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Photographs by Sean McDermott

Here Be Dragons [private]

On a quiet summer evening, the Aurora, a sixty-foot cutter-rigged sloop, approaches the craggy shore of eastern Greenland, along what’s known as the Forbidden Coast. Its captain, Sigurdur Jonsson, a sturdy man in his fifties, stands carefully watching his charts. The waters he is entering have been described in navigation books as among “the most difficult in Greenland; the mountains rise almost vertically from the sea to form a narrow bulwark, with rifts through which active glaciers discharge quantities of ice, while numerous off-lying islets and rocks make navigation hazardous.” The sloop is single-masted, painted a cheery, cherry red. Icebergs float in ominous silence. 

Where Jonsson, who goes by Captain Siggi, sails, he’s one of few to have ever gone. Because the splintered fjords create thousands of miles of uninhabited coastline, there’s been little effort to map this region. “It’s practically uncharted,” he says. “You are almost in the same position as you were 1,000 years ago.” 

A naval architect turned explorer, Siggi navigates by scanning aerial photos and uploading them into a plotter, the ship’s electronic navigation system. Sometimes he uses satellite images, sometimes shots taken by Danish geologists from an open-cockpit plane in the 1930s, on one of the only comprehensive surveys of the coast. Siggi sails by comparing what he sees on the shore to these rough outlines. “Of course, then you don’t have any soundings,” he says, referring to charts of ocean depths that sailors normally rely on to navigate and avoid running aground. “I’ve had some close calls.” Over the years, he’s gotten better at reading the landscape to look for clues: He looks for river mouths, for example, where silt deposits might create shallow places to anchor, so that icebergs will go to ground before they crush the boat. In the age of GPS and Google Maps, it’s rare to meet someone who still entrusts his life to such analog navigation. 

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Road approaching Mauna Kea, 2012. (Grant Kaye)

Sovereignty Under the Stars

It begins, as these ventures always do, with miscommunication. Paul Coleman and I had planned to meet at the visitor’s center, the place astronomers called the “VIS,” perched 9,000 feet on the desiccated collar of Mauna Kea, Hawaii’s tallest mountain. A few years back, Coleman, a Native Hawaiian astronomer, began publicly championing an eighteen-story telescope sited atop Mauna Kea, pitting himself against Native dissent and violating certain ethnic expectations. He had offered me a tour of the dormant volcano, along with his thoughts on the fracas. But here where the asphalt gave way to a gravel road, Coleman was nowhere to be found. He was at the University of Hawaii instead, overlooking the white seaside city of Hilo. Evidently, in planning our rendezvous, we’d gotten our wires crossed.

I was there on the suspicion that something had been missed, or elided, in the coverage of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). In April 2015, the construction of the TMT on Mauna Kea was halted by protesters, many of them Native Hawaiians who valued the “White Mountain” for cultural reasons. Thirty-one people were arrested. The story won national attention, and then the narrative hardened: An instrument of modern science had been challenged by postcolonial discontent and benighted religion. It was a tragic accident of history, in which an ancient culture, stuck in time, defied a contingent of astronomers who were running out of it, anxious as they were to launch careers and bequeath legacies. The deeper battle, so the narrative went, was between ways of knowing, ways of seeing the world. Mauna Kea was either a restricted high temple, a site of prime creation, or a technically perfect locale for our world’s next great telescope, the instrument that would enable “astronomers’ quest to understand the origins of everything,” as one science journalist wrote.

That’s how tidy the story seemed. But the “clash of epistemologies” is, of course, just another way of framing this particular issue. And as I got closer to the Big Island, it seemed increasingly incomplete, and sometimes disingenuous. There were other ways of looking at the conflict over Mauna Kea’s summit, and not all of them were so convenient. 

Photograph by Bear Guerra

Starting Over

From a block away in Los Angeles’s Chinatown, we can just barely make out a sound unlike any we’ve ever heard, as if from underwater—melancholy, dissonant, otherworldly music. It pulls us toward the corner of Broadway and Alpine, where an older man sits upon a stool. He wears a Panama hat and silk jacket. A bow slides back and forth across his erhu, a two-stringed lute-like instrument he’s plugged into a tiny, battery-powered amp. Next to him, on the sidewalk, the erhu’s case sits open with a few dollar bills and coins inside. His name is Yingchang Song. Our interpreter, a Ph.D. student at USC, introduces us. Soon enough, she and Song realize they’re from the same city in northeastern China—Qingdao. They hit it off immediately: Not only do they both speak Mandarin in what they see as Cantonese-dominant Chinatown, but they know the words to many of the same folk songs. A generation apart, here they are on a corner in Los Angeles—and Song is visibly thrilled, but needs to get back to playing.

VQR Online

VQR Thanks Outgoing Publisher Jon Parrish Peede

September 28, 2016

Virginia Quarterly Review Publisher Jon Parrish Peede, who has led the publication for the past five years, has resigned effective September 30 to return to his writing career, nonprofit consulting, and arts advocacy. 

This year, Peede oversaw the operational transition of VQR from the office of the Vice President for Research to the newly established Center for Media and Citizenship at the University of Virginia. Media Studies Professor Siva Vaidhyanathan, the founding director of the center, thanked Peede for his service to the publication.

“Jon Peede has served VQR with creativity and commitment through much transition,” Vaidhyanathan said. “He served during a time of great financial pressure on magazines. Throughout his time with VQR, the magazine published some of the finest prose, fiction, poetry, and photography in the world.”

The Death of Pablo Neruda

May 5, 2015

“Looking back now, I could have so easily walked to that cemetery and joined the men and women chanting next to his coffin,” Ariel Dorfman confesses. In addition to the documentary, "The Death of Pablo Neruda," this multimedia work includes an essay, “From Beyond the Grave,” by Dorfman, poetry by Martín Espada and Idra Novey, and a translation of Neruda’s poem “XII from The Heights of Macchu Picchu” by Mark Eisner.

VQR Nominated for Four National Magazine Awards

January 15, 2015

The American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME) today recognized the Virginia Quarterly Review with four nominations for its prestigious National Magazine Awards—the magazine world’s equivalent of the Pulitzer Prizes. VQR was named as a finalist [...]