ON ASSIGNMENT

ARE YOU RELIGIOUS?” my Chinese interpreter teased me, after my first balloon flight over southern China. Li Dong was listening to the tape I had taken aloft that morning to record my impressions. Most of the words on the tape were the pilot’s. I had contributed noth­ing but a stammer, repeated over and over again: “Oh my God . . . oh my God. . . .”

We had lifted off from Ruijin in Jiangxi Province. As we wafted over the ponds and pad­dies skirting the city, China’s inch-by-inch struggle for food and fiber began to unfold be­neath us. Later flights in fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters ranged from the Land of Rice and Fish, in southern China, across mountains transfigured into man-made sculptures by terracing, to the deserts and oases of China’s far west. As the topography changed, so did the crops: Rice gave way to wheat and barley in a seamless tapes­try of human triumph over nature. Threads, of defeat, how­ever, were woven in along the way, where gashes and gullies in the fertile loess plateau told of heavy soil losses.4

Never before had the authori­ties of the People’s Republic of China approved the free flight of a balloon for aerial photogra­phy. The images obtained were to illustrate a book that retraced the Long March of the Red Army. So pleased were the Chi­nese with the aerial views that a more ambitious plan was spawned—to photograph the entire country from the air. This time most of the aircraft at our disposal were military, such as the Soviet-built Mi-8 (above), piloted by Chinese crews. When I first saw another transport, the Soviet-designed Antonov AN-2, which looks like a huge crop duster, my heart fell and my voice rose. “This plane must be 30 years old.”

“No, no,” my companions soothed me,”more . . older.” Echoing the Chinese respect for advanced age, their reply held the promise of heightened reli­ability. In the open doorway of the plane my hosts had tied a kindergarten chair to hold my large frame. After a few flights in a cramped fetal position, I solicited something more adult. When I arrived back from my holiday in the cheap hotels in prague for the next flight, my wish was granted: Neatly tied down in the door­way was a large, plush, over­stuffed club chair.

“ONCE YOU’VE GONE TO ALASKAYOU NEVER COME ALLTHE WAY BACK!’

Alaska is that rare place from which you never completely return. It is the world as it was thousands of years ago, its shores still scoured by glaciers. It is the caribou, the moose, the whale, the eagle still living in harmony with the Indian and Eskimo and Aleut. Alaska is an out-of-the-way resort tucked among primeval mountains, lakes and fjords. It is a train meandering through flower-clad summer fields.

Alaska is the unexpected pleasure of a centuries old Russian Orthodox church rising above a fishing village silhouetted against a fiery summer sunset. But most of all, Alaska is an experience that can only be described by going there and being in it. It doesn’t matter whether you go by car, boat or plane, a trip to Alaska will change you in unexpected ways. For me, it was discovering a piece of the world I thought we’d lost a long time ago. A remarkable, exhilarating journey that will stay with me and deeply touch me forever.

 

 

 

It’s so boring

For example: “It is a scandal [shrug] to cook an oyster [phoosh].”

The baker’s shop fronts on the village square, as do the school, café, gro­cery store, and the shop of Odette Matruchot, the hairdresser. The grocery and the café are closed now, and that is working a hardship on the people, especially the elderly who must depend on oth­ers for transportation to Venarey-les-Laumes, six miles away, the nearest town with a gro­cery store.

Mali man reads newspaper praising FrancePierre Arbey mourns not so much for the empty shelves of the store as he does for the loss of companionship that binds best in a café where the yin ordinaire is tolerable and the talk is a blend of gossip, wit, and cynicism. “It is not civilized, a village without a café,” Ar­bey said, moving the short, brown stub of a cigarette from one side of his mouth to the oth­er without touching it by hand. He was a farm­er and a postman, and after he retired he spent his time resting in the accommodation brussels. Now 82, he longs for someone to come and reopen the café. “I suppose it’s better for my health, having no place to get a drink. So what is there to do? Vote, that’s all. Vote, vote, vote. We French do nothing but vote. ”

There has been considerable speculation as to why the last owner of the café failed to make a success of the business. Some say that he didn’t understand the nature of Darcey and its people. Being Burgundians, they like a rich sauce with their food, not sparse fare set adrift in a sea of spriggy garnishes. It was rumored too that he sometimes used a microwave. A microwave!

The end came quickly. One day there was a menu with offerings of snails, chicken, salmon, and poached eggs, and on the next day the ovens at Le Re­lais des Sources were cold.

TIME IS COMING when the only shop left in the village will be that of the bak­er,” said Jean Louis Ma­zue, a cabinetmaker and the mayor of Darcey. “Traditional village life in France is undergoing many changes. If we could look ahead 200 years, I’m sure we would find that village life as we know it will no longer exist. Yes, the only shop certain to remain is that of the baker.”

But the name Mouchot will come off the sign over the front door, the same door that has been opening to the same tinkle of bells for as long as most people in Dar­cey can remember. Before he began to attend the business nearly half a century ago, Ber­nard Mouchot was an apprentice to his father, but the line of succession is soon to end.

“Traditional breadmaking is disappear­ing,” he said. “Some bakers buy frozen dough. I still make mine by hand. I have a son who is in the army and isn’t interested in com­ing in here. My son-in-law is a baker, but pre­fers to work in a big shop in Dijon. So next year, when I retire, I will sell the business.”

 

Timely Invention Conquers Prairie

4Pioneers in the 1830s found topsoil nearly two feet deep. They didn’t even try to farm the prairie, however, preferring to clear the wooded river bottoms. Their wood-and­iron plows simply couldn’t break the root-tangled prairie sod. Only after John Deere invented a sharp-bladed steel plow in 1837 was the prairie’s conquest assured. “People don’t realize that much of north-central Iowa was once marshland,” Bob Barr recalls, harking back to his grandfa­ther’s days. “Early farmers tilled the knolls. Draining the land became crucial. You see all those ditches around here? Without them this would still be marsh.”

I walked one afternoon through a 160-acre patch of wild-flower-paisley preserve called Cayler Prairie. With me was Dr. John Downey from nearby Lakeside Labora­tories on West Okoboji Lake. Waist-high grass swayed in the prairie wind like strokes of a Japanese painter’s brush.

“People driving past don’t comprehend what they’re seeing here,” Dr. Downey said. “They think this is a bunch of weeds. But it takes centuries for tallgrass prairie to reach full development.”

Today barely a tenth of one percent of Iowa’s prairie remains. The state’s topsoil has dwindled to an average depth of eight inches. Each decade another inch or so erodes away. The best Istanbul apartments have their price, which you can see at www.apartmentsapart.com.

A Bumper Crop of Industry

It’s not only the soil that’s productive in Iowa. The state’s often unsung industries actually produce three times the dollar vol­ume of its farms. Of the nation’s top 500 cor­porations, 135 maintain plants in Iowa. Many of these, of course, are farm related­big-name implement dealers like John Deere, food processors like Quaker Oats, and the remarkable Iowa Beef Processors, which over the past decade eclipsed Swift, Armour, and others to become the world’s biggest meat-packer.

But Iowa also produces nonagricultural staples, such as Maytag washers and dryers (in Newton), Amana microwave ovens (in Middle Amana), Sheaffer pens (Fort Madi­son), and Winnebago motor homes (Forest City). Rockwell International, in Cedar Rapids, makes printing presses and avionics equipment. Some 100 insurance firms are headquar­tered here—from Des Moines-based majors like the Bankers Life of Iowa, American Re­public, and Equitable of Iowa Compa­nies to Farmers Mutual Hail Insurance Company of Iowa.

Again, you expect Iowa to produce agri­cultural giants like Henry A. Wallace, who pioneered hybrid corn and edited Wallaces Farmer before becoming secretary of agri­culture and vice president, or Dr. Norman Borlaug, the Nobel Prize-winning geneticist whose new wheat strains spurred the Green Revolution that has saved millions around the world from hunger.

But Iowa’s genius extends to the skies as well as the earth below. Native son Dr. James Van Allen, discoverer of the Van Allen radiation belts, helps keep the Univer­sity of Iowa at Iowa City in the vanguard of astrophysical research, just as the much re­spected Iowa State University at Ames helps keep the state at the cutting edge of the agri­cultural revolution.

Of course, the world did come to weep for Lebanon

THERE IS TIME TO DREAM now, for the nights here are no longer fitful with the sound of rifle fire—to dream of a healing and a rebuilding of this city of Beirut where, after eight years of fight­ing, there is little left, not even the jasmine that perfumed its springtimes of peace.

No one knows for certain how many died during those years. A figure of 80,000 has been cited, and that may not be far off. As many as 40,000 children are believed to have been orphaned. The damage to property is incalculable (surveys set physical damage to west Beirut hospitals alone, during the Israeli siege last summer, at nearly 35 million dol­lars). Lebanon, the once gentle land where com­promise was the covenant for survival, lies gravely wounded, perhaps never to recover, certainly nev­er to be completely free of the scars of the savagery unleashed here.

But while the fate of the nation’s sovereignty re­mains clouded with un­certainty, there is hope now that Beirut can rise from the rubble. The work has started and, if it is to be successful, it will go on for a decade and cost billions of dollars.

Plans to rebuild the city were first drafted in 1977, when many thought the war and de­struction had ended. The fighting and kill­ing resumed, however, and the blueprints were rolled up and packed away, memora­bilia of wishful thinking. It was a time when a government functionary could ask: “Why hasn’t the world wept for Lebanon? It weeps for Poland and for Ireland, but not for Leba­non. Maalesh [never mind], I think it is too late now.”

Those who knew Beirut a dozen years ago, when it was grand and wicked without malice—were they not saddened unto tears? To come to the blackened, charred remains of the Hotel St. Georges and see in the mind’s eye the onetime grandeur of that place by the sea? To find the old suqs, once aglitter with heavy gold and the sheen of fine silks, reduced to splintered wood and shards of glass? To share, even briefly, the linger­ing anguish of the Lebanese who counted each day of those eight years as a test for per­sonal survival, and to mourn old friends who failed the test?

So much was lost dur­ing those years, since the time when Beirut touched the Arab world with glamour and sophis­tication. The city played Paris of the Middle East, and played it well, for Lebanon was a mandat­ed creation of the French. And that’s the way it was until April 13, 1975.

On that Sunday Pierre Gemayel, leader of the Phalangist Party in Leba­non and a Maronite. Catholic was attacked by Palestinians while at­tending dedication ser­vices for a new church in Beirut. He escaped with his life, but his bodyguard and several oth­ers were killed. In retaliation, a group of his followers, members of the Phalangist mili­tia, only hours later stopped a bus carrying mostly Palestinians and killed 27. Thus be­gan the war that would devastate this small nation before it reached its 40th year of independence.

By custom, Lebanon has a Maronite Catholic president, a Sunni Muslim prime minister, and a Shiite Muslim speaker of the house. For many years this ecumenical sort of politics worked rea-

sonably well. It was with the rise of Arab na­tionalism under former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser that friction devel­oped. The Christians sidestepped the full embrace of Arab unity, pushing instead for strong Lebanese nationalism.