The Animal Arms Race

3 Feb

The fighting claw of a male fiddler crab can comprise up to half of its total body weight. (Illustration by David Tuss.)

Every now and then I get to do a bit of science reporting, usually about something someone is researching at The University of Montana. I had a fun time reporting this story for the Montanan about Doug Emlen, an evolutionary biologist who studies animal weaponry. His main interest is dung beetles, but in his new book, “Animal Weapons: The Evolution of Battle,” he explores Irish elk, saber-tooth tigers, fiddler crabs and other animals who channel their resources into making weapons of outlandish proportions. In this way, they’re not dissimilar from humans, who have spent a great deal on arms races of our own. It’s an engaging book, even for a non-scientist like myself, with fascinating anecdotes of military history and biological anomalies. But it ends on a chilling tone when Emlen explores what the evolution of animal weapons can tell us about the future of our own nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. The story includes fabulous illustrations by David Tuss.

Get Warm, or Get Wintry

27 Jan

I have two conflicting suggestions for how to spend your winter in this month’s issue of Outside. First, you can escape it, with a trip to the tropics, specifically Nicaragua, Hawaii, Mexico, Dominica, or the Canary Islands. It might look like this, if you’re cruising through the Sian Ka’an Biosphere, near Tulum, Mexico:

It’s like the Everglades, but with Mayan ruins and spider monkeys. Photo: Tophoven/Redux

Or, you can embrace the winter with a visit to the Ranch at Rock Creek, a luxe dude ranch near Phillipsburg, Montana. It was recently ranked the most expensive hotel in the country, and it’s the sort of place celebrities like Kate Bosworth choose to get married. This is what it looks like (well, in summer, anyway):

The Trapper Cabin is part cabin, part canvas glamping tent, a short cast from the Blue Ribbon trout water of Rock Creek.

Gators, Broga, and the Bitterroot Star

5 Jan

Happy 2015, everyone. My story about fly fishing the Florida Everglades is in this month’s issue of Rhapsody magazine–United Airline’s first- and business-class inflight magazine. If you’re not flying first class anytime soon, you can flip through a digital copy online. I have a bio here (on the same page as supermodel Molly Sims!) and the story starts here. Photographer Mark Hartman and I had a blast down there, spending two days with Capt. Charles Wright, navigating the mangrove swamps, and casting big streamers to all the likely places. We caught a bounty of different species, and saw some amazing wildlife–roseate spoonbills, spotted eagle rays–even a gator.

I also have a couple short pieces in the January issue of Outside. This one describes my troubled relationship with yoga, and my admiration for my wife’s practice. It’s about men doing yoga in general. One company calls it “Broga.” And this one is about Island Lake Lodge, the British Columbia getaway where my wife and I spent our brief honeymoon. We were there in summer, when the fishing and hiking are great. In winter it turns into a world-class catskiing destination.

Island Lake Lodge, Fernie, B.C. (Photo by Matt Kuhn)

And I also have a story in the 2015 issue of the Montana Journalism Review–the oldest journalism review in the country. My story is about the Bitterroot Star, an independent weekly community newspaper holding out in an age of corporate conglomeration of the media in their home valley. Michael and Victoria Howell started the Star on a whim, 30 years ago, at the suggestion of a homeless hitchhiker they picked up in their school bus. Lately they’ve been doing some hard-hitting reporting on local officials that other corporate-owned papers have missed. My story is available online.

Summer and Fall Stories

2 Dec

I’ve had a busy summer and fall of writing. I started in May with a trip to California for Coastal Living. My assignment was to write about the farm-to-table food scene along the Central Coast, from Santa Cruz to Big Sur. It was a tough assignment, eating all that delicious food, but someone had to do it! I was even luckier to have my wife, and our month-old son along for the ride. We started in Santa Cruz, and ate our way south, through Monterey, Carmel, and Big Sur. It was great fun. That story was in the November issue of Coastal Living, with some beautiful photos by Jessica Sample. It’s also available online.

The Pacific coastline on a bright early summer morning, near Big Sur's Esalen Institute.

The Pacific coastline on a bright early summer morning, near Big Sur’s Esalen Institute.

The organic gardens at the Esalen Institute overlook the Pacific. Not a bad place to grow your food.

The organic gardens at the Esalen Institute overlook the Pacific. Not a bad place to grow your food.

I’ve done some traveling for upcoming features, too. I was in California again in August, writing about the elite Concours d’Elegance car show for Coastal Living. (That story should be out next spring.) In October, I was in the Everglades, fly fishing for snook and redfish, on assignment for Rhapsody, the inflight magazine for United’s first- and business-class passengers. (I love it when my interests in fly fishing and journalism collide.)

Cars have to be invited to be shown at Pebble Beach's Concours d'Elegance. They're among the most unusual autos in the world.

Cars have to be invited to be shown at Pebble Beach’s Concours d’Elegance. They’re among the most unusual autos in the world.

I continued to write for Outside, about a high-end lodge on Peru’s Lake Titicaca that I’d love to visit one day, about a $450 bicycle floor pump that I could never afford, and about the new rules of maple syrup, which gave me an even greater appreciation for that nectar of the gods. I’ve got small stories in upcoming issues about yoga for men, Island Lake Lodge in British Columbia, and how to have your best winter ever.

I’ve also been writing about some of the research going on at The University of Montana. In late spring, I wrote about UM’s new Brain Initiative. Later, I wrote about UM’s School of Journalism turning 100. (The school began in 1914 when the venerable Arthur Stone pitched tents on the Oval because no classrooms were available. Incidentally, Dean Stone’s great great granddaughter was in my Current Events class this spring.) I wrote about a UM spinoff company that uses corn syrup to produce an eco-friendly dishwashing soap that may transform the industry. And I’ve got two upcoming stories about the economics of wolf depredation on Montana’s cattle industry, and a new technology that can search vast troves of legal documents.

It’s been a good year of interesting assignments, and I’m excited to see what 2015 brings.

Not in Our Backyards

27 May

I have a story in this month’s Outside magazine about the first county in the country to ban fracking. It’s an unlikely new epicenter for the fracking fight–the county is poor and rural, with just 5,000 people and no stoplights. The Community Legal Defense Fund, an environmental advocacy group from Pennsylvania, helped Mora County draft a community rights ordinance that grants the county the right to prevent corporations from drilling for oil and gas. A subsidiary of Shell and a petroleum producers associaiton have both sued the county, arguing the ordinance violates their corporate personhood and is therefore unconstitutional. The case may take years to resolve in the courts, but in the meantime the rest of the country is looking on to see if a community’s rights will trump a corporation’s. You can read the story here.

Illustration by: Shout


8 May

A month ago today, my wife changed our lives forever by delivering our firstborn child in the living room of our small house. It was a wondrous experience. An essay I wrote about it is up on Esquire’s website, in time for Mother’s Day, along with some photos from the birth and the first two days of our son’s life.



Beetles with Benefits

24 Apr

Anyone who’s driven or hiked through the Rocky Mountain West knows about pine beetles. They’re killing whole swathes of forests, a blight that’s now climbing into higher altitudes thanks to warmer winters that don’t kill beetles like they used to. For anyone who enjoys green, pine-clad mountainsides, they’re a real pest. But they’re also an impressively complex organism. Two University of Montana researchers are studying the symbiotic relationship they share with two fungi that live in their mouths. Without these fungi, it turns out, the beetles couldn’t digest the wood they thrive on. But with them, they’re limited by climate constraints that they wouldn’t be otherwise. Is it a match made in heaven, or hell? I tried to find out in this brief story for the UM publication, Research View. 



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