Game of Clones

Chris Higgins looks into how the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine is fixing link rot.


For Web pages, life is short: an estimated 100 days on average. When those pages die, people trying to visit them see a “404 — Not Found” error, and that’s usually the end of the story. But what if we could bring dead Web pages back to life by storing clones in the cloud? That’s exactly what the Internet Archive is doing.

The Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine stores archival copies of 378 billion URLs. It’s a gigantic cache of Web pages that stretches back to 1996. While it doesn’t include every page of every Web site out there—site owners can opt out and even request that old pages be deleted—coverage is surprisingly good. (For example, medium.com’s cache dates back to 1997.) The Wayback Machine’s storehouse is often relied upon in times of crisis: during the recent U.S. government shutdown, the Federal Trade Commission shuttered its Web site and pointed visitors to the Wayback Machine’s archive.

It’s not just the FTC that’s affected by broken pages during a time of crisis, however. A recent Harvard study found that 49 percent of links in Supreme Court opinions are now dead, and 70 percent of links in journals, including the Harvard Law Review, are dead too. It’s hard to study the past when so much of it just rots away.

But pages that have disappeared from Web servers may still persist in the Wayback Machine. Those archival copies can be served up in place of the dead ones. It’s just a matter of connecting people to the archives. Alexis Rossi, head of collections at the Internet Archive, explains, “What we’d really like to do is have the browsers themselves build something into the 404 page that [checks] automatically. That takes a little bit of convincing.” In the meantime, there’s a Chrome extension that does the trick with a few extra clicks.

Rossi’s team is also working with members of the Wikipedia community to prevent broken links before they go dark. “We parse out all the new links that get added to Wikipedia and then we crawl those immediately,” she says. This ensures a cached copy is archived at that moment.

In addition to preventing new broken links, Wikipedian Kunal Mehta has written a bot to archive links before they break (and automatically fix them when they do); this is crucial because there are over 125,000 broken links on Wikipedia today. A similar effort is underway to fix broken links on WordPress.com hosted blogs. There’s also a new “Save Page” feature in the Wayback Machine allowing on-demand archival — this is a one-click method to create a stable URL for use in your dissertation, print article, or Supreme Court decision.

Broken link / Sean

Although a globally recognized fix for broken pages is still on the way, for the technically inclined there are some tools available today. First is the Wayback Machine API, an interface that developers can write software to query as to whether a given URL is available in the archive; if so, they can retrieve it.

Second is the 404 Handler for Webmasters, a simple JavaScript snippet that you can pop into the 404-handling page on your own Web site. (All Web servers and some Web-hosting companies let you create at least a custom 404 page.) It runs in the user’s Web browser and performs the lookup automatically.

Third is the WordPress Broken Link Checker Plugin, which monitors your WordPress blog for broken links, and fixes them when they break. Finally, there’s Memento, a suite of tools (and protocols) to locate past versions of any page; this last one includes that Chrome extension and much more.

“The Internet echoes with the empty spaces where information used to be,” Rossi said as she announced the Internet Archive’s work to fix broken links. The echoes are quieter now, as those spaces are filled in by archivists.


Chris Higgins writes for Mental Floss, This American Life, and The Atlantic. He was writing consultant for Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters. His new book is The Blogger Abides: A Practical Guide to Writing Well and Not Starving.

This article was produced by The Magazine, an electronic periodical that commissions original articles and essays. We publish regularly at Medium, and produce an issue of five long-form features every other week. A subscription to our issues costs $1.99 per month for two issues or $19.99 per year for 26, and includes free access to over 160 past articles — our full archive. You can get a free, seven-day trial via our iOS app or our Web site to try us out.

Next Story — Hacked Off
Currently Reading - Hacked Off

Hacked Off

The hacker-activist community seems to leave no safe place for women. Rosie J. Spinks asks: Can it grow up?

This article originally appeared August 29, 2013, in The Magazine. Illustration by Amy Crehore.

When information activist Asher Wolf wrote her blog post “Dear Hacker Community, We Need to Talk,” she wasn’t feeling particularly levelheaded.

“If you look at my Twitter feed during that period,” Wolf says, “it involved me saying ‘fuck you’ over and over to male hackers in the community.”

Wolf, who describes herself as a citizen technologist and internaut, is the founder of CryptoParty, a privacy-education program that teaches people how to use cryptographic tools to secure their online communication. The platform, which was born from a casual Twitter exchange in late summer 2012, quickly went viral.

Despite being passionate about her work and pleased about CryptoParty’s success, Wolf was fed up. This wasn’t the first time she had noticed different treatment in the hacker space due to her gender. She’d already experienced a huge shift when she removed the gender ambiguity of her pseudonym, Asher Wolf, by changing her Twitter avatar to one with female attributes. But this marked the first time she’d acted on her disgust.


After working on CryptoParty for months, Wolf used her “Dear Hacker Community” post — published in late December 2012 — to announce that she was quitting her role as CryptoParty’s organizer. She cited as the main reason the “sexism and unacceptable behaviour,” including stalking, doxxing, and the unbridled hurling of sexist obscenities, from some of the people involved with running Cryptoparty chapters.

“Inequality doesn’t just spring up without a context,” Wolf wrote in her post. “And women don’t just opt out of hacking and hacker communities because of the tired rhetoric ‘maths and hacking is boys’ business.’ No, women stay the hell away from hacker spaces, conferences, and tech initiatives because of ongoing experiences of misogyny, abuse, threats, put-downs, belittlement, harassment, rape.”

She published her post on the same day as the annual Chaos Communication Congress, an international hacker conference in Hamburg, Germany, but it wasn’t intended as a commentary on that event. When a featured speaker, who was unaware of Wolf’s blog entry, mentioned her work favorably in his talk, her post began trending on Twitter. One of Wolf’s colleagues explains that the impact was akin to “letting off a flash grenade in a pond.”

“I got 44,000 hits on my Web site that day,” she says in an interview. “It was overwhelming — I was front page of Hacker News and I got called a troll. But the truth is I didn’t have an ideal outcome in mind when I wrote it. I wrote it because I was angry.”

And when it came to what her online tormentors were willing to target, Wolf said nothing was off limits.

“What I found they went for was the lowest target, which was my son,” Wolf says. “Quite often, they’d say things like, ‘Wait you tweeted for X amount of hours today — who looks after your son?’ Well, frankly, it’s none of your business, and I didn’t ask who looked after your son today.”

Barriers to entry

Wolf is far from alone in her disillusionment with the male-dominated hacker space and the tech world at large. For her, the outrage her blog post elicited is indicative of the generally fraught relationship between women and tech. The US tech sector largely eschews boardrooms and hierarchy; CEOs wear hoodies, not suits. With so many of the world’s major industries still run by white men, one might think that if any field could buck that trend, it would be tech.

This, however, doesn’t ring true in the tech world at large — where women in the United States held only 25 percent of professional IT-related jobs in 2009, down from 36 percent in 1991 — or in the more insular world of hacktivism. But while the small numbers of women getting tech degrees or obtaining IT/programming jobs may contribute to both the under-representation and the hostile treatment of women in the hacker space, it doesn’t seem to explain it completely. After all, this is a culture in which it’s often more sensible for a woman to pretend, as Wolf once did, that she’s not a woman at all.

“The more I reached out into the world through blogging and attending conferences, the more my gender began to play a part,” she says. As male colleagues learned her gender, she says many interacted with her differently than they once had.

Nowhere is evidence of this anti-female ethos easier to find than in the Internet’s most high-profile and highly organized subverters: the hacktivist group Anonymous. Anonymous’s roots lie in the profane message board known as 4chan, where jokes about rape, porn, and homosexuality are for nothing other than the “Lulz,” or gratuitous laughs. When 4chan factions morphed into Anonymous, the entity gradually gained a political activist-minded consciousness.

Anonymous has always been a shifting entity, defined by whoever decides to participate on any given day, making proper accountability nearly impossible. Using devious tactics and a middle-school sense of humor (such as sending hundreds of unpaid-for pizzas to a target’s address), the amorphous group carries out a diverse range of well-publicized actions (or “AnonOps”), such as targeting the Church of Scientology’s Dianetics hotline or impinging on the operations of PayPal after it suspended payments to Internet messiah Julian Assange’s Wikileaks.

“Kat” is a member of Anonymous and a self-described online activist. (She notes that she does not break into systems, nor does she approve of illegal tactics, so she demurs at the term “hacktivist.”) Her induction into the group happened on an IRC channel (an internal chat room) where much of Anonymous’s self-organization plays out.

Four years on, her gender is now known to most in the community, but she says that for females starting out, the choice to be open about their gender is likely to invite trolling. She cites the crass ultimatum of “show me your tits or get the fuck out” as a common rite of passage for many new female users in IRC rooms.

“I know some females who have shown themselves because that’s part of their personality — they don’t care either way and see it as just a body part,” Kat says. “And then there are some that do it because maybe they want people to like them. It’s usually the ones that do it because they want people to like them that end up not necessarily earning respect.”

Straight white males only

Adrian Chen, a journalist who covers Anonymous and hacktivism extensively for Gawker, believes that the Anonymous demographic — as well as its most influential members and Twitter account controllers — are “overwhelmingly male white twenty-somethings.” He isn’t convinced that adding more female members to Anonymous’s hive mind would be enough to reverse the organization’s core ethos.

(On a recent evening, Kat counted the female members in the IRC channel she was connected to. Out of 40 to 50 Anons, she counted seven known females, a number she knew to be quite high compared to other servers.)

Chen sees Anonymous as a direct descendant of hacker culture, a male-dominated space where “showing off, screwing with people, pranks, and being very aggressive and sardonic” are de riguer. For that reason, he says, it’s no surprise that a female entering this space might find her gender being used against her.

While the “brogrammer” culture of Silicon Valley makes sense when viewed in the context of inherent male privilege, Anonymous’s misogyny seems somewhat incongruous. It is, after all, an organization that bills itself as inclusive, transparent, grassroots oriented, and non-hierarchical, and yet, it uses tactics and language that are deeply offensive and alienating for essentially anyone who is not a straight white male.

Aminatou Sow is the co-founder of Tech Lady Mafia, an online platform for female hackers, programmers, developers, and the like to cross-pollinate ideas and raise the profile of women in the technology sector. As someone who advocates against the marginalization of women in the tech world at large, Sow finds the blatancy of Anonymous’s misogyny a challenge.

“With Anonymous it gets really dicey because it’s this behemoth that looks different every day and so intentions are not clear,” she says. “For a lot of us that work in social justice, that’s really problematic.”

Sow believes that the ethos underpinning technology and specifically hacktivism — which values self-sufficiency, resourcefulness, and, above all, subversion of the status quo — contributes to a culture of entitlement, one in which white males already have a huge leg up.

“I think that sexism is more blatant in tech because the technology world believes that it’s a meritocracy,” Sow explains. “The number one resisting factor I hear all the time is bros saying, ‘I worked really hard to be here, and if everybody worked as hard as me, they would also be here.’ The problem is they don’t fully understand how ‘hard work’ looks different for a woman or for a person of color.”

Revenge of the nerds

Gabriella Coleman holds the Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy at McGill University, where much of her research focuses on Anonymous. She says that despite Anonymous’s origins, it’s dicey to stereotype its members as engaging in a kind of white male nerds’ revenge.

“If we are going to critique gender dynamics, as I feel we must, stereotyping hackers as sickly pathological narcissists is something that must be avoided,” Coleman explains via email. “All too often, this is the picture that gets painted instead of looking at the structural barriers within and outside of these domains.”

Coleman says that one of the reasons gender inequality seems especially rampant in the non-hierarchical structure of Anonymous has to do with its sovereignty from any form of governance or regulation. Unlike what would be required in a Silicon Valley corporation, there is no “mechanism to redress inequality” built in, such as an enforced anti-harassment policy or a diversity office — nor is there any culture of accountability.

Many in the tech industry can relate to this experience when they attend conferences, some of which also operate without any sort of established policies of inclusion. Such events have historically suffered from a similarly gender-disproportionate speaker and attendee list. Asher Wolf notes that at Ruxcon 2011, a Blackhat Infosec conference in Melbourne, Australia, she was one of just six women in a crowd of a thousand. Blow-up dolls, booth babes, and lunchtime trips to strip clubs often serve as an IRL manifestation of what one might have found on the boards of 4chan.

Power shift

While improving the gender ratio of tech conferences has a more clear-cut answer — both Sow and Wolf personally ask their friends and colleagues to refuse invitations to speak on panels which include few or no women — the amorphous “hive mind” of Anonymous is nearly impossible to influence externally. There are, however, hints of change.

Chen recently wrote at Gawker about a high-profile AnonOp; his piece was partially responsible for helping law enforcement bring two teenage rapists to justice in a highly publicized trial in Steubenville, Ohio. This, Chen wrote, represented Anonymous’s broader “turn towards fighting rape and cyberbullying, an odd reformation for a group that started on 4chan.”

Wolf believes the number of women that are active in Anonymous may grow, abetted by well-publicized ops like the one above. This starts to erode the idea of it as explicitly anti-women. She points to the fact that several of the last few major AnonOps were run by women, and that it is possible that there are many more who are leaving their gender out of their actions altogether for fear of being ostracized or having their hacking work diminished.

“I think there are a lot of successful Anonymous ops that have been run by women,” she says. “However, I often think women step back from the limelight because their sexuality is used as a weapon against them when they become public figures. It’s why real anonymity is so important: it provides people with a voice that is often threatened by their day-to-day personal circumstances.”

Wolf points to something that perhaps lies at the root of the problem: by necessity, many women in the hacker space have grown accustomed to accommodating a culture that isn’t particularly accommodating to them.

Kat shows this when she speaks of Anonymous’s internal lexicon, in which calling someone “new-fag” is just the same as calling them “the new guy.” She never uses this language either on- or offline, but admits that she is no longer bothered by it either.

“I don’t know if that’s because I’ve gotten used to it or because I know the people who are using it don’t mean it that way,” she says. “It’s taken away the negativity of the word.”

It’s a troubling status quo: in order to effectively do their jobs and not be fighting a constant battle, women in this space must either remain genderless or prove they are undeterred by rampant abuse until it finally (hopefully) relents. All this to attain something that male members have at go: a chance to be taken seriously.

There are plenty of admirable and effective movements designed to help girls get into the tech world at large, but entry into groups like Anonymous, by definition, must happen organically. And yet, it’s unclear whether a mere increase in numbers would change the underlying ethos that is so alienating to many females. But Sow believes that being outspoken about the challenges of being a woman in this space has the potential to change the consciousness.

“Representation is the issue — it’s true that there are not a lot of women, but what is even more true is that we’re not telling women’s stories,” Sow says. “It behooves us to make sure the world knows that women are the ones doing this too. I think there’s something about it that’s paradigm shifting — about letting people know that women are capable of this kind of work.”

Illustration by Amy Crehore.

Rosie Spinks is a Los Angeles-born, London-based freelance journalist and storyteller. Insatiably curious and optimistic, she writes about sustainability, women’s issues, social justice, tech, culture, and design for outlets such as GOOD, Dwell, EcoSalon, The Ecologist, and Sierra Magazine. She loves keeping things simple and hates staying in one place.

Issue 24

This article was produced by The Magazine, an electronic periodical that commissions original articles and essays, and originally appeared in Issue 24. We publish individual articles regularly at Medium, and produce an issue of four (sometimes more) thoughtful features every other week. A subscription to our issues costs $1.99 per month for two issues or $19.99 per year for 26, and includes free access to over 160 past articles — our full archive. You can get a free seven-day trial via our iOS app or our Web site to try us out.

Correction: This article originally called the Chaos Communication Congress a “conference.” It’s been corrected.

Next Story — My Hazelnut Heart
Currently Reading - My Hazelnut Heart

My Hazelnut Heart

She only speaks a few words of her in-laws’ language, but she knows how to find the right thing to say.


Each August, a filbert frenzy seizes Beşikdüzü, my Turkish husband’s hometown in the footfills of the Kaçkar Mountains. Men, women, and children scour the sprawling groves, shaking the 10-foot trees, and rooting in the moist sod for fallen nuts.

An agricultural staple, the hazelnut has been grown here since 300 b.c.e. Packed with fiber and vitamin E, the super food purportedly lessens the risk of colon cancer and heart disease and ameliorates high blood pressure. Turkey produces roughly 75 percent of the world’s supply, enough to quell the most insatiable Nutella cravings.

The harvest alone didn’t draw me to this hillside hamlet. With my in-laws nearing 80, little time remains for bicultural bonding between my American-born sons and their grandparents Muzaffer and Sevim. So in June we left my husband behind in Connecticut and headed to the Black Sea.

Without a common language, we relied on gestures and one-word exchanges.

Guzel?” I asked one day, holding up a shriveled specimen. Good? Growing in clusters of five to twelve, each nut shelters in a leathery green husk, or “hazel” from the Anglo-Saxon for “headdress.” As the fruit ripens, the leaves and stem dry out until the mature nuts drop to the ground.

“Tsk,” Muzaffer clicked his tongue, and tossed the moldy mass over his shoulder. He brushed a mosquito from his brow and settled back on his heels. In his baggy pinstriped cotton pajamas and ribbed sleeveless undershirt he looked like a Silk Road Bilbo Baggins.

Sevim padded over, hooked a small funnel-shaped basket around my waist, and shooed me off toward the roof to lay our haul out to dry. Halfway up the slope I tripped and toppled face-first, the hazelnuts bouncing to the ground like badminton birdies.

“Stupid nuts,” I hissed under my breath in embarrassment.

My ankle and my ego were still smarting later when we decamped to the earthen patio. Muzaffer spread a prayer rug beneath a green-and-white striped canopy strung between two mimosa trees. Even in the shade, the still air sizzled. I thumbed through a newspaper, my sweat sticking to the pages, and tried to decipher the Turkish.

Nearby, Sevim raked a heap of nuts onto a tarp and scanned the sky for clouds. Then, wiping her brow, she plopped onto a tree stump and began to peel. Deftly, she pried open the bonnets with her thumb and flicked the nuts into a red plastic basin. Soon husks littered the table and ground.

I set down my dictionary and picked up a cluster. Wedging my fingers between the frills, I tugged at the leaves. But the nut wouldn’t budge. Frustrated, I decided to go for a walk and gathered my boys and we clomped off down the hill past thousands of nuts basking in the sun.

The author and her son, Noah

The footpath deadended into a gully where boulders and tree roots clogged a mud-choked rivulet. The town was paving over hazelnut groves to make way for a modern road. A dump truck clattered by with a tangle of limp branches.

“Why are they cutting everything down?” my son Ayden worried. “Don’t they know we’re farmers?”

“I don’t know if I’d call myself a farmer,” I said.

“Why not?” Ayden asked, squatting down to examine an anthill.

“Why don’t you guys play torpedo?” I said to sidestep the awkwardness. As my sons lobbed rock-bombs into the stream I closed my eyes and imagined their father, uncles and all the generations of village boys that came before.

We lingered for an hour, Ayden and Noah cheering over every hit. Then, as lightning flickered across the valley, we headed home. Suddenly, Ayden stopped short. I looked up and saw Muzaffer, flashlight in hand. From his glare I knew we were late.

Ayip!” he scolded — shame on you.

The insult stung and, wounded, I retreated to my room while the kids peeled off to play hide-and-seek. “I’m 50 years old!” I fumed silently. “I’m not going to do everything his way!” Through the window, I heard Sevim trying to calm Muzaffer. “Amerikali,” she’s American, she murmured.

An hour later I was getting ready for bed when Muzaffer tiptoed in. “Gelin,” daughter-in-law, he said, “I am not smart. I am not modern. But here,” he continued, jabbing his chest with a finger, “here I have a good heart.”

A burst of static crackled, and before I could answer, the call to prayer floated over the public radio. Muzaffer leaned over, kissed me on the forehead, and slipped off to his evening ablutions.

Stunned, I fell back into bed puzzling over his words. Outside, the hazelnuts, one by one, gave way to gravity.

Muzaffer and the author

The next day at sunrise my in-laws’ voices floated through the open window as they amble to a neighbor’s house. Through the cucumber vines snaking up Muzaffer’s homemade trellis I watched my boys spin in a hammock like onions in a mesh bag.

At last, a morning alone.

In the kitchen Muzaffer’s white cap, a souvenir from his pilgrimage to Mecca, sat primly next to the family’s Koran. I traced the hat’s fine gold embroidery and spied a slip of paper beneath the Koran. Tugging the sheet free I was startled to see a photo of my younger self cradling newborn Ayden. Someone, most likely Muzaffer, had placed the picture here for safekeeping.

I was tucking the photo back when my boys skidded through the door. “Mom, it’s pouring!” they cried. “The hazelnuts!” I shouted and sprinted to the roof.

Frantically, I grasped at a tarp with rain-slicked hands but it skidded away like a gulet on the Bosphorus. With my bare feet I snared the plastic just before it sailed over the roof’s edge. Then I spread it over the nuts, pinning the corners down with cinder blocks.

There, I sighed, you’re safe now.

Two hours later we were in the kitchen, listening to the thrum of rain. Sevim slid a pan from the potbelly stove and handed it to me. I tilted the tray and toasted nuts clattered into a white porcelain bowl.

From his spot on the sofa, Muzaffer suddenly remembered the stash on the roof. “Kim?” he asked, pointing toward the ceiling and wondering who kept the nuts dry.

Ben,” me, I answered.

Guzel,” he said. Good.

I smiled and together we plunged our fingers into the warm nuts, cradling them like prayer beads.

Cultural anthropologist and instructional designer Justine Ickes has written for Gastronomica, Language magazine, and Parent & Child, among others. Justine also develops training programs, writes grants, and creates custom content for the United Nations, the Peace Corps, Berlitz, and other clients.

This article was produced by The Magazine, an electronic periodical that commissions original articles and essays. We publish regularly at Medium, and produce an issue of five or more in-depth features every other week. A subscription to our issues costs $1.99 a month for two issues or $19.99 a year for 26, and includes free access to 200 past articles — our full archive. You can get a free, seven-day trial via our iOS app or our Web site to try us out.

Next Story — How to Move a Wood Bison
Currently Reading - How to Move a Wood Bison

How to Move a Wood Bison

The chutes, ladders, and waiting games behind a plan to restore a giant mammal to Alaska. Jenna Schnuer observes some of the first steps.


“Here she comes!”

The call comes down from the metal catwalk that curves four steps high around one side of a wood-planked corral.

It’s a partial false alarm. The wood bison stops. She ignores all attempts to keep her moving, which include attracting her attention with what looks like the world’s biggest cat toy: a long pole, one end of which is wrapped with bright orange netting. She stands there, squared off against the world and any notion of moving forward.

A few people up on the catwalk go into a steady patter, trying to cajole the obstinate beast into moving along.

Stop arguing with me.

Hey now.

Why won’t you move?

Nothing.

“Did you try the tarp?” asks Kristen Lawrence, the executive assistant at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (AWCC). She spends her days behind a desk, but a wood bison handling is an all-hands-on-deck kind of event.

Jason “Aaron” Mendive, whose job at AWCC can best be described as Aaron will do it — he handles maintenance and moving the large animals around, sometimes by going right in there with them — drapes one of Alaska’s most revered multipurpose tools, a tarp, over the wood-walled chute. The tactic helped get other wood bison moving earlier in the day.

Don’t be buffaloed by their obscurity

There’s no shame over a bit of huh? at the mention of wood bison. After all, their kin, the plains bison, offer the great American success story of species restoration, while the wood bison came close to shuffling off to extinction.

Extirpated from Alaska (most likely from overhunting and environmental changes), Canada’s wood bison population almost called it quits too after intermingling with the plains variety, sullying both their genetics and their health. But in 1959 a small group of pure wood bison was found in the northwest corner of Wood Buffalo National Park. Over time (and with significant help from the Canadian government and its national park system), that bunch kick-started their kind back to health. In 1988, Canada moved the wood bison from the endangered list to the (less-dire) threatened list. The United States followed suit in May 2012.

“In the United States…wood bison have been gone for somewhere around…we don’t really know, but let’s call it a couple of centuries,” says Tom Seaton, a wood bison biologist (and all-around ungulate guy) for theAlaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G). “Now is our chance to correct that and put them back where they were. Most of the really amazing and grand wildlife recovery adventures have already played out. This is really the last one.”

The wood bison is a cousin, if you will, to the better-known plains bison—both are subspecies of the American bison—and their scientific names seem straight out of a Belushi-era Saturday Night Live skit: the wood bison’s Bison bison athabascae to the plains bison’s Bison bison bison. (Bison are not buffalo.)

Pump up a plains bison 15 to 20 percent and you’re in wood bison territory. Wood bison bulls average 2,000 pounds. They look like a caricature of a plains bison, with all their features more pronounced. They have beards so pointy Satan would weep with jealousy. And while plains bison have curly forelocks, wood bison sport a straighter style across their massive foreheads. “It’s like a combover,” Lawrence says.

Move ’em out

Mendive lifts the tarp back up and the wood bison steps forward. “Shut it,” Mendive says. Lawrence closes the last wood gate, and as the bison passes on through each metal chute, there’s a clattering from her hooves on the floor, occasional kicks against the walls, and volunteers pushing the sliding gates shut on their rollers, as though steampunk musicians were using metal garbage cans as massive cymbals.

Each chute has a specific purpose: some can be pushed in to calm the animals; one has a scale; another has a breakaway wall for bison that decide to walk in backwards and need to be turned around. Between each green metal chute stand sliding gates that, when closed at just the right moment, will keep a bison from moving ahead if there’s another in line in front of it or, just as importantly, from backing up.

But if there’s no bison ahead and the chutes are clear, it’s all about the first rule of bison handling: “Once they’re moving, keep them moving,” says Mendive. “Don’t let them stop or think about it.”

Along the chutes, a hodgepodge of people have assembled to help. This includes AWCC staffers, ADF&G employees, volunteers from companies that donate money or materials for the project, and paramedics from the nearby town of Girdwood. The paramedics are on hand just in case anybody gets hurt, but they’ve also gone vet tech for the day, filling syringes with supplements and dewormer for the animals.

It’s a random family of bison advocates. Some are seasoned bison-handlers, while others are newly minted, but all hope that, this time, the program to reintroduce wood bison into the Alaska wilderness won’t hit another delay.

Fingers remain crossed that come April 2015, wood bison will be on trailers heading for a cargo plane bound for their new home along the lower Innoko River — but everybody involved with the project knows better than to cross their fingers too tightly. They’re used to delays and changes.

One of three areas originally proposed for the reintroduction, the Innoko area is the only one left under consideration. It is not ideal, as it’s sited between two rivers, the Innoko and the Yukon, and it floods some years. But not every year. It will do.

The long tail

Talk of reintroduction has been floating around for more than 20 years. Robert O. Stephenson, now retired from his job as an ADF&G biologist, blew breath into the idea based on archaeological evidence — lots and lots of wood bison bones — and oral histories he collected from elders in Athabascan villages during the 1990s, their stories recounting their parents’ and grandparents’ tales of seeing wood bison.

But Alaska is a state run on resource development, and the idea of plopping protected animals onto lands that corporations are eyeballing can turn things a little funky. “If you go to a Resource Development Council meeting and say ‘endangered species,’ people are leaping out of windows,” says Mike Miller, AWCC’s founder and executive director.

For Seaton and Miller, along with Rita St. Louis, a wildlife planner for the ADF&G, the handling is practically a focused mini-vacation from wondering when they’ll get the go-ahead for the reintroduction. They’re waiting to hear back from US Fish and Wildlife about the latest version of a rule to designate the wood bison as a nonessential experimental population. The rule balances the bison’s needs with other possible uses for the reintroduction area. Or, as one person put it, the rule would make it theoretically possible for resource seekers to drill right next to a bison.

Once the final rule is published and the state gives the thumbs-up, planning for the next phase of the reintroduction begins. You don’t just load 2,000-pound beasts onto a plane on a whim. After the trip out to Innoko, the bison will be protected in a penned area for a month or so and then released for real. That’s the moment Miller wants to see, when the bison roam free — when they start to flex their muscle memory of what it is to be wild.

Miller started AWCC in 1993 as a for-profit “roadside zoo.” A non-profit since 1999, the center focuses on education, conservation, and the rehabilitation of injured wildlife. (Though, yes, visitors can still walk or drive through to go eyeball to eyeball with the center’s numerous wildlife residents, including a musk ox named Mukluk, grizzlies, and a bald eagle named Adonis.)

Thanks to a longtime fascination with bison — and years of plains bison experience — Miller was deep into trying to get the proper permits to bring wood bison to AWCC when US Fish and Wildlife dropped a herd of 13 into his lap. They were confiscated from a man who brought them across the border from Canada’s Yukon Territory to Delta Junction, Alaska.

With Alaska’s wildlife agency intent on reintroducing the animal into the wilderness and an additional 53 disease-free calves set to join them in 2008 from Canada’s Elk Island National Park, Miller gave the animals as a gift to the state.

“Pretty much the state has the authority,” Miller says. “They are their animals, and they have to have everything that they need to feel comfortable about releasing them. We just have to maintain and take care of them here the best way we can.”

The partnership between AWCC and the ADF&G is an unusual one. “Fish and Game doesn’t deal with captive animals,” says St. Louis from the state. There’s an incredible hopefulness and generosity in this work. Nobody on the gates today will live to see it all the way through. “[It] might take 100 years or something like that for them to fully recover to their status before 100 to 200 years ago,” Seaton says.

The team members are generous in their praise of one another, too. Stephenson’s name comes up constantly, as does that of Randy Rogers, a Fish and Game wildlife planner who was devoted to the animals. “He said ‘You know, I’m going to stick with this project because I promised those bison that I was going to see them in the Innoko,’” says St. Louis. “And I always bring Randy with me and his promise to them.” Rogers died, of cancer, in April 2013.

Just passing through

After days of unusually warm weather for an Alaska winter, the temperature hovers near zero. The frigid temps are a gift. Wood bison don’t love a warm day. The cold calms them. Their thick winter coats are better suited to heavy snow and to temperatures that can dip to minus 50° or 60° F. The handling crew relies on thick winter boots and hats, hand and body warmers, layers upon layers of insulated work clothes, quick visits to a warm shuttle bus that’s been pressed into service to keep the shots that will be administered to the bison from freezing, and event-induced adrenaline to offset the temperatures.

The final chute — an off-white beast run on hydraulics — is a makeshift vet’s office. It contains the bison so she can’t hurt herself. (The chute system is familiar to anybody who’s ever stepped foot on a cattle ranch orwatched the HBO biopic about the technology’s inventor, Temple Grandin.)

“The sides kind of come in together not to squeeze the animal but enough so that there’s no room for them to kick hard and smack their legs,” says Seaton. “And right behind their head is the neck catch so they can’t swing their head too much. They could slam their head against stuff.”

Before the stubborn bison steps inside, Rick Henry, a local welder and AWCC constant, steps up to the controls. People speak of Henry in reverential tones. He doesn’t say much himself. Of all the day’s tasks, handling the hydraulics on the chute is one of the trickiest: there’s an art to it. Miller says of Henry, “You can’t get the man to panic. And he’s only got a little bit of vision because he has to look through those slats [on the chute] and you know he has to see and hit it right on the right time. He does it perfectly.”

Blindfolded and in a compression chute to keep her calm as they check her out

The team’s goal: keep the animal’s stress to a minimum. As the animal gets fitted into the chute, Seaton ducks out of sight behind a board. Once she’s calmed a bit, he works with another team member to slip the loop of a bright orange blindfold over her nose and a clip behind her horns. Seaton says, “If I can put the blindfold on they usually just go calm.”

The blindfold on, the team steps up. With another ADF&G staffer recording data, Seaton checks the animal’s teeth and takes nasal swabs and blood. He checks for ear tags, punching a hole for a new one when necessary. At the side of the chute, local veterinarian Jerry Nybakken unlatches windows to give the bison shots of selenium, vitamin B, and dewormer. He takes her temperature, hoping to see it around 102 to 104 — anything higher indicates a stressed animal.

Then Tom Yeager, AWCC’s operations director — also freed from his desk for the day — takes his turn at the window to pull a hair sample for DNA testing. The latches closed, Seaton pulls out a small red point-and-shoot camera, snaps a photo, and slips back outside the gate behind the board. Henry reverses the hydraulics, and as she’s released to run back out to the fenced enclosures against a backdrop of snow-covered mountains and bright blue sky, the bison makes a show of an extra little foot stomp, a “well, I never” look on her face.

As she runs off, Seaton stands to watch her go and check her body condition. Then, just a brief moment of relief before the next bison comes through. So much can go wrong, but one more down, one more that went well. One by one, the cows run off to join the herd. As some young bulls come through, they’re loaded onto a truck for a quick trip out to a new grazing area.

The day ends when a pair of the herd’s old ladies — two of the original 13 — just stop. There’s no moving them. The next day starts in the dark at 8:30 a.m. and –4° F. The team is quieter, and there’s less first-day-of-school energy. Four hours later, three cows remain. Sixty-three others have passed through the chutes over the last two days. Now, last night’s session-ending pair convince a third to join their protest. A trio of wood bison Golden Girls, they’re in charge.

They gather into a defensive circle, turning their backs on the handling process. Their health checked again and again over the years, Seaton gives in to their demands, delivering their injections with the help of an eight-foot jab stick. “They weren’t interested in going through the chute that day,” he says.

When it comes to the wood bison program, patience clearly rivals the tarp as the greatest tool of all.

Freelance writer Jenna Schnuer is a New Yorker who, after 10 years of bouncing back and forth to Alaska, moved to Anchorage in September 2013. She writes for National Geographic Traveler, American Way, and BonAppetit.com, and is in the early stages of a book project about the reintroduction of wood bison to Alaska’s wilds. Photos by the author.

Cover of Issue 38

This article was produced by The Magazine, an electronic periodical that commissions original articles and essays, and originally appeared in Issue 38. We publish individual articles regularly at Medium, and produce an issue of five (sometimes more) thoughtful features every other week. A subscription to our issues costs $1.99 per month for two issues or $19.99 per year for 26, and includes free access to over 160 past articles — our full archive. You can get a free seven-day trial via our iOS app or our Web site to try us out.

Next Story — Used Books Speak Volumes
Currently Reading - Used Books Speak Volumes

Used Books Speak Volumes

A book in the hand is worth two in the Nook.


I take the old way, over the railroad tracks, into an old, blue-collar neighborhood that now serves as an example of how urban blight can also be suburban, and the road dumps me off at a left turn. On one side, a newish CVS; the other, a church. Take the left, and there is Magina Books, standing tall on the horizon.

It towers over the strip malls and newly built storefronts. The all-brick facade contrasts with the glass-dominated aesthetics of modern commercial architecture, most of them with “For Lease” signs up so long that the red lettering has been sun-faded to pink.

By the door, there’s a cheapo rack of 50-cent books. It’s always worth a look; I found John Irving there once and my life has never been the same. New titles meet you upon entering the shop, with their soft glossy covers, but it is the smell that you notice most of all.

The old books have a familiar musk, the same smell of a library when we were little. It’s the old books that lead you to Steve Magina, 58. (It’s pronounced “ma-JEEN-a.”) He’s almost always at the back of the shop, behind the desk, surrounded.

“Hi,” he calls from the far back. Sometimes you don’t see him. “Anything you are looking for in particular?”

“Catcher in the Rye?”

“You saw the new documentary on Salinger?”

“I did.”

“Everyone has been wanting to get their hands on this book.” Steve beelines for a shelf and pulls a new copy without looking for it.

Cataloging

George Magina, Steve’s father, had the store built in 1948 and originally ran it as curio shop. George was an avid reader and a great lover of books. As time went on, he weeded out the coffee cups and vases to make more room for the new and used copies.

George died in 1986 at age 78. It was already agreed that Steve would take over the family business. The father-and-son duo had been working together for some time.

Steve is tall—six foot three or four, depending on the shoes. His hair is salt and pepper and still full. He’s worn a goatee as long as I have known him. When he speaks, it’s in bursts, developing the conversation as collections of words with little silences in between.

He’s democratic with the way he runs the business. You come in for the first time and get the same service he’ll offer to his lifelong customers. Find your book, along with others by the same author. Then get a snippet of history about the book or the author. Steve has a lot to say about writers. Just ask. He’s got a lot of them in stock, too.

“You can find things now,” he says. “I had to do a lot of reorganizing.”

That’s online and off. Steve has 50,000 books in the store, but, like a lot of used booksellers, he sells via the Web too—about 20,000 of his volumes are posted on half a dozen Web sites. Still, if you’re coming in and know what you want, just ask Steve. He can find every book in his store without much effort. I’ve seen that unerring instinct every time that I have come in looking for something.

Saving grace

College was cleaning me out. After a series of very bad choices, I found myself paying for school and living with an out-of-work girlfriend.

The economy was tanking, and the student loans that had been keeping me afloat dried up. After paying for a semester out of pocket, there was nothing left for schoolbooks — not if I wanted to make rent.

It was luck that I saw Magina on my way to school one day. The advert on the side of the building looked promising, so I stopped in with my girlfriend the next afternoon. I had my list of reading materials; she had her addiction to shopping.

The grand total was thirty-some-odd dollars. It would have been less, but along with my college books, I was also buying a few other books that my girlfriend wanted, and a $15 leather-bound, gilt-edged copy of Edgar Guest’s The Passing Throng.

“It’s so pretty,” she said. “You have to buy it.”

And I did. And rent was late.

Rarities

The rare copies do not outnumber the others, but they are the centerpieces of Magina Books. Sometimes on display, other times hidden deep in the stacks, they make Steve’s store stand out from the rest of the shrinking bookstore economy in Michigan.

“I get people coming from all over [Michigan] looking for rare, leather-bound old books.”

“Is there anyone else in the area like your store?” I ask.

Steve shakes his head. “No.”

Rare book collecting — your Gutenberg Bible and Shakespeare’s First Folio — is a rich man’s game. You won’t find it at Magina. But the collector’s market for semi-rare, or very pretty at least, is still alive.

“Online helps.” Steve says he put his business online back in 1997. “But I wouldn’t say that it has been a huge boost.” Steve looks to his front door. A father and son just walked out, their search for a few copies of used paperbacks completed. “Most of my business still comes through the door.”

Hard copies

I’ve heard Steve say it before. And as I am typing this up on a Royal typewriter, next to a bookshelf that is structurally compromised by the weight upon it, you know that I agree: there is nothing like a book in your hands. The world, it would seem, still tends to agree, even if it is leaning digital for most of its daily reading.

When Barnes & Noble debuted its line of B&N Classics, it advertised them as, “Handsome. Authoritative. Affordable.” Unlike modern books, which are mostly utilitarian in look, the Classics boast richly designed covers and gilding on every side of the page, evoking the look of Magina’s out-of-print and rare editions. If the second word in that ad means anything, certainly books have more power in hand than a Nook.

“They’re a great experience,” Steve tells me.

I still like to open and read my copies of Guest and Capote, both bought from Magina. I even bought my son a copy off the B&N line, Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales. It’s not quite the same as an old book. The smell and crispness of the pages doesn’t match, but it’s close. It feels almost right.

Elliott Fitzgerald McCloud is a writer, poet, lyricist, alchemist, and partner in a timeshare on Hyrule. He earned his BA from Wayne State University in English. Since then he has worked and written in the fast food and medical industries.

This article was produced by The Magazine, an electronic periodical that commissions original articles and essays. We publish regularly at Medium, and produce an issue of five or more in-depth features every other week. A subscription to our issues costs $1.99 a month for two issues or $19.99 a year for 26, and includes free access to 200 past articles — our full archive. You can get a free, seven-day trial via our iOS app or our Web site to try us out.

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