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Author Archive: "Charles Mann"

At the Market

Once a week, my town, like all small towns in western Massachusetts, has a farmers market. People bustle around with their NPR shopping bags, tripping over dogs on too-long leashes and fingering the expensive produce. My family and I head there after breakfast, like almost everybody else we know. We buy our kids homemade popsicles from a farm run by an overall-wearing architect and smoothies made by a local yogurt-maker who has a solar-powered blender. There's a cheerful guy with a mountain-man beard who gathers mushrooms with his son and prefers bartering to actual cash.

I quite like going to the market, but whenever I describe it to outsiders I find myself being a touch snarky, as I was here. The people are pleasant, the produce is good — what am I sneering at? Part of the reason is that this marvelous scene has a small irritant. It's all over the market, in bright yellow, red and green:

The idea is clear: What is small and local is good, ecologically, aesthetically, and even morally. More than that, buying local means ...


Travel Tips from Writing “1493″

Air Transport
To visit most ranches in eastern Bolivia, you will need to hire a private plane. Pilots congregate at the outskirts of commercial airports, each in his (they are all men) own small hangar. When pilots assemble a full planeload of people (4-6 people, depending on the plane) with a single destination, they take off for that destination. As insurance, they keep several potential planeloads going, each hoping to travel to a different place, huddled in separate, mutually suspicious corners of the hangar and watching would-be passengers drift in. The group that reaches capacity first is selected.

Passengers must recognize this situation and scurry from hangar to hangar, looking for others who are going their way. On no account believe the people who drive in pickups around the hangars, bellowing that they have cheaper rides. Do not get into their trucks. They will take you several miles away, where you will be effectively confined to one hangar, hoping that your group fills up.

Most planes and their destinations do not have lights. You therefore must fly in daylight. If you do not have a ...


The First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All the Engineers

Mexico City sits in a basin ringed by mountains. Snowfall and rainwater pour down the slopes; the mountains prevent it from escaping; the basin becomes a marsh. Centuries ago, the area's first inhabitants dredged the muck, turning five small bodies of water into a single 80-mile lake shaped like a backwards S. On the southern curve of the S was a group of low, swampy islands. With considerable ingenuity, the Triple Alliance (Aztec empire) turned these islands into a city of canals — much like Venice, except that the city of Tenochtitlan was twice as big as Venice.

In its watery setting, Tenochtitlan dazzled the Spaniards who first saw it. Great causeways led across the lake to a city bigger than any in Spain, crowded with grand markets and opulent temples. An army of cleaners swept the streets — something the Spaniards had never seen. Another army of engineers vigilantly maintained the baffles, dams, and channels that kept spring floods from returning the city to its original state as a marsh. These latter efforts were invisible to Hernán Cortés and his troops. When they conquered ...


China Corn

The Chinese city of Yulin is on the edge of the Maowusu desert, which occupies the southernmost part of Inner Mongolia. Just north of the city was Mongol territory, and so heavily eroded remnants of the Great Wall cut through the suburbs — or, rather, cut through what would be the suburbs if Yulin were a town in the U.S., but in China is an armada of coal-powered factories. Zhenbeitai, one of the Great Wall's three most important forts, is in Yulin.

I was in Yulin to research my book, 1493, but naturally I wanted to see this part of the Great Wall. Josh D'Aluisio-Guerrieri, my friend and translator, China-hand supreme, was willing to go along. In China, foreigners can't rent cars, so Josh had arranged for a taxi. The idea was that we would stop at the Wall when we finished work for the day.

Driving northwest from Yulin, the highway was boxed in by endless lines of replanted trees — part of China's huge effort to reforest this area. We couldn't see actual desert until we left the main route and drove on little country roads. We had ...


Hat Tip

I am thrilled to be writing for Powell's, not only because I grew up in the Northwest and have many happy memories of visiting the store, but because the book that I just wrote owes its start to Powell's.

Sometime in the late 1980s I was browsing at the store and came across a used paperback on a bottom shelf: Ecological Imperialism by Alfred W. Crosby, Jr. I'd heard of both ecology and imperialism before, of course, but had never seen them put together. My curiosity was snagged. I bent down and picked up the book.

Rarely can I recall, years later, the exact circumstances in which I first read a book. It only happens when a book grabs me hard, forcing me to exist in its world. Suddenly I'll look up, blinking, and realize with a little shock that I'm actually on the beach, or at a coffee shop, or (once) lying in the back of an old station wagon. That was the way it was Ecological Imperialism. Suddenly it was hours later, my ...


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