My grandfather got me my first subscription to National Geographic. I’m not sure exactly when, but I think I may have been 10 or 11, around 1992 or 1993. I do have complete sets from those years, but I have some from 1991 as well. Heck, I have a 1989.
Grandpa wasn’t a gift-giving man. He was a brilliant man, an educated man. He was a doctor, an ocean lover. He served in the Navy in WWII and the Korean War, and he was auxiliary with the Coast Guard after that. He took pride in his service. He was a dedicated psychiatrist, an accomplished swimmer who swam every day in the ocean til he was almost 80. He let me steer his boat once and taught my mother to navigate by the stars.
He was a science lover. Once, in college, I received the only letter I ever got from him. It may be one of the only letters he ever sent to anyone in our family. It was two pages. It contained one sentence asking how I was, and nothing about his life or what he was doing. Instead, it was a brief natural history of two ospreys who had taken up residence on the roof of his condo building. He talked about what they ate, the times they were active, their nest, their hunting patterns. He knew their schedule, and described their beautiful launching flights over the lagoon outside. There was nothing in it about him, but I think in some ways it was more about him than any other thing he may have written to anyone.
And my grandfather got me National Geographic. I don’t know why he got it for me. I’m not sure I even knew what it was before it began arriving in the mail. My mother says he saw me glued to the pictures in his issues and decided that I needed my own set. Perhaps he saw me, tall and gangly even then, with heavy dark hair and a love of reading, and saw something of himself.
I was hooked. From the first issue. In the earlier days I didn’t read them all the way through. I was a good reader, but I wasn’t that good. Instead, I stared lovingly at the pictures. Glossy and bright and amazing. Pictures of ancient tribes, of places in the modern world I knew nothing about, of animals and plants I had never even imagined.
As I grew older, I began the read the articles as well. It was in National Geographic that I learned about climate change. National Geographic taught me evolution. And it was National Geographic that showed me stem cells, DNA, robotics. In National Geographic I first read about Jane Goodall, who would become one of my role models as I began to pursue my interest in science.
I prized my National Geographics. I looked for the golden yellow covers in the mail every month, even when I didn’t read them. It didn’t matter. I refused to cut them up for school projects or see them in any less than perfect condition.
At one point, I recall at a science-based summer camp, I told one of those suddenly fast friends you make at camp (who I think was named Ira. If you’re out there, hi Ira! How are you?) that when I grew up I wanted to write for National Geographic. He volunteered to be my photographer. From then on I daydreamed of trips around the world, hiking through exotic locales, camping on cliff faces, diving under the ocean.
Those dreams faded as I grew up. I went to college. I majored in science and did a lot of the arts. I did research and got into grad school. The idea of being a writer at National Geographic seemed about as realistic as going to the moon.
In 2004 my grandfather died. I continued to pay the subscription until about 2008 or so. I remembered my grandfather with every issue. But on a grad student budget, it was too expensive. I stopped getting the golden yellow covers. I stopped asking for the beautiful reddish leather binders that covered each year.
But through all my moves and life changes, my National Geographics came with me. Boxes and boxes and boxes. They filled more than half a tall bookshelf.
And while they remained, I changed. I got my PhD, and while I’m not longer a scientist, I’m now a science writer. I don’t write for National Geographic, and I’m ok with that. I write for a respected publication, and feel amazingly lucky to do it. I’m happier than I have ever been. I am doing what I have always loved, even though, for many years, I never consciously knew I loved it.
We moved from city to city. The magazines came with us. At first I refused to get rid of them. I at one point sold 10 boxes of books to fit into a tiny apartment. The National Geographics stayed. But after one too many moves and heaving those magazines up one too many flights…I started to wonder what they were there for. I never read them. I never opened them. I just…liked to know they were there. But gazing lovingly at something becomes a little silly when that something is well over 50 pounds of magazine paper.
And so, for this last move, I was done. But I couldn’t get rid of them. They contained so much inspiration. And so many memories of my grandfather. But what on earth do you DO with 227 issues of National Geographic? More than 18 YEARS of magazines?
I did this.
I carefully cut off all of the covers with a ruler and a scalpel. I then picked 13 covers that mean a great deal to me. You can see them at left. I also bought the biggest size poster frame available. And a lot of glue sticks.
Following many mock ups and tests (measure twice, cut once!), I began to glue. The goal was to overlap the magazines as much as possible, creative a solid background of gold borders.
The background begins to take shape.
This issue above (December 1995) was one of the most inspirational pieces I ever read. Jane Goodall became my role model. If she could do it, I could do it, too.
Once the background was filled in, I created a second layer, overlapping the first.
Outside forces sometimes prevented my project.
The final result: overlapping layers with my favorite covers displayed.
The covers are as follows:
Top left: Wild Gliders of Borneo, October 2000. I just loved the colors in every photo from that feature.
Top center: The Great Grey Owl, February, 2005. The cover is obviously gorgeous, but I also loved the article that went with it.
Top right: Why We Love Caffeine, January 2005. I obviously love caffeine, but as a first year grad student in pharmacology, this article particularly spoke to me.
Second row left: Hawk High over the Four Corners, September, 1996. The first time I ever really yearned to see the west.
Second row right: Macaws, January 1994. I love this picture. It’s one of those times when you look into a bird’s eye, and see a dinosaur inside.
Third row left: The Red Sea, November 1993. The first feature I truly remember reading over and over and over. I couldn’t get enough of the Red Sea, how exotically beautiful it was.
Third row center: Jewel Scarabs, February 2001. Who ever knew a beetle could be so lovely?
Third row right: Emperors of the Ice, March 1996. I loved this article (penguins! Who wouldn’t?) but this cover is burned into my mind as the image I associate with National Geographic. When I hear the name, this is the cover I see.
Fourth row left: The Big Thaw, June 2003. When I first truly understood the impacts of climate change.
Fourth row right: Neandertals. January, 1996. This was my first deep exposure to evolution.
Bottom row left: The Vanishing Prairie Dog, April 1998. Really, it’s just cute. LOOK at those little paws!
Bottom row center: Stem Cells, July 2005. This was my first exposure to this issue and its bioethical entanglements. I was fascinated.
Bottom row right: Wolf to Woof, January 2002. Having never read Darwin (don’t worry, I read Darwin in 2011), I didn’t really get taught the story of how humans have controlled the evolution of other species with our artificial selection. I knew about evolution of course, but this story changed my view.
The final result is a compilation. It’s a blend of my love of science and history and travel, my memories of my grandfather and who I have become. National Geographic represents all of that, in a way. It also shows just how much science journalism can inspire. If it weren’t for the science journalists writing away at National Geographic, I might never have become a scientist. I might never have become a science writer. And for that inspiration, I am eternally grateful.