Rescue Missions | Science | Smithsonian

Rescue Missions

Quests to Save a Tree... and a Country

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In the two and a half years that Russ Rymer has been pursuing the fascinating connection between great concert music and forest ecology documented in our cover story ("Saving the Music Tree"), his reporting has taken him from the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State to the Brazilian jungles, and from the Black Forest of Germany to Beethoven's study in Vienna. Says Rymer: "I've driven in a carful of Brazilians down Germany's autobahn and in a carful of Germans up the terrifying two-lane anarchy of the BR-101, Brazil's north-south highway." And, he might add, lived to tell the tale.

It began for Rymer, who is an amateur cellist himself, when one bow maker after another—meticulous craftsmen of bows for stringed instruments—told him that their livelihood was threatened by the scarcity of Brazil's pernambuco tree. His reportorial highlight took place at Vienna's magnificent Konzerthaus, where Rymer was privileged to observe Heinrich Schiff, one of the world's foremost cellists, warming up in a backstage practice room. As the imposing Schiff got out of his chair to go onstage, he commanded Rymer to meet him in the same spot immediately after his curtain call. Rymer did as instructed. The applause was still thundering when Schiff burst back through the practice room door, laid his Montagnana cello in its case and put away his pernambuco bow. "He lit a cigarette, took a drag, then turned to me and said, 'You have ten minutes.'" As things turned out, however, the two men talked for nearly an hour until, says Rymer, "the usher finally knocked on the door to say, with a bow, 'Herr Schiff, your driver is waiting.'"

Jeffrey Tayler, a writer who has lived in Moscow for more than a decade, first visited Georgia in 1985. "I remember my Soviet tour guide telling me that for him, arriving in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, from Russia was like traveling to the West because of all the fruits, vegetables and consumer goods for sale there." Once, the guide proudly showed Tayler a pair of fake, plastic ice cubes he'd bought in Tbilisi to use back home in Leningrad. He planned to entertain his guests "American style." (Russians don’t usually put ice in their drinks.)

But if Georgia was once a shopping mecca for Russians, it is now, says Tayler, "a reminder of how corruption, sell-out rulers and theft can turn a promising country into a wasteland." Reporting "Georgia at a Crossroads" in December 2003, Tayler shivered in one unheated hotel room after another, or stumbled down unlit streets at night, astonished "that Western reporters had written so fondly for a decade of then President Eduard Shevardnadze's 'reformist' agenda and yet rarely mentioned the cold and dark to which it led."

About Carey Winfrey
Carey Winfrey

Carey Winfrey was Smithsonian magazine's editor in chief for ten years, from 2001 to 2011.

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