Carbon Hustles, Byronic Travelogues, and Vampire Poetry
Get autumnal with works by Heidi Blake, Slightly Foxed, and Willem Dafoe
Heidi Blake in The New Yorker: “I don’t know what you’re going to report on this, and I hope to God it’s not all of it, because I probably will go to jail.”
When Heidi Blake decided to investigate carbon offsetting — “a mechanism that diverts funds from polluters in wealthy countries to protect crucial ecosystems in the Global South,” in one prominent model she describes in the resulting story — her attention naturally focused on South Pole, the biggest firm in the field. “South Pole was founded right after carbon trading kicked off the Kyoto Protocol, which came into force in 2005,” she said. “So I felt like South Pole would be an interesting prism through which to tell the story of the whole carbon market.” There was controversy around the company. She’d read reporting from a Dutch investigative outlet called Follow the Money that poked holes in the Kariba project, a major avoided deforestation project in Zimbabwe whose carbon credits South Pole had brokered. “They found that the company had overstated the amount of deforestation they were managing to prevent in that area really quite dramatically,” she said. When Blake told the company she was digging into it, somewhat unusually, they let her in, inviting her to their headquarters in Zurich and arranging interviews with the founders and senior executives. “I’m grateful that they gave me that level of access because it was really invaluable in being able to tell the story with an insider’s view of how the company came into being,” she said. “Also, obviously, it ended up shedding an awful lot of light on how things went very badly wrong with the Kariba project.”
She approached South Pole early in her reporting. “As an investigative journalist, often you spend a lot of time reporting from the outside of companies and situations like this, and it’s only later on that you go and present your findings to the people you’re writing about,” she said. “Previously, in my work on corruption in FIFA, for example, we were not getting access to FIFA’s executives during that reporting. And so, it was really interesting and illuminating this time to be talking deeply with the people I was writing about during the reporting. And I think that it actually led to a much more rounded and balanced piece than would have been possible without being able to spend so much time talking to the people involved, and really understanding their perspectives and making sure that they were reflected in the piece.”
The company was somewhat squirrely in discussing the Kariba project. “Particularly their public affairs executives were nervous about that,” Blake said. “But I was able to spend a lot of time with Renat Heuberger, their chief executive, and over the course of our conversations, he opened up more and more about it.” Their willingness to talk was tied up in their perspective on the scandal, Blake believes. “It’s this kind of funny thing where the company doesn’t deny that they sold credits from that project that weren’t backed by emissions reductions that had already been achieved, but they feel very strongly that because those credits had been certified by Verra [an accrediting nonprofit founded by people from the carbon industry], that they were therefore valid and fair game for sale,” she said. “Many experts see the situation very differently and feel that, because they knew that they were not backed by an actual real world reduction in emissions, they shouldn’t have been sold. And so I think in a way, that’s why there was some willingness to talk openly about this, because they don’t actually believe that they did anything wrong here in terms of selling those credits.”
Not everybody in the story claims to have done nothing wrong. Steve Wentzel, the white Zimbabwean who served as the developer of the Kariba project, was shockingly forthcoming. “I don’t know what you’re going to report on this, and I hope to God it’s not all of it, because I probably will go to jail,” he tells Blake in the story. “I’ll go to jail for the right reasons,” he says. “Savior or villain? I’m right in the damned middle. And I’m happy to be that way.” He was open to her questions from the start. “As soon as I reached out to him, he was happy to talk. And he was very generous with his time, he spent many hours talking with me about that project. I was certainly struck by his candor,” she said. “Wentzel feels that it’s very complicated to do business in Zimbabwe and he was doing business the only way he knew how. That did involve moving money in an untraceable way through a network of offshore funds, in a way that he acknowledged openly to me was illegal. But I think he was unabashed about that. He was refreshingly open about things that other people may have been more furtive about, because he believes that what he did was ultimately the right thing, and was the only way to do it given the political context he was operating within.”
Did Wentzel decide to stop talking to Blake after admitting that what she was reporting might land him in jail? “We kept talking,” she said. “He said that and then just continued talking and reassured himself that he was doing the right thing. He felt that yes, it had been illegal, but it was the right thing and he felt that had he not done that, it would have been hard to get that money to the project. And he thought it wasn’t viable to bank in Zimbabwe. Others disagree and feel that it would have been viable to bank in Zimbabwe, that there would have been other ways to get that money to the project. But this was the way he did business, and he was very upfront with me about that.”
The first draft Blake handed to her editor Nick Trautwein was long. “They often are with big investigative pieces. You do a ton of reporting over many months, and you kind of put it all down. And then it’s wonderful to have a brilliant, understanding editor who can help you to trim that down and streamline that. You end up with something, hopefully, very lean and compelling without overburdening the reader with a lot of technical detail,” she said. “Nick talks about how, as a reporter, you lay out the buffet of options, and then he’s very good at coming in and saying, ‘This is essential.’ ‘Let’s really emphasize this.’ ‘This is a little too technical.’ Or, ‘We don’t need to go into this much detail about that.’ He’s very, very good at streamlining particularly complicated sections of text, and making them read in a way that is sparkling and lucid without losing the important substance that we’re trying to convey.”
Blake’s story ends with an impressive display of intimate access, following South Pole’s chief executive into his home, where he admits that in the face of the controversy around the Kariba project, “You have to build a thick wall between you and your true feelings, which are of course depressing.” “It felt natural to me to tell the story first, and to understand everything that had happened, and then to get to come and to meet him in his home, in his natural environment, and to hear him reflecting on everything that had had happened and everything that you’ve just read about and kind of reckoning, to some extent, with the fallout of the internal controversy over that project,” Blake said. “I wanted to give him the microphone at the end and let him have a moment to say his piece about how he felt about what had gone down.”
Has Blake heard from her subjects since the piece was published? “I’m just not gonna go into that, if that’s okay,” she said.
➽ Bonus: In another powerful, though more internal, investigation, William T. Vollmann speaks with three homeless men around Reno, Nevada for Harper’s.
“Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure”: by Slightly Foxed: “He’s a man once described as a cross between Graham Greene, James Bond, and Indiana Jones. Though we do feel that Byron might be a better comparison.”
The travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor’s best known books — A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, about his 1933 walk across Europe — make for both inspiring and intimidating reading. “He was 18 when he started his great trudge to Istanbul, I was 18 when I read the books, and even though, we’ll probably get into this, he wrote the books much later, he preserves that youthful spirit of kind of derring-do,” says Nick Hunt, another travel writer who walked in Leigh Fermor’s tracks across the continent, on this not quite new, but new to us episode of an English literary quarterly’s podcast. “I wanted to do something with as much panache as he did.”
For a certain type of reader, Leigh Fermor’s books seem to just appear around their eighteenth birthday. He started work on A Time of Gifts as an article on walking for Holiday magazine in the early ’60s and published the book in 1977. By the time he got the story together he was an experienced writer and adventurer — whose accomplishments included mastering a handful of languages and kidnapping a German general during the Second World War — and as a result, the 18-year-old in the book carries himself like a charming war hero, and his baroque filigree runs wild. It’s nearly impossible for any kid who reads him to measure up, but many, like Hunt, try, though he waited to go on his walk until he was 30.
Leigh Fermor’s biographer, Artemis Cooper, dispels his self-mythologizing on the episode by describing the moment when he himself could no longer sustain the illusion. He’d kept notebooks throughout his walk, but lost most of them. “I don’t think he was very satisfied with them,” Cooper says. “He wanted to write like Robert Byron and he was very young and he was writing more of a what-I-did-in-my holidays essay.” In 1965, he traveled to Romania to see Balasha Cantacuzène, a princess he had an affair with. “Her family estate has been confiscated — that was in the 1940s. She and her family are living in a tiny attic in a little town, and he decides to go and visit her. And while he visits her, she gives him back the one notebook that survived that he left behind. He’s lost all the others. And that notebook was an albatross around his neck,” Cooper says. “Losing the first four notebooks was the best thing that ever happened to him. Because the notebook put him right back to who he was at 18, not the scholar gypsy that he’d turned himself into.”
Cooper believes that Leigh Fermor might have finished The Broken Road, the third book in the trilogy about the walk, before his death in 2011 if he hadn’t been saddled with that notebook. (Ultimately, she and travel writer Colin Thubron edited and released a version of the book in 2013.) “I think he could not square the circle. The book had actually taken him back to the 18-year-old he was, slightly cocky, Bertie Woosterish,” she says. “That notebook, when I first did this biography, he wouldn’t even let me take it off the shelf. He said, ‘I’m working on that.’ He showed me some of the drawings, but very carefully holding the rest of the pages tight. And so there was something about it, to me, anyway, it was the stumbling block.” (Somehow, reading Cooper’s biography while hitchhiking through the Balkans at 18, this reporter mostly imbibed her recitation of the myth rather than the deconstructed aspects.)
Willem Dafoe reciting “Tithonus” in Shadow of the Vampire: “Thy strong Hours indignant work’d their wills.”
This may be the best use of a poem in a film, though Tarkovsky’s Mirroris full of strong contenders. It’s certainly the best to watch as Halloween looms. It comes about halfway through Shadow of the Vampire, the 2000 film about the making of Nosferatu, the unauthorized first adaptation of Dracula, released in 1922, with the crucial deviation from history that, in the movie, the star of the film is a real vampire, played by Willem Dafoe giving his second-best performance ever (just behind his episode of Fishing with John). It’s 1 minute and 18 seconds, from when he gazes into some elsewhere, more human than animal perhaps for the first time in millennia, and rattles his long fingernails, to when he hobbles to an opening in his cave, toward a carved evocation of the sun whose light he won’t survive, and the screen fades to black.
Dafoe’s decrepit vampire recites a portion of Victorian poet laureate Alfred Tennyson’s 1860 poem “Tithonus,” about a man who receives eternal life, but not eternal youth. The vampire doesn’t choose the flashy line in the first stanza which Aldous Huxley adopted as the title of a 1939 novel with which many a recent magazine story has rhymed(“After many a summer dies the swan”) or the typical Tennyson image (“Once more the old mysterious glimmer steals”), but a more mechanical ordering of decay and degradation. “He’s desperate to find his humanity. He’s desperate to find his way out of this monstrosity he’s become,” director E. Elias Mehrige says in the DVD commentary track. The vampire almost trembles:
But thy strong Hours indignant work’d their wills,
And beat me down and marr’d and wasted me,
And tho’ they could not end me, left me maim’d
To dwell in presence of immortal youth,
Immortal age beside immortal youth,
And all I was, in ashes.