July 27, 20217:


a portrait of Sandra Cisneros

Keith Dannemiller/Courtesy of Penguin Random House

This month on Code Switch, we’re talking to some of our favorite authors about books that taught us about the different dimensions of freedom. Next up, a conversation with the writer Sandra Cisneros.

Sandra Cisneros was a quiet, sensitive kid — the only daughter of a Latino immigrant — and growing up, all she wanted was some peace and quiet so she could write. So the now-famous author fixated on getting that space for herself, in the form of a house. She began what would become a life-long journey to find a place where she felt comfortable to be her fullest self: where, if she wanted to, she could “leave [her] hair uncombed, walk around barefoot, be rude.” Oh, and to write stories that would resonate with readers for generations.

On a recent episode of the Code Switch podcast, I interviewed Cisneros about her 2016 memoir, A House of My Own. I’d grown up with her fiction, including the novels The House On Mango Street and Caramelo, but I wasn’t sure what to expect of a memoir. It turned out to be a primer in how to live the kind of life I dreamed of: having a house, with the freedom to read and write away from the noise and expectations of family and society. And as a fellow quiet, sensitive child of a Latino immigrant, her experiences felt familiar to me in a way that I rarely come across in other books.

We talked about why she became obsessed with houses, what it was like to finally buy one, and — spoiler alert — what it felt like to fall out of love with it. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

A House Of My Own is a collection of essays largely centered around the houses you have lived in over the course of your life. Why houses? What is special to you about them?

To have a house means that you have a space in which you can retreat from society and create your own monastery or convent. And it’s really the house of the imagination that you’re looking for: some space that is uncensored, uninterrupted, and that inspires you to sit with yourself and have a nice, thorough conversation. 

I lived in a house when I was growing up that was filled with people and noise. My mother’s first thing she did in the morning was turn on the radio, and my brothers turned on television sets. And I never could understand that, filling up the silence with electronic noise. I had to have absolute quiet, and it forced me to go to bed after everyone else had gone to bed and to be a bit of a vampire as far as my schedule. And I did that because when you don’t have a room of your own, you create a time of your own, a space of your own.

As a child, did you have a vision of what you wanted that space to look like?

You know how little girls dream of their weddings? I dreamt of houses. I would go to the public library in Chicago and get out design books, and look at houses and then think about my perfect house. I knew that I wanted a window seat, and I wanted some sort of a bed that had little curtains, like the kinds you see in fairy tales. Something that was safe.

More than anything, because my father was an upholsterer, I thought of fabric. I would think of colors, of patterns — like, maybe I would have some sort of flowered pattern on the curtain that would go around the bedroom.

Speaking of your father, he’s a figure who appears over and over again in your essays as someone you love very dearly — and also someone who disappointed you, who supported your work but also wanted you to get married instead of becoming a writer. I’m curious: How did your relationship with him change with him as you started to assert your independence?

Wisdom From YA Authors on Leaving Home: Sandra Cisneros

Well, you have to remember, I was my father’s favorite child, so I had a lot of power. And even though I was the only girl and my father had very traditional ideas about what my life should be, I wasn’t afraid of him. I didn’t have to be afraid of him because I knew I was my father’s twin. I was him in a female form, and I did a lot of the things he did. He had meandered from Mexico City and wound up in Chicago. And look at me now: I’m in Mexico. I understand him better now after living in Mexico and traveling.

And he did come around. But my father, you have to understand, was trying to find a way for me to be financially secure. When he saw that I wasn’t going to get married, he worried for me. I remember him reminding me, remember when you came home to Chicago in your thirties and you were in tears because I sent your brother to pick you up at O’Hare and you didn’t have enough money for a luggage cart? I didn’t have three dollars in my purse. And my father was frightened for me. 

So later on when I started earning from my pen, every time I got an award, my father made me photograph me holding up the check. And he would look at that check and say, “Oh, my God, how many years would I have had to work to make that sum?” That was heartbreaking for me. So by the time he was dying, he and I understood each other completely; he even apologized and saw my life and understood why I had been so stubborn about the route I had taken. And I understood his stubbornness, too. And we just came to some nice peace, and there was nothing we had to say to one another in the last days of his life. We were one another. We were different halves of the same person.

You also write about your mother in your memoir. I was struck in particular by one sentence about your relationship with her: “I became a writer thanks to a mother who was unhappy being a mother.” Can you tell me more about that?

Oh, my goodness, yes. You know, one of my mother’s favorite movies and possibly books was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. And I never wanted to watch that film with her because it was a little sappy and sentimental. So, of course, I didn’t read the book and I didn’t know what it was about. And when she died, the day we came home from her funeral, I put the cassette into the player and watched the whole thing. 

And I just wept, because I saw that was my mother’s dream. She had dreamed of being an artist, and she couldn’t reach that dream. But she opened the door for me to become an artist. How lucky I was to be born in 1954, not in 1929. That made all the difference, to be born in a generation that I was able to reach my dream, and to have a mom who knew what it was to have a dream. I don’t know how to make any meals, but my mom made sure that I read books instead of being called into the kitchen when she was cooking.

 Sandra Cisneros Crosses Borders And Boundaries In ‘A House Of My Own’

How did that lead you to writing?

I think we’re all visual artists as children. And then I made the switch in sixth grade to language, and expressed myself with words. And my mom was always in the background. She was always drawing, singing, or doing something creative along with us. She would sing arias, and she would dance when Soul Train came on. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized my mother wanted to be something other than a housewife, and she never got to do that. 

Did you see yourself in her at all? 

My mother was a model of what I didn’t want to be. When I was a child, I saw her as being very unhappily married — to a nice man, but not her intellectual equal. He was a very faithful and responsible husband, but occasionally she would shout, “There’s no intelligent life around here!” I kind of knew what she meant, because my father liked television, while my mother liked reading books about political science and thinkers. I felt sorry for her. And I thought, man, I don’t want to ever wind up in a marriage like this one. I certainly do not want to have seven kids. 

I didn’t identify with her when I was young. But as I passed 30, I started seeing myself in her. When you’re young, all you see is what your mother didn’t do for you. But later on, when you get older, you see all the things that she was able to do despite you. And so I got to appreciate her and who she was, and discover who she was as I grew older. And of course, I’m just like my mother. Now that I am an adult, I see that. 

Eventually you left your childhood home, and you achieved your dream of living alone and working when you finally bought your first house in San Antonio. Do you remember your first few days in that house?

I remember every time I unlocked the door or locked it, I had this feeling of, wow, I’m paying for this with my penWho would have thought? It was just incredible to me. It was a two bedroom, 100-year-old cottage. And even when I locked it for the last time and looked at it one last moment, as I pulled away, I still felt proud of what my labor had been able to produce. 

On that note, your book ends in a way I wasn’t expecting — with you leaving the house that you had in San Antonio after spending so much time trying to find that space for yourself. Why was leaving important to you?

I think part of the fun for me of being in a house is adapting it and making it yours: changing it, renovating it, repainting it and putting in a new bookcase. Once you stop and there’s nothing else to do, you feel a little bored by the house. You feel like, OK, I’ve done everything I can, what’s next?

I was just there earlier this year. I rented an AirBnb in the neighborhood, across the street from my old house. And I looked at my house and my house said to me, Are you sorry you sold me? Look at me now. Don’t you wish I was your house? And I said,No, it’s very beautiful to look at you now. You’ve changed. You look different. I don’t even want to see what you look like inside. But, you know, you were my love. And I let you go and you blessed me and I’m happy to move on.

Snow sublimates rapidly in a hot, dry atmosphere ~ The Conversation


Creeks, rivers and lakes that are fed by melting snow across the U.S. West are already running low as of mid-July 2021, much to the worry of farmers, biologists and snow hydrologists like me. This is not surprising in California, where snow levels over the previous winter were well below normal. But it is also true across Colorado and the Rocky Mountains, which in general received a normal amount of snow. You’d think if there was normal amount of snow you’d have plenty of water downstream, right?

Over a century ago, snow scientist James Church at the University of Nevada, Reno, began examining how the amount of snow on mountains related to the amount of water in riversfed by the melting snow. But as hydrologists have learned over the many decades since, the correlations between snows and river flows are not perfect. Surprisingly, there is a lot researchers don’t know about how the snowpack is connected to rivers

Of course, a dry winter will result in meager flows in spring and summer. But there are other reasons snow from the mountains won’t reach a river below. One growing area of research is exploring how droughts can lead to chronically dry soil that sucks up more water than normal. This water also refills the groundwater below. 

But another less studied way moisture can be lost is by evaporating straight into the atmosphere. Just as the amount of snow varies each year, so too does the loss of water to the air. Under the right conditions, more snow can disappear into the air than melts into rivers. But how snowfall and loss of moisture into the air itself relate to water levels in rivers and lakes is an important and not well understood part of the water cycle, particularly in drought years.

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Losing moisture to the air

There are two ways moisture can be lost to the atmosphere before it reaches a creek or river. 

The first is through evaporation. When water absorbs enough energy from the Sun, the water molecules will change into a gas called water vapor. This floating water vapor is then stored in the air. Most of this evaporation happens from the surface of lakes, from water in the soil or as snow melts and the water flows over rocks or other surfaces.

Another way moisture can be lost to the atmosphere is one you might be less familiar with: sublimation. Sublimation is when a solid turns directly into a gas – think of dry ice. The same can happen to water when snow or ice turns directly into water vapor. When the air is colder than freezing, sublimation happens when molecules of ice and snow absorb so much energy that they skip the liquid form and jump straight to a gas.

A number of atmospheric conditions can lead to increased evaporation and sublimation and eventually, less water making it to creeks and streams. Dry air can absorb more moisture than moist air and pull more moisture from the ground into the atmosphere. High winds can also blow moisture into the air and away from the area where it initially fell. And finally, the warmer air is and more Sun that shines, the more energy is available for snow or water to change to vapor. When you get combinations of these factors – like warm, dry winds in the Rockies called Chinook winds – evaporation and sublimation can happen quite fast. On a dry, windy day, up to around two inches of snow can sublimate into the atmosphere. That translates to about one swimming pool of water for each football field-sized area of snow.

A small green metal tower and green wooden box in a snowy mountain forest.
Snow survey sites, like the one seen here in Montana, can help scientists measure snowpack, but most sublimation happens above the treeline, a zone for which there is little data. USDA NRCS Montana/WikimediaCommons

Sublimation is mysterious

It is relatively easy to measure how much water is flowing through a river or in a lake. And using satellites and snow surveys, hydrologists can get decent estimates of how much snow is on a mountain range. Measuring evaporation, and especially sublimation, is much harder to do.

Today researchers usually estimate sublimation indirectly using physics equations and wind and weather models. But there are lots of uncertainties and unknowns in these calculations. Additionally, researchers know that the most moisture loss from sublimation occurs in alpine terrain above the treeline – but snow scientists rarely measure snow depths there. This further adds to the uncertainty around sublimation because if you don’t know how much moisture a system started out with, it is hard to know how much was lost.

Finally, weather and snowpack depths vary a lot from year to year. All of this makes measuring the amount of snow that falls and then is lost to the atmosphere incredibly difficult

When scientists have been able to measure and estimate sublimation, they have measured moisture losses that range from a few percent to more than half of the total snowfall, depending on the climate and where you are. And even in one spot, sublimation can vary a lot year to year depending on snow and weather.

When moisture is lost into the atmosphere, it will fall to the surface as rain or snow eventually. But that could be on the other side of the Earth and is not helpful to drought-stricken areas.

It is hard to say how important loss of moisture to the atmosphere is to the total water cycle in any given mountain range. Automated snow monitoring systems – especially at high elevations above the treeline – can help researchers better understand what is happening to the snow and the conditions that cause losses to the atmosphere.

The amount of water in rivers – and when that water appears – influences agriculture, ecosystems and how people live. When there is a water shortage, problems occur. With climate change leading to more droughts and variable weather, filling a knowledge gap of the water cycle like the one around sublimation is important



By Matt Ruby and Noah Throop July 25, 2021

For many Americans, it might come as a surprise to see mountain biking in the Olympics this year. Yet cross-country mountain biking is not new to the Games. The sport debuted in Atlanta in 1996, and is today, dominated by Europeans.

But, recently, chances that an American cyclist could reach the podium and take home a medal have dramatically increased, thanks to Kate Courtney, whose success hasn’t been rivaled by other U.S. cyclists in decades.

Born in Marin County, Calif., the birthplace of mountain biking, Courtney grew up biking in the hills behind her house. In her first year in the elite field, she achieved something no American, man or woman, had done for 17 years — winning the world championships. The following year, 2019, she won the Overall World Cup title, taking the top spot in three of the seven World Cup races in the process.

These achievements are the pinnacle of the sport, and winning them has propelled Courtney to the front of the pack. Still, Olympic medals are nothing to scoff at. And for Courtney, who is in her prime, an Olympic gold medal is the remaining achievement.

In Europe, where the sport has robust grassroots support and participation, the top athletes in the field are considered celebrities. Local races often bring out large crowds, and World Cup races attract thousands to Germany, the Czech Republic, France and Slovenia. Every season, a majority of the sport’s race calendar takes place in Europe.

Here in the United States, it’s a slightly different story. When Kate Courtney started racing mountain bikes in 2009, NICA, a scholastic cycling league, had less than 1,000 participants across the country. Today, it has over 14,000.

While that growth is impressive, to put it in perspective, the number of high schoolers participating on a swim team in 2018 (the last year a national survey was conducted) was over 138,000 for boys and 175,000 for girls. Outdoor track and field for both boys and girls had over one million participants combined.

Still, mountain biking has come a long way, in no small part due to the success of figures like Courtney. A vocal proponent of the sport, in 2020 she started a scholarship for four high school seniors, to help them attend college and continue to compete in mountain-bike racing.

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Science & Tech

The composite image offers a startling look into a violent event.

Sarah Cascone, June 4, 2021

Composite image of the Galactic Center. Courtesy of NASA/CXC/UMass/Q.D. Wang; Radio: NRF/SARAO/MeerKAT./CXC/UMass/Q.D. Wang; Radio: NRF/SARAO/MeerKAT.
Composite image of the Galactic Center. Courtesy of NASA/CXC/UMass/Q.D. Wang; Radio: NRF/SARAO/MeerKAT./CXC/UMass/Q.D. Wang; Radio: NRF/SARAO/MeerKAT.

NASA’s latest image of the Milky Way is two decades in the making.

The dramatic view of the heart of the galaxy combines 370 observations taken over a period of 20 years and features billions of stars.

“What we see in the picture is a violent or energetic ecosystem in our galaxy’s downtown,” astronomer Daniel Wang of the University of Massachusetts Amherst told the Associated Press.

“There are a lot of supernova remnants, black holes, and neutron stars there. Each X-ray dot or feature represents an energetic source, most of which are in the center.”

Wang created the composite photograph while working from home over the past year, according to CNN, combining data from the orbiting Chandra X-ray Observatory and the MeerKAT radio telescope in South Africa.

He published the resulting image and his associated findings in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society journal.

The stunning photograph shows hot gas streaming out of regions near Sagittarius A*, a supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy some 26,000 light years away.

Wang believes this is evidence of a magnetic field reconnection event, when two opposing magnetic fields collide and combine, expelling large amounts of energy. It’s believed to be the same phenomena that triggers solar flares and the Northern Lights.X-ray & Radio Image of G0.17-0.41. Image courtesy of NASA/CXC/UMass/Q.D. Wang; Radio: NRF/SARAO/MeerKAT.

X-ray & Radio Image of G0.17-0.41. Image courtesy of NASA/CXC/UMass/Q.D. Wang; Radio: NRF/SARAO/MeerKAT.

The Milky Way, a spiral galaxy, formed about 13.51 billion years ago. Observing the galactic center is difficult because it is surrounded by a thick fog of dust and gas, but the new photo reveals a interstellar tapestry of gas and magnetic fields.

“The galaxy is like an ecosystem,” Wang explained. “We know the centers of galaxies are where the action is and play an enormous role in their evolution.”

See more views of the galactic center below.Composite image of the Galactic Center made with X-ray imagery from the Chandra X-ray Observatory. Courtesy of NASA/CXC/UMass/Q.D. Wang; Radio: NRF/SARAO/MeerKAT.

Composite image of the Galactic Center made with radio data from MeerKAT. Courtesy of NASA/CXC/UMass/Q.D. Wang; Radio: NRF/SARAO/MeerKAT.Composite image of the Galactic Center made with radio data from MeerKAT. Courtesy of NASA/CXC/UMass/Q.D. Wang; Radio: NRF/SARAO/MeerKAT.

Composite image of the Galactic Center made with radio data from MeerKAT. Courtesy of NASA/CXC/UMass/Q.D. Wang; Radio: NRF/SARAO/MeerKAT.Composite image of the Galactic Center with labeled features. Courtesy of NASA/CXC/UMass/Q.D. Wang; Radio: NRF/SARAO/MeerKAT./CXC/UMass/Q.D. Wang; Radio: NRF/SARAO/MeerKAT.

Composite image of the Galactic Center with labeled features. Courtesy of NASA/CXC/UMass/Q.D. Wang; Radio: NRF/SARAO/MeerKAT./CXC/UMass/Q.D. Wang; Radio: NRF/SARAO/MeerKAT.

Rearrangement of World’s Plant Life Looms ~ YaleEnvironment 360


Previous periods of rapid warming millions of years ago drastically altered plants and forests on Earth. Now, scientists see the beginnings of a more sudden, disruptive rearrangement of the world’s flora — a trend that will intensify if greenhouse gas emissions are not reined in.

Some 56 million years ago, just after the Paleocene epoch gave way to the Eocene, the world suddenly warmed. Scientists continue to debate the ultimate cause of the warming, but they agree on its proximate cause: A huge burst of carbon dioxide entered the atmosphere, raising Earth’s average temperature by 7 to 14 degrees Fahrenheit. The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), as this event is known, is “the best geologic analog” for modern anthropogenic climate change, said University of Wyoming paleobotanist Ellen Currano.

She studies how the PETM’s sudden warmth affected plants. Darwin famously compared the fossil record to a tattered book missing most of its pages and with all but a few lines obscured. The PETM, which lasted roughly 200,000 years, bears out the analogy. Wyoming’s Bighorn Basin is the only place on Earth where scientists have found plant macrofossils (visible to the naked eye, that is) that date to the PETM. The fossil leaves that Currano and her colleagues have found there paint a vivid portrait.

Before the PETM, she said, there lived a forest of cypress, sycamores, alders, dogwoods, walnuts and other species, all of them suggestive of a temperate climate — a bit swampy, perhaps not unlike that of the southeastern United States. Then, with the onset of the PETM, that forest disappeared, its trees vanishing from the fossil record. “During the climate event you have a nearly complete turnover of plants,” Currano said. A new forest appeared, this one consisting of palms, heat-tolerant members of the bean family, and other plants evocative of the semi-arid tropics.

It is a story repeated throughout the fossil record: When the climate changes, so does the arrangement of the world’s plants. Species move back and forth toward the poles, up and downslope. Some species grow more common, others rarer. Species arrange themselves together in new combinations. The fossil record reveals plants for what they are, as mobile beings. For plant species, migrating in response to climate change is often a matter of survival.

Warmth-loving plants are growing more common, from the middle of the Amazon to the middle of Nebraska.

As human-generated greenhouse gas emissions cause the world to rapidly warm, this movement is once again under way. Scientists have observed plants shifting toward the poles and upslope. They’ve noted old ecosystems suddenly replaced by new ones, often in the wake of fire, insect outbreaks, drought or other disturbances. They’ve observed an increase in the number of trees dying and watched as a growing number of the world’s biggest and oldest plants, including the baobabs of Africa and the cedars of Lebanon, have succumbed. Just this month, scientists announced that the Castle Fire, which burned through California’s Sierra Nevada last year, singlehandedly killed off more than 10 percent of the world’s mature giant sequoias. 

So far, many of these changes are subtle, seemingly unrelated to one another, but they are all facets of the same global phenomenon — one that scientists say is likely to grow far more apparent in the decades to come. 

The climate is currently warming at least 10 times faster than it did at the onset of the PETM. Under its worst-case scenario, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects that, over the next 100 to 150 years, Earth’s average temperature could rise by roughly the same amount as it did during the PETM. Dramatic vegetational shifts could arrive not in a matter of centuries or millennia, but decades; a 2019 study, for example, projected that Alaska’s vast interior forests will shift from being dominated by conifers to being dominated by broadleaf trees as soon as the middle of this century.

Scientists debate what this floral rearrangement will look like. In some places, it may take place quietly and be easily ignored. In others, though, it could be one of the changing climate’s most consequential and disruptive effects. “There’s a whole lot more of this we can expect over the next decades,” said University of Wisconsin-Madison paleoecologist Jack Williams. “When people talk about wildfires out West, about species moving upslope — to me, this is just the beginning.”

These baobab trees, near Morondava, Madagascar, are up to 2,800 years old. Scientist attribute the sudden deaths of ancient baobabs in recent years to climate change.
These baobab trees, near Morondava, Madagascar, are up to 2,800 years old. Scientist attribute the sudden deaths of ancient baobabs in recent years to climate change. ATLANTIDE PHOTOTRAVEL / GETTY IMAGES

Williams is a senior co-author on a study published this month in Science that provides context on floral change in the present and recent geological past. Led by University of Bergen ecologists Ondřej Mottl and Suzette Flantua, the team of researchers used more than 1,000 fossil pollen records collected from around the world to compare rates of floral change over the last 18,000 years. It is the largest such study of its type, Williams said, representing many thousands of hours of combined scientific effort. 

The researchers found that the rate of change peaked first as the world warmed at the end of the last ice age. Then, the rate of change began climbing even faster beginning between 2,000 and 4,000 years ago. This was a period when the global climate was relatively stable, so the changes were likely due to human activities. The study suggests that people, who have spent thousands of years rearranging the world’s plants for agriculture and other reasons, currently remain the strongest driver of change in the shifts of the world’s plants. But it also affirms how powerfully climate has driven change and suggests how it might again. “There’s likely a human legacy from quite some time ago,” Flantua said. “On top of that we’re adding a quite massive change in temperature. It is a dangerous combination.”

Native species or invasive? The distinction blurs as the world warms. Read more.

How will floral change look and feel to those living through it? While the fossil record offers a useful sense of the big picture, it is often fuzzy on the specifics, particularly at the scales of years and decades. Scientists trying to track the comings and goings of plant species in the present face a similar problem. Plants are constantly casting off seeds and spores, little genetic fingers that will grab hold wherever they are able. When physical or biological conditions change, so do the places where various plant species can find purchase; over time, the range and abundance of the whole species shifts. That’s how it works in theory, anyway. Catching it happening is another matter. To do so, scientists need long-term records for comparison. Such records are unevenly distributed around the world, and all are of either limited geographic or temporal scope; global satellite imagery, for instance, dates only to the 1970s.

Still, in the places where scientists do have long-term historical records, they’ve tended to find plants on the move in recent decades. Shrubs are popping up across the Arctic. New species of plants are colonizing mountain summits. In one of the most wide-ranging studies of floral range shifts, a group of researchers led by University of Miami ecologist Kenneth Feeley used herbarium data to track how plant communities across the Western Hemisphere had changed from 1970 to 2011. Comprising 20,000 species and 20 million individual observations, the data shows that warmth-loving plants were growing more common nearly everywhere the researchers looked, “from the middle of the Amazon to the middle of Nebraska,” Feeley said.

Some species can migrate remarkably fast, perhaps as much as a mile a year.

This type of floral change will likely often go unnoticed by people, said Yale School of the Environment geographer Jennifer Marlon, who studies the public’s perception of climate change. People, she said, are attuned to the wild variation between days and weeks and seasons, not the long-term shifts wrought by the changing climate. People also tend to have a short memory of their surroundings, a phenomenon known as the “shifting baseline.” “We just forget very quickly what the baseline was,” she said. “We tend to normalize change around us.”

The species whose migration we’ll likely notice first are those of agricultural, commercial or cultural importance. University of Maine paleoecologist Jacquelyn Gill points to sugar maple, whose range scientists project will shift far to the north in the coming decades. “As an ecologist, I’m happy that sugar maple is tracking the climate,” Gill said — it is a sign of resilience. On the other hand, she said, “As a person who lives in Maine and loves maple syrup, I am extremely concerned for the impact of sugar maple’s movements on a food I care about, on my neighbors’ livelihoods, and on the tourist industry.”

These shifts in species’ ranges also have serious implications for conservationists. Experts say the changing climate means that Sequoia National Park will eventually be left without its sequoias, Joshua Tree National Park without its Joshua trees. As with Gill’s sugar maples, this is distressing from a human perspective, though potentially of little importance from the plants’ perspective. The question is whether sequoias, Joshua trees, and countless other plants will be able to reach newly suitable habitats. For decades, scientists have debated whether plants would be able to track the rate of climate change, and whether people should intervene to help rare, isolated species reach more suitable habitat.

On the one hand, fossil evidence from the late Pleistocene and early Holocene suggests that some species can migrate quickly, perhaps more than a mile per year. On the other hand, studies in Europe and North America suggest that many tree species did not keep up with the climate as it warmed at the end of the Pleistocene.

A wildfire in Australia's Blue Mountains National Park in 2018. More and hotter fires are accelerating changes in flora globally.
A wildfire in Australia’s Blue Mountains National Park in 2018. More and hotter fires are accelerating changes in flora globally. ANDREW MERRY / GETTY IMAGES

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The magical images of the reclusive Chilean photographer deserve wider recognition.

In the escalator of the underground London tube station at Baker Street, the photographer Sergio Larrain found the local equivalent of the steep outdoor staircases of Valparaíso, Chile.
In the escalator of the underground London tube station at Baker Street, the photographer Sergio Larrain found the local equivalent of the steep outdoor staircases of Valparaíso, Chile.Credit…Sergio Larrain/Magnum Photos

By Arthur LubowJuly 23, 2021

Back in 1977, working in my first journalism job, I picked up a couple of LPs that caught my eye on the “slush pile” of publicists’ mailings, took them home, and heard with amazement the intoxicating music of the English singer-songwriter Nick Drake, who died in 1974. Obsessed, I traveled to England and wrote the first full-length magazine article on him in this country, thrilled that I could spread the good news.

I had the same jolt of discovery more recently when I stumbled on the photographs of Sergio Larrain. Unfortunately, like Drake he was already gone by the time I found him. The occasion was the publication in 2013, a year after Larrain’s death, of a comprehensive commemorative book of his photographs by the Aperture Foundation. Aperture followed up that deeply impressive volume with a book of pictures taken by Larrain in the Chilean port city of Valparaíso and, this year, with one devoted to his London work.

Like Drake, in large part because of a disinclination to promote himself and, more fundamentally, a distanced stance that suffuses the art, the Chilean photographer was recognized by his peers but had yet to achieve the wide acclaim he merits. Indeed, Larrain abandoned his photography career in the late 1970s, believing it hindered his spiritual quest. But before that renunciation, he produced many mesmerizing images, including his most celebrated, of two girls descending the Pasaje Bavestrello, an outdoor staircase in Valparaíso. Larrain deemed the picture, from 1952, to be “the first magic photo that ever appeared” from his camera.

Larrain called this 1952 image, taken in Pasaje Bavestrello in Valparaíso, his “first magic photo.”
Larrain called this 1952 image, taken in Pasaje Bavestrello in Valparaíso, his “first magic photo.”Credit…Sergio Larrain/Magnum Photos

In a trancelike equipoise, he pressed the shutter to record a picture that feels like a dream. He explained, “I was in a state of absolute calm, doing what really interested me, which is why the result was going to be perfect. And then, the other girl appeared out of nowhere. It was more than perfect, it was a magical moment.” As Freud argued in his essay, “The Uncanny,” the appearance of a double in a realistic milieu evokes a supernatural sensation arousing dread. Crucial to the hallucinatory quality of Larrain’s photograph is the illumination. The trapezoid of light into which the girl in front enters has a material substance, especially in relationship to the dark shadow on the left.

It is such a painterly photograph. The shape of that shadow reminds me of the enigmatic green triangle seen through the window of Matisse’s 1916 painting, “The Piano Lesson.”

And, oddly enough, the lit floor that the second girl is about to step onto, like the pink piano top in the Matisse, provides a low horizontal plane that is perpendicular to the dominant verticals. That girl, entering from the darkness, is holding a glass bottle. With its dark band of liquid at the bottom, it mirrors in reverse the Rothko-like wall on the right. It’s a magical detail.

Larrain, who often photographed the regular geometry of grates, depicted the bare feet of homeless children sleeping on one in Santiago, Chile, in 1955.
Larrain, who often photographed the regular geometry of grates, depicted the bare feet of homeless children sleeping on one in Santiago, Chile, in 1955.Credit…Sergio Larrain/Magnum Photos

Larrain’s eye was repeatedly attracted to corrugated metal and fence grating, both of which are featured in this photo. Maybe it was the rhythmic repetition that struck a chord. When he gave up photography, he devoted much of his time to yoga and meditation.

Born in 1932 in Santiago, Chile, Sergio Larrain was one of five children in an upper-class family. His father, also named Sergio, was a successful architect and university professor, with whom the younger man had a fraught relationship. One thing they shared was a refined aesthetic taste: the father designed in the International Style of Le Corbusier, and he sold a Matisse and a Picasso to raise funds for his growing collection of pre-Columbian art.

Larrain in Paris in 1967. He abandoned his photography career in the late 1970s, believing it hindered his spiritual quest.
Larrain in Paris in 1967. He abandoned his photography career in the late 1970s, believing it hindered his spiritual quest.Credit…Rene Burri/Magnum Photos

But the son increasingly rejected his family’s bourgeois life. Uprooting himself to Berkeley, where he studied forestry at the University of California, he purchased a Leica camera, “not because I wanted to do photos, but because it was the most beautiful object I could buy.” Notwithstanding that disclaimer, upon returning to Santiago (without having earned a degree), he resolved to take up photography. The death of his younger brother in a riding accident, however, unmoored the entire family. They traveled together to Europe and the Middle East for a year to recover.

In Florence, Larrain encountered the pictures of Giuseppe Cavalli, an unjustly overlooked photographer for whom he felt a profound affinity. Cavalli was a poet of solitude and unblinking scrutiny. His still lifes call to mind those of Giorgio Morandi, whose contemplative paintings of ordinary objects in muted colors share a sensibility with the evenly lit compositions of Cavalli. The stillness Larrain responded to in the older Italian photographer characterizes his image of the two girls in the Pasaje Bavestrello and much of his work.

Children beneath a bridge over the Mapocho River in Santiago in 1955.
Children beneath a bridge over the Mapocho River in Santiago in 1955.Credit…Sergio Larrain/Magnum Photos

Back in Chile following the European tour, Larrain spent a year in a rural commune, practicing meditation, giving away his possessions, but also — inspired by Cavalli — reviving his ambition to become a photographer. Returning once more to Santiago, he further separated himself from his family by hanging out with homeless children. He empathized, and more than that, identified with them. He took many photos. His pictures attracted the attention of Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose own photographs of children include many classics.

~~~ MAS ~~~