they were a little resistant, but then they came and skied with us and realized we think about things before we jump off of stuff. They definitely get nervous. You can't have my mom video a run at all because it's so shaky—she always misses it!
On falling smart: Most skiers can think pretty quickly on our feet—or off our feet if we're falling, and hopefully fall the right way. We like to push the limits and that's what makes our sport fun—pushing those limits and getting that adrenaline going. Sometimes the limits push back. It's always a rude awakening when that happens.
On those rude awakenings: Concussions are something everyone worries about. If I hit my head, I always make sure to get a new helmet and stuff like that. But you can't be out there worrying about getting hurt, or else you're more likely to get hurt.
Alternative paths: If I got hurt, knock on wood, I don't know what I would do. Maybe I'd actually be a real college student.
A "controlled car crash." That's how US bobsled pilot Jazmine Fenlator, 28, remembers her first run. "I was sliding down a mile of ice with my head buried in the bottom of the bobsled," she says. "I'm getting jostled around and I'm not understanding why I'm moving so much." She ended the run drooling and shaking, but she was hooked.
Bobsledders, many of whom, like Fenlator, hail from track-and-field sports, have to be some level of crazy to send their bodies careening down steep ice passages at speeds up to 100 miles per hour. But it's not just the risk of bodily harm that makes the experience intense. "It's a grueling blue-collar sport," Fenlator says. "We carry our sleds. There's no caddy, there's no pit crew." And, like many Olympians in less-prominent sports, the athletes often have to dip into their own coffers to pay for their training. At one point, Fenlator and her teammate had to scrounge up $20,000 for a new sled—which meant a slew of side jobs.
Their dedication paid off in early December, when Fenlator joined five teammates on the podium for a World Cup sweep—the first since 2001* for US women's bobsledding, and a hopeful indicator of what may lie ahead for Team USA in Sochi.
Mother Jones: What kind of reactions do you get when you tell people what you do?
Jazmine Fenlator: A lot of people think I'm on the Jamaican bobsled team. It's a question every black bobsledder gets, even if you're wearing a USA shirt. Or a lot of times people don't know what bobsled is, so they'll reference luge or skeleton. It's a hard sport because not many people can relate to it, and it's a hard sport to spectate. You only see it every four years on TV, and it doesn't have a lot of popularity, which we're trying to change. So, you get a lot of naïve questions. But I welcome those. The more people I can teach and tell about bobsled, the more cheers we'll have in Sochi.
MJ: How does one become a bobsledder?
JF: I was a senior in college in 2006-2007 at Rider University as a track and field athlete. I started to realize that I was a little bit behind the pace I needed to qualify for Beijing. I was really going to focus on revamping my training when my coach mentioned bobsled. I didn't really take him too seriously, but he submitted my athletic resume and the team invited me to a tryout camp. I jumped on the opportunity. It's not everyday a national team invites you, especially if you've never done the sport before.
MJ: Had you ever even imagined bobsledding?
JF: No. I'd seen Cool Runnings and watching the 2002 and 2006 winter games, but I did not actually know much about it.
MJ: What do you remember from the 2002 games, the inaugural year for women's bobsled?
JF: For Team USA to bring home gold, as well as Vonetta Flowers winning the first medal in winter sports for an African-American, was huge. I remember watching her and Jill Bakken push that sled down the start ramp on the final run and the announcer saying, "This is where Olympians are made, this is where medalists can break or make it." They kept their composure and they did just what they needed to do and came across the line screaming.
"It's not everyday a national team invites you [to try out], especially if you've never done the sport before."
MJ: What was bobsledding like the first time you did it?
JF: I had no idea what is happening. I was a brakeman, so you don't get to see where you are going. My helmet doesn't even fit properly, I am getting jostled around in this sled. A lot can happen in your brain in a minute, I've learned.
One of the coaches stood at the bottom to make sure that the newbies weren't getting motion sickness or about to run and call a taxi and head to the airport. I'm breathing heavy and have drool and snot probably everywhere. I can't unbuckle my helmet. I'm shaking, and I feel like "Aaah, I don't really know. How many times do we do this today?" He's like, "Great, 'cause we have a couple more training trips to go! Head right on the truck and go back up." It was a pretty incredible experience. Extremely humbling.
MJ: How do you shave seconds off your time?
JF: You're searching for thousands of seconds that add up to equal hundredths. I've gotten third in a race by six-hundredths. You can't even blink that fast. And you can be like, where did I lose that time? Was it a piece of tape flapping on the side that I forgot to take off when cleaning my sled? Was it this little mistake here or there? You can't just be a great athlete. You can't just be a great pilot. You can't just have great equipment. You're looking for a combination, because it's not just one thing. That's why you're in the weight room, and sprinting every day—to shave off hundredths in your 30-meter time, and lift 5 or 10 more pounds in the squat. Because all of that adds up.
It's almost time to bid farewell to tomatoes. The stiff, tasteless orbs found in even California supermarkets come winter don't do the fruit justice, so I'll gorge myself now and then settle in for eight months of canned goods. But it's not just produce that's best at a seasonal peak: Farm animals also respond to temperature and light. In fact, some food experts believe that we should wait for the right season to eat fresh meat.
This isn't exactly a new idea. Cultures throughout history have slaughtered animals at certain times of year, and many of our traditional holiday meals—think Thanksgiving turkey and Easter ham—came from this practice. Steak also was once an autumn delicacy: After the first frost, ranchers would flood the market with steers fattened on summer's pastures. But that changed after World War II, when farmers—buoyed by a large new trove of government-subsidized corn and soy—found profit in confining cattle and selling meat year-round, and most turned to "finishing" cattle on grain, breaking beef's tie to grass growth cycles. The tender meat produced this way made "corn-fed" a compliment, but by now the downsides have also become apparent: Today upwards of 97 percent of US beef is grain-fed, and livestock consume more than 50 percent of the corn produced in the United States, requiring a system of massive monoculture, heavy pesticide applications, and overtilled soils. On the other hand, well-managed permanent pasture, where grasses are dense and root systems maintained, can improve the soil, prevent erosion, and sequester carbon.
Wild turkeys feast on abundant grass and bugs in the summer. Shorter days in the fall affect their hormones, causing them to retain more fat in anticipation of winter.
So lately, grass-fed meat has been enjoying a renaissance among both foodies and ranchers, with everyone from Whole Foods to fast-food chain Elevation Burger peddling pastured beef and lamb. But there's a catch: In order to sell their product all year long, farmers finish their grass-fed animals with hay and dry forage in the winter months. Those stored feeds are lower in fatty acids and precursors for antioxidants such as omega-3s—which make grass-fed beef healthier in the first place, says Cynthia Daley, an agriculture professor at California State University-Chico. "To optimize these antioxidants," she says, "cattle need to be finished off grass."
That's why Bill Niman, the founder and former CEO of Niman Ranch, sells his pasture-finished Black Angus beef only from early summer to fall—to take advantage of prime Northern California grazing time, which begins in spring. (The timing would be different in other climates; in Vermont, where grass remains lush through the summer, the meat would be best later.) Chefs at premier restaurants—like California's Chez Panisse and New York's Blue Hill—say Niman's rich steaks are worth the wait.
Even nongrazing animals traditionally were prepared at particular times: Farmers slaughtered hogs in the fall, after the barrows had gorged on acorns. Sausages were made when workers were finished in the fields and had time to help in the packing houses. Hams were cured all winter and ready in time for Easter. Meat birds also have a prime season: Turkeys that are allowed to forage outdoors feast on abundant grass and bugs in the summer. Shorter days in the fall affect their hormones, causing them to retain more fat in anticipation of winter. "There's a reason why turkey was the Thanksgiving bird," says Kansas heritage turkey farmer Frank Reese. "That's when it was ready."
But buying seasonal meat at its peak isn't cheap. Niman's ribeyes, sold as BN Beef, ring in at $21.99 a pound at one San Francisco market, compared to around $12.50 per pound for the average boneless ribeye. Frank Reese's heritage turkeys cost around $9.50 a pound; supermarket turkeys go for $1.68 per pound. "Grass-fed costs a lot more because it costs the rancher a lot more to make it," says University of California-Davis livestock specialist Jim Oltjen. And the consolidation of slaughterhouses hasn't made it easier for ranchers trying to buck the system: A lot of them would prefer to process meat seasonally, but industrial abattoirs run year-round, and they don't let ranchers choose when to bring their animals in. One recent University of California study found that small-scale beef ranchers in California's Mendocino County were "hampered by significant scheduling problems" at the few USDA-certified slaughterhouses in the area.
Consumer demand could help tip the scales in favor of these small farmers. "We started with a very small group of people who cared about the seasonality of tomatoes, and that group has grown," says Maisie Greenawalt, a strategist for a large sustainable-food-focused catering company. Seasonal seafood is gaining popularity too, she says—eating wild salmon only during the summer run, for example. "There's a possibility for meat to follow that same pattern."
And what happens in February when you're hankering for a burger? "The great thing about meat is you can freeze it," Oltjen says. "It does fine." So if you're one of the growing number of omnivores adding pasture-raised meat to your diet, it might be time to invest in a chest freezer—or kiss that cheeseburger goodbye for a few months.
Radio producer Dave Isay first made his mark with stories like Ghetto Life 101, for which he enlisted a pair of precocious eighth-graders to document their lives in a Chicago housing project. He saw how putting the kids in charge of the recording gear gave them license to ask questions they might never have asked otherwise—and how the mere act of participating in these very personal interviews "could transform people's lives."
Click on the arrows below to listen to some greatest hits from Ties That Bind:Stories of Love and Gratitude from the First Ten Years of StoryCorps.
In 2003, he launched a project called StoryCorps, setting up a booth in New York City's Grand Central Terminal where anyone could walk in and interview a relative, a friend, or even a complete stranger for 40 minutes. The project's mobile recording booths have ambled through 174 American cities to date, helping collect more than 50,000 interviews involving 90,000 people. The recordings are archived in the Library of Congress, and choice bits are broadcast weekly on NPR's Morning Edition. For its 10th anniversary this month, StoryCorps is releasing a greatest hits book, Ties That Bind, and throwing a gala hosted by Stephen Colbert.
StoryCorps has also launched initiatives to capture the voices of special demographics: ethnic minorities, teachers, seniors, people with memory loss, even one dedicated to preserving Alaskan heritage. The archive is a paean to unsung heroes—people like Ted Weaver, a janitor and chauffeur in pre-civil-rights era Knoxville, Tennessee, who stayed up late to teach himself algebra so he could help his son Lynn with homework. (Lynn tells of his father's modest feats in a recording embedded in the box above.)
Isay, the recipient of six Peabody awards—radio's highest honor—and a MacArthur "genius" grant, calls these recordings "poems of the human voice," but artistic merit is hardly the point. "People know that their great-great-great-great-grandkids are going to get to hear their voice someday, and this will be maybe the only thing they leave behind," he told me recently. "There'll be pictures and other things, but the soul is contained in the voice."
Mother Jones: I've read that StoryCorps was inspired by the oral history projects that came out of the New Deal.
Dave Isay: I used to go to the American Folklife Center in DC and listen to those interviews. There may have been less than 100 recorded on these discs—a bunch of them by John Lomax. I remember a recording of guys in a pool hall right after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and you can hear the balls, people shooting pool in the background and these guys, very beautifully and clearly recorded, talking about about what was about to happen. It just kind of transported me back in time.
MJ: I gather some academics don't consider StoryCorps true oral history?
DI: Yeah, I think because the people who are asking questions aren't academics, and there's a time limit. And that's fine. We feel like we walk in the footsteps of oral historians and Studs Terkel, who loved StoryCorps! I'm not so concerned about what people call it, I'm just kind of concerned that people take the time to have these conversations.
MJ: Did you set up StoryCorps this way in the hope of eliminating the biases an outside interviewer brings into the process?
Scientists have found that drought means Engelmann spruce trees (pictured on Red Mountain Pass, Colorado, above) have weaker defenses against spruce beetles, triggering an outbreak in hundreds of thousands of acres in Colorado's forests.
Since the late 1990s, mountain pine beetles have swept through millions of acres of forest in the Rockies, turning hillsides of trees a rusty red and then grey as they populate trees and kill them. In Colorado, this outbreak seems to have peaked in 2008 and 2009; but just as one species slowed, another—the spruce beetle—has picked up steam. A new University of Colorado study published in Ecology reveals how drought was the driver of the rise in spruce beetle activity and resulting tree deaths in Colorado's high-elevation forests in recent years. The drought is in turn linked to changes in sea surface temperatures that are expected to continue for decades to come. In the long-term, such massive insect infestations could dramatically diminish North American forests' ability to retain water and sequester carbon—meaning trees will be less effective at balancing out the human toll on the environment.
So far, fewer acres of trees have been affected by spruce beetles than mountain pine beetles, but there are more spruce forests in Colorado than Lodgepole pine, so there's "no reason to expect the percentage mortality to be less or acreage affected to be any less" than it was for the mountain pine beetle epidemic, said Tom Veblen, coauthor of the study and a geography professor at CU.