If you are on the watch for compelling and informative reading this summer, it’s all here in this issue of VQR. We have three stellar pieces of reporting, and while the topics covered seem divergent on the surface, upon close examination the connections between the stories come into view.
Our cover story takes us to Cambodia, which lies nestled between its more geopolitically powerful neighbors, Vietnam and Thailand. What the country lacks in regional influence it makes up for in the vitality of its waterways, particularly Lake Tonle Sap, which is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. The Tonle Sap—meaning “great lake”—flows into the Tonle Sap River and intersects with the Mekong River in Phnom Penh. During the summer, monsoon rains force so much water down the Mekong that the Tonle Sap changes direction and flows back into the lake and swells it in size.
Since Cambodians are dependent on fish as a primary source of protein, the Tonle Sap serves as the lifeblood of the country. But the Tonle Sap is at risk because of overfishing, deforestation, and a hydropower boom. How will this human intervention, as well as a changing climate, affect the Tonle Sap’s role within Cambodia’s delicate ecosystem? This is the issue Chris Berdik explores in “The Giving Flood.”
Complemented by the vivid photography of Phnom Penh’s Ruom Collective, Berdik’s story serves as both an environmental cautionary tale and an exploration of how science—in particular, data-driven computer modeling—allows researchers to project various futures embedded between a country’s expanding infrastructure and the need for natural preservation.
Berdik’s story focuses on Southeast Asia, but there are certainly lessons to be applied in other parts of the world. In fact, the type of computer modeling profiled in this story is also the backbone of the University of Virginia’s Bay Game project, introduced in 2009, which allows users to forecast the impact of various environmental and economic choices on the 64,000-square-mile Chesapeake Bay watershed. As evidenced by Berdik’s reporting, such research-based watershed-sustainability simulation projects have policy implications on a national and even global scale.
Agriculture and water are intertwined wherever you go in the world, as are agriculture and commerce. In many cases, that intersection of agriculture and commerce is a battlefront. Seeds, for instance, have become a source of contention between corporations that seek to own their genetic makeup through patents and plant breeders who want to protect their unrestricted freedom. In “Linux for Lettuce,” Lisa M. Hamilton profiles a group of plant breeders collectively known as the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI), whose mission is to safeguard the right of farmers, gardeners, and plant breeders to share seeds freely. As one founding member of OSSI points out, there are dangers inherent in allowing only one or two companies to control a crop: “The future of our food supply requires genetic diversity, but also demands a diversity of decision makers.”
OSSI borrows an idea from the world of computer software, where open-source programs have been available for decades. The scientists profiled by Berdik are also connected to the world of computing, as they use data models as a way to predict climate and environmental change. Similarly, data models may be used to calculate labor costs and other factors to determine whether a manufacturing plant is operating efficiently, as well as whether it makes more sense to produce a product domestically or outside the country. But what are we to glean from a company’s decision to close a plant that—according to the data—is profitable and efficient? Esther Kaplan digs deeply into this question in “Losing Sparta,” reported from a small town in Tennessee where a shuttered Philips lighting plant—one of the most productive in America—was as much a loss of the town’s identity as it was a blow to its economy. Through this plant’s confounding closure, we see an unsettling picture of the current state of US manufacturing. “Losing Sparta” examines why, in today’s economy, it will require more than the classic industrial touchstones of productivity and efficiency for domestic manufacturing to survive.
The summer issue of VQR also includes three very fine memoirs. First, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s “We a Baddd People” tells the tale of a tangled, intergenerational secret in a voice that is both unique and haunting. Camille Dungy’s “A Brief History of Near and Actual Losses” takes readers to Cape Coast Castle in Ghana—where slaves were put in transit across the Atlantic—for a story that is as much about family as it is about place. And Garret Keizer’s memoir, “Reformed,” delves into the author’s memories of growing up in the theological and cultural traditions of the Dutch Reformed Church in suburban New Jersey.
Along with these three memoirs, we also are including an essay by poet Beth Ann Fennelly on the role style plays in the way a writer crafts the arc of a story in a memoir. For an essay with a more historical focus, contributing editor Jesse Dukes’s “Lost Causes” goes behind the scenes with Civil War reenactors, particularly those who don the Confederate uniform. His dispatch from a gathering in Gettysburg shows how Confederate reenactors take pride in their Southern heritage, but struggle with the legacy of slavery and racism that comes packaged with that heritage. Accompanying Dukes’s piece, Jonno Rattman’s photographs capture a variety of Gettysburg reenactors—Union and Confederate—and serves as a photo essay on the men and women who spend weekends steeped in the Civil War.
Complementing these works of nonfiction are our rich and varied fiction and poetry selections. In his first appearance in VQR, we are proud to publish “Map-Reading” by the masterful Richard Bausch, a VQR contributing editor. It’s a moving story of a brother and sister separated by age and distance and united by what they discover about each other when they meet as adults. Joining Bausch’s story is Josh Weil’s “Long Bright Line,” which spans the birth of flight to the lunar landing and follows one woman’s obsession with aviation and art across that time. Adam Boucher’s “Leon’s Fire” is the author’s first published work of fiction. His story goes deep into the world of Hotshot firefighters in the American West—a world Boucher knows well, since he is currently an engine captain for a team of US Forest Service firefighters in Colorado.
Our poetry for this issue includes work by Jill Bialosky, Chanda Feldman, John Freeman, T J Jarrett, and Brian Sneeden. Our series of Talisman essays continues in this issue and features Roxana Robinson’s thoughts on her need for solitude and silence while writing. Along with our other regular features—Amateur Hour, Mapping, and Fine Distinctions—there’s much here that will entertain, inform, and simply give you that summer feeling.