From the Editors Judging from the thousands of online comments, social media salutes and old-school letters, the July/August issue touched a nerve. Readers praised Paul Theroux’s “Soul of the South” for its “poetry”—or accused it of regional stereotypes. “Elephant Killer,” about a notorious African poacher, moved some to tears and others to outrage. Amanda Foreman’s essay about the surprising complexity of the War of 1812, “America on Fire,” lit up Facebook. All in all, Ronni Smith wrote, the July/August issue “blew me away!” Greg Michaels called it “a cache of cerebral goodies.”
The Plight of Elephants
The poignant and enraging “Elephant Killer” describes a war between human benevolence and malevolence, with wildlife guardians full of reverence and elephant torturers rife with deadly irreverence. It’s mortifying to accept the reality that intelligent, sociable and sensitive elephants are a gravely endangered species because of merciless poachers who massacre these priceless creatures for sheer greed and vainglory.
Kudos to author Joshua Hammer and photographer Kate Brooks for their desperately needed article. There aren’t enough words to thank Adoum Mahamat Brahim, park officials and rangers who risk life and limb to protect elephants from poachers. But what about those of us who want to help stop these massacres? What can we do? Contribute money? Petition U.S. leaders to somehow crack down on the illegal trade? Stop buying products made in China?
Editor’s Note: For information about helping anti-poaching efforts, Kate Brooks and others suggest the following organizations: African Parks, the African Wildlife Foundation, the Elephant Action League, Elephants Without Borders, the Thin Green Line Foundation and the World Wildlife Fund.
Paul Theroux is a great writer, and “Soul of the South” deftly balances the human and economic stories of the places he visits. But (twice!) he raises U.S. aid to Africa, with the implication that the government should be doing more to help struggling communities in the United States. More should be done. But only around 1 percent of the U.S. budget goes to foreign aid, though the public believes it to be much more. The nation is prosperous enough to engage in economic development at home while helping alleviate extreme poverty elsewhere.
Michael A. Livermore
Congratulations to the “renowned travel writer” who did not miss a single cliché, stereotype or negative statistic in his diatribe on the South. Can we look forward to future articles about the racial ghettos of the major metropolitan areas, perhaps a scenic road trip through the dying cities and towns of the Rust Belt, or an essay about the depopulation of the Heartland due to the industrialization of farming by international agribusiness corporations? I doubt it—the South is just such an easy target.
I expect to be educated by Smithsonian. What surprised me was the lyrical beauty of Theroux’s “Soul of the South.” Through his carefully crafted prose, I could see, hear and feel a region I have never been to—but now want to visit.
Lawrence of Arabia
“Lawrence’s Arabia” was the best treatment of the subject I have read—and that’s saying a lot. I’m a veteran of World War II (Pacific) and an avid follower of World War I, and I was absorbed in the details, depth and insights of Scott Anderson’s article. It describes events 100 years ago that couldn’t be more timely with ISIS roaming murderously through Syria and Iraq and destroying the states created back in 1919 by Sykes-Picot over Lawrence’s objections.
War of 1812
Amanda Foreman wrote a decidedly British/Canadian version of the War of 1812. In the battle on September 11, 1814, that she briefly mentions, the British invaded from Quebec by both land and water—and were soundly defeated by outnumbered American troops. We’ve been celebrating the Battle of Plattsburgh ever since.
Clyde M. Rabideau
Plattsburgh, new York
In a caption on page 99, we misstated the location of the Dreamland Motel. It is in Sylvania, Georgia.
On page 38 we ascribed a painting of the burning of Washington to an unknown artist. In fact, the artist is Joseph Boggs Beale.
Speaking for Noc the Whale
Seeing the august name Smithsonian, one expects real science. “Voice From the Deep” (June), by Charles Siebert, a famous and talented writer, scarcely nods to it. For my part in this article I apologize to my friends and co-workers who trained and cared for Noc and the other white whales. We had published our science and should have let it stand. I did not realize that Mr. Siebert would call on anti-captivity activists to psychoanalyze our whale without any firsthand knowledge. He suggests “all we have left now of Noc is his human voice.” In fact, we recorded the speech-like behavior and published the analysis along with 18 peer-reviewed scientific publications, several technical reports and one PhD dissertation. These publications have been cited more than 600 times, often by scientists working to conserve whales in the wild. We also have Noc’s DNA. Not many whales leave such a substantial legacy. I was principal investigator for research that grew from it, but, in contrast to what Mr. Siebert reported, I never said I was in charge or that the Navy’s Cold Ops was “top secret.” Arctic natives kill several hundred white whales each year on traditional hunts. Hunters spared the lives of six whales for the Cold Ops program. We learned a great deal from these whales. Now, with faster computers and modern sensors, scientists are developing windows on the animal mind that might clarify the “linguistic divide.” Perhaps hunters could spare a few more whales to allow such studies, which might also be important for conservation of the species.
Sam H. Ridgway
President of the National Marine Mammal Foundation
The author responds:
My story portrayed the life of an intriguing whale named Noc, who died in 1999 and even when alive was not able to speak intelligibly on his own behalf. Thus I had only the testimony and scientific studies of Dr. Ridgway and others who knew and worked firsthand with Noc. I would never presume to “psychoanalyze” anyone, no less a whale. I am free, however, to speculate on what could have been behind Noc’s extraordinary feats of mimicry, so long as my theories are based on evidence—much of which was provided by Dr. Ridgway and other scientists I cited. No one would question the validity of the scientific research done by the “anti-captivity activists” I spoke with. The ethics of captivity aside, the behavior of intelligent nonhumans such as Noc the whale naturally invite us to wonder. Science now allows us to wonder and speculate in ways we never could before.