About the Author

Marq de Villiers

Born in South Africa, Marq de Villiers is a veteran Canadian journalist and the author of thirteen books on exploration, history, politics, and travel, including Windswept: The Story of Wind and Weather, Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource (winner of the Governor General’s Award for Non-Fiction), Down the Volga in a Time of Troubles, and Into Africa: A Journey Through the Ancient Empires, written with Sheila Hirtle. He has worked as a foreign correspondent in Moscow and through Eastern Europe and spent many years as Editor and then Publisher of Toronto Life magazine. Most recently he was Editorial Director of WHERE Magazines International.


Books by this Author
A Dune Adrift

A Dune Adrift

The Strange Origins and Curious History of Sable Island
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Sometimes, the horses pay the passing humans no never mind, which seems odd, because horses are naturally inquisitive animals. If you’re walking along a sand road in the interior and a horse comes plodding towards you, you might stand aside politely (perhaps scrambling up onto the bank to give the animal enough room to pass), and it will amble past with nary a sideways glance, a toss of its head, or a tiny wicker of acknowledgement. You might as well be an inanimate post.

One October afternoon, on the sandy road from the station, where a bank of bayberry had eroded, its long, coarse roots exposed to the sunshine, a passing stallion extended its neck along this natural comb and then, without a by-your-leave, raised its tail and rammed its haunches back and forth across it. Itching duly scratched, it resumed its amble, grumbling quietly to itself as it passed, paying no attention at all to the human interloper. It was small, perhaps a stout thirteen hands, a glossy black with a small diamond-shaped white blaze on its nose, its sun-bleached reddish mane blowing forwards over its eyes, which were completely hidden in the tangle. On an island without trees, the horses will scratch where they can, which is the main reason that beacons, posts, rain gauges, landing lights for the helipad, and anything else that can be broken by a horse’s heft are fenced in. The hair they slough off mostly just blows away, but a fair amount can be seen attached to scratching posts like guy anchors.

On other occasions, if you’re crossing the heath towards a group of horses, they might amble slowly aside, but they might keep grazing and hardly lift their heads from the grass to watch you pass, or perhaps one in a group will swivel to watch as you go by. But usually they will be more inquisitive. A whole group might watch as you pass, in curiosity and not alarm, looking at you intently, as though mulling the peculiar fact that you have only two legs where there should be four. And if you come across a couple of young bachelor horses in an amiable mood, they might follow you cautiously, peeping over banks and around dunes, like great big children clumsily playing hide-and-seek. Once or twice, if you sit in the lee of a dune and wait a while, you might look up to see a great, long-lashed horse eye peering at you over the edge, so close that you can hear the wind in its owner’s shaggy mane and hear its little snorts and breathy breathing. The station staff, busy with their chores, sometimes think of the horses as pests. If you leave a gate open, you will very soon find a horse inside the compound, checking it out, and if there is sensitive or delicate equipment within its reach, it will be rubbed and scraped — the horses always seem to itch — and often damaged. “The grass is always greener on the other side of whatever fence or gate or building there is,” Gerry Forbes grouses. It’s one of his first instructions to newcomers: Don’t let the horses in.

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Back to the Well

"Marq de Villiers is an expert guide to the vast and contentious terrain of water management, and in Back to the Well he steers skilfully past ideological excess and careless hyperbole to provide a clear and thorough account of the state of the planet"s water today. This is a provocative and engagingly written book that strikes a welcome balance between hard-eyed truth and buoyant optimism." — Chris Turner, author of The Leap and The War on Science

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Dangerous World

Dangerous World

Natural Disasters Manmade Catastrophes And Futr Of Humn Survival
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Into Africa

A Journey Through The Ancient Empires
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Our Way Out

“But if it is broke, fix it.”
–        Engineer’s credo
One thing needs to be said, up front and with drum roll: There is a way out.
It needs to be said because what I hear, from a depressing number of people, in a depressing number of countries, and in a depressing number of books and articles and blogs and conversations, can be boiled down to “The system is fucked.” Some put it more genteelly, but they mean the same thing.
The charge-sheet, digested, is essentially this:
• Our politics is corrupted by money and poisonous ideologies. Hardly any of us bother to vote, for good reasons.

• Our economy has become a casino for the rich, a gilded rat cage, while millions are struggling, waiting for the bailiff’s knock. The media are full of an obscenity called a “jobless recovery” – that is, recovery only for the affluent.
• Our corporations sue for the right to bribe (“lobby”) politicians and deny that they have any obligation to clean up the toxins they so carelessly create. We have become resigned to a garbage-strewn world. When last did you dare to drink wild water?
• Our planet is warming, with still unknown but probably dire consequences, but our oh-so-clever newspaper columnists and bloggers and radio talk-show blowhards are still finding oh-so-clever reasons why this cannot possibly be so. The people we listen to don’t have a clue. Governments remain miscreant. Nothing gets done, just greenwashing that passes for action.
• Our oil is running out, but we have no real plan for its obsolescence.
• Humanity’s uncontrolled global swarming has left us a world where more than 1 billion people live in mega-slums the size of small countries, reduced to huddling in cardboard boxes and wrecked autos, drinking putrid water and eating muck while they watch their children die. And we’re still debating the ethics of contraception!
How can we fix anything? How can there be a way out? I recently had lunch with a gaggle of journalists, all of them experienced reporters who have covered the Middle East, Central Asia, all the world’s trouble spots, people who have been around. Every one of them believes that we’re screwed, and that it’s too late to do anything about it.
Well, jeez.
This bleak vision is the secular equivalent of the Christian Rapture. In that view, similarly, the world is going straight to hell in a handcart, though the righteous will be plucked from the handcart at the last moment and taken up to Jesus – Jesus in the sky with diadem. The rest of us will just burn. So long, good riddance, tant pis.
Nevertheless, I believe in neither the handcart nor the selective plucking. If I did, I wouldn’t be offering a book called Our Way Out. I’d be hunkering down, drinking the last of my good wine, living somewhere remote, behind a don’t-messwith- me razor wire keep-out fence, shotgun on hand to keep the ravening mobs at bay.
It’s true, politics is a swamp and too many politicians lie constantly, without shame or remorse. But there are many honest politicians, and a deep-rooted eagerness exists among voters for something better. Change is attainable, reform within reach. Our economy is a casino for the rich, yes (I give you Goldman Sachs), and estranged from the world most of us live in. But we can use our revulsion to leverage change, and better models do exist. Too many corporations are predatory and without conscience, but they can be tamed and remade, from within as well as from without, and reenlisted in a new cause. We can even make globalization a force for good. Global warming is real, but we know how to fix it. It’s not easy, but it is perfectly doable. There are far too many of us, but we know how to deal with that too.
To borrow a slogan from Barack Obama (before he became mired in the muck of American federal politics), “Yes, we can.” We are not without our options. I’ve spent years reading about solutions to our problems, and talking to the people who propose and oppose them. Many of these solutions are clever, even ingenious, and eminently practical and affordable. There are technical solutions, political solutions, economic solutions, and solutions through social engineering. Some are commonsensical and some dismayingly draconian. Mostly, though, they are solutions proposed in a vacuum – they are single-issue solutions. Almost all ignore the critical issues of population and economic growth, a lamentable failing.
You can’t solve any one problem on its own. But you can solve many if you solve them together.
Everything is linked, that’s the point. Solutions lie in the linkages.
Let’s try a thought experiment, in the cant phrase of the day. Let little Sable Island, a curious bow-shaped sand dune in the Atlantic, 100 and more kilometers from anywhere, stand in for the planet. Like Earth, Sable Island is a closed ecology, and within its protecting embrace the island’s biosphere has achieved a balance. The population, such as it is – really just birds, a herd of 400 or so wild horses, and a varying number of transient seals – has come to equilibrium. The energy the system uses, the sun and the rain that allow grasses to grow and the population to feed, is constant. It can be diminished, but only marginally increased. Still, the ecosystem is self-sustaining. The horses eat the grass, and their manure encourages more grass to grow. If there are too many horses, the food supply for each animal diminishes, and in a year of poor rain horses die, and the population returns to equilibrium.
This is not paradise, exactly – too much fog and too cold for paradise, and the whole place is too fragile – but it is stable, held in a durable balance. Imagine, then, what happens if you drop into this not-quite-paradise a curious, energetic, and enterprising animal called the human being.
These humans, as is their nature, start to grow. They build houses and workshops and machine sheds and barns for their newly imported cattle and they cultivate gardens, all of which diminish the food for the horses. Because they love horses, they feed them and look after them – it’s their responsibility, no? So the horse population expands, further diminishing the grass, so fodder must be imported. Meanwhile the humans need more water for cultivation, and drinking and cooking, and sanitation, so the precarious water table begins to drop. Salty water creeps in – the island is only a kilometer wide, after all – and desalination techniques must be employed. Can these be powered with sustainable energy? The sun can’t do the job on its own, but perhaps wind can. So they cover half the island with wind turbines, but it’s still not enough, and demand keeps going up. They import diesel fuel, for which they need docks and pipelines, holding tanks and furnaces and smokestacks. Then they need maintenance technicians, and support staff to look after them – cooks and drivers and other hired labor. The population swells. Tourists want to come and see the wild horses, and they consume water and need sewage facilities, but the water table is too shallow and the sewage must be collected and distributed – somewhere. So the horses, no longer wild, must be paddocked, for their own protection . . .
This is a concatenation of problems. Each affects the others. You can’t solve one without in some way dealing with them all.
In the case of Sable Island, however, you could cut through the whole mess. You could simply deport the humans, thus avoiding the whole issue.
In the larger world of our Earth, it’s not so easy. There is no outside from which to import resources, and in which to deposit excess. We must use up our natural capital, and live in our own mess. Which is what we’re doing on and to our small planet. The answer is simple: Stop breeding, don’t deplete resources, and make no mess. That’s the way out.
How to do that is really the only issue.
Solutions have a cascading effect
The converging crises of global warming/climate change, the continuing (if diminishing) population explosion, and the inevitable termination of the oil-based fossil-fuel economy present not just problems, but also opportunity. With strong incentives to back out of the series of dead ends into which we have so obliviously wandered, and with the will to push through a new road to a reconfigured and sustainable industrial civilization, we can not only avoid disaster but achieve something fine. Solutions have a cascading effect, just as crises do, and crises become easier to solve once the crucial decision has been reached that we can in fact do something, remembering also that if crises reinforce each other, solutions enable each other. The global financial crisis of 2008-2009 – a crisis of constant-growth capitalism in a regulatory-free environment – only reinforced the argument.
To survive – and profit from – these converging crises, local and global economies and polities have to be remade. Luckily, the goals overlap and reinforce each other.
First, we must confront climate change and peak oil by fixing energy, because planetary warming is a consequence of the massive deployment of energy that fuels the global economy. We cannot solve energy simply by switching fuels. But we can manage the transition to a post–fossil-fuel era by a simple (though expensive) set of policy changes: investing in green infrastructure, rebuilding the grid and electrifying transport, launching an efficiency revolution, penalizing resource extraction while subsidizing alternatives, and many others. These notions have long been commonplace, though they have yet to be acted upon. And we must revisit the essential role of nuclear technology. Fix the economy. This means more than just heading off (or fixing) economic calamity and punishing the bankers; rather, it means dealing with the economy as system – with its continuing insistence on the notion of perpetual growth, and with its underpinning of consumerism. We need to push all economic activity toward sustainability, to assist in its “dematerialization,” and to come as close as possible to a steady-state economy, an economy that develops without growing – that ceases to grow without falling into stagnation.
Rein in the abuses of corporate capitalism. We must come to grips with the fact that corporations are conscienceless. They may create wealth, but they are also predatory and rapacious, and they’ve become too big.
Fix politics. Fix the democratic deficit: reengage citizens and pry policy loose from special interests. We must deal with the drowning of democracy in the murky flood of special-interest money, and the consequent corruption of legislatures everywhere. We can no longer rely on governments, as presently constituted, for solutions.
Fix globalization by ameliorating its worst aspects and encouraging its best. This means taming multinationals and the international trade regime, while subsidizing the globalization of ideas through open-source, universal, planetwide education. Eliminate, or at minimum alleviate, extreme poverty, and ensure that foreign aid is used for infrastructure development and education.
Confront the notion of zero population growth, explore the idea of an ideal population number, and stabilize the population. If energy and growth and the attendant problems are the flesh and gristle of our predicament, human numbers are a nerve that penetrates deep, affecting everything we do. It follows that without solving population we haven’t a hope of solving the food crisis, the pollution crisis, and the series of other minor calamities that confront us. A study for the London School of Economics concludes that universally available contraception would be five times cheaper as a means of preventing climate change than conventional green technologies, which suggests that family planning is a primary method of emissions reduction. 2 Continuing population growth and unsustainable economic growth are conjoined twins – we must solve them together.
Finally, fix the scale of human activities by reinventing community in a number of ways, including a radical decentralization of industrial and agricultural production (to minimize transportation and maximize local employment and the development of robust local economies) and the inclusion of “distributed” (i.e., decentralized) electricity generation in the energy mix. In other words, implement policies that allow communities to reinvent themselves.
At first glance, the task seems too daunting and global pessimism too deep, especially when our Dear Leaders have proved themselves to be suicidally out of touch. Until the financial crisis hit and drove all thoughts of “the vision thing” out of politicos’ heads, and therefore out of public discourse, it briefly seemed possible that a resurgent America would remake itself once more. But in the aftermath of the financial typhoon, debt has ballooned (except possibly among bankers), and money for any fixes at all seems vanishingly unlikely.
It would be easier, given our dysfunctional politics and civic apathy, to go on doing what we’re doing now: cutting back here and there, wherever it is least painful to do so. But we’ll soon face an escalation of the already obvious: an Earth overburdened with too many people, continuing environmental degradation, more extreme weather, increasing food shortages, environmental refugees, and bitter wars over ever scarcer natural resources.
But we’re not faced only with the kind of choice described by Woody Allen (“More than any time in history mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other to total extinction. Let us pray that we have the wisdom to choose correctly”). If we do things right – and we can do things right – the present crisis could be a catalyst for creative thinking. It will mean jettisoning a shopping cart full of entrenched doctrines (theological, political, and economic), but it could also mean uploading new social systems for a new age. Many industries will disappear, but many new ones will be invented, reinvigorating capitalism’s “creative destruction.” The conundrum of job creation in a recession-prone system, and consumerism in an economy that doesn’t grow can be resolved in the same way.
Not a small task, no. But why would a small task be expected? Changing how we live and how we think will be profoundly disruptive (though not as disruptive as not doing anything). It will be difficult, a massive undertaking – don’t believe those who tell us it will be easy. It will not be cheap. It will cost many fortunes, and trouble even rich economies. But the transformation to sustainability is already happening, in small ways, in many parts of the world. It is time to scale up those efforts. It is beyond time to think big.
If we do, we can succeed. We can emerge with a population that lives as well as, or perhaps better than, the well-off do now, and yet treads lightly on the planet.
That could be exhilarating.
Sustainability is really just an antidote to wretched excess
To bring all this off, we first need the facts. But we also need a governing idea – a framework within which we can contemplate those facts. Instead of faith-based science, we need sciencebased faith, a belief that we can, collectively, make the changes necessary.
We need a political vision, of the kind that the “stimulus packages” passed in most industrialized countries in 2009 lamentably failed to produce. This is the vision that says we can each be a part, a small but recognizably valid part, of the greatest project in the long and often melancholy history of human civilization, the project that saves our lives and the lives of all the wild creatures that live here with us on this small and vulnerable planet. This is the project that can turn human beings aside from their self-imposed task of planetary plunder and renew a sense of wonder at the fecundity and genius of the natural world.
Meanwhile, here’s a place to start:
Even in the wake of the Great Meltdown, economists have still not grasped a simple fact that has long been obvious to scientists: the size of the planet is fixed. Earth is a closed ecology, and a closed system cannot grow – it can only cannibalize itself. Nor can you ever throw anything away in a closed ecology, something that orthodox economics has consistently ignored. The overall size of the system – the amount of land, the extent of the water, the density of the air, the presence deep underground of minerals – these are all fixed. The proposition that follows from this is so simple that it seems embarrassing to have to write it down: The fundamental wealth of Earth is the ability to maintain life itself, and all of economics is merely a subset of the biosphere.
Humans have become what philosopher Brian Swimme calls a “macrophase power,” by which he means that our impact on the planet now rivals the forces that caused the ice ages and mass extinctions, “yet we have only a microphase sense of responsibility and ethical judgment.”
By way of counterpoint, management guru Peter Drucker personifies the Old Story, which should now, surely, have been discredited – it is, after all, the credo of the plunderer. He believes that it is the entrepreneur who creates value: “Before it is possessed and used, every plant is a weed and every mineral is just another rock.” It is this pernicious credo that underpins so much of our current evils.
From these simple notions – and they really are simple – all economic activity and all policy decisions must flow. Exceeding the planet’s energy budget is, except in the very short term, unsustainable.

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A Natural History
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The Sahara's Fabled City of Gold
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So why was it important, this now faded and dusty desert capital? In a curious way, the reputation, or reputations, that accreted to Timbuktu predate its actual founding by many years, perhaps by a millennium or more. Or put the other way, Timbuktu itself became a shorthand metaphor for a much greater body of stories and legends about other places altogether. Some of the images inserted into outside imaginations over the centuries were grafted onto the city in the days of its magnificence under the Malian king Mansa Musa. Some of these, in turn, were legends that enveloped the earliest of the Arab invaders, in the seventh and eighth centuries, which in their turn were based on folklore derived at least in part from hints and suggestions of travelers going back to earliest antiquity.

Europe and the Maghreb, or Christianity and Islam, always had differing views of Timbuktu. In both places the city’s reputation shifted over time, and the various versions overlapped, but they were never the same.
It’s true that in both places gold was at the heart of the matter, at least at first. Before the Arabs were routinely traversing the desert and seeing for themselves, their geographers had stitched together from obscure fragments of folktale and legend a dream of riches untold, of gold lying on the ground for the taking, of immense wealth just waiting for the intrepid. But that romantic notion had faded by the fourteenth century, for traders followed the stories, and traders had harder heads than the storytellers, and saw for themselves what was, rather than what should be. The renowned traveler Ibn Battuta and his medieval colleagues did report on the great wealth of the Malian Empire and its storehouses of gold, for the trade in that and other commodities was the city’s reason for being, and Timbuktu really was very wealthy; but Timbuktu also took on a reputation among Muslims for its learning. Many of the Arab travelers remarked on the city’s thirst for books, as well as its traffic in gold, and wrote commentaries on its savants as well as its opulence.

From the fourteenth century on, pilgrims from Timbuktu went to the Holy Places of Islam, sometimes in great numbers and in immense caravans, but scholars from Mecca and Medina also went to live and study in Timbuktu, where they found themselves (sometimes to their evident chagrin) not as eminent or as learned as they had supposed. The university at Fez and the University of Sankoré in Timbuktu were said to be equivalent; commentaries on the Qur’an produced at Sankoré were read in Jeddah and Cairo, and the eminent of both places corresponded over time and great distance, to the profit of both.

This Islamic combination of reputations, those of civilized affluence and scholarly erudition, were eventually fused in the mind of Moulay al-Mansur the Magnificent of Morocco, who in 1591 sent his armies across the desert hoping both to capture the gold trade and to extend his empire, and instead precipitated the city’s gradual decay. The soldiers may have been emissaries from what they considered a high culture, but they killed or exiled most of the scholars, equating learning with disaffection, as conquerors are wont to do.
After that, the Arabs essentially lost interest, and for several dismal centuries the city was repeatedly besieged and sacked by a rolling roster of enemies–the Bambara, the Fulani jihadists and the Tuareg–until the French took it in 1893 and restored a semblance of order. Now the Bambara, who are in charge of Mali, are once again in charge of the city’s destiny.

In Europe, where they knew and understood much less, the legend of Timbuktu took on a different color; or rather, retained a single color, the yellow of gold. Stories of caches of gold were teased out of the tales of Arab travelers, and the city became in the minds of the geographers and the merchants they served a fabulous place whose skyline was pierced with spires of gold, dreaming under the desert sun, rich beyond measure.

The legends were not entirely without merit. Of the gold that reached North Africa in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, two-thirds came from, or at least through, Timbuktu, and thence across the Sahara. The coins of the doges were Ghanaian gold from Timbuktu; the guineas that fueled the English commercial expansion were from Ghana (on the Guinea coast) and came to England via the markets of Timbuktu. It was natural, therefore, to think that Timbuktu was itself the origin of the gold and not just a way station on its route. In this way the city took on an almost luminous eminence in the European imagination, a fantastic land groaning under the ineffable weight of its affluence. Unlike the mutated Arab view, it was the pretty legends that seized the European imagination, not the reality. It was loot, not lore, that they coveted.

This image of great riches and a wondrous desert civilization lasted until colonial times; grafted onto it was the newer notion of its very remoteness–never mind that Arab travelers had been going there for seven hundred years and more; Christians were forbidden, and often killed when they were caught. As late as Victoria’s reign a popular saying in England was still “from here to Timbuktu,” which meant “from here to as far away as you can get,” adding a layer of inaccessibility and mystery to the legends of great opulence. Few men who went there, or tried to go there, or even went into the deep Sahara, ever returned to Europe, “and those who did so told almost incoherent stories of madness through thirst, unspeakable cruelties of mirages, a fierce and terrible sun, and a vast limitless ocean of sand.”1 Nothing much about money, though they knew it was there somewhere.

Why go, otherwise?

From the Hardcover edition.

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The Story of Wind and Weather
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Chapter One
Wind’s Mystery and Meaning
The story of Hurricane Ivan: It began, as these things so often do, long ago and far, far away. Long ago, at least, in the reckoning of weathermen, and far away at least as seen from the Ca­rib­be­an and the east coast of North America, where the storm’s full fury would in due time be unleashed. In the course of its tumultuous and destructive life, the cyclone they came to call Ivan would exemplify all the perilous uncertainties and complex patterns of global climatology (and exaggerate my own rather paranoid view of hard weather), but its beginning was hidden, even secretive, and could only be seen in rueful hindsight.

In the spring of 2004, it rained in Darfur, the Sudanese hellhole wracked by de­cades of civil war. Darfur is on the southeastern fringes of the endless emptiness of the Sahara, and its soil, beaten down from too many cattle and too many goats over too many years of drought, couldn’t hold the water. It pooled and then gathered in little muddy torrents that swept away the scattered huts of the countryside. A few days before, the refugees in their grim camps had been dying of thirst–an ostrich egg of water having to do for a family for a ­whole day–but ­were now forced to scramble to keep their pathetic scraps of food and their meager possessions from washing away. They ­were still starving, though now sodden and burdened with cholera and dysentery in addition to their other miseries.

All along the Sahel, the southern fringes of the Sahara, the rains came. Lake Chad, which had been shrinking for de­cades, stopped shrinking briefly, and the remaining hippo channels winding through the papyrus and water hyacinths filled up. The dusty plains north of Kano, the Nigerian trading city, looked lush for the first time in fifteen years. Outside fabled Timbuktu the ground took on a shiny green sheen, before the goats in their insatiable hunger nibbled the new plants down to a stubble, then trampled the residue into the mud. In Niger, Mali, even in ­ever-­arid Mauritania, the rains fell for the first time in a de­cade. Not enough, really, to unparch the desert, but more than usual.

No one in the Sahel knew why it was raining, or, except for a few aid agencies, cared; they ­were just grateful the water was there. In the outside world hardly anybody paid much attention. There ­were a few exceptions–the paranoid actuaries for the giant insurance company Munich Re, for example, who are paid to worry, and a few analysts in hurricane centers across the Atlantic, who ­were wrestling with the complex causative cycles of violent weather–but more people should have been concerned than that, for they ­were about to get a brutal lesson in the interconnectedness of natural systems. Who would have thought that, say, a rural tavern in Pennsylvania would be threatened by a ­storm-­born flood that was linked in complicated ways to the ending of a drought half a world away?

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Witch in the Wind

Witch in the Wind

The True Story of the Legendary Bluenose
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