Eco-conscious readers! I am happy to relate that “Natural Histories,” my profile of conservationist Çağan Şekercioğlu and his badass Kars-based NGO, is on newsstands now in the October 24 issue of the New Yorker, with photography by superstar Carolyn Drake.


I think Çağan was not super-happy with the above photo, because the bird had started to fly away before he had completely released it, and apparently it might look to a bird professional as if he had been holding it wrong. In fact he was holding it fine and nobody’s leg got broken, least of all that of the bird.

The cotton candy didn’t even try to fly away:


Click here for an outtake from the story, plus another very beautiful photograph.

I leave you today with a short excerpt from “Natural Histories” which, in addition to describing Çağan’s work, is also actually kind of an ecopoetry-inspired essay about the nature and culture of Kars. Here is where the big literary guns come in:

Pamuk, unlike Pushkin, was not a formative writer for me. For many years, I even thought that, despite being a writer of Turkish descent, I might live my whole life without reading any of his novels. My first inkling that this would not be possible came in 2008, when I was interviewed for the first time by a Turkish newspaper. The interview was about the band Vampire Weekend, but the reporter still required my opinions on Turkey’s only Nobelist. My answer appeared as a subhead, in all caps: “I WAS UNABLE TO FINISH PAMUK.”

In subsequent interviews, I was asked not only about Pamuk but about my inability to finish Pamuk.

“You know, everyone always asks about this,” I told one journalist this spring. “Why don’t we talk about something else?”

“I’ll tell you why,” she said. “None of us can finish Pamuk, but you’re the only one who says so openly.”

Well, I never had set out to become a national spokesperson for the inability to finish Orhan Pamuk. So I went to the library and checked out Pamuk’s most Russian book—the one he conceived as a “Dostoyevskian political novel” and set in the shadow of the gigantic architectural emanation of Pushkin’s mother-in-law.


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14 Responses to “NATURAL HISTORIES”

  1. Dave Lull Says:

    October 19, 2011
    Posted by Elissa Curtis

    [. . .]

    Here’s a selection of her photographs from that trip.

  2. Josh Jacobs Says:

    Elif, thank you so much for another amazing New Yorker piece. I loved and am still haunted by the soccer piece from the spring, particularly the image of the supporter watching his beloved team in misery, a cigarette burning to ash in his lips. If only we could bring to America more of this uplifting attachment to soccer!

    I went from there to read The Possessed and laughed, cried, it was better than Cats. And with the reference to your being invited to “talk smack” about Pamuk, I tried reading Snow, and loved the setting in Kars but could not finish it. Imagine my delight at finding you in the midst of a national kerfuffle for this same reason. I suppose it shows my misalignment with the Swedish Academy that I devour Batuman, discard Pamuk.

    This turn to focus on nature is an excellent move. The paragraph on imagining the landscape of ecology without nature is quite poetic–for me it evokes Elizabeth Bishop, particularly juxtapositions like the walls of Jerusalem and harvester ants. The underlying tragicomedy she found in Brazil as a “backdrop” (don’t tell the ecopoets) to her poems about her life and encounters there seems salient to your loving semi-outsider stance re: Turkey. It also kind of fits with the persona in your work of the smart observer who just happens upon the most hysterically funny/benighted situations and is there to record them.

    Keep going! Write faster! Thanks to you and Cagan for providing a welcome counterpoint of Harvard grads doing great things vs. the somewhat nauseating self-congratulation of Jill Abramson’s Harvard classmate masters of the universe in the same issue.

  3. Cristina Says:


    How strange that I finished a book this morning that is dedicated to “all biophiles” and then, still wanting more lazy Saturday morning reading, turned coincidentally to your piece in the New Yorker, which also references E.O. Wilson. Strange forces at work, perhaps.

    I loved your article and, in fact, could not help but research your writing half-way through when I found myself thinking, “Who is this author? and where can I read more of her work??” Thank you for your work and insight, I have scribbled down The Possessed on my “To Read” list.

    The book that I finished this morning is quite a beautiful book, one that I think you (and Cagan) might enjoy: The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey. It is a wonderfully elegant homage to one snail in particular and gastropods generally.

  4. Damion Searls Says:

    But the real question is: Intentional toe-to-toe with you-know-who for the Writing About Birds And Ecology In The New Yorker crown, or what?

  5. Elif Says:

    haha, you know it d

  6. Geoff Roberts Says:

    I finished Pamuk! I’m not proud of this, but as I also finished Batumen I feel that I have the beginnings of acute Turkophilia, with a tinge of anti-Nobelism. I know people who can’t finish Tolstoy – what do you say to them?

  7. Geoff Roberts Says:

    Mispelt your name – sorry – is that the American or the Turkish spelling?

  8. Dean Kastel Says:

    RE: “Natural Histories”, Kafka, Pamuk, and you. I waited for you to reveal that Ka was also the phonetic pronunciation in Turkish of the English “K”. Alas, it didn’t happen. Nonetheless, the link between Pamuk and Kafka seems pretty strong. I’m sure you know that Kafka was hard-pressed to provide conclusions, at least to his major works. It now seems apparent that he did not see the need to conclude; i.e., if the reader sensed the message in his work, a conclusion of any sort was an objectionable departure. Might it be that Pamuk sensed and attempted the same veiled message artistry? Might it be that you and many Turkish readers “got it” in reading Pamuk; i.e., you got the major whatever-it-was….and there was no need to find words for the ineffable, no need to feel unconnected to Pamuk’s work, and no need to “confess” not finishing.
    And if I could stretch the point a bit further, I sensed the same quality of “strangeness” or other-reality in your article, though surely not the same degree or constancy…an occasional, sort of an abrupt “whoa, what is this?”. And a reread led to the ironic thought “did I need to finish the article?” Which I did and admired your work. Best wishes for the next. Dean Kastel, Santa Fe, NM, USA

  9. Elif Says:

    thanks for the really kind comments! i think everyone is free to not finish whatever they don’t want to finish, pamuk or tolstoy or batuman or whomever, without it reflecting poorly on anyone (see here for some elaboration). re: “ka,” it’s the pronunciation of k in german (kafka’s language) – although not in turkish (in turkish k is pronounced “ke”).

  10. Christopher Schaberg Says:

    Hello, I just finished “Natural Histories” and thoroughly enjoyed it! I plan to use it in a future class on environmental writing. The “eco-theorist” you quote near the end of the article is my mentor Tim Morton, from his book Ecology Without Nature–I was actually his research assistant when he wrote that book. His ideas have shaped my own work on a very different kind of environment: airports. Anyway, thanks for the thoughtful, brilliant article!

  11. Elif Says:

    dear christopher schaberg, thanks for the kind note – yes, timothy morton, exactly! i was deeply impressed by his riffs on “dark ecology.” i have been having dark thoughts of my own about airports lately, so i will keep an eye out for your work.

  12. g whiting Says:

    Loved your latest New Yorker piece. Your writing is so good it opens basically any topic in some thoughtful way. Have been an E.O Wilson fan since On Human Nature, a fan of yours since your wonderful soccer article, which led me to your book and to other articles. Point = neat to see Wilson mentioned in a piece of yours about a young man of a similar type. We sure need monomaniacs like Wilson and Cagan, so thank you for bringing Cagan to the attention of more people. Wilson unfortunately won’t be around forever, here’s hoping Cagan will have a long career and be similarly influential.

  13. Dominic Basulto Says:

    What a wonderful piece in The New Yorker about the journey to Northeast Turkey! We traveled the same route – Istanbul to Kars, with side trips to Ani and Ararat, last year. Left us stunned with the magic of this undiscovered area – as well as the hospitality of the people, who seemed so cut off from the West. We wandered the ruins of Ani with members of the Turkish military patrolling the Turkish-Armenian border, strolled through the lonely streets of Kars at night — stopping to buy the local cheese for breakfast — and strolled up the hillside to the castle in Kars. The next day, we rented a van to go to Ararat, passing through the military checkpoints, and stopped in the mountainous area at an abandoned palace. It’s so great that you’re bringing this story to a wider audience — and reminding people of the literature (Pamuk, Pushkin) that describes the region. Bravo! (And, thank you, too, for The Possessed!)

  14. Bill Holm Says:

    “Natural Histories” is the best article I’ve ever read. I wanted it to go on forever.

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