Aïr to Ziz


In the heart of the great desert,
A black rock island rises
From the orange sand sea.
Once these mountains were
Mountains of fire,
And once they stood guard
Over a real sea:
A sea fringed with palms,
Thundering with elephants,
Quivering with antelopes.
Now the beasts live only
In pictures on the rock,
With no sign even
Of the once-proud people
Who carved them and vanished.
The trees vanished too,
Withered by the sun
Till only one clung on to the dunes:
One thorn-tree for all
The hundreds of miles,
The loneliest tree in the world.
And the sea?
It lives only
In the salt it left behind,
Caked on the scorched earth
Like tears wept and forgotten.

The Aïr (EYE-ear) Mountains, in the country of Niger, are a range of extinct volcanoes that rise to nearly six thousand feet over the Sahara desert. The nearby Ténéré region is now one of the hottest and driest in the whole Sahara, and contains some of its highest sand dunes. Yet some 10,000 years ago, at a time when the climate was much milder and wetter, the area was home to abundant wildlife. It was also home to hunting and gathering humans, who left behind many petroglyphs (rock carvings) on the mountains’ black granite. Caravans of camels still venture across the Ténéré to trade precious salt, although in much smaller numbers than before. Trucks now make the trip as well, and it was one of these that accidentally killed the famous Tree of Ténéré, an acacia that was supposedly the only tree for 250 miles in any direction.


Spike and splinter and
Spear and spire,
Scratch and skewer and scrape:
These are the words for this
Fortress of stone,
This jagged, ragged,
Treacherous, torturous
Labyrinth city of razor rock.
The fortress guards
A secret world
Of uncanny creatures.
In the shadowed gorges,
Dark and wet,
Giant crickets dwarf
Thimble-sized lizards,
While fruit bats and black parrots
Dart through the maze
Over cool rivers spilling from
Crocodile-haunted caves.
Far above, like
Skyscraper acrobats,
The snow-white sifaka
Leap carelessly between the spires,
Their nimble toes never
Missing a step.
As for us,
Our clumsy feet
Are hopeless here
And perhaps that is best.
On the rest of the world
Our steps may fall heavy,
But this is the tsingy
The locals say –
From the word for walk on tiptoe.

The Tsingy de Bemaraha (TZING-ee duh Beh-ma-RAH-ha) is a region of the island nation of Madagascar, which lies off the southern coast of Africa and is the fourth-largest island in the world (about the size of Texas). Because of its size and isolation, over 90% of the species in Madagascar occur nowhere else. The flora and fauna is especially distinctive in the tsingy, a unique landscape of jagged rock needles and dark canyons created by millions of years of water seeping through soft limestone. To protect the spectacular formations and their inhabitants, including the beautiful Decken’s sifaka and ten other species of lemurs, the Bemaraha area has been set aside as a National Park and “Strict Nature Reserve.”


Here is where
It rains.
Far away to the south
The monsoon stirs in May,
A beast of gray clouds
That slumbers in the sea.
Now rising, grumbling,
It lurches toward land,
Till in June it rams
Headfirst into cliffs
And flies apart in a rage.
Only then, in a tantrum
Of thunder and lightning,
Does it drop its hidden load:
Sheets of rain,
Swells of rain,
Waves of rain,
Pelting, driving, drenching rain,
Like half the ocean dumped on Earth,
Soaking the land to its dusty bones.
For months it throws its monstrous fit.
Then in October, as quick as it came,
The beast slinks softly away to the sea
And soon, again, the land is dry:
So dry that the village women,
With jugs slung over their sagging shoulders,
Walk for miles to fetch water.
In the valleys below
All is wet and green,
And the trees grow so lush
That the people weave their roots into bridges.
But up here, in Cherrapunji,
Nature both takes
And gives
With a vengeance.

The small town of Cherrapunji (Chair-a-PUN-jee), India, by some measures, is the wettest place on Earth. In the span of one year during 1860 and 1861, 1,041 inches of rain – that’s over 86 feet – fell here, setting a world record that still stands. Most of its rain falls during the summer monsoon, when moist air from the Indian Ocean is sucked inland to replace the rising hot air over the South Asian deserts. Cherrapunji’s unique position – perched atop the steep Khasi Hills, at the head of a valley – causes monsoon clouds to be funneled there, to abruptly rise, and to dump their rains. Paradoxically, the town often suffers from drought conditions during the dry season. Forest removal and soil erosion have caused the rains to run off the land quickly, leaving thirsty crops and villagers. At lower elevations, where the War-Khasi people have created famous “living bridges” by shaping rubber-tree roots together, water shortages are less of a problem.


From a distance,
The place looks nice.
Lovely, even:
A pastel fairyland,
Spangled with crystal pools,
Or a sunset cloudbank,
Or a candy-shop
Piled high with treats
In orange and pink.
From a distance,
You might want to visit.
But come and you’ll see
That no earthly thing lives here,
Or possibly could.
The orange is the orange
Of stinking sulfur,
The pink is the pink
Of rusted salt;
The pools are of acid,
Belching poison gas;
And there are no clouds here,
Only the searing sun.
One hundred and thirty degrees
In the shade,
If only there were shade.
Its very name means fall apart,
And that is just what
The Earth does here:
Tearing apart at the seams,
Giving way to the seething
Cauldron below.
This is Dallol:
The closest you’ll get,
Some say,
To Hell.

Dallol (Dal-LOL) is a ghost town in the Afar Depression of northern Ethiopia, a feature created by a geological “triple junction” where three of the Earth’s plates are spreading apart. The name comes from the Afar language, and can be roughly translated as “to disintegrate” or “to dissolve.” This area is among the hottest and driest in the world, and also contains the lowest point in Africa (509 feet below sea level). Dallol itself – though no longer inhabited – still holds the record for the hottest inhabited place, with an average annual temperature of 96 degrees Fahrenheit. The nearby Dallol Volcano erupted as recently as 1926, and the surrounding area is very geologically active, with geysers, acidic hot springs, and strange, colorful formations of sulfur and salt combining to produce a bizarre landscape.


At world’s end,
There stands an impossible thing:
A mountain of fire
Encased in ice,
Guarding with its frozen bulk
The unknown southern kingdom.
Erebus was
The god of the dark,
And for half the year
The dark falls over this land
Like a shroud.
To those who would pass
Beneath its watchful eye,
The mountain is not kind.
The boat that first glimpsed it,
On a bright midsummer’s day
Amid the clamor of penguins,
And boldly sailed on –
That boat would be lost
To the slow embrace of ice,
Its crew starved and frozen.
Sixty years passed
Before a soul dared the climb.
Five souls, in fact,
Braving blizzards and frostbite
To feed the pride of men.
They found the summit,
Defeated the mountain,
But only for a day:
On Shackleton’s return
Erebus mustered
All of its weapons,
Howling winds, surging seas,
Grinding ice and blinding snow –
And darkness, of course,
Relentless, careless

Mount Erebus (AIR-eh-bus) is the world’s southernmost active volcano. Located on Ross Island, which is joined to Antarctica by the permanently frozen Ross Ice Shelf, the mountain served as a stopover point for several important polar expeditions. Sir James Clark Ross named Erebus and its companion, Mount Terror, after two of his ships during his 1841 expedition. The ship Erebus was later lost, along with all of its crew, on a voyage to the Arctic. The first people to climb the mountain were members of the 1908 expedition of Sir Ernest Shackleton, whose following voyage, on the ship Endurance, has become legendary as a survival tale. Much more recently, in 1992, an eight-legged robot named Dante I collected samples from the lava lake inside Erebus.


Hear this, dead souls:
Look first for the Ghost King.
Float down the wide brown Yangtze
Till you see, through the mists to port,
His giant face of stone
Scowling out from a hillside.
You’ve arrived
At the gateway to beyond.
All that remains
Is to cross the Bridge of Helplessness
Over the River of Blood,
Brave the hounding spirits
Of the Ghost-Torturing Pass,
Climb the Last-Glance-Home Tower
To cast a final eye
On the land of the living,
Mount the steps to the Palace
And balance on its Testing Stone,
For three full minutes
Under the glare of the King himself.
Do this, dear ghosts,
And you’re in with the angels.
What happens if you fail
Is no secret:
The statues in the Palace,
Twisted, grimacing,
Spattered with red,
Are there as a friendly

The Fengdu (FUNG-doo) Ghost City has existed on the banks of the Yangtze River, in China, for nearly two thousand years. Legend has it that two government officials, tired of life in the imperial court, fled here to find enlightenment and eventually became immortal. The city has been venerated ever since as a gateway to the afterlife, with many of its features modeled after Youdu, the mythological capital of Hell. Much of the surrounding area has been flooded by the construction of the giant Three Gorges Dam, but the Ghost City remains a popular tourist attraction.


Hiding from something?
A tyrant?
A horde?
A crime?
A temptation?
Or simply a life
Left behind?
Come to this place
And build a new one.
The rain has started the work for you,
Molding the soft rock
Into wondrous pink valleys
And forests of stone,
Spindles, chimneys,
Toadstools of stone –
Hoodoos, to use
The scientists’ term,
For they have imaginations too
In a land like this.
For thousands of years
Women and men have come
To finish what the water began,
Hollowing out
Their honeycomb cells,
Chiseling convents,
Castles, cathedrals,
Whole cities carved into the stone,
Buried fortresses
With boulder-blocked
Chutes of escape
And hair-trigger traps
Bristling with spears.
These people had reason to hide.
Spend long enough here
Among the hoodoos,
And you’ll start to feel
You do too.

Göreme (gur-EH-meh) is a town and national park in the Cappadocia region of central Turkey. The area combines spectacular natural scenery – featuring canyons, cliffs, “fairy chimneys” and other formations carved out of a soft volcanic rock called tufa – with several thousand years’ worth of human settlements, many of them carved directly into the rock themselves. Early Christians used the caves here as hiding places during times of Roman persecution, while monks chiseled “honeycomb” cells into the cliff faces and decorated their churches with magnificent paintings.


Clever Māui,
Trickster of gods!
First he raised the sky on his shoulders
When it drooped too low,
Then fooled his fishermen brothers
Into hooking the floor of the sea
And hauling it up to make Hawai’i.
But for his greatest feat
He turned an eye
Toward the spiteful sun.
Every day poor mother Hina
Pounded out her kapa cloth,
And every dusk it still lay wet.
You must help, Māui, she said;
The sun does not give enough light.
So Māui, with stout rope woven
From his sister’s thick hair,
Climbed the nearby mountain
And lay through the night in wait.
As the first rays of dawn
Burst over the ocean,
He flung the rope around them
And tied them fast to the wiliwili tree.
The sun howled its protest,
Shaking and scorching the sky,
But Māui only said:
You have been stingy with your light,
And guarded it jealously.
Now you must give us more hours in the day.

In the end they struck a deal,
And the people were granted
Long summer days
To raise their crops and dry their cloth.
The peak, to this day,
Goes by Haleakalā,
House of the Sun;
And dusk after dusk,
That humbled sun
Stages shows that no sunset on Earth
Can match.

Haleakalā (HA-lee-ah-ka-LA) is a 10,000-foot-tall volcano that makes up most of the Hawaiian island of Maui. It is either classified as active or dormant, with the most recent eruption having probably occurred several hundred years ago. The mountain is now protected as a national park, with many visitors coming to hike into its massive crater, explore the rich forests on its slopes, or view the famous sunrise from its summit – a sight that Mark Twain called “the sublimest spectacle I ever witnessed.”


Poor Niagara!
Cried Mrs. Roosevelt,
When she came within view
Of Iguazú.
With its millions of gallons of water
Raging over its cliffs each minute,
Thundering its constant protest
As it is greedily guzzled
By the Devil’s Throat below,
It puts other falls to shame.
For miles through the jungle
You can hear its roar
Over the jealous howls of the monkeys,
And glimpse its towering mist-clouds,
Its dancing rainbows,
Over the tops of the palo rosa trees,
Just as the Spaniards must have
When they planted their flag here
Centuries ago.
They named the falls
For the Virgin Mary,
But the Tupí who lived here already
Had a different name –
Y Ûasú,
The big water –
And a better story,
Of a lovely girl chosen for sacrifice
To a monstrous river-serpent,
A boy who loved and saved her
In his rough-hewn canoe,
And a furious god who smote them both
And broke the river in doing it.
Now where his fist struck
Stands this mad, relentless
Theater of water,
This unceasing showpiece
For the powers that be.

Iguazú (ee-gwah-SOO) Falls, on the border between Brazil and Argentina, is one of the largest and most impressive waterfalls in the world. It is a good bit taller than North America’s Niagara Falls, with much more water at peak flow periods; Africa’s Victoria Falls rivals its scale as well, but Iguazú has a wider span and a greater average flow. The falls make up a giant semicircle where the Iguazú River meets the edge of the Paraná Plateau, and half of the river’s water plunges into a narrow gap known as the Garganta del Diablo – the Devil’s Throat. The surrounding area is largely pristine rainforest, which is preserved by both countries as national parks.


Should you ever lose yourself
In the Hindu Kush,
The rugged stronghold of Asia;
Should you live long enough
To encounter a river;
Should you slog along its stony bank
To where it slips around a bend
And meets another,
A hushed rendezvous
In a hidden valley,
You might find there
A startling thing:
A soaring tower of brick,
Straining toward the sky
Like a moon-rocket ready for launch.
See every square inch covered
With dizzying patterns
In brick and stucco and tile,
Ringed near the top
With a curling script
That proclaims to the mountains
The story of Maryam,
Mother of Jesus.
From this proud minaret
The calls to prayer once rang
Over a city just as proud:
Firuzkuh, the Turquoise Mountain,
Glorious capital of a sprawling empire.
But the Hindu Kush
Had known empires before.
They came and went here,
Cast off with one shrug
Of the earth’s craggy shoulders.
This would be no different:
Flash floods and earthquakes
Brought the city to its knees,
And Mongol scimitars did the rest.
Yet through it all
The minaret stood its ground,
Spared by pity or awe
Or miracle.

The Minaret of Jam (JAM) is a two-hundred-foot-tall tower in the Hindu Kush mountains of central Afghanistan. A minaret is a structure that is most often associated with a mosque and used to deliver the call to prayer that is a central part of Islam. The one at Jam, built in the twelfth century and still the second-tallest brick minaret in the world, is remarkable for standing essentially alone in a very remote location. Some believe that it is the only remnant of the ancient city of Firuzkuh (“the Turquoise Mountain”), capital of the Ghurid Empire that briefly ruled over central Asia. Its elaborate decorations and inscriptions make it an artistic treasure, but the instability of Afghanistan – both geologically and politically – has posed a serious threat. Earthquakes and looters have damaged it over the centuries, and recently it has needed to be stabilized to keep it from leaning.


You are kneeling,
Checking your fishnets
In the gray water of the Moonsund,
All silent but the squalling of seabirds,
When without warning
The sky falls.
A ball of flame hurtles from the east,
As if flung by the morning sun,
Splinters into eight shards
And hits the earth with the force
Of a bomb.
You’re knocked flat,
Your breath stolen,
The earth shuddering beneath you,
Though you must be miles away;
As you make your way inland,
Heart pounding,
You pass the smoldering scraps
Of forests blown aside
Like matchsticks,
And find at last
Eight smoking holes in the earth.
You stand and wonder.
A meteorite –
A hunk of iron from the depths of space –
Will be the verdict someday,
Measured in metric tons and kilojoules.
But your people will make of this happening
A different kind of sense.
You’ll weave it into the tales you know,
Remembering the witch Louhi and her cruelest trick,
Her theft of fire and light from the world;
The thunder-god Ukko’s angry retort,
His order that a new sun be kindled in the darkness;
The fall to earth of one drop of that sun,
And the capture of its flames
By grateful mortals below.
Which story is truer?
Which is better?

Kaali (KAH-lee) is a site on the island of Saaremaa, a part of the country of Estonia. It is made up of nine round craters ranging up to three hundred feet across and seventy feet deep. The holes were mysterious for much of history, but are now known to have been created by the impact of a meteorite (a rock from space that falls to Earth) that broke up into nine pieces as it passed through the atmosphere. The impact probably happened sometime between two thousand and eight thousand years ago, and it may have been the only large one ever to occur in an area settled by people. Because it was such a spectacular event – the rocks struck with about the force of an atomic bomb, and burnt forests for several miles around – it’s no wonder that several stories in Estonian mythology seem to refer to it.


Fountains spill,
Pillars tower,
Chandeliers gleam,
Carpets shimmer,
Draperies billow in pink and orange,
Flowers bloom in delicate white,
Pools of turquoise teem with pearls,
Vaulted halls soar far overhead:
Here is a palace
Fit for the greatest of kings.
But no king ever lived here,
Nor anyone else –
For this palace lies deep underground,
And its splendid ornaments
Are all of stone.
For countless years
The halls of Lechuguilla
Lay sealed from the world,
As its master sculptors
Honed their craft:
Billions of microbes,
Coated in slime,
Feasting on foul sulfur,
And oozing with rock-eating acid.
Then, one spring day,
A breakthrough.
Three men, feeling an impossible wind
Blowing up from a hole in the desert,
Pawed through rubble to find
The gate to a hundred miles of wonder:
A hundred miles of splendid testament
To the beauty that comes,
From the lowliest source.

Lechuguilla (Lay-choo-GHEE-ya) Cave, reaching sixteen hundred feet deep and stretching for a hundred and thirty miles beneath New Mexico, is the deepest cave in the United States and one of the longest in the world. Amazingly, it was completely unknown until 1986, its entrance buried under a rock pile at the bottom of a much smaller cave within Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Lechuguilla is a very rare type of cave, having been hollowed out not from the top down but from the bottom up. Most caves are created when rocks are dissolved by carbonic acid, a weak acid that forms from water and carbon dioxide; this one was built instead by the much stronger, faster-acting sulfuric acid that originated in underground oil deposits. The cave is home to vast communities of sulfur-eating bacteria that contribute to the process, and they have helped create many distinctive and spectacular formations.


In midair.
That’s what it means, and
There could be no better name:
For these impossible buildings
Seem to hang in the sky,
Lifted toward heaven
By their sheer-faced
Pillars of earth.
Athanasios, who named the place,
Was said to have flown here
On the wings of eagles.
How else?
For centuries, the monks
Hauled each other up
In nets and on ladders,
Bearing loads of rock for building
And of grapes and grain for staying alive.
In midair, they brooded in silence,
Paced the courtyards,
Tended their gardens,
Copied letter by letter
Their precious, tattered manuscripts,
And worshiped under the solemn eyes
Of gilded saints.
Here was a place to practice
The art of letting go.
How often,
Wondered the nervous pilgrim,
Hoisted a quarter-mile from the earth,
Are the ropes replaced?
The monks would say:
When the Lord lets them break.

Metéora (Meh-TEH-o-ra) is a complex of six monasteries built on natural sandstone pillars in Greece. The tops of the pillars have been inhabited by monks since the 9th century. A monk named Athanasios began building the current structures in the 14th century, and for many years, the buildings were only accessible by ladders, baskets, and ropes. Visitors can now reach the tops by way of staircases, and one of the monasteries now houses a small museum.


A monkey the size of a football field.
A hummingbird big as an airliner.
Lizard, spider, condor, shark:
A monstrous menagerie,
Gliding, creeping, slithering, plunging
Across a sun-baked plain.
And lines, everywhere lines,
Straight as arrows for miles,
Going nowhere.
At eye-level, they aren’t much –
Humble tracks made by nudging
Desert pebbles aside –
And so this gargantuan
Picture-book sat,
For a full thousand years,
Till at last a jaw dropped
In an airplane window.
Runways for aliens?
A message to gods?
A map of the stars?
Or simply a spiraling
Path for a pilgrim,
Binding the feet and the heart
To the all-giving land?
All we know’s that in the end
The land couldn’t give enough.
Here in the Earth’s driest desert,
For hundreds of years
The Line-makers coaxed
Every drop from sky and soil.
When the rains gave out,
They sacrificed each other
To the angry gods.
The desert has kept those skeletons,
Cross-legged and headless,
Along with the Lines:
Cruel mementoes of the people
It swallowed.

Nazca (NAZ-ka) is the name for a region of southern Peru, as well as for the culture that lived in that region until about the year 800. Although this is one of the driest areas in the world, the Nazca people thrived here for a thousand years with the help of underground aqueducts and other ingenious technologies. They also constructed several hundred geoglyphs (designs made from rocks on the ground), known as the “Nazca Lines,” the largest of which is nearly a thousand feet across. Some are simple lines and other abstract patterns, while others clearly represent animals such as hummingbirds. The Lines were unknown outside Peru until the twentieth century, and even now their purpose is controversial. One theory holds that they served as paths for pilgrims to walk as part of a sacred ritual. The Nazca culture disappeared suddenly, probably because of a change in the regional climate. However, the arid conditions have preserved many of their artifacts, as well as their ritual burials.


On islands as stubborn as these,
Scraps of earth pinned
Between cold gray sea
And blustery sky,
There is bound
To be magic.
Where the changeable wind
Goes by tirl or gurl,
Gushel or skuther,
Yardsook or flan,
And it doesn’t just rain
But it’s eeskan an’ rainan
Or rashan an’ rainan,
Now a skub o’ a shooer,
Then a hard hellyie-fer
Such is a place
For fairies and elves,
And more sinister things:
The Selkies that tempt you
Away to the sea;
The Nuggle-horse, waiting
To ride you to death;
The Stoor-worm that poisons
The land with his breath;
The Hill-trows that skulk
Through your houses at night;
The Hogboons that guard
The great burial mounds.
But mightiest of all
Is that bringer of calm and warmth and life,
The fair-faced Mither o’ the Sea.
In the long dark of winter,
With the wind flannan doon a’ the night,
The old ones still tell all these stories and more
In their slow singsong voices
That sound like the sea.

Orkney (ORK-nee) is a group of some 70 islands off the northern coast of Scotland. Its isolation and its cold, wet, famously windy climate have kept it largely free from outside influence. As a result, much of the language, folklore, and traditions still survive from the Celtic and Norse cultures that formerly lived here. Because of the islands’ far northern latitude, winter nights here are very long, and telling old stories by winter fires – full of fairies, goblins, and other magical elements – is still a way of life for many Orcadians.


They have summer and winter.
Here, the seasons that matter
Are empty and full –
Because this world turns
On its water.
In the dry months,
When the straw-hatted peões
Chase their cattle from one end to the other,
When the piúva trees burst with pink trumpets,
When the stout-beaked jabiru stalk the shrinking waterholes,
You might mistake this for grassland,
For savanna,
For earth.
Come October, and the rains,
You’ll begin to see your mistake.
All around you the floods will rise,
Ankle-deep, knee-deep, hip-deep,
Till the great wetland of the world
Is far more wet than land.
And with the floods,
The water-beasts rise too:
The blood-mad schools of piranha,
And the sleek giant otters that brave their fangs;
The sinewy anacondas, coiled for ambush;
The Jesus-birds, mincing on spidery toes
Over lily-pads broad as bathtubs;
And the jacarés, everywhere the jacarés,
Smaller than gators but fearsome in number,
Piling onto the banks by the millions,
Lazily nipping at the pantaneiro steeds.
As for the dwindling patches of earth,
Everyone knows
The master of those.
At dusk, as the croaks of the great blue macaws
Fade from the rustling palms,
The jaguar,
Lord of the night,
Starts his watch.

The Pantanal (Pahn-ta-NAHL) is sometimes called the largest wetland on Earth. Covering over 50,000 square miles in Brazil, Bolivia, and Paraguay, it consists of a vast, nearly flat depression that collects water from highland areas and slowly drains into the Paraguay River. During its rainy season, the waters of the Pantanal may rise by as much as fifteen feet, flooding some 80% of the wetland’s area. The spectacular fauna of the Pantanal includes a thousand species of birds, one of the densest jaguar populations in the world, and as many as ten million yacare caiman (relatives of the alligator).


Minik was his name.
Born here, where the day and night take
Six months at a time –
Where the year takes its rhythm
From the march and retreat of the ice,
The thunder of caribou hooves,
The solemn spray of the narwhal
Gathering in the bay,
The cackling of auks
On the teeming cliffs –
Born in this place
Among the hardiest people in creation,
His spirit would be tried like none other.
He could not have known,
At six years, or seven,
That the white man’s ship,
That great winged island of wood,
Would soon lift him to an alien world –
A world of hard-edged buildings
That strained like icebergs at the sky,
Of foul, stampeding creatures
Quicker, louder than any dogsled;
Could not have known that his own father
Would be stolen from him
By the demon germ they called
Tee bee,
That the glass-eyed men
Who treated them like animals
Would fool him, Minik, with a sham burial,
A stuffed body-bag in a box,
Then spear his father’s bones on a museum pole
For the gawking crowds;
That he himself,
Would spend his short days
Strung between two worlds,
An alien to both.
Why am I an experiment?
He wondered as a man,
Freezing the words in the white man’s script
That set him free
And bound him down.

Qaanaaq (KAH-nahk), on the coast of northwestern Greenland, is one of the northernmost towns in the world. Its inhabitants are mostly Inuit who survive by fishing and hunting seals, whales, and other sea mammals. Qaanaaq was the birthplace of an Inuit boy named Minik, who was brought to New York City in 1897 by the American explorer Robert Peary. At the American Museum of Natural History, where the Inuit were being scientifically studied, Minik’s father soon died of tuberculosis. The museum staged a fake burial for the benefit of Minik, and then put his father’s skeleton on display as part of an exhibit. After learning of the deception, Minik tried to reclaim his father for a traditional burial, but never succeeded. He was later adopted by the museum’s curator, and did not return to Greenland until he was in his twenties. Feeling alienated now from both cultures, he eventually came back to America, found work in a lumber camp, and died of influenza in 1918.


To the locals, it was the stump
Of the tree of creation.
To the sweating Brits who hacked their way
Through miles of jungle
To stare up at its thousand-foot fortress walls,
The rivers that plummeted from its rim,
The mist that guarded its forbidden heights,
It seemed as though
The Earth had a second floor.
Why, anything could be up there.
Dinosaurs, hidden in the clouds through the ages!
Freakish races of men, or half-men!
When at last, after decades of shaking their heads,
The first daredevils clambered their way to the top,
What they found was somehow
Weirder still:
Deformed rocks heaped into devilish forms;
Golden pools strewn with pink crystals;
Gnarled forests in elfin miniature;
Glowing spiders guarding twisted caves;
Tiny black frogs, ignorant of jumping,
That rolled themselves into balls to escape,
And the gaping maws of the pitcher-plants
That slowly ate them alive when they fell;
And the screaming night-birds that swarmed
Out of chasms at dusk,
Swooping over dark treetops
To pluck fruit in midair.
Strange country of nightmares,
Said one.
And yet to awaken up here,
Lost to the world below,
With the pink light flooding the gran sabana
And a fresh day’s glint on the waterfalls,
Feels somehow
Like the sweetest dream.

Mount Roraima (Roh-RYE-ma) is a giant tepui – a term for a flat-topped mountain, meaning “house of the gods” in the Pemon language – that straddles the border between Brazil, Venezuela, and Guyana. 9,000 feet tall and covering 11 square miles, Roraima is ringed by steep cliffs on all sides that have isolated it from the surrounding forest and savanna and preserved its highly distinctive flora and fauna. Since it was first described by Sir Walter Raleigh in the sixteenth century, the mountain has inspired many stories, including Arthur Conan Doyle’s book The Lost World about the discovery of modern-day dinosaurs. Roraima was not climbed until 1884, and today it remains a place of great fascination for biologists who study its strange life forms. 


Island of Bliss,
Island of Enchantment,
Island of Tranquility,
Island of the Blessed,
Take your pick –
For as long as tales have been told,
The tallest ones have gathered here.
It has been ruled by a serpent king,
Rich beyond all imagining;
Guarded by sorcerers
With the power to make it vanish;
Haunted by mischievous jinns,
Darkened by the wings of the terrible Roc,
And graced by the deathless Phoenix,
Who returned here every five hundred years
To be burnt, and reborn, on a pyre.
Not just any wood will do
For such a resurrection-fire:
Only that of frankincense and myrrh,
Weeping their perfumed tears of resin,
And of the dragon’s-blood tree,
Spilling its garnet sap amidst the flames.
The monsters, the spirits,
Have fled to more distant parts,
But the trees still stand –
Withered, dementedly swollen,
Clinging to rubble and grasping at sand,
Guarding the hills in their goblin groves
And toadstool forests.
Go there, climb to them,
Prick their wood,
See the devilish gleam of the dragon’s blood,
Let the sacred incense fill your nostrils,
Look past the shrouding mists
To the storm-swept sea,
Then ask if there is nothing
To the tales.

Socotra (Soh-KOH-tra) is an island in the Arabian Sea, belonging to the country of Yemen. Roughly eighty miles long, it lies 150 miles from the nearest land (which is actually in Africa). Because of its remoteness — combined with its hot, dry climate — Socotra is home to some 700 species of plants and animals that are found nowhere else on Earth. Some of these, such as the umbrella-shaped dragon’s-blood tree and the cucumber tree with its swollen trunk, are spectacular and bizarre. Travelers in the area, including ancient Greeks and medieval Arabs, have told countless legends about Socotra. According to one especially old myth, this was where the Phoenix came to be reborn every five hundred years. 

Te Anau

You could come from the south.
Two hours by coach, express,
No fuss.
But I suggest
The west.
It’s half as far as the crow flies,
If there were crows here,
Or much else that flies –
But more on that later.
You’ll sail into Doubtful Sound,
Drift over the grasping branches
Of the ghost-black coral beneath,
As the brooding cliffs close slowly around you;
Beach your ship in the fog,
Pick your way into the rainforest,
Across the snaking roots
Where penguin eggs are strewn;
Inch your way up rugged slopes,
Through silver beeches bedecked in moss;
Pause at the lip of the tumbling falls,
Strain to catch the whistling of dolphins,
The caterwauling of seals,
Through the mist below;
Now turn toward the land,
Let the mountains embrace you,
Follow the wind as it whips down valleys
Thick with snowgrass
And the lumbering violet birds that eat it,
The takahē that long since forgot, or surrendered,
The use of their wings
On this charmed island far from cat and fox.
Now see the crystalline lake below,
Peer into its thousand-foot depths.
See the lights reflected:
No, not those, those are glowworms;
Those, over there, across the lake,
For there is your bed for the night,
In the little village of Te Anau,
Last stand of the civilized
As it gives way to the wild.

Te Anau (Tay AH-now) is a village in southern New Zealand. It sits on the shore of a lake that shares its name, which is one of the largest and deepest lakes in New Zealand, and is known for its glow-worm caves. Te Anau also serves as a gateway to the world-famous Fiordland National Park, a spectacular landscape of rugged mountains, twisting fjords, and sky-high waterfalls. The alpine grasslands surrounding Te Anau are the last stronghold of the takahe, a flightless purple rail that was thought for decades to be extinct.


You’re on a lake –
No, not a lake:
A looking-glass,
Clear as air
And flat as a sheet
That stretches as far
As the eye can see.
A Wonderland; but
Are you there, or
Is it here?
You step;
The you beneath you
Steps in time.
Your ripples are hers.
You reach your arms
Toward the blanketing blue;
She reaches hers
Toward the blue below.
Where one starts
And one ends,
It’s hard to say.
A flamingo flies by,
And its mirror-bird with it,
Craning their necks to stare.
Their pinkness burns your eyes.
You lean down,
Anxious for earth,
And find only
A fistful of salt,
Pure and white.
You think of eating it.
Would you shrink?
Would you grow?
How would you know?

The Salar de Uyuni (Oo-YOO-nee) is the largest salt flat on Earth, a four-thousand-square-mile expanse high in the mountains of Bolivia. The evaporation of water over millennia has left behind a crust of salts, several feet thick, that forms an almost perfectly flat surface. When rains cover the flat with shallow water, its mirror-like appearance makes it a popular destination for photographers. Although very few plants and animals can endure the harsh conditions of the Uyuni, it is an important breeding site for flamingoes.


A full moon wakes
To find a silent mystery.
Where a bustling city lay
Moments before –
A city of jabbering beggars
And quick-eyed boatmen,
Of cross-legged sages with dangling beards
And lean-legged boys selling pink lotus blooms;
Of women crouched over their riverbank laundry,
Many-colored and chattering like tropical birds;
Of lean stray dogs dodging bicycle rickshaws,
And humped cows ambling down zigzag alleys;
A city spiced with incense
And rank with trash,
Patrolled by vultures
And brimming with life –
Where once lay this city,
Now all lies still.
Crowded in darkness by the water’s edge,
A mass of pilgrims waits.
At last, a sign:
The toom, toom of a conch shell sounds,
A man in yellow lights a flickering flame,
And the City of Lights
Begins earning its name.
Lamps wink,
Candles glimmer,
Fireworks burst,
And a million twinkling lanterns are loosed
To float starlike down the sacred river –
Where tonight,
As on so many
Full moons past,
The gods in heaven
Are invited to bathe.

Varanasi (Vah-RAH-nah-see), on the banks of the Ganges River, is known as the holiest city in India and one of the oldest cities in the world. Its site has been inhabited continuously for over three thousand years. Millions of Hindu pilgrims travel here each year to visit the city’s 23,000 temples and to bathe in the purifying water of the Ganges. Many religious festivals take place in Varanasi, including Dev Deepawali, the Festival of Lights of the Gods, during which oil lamps are set afloat on the river under a full moon. In addition to its importance to Hinduism, Varanasi also contains holy sites for the Muslim, Buddhist, and Jain religions. 


On a still black night,
On a broad white beach,
A ribbon of mirrored moon
Between whispering forest
And twinkling ocean,
Two unlikely souls converge –
Each from its private deep.
One appears as a sleek hump in the waves,
An ancient bulk hauled onto sand
By great, barnacled flippers.
She has traveled half the world
And come back here,
Guided by stars through heaving seas,
Recalling in her reptile heart
The soft warmth of this sand:
A sand that brought her forth,
That has served her kind for years untold,
And will do the same for the small ones
That wait inside her.
Across the beach,
A ponderous rustle:
The jungle wall parts
For another’s great bulk,
His scarred tusks catching the starlight.
He has his own journeys to remember,
His own wordless tales to tell,
His own weight to carry,
And tonight he feels moved
By that weight toward the sea.
For a moment they pause
In silent acknowledgment.
The wisdom of two worlds
Meets in between.

Wonga-Wongué (WON-ga WON-gay) is a tract of rainforest, savanna, and beaches on the coast of Gabon, in west-central Africa. It is managed as a Presidential Reserve, and thanks to its protected status and remote location it shelters thriving populations of wildlife. Among these are hundreds of forest elephants, as well as thousands of leatherback sea turtles – the largest of all turtles, approaching ten feet in length – which return to the pristine beaches here to nest each year. Gabon’s breeding population of this ancient, critically endangered species is thought to be the largest in the world.


Look down from Yellow Mountain,
Glory of China,
Beloved of painter and poet.
You will see only clouds,
A rolling sea of clouds,
Pierced by jagged peaks like sea-rocks
With fairy-tale names:
Lotus Flower,
Jade Screen,
Heaven’s Capital.
But beneath the sea,
Nestled against a peak and
Preserved as though by glass,
Is a humbler place:
No capital of heaven, this,
Just a simple hamlet,
And yet perfect in its way.
Here amidst paddies and peach orchards,
Everything knows its proper place;
One thousand years of feng shui craft
Has made quite sure of that.
Take your time: be led down bluestone-cobbled streets,
Beckoned by crisp, dappled courtyards,
Drawn into rock gardens and goldfish ponds;
Trace each lattice window and curling roofline,
Lose yourself in the delicate detail
Of brushed scroll and wood ornament –
Until you feel you’ve set foot
In a painting.
One man, legend has it,
Doubted the poems,
And journeyed to Yellow Mountain
To judge this land for himself.
Then he understood,
And for his trouble,
A peak was named in his honor.
They called it Shixin:

Xidi (SHEE-dee) is a thousand-year-old village in China that has been declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations. The town is laid out according to the principles of feng shui, which seeks to find harmony between human structures and the natural environment. The beautiful decorations on the buildings, the careful design of the small courtyards, pools, and alleyways, and the ingenious water-supply system (which was far ahead of its time) contrast sharply with today’s industrial cities and make Xidi a unique cultural treasure. The beauty of the surrounding landscape, highlighted by Huangshan (the Yellow Mountain), has inspired artists, writers, and spiritual seekers since ancient times.


There: a single sail,
Like a ragged floating leaf,
Conjured up by the blue horizon –
A wave-rider returns.
To walk across Yap, the island,
Takes hardly an hour, by well-trod footpath.
But the world of Yap is as wide as the ocean.
To travel these invisible roads,
Forget your map, your compass,
Your nails, your tape, your canvas;
But you will need all the brains
And guts you can muster –
To know just where to chisel the breadfruit trunk,
How to plait pandanus leaves into a sail,
How to lash it all together with coconut rope,
How to steer your craft by the whirling stars;
And guts,
For when those stars cloud over,
That sea begins to churn,
And you, alone against the Pacific,
Have only its fitful swells,
The taste and warmth of its water,
The wanderings of its beasts and birds,
And the changeable colors of its skies
To guide you home.
As for this homebound canoe,
It comes with precious cargo:
A giant ring of glittering stone,
Hewn from a distant quarry
And towed on a bamboo raft.
The tattooed men file down to the shore
To haul the thing, the rai, onto land.
The village agrees: it will serve, like the others,
As a two-ton coin –
Its worth determined by size, by shape,
By the sweat and blood that brought it here.
The whites called them savages,
But Yap knew better:
The people of this coral-ringed speck of land
Are sailors, engineers, bankers even,
The equal of any on Earth.

Yap (YAP) is an island in the western Pacific Ocean, part of the Federated States of Micronesia. The Yapese people are famed navigators, capable of traveling across hundreds of miles of open ocean in wooden outrigger canoes. Without compasses and other modern instruments, they traditionally relied on the stars, the wind, patterns of ocean swells, and other subtle cues to navigate their way to small, distant islands. Yapese society is also known for its unusual money system. “Coins” on Yap, called Rai, are stone discs as large as 12 feet across, which are quarried on other islands and floated home by raft. The value of each Rai is settled according to its size and the effort needed to collect it. Once a Rai fell from its raft and dropped to the bottom of the sea. Although it was never seen again, the Yapese remembered its existence and kept using it as currency!


Here stands Atlas,
Titan turned to stone,
Who carries the world on his shoulders.
From the thin spring air up here,
Atop the pillars of the Earth,
Each melting snowdrop
Faces a choice:
Fall one way, toward the known,
Toward the bustle of the Middle Sea,
Toward merchants and sailors,
Cities and ports –
Or fall the other, toward
The vast mysterious,
The unmapped sweep of the desert
And the heart of darkness beyond.
Those that choose this path
Tumble down mountain flanks,
Join in rivulets lapped
By wild sheep and leopards,
Gush through pink-walled gorges,
Wander through groves of palm
Past the crumbling baked-mud kasbahs,
And at last give in to the searing sun
At the feet of towering dunes.
Past this no water will go,
Nor anything else –
Or will it?
Once, the caravans streamed with the river,
And the canyon walls were lined with thieves
Who licked their lips as the camels passed –
The desert-bound camels laden with salt,
And those returning with gold.
The trader saw in those dreadful wastes
A golden road,
And bounty in the distant dark;
And the proud river Ziz
Was to him
A portal to dreams.

The Ziz (ZIZ) River begins in the high Atlas Mountains of Morocco and eventually disappears in the Sahara Desert of Algeria. Historically, the river’s course was an important link in a great caravan route that connected the civilizations of the Mediterranean Sea with those of southern Africa. A typical caravan, composed of hundreds of camels, would carry salt, cloth, and metal goods on its southbound journey across the desert, to be traded for gold, ivory, and often human slaves. Ruins of medieval fortresses called kasbahs can still be seen along the gorges that the Ziz has carved through the mountains. Near the river’s end stands the Erg Chebbi, a vast area of sand dunes that reach a thousand feet in height.

Image of Roraima (c) Paolo Costa Baldi CC BY-SA 3.0

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