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Living and Writing in the Natural World

King Tut's father and Moses

The young Tutankhamun and his queen

One of the most enjoyable aspects of writing historical novels, for me, is the interesting things you bump into during the research phase. I’ve just finished a major revision of my second Sherlock Holmes novel, set in 1923, in which Holmes is called to Egypt to unravel whether the co-discoverer of King Tutankhamun’s tomb, Lord Carnarvon, is being poisoned. (The historical Carnarvon in fact died of “blood poisoning” four months after entering Tut’s tomb with his archaeologist, Howard Carter—thus originating the “Curse of the Mummy” phenomenon.)  Read More 

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Darwin's Champion in China, Part 2: An Evening with Ye Duzhuang

Helper, Ye, Ye's wife, Barnett, Zhou, and Yu

I knocked on the door of Ye Duzhuang's apartment at the Academy of Agricultural Sciences compound on Beijing's northwest edge.

Ye answered the door himself. Before me stood a tall man, over six feet, lean, with jet black hair above a calm face with a strong nose. He was 70 years old, but still alert, and moved with little trace of his age.

“Dr. Ye?”

“Come in, Dr. Barnett, come in!” he said affably. I walked through a short hallway. A small room opened to our right, Ye’s study.  Read More 

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Darwin’s Champion in China, Part 1: The Turbulent Life of Ye Duzhuang

Ye Duzhuang

Chinese intellectuals and artists suffering abuse at the hands of the state have been much in the news these days. The blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng, avant-garde artist Ai Weiwei, and Nobel Prize recipient Liu Xiaobo have received the most prominent press, but the shameful list certainly must include also Hu Jia (AIDS and environmental advocate), Zhu Yufu (“It’s Time” poet), Gao Zhisheng (dissident rights lawyer), Wu Yuren (installation artist), and Chen Wei (advocate of a “jasmine revolution”). And there are many others. The drum roll of imprisonment and intimidation reminded me of an evening I spent in the spring of 1984 with a most remarkable Chinese scientist. Read More 

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Bull elk and Dutch Ovens on the Lost Coast

California's Lost Coast: 66 miles of wilderness

My buddy Al was busy shooting sunset-in-the-ocean photos from our camp in California’s Lost Coast Wilderness a week ago when I whispered, “Look left. Slowly.” He looked, and muttered “Aw, hell.” There, fifteen feet away, was 900 pounds of bull elk. It is rutting season currently, and this bull’s already massive five point antlers had—believe it or not—some six feet of iron chain wrapped around the left antler.  Read More 

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Weekly to Monthly, but just as fun

Last week's entry made if a full year I've had the privilege of posting weekly essays under the broad rubric of Living and Writing in the Natural World. It's been a blast, and much of the enjoyment has been the feedback from those of you following my (mis)adventures.

A very full writing schedule, however, leads me to switch to a monthly rather than a weekly format for the foreseeable future. These monthly essays will be longer,  Read More 
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A Yosemite Ramble Goes Up in Smoke

Half dome behind the oak--shrouded in smoke!

My long-planned Yosemite outing this past weekend would be perfect: Amtrak bus and train down the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys, bus from Merced depositing me at Yosemite Valley’s Curry Village, then picked up by the Tuolumne Meadow Hiker Shuttle the next morning, up to the high country, and deposited at the May Lake trailhead for my hike into a series of High Sierra Camps, light pack on my back and walking sticks in hand.

What could possibly go wrong?  Read More 

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Peaches, Thomas Jefferson, and Xi Wang Mu

Inside the cup: peaches of immortality

Every summer about this time I come to the same conclusion about peaches as Ben Franklin reportedly did about beer: “Beer is a sign that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” Indeed, though for me it’s peaches rather than beer. You’d think after over a month of peaches on my oatmeal, on my pancakes, over ice yogurt, and overwhelmingly just eaten straight, the juice dribbling down my chin—you’d think I’d be tired of peaches. You’d be wrong. , Read More 

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Stranger than We Think

Fueling up for the journey north

I saw another monarch butterfly last week, and it set me thinking about some of the incredible things non-human animals do, and what it shows about the place of humans in the cosmos.

This monarch was probably the second in a chain of four or five generations of these butterflies, a saga that starts in their overwintering home (in Pacific Grove, California; another locus is northern Mexico). Beginning each spring,  Read More 

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How I Escaped a Chinese Dungeon

While researching exotic locales for scenes in my novels is one of the best parts of being a writer, it sometimes involves privation and discomfort, not to mention the occasional threat of incarceration. I came within a hair’s breadth of being arrested in Beijing in the spring of 1984, for example.  Read More 
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Night skies and Sunny creeks

One thing that John Muir and Lao Tze agree on is that you’ve got to spend time outdoors. Connecting up with “Godful nature” or “the flow of the Tao” is critical, each claims, to maintaining the health and sanity of humans. Being in the natural world is its own reward, of course. I do it mainly because it makes me feel super, which is more important than even St. John or Sage Lao recommending it. This summer, I’ve been doing it a bit differently—more sky than creek.  Read More 
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