neilshea13 neilshea13

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Neil Shea  writes, shoots, makes films for National Geographic. Short stories + collabs here.

photo by @randyolson | words by @neilshea13 — Listen to locals on Easter Island and they’ll tell you the big statues once walked—loped out of the quarry and over the treeless hills to set themselves up on dark stone pedestals near the shore or plant themselves, backs to the sea, farther inland. It’s a good story and true, but if it does not answer your questions then archaeologists will offer another, one of earthly forces, friction and gravity, ropes and logs. Teams of men and maybe women who tipped, wobbled and pulled nearly 900 moai across the landscape to anchor the sky to earth and the ancestors to their children. This also is a good, true story. So, which will it be? Magic or data, faith or muscle? Both have their attractions. Both deliver you into a world that Europeans glimpsed only for a moment before it vanished. You could choose the middle ground, somewhere between a stroll and a drag, but these days nobody lasts very long in there. Take your time deciding, then. There’s really no wrong answer. In the meantime, I feel compelled to mention that this moai—sunken, surrounded by divers—is fake. Yeah. It’s concrete. Cast onshore and then dumped, not so long ago, into the sea. I’m sorry. I wanted it to be real, too—this figure, alone, walking out beyond the others. It would have been the best story of all.

#chile #easterisland #rapanui #polynesian #moai #captaincook #oceans #science #myth #archaeology #carving #engineering #wildcountry #explorer #scuba #natgeo #photographers #writers #adryseason #watershedstories #remulon

Part of a series exploring the small stories that surround and connect us, and how we stumble through them—capturing, missing, and making meaning.

photo by @randyolson | words by @neilshea13 — Larry said he did it all the time, walked Coco down a path behind the general store to the river and let him play. Nobody paid much mind. Normal to hear them crashing through the water, wrestling, like brothers. The guy who’d owned the store previously kept pit bulls, loud and mean, the neighbors said, awful things, and so Coco was an improvement even if people had never seen such a creature before in the Ozarks. Larry called him a cinnamon bear, though the chest stripe suggested a land far more exotic, and in the mornings you’d find him sitting on the bench swing outside the store, straight-backed, folded paws, just another customer waiting for Larry to open shop. Imagine that—You come over early looking for coffee and find Coco, silent and watchful, like you hadn’t yet come all the way up from a dream. Larry kept him on a chain most of the time and used the stick not for hurting but for guiding. Suggesting. Keeping a little distance. On this day, though, the play turned bad and Coco ended up on top of Larry, pinning him to the bottom of the Little Buffalo, watching his air go. It was a great game—all those bubbles, the little arms flailing, the lousy stick floating downstream. When Coco finally let off, Larry slowly rose and stood there in the water, half-drowned and drooling. Eventually the two dripped back toward shore. There were chores ahead, customers waiting. Day was getting hot. Who knows what had passed between them or where things went from there.

#arkansas #ozarks #littlebuffaloriver #bears #sunbear #bearsofinstagram #rivers #adryseason #watershedstories #new_haiga #wildcountry #backwoods #explorer #natgeo #photographers #writers

Part of a series exploring the small stories that surround and connect us, and how we stumble through them—capturing, missing, and making meaning.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia — The path is hard and deserted and threads beneath quiet trees for a long time without nearing or touching any of them and in this way it seems to go on forever to nowhere. The monkeys do not use it, the elephants cannot, and whoever made it isn’t here to say. So it’s yours, the path and its meaning. To the right, a moat of dark water thick with carp and catfish. To the left, the temple wall crumbles in slow motion. Pause here till the bugs find you. Listen to the crackle of dry leaves. Heat like a hangover throbbing behind your eye. When I was younger I would have wandered such a path with a shovel, digging for what others had lost. Hoping for coins and arrowheads I’d find square cut nails instead, smashed pottery and blue medicine bottles with pale liquid still inside. Old trash. Junk. The backward path is lined with that stuff, a universe of cold little objects. I never found an arrowhead until I was much older and in another country. It lay in the dirt beside an ancient track like this one and when I reached for it I saw there were dozens more scattered over the ground, as though they’d been waiting there all along. I ran a thumb around the razor edge and put it gently back. By then I knew I wanted the feel over the fact.

#cambodia #siemreap #angkorwat #temple #arrowhead #archeology #shortstory #wander #_intermission_

After a long drive into twilight we finally find the X, the spot, where treasure waits beneath the snow. We circle our snowmobiles, flood the spot with light, and then the men attack with picks and pry bars, chipping away ice and stone, antler, hide, and bone. Four caribou are buried here; Ikey shot them during the summer and, unable to carry the meat away, cached the carcasses for later, for now. It’s a common thing, burying meat. Men do it, wolves too. Some say men learned the trick from wolves back near the beginning, and many of the hunters I meet have a cache of fish or caribou waiting, fermenting, out on the land. The meat in Ikey’s cache, buried for months and somehow spared by wandering bears and wolves, is ice-hard and heavy. Stones cling to the still-red flesh and the rot-scent is powerful, even in frigid wind. We dig, pry, pull. Chop. Curse. Cold sinks into our fingers and the scent melts into our clothing. Slowly we drag up the bodies and heave them onto sleds. Back in camp the meat will be shared among the elders who love its strong raw flavor. Most of the younger men don’t, and there’s nothing back in city life, in the Whole Foods or bodegas, that could prepare me for a taste of months-old muscle. But for the old-timers, men who grew up without much variety, this is comfort food. The meat, like the method, telling of another age.

#arctic #canada #nunavut #kingwilliamisland #gjoahaven #winter #tundra #inuit #natsilik #elders #hunter #caribou #polarbear #cold #lifeatthepoles #southerneyes #comfortfood

Jacob, before tea. Each morning he wakes early and crawls from his sleeping bag and tugs on tall rubber boots. There is a whisper of gas as he starts the stove, a thump from the rising flame. Then a struggle as he works the ice-clotted zipper in the tent’s door. Outside, in darkness, he chips ice from the lake and gathers it into a great soot-blackened kettle, which he carries back and sets on the stove. He sits in silence as it steams, staring into the flame. These are the day’s first rhythms. They reassure us and shape the world to come. I have tried to help, clumsily and slowly, but always Jacob shoos me away like a grandfather who knows his gift is time. He is 75, the oldest man among us and by far the strongest, hunting alone every day but Sunday, church day. He was born in an igloo, in a wilderness so vast that today it remains wilderness, and while he knows a bit of English he prefers using those words to make jokes. So whatever is serious, whatever important, we must learn the Inuit way—in stillness, by watching. This requires an adjustment, a sort of surrender for a guy who works in questions. His adopted son, Marvin, and I sit with our empty mugs and wait for hot water. Ice settles in the kettle. Snow curls like smoke through a gap in the canvas door. Three thousand years of patience fills the shadows around us and Jacob begins telling, in Inukititut, of his dream. He had not wanted to leave it. He was hunting caribou. They were so close.

#arctic #canada #nunavut #kingwilliamisland #gjoahaven #winter #inuit #natsilik #elders #tundra #hunter #fishing #char #caribou #polarbear #cold #dreams #lifeatthepoles #southerneyes

The rifles are old and heavy and they kick like an angry child—not the sort of weapon you’d choose for hunting animals, but they’ll do for killing Communists. The Inuit I traveled with were all Canadian Rangers, members of a volunteer unit attached to the national military. They aren’t regular soldiers, more like local militia, and ever since the unit was founded during the early years of the Cold War its members have been given guns and ammunition and told to keep watch over the North. Back then the enemy was Soviet, and the fear, the fantasy, was that the Red Army would roll over the pole and drive toward Ottawa. The Reds never did come—they knew better—and these days the Inuit don’t have much to watch for. But that will change, because the earth is warming and the Arctic is thawing. More ships will soon travel through waters that were once blocked with sea ice, and more nations will look north and wonder about resources. There will be collisions and crashes, oil spills and rescues. Maybe a war over fish. And the Inuit, observing from the shoreline with their ancient British rifles, will see everything first. So, just in case, a little shooting practice. The Inuit throw skins and sleeping bags onto the snow and lie upon them, aiming for old targets that are still printed with pictures of screaming enemy soldiers. These are the only Russians we’ll ever see on the tundra, paper Commies that stand still and tall and shiver a little in the east wind.

#arctic #canada #nunavut #kingwilliamisland #gjoahaven #winter #inuit #natsilik #hunter #fishing #char #caribou #polarbear #cold #tundra #soviet #leeenfield #coldwar #targetpractice #lifeatthepoles #southerneyes

Here is lunch. Or dinner. Breakfast, if you like it cold: frozen sushi and a mug of instant coffee as you lie in your sleeping bag. Arctic char, iqalupik, a close cousin of salmon—they lie stacked like wood outside the tent or stuck tail-first into a deep drift. They were caught last night. It was snowing. Burning cold. Hand over hand the men drew nets from black water and tossed the fish still wriggling onto the snow. They were stiff in minutes, planks of ice in an hour. So grab one, butcher it and be careful. The blade slips easy through skin but catches on fins and cold bone. Into the pot go fillets, skin strips, white fat and innards. Each eye is a delicacy and a rite of passage. The lungs are awful, like wet cardboard. And the frozen blood, passed around in slivers, is difficult to describe. If flavor was color, here is crimson melting on your tongue. Fresh, raw, stewed, fried—after a while even the peanut butter tastes a little like fish. Soon the men go out again to check the nets and again great shoals give themselves up into air sharp as glass. Day after day, night after night, so often that you wonder how many more could possibly live down in that blackness. But the men keep pulling and the fish keep coming, as though hauled up from the well of desire. They will come forever, says one old hunter, So long as we share what we catch. And your mind scratches, like a record, as the needle jumps a track.

#arctic #canada #nunavut #kingwilliamisland #gjoahaven #winter #inuit #natsilik #hunter #fishing #char #caribou #polarbear #cold #lifeatthepoles #southerneyes

King William Island — Here is Adam in his pants made of polar bear, and Anthony in skins of caribou, wearing gloves of wolverine or beaver or dog. In the morning of the first day we drove our snowmobiles down onto the frozen sea and waited there for the Inuit to decide about the weather. Snow was falling, soft and dry, and some of the older men thought it might signal a blizzard. But only a blizzard of a certain size would prevent us from traveling, and so the men smoked and talked and watched the sky. I looked up, too, but unless I turned backward—toward the little village along the shore created, accidentally, by Amundsen—I could recognize nothing in the sky or on the sea or on the frozen land to the north. One of the young men laughed and said, You have southern eyes, and it was true. All the colors, sounds, and animals that shaped my life had disappeared days before. It was thrilling to be so lost, frightening to be so blind. That morning the thermometer on the dashboard read -40 C, and maybe it was true. I stamped and shivered beside Adam and Anthony, wondering what it meant to slip into the skin of an animal. To be weirdly intimate with a creature you shot and turned into pants. It’s hot, Adam said, grinning. I looked at his hands, bare in the wind. At his face, marked with frostbite. All the older guys were like that, funny and scarred, and over days I learned how to watch them. How to worry only when it got too cold to smoke.

#arctic #canada #nunavut #kingwilliamisland #gjoahaven #winter #inuit #natsilik #hunter #caribou #polarbear #cold #lifeatthepoles #southerneyes

Gjoa Haven — On this morning the light arrived late and without plans. It hovered above the frozen sea and spread in a thin golden band through thin white clouds until noon, when the clouds drew back and revealed the sun. I turned to take a photo and could only stand the east wind for a few moments before my eyelashes froze to my eyelids and my fingers went dumb. I haven’t been to the Arctic for a decade but standing there, in Amundsen’s shadow, something rose like an alarm through my body, feet to hips to hands. A fear of cold that felt built in. Then a kid walked past holding a milkshake in a paper cup. Lightly dressed, eyes calm. Knew to avoid the wind. The cold meant something else to him, and so why not a chocolate shake on a day like any other. At the gas station on the edge of town snowmobiles were lined up, smoking, waiting for the attendant to fill up bright red jerry cans. In the wildlife conservation office men sat talking about the polar bear who grew too fond of the local dump and had to be shot. And in a house near the center of town an old hunter lays out lunch on a slab of cardboard. The fish are enormous and frozen solid but fall apart easily under a knife. They are Arctic char, flesh pink and clean as sunrise, and we’ll eat them raw, taking the cold inside.

#arctic #canada #nunavut #gjoahaven #inuit #natsilik #char #polarbear #cold #amundsen #lifeatthepoles

Kenya — The orphans came running out of the forest, their bellies and backs fanned with thick red mud, trunks raised in expectation. They were nearly silent, a wonderful surprise. Before this, I had only ever seen elephants from above, while aboard a tiny plane. Like all large creatures they seemed to move in slow motion, and if I imagined anything about their passage through the dry country it was noise—like brass bands and braking semis, a circus of sound. But these toddlers were fast and light-footed; my little son is way louder and less steady. But like him, they reached in joy for milk-filled bottles, held out by game keepers, and sucked them down in seconds. Many of the elephants at this orphanage were rescued from national parks elsewhere in Kenya, where they’d fallen into wells and water holes and were, eventually, abandoned by helpless mothers and sisters. What a sight it must have been—those mothers lingering at the edges for days, pacing, trunks whipping air, calling for calves they could not reach. Then their decision to leave, and the silence that followed. But humans found these lucky ones and hauled them out, and here at the orphanage they’ll be cared for until they’re well and old enough to return to the bush. Who knows what they remember but as they lope past, rough hides brushing fingertips of the visitors, you can’t help thinking in human terms. You want them to know there’s still room for reunion.

Just back from work in Kenya, and already turning around to head out again for a far colder place. I’m thinking of elephants this morning when I should be thinking of mammoths.

Here is Djibril, whose feet did not reach. He waits after daycare, outside a clinic, for his mother. Slowly the serious face softens and the grin gathers, by degrees, before flooding across his face like sunrise. Today after more than a week of suspense, Kibera is open for business. The streets are thick with buses, bicycles, pedestrians. Djibril’s classroom is open, and some of the water pumps that went quiet during those tense days are working again. Before, Kibera had been marked as the trouble spot, the sore from which anger and destruction would erupt to infect the nation. But this time there were only flashes of fire, and even that may have had more to do with politicians and cops than restless kids. Everyone believes something changed. One activist told me, Peace is not complicated, but you must make room for it. Perhaps the room Kiberans made is practical: poor does not mean stupid, after all. Or perhaps it is spiritual, the sort of bright revelation that comes after listening. Only a few reminders remain of the brief battles that were fought here after Kenya’s election, and I track the worst of it home on my boots as I leave tonight—a paste of rubber soot left by burning tires, black and stubborn as tar. The rest has gone with yesterday’s rain.

#kenya #nairobi #kibera #8town #olympic #peace #protest #portraits #election #democracy #vote #africa #ballot #WeweNdioKusema #odm #jubilee #ElectionsKE2017 #kenyadecides

Quiet in Kibera tonight. The roadblocks have been broken and pushed away, leaving smears of coal-black soot, and the police, the "turtles," have returned to their barracks. Busses are running, the hopscotch kids are spinning and shouting again in the clearing beside the garbage mountain. Business almost back to normal—though tomatoes are still too expensive. You might call it a panic tax, price gouging for a catastrophe that hasn't yet come. Outside a bar where Indian soap operas drawl across a solitary TV, an artist says to me, Look, Kibera isn't burning. It means we must've learned something.

#kenya #nairobi #kibera #8town #olympic #peace #protest #art #election #democracy #vote #africa #ballot #WeweNdioKusema #odm #jubilee #ElectionsKE2017 #kenyadecides

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