Archive for September, 2011

My brother once told me that our continent was slowing sinking into the sea thanks to the many people that never threw away their National Geographic Magazines.  I remember laughing at the time, but it did make me think about my own hoarding.  These magazines are such keepsakes with such pertinent articles and sublime photos; I could never bear to toss them in the trash.  Eventually though, with the frequent moves of an Air Force career, my practicality won out over my sentimentality, and I triumphantly tossed my growing collection into the local dumpster.  Inevitably of course, I remembered two issues in particular with a wistful tinge of regret as I occasionally told their story and found myself longing for the evidence and clarity of their words and photos.

One of the articles was a cover story that ran in January of 1985 about Koko the gorilla and her pet kitten All Ball.  Koko was the product of a foundation at Woodside, CA near Stanford University in the 70’s where researchers taught gorillas American Sign Language.  Koko used about 600 signs taught to her by Penny Patterson, beginning when she was a graduate student at Stanford and continuing with the creation of the non-profit Gorilla Foundation.  This foundation allowed Dr Patterson to continue her work with Koko in addition to educating others about gorillas in general.  Koko was obsessed with cats and kittens (her favorite picture book stories were “The Three Little Kittens” and “Puss ‘n’ Boots”) and was eventually presented with a kitten as a birthday gift.  Koko cherished this kitten-gently playing, holding and trying to nurse her despite their nearly 225 pound weight difference.  She would often sign “Soft, Good, Cat,” in American Sign Language while holding her.  Tragically, after about six months together, All Ball wandered onto a nearby highway and was struck and killed by a car.  When told about All Ball, Koko didn’t react for about ten minutes, until she began a distinct whimpering, hooting sound that gorillas make when they are sad.  It brought everyone present to tears.

It was this cover photo of Koko gently cradling All Ball as well as the subsequent touching story of grief in a primate that often made me wistful for this magazine issue I had purged from my life.

The other issue was less emotional but no less meaningful to me as it dealt with the Baltic nations-Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, and as I recall, with a special focus on the devastating pollution that had been allowed to thrive there under the Soviet Union.  I am not normally drawn to these types of articles, but somehow this one drew me in.  I took away a greater appreciation for what I used to consider some of the more obnoxious environmental groups in our midst and their important role in a free society of bringing us to the middle.  The Soviet Union didn’t allow this expression of outrage and their silence was filled with the toxic results of polluting industrial practices left unchecked.  I recalled the horrific pictures of landscapes coated with deadly dust from nearby smokestacks and found myself thanking the extremists who go out of their way to bring these kinds of damaging practices to our attention.  I took away an important lesson that everyone, even the obnoxious and the extremists, have an important role in our society, as they help move us to the “middle” and avoid the poisonous fate of a dictatorship.

Two very different articles, but both with poignant lessons for me as well as a sense of loss when I realized what I had “released” in my magazine cleanse. Yet time passes on; different jobs, several moves, different schools, new friends, phases, challenges, and lessons in life.  Our passing regrets fade to the subtle narrative of our everyday lives as we get on with the business of living.

It was maybe ten years later, while stationed in Holland, when my young daughter announced while emptying out her heavier than usual book bag, that her 4th grade teacher had some extra magazines that she had allowed the children to choose from and take home.  Imagine my interest when I saw the familiar yellow borders as she slid them out of her sack, and then my delighted surprise as she carefully placed in front of me each of the magazines she had been allowed to claim as her own:  the first issue leading with the words “The Baltic” on its cover, and of course, the January ’85 issue with Koko cuddling All Ball.


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