Romania is 5,000 or so miles from New York City, but I’d only been in town an hour before I found a friend of Radiolab.
Okay, that’s not entirely fair: I found a whole crowd of Radiolab friends the moment I landed. The conference I was invited to teach at was organized by a very cool new magazine of narrative nonfiction called Decat o Revista – it translates to Just a Magazine – and the editors, a motley crew of super-talented 20- and 30-something writers, photographers and designers, are huge fans of the show.
But I knew that going in. The friend I didn’t expect was our frequent correspondent David Quammen – in our most recent hour-long episode, he tells the story of the origin of HIV. Okay, he wasn’t there in the flesh. But he was there in story.
Several years ago, Quammen published an article in The Atlantic about Romania’s bears. Turns out the country has an enormous population of brown bears, by far the biggest in Europe. Why? The nation’s former dictator, Nicolae Caeusescu, absolutely loved hunting them. Wait: The dictator’s bear-hunting obsession caused the bear population to grow? Right. Because the thing about Caeusescu was, well, he was pretty selfish, and while he was in power, even though he routinely hiked into the mountains to massacre the furry beasts, he didn’t let anybody else do it.
In his article, Quammen visits Caeusescu’s former hunting grounds – the leader was overthrown and executed in 1989 – and asks a provocative question: Could dictatorship be the best form of government for wildlife conservation?
A couple months ago, Decat o Revista wrote to Quammen and asked if they could reprint his article in Romanian. Being the nice guy he is, Quammen said, sure. The magazine updated the story slightly, found some additional photographs and republished it.
You can read Quammen's article in English here.
Romania’s bears live in the mountains – the urban ecosystem is dominated primarily by stray dogs, seriously – and my first full day in the country I got on a train and headed west into the Carpathians, into bear country. I saw dozens of signs warning to look out for Ursas arctos, and my guide, Anca, told me lots of stories about her own encounters with the massive creatures, but we didn’t see any on our trip. Which, frankly, was fine with me.
We did, however, take in some of the most spectacular mountain views I have ever seen.
Narrowly avoided death climbing down a snow- and ice-filled mountain horn.
And slept in an adorable mountain hut, accessible only by trail and staffed my an old man and his son.
Romania is a remarkable country. And the folks at Decat o Revista are doing some exceptionally fine nonfiction storytelling in a place where a tradition of narrative journalism simply doesn’t exist. Thanks go to my hosts for their work – and their hospitality.
Check out the magazine – they publish two English-language editions each year. And if you’re ever looking for an escape to beautiful mountains populated by kind, friendly people – and tons of huge bears – then check out Romania, too.