Drought and Abundance in the Mesopotamian Marshes

On my most recent visit to the Mesopotamian marshes, in March, I arrived at Sayeed Hitham’s for breakfast. The pandemic had kept me away for more than a year.

The sun was just rising, the sky pink and golden. Hana, Hitham’s wife, stood smiling near the door to their reed house. “Tea is ready, bread is ready,” she said. “Come on in.”

We sat on the worn-out carpet around a glowing kerosene heater, sipping tea and dipping the flat naan Hana had just baked into hot buffalo milk. “What took you so long, Emi?” Sayeed asked with a tone of reproach. “We haven’t seen you in forever.”

battle for Mosul was raging, I took the opposite path and headed south. I was in search of another view of the country, something different from the war I’d been covering for the previous year and a half.

It was a moment of real discovery for me — one of those few times when you connect with a place, with a people.

The Mesopotamian marshes, a series of wetlands that sit near Iraq’s southeast border, feel like an oasis in the middle of the desert — which they are. The ruins of the ancient Sumerian cities of Ur, Uruk and Eridu are close at hand. The broader region, known as the cradle of civilization, saw early developments in writing, architecture and complex society.

The marshes are home to a people called the Ma’dan, also known as the Marsh Arabs, who live deep in the wetlands, mostly as buffalo breeders in isolated settlements, a majority of which are reachable only by boat. Others live in small cities on the banks of the Tigris or Euphrates rivers, which feed the marshes.

Many of the Ma’dan left decades ago, when the marshes were ravaged by war, famine and repression.

During the Iran-Iraq war, waged between 1980 and 1988, the wetland’s proximity to the Iranian border turned the area into a conflict zone, a theater for bloody battles. Later, in the early 1990s, in the aftermath of a Shiite uprising against his Baath Party, Saddam Hussein intentionally drained the region — where many of the Shiite rebels had fled — as a punishment and a way to stifle the insurrection.

The marshes turned into a desert for more than a decade, until the United States-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

By then, damage had already been done. By the early 2000s, less than 10 percent of the area’s original wetland existed as a functioning marshland.

Today, after being re-flooded and partially restored, the marshes are once again endangered — by climate change, lack of ecological awareness on a local level and, perhaps most dramatically, by the construction of dams in Turkey and Syria and upriver in Iraq.

In 2018, an extremely hot summer followed by a lack of rain caused a serious drought. In some areas, the water level fell by more than three feet.

“That’s it,” I remember thinking, as the small boat crossed the marsh where corpses of young buffaloes floated in the water. Buffalo breeders like Sayeed Hitham lost about a third of their livestock, and many had to leave when areas turned into a desert. They migrated to neighboring cities — or farther still, to the poor suburbs of Karbala, Basra or Baghdad.

But then, a few months later, the water began to rise. People returned. I photographed the renewal, just as I’d photographed drought the year before. But it felt then — it still feels now — like a sword of Damocles hung over the region.

The stakes are high, both ecologically and for the people who live here. If the already-depleted marshes dry up again, the Ma’dan may have no choice but to leave, to cast away from a peaceful enclave into a troubled land.

Still, I’ve kept coming back. Over the years, I’ve seen drought and abundance, freezing winters and burning summers. I’ve seen children born, and watched them grow up. I’ve followed Sayeed Hitham and his family as they moved around the marsh, the location of their new home dependent on the water level — and each time built out of reeds.

I’ve even gotten used to the huge water buffaloes, known locally as jamous, which represent the main source of income for most of the Ma’dan.

The buffaloes scared me at the beginning. But I’ve learned to walk through a herd of horns, to let them smell me, to pet the fluffy, friendly calves — the ones that try to lick my hand like oversized dogs.

When I outlined my progress to Sayeed, as we wrapped up breakfast, he burst into his wonderful, exuberant laughter. “You still know nothing, Emi,” he said. “You can’t even tell the mean jamous in the herd.”

Then, serious, and still smiling, he said: “It’s OK. You have time to learn.”

View Source

For 10 Years, Photographer Follows Up on Destroyed Village

Times Insider explains who we are and what we do, and delivers behind-the-scenes insights into how our journalism comes together.

On March 11, 2011, an earthquake and a tsunami struck coastal Japan, killing 200 residents of Kesen, a centuries-old village. Only two of the 550 homes were not destroyed, and most of the survivors moved away. But 15 residents vowed to stay and rebuild the village, and Hiroko Masuike, a New York Times photographer and Japanese native, traveled twice a year from New York over the past decade to chronicle their efforts.

Last month, a photo essay and article told the story of their determination during the past 10 years. In an interview, Ms. Masuike discussed the evolution of her project.

Many cities and villages were devastated by the earthquake and tsunami. Why did you decide to focus on Kesen?

When the tsunami happened, I had to be there because my home country was going through a major disaster. Rikuzentakata, the city where Kesen is, was one of the hardest hit. I had a vacation planned, but 12 days after the tsunami, I landed at the nearest airport. I started to photograph the debris and people at an evacuation center in Rikuzentakata, but I was still numb.

One day, I was driving in Kesen and saw a small temple on higher ground. Ten people were living there, and across the town, there were other people living among the debris. They were very different from any other people living in evacuation centers — they were so energetic. The second day when I visited the people in the temple, they told me, “If you want to stay with us, you can.” I started photographing how they lived: They built a small shack where we ate; they made a bonfire every day; they would try to clean up the place. They were hoping to reunite their community.

How did this go from photographing the aftermath of a major disaster to a long-term project?

When I first went there, everyone opened up to me and put their trust in me. I didn’t want to be someone who goes to a disaster zone and then, when the news fades, leaves and never returns. So I just kept going back, photographing everybody each time and catching up on how they were doing. During the 10 years, I was able to spend plenty of time with survivors and capture the right moment. I tried to be a good listener — I think they wanted to tell someone their stories, feelings and frustrations. So they opened to me even more when I kept returning.

What were you hoping to capture at the outset of the piece?

I was hoping this community was going to rebuild. My first trip back was in October 2011, and the government had started building prefabricated houses, so people were living there — except this guy, Naoshi, who lost his son, a volunteer firefighter, to the quake. He thought that because his son’s spirit might come back, he had to be at the same location, so he rebuilt his house in August 2012. And I was hoping to capture when the temple would be rebuilt, because it had been the center of the community for centuries.

Were there any challenges you faced with this project over the past decade?

Most of the time when I went back, there were no changes in the community. The temple was rebuilt in 2017, but Rikuzentakata told survivors that they couldn’t rebuild their homes where their houses once stood. Authorities worked on raising the level of the land for residential use. But construction took a lot longer than they thought, and many people couldn’t wait that long and moved elsewhere, and the land remained empty. When I went back this year for the 10th anniversary, the construction was complete, and seeing the vacant area was stunning: The village was once full of people and houses, but 10 years later, there was nothing.

Will you continue to photograph Kesen?

I probably don’t need to go back twice a year. But the people I’ve been photographing are making some progress. One person is going to open a dog-friendly cafe this summer. So I would like to keep visiting and photographing their lives. I’ve been seeing them for 10 years. It’s hard to stop.

View Source

Let Us Now Praise Tiny Ants

All these differences help us see ants as they really are: rich in diversity, earned over millions of years of evolution as they adapted to a world’s worth of habitats, ecosystems and survival strategies. Dr. Rice calls ants “the Bauhaus creations of the natural world.” Like the architectural principle that form follows function, each strange-looking adaptation represents a major commitment in creatures with “little space for extravagance” and so illustrates yet another of the multitudinous ways that there are to be an ant. “To answer the question posed by an ant’s form,” Dr. Rice writes, “is to begin to untangle the intricate relationships that scaffold our world.”

The naturalist and author Edward O. Wilson discovered this early in his scientific career, when a mentor sent him a note about a group of ants with strange, long mandibles that could spring shut like traps. (“Wilson, find out what dacetines eat,” he wrote. “What do they hunt and catch creeping around with those weird mandibles?”) A question about morphology became a clue about a food web. The ants, it turned out, were eating springtails, a kind of hexapod that can fling itself rapidly through the air to avoid predators, but not quickly enough to outrun the incredible speed of the ants’ jaws. It was a race, Dr. Wilson wrote in “Tales From the Ant World”: “each using its own explosive devices, one to capture, the other to avoid capture.” Mr. Niga’s photographs show trap-jaw ants with mandibles like scimitars or lobster claws; some can close their jaws in barely one-tenth of a millisecond, slamming shut at speeds reaching 145 miles per hour.

We also meet Cataglyphis bicolor, with its long, spidery legs — an invaluable adaptation if you live, as this ant does, in the Sahara and need speed and height to keep you cool above the blazing sand. (For Oecophylla smaragdina, or weaver ants, long legs serve a different purpose: spanning gaps in the tree canopy as they construct nests of leaves and silk.) Leaf-cutter ants look fierce, their bodies covered in spines and spikes, but all that armor is meant not for fighting but, in effect, as a gardening tool. The ants are agriculturalists, ferrying food to the fungus that they cultivate in elaborate underground chambers, and the spikes allow them to better balance their leafy loads. In the tropics, they work in such diligent numbers that you can see the ant highways that their tiny ant feet wear into forest floors.

Learning the ways of ants teaches us that their lives are very different from our own. The ants we encounter in our own lives are almost exclusively female; the males are, in Dr. Wilson’s words, “little more than flying sperm missiles” that don’t live long and are often unrecognizable as ants at all. Queens are made, not born; fertilized eggs have the potential to be queens or workers, and will develop differently based on what the youngster is fed as she grows, a diet and a future that will be dictated by the needs of the colony. Ants also have an unusually high number of odor receptors, which allow them to decode chemical trails and messages. Some species also have three simple light-detecting eyes, called ocelli, to help them fly and navigate, in addition to the standard two compound eyes.

There are many reasons to understand ants better. Whole ecosystems are built around them, and large numbers of species, from plants to beetles to birds, are “ant obligates,” meaning that they depend entirely on their relationships with ant colonies to survive. Winnow ants disperse so many herbaceous seeds in North America, Dr. Rice notes, that “removing them causes wildflower abundance to drop by 50 percent.”

View Source

A Cyclist on the English Landscape

A year ago, as a travel photographer grounded by the pandemic, I started bringing a camera and tripod with me on my morning bicycle rides, shooting them as though they were magazine assignments.

It started out as just something to do — a challenge to try to see the familiar through fresh eyes. Soon it blossomed into a celebration of traveling at home.

@roffsmith.

View Source

Pinterest Is Said to Be in Talks to Acquire the Photo App VSCO

SAN FRANCISCO — Pinterest has held talks to buy VSCO, a photography app that spawned a teenage social media craze, according to two people with knowledge of the matter.

The discussions are ongoing, said the people, who declined to be identified because they were not authorized to speak publicly. A deal price couldn’t be learned; Pinterest has a market capitalization of about $49 billion, while VSCO has raised $90 million in funding and was last valued at $550 million. An acquisition may not materialize, the people cautioned.

Representatives from Pinterest and VSCO (pronounced “vis-coe”) declined to comment on deal talks.

Julie Inouye, a spokeswoman for VSCO, said the company was focused on expanding its business. “We’re always meeting with different companies across the creative space at any given time and do not discuss rumors or speculation,” she said.

Pinterest and VSCO, which stands for Visual Supply Company, are part of a group of tech companies that are highly focused on digital images and visual editing and that rely less on social networking features. Pinterest, a digital pin board site that went public in 2019, lets its users discover and save images to inspire creative projects or to plan important aspects of their lives, including home renovations, weddings and meals.

an app for editing and sharing images and videos. In 2019, it became popular with a Generation Z group that came to be known as “VSCO girls,” who were known for wearing Crocs and carrying Hydro Flasks. The idea of VSCO girls went viral, inspiring social media imitation, mockery, memes and Halloween costumes.

For Pinterest, buying a once-buzzy start-up that was popular with younger audiences and that has expertise in photo- and video-editing technologies could bolster its core service, the people said.

Since Pinterest went public, its revenue has grown, though analysts have said they don’t expect Pinterest to become regularly profitable until 2022. It has also expanded internationally.

During the pandemic, the company experienced a surge of interest as people were locked down and turned to more digital activities. Pinterest added 100 million monthly active users last year and now has a total of 450 million monthly active users.

The San Francisco company also faced social unrest last year. In December, it agreed to pay $22.5 million to settle a gender discrimination and retaliation lawsuit from its former chief operating officer, one of the largest publicly announced individual settlements for gender discrimination. Two female employees of color who quit last year also publicly discussed their experiences with racist and sexist comments, pay inequities and retaliation at the company.

Founded in 2011, VSCO became known among younger users as a kind of anti-social network. The app does not have likes, comments or follower counts, so it appeared to put less pressure on users to build up a fan base. VSCO also eschews advertising, instead earning money by charging people for extra features. Of its 100 million registered users, more than two million are paying subscribers.

When VSCO girls became a cultural phenomenon in late 2019, investor interest in the start-up swelled. But the fad has since cooled off. When the pandemic hit, VSCO laid off 30 percent of its employees. In December, it acquired Trash, a mobile app for video editing, and said it planned to continue acquiring companies in 2021.

View Source

Trump Aide Peter Navarro Doled Out Millions in Pandemic Contracts, Inquiry Finds

The Trump administration was so slow to prepare for the coronavirus pandemic that a top aide to President Donald J. Trump took matters into his own hands.

That aide, Peter Navarro, Mr. Trump’s deputy assistant and trade adviser, personally steered hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts for pandemic supplies to politically connected or novice companies, a preliminary investigation by House Democrats has found.

Mr. Navarro sounded an early alarm about supply shortages, according to emails and other documents released by a House committee overseeing the federal coronavirus response. In a memo dated March 1, 2020, he complained that “movement has been slow.”

After that, documents show, he prodded the Federal Emergency Management Agency to award a $96 million sole-source contract for respirators to AirBoss Defense Group, a defense industry supplier, telling a company executive “everything you requested is OK,” even though no contract had been signed.

Eastman Kodak Company, best known for its photography business, which then entered into a letter of intent in June 2020 to collaborate on the domestic manufacture of pharmaceutical agents, even though the company had no experience in that field.

Mr. Navarro also pushed for the Trump administration to award a $354 million contract to Phlow, a brand-new company in Richmond, Va., to manufacture generic medicines and pharmaceutical ingredients — an effort aimed at building up an American manufacturing base for products that were needed to treat Covid-19 but were made overseas. The Democrats’ investigation found that Mr. Navarro had been introduced to Phlow’s chief executive in November 2019.

“My head is going to explode if this contract does not get immediately approved,” Mr. Navarro wrote to top federal health officials in March 2020. “This is a travesty. I need PHLOW noticed by Monday morning. This is being screwed up. Let’s move this now. We need to flip the switch and they can’t move until you do. FULL funding as we discussed.”

View Source

A Biologist, an Outlandish Stork and the Army of Women Trying to Save It

Life can change in an instant, as I experienced when I first laid my eyes on a tall and bizarrely striking bird known as the greater adjutant.

It was India in 2018, in the northeastern state of Assam. I’d ended up there partly because of absurd circumstances, which involved being filmed for a reality television pilot while navigating a motorized rickshaw through the Himalayas. After traversing some of the highest and most dangerous roads in the world, including the Tanglang La mountain pass, I ventured off to see a traditional selection of endangered animals: Asian elephants, greater one-horned rhinos, western hoolock gibbons.

While en route to Guwahati, Assam’s capital, I saw a 5-foot-tall bird towering near the roadside. I was so taken by its appearance that I asked the driver to pull over so I could have a better look. It had piercing blue eyes, an elongated electric-yellow neck, a wobbly, inflatable neck pouch, long legs that moved with a stiff military gait, and spindly black hairs atop its (mostly bald) prehistoric-looking head. Little did I know that this outlandish animal — also endangered, though not famously so — would change the course of my professional life.

ecologically important water storage basin threatened by pollution and encroachment.

cattle egrets, were the spectacular greater adjutants, who were circling and stiffly marching alongside the other foragers.

rare and endangered scavengers.

taxonomic bias, since humans generally favor attractive mammals with forward-facing eyes. “The more people who see hargilas as a bad omen, disease-carrier and pest,” Dr. Barman told me, “the more I am obsessed.”

towel-like textile — with transfixing speed and expertise.

Carla Rhodes is a wildlife conservation photographer who lives in the Catskills. You can follow her work on Instagram.

View Source

Winnipeg’s New Showcase and Meeting Place for Inuit Art and Artists

Winnipeg sits far from the territory of the Inuit. But the Winnipeg Art Gallery has long been the leading collector of their art.

Heather Igloliorte, an Inuk and associate professor of art history at Concordia University in Montreal, took a break from the last-minute preparations for the opening exhibition, on which she was one of curators, to speak with me. A researcher on circumpolar Indigenous arts, she was the co-leader of an Indigenous advisory circle that the gallery created early in the planning for the new center.

“Because it is in southern Canada, I didn’t want it to be just another place to show non-Inuit about Inuit art,” she told me. “I really hoped it would be a place where Inuit, Inuvialuit and global circumpolar Inuit would know that it was for them when they were inside. So they would see their language, things would be designed in such a way as to be inviting for Inuit.”

What visitors see as soon as they walk in is partly the result of Professor Igloliorte’s vision. Like most art galleries, Winnipeg has stored the overwhelming majority of its 14,000 Inuit works in storage, viewed only by curators and visiting scholars. The Qaumajuq center has brought the vault up into a three story high space, encased in glass and lined with artworks on shelves for all to see.

Michael Maltzan, an architect from Los Angeles, joined him in the north after he was commissioned to design the sculpted building which, on the outside, evokes an iceberg.

Domaine de la Florida where 520 Quebecers, surrounded by plastic palm trees and snow, are dreaming of prepandemic times when they spent winter in much warmer climes.

  • A scathing independent review detailed the callous, discriminatory treatment by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police of the family of Colten Boushie, a 22-year-old Cree man who was shot and killed by a farmer in Saskatchewan in 2016.

  • In a significant victory for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s climate change program, the Supreme Court of Canada rejected claims by the provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario that the mandatory federal carbon pricing plan was unconstitutional.

  • A court in Beijing secretly tried Michael Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat held since 2018, on espionage charges this week. Like the earlier secret trial of another Canadian, Michael Spavor, also held since 2018, the verdict in Mr. Kovrig’s case has not been announced. More than two dozens diplomats from various countries tried to attend but were turned away.

  • Alphonso Davies, the Bayern Munich soccer star who grew up in Windsor, Ontario and Edmonton, didn’t learn his own refugee story until his parents talked about it in a team video. It prompted him to lend his support to the work being done by the U.N.H.C.R., the U.N. refugee agency that helped to organize his family’s resettlement in Canada. This week, the agency appointed Mr. Davies a good-will ambassador.

  • Canadian Pacific, the railway that provided Canada with its first transcontinental land link, is now part of a deal that will create the first railway linking Canada, the United States and Mexico.

  • The head coach of Canada’s national artistic swimming team is stepping aside while the sport’s governing body completes an independent review of allegations that his hiring added to the sport’s history of abusive coaching.


  • A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.


    nytcanada@nytimes.com.

    Like this email?
    Forward it to your friends, and let them know they can sign up here.

    View Source

    Britain Unveils £50 Bill Honoring Alan Turing, Famed Code Breaker

    LONDON — The mathematician Alan Turing spent World War II cracking German codes, and is credited by many historians with helping to hasten the end of the conflict. But a conviction under Victorian indecency laws for his homosexuality left his postwar life in ruins.

    On Thursday, the Bank of England unveiled a bill featuring Mr. Turing, one of a series of efforts by Britain in recent years to posthumously right some of the wrongs inflicted on Mr. Turing during his lifetime.

    Mr. Turing’s scientific contributions embodied “the spirit of the nation” and “showed us the way to the future,” said Andrew Bailey, governor of the Bank of England, as he introduced the bill. “By placing him on this new £50 bank note, we celebrate him for his achievements and the values he symbolizes, for which we can all be very proud.”

    The new bill, worth about $68, features an image of Mr. Turing taken in 1951 by the photography studio Elliott & Fry and includes a 1949 quotation by him about one of his computer inventions: “This is only a foretaste of what is to come, and only the shadow of what is going to be.” The bill will start circulating on June 23, Mr. Turing’s birthday.

    the British government apologized for the “appalling” treatment of Mr. Turing, and Queen Elizabeth II granted him a royal pardon in 2013. A law in his name, which pardoned men convicted in the past for homosexuality, was passed in 2017.

    The Bank of England announced in 2019 that it had chosen Mr. Turing for the £50 bill. The bill was last overhauled in 2011 to feature James Watt, who helped develop the steam engine, and Matthew Boulton, his backer.

    Paper currency in Britain has Queen Elizabeth’s face on one side, and honors different notables from British history on the other, depending on the denomination.

    Ada Lovelace; the physician Stephen Hawking; and Margaret Thatcher, the former prime minister. The new bill will be made out of a polymer, which allows for more security measures and makes it harder to counterfeit.

    Mr. Bailey, the bank’s governor, on Monday applauded Mr. Turing as “someone who, not content with abstract ideas, applied himself to the physical embodiment of those ideas,” adding, “from his sheer force of will came enormous leaps of progress.”

    Mr. Turing’s face on the bill marked a “landmark moment in our history,” Jeremy Fleming, director of GCHQ, a government intelligence and security organization, said in a statement about the design. The honor celebrated Mr. Turing’s scientific genius and “confirms his status as one of the most iconic L.G.B.T.+ figures in the world.”

    View Source