Maddie worked as a travel guide in Argentina and a teacher at several educational nonprofits in San Francisco before joining Mother Jones. She’s also written for Outside, the Bay Citizen, and the Rumpus. She manages Mother Jones' Ben Bagdikian Fellowship Program.
Women who morph into furred silkworms enslaved by the Japanese empire; vampires that rely on the "soothing blankness" of lemons to blot out their bloodlust; hoarder seagulls that stash scraps from the future in trees. Such are the strange creatures in Karen Russell's suspenseful new collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, which comes out next week.
Russell, 31, first made waves with the short-story collection St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised By Wolves, unleashed in 2006 as she graduated from Columbia's MFA program. Her 2011 novel Swamplandia!, about a family running a threadbare alligator theme park in the Everglades, was a Pulitzer finalist last year (though no book received enough votes to win). And as her new collection hits bookstore shelves, Russell is already hard at work on her next novel, set in the Dust Bowl era. Though she was pretty tight-lipped about it, her story "Proving Up" in Vampires hints at the spooky Americana she's capable of.
In our early morning chat, Russell recalled Flannery O'Connor's reading of Kafka's Metamorphosis: "The truth is not distorted here, but rather a certain distortion is used to get to the truth." O'Connor may as well have been talking about Russell, whose tales flirt with the fantastical, but are rooted in darker realities—loss of innocence, PTSD, all-consuming ambition. Even as she transforms the everyday into a wriggling bestiary, replete with colorful hallucinations and ghosts, her most haunting bits rely on the depiction of human impulses. I asked a "coffee'd up" Russell about the wellspring of her imagination, her swampy backyard, and breaking into the literary treehouse.
Mother Jones: When did you start to think seriously about writing fiction?
Karen Russell: I took a fiction-writing workshop my sophomore year at Northwestern, and I hadn't yet read Junot Díaz or George Saunders, Flannery O'Connor. There was something so attractive about those voices. I heard about an [MFA program], and it just sounded like this magic thing, fairy-tale style—that there was a school you could go to exclusively for the thing you loved. I moved to New York with the derangement of love. I was writing all these terrible stories, but I had never been happier.
In a memorable Portlandia episode, a pretentious couple prods a server for absurd details about the locally sourced chicken on the menu. With all our passion for food sustainability, asks Saru Jayaraman, shouldn't we consider the cooks, runners, and servers who prep our pampered poultry? Jayaraman shows us the dark side of the food industry, which hosts 7 out of the 10 lowest-paid jobs in America, where the federal minimum wage for tipped employees has stood frozen for decades at $2.13 an hour—even as employers pilfer tips, deprive workers of benefits, and allow workplace harassment and prejudice.
Amidst a busy week at the Mother Jones San Francisco office, five of us gathered late-night, burritos in hand, to watch a sneak preview of Season 2 of Girls. Despite all being twentysomethings and female, not all of us feel like we can identify with main characters Hannah (Lena Dunham), Marnie (Allison Williams), Jessa (Jemima Kirke), Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet), and the others portrayed in this series about friendship, sex, and ambition in New York City. (Zaineb Mohammed warned us at the start that she hate-watches the show.) Nevertheless, we couldn't let DC-based film critic and infamous naysayer Asawin Suebsaeng be the sole proprieter of MoJo's critical take on Girls. (See his takedown of Season 1, former MoJo fellow Maya Dusenbery's response, and his slightly less acidic takedown of Season 2—though he still considers the show "a crime against humanity." Really, Swin?)
We weren't blown away by the first episode. But sit tight. The series gets better—full of sharp dialogue and humor, awkward intimacy, experimentation with love and drugs, and self-realization or lack thereof—by the fourth episode. Swin thought some of those less glamorous moments came off sleepy: We felt that, even when imperfect, they were thought-provoking—and, at the very least, refreshing. (As Sarah Zhang put it: "Yes, thank you, awkward parties!"). And as you'll see below, the show is fodder for great debate, which in itself makes it worth a view. (Warning: minor spoilers sprinkled throughout).
Whitebark pine trees dying from pine beetle infestation in Bridger-Teton National Forest
Mountain pine beetles have spent the last decade decimating more than 4 million acres of forest in the Rocky Mountain West. Beetles are a natural part of the forest ecology, picking off old or unhealthy trees and keeping the healthy ones resilient. But a warming planet—2012 was the hottest year on record—means not enough beetles die off in cold snaps. Instead, they produce more quickly, boring under bark, laying eggs, and weakening trees until they die.
And now, the continuously warm weather has emboldened these creatures to flourish in forests of whitebark pines—stately old trees that survive at high elevations—as well. In a new report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team of University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers describe the beetles' deadly effect on whitebarks in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
National forests impacted by bark beetles in the Rocky Mountain West USDA Forest Service
Photographer and activist David Gonzales has spent much of the last four years poking around that ecosystem, venturing into the high-altitude whitebark pine stands of Wyoming's Bridger-Teton National Forest to attempt to defend these ancient trees from the explosive beetle epidemic, a practice he's deemed "treefighting." Along with volunteers and students, Gonzales spent three years tacking pouches of pheromones onto individual trees to try and trick beetles into thinking they were already inhabited, though he has mixed feelings about guiding beetles from one tree on to another. This past year, Gonzales' group planted 3,000 young whitebark saplings, which if they survive the planting process, can live for a millenium.
"Treefighter" and photographer David Gonzales
Ecologists consider hearty whitebark pines to be a keystone species of the northern Rocky Mountains: The trees' nutrient-rich seed cones provide sustenance for grizzly and black bears, several bird species, and squirrels; their roots prevent erosion in thinly soiled peaks; their branches serve as wind barriers and shade snowpack at high elevations, meaning snow sticks around longer and less water evaporates before summer months. "They pick the places that other plants can't survive—bad soils, really dry," says GIS specialist Wally MacFarlane in Gonzales' 2011 documentary Seeing Red, about beetlekill in the Yellowstone area. "You kind of appreciate them for that—their ruggedness." Gonzales certainly does. "They live in the absolute worst conditions, yet they produce the best plant-based fat and protein in the ecosystem, and are paragons of energy efficiency," he says. "They are showing us that we can do a much better job of dealing with our own energy."
But unlike neighboring lodgepole pines, which co-evolved with the pine beetle and developed defenses against the bug, whitebark pines are very vulnerable to beetle attacks, since they haven't evolved to create enough of the compounds (like resin) that repel or kill bugs or disrupt their communication systems, according to the Wisconsin study.
Healthy whitebark pines USDA Forest Service/
The research did reveal one hopeful sign: When the beetles entered areas mixed with lodgepoles and whitebark pines, the critters were more likely to choose lodgepoles over whitebarks.
A mountain lover and avid skier, Gonzales has watched mountain pine beetles spread through 95 percent of the whitebark forests in greater Yellowstone, leaving many mountainsides a rusty grey color from dead trees. The hard part, he says, is that given that the trees already grow at the highest altitudes, "there's nowhere else for them to go; they can't find higher ground."
Gonzales says around 75 percent of the whitebarks he planted with his crew in June seemed to have survived when they checked back on the saplings in September, and he plans to try and plant even more in the summer of 2013. And treefighting seems to be catching on: Student groups from as far away as Brooklyn and Hanover, New Hampshire, came to plant trees and document changes in whitebark stands this past year. Gonzales celebrates the growing attention and involvement, but remains pessimistic about the forests' susceptibility to beetles and climate change: "I think we're going to see more tree species affected. Unfortunately, treefighting is going to become a growth industry in the coming years."
Trees dying from beetle infestation often turn a reddish color, like these in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. David Gonzales/TreeFight.org
In certain moments, Traci Des Jardins embodies the stereotype of an elite French chef: the way she glides coolly into the room, her impenetrable gaze fixed on you in a manner that makes you question why you have the right to be interviewing her in the first place. She is, after all, a two-time James Beard Award-winning culinarian, head of five Northern California restaurants, and one of the country's top female chefs who recently bought out her partner to become sole owner of the very classy San Francisco establishment, Jardinière, where the menu offers morsels like a $75 helping of White Alba Truffled Tagliatelle.
So it may come as a surprise to learn that the short, muscular, sandy haired woman—who beat out Mario Batali on Iron Chef—was raised in the 70s in an immigrant farming community in California's Central Valley. Her family cultivated cotton, sugar beets, and rice—"none of it organic, lots of chemicals used"—she told an audience at a TEDx conference in San Jose where she gave a talk in early December. In fact, her dad "would get angry if you mentioned organic at the dinner table." Des Jardins' mother and grandparents were Mexican and her father came from French Acadian roots; the whole family shared a love for hunting, growing, and preparing meals.
After a childhood spent making Mexican soul food with her grandma, who called her "mijita" (meaning "my little one," and also later the name of two of Des Jardins' San Francisco restaurants), she dropped out of University of California-Santa Cruz at 17 to work in kitchens so she could support her dream of becoming a ski bum. A chef she apprenticed with in Los Angeles saw more than skiing in her future (though nowadays Des Jardins still rips in Tahoe when she can), and advised her to make her way to France.