The UK’s forthcoming Donatello exhibition will capture the Florentine artist’s revolutionary genius for perspective, male beauty and, above all, empathy
Astartling figure has arrived in Britain: a man with a gathering frown, sleepless thoughts and a graze of stubble. His eyes are downcast, his domed forehead lowered. You would recognise him anywhere in the streets of his native Italy: the pensive intellectual, dark-eyed and ascetic, with a tousled black beard. Except that he is from the 15th century, and cast in gleaming gilded bronze.
The original commission was for a medieval reliquary – an object to contain the remains of a saint, in this case the skull of San Rossore, a Roman soldier who converted to Christianity and was martyred for his faith. But the sculptor, Donatello, exceeded every rule and convention. Not only did he imagine the saint as a once-living being, not an icon, but he created this staggering portrait of a real modern man in the active moment of thinking.
The sensation of walking round this being as his aspect changes, as if to chime with his ever-moving thoughts, will be possible with an epochal show opening at the V&A on Saturday. Donatello: Sculpting the Renaissance is the first substantial exhibition of the Florentine master’s art ever mounted in Britain. Anyone who has seen even a handful of the figures he made on every scale, and in every medium, all through Italy during his long and prolific career, knows this will be a show of pure amazement.
Donatello (c1386-1466) is the most revolutionary of all Italian sculptors. Born in Florence, the son of a wool carder, he was apprenticed to Lorenzo Ghiberti during the creation of the great bronze doors of the Baptistery. Donatello’s most famous figure is probably the young David in black bronze, the first standing male nude in Renaissance art, got up in nothing but a swagger hat and boots. Outstandingly seductive, in all his lithe beauty, this David was made to be seen in the round by everyone passing through a Medici palace courtyard. He came to symbolise political bravery against tyrannical giants.
The London show will open with a greater David, however. Larger than life, and carved out of marble, this youth rises above you with a balletic sway, amaranth leaves threaded through his curls, head self-consciously tilted as if posing for a camera. The stance is all grace, the torsion amazing as you circle the figure, wondering how Donatello could turn stone into something as supple as warm skin and velvet. His chisel describes the exact tension of lacings through eyelets, the pooling of fluted silk, the long line of the thigh, the foot turned ever so gently upon the severed head of Goliath – not dead, only sleeping, as it seems. The sculpture shifts between religion and myth, between public statue and mysterious portrait. It feels perpetually restless.
All of Donatello’s figures seem to yearn for more than the ordinary life of a sculpture. One of his earliest commissions was to carve a dead Christ for the facade of a Florentine church. His messiah appears to be breaking free of the marble from which he is made, moving forwards in space. Donatello’s works were nearly all designed for locations well above eye height and he is known to have made adjustments in situ to bring the figures into a more dramatic and personal relationship with the viewer. He has a genius for perspective.
An immense crucifix from the high altar of a church in Padua, included in the London show, has exactly this exceptional combination of intimacy and remoteness. The dead Christ soars above the viewer, ineffably divine; and yet the sculptor brings him down so close to us, noticing the ragged tatter of the loin cloth, the fraying fibres of the rope, the poor strained arteries and the massive weight of the nails, the overwhelming passage of pain through Christ’s face, with the fading of his mortal life.
Donatello seems an elusive and contradictory figure, even now; supposedly uninterested in literature and yet so sophisticated he dined with the Medici and produced the most refined of all sculptures for them. Supposedly “rough and very straightforward”, according to one contemporary, yet also so sensitive to male beauty it seems absurd to sidestep the suggestion that he was gay.
One persistent anecdote, from Vasari, has him shouting at his statues to come alive. But this makes him sound like any old sculptor from Pygmalion onwards, bent only on a speaking likeness. Donatello was far more radical and inventive. The most breathtaking of all his experiments is in schiacciato, where sculptures are carved in the finest possible relief. Others had done it before, but never with such prodigious subtlety. Donatello’s reliefs are only millimetres deep.
And the V&A owns one of his most astonishing: The Ascension With Christ Giving the Keys to St Peter, so diaphanous, so translucent, carved from a thin sheet of white marble. Water flows, breezes rustle, the figures are as spectral as ghosts in their fragile garments, yet each has its distinct appearance, its own special force of personality. The angels are as nebulous as the clouds in which they hover and a breath of air flows through the whole scene. The vision appears static and yet there are internal shadows everywhere and the surface seems to flicker as you move: a film, conceived in obdurate marble.
Donatello made some of the strangest sculptures in art. Among the exhibits at the V&A will be his outlandish hybrids of ancient and modern. St John the Baptist is the wildest fusion of classical Roman statue and haloed boy saint, draped in a soft, tufted fleece. Nobody really knows what the artist’s weird cherub in leather chaps (arriving from Florence) is supposed to be, or to mean. But his tiny Spiritello (from Berlin), fairly bursting with mirth as he shakes his tambourine, has more joy in its single up-curled toe than many a grander bronze.
Donatello was industrious, prolific, long-lived. His figures are widely scattered all over Italy, from Naples to the far north. This is a problem for anyone trying to get a sense of his extraordinary mind, stunned by the stirring expressiveness of his figures in Florence, say, then losing sight of him in the south. So the V&A show is the chance of a lifetime, to bring Donatello into focus.
He carved a Virgin who was old, worn down, heart burdened, hands veined and knotted. He pictured saints as children and martyrs as emaciated intellectuals, heroes as callow teenagers. He understood what it was to have suffered, and how to epitomise grief and courage in a human figure that achieves a direct relationship with our own. What Donatello took from the past, and what he gave to the future, was human empathy: the emotions of our lives bodied forth in three dimensions.
Cheerfulness can boost your energy levels, even in tough times – as philosophers and writers have long recognised
“The surest sign of wisdom is a constant cheerfulness,” wrote the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne in the 16th century. “Be cheerful,” commands Prospero – arguably the wisest of all of Shakepeare’s characters – in The Tempest. Yet the impact of cheerfulness – and the power it gives us to get through difficult moments in our lives – is hard to define and easy to disregard or dismiss, even as we strive to be happy.
And that is one of the reasons Timothy Hampton, a professor in the department of comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley, decided to write a book about it. Cheerfulness: A Literary and Cultural History explores how “cheerfulness” functions as a theme in the works of great philosophers and writers from Shakespeare to Jane Austen, and how it is portrayed in everything from 16th-century medical books to the Boy Scout handbook.
“Cheerfulness is a psychological and emotional resource, a way of approaching actions and situations,” says Hampton. “I can say hello to you – but I can also say hello to you cheerfully. It’s not part of the saying ‘hello’, it’s some kind of colouring of what I am saying.”
The philosopher Spinoza called it an “affect. And he says it’s the one affect you can’t have too much of.”
Cheerfulness differs from happiness, Hampton says, because you have some control over it. “You can make yourself cheerful – I can tell you to cheer up and you know what that means. But you can’t make yourself happy. You can’t even buy it. Happiness is something you don’t have any control over. ”
Cheerfulness is not optimism, he says, and it’s not positivity or hopefulness, either. “It’s ephemeral. It comes and goes. It’s a resource of the self, an uptick in one’s emotional wellbeing that raises your energy levels briefly. It’s not something that is easy to pin down – we don’t really recognise it, unless we’re doing it.”
For example, it doesn’t necessarily show on your face, he explains, the way stronger emotions do. “But when you do something, I can tell if you are cheerful, I can see the cheerfulness coming through your actions.”
Most importantly, it is an accessible emotion, even in moments of extreme hardship. “I spent much of my early life in proximity to people who had suffered physical handicaps and been in accidents,” Hampton says, “and for whom getting through the day was very difficult. And cheerfulness, I realised, is a resource – you can make it, manage it and put it into action. And that seemed to me to be a really precious and interesting thing that we don’t think about as much as we should.”
Hampton decided to find out whether cheerfulness was an emotion people have been thinking about for centuries and if the way we think about it has changed. “I discovered that cheerfulness is really a modern phenomenon that begins to emerge in the 16th century, during the Renaissance.”
This is not optimism or positivity – it’s a resource of the self
The word cheerfulness first appears in English in 1530, and its roots lie in an old French word meaning “face”. “Chaucer uses it as a synonym for ‘face’. And in the 19th century, the French writer Madame de Staël talks about how, if you put a cheerful expression on your face when you’re in conversation with other people, it will spread to the inside of yourself. So even if a person is not actually cheerful on the inside, the emotional energy coming from their face will transform the interior of the self.”
This idea that cheerfulness can spread from the exterior to the interior is common in books and essays about cheerfulness, Hampton says, as is the idea that cheerfulnesscan spread from person to person, and build feelings of community and fellowship. “The philosopher Hume, for example, calls cheerfulness a flame or a contagion. He says when a cheerful person comes into a room where everybody is subdued, cheerfulness swoops around the room and envelops everyone. And suddenly, the conversation becomes gay and lively. So there’s a sense that, at a certain point, cheerfulness becomes something that’s bigger than any of us and is linked to our relationships to each other.”
It is partly for this reason that Shakespeare, Hampton thinks, is interested in what happens when people lose their cheerfulness. “Across Shakespeare’s tragedies, there are a number of moments where – just before something terrible is about to happen – one of the characters will say to another character: you have lost your cheer.”
This is what happens to Macbeth before Banquo’s ghost appears, for example. “When you lose your cheer, that’s the moment that tragedy strikes in Shakespeare’s plays, that’s the moment that a character becomes isolated from their community – and left alone.”
Cheerfulness is also seen as the antidote to melancholy: the right way for a character – particularly a woman in the 19th century – to weather a crisis or a tragedy in her life. For example, in Sense and Sensibility, after Marianne is jilted by Willoughby, Austen writes: “She said little, but every sentence aimed at cheerfulness.” Aiming at cheerfulness is what stops Marianne’s “anguish of heart” from descending into melancholy and madness, says Hampton. “It’s not about having a positive world view; it’s not about saying the sun will always come up tomorrow. It’s about taking one tiny little step at a time.”
So how do we “aim at cheerfulness”? Hampton thinks the American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson provides some good advice. Emerson writes that no one can truly be a poet, unless they are cheerful, because poets “delight in the world, in man, in woman, for the lovely light that sparkles from them”.
Hampton suggests that if you want to be cheerful, a good place to start is to “take delight in the world… For Emerson, the key to cheerfulness is an acceptance of the beauty of the world.”
For Shakespeare, it’s a deliberate decision to “look on all things well”, while for Montaigne the state of cheerfulness “is like things above the moon, always clear and serene”.
Cheerfulness, Hampton says, also involves being able to rise above insults or problems and take refuge in humour. For example, the catchphrase of Ragged Dick – a cheerful character in a 19th-century rags-to-riches novel by American author Horatio Alger – is: “That’s a cheerin’ thought.” Hampton explains: “Someone will say to Ragged Dick, ‘I’m going to come and beat your brains in.’ And Ragged Dick will say, ‘Well, that’s a cheerin’ thought.’ He’s got an ironic sense of humour and an ability to distance himself from the situation.”
It means focusing on the good and looking for the best in people
Cheerfulness is also shown by writers to be something anyone can deliberately put on, like a cloak. In David Copperfield, for example, Charles Dickens tries to show how even the most “wretched and miserable” characters cheer up when it is necessary to do so. Mrs Gummidge is a woman who rarely makes any remark other than a forlorn sigh – until disaster strikes at the heart of her community and little Emily is stolen away by Steerforth.
“What a change in Mrs Gummidge in a little time! She was another woman,” Dickens writes. Instead of deploring her misfortunes, “she appeared to have entirely lost the recollection of ever having had any. She preserved an equable cheerfulness.”
“There’s a sense that in a moment of crisis,” says Hampton, “that the community generates its own kind of cheerfulness and even the most melancholy member of the community suddenly becomes cheerful.”
That’s one reason why he thinks we need to consider cheerfulness in the current moment. “We’re living in a moment of terrible crisis in our own community.” Cheerfulness, he says, is a tool we can use to cope with the instability all around us, from the state of the economy to the war in Ukraine. “Which is not to say: be Pollyanna-ish or don’t look at the evil in the world. But I think cheerfulness is a resource that you can use, in the moment. And we don’t have many resources – so we should take advantage of whatever we have got.”
Psychotherapist Tess Ridgeway agrees that choosing to be cheerful doesn’t mean walking on air. “Rather, it means you are committed to being a person who focuses on the good, looks for the best in people and picks yourself up from bad events with stoicism and determination to carry on. It isn’t flighty or dependent on good fortune. It’s a decision you make, to walk through life with good humour, humility and optimism.”
If that all sounds difficult, there is one final remedy. Hampton found advice on stimulating cheerfulness in medical books, from the 16th to the 18th century: “Good conversation, one glass of wine – not two, because two leads to chattering – good music and a well-lit room. These things, we’re told, will all lead to a cheering of the self.”
From Aristotle to Iris Murdoch: what the greatest minds of the past 2,500 years have to tell us about the good life
The thing that separates human beings from other animals is our extraordinary capacity for complex, abstract thought. This is what has given rise to our diverse cultures, our scientific achievements, our ability to envisage the future and, hopefully, make it better than what has gone before. But our imperfect minds have also generated terrible mistakes and dangerous ideologies. If we don’t know how to distinguish bad thinking from good, we can end up believing what we shouldn’t, and behaving in ways that are harmful to ourselves, to others, and to the planet.
Philosophers are, of course, the archetypal expert thinkers. Their discipline is often portrayed as a kind of formal method that lists fallacies to be avoided and distinguishes between deductive and inductive reasoning, invalid and sound arguments. These things have their place. But philosophy cannot be reduced to mere technique. Thinking well also requires adopting the right attitudes and being prepared to nurture effective habits. Without these “intellectual virtues” even the cleverest end up merely playing theoretical games.
Throughout history wise men and women have applied themselves to these problems in the service of their own development and that of humankind. Rather than start from scratch, why not draw on thousands of years of experience, and millions of hours of reflection and practice? Here is what some of the greatest philosophers in history can tell us about how to think – and live – well.
1. Be sincere
“A wrangler is one who aims only at victory, being indifferent whether the arguments which he employs support his own contention or that of his opponent.” Akapāda Gautama Written some time between the sixth and second centuries BCE, supposedly by Akapāda Gautama, the Indian classic the Nyāya Sūtras is the first great treatise on the principles of reasoning. Gautama distinguishes between three kinds of debate. In jalpa (wrangling) the aim is victory, while vitanda (cavilling) is concerned wholly with criticising the other side. But in good or honest discussion, vada, the aim is truth.
Sometimes philosophy descends into adversarial combat. But the best thinkers avoid wrangling or cavilling. One such philosopher, Bernard Williams, identified sincerity as one of the two primary “virtues of truth”, alongside accuracy.
The most dangerous enemy of sincerity is not deliberate deception but the desire to be right overpowering the desire to get to the truth. Sincerity in thought therefore requires overcoming an ego that hates admitting being wrong.
2. Be charitable
“People’s real reasons for reaching their practical conclusions are so often not the ones they give in their arguments.” Janet Radcliffe Richards
It’s easier to dismiss people we disagree with if we attribute to them obviously foolish or stupid beliefs. But just as we are not as smart as we like to think we are, other people are not usually as stupid as we take them to be.
The best way to understand any position is to ask what assumptions would make it rational
To avoid what David Hume called the “vulgar error” of “putting nothing but nonsense into the Mouth of the Adversary” we should employ the principle of charity. This requires us to consider the best, strongest version of an opponent’s argument, not only the worst. This may be a better case than they themselves can muster. If you were a remainer during the EU referendum campaign, for example, it would have been all too easy to brush aside some of the crass claims made by the official leave side. But there were more serious, less easily dismissed arguments, and those were the ones that most demanded a response.
Applying the principle of charity can expose flaws as well as strengths. Janet Radcliffe Richards believes the best way to understand any position is to ask what assumptions would make it rational. Why would a family think a drunk relative was a suitable babysitter, but only until they discovered she was an atheist? Their conclusion is rational if you think that the risk of being led into hell is worse than the risk of being harmed through negligence. The family’s reasoning was flawless: it was their premises that were wrong.
3. Be humble
“I’m not clever, I don’t find arguments easy to follow.” Philippa Foot
Philippa Foot was one of the best British philosophers of the 20th century. Yet she told me, “I couldn’t give a five-minute lecture on dozens of philosophers. I couldn’t tell you about Spinoza. I’m very uneducated really.”
Mary Warnock was another philosopher with a keen sense of humility, saying: “I haven’t done very much work and I haven’t done it very well.”
Both women’s remarks sound ludicrously self-deprecating to anyone who knows their work. In fact, they reveal a self-awareness and honesty that helped them to excel. Foot was probably right to say that she wasn’t as good a scholar as many of her peers and wasn’t especially clever in the sense of having an ability to process complex logical calculations quickly. Rather than trying to compete with those who were, she played to her strengths: great insight, a penetrating mind, and a good nose for what’s right.
Similarly, Warnock’s excellence was not as an original thinker. She was a great explainer of others’ ideas and, most importantly, a brilliant chair of ethics commissions which helped bring experts together to make public policy. She left a greater legacy than much work by “better” philosophers.
There are times when confidence and conviction are needed. But when we’re trying to think as clearly as possible, their absence is a virtue, not a vice. We should all become self-aware about where our intellectual strengths and weaknesses lie. Social media shows how the temptation to opine over and above our competence is strong, and must be resisted through intellectual humility.
4. Keep it simple, but not simplistic
“It is futile to do with more things that which can be done with fewer.” William of Ockham
The principle of Occam’s razor – one should not multiply entities beyond necessity – was sadly never expressed so clearly by the 14th-century Franciscan friar to whom it is attributed. Sometimes called the parsimony principle, it has come to refer to the idea that all other things being equal, a simpler explanation is preferable to a more complicated one.
Applying the principle, however, is no simple matter. The key proviso is “all other things being equal”. All-too-human cock-ups are more common than complicated conspiracies, but some things really are conspiracies. Bombs and bullets are usually fired by adversaries, but there are also false-flag operations.
So Occam’s razor really needs the addendum “only expect as much simplicity in an explanation as the thing being explained allows”. The preference for simplicity is a virtue so long as it is accompanied by a refusal to deny real-world complexities. We should look for explanations that are neither more convoluted nor more simplistic than is necessary.
5. Watch your language
“What is necessary is to rectify names.” Kongzi
In the Analects, Kongzi (also known as Confucius) says that the first thing he would do if he were to administer the government would be to “rectify names”. He explains: “If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.”
Philosophers have always been keen to define their terms and use language accurately. In the 20th century, this perhaps went too far, with some philosophers thinking that all they could do was “conceptual analysis” – or figuring out what, precisely, a term might refer to. But even that is a vital task.
Think of how common it is for the misuse of language to assist the misuse of political power: Putin’s “special military operation”, or the labelling of plans to fund care of the elderly as a “dementia tax”.
Getting words right sometimes requires changing them. “Gay marriage” used to be an oxymoron but most have come to agree that it is right that the meaning of “marriage” has evolved. Right now, there is a heated debate about what “woman” and “man” mean in relation to trans people. There is no way of resolving this unless both sides acknowledge that they are engaged in advocacy for their preferred usages, not simply trying to show that one set of meanings is objectively correct.
6. Be eclectic
“I suspect I’ve always been an awful trespasser.” Onora O’Neill
Onora O’Neill’s self-suspicion captures the value and peril of casting a wide intellectual net. As a leading bioethicist, O’Neill has had to learn from medics, biologists, public health professionals, scientific researchers, civil servants and more. None of these experts is competent to resolve thorny issues like those of gene editing or embryo research alone.
Breadth of thought always requires the sacrifice of some depth – be prepared to move out of your intellectual comfort zones
Many – maybe most – important issues cannot be resolved with just one kind of expertise. To think about how to feed a nation you need to call on the knowledge of dieticians, ethicists, farmers, ecologists, cooks and economists. Climate science isn’t enough to generate a policy response to global warming, you also need to know about technology, geopolitics, economics and agriculture.
Breadth used to be a typical characteristic of philosophers. Aristotle studied nature in a lagoon on the island of Lesbos, Descartes dissected animals as well as concepts, Hume was better known in his day as a historian than as a philosopher. Narrow specialisation is a recent development.
Breadth of thought, however, always requires the sacrifice of some depth. That’s why you need O’Neill’s acute sense of being a trespasser. We have to be prepared to move out of our intellectual comfort zones, but we also have to be careful, in unfamiliar spaces, to retain a sense of humility.
7. Think for yourself, not by yourself
“No culture has a monopoly on wisdom, no culture embodies all the great values, and therefore each culture has a great deal to learn from others, through dialogue.” Bhikhu Parekh
In his essay What Is Enlightenment Kant defined immaturity as “the inability to make use of one’s own understanding without direction from another”, adding that: “‘Have courage to make use of your own understanding’ is thus the motto of enlightenment.”
Has the pendulum swung too far towards striking out on your own, though? As the philosopher Alvin Goldman says: “You can get more knowledge by using social sources, that is by drawing on the experiences of others and what they have to contribute. They have maybe better ideas, maybe better education than you do on certain subjects, or they have just read more about it than you have.”
As Bhikhu Parekh argues, our willingness to draw on outside knowledge should extend to thinkers beyond our own cultures. Just as it is arrogant to think that we as individuals have nothing to learn from our peers, to assume any one tradition has a monopoly on making sense of the world is pure chauvinism. Our minds work best when in dialogue with others.
8. Seek clarity not certainty
“Philosophy aims at the logical clarification of thoughts. Philosophy is not a body of doctrine but an activity.” Ludwig Wittgenstein
Philosophers – and I suspect all of us – tend towards one of two different objectives: clarity and certainty. I think that after more than two millennia of seeing which approach is more fruitful, it is clear, if not certain, that the clarifiers have won. One of the few certainties we have is that certainty of any interesting kind is rarely possible. If you seek greater clarity, on the other hand, new vistas open up.
Another reason to be suspicious of certainty is that it is seductive. For example, psychologists such as Elizabeth Loftus tell us that in court cases witnesses who express certainty about what they have seen tend to be believed more, but confidence is an unreliable indicator of accuracy. Certainty is also the friend of dogmatism, arrogance and fundamentalism. Those who seek it should be careful what they wish for.
9. Pay attention
“Attention is rewarded by a knowledge of reality.” Iris Murdoch
Iris Murdoch was a philosopher and a novelist. These two vocations were intimately linked. As her colleague Mary Midgley put it: “On Murdoch’s view of ethics, we learn what is the right thing to do by attending to what is the case and increasing our understanding of reality.” For example, empathy teaches us more about what is needed to treat a person well than moral theory.
Paying close attention, rather than constructing arguments, lies at the heart of the best philosophising
Paying close attention, rather than constructing arguments, lies at the heart of the best philosophising. Descartes is famous for his line “I think, therefore I am” but this is an argument in appearance only. It is a truth arrived at by observation: when you try to doubt that you are thinking, your doubting shows that you must be existing.
It was also by paying close attention that Hume saw how Descartes was wrong to conclude that this thinker whose existence was certain was an indivisible, mental substance. Hume, like the Buddha, invited us to attend more carefully and observe that we are only ever aware of particular thoughts, feelings and sensations, not an “I” that stands behind them.
Arguments do matter, but assessing the validity of our reasoning requires paying close attention to its progression more than it does knowledge of formal logic. Good thinking is just thinking with full attention.
10. Follow the mean
“Some vices miss what is right because they are deficient, others because they are excessive, in feelings or in actions, while virtue finds and chooses the mean.” Aristotle
One principle that can be applied almost universally is Aristotle’s incredibly useful doctrine of the mean, a version of which is also taught by Kongzi. This says that for practically every virtue, there is not an opposite vice but an excess and a deficiency. Generosity is the mean between profligacy and tightfistedness, understanding between lack of sympathy and indulgence, pride between self-hatred and arrogance.
The same applies to the virtues of thinking. Aristotle said: “It is the mark of the trained mind never to expect more precision in the treatment of any subject than the nature of that subject permits.” You can be too precise as well as too vague, you can be too understanding of a view you disagree with as well as too dismissive, you can think too much for yourself or too little.
That is why every intellectual virtue needs to come with a warning not to slavishly apply it: follow the argument wherever it leads but don’t follow it to absurdity; question everything but not all the time; define your terms as clearly as you can but don’t think all terms can be defined with scientific precision. Even virtuous habits of thought can become vices if they are misapplied. The virtues of thinking require balance and judgment – and, thankfully, these are skills any one of us can learn.
How to Think Like a Philosopher by Julian Baggini will be published by Granta on 23 February.
But a California activist recently sneaked into a slaughterhouse at night and installed spy cams inside a gas chamber to record this supposedly humane process. The resulting videos are horrifying: They show the pigs squealing desperately, thrashing about and gasping for air before eventually succumbing.
“Everyone’s been lied to,” the activist, Raven Deerbrook, said. “It’s a massive consumer fraud.”
She may have a point. These gas chambers, which use carbon dioxide to render pigs unconscious, are how “animal friendly” modern meat plants across North America and Europe often prepare hogs to have their throats slit.
Deerbrook, a photographer who volunteers with the animal rights group Direct Action Everywhere, had been trying for years to get such footage. Finally, last October, with inside help, she managed to sneak into a California slaughterhouse owned by Smithfield Foods, the giant meat packing company.
It was night, and Deerbrook said she wore a fake uniform and badge. She opened an access hatch in the floor and climbed down a metal ladder 26 feet to the floor of the gas chamber. Carbon dioxide is heavier than air, so the gas chambers are below ground.
Deerbrook installed three spy cams and linked them to a cellphone hot spot that she left behind so they could transmit footage. Entering the gas chamber was risky, and she said she was almost overcome by residual carbon dioxide, even though the chamber wasn’t in operation.
“I felt a breathlessness and began gulping for air,” she said. “No matter how hard I was breathing, I was not getting air. It felt as if I was holding my breath, but I wasn’t. It filled me with a primal fear, like drowning.”
When the factory started operation in the morning, she sat in her cheap hotel room nearby and watched the live footage come in on her cellphone — and then she wept.
“I went into the bathroom and started crying and shaking uncontrollably,” she recalled. “I felt so helpless.”
Deerbrook and Direct Action shared the videos with Wired magazine and posted them on a new website, StopGasChambers.org.
The hog industry insists that the process is humane, so watch this video clip and decide for yourself. (Caution: The footage is graphic.)
What’s troubles me most is that this doesn’t seem to be one bad operation with faulty equipment. Rather, the video seems to capture how hogs are routinely slaughtered every second in America and Europe.
Smithfield executives declined to be interviewed, but in brief emails the company didn’t assert that anything had gone wrong. Rather, the company put out a statement saying that carbon dioxide stunning is accepted as humane by the Agriculture Department and the American Veterinary Medical Association.
Industry groups referred me to Jason McAlister, the president of a company that works with agribusiness on animal welfare. He told me that the videos showed the system working properly, rendering animals unconscious in 10 to 17 seconds after breathing in the gas. He said that what one sees after that is involuntary jerking after animals are unconscious.
Jim Reynolds, a large-animal veterinarian and professor at Western University of Health Sciences, told me that was flatly wrong. He said that the videos show some pigs squealing and conscious for 40 seconds or more after being exposed to the gas.
“It was horrible cruelty to the pigs inside the chambers,” Jim Reynolds told me. “It’s a violation of federal law.”
Reynolds is one of 90 veterinarians who signed an open letter saying that the process shown in the videos probably violates federal law on humane slaughter.
One fair point the industry makes is that other methods of stunning are also flawed. Electrocution, often used at smaller slaughterhouses, alarms pigs by separating them, and the operator can make mistakes.
Industry officials referred me to a video made of Temple Grandin, an expert on livestock slaughter at Colorado State University, showing pigs calmly descending by elevator into a gas chamber and then emerging unconscious a few minutes later.
But Grandin told me that the new gas chamber videos show unacceptable suffering — and that this suffering is probably typical of what goes on in the gas chambers. She said that she has seen gas chambers in Denmark that have killed pigs humanely but that the difference is the genetics of the hogs and how they respond to the gas.
“This is fixable,” she said. “The solution is genetics.” She urged the industry to raise hog breeds that do not suffer so much from the carbon dioxide but simply lose consciousness, which she insisted is possible.
These questions about slaughter follow vociferous debates about the way factory farms keep sows for much of their lives locked inside narrow gestation crates, unable even to turn around. The Supreme Court will weigh in soon on a case concerning California’s right to regulate the use of gestation crates in other states, and separately a court has allowed the Humane Society to proceed with a lawsuit against Smithfield for misrepresenting to consumers how it treats sows.
I raised pigs on our family farm when I was a kid. (We sold them at the county auction yard, and I have no idea how they were slaughtered.) The sows were intelligent and had very distinct personalities — indeed, stronger personalities than some people I know. That’s one reason I don’t eat pork from factory farms.
Small farms like ours were inefficient, and the modern hog business, in contrast, is a marvel of capitalist efficiency. Its triumph is that it gives consumers extraordinarily cheap meat: Adjusted for inflation, bacon is cheaper now than it was in 1920.
But look at the video — or imagine hogs confined to crates for most of their lives — and you understand the true cost of pork.
Russia’s foreign minister has warned that Moldova could meet the same fate as Ukraine. He says that the West is stirring up anti-Russian sentiment. Moldova has rejected his comments as propaganda.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has suggested that Moldova is the West’s new “anti-Russian project.” In an interview for Russian state television, he declared that the West had now “set its sights on the Republic of Moldova to have the role of the next Ukraine.”
In the interview, which was banned from broadcast in Moldova because of accusations of propaganda, Lavrov also stated that the pro-European Moldovan President Maia Sandu had been appointed with methods that were “far from being freely democratic” and that she was pursuing a deeply anti-Russian approach. He added that she was “a president who wants to join NATO, has Romanian citizenship, is ready to unite with Romania and, in general, is ready for almost anything.”
“This is one of the countries that the West wants to turn into another anti-Russia,” he said.
Debate over Transnistria conflict
The foreign minister continued by criticizing the Moldovan government in Chisinau of refusing to resume the 5+2 negotiations on resolving the Transnistria conflict. Russia and the separatist regime in Transnistria, a pro-Russian breakaway region that split from Moldova in the early 1990s after a bloody war, insist that talks should continue, especially considering the setbacks of the Russian army in Ukraine.
Lavrov said that “hand in hand with the pro-NATO, pro-EU drive,” the fact that Moldova refused to resume the negotiations spoke “volumes.” He added that Moldova was even planning to expel Russian “peacekeepers” from Transnistria.
There are some 2,000 Russian soldiers stationed in Transnistria, which is a narrow strip of land in eastern Moldova. Many of them are there to guard a former Soviet ammunition depot in the village of Cobasna that contains up to 20,000 tons of Soviet-era weapons. It is the largest such depot in Europe. In 1999, Russia committed to withdrawing troops and weapons, but it has not fulfilled this promise.
Russia accuses Moldovan president of anti-Russian stance
At the end of January, the Moldovan president said that there was a “serious discussion” about her country’s capacity to defend itself and whether it should be part of a “larger alliance” in an interview with the US magazine Politico. She added: “And if we come, at some point, to the conclusion as a nation that we need to change neutrality, this should happen through a democratic process.”
Moldova’s neutrality, which is enshrined in the constitution, has become the subject of more intense debate since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. However, there would currently not be enough support in parliament for a constitutional amendment.
Veiled threats and warnings against Moldova
But in the wake of the President Sandu’s remarks, there have been several veiled warnings from Russian politicians close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, that joining NATO would be a sure way of destroying the state of Moldova.
Moreover, in a video conference with Russian politicians, Vitali Ignatiev, the so-called foreign minister of Transnistria, complained about “increased pressure” on the unrecognized republic due to the fact that the Moldovan army had expanded its defense capacities. He also said that there was increasing “repression of everything Russian” in Moldova. This is an argument typically used by Russian propagandists to justify military aggression against independent states, including Ukraine and Georgia.
The Moldovan Foreign Ministry was quick to react to the latest threats by Lavrov. It said that the remarks did not correspond to the truth and continued “the already well-known threatening rhetoric of Russian diplomacy.”
Nicu Popescu, the foreign minister and deputy prime minister of Moldova, said that his country categorically rejected this tone in bilateral relations with Russia. He reminded the government in Moscow that Moldovan citizens wanted peace, prosperity and democracy, and that they wanted to join the European Union.
Solidarity with Ukraine
Moldova declared solidarity with its neighbor Ukraine immediately after the Russian invasion on February 24, 2022, and simplified measures for refugees crossing the border. The country has consistently condemned Russia’s attacks on Ukraine’s population and critical infrastructure. At every international meeting, Moldovan politicians have issued warnings about the increased security risks for their country.
Gunther Krichbaum, the former head of the Bundestag EU affairs committee and an expert in Eastern and Southeast European politics, said in a DW interview that Russia’s threats against Moldova showed once again how aggressive Russia was and that it was important to put it in its place now. “This war must not be worth it for Russia, Ukraine must win the war,” he said.
He added that all politicians advocating appeasement should finally understand that Russia would not stop at a victory over Ukraine and would keep on with its invasions. He said that Moldova would be the next victim and would not be able to stand up to Russia. Then, according to Krichbaum, it would go on with Georgia and then the Baltic states would have to worry. “Therefore, Russia must be stopped now.”
Ukraine has used the strategic town of Vuhledar to launch attacks disrupting transit on a critical rail link between the war’s southern and eastern fronts.
KYIV, Ukraine — Moscow is deploying thousands of soldiers to southeastern Ukraine as it renews an assault on a strategically important town that Ukrainian forces have used to harass shipments on a critical Russian supply line that runs from the eastern Donbas region to Crimea.
After a major drive in November failed, with reportedly enormous losses, Russian commanders are once again attacking in and around Vuhledar in hopes of securing the rail line.
“This can be done in only one way — by capturing and occupying Vuhledar, which just ‘hangs’ over this railway line,” said Ivan Yakovina, a prominent Ukrainian journalist and radio host. By capturing the “seemingly small and not very significant town,” he said, “Russia would have received a wide logistical artery along the entire front line and, accordingly, the ability to quickly and massively transfer troops from one direction to another.”
President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine acknowledged in his nightly address on Saturday that the situation was “very difficult,” as Russia “throws more and more of its forces to break our defenses.”
In addition to taking control of Donbas, Moscow is intent on keeping control over the so-called land bridge, the slice of occupied territory that connects Russia to Crimea, the peninsula that Moscow has occupied since 2014. Kyiv’s hold on Vuhledar threatens that as well.
Ukrainian officials said that they had repelled the latest assaults, but warned that Russian forces, bolstered by thousands of newly mobilized soldiers, were trying to encircle the town.
“The Russians are not trying to break through the defenses of Vuhledar, but are trying to surround the city from two sides,” the city’s deputy mayor, Maksym Verbovsky, told the Ukrainian news outlet Suspline on Friday. “They managed to advance to some nearby villages, but the Ukrainian military pushed them back to their previous positions.”
The fighting has left yet another Ukrainian city in ruins.
Vuhledar “was destroyed,” Mr. Verbovsky said. “One hundred percent of the buildings were damaged. The entire infrastructure.”
Fewer than 500 civilians and just three children remain, he said, in what had until a year ago been a densely packed industrial town of about 15,000.
Vuhledar takes its name, “gift of coal” in Ukrainian, from the mine on its outskirts. Consisting of a cluster of high-rise apartment complexes on an otherwise empty plain, the town’s elevation, exposure and tall buildings give defenders a distinct advantage.
The ill-fated November campaign was led by the Russian Pacific Fleet’s 155th Guards Naval Infantry Brigade, with reportedly disastrous results. Mediazona, an independent Russian outlet that tracks Russians killed in battle, published an interview with a Russian marine who said that more than 200 soldiers had been killed in just three days. Reports of the defeat gained enough traction that the Kremlin felt compelled to issue a statement denying them.
On Saturday, fighting continued to rage across the eastern front, and around the embattled city of Bakhmut, which is around 60 miles from Vuhledar, while damage from Russia’s strikes on Ukrainian infrastructure continued to be felt. An accident at a critical power station that had been damaged by Russian attacks in the southern city of Odesa resulted in a citywide blackout.
Ukraine’s energy minister, Herman Galushchenko, said on Saturday evening that critical infrastructure had been restored, meaning that Odesa would have water and heat. Power had been restored to about one-third of the city’s consumers and efforts were underway to get electricity on for the rest, Mr. Galushchenko added in a Facebook post.
Despite the ongoing fighting, Russia and Ukraine said on Saturday that they had carried out another large-scale exchange of prisoners of war.
Andriy Yermak, the head of the Ukrainian president’s office, said that 116 Ukrainians had been released — including “defenders of Mariupol, Kherson partisans, snipers from Bakhmut vicinities, and other heroes.” The bodies of two British volunteers and a former member of the French Foreign Legion also were turned over by the Russians, he added. Russia’s Defense Ministry said in a statement that a “complicated negotiation” had led to the return of 63 Russian troops, including “sensitive category” prisoners whose release was facilitated by the United Arab Emirates.
The United Arab Emirates has tried to facilitate prisoner swaps between Russia and Ukraine over the course of the war. The government hosted the exchange of the W.N.B.A. star Brittney Griner for a Russian arms dealer, Viktor Bout, on the tarmac of an Abu Dhabi airport.
A Russian official reported a Ukrainian attack and subsequent fire Saturday at an industrial facility near the border. Vyacheslav V. Gladkov, the governor of the Belgorod region, wrote on Telegram that “projectiles hit the premises of an industrial plant.” In subsequent posts, he said that there were no casualties, as staff members were quickly evacuated.
Efforts are underway to preserve the 1,500-year-old tilework that a Palestinian found near his home in a refugee camp
Salman al Nabahin wondered why one of the olive trees near his home in the Al Bureij refugee camp (Palestinian territory of Gaza) wasn’t growing well. He thought it might be the soil and decided to dig out all the rocks disturbing the roots. As he and his son Ahmed began digging, Ahmed hit something hard. “I thought it was just a floor tile, but I immediately saw the colors and liked them,” said the teenager about that day in March 2022. Father and son slowly dug away week after week while a nephew researched the discovery on the internet. Although he knew nothing about art, Al Nabahin sensed he had chanced upon something exceptional on his property. It was a Byzantine mosaic of at least sixty multi-colored panels decorated with the simple aesthetics of the time. The panels bore motifs of domesticated animals (dogs, horses, hares, ducks) and wild ones (felines, birds of prey, flamingos). Some were adorned with leafy vines and fruit.
“I don’t know what each one symbolizes, but when I saw the bird images, I realized it was wonderful,” said Al Nabahin as he stood next to the two large pits excavated between olive, fig, guava and palm trees. The mosaic is buried about three feet (one meter) below the surface and may extend as far as 5,400 square feet (500 square meters).
The part of the mosaic unearthed last summer looks exquisite. “The state of conservation is exceptional,” says Anthony Dutemple, head of Première Urgence Internationale’s mission to the occupied Palestinian territories. Local technicians from the French emergency aid organization conducted the first evaluation of the mosaic under the technical supervision of archaeologists from the French School of Biblical and Archeological Research in Jerusalem. Only a few parts of the mosaic suffered damage from “some ancient destruction, the passage of time and tree roots,” says Dutemple.
When Al Nabahin reported the discovery to the local authorities, his prior internet research led him to think that the mosaic dated from when the Roman Empire spread to the East and West. At the time, Gaza was known for its prosperity, as Pompey had rebuilt the area in the first century BC. Only later did he learn that it dated back to Byzantine times. “Analysis of the patterns and geometry indicates that the site could date from the 5th to 7th centuries… but it is not possible to date it precisely or fully understand its artistic and historical significance because it has not been thoroughly excavated archaeologically and was discovered by chance,” stated the Ramallah office of UNESCO.
The mosaic is a contemporary of the Monastery of St. Hilarion, also located in Gaza. The local port was commercially prominent in Byzantine times due to the wine it exported throughout the Mediterranean. At the end of the 4th century, regional authorities began to destroy the pagan temples and build churches. Three years later, after the Muslim general Amr ibn al-As conquered the area, the population converted to Islam, and Gaza’s Christian churches were gradually abandoned.
Jean-Baptiste Humbert leads the French School of Biblical and Archeological Research’s archaeological project in Gaza. He says he has an “intuition” that the mosaic belongs to one of the 16 monasteries that may have once existed in Gaza when it became a sanctuary for Monophysite Christians who believed that Jesus Christ’s nature remains altogether divine and not human even though he took on human form. “It [the mosaic] is very large and located in a rural area, far from the city. Two factors point in that direction [to the monophysites],” he says. Humbert, an elderly Dominican monk who has lived for 53 years in the Holy Land, rules out the theory that the mosaic adorned an aristocrat’s home since “in the Byzantine world, mosaics were found in churches instead of homes.” The other factor, said Dutemple, is that “calcareous stone was used for the white, red, pink, orange and brown pieces. Marble was used for the gray and blue pieces, and clay for some bright red ones. The yellows and greens came from vitreous material.”
At first, Al Nabahin tried to keep his discovery quiet, which is difficult in one of the world’s most densely populated territories. Word spread when one of his brothers found out. He says looters soon showed up at his house and offered him money for it. He turned them down despite living in an Israeli-controlled territory where 50% of the people live in poverty, according to the World Bank. “I was happy to have found something historical from our ancestors, which belongs to the entire Palestinian nation,” he says quietly. Al Nabahin has eight children and receives 1,500 shekels ($435) per month from Ramallah (the de facto administrative capital of the State of Palestine) as a Palestinian National Authority security forces member. Now he gets paid for doing nothing because the Islamist Hamas movement seized control of the Gaza strip in 2007. Al Nabahin supplements his salary with other income from his chickens and goats. His humble house is about half a mile (less than one kilometer) from the border fence with Israel, which can be easily seen in the distance.
The family is negotiating with the Hamas government in Gaza to exchange their property for another piece of fertile land, but an agreement has yet to be reached. Time favors the Al Nabahin family. Their excavation obviously did not follow scientific protocols, and the one conducted by the French organization “was mainly aimed at identifying the site’s boundaries” so that the authorities would have “an idea of how much private property they had to acquire and give in exchange,” said the Ramallah office of UNESCO.
When UNESCO staff visited the mosaic in September 2022, they posted a warning on Facebook that the site required “urgent intervention with a view to its conservation,” especially with winter approaching. Two months later, heavy rains flooded the excavated areas of the mosaic, which was minimally protected by canvas tarpaulins. After the flooding, the excavated sites were cleaned and covered with geotextile and sand, with bags of earth on all sides. UNESCO and Première Urgence Internationale then developed a more permanent conservation agreement signed on January 10. “The site will remain like this until April when the rains are over. I hope we can then find a more definitive solution,” said Dutemple.
The conservation agreement may come to naught since it was signed with the Gaza Ministry of Antiquities, and the United Nations cannot endorse agreements with the de facto Hamas government. Dutemple says that the current deal is funded by the British Council Cultural Protection Fund and will pay for 14 young Palestinians to work on the site’s conservation as part of a program that seeks to bring together local heritage protection, humanitarian aid, psychosocial support and vocational training in a territory where at least half the population is unemployed.
Kyiv and western governments deny they exist, but saboteurs say they are striking Russia on its soil with the help of its people.
If the worst happens, Taras, 23, Vladyslav, 21, and their commander, Olexiy, 39, are well aware that the Ukrainian government will deny any knowledge of them. In western capitals, there is a collective shudder at the very thought of them.
They are members of the Bratstvo battalion, a volunteer group of Ukrainian special forces, taking the fight against Vladimir Putin beyond the frontlines of the war in Ukraine, past the occupied areas of their country – and deep into Russia.
Their work ranges from the kidnapping of senior Kremlin officials, to the destruction of key military infrastructure and the downing of enemy aircraft on Russian territory.
It might seem odd for a battalion such as theirs to allow their stories to be heard in public. But that is to misunderstand their purpose. In everything they do, there is a single message they want to send. “It is very easy for us to cross the Russian border,” says Vladyslav, the youngest of the three, with a smile.
The volunteers of the Bratstvo, Ukrainian for brotherhood, have a peculiar status, technically independent from Ukraine’s army but operating side by side with the official forces. Their arm’s-length status offers deniability.
Olexiy is in “intelligence”, he says, but the battalion recruits mainly civilians, or plucks the brightest from other voluntary battalions. He says he understands why their work must remain apart. The reasoning is nevertheless hard for them all to swallow.
Much of that anxiety is probably linked to the Kremlin’s threat to use nuclear weapons if the “very existence of the state is put under threat”.
“It turns out that Russians can go to Ukrainian territory, but Ukrainians cannot go into Russia,” Olexiy says.
The Bratstvo volunteers are not deterred. They insist it is vital for the Russian high command to feel the heat of battle on their own territory.
Wearing jeans, jumpers and hoodies, they are drinking coffee in Kyiv’s Taras Shevchenko Park as they tell of their adventures, while on a break from training, planning and missions. The only hint of who they are is the handgun on Vladyslav’s hip.
Because of their unofficial status, their stories could not be independently verified but they are convincing and credible. They are also extraordinary in their daring.
The second eldest of the three men, Taras, says he returned two weeks ago from what he described as a straightforward operation. “Our group needed to bring a certain amount of explosives to the territory of Russia and leave them in a certain place,” he says. “I don’t know for what and whom this explosive was intended. But I know for sure that some people in Russia are ready to help Ukrainians.”
But six weeks ago, he says, he completed the most successful operation yet. It had a jittery start. “We had a task to destroy a Russian helicopter transporting high-ranking officials of the Russian ministry of internal affairs,” says Taras. “On the first time in, bad weather prevented the laser sight from accurately aiming to hit the target. In addition, we had internal problems within the group, arguments, so we entered Russian territory but turned back, took into account our mistakes … and in a week we made a second attempt.”
The taskforce of five men set off at 7am, easily stalking through the forests and fields, to cross into Russia. “We walked all day,” says Taras. “Then we spent the night at the location and at 9am we heard a helicopter. I had a small reconnaissance drone with me and it confirmed it was the same helicopter.
“We fired from a portable anti-aircraft missile system at a helicopter from a distance of 4km. Unfortunately, we didn’t see the hit as we were so far away, but we heard the explosion. And then we quickly fled from our positions. We left behind the tripod used for the portable anti-aircraft missile system. We returned twice as fast.”
Whether the Kremlin officials in the helicopter were killed or not, for Taras it was a successful mission, achieving the central purpose of the battalion’s initiatives.
“We showed we can enter the territory of Russia and show the Russians that Ukrainians can act,” he says. “After the Russians find out that saboteurs are working on their territory, they need to move a lot of soldiers to find these saboteurs. It is very demoralising to the enemy. The helicopter was for the Russian leadership. And the very fact that Ukrainian saboteurs are shooting at Russian commanders is already a point of tension for Russians. This makes the Russian command nervous.”
The small taskforces, often just four or five soldiers, work out where the safe routes lie into Russia by examining the movement of livestock, or taking the advice of those who smuggled contraband before the war.
Vladyslav and his fellow fighters were tasked with “capturing or killing one of the high-ranking officers of the FSB”, the Russian security services.
“He worked close to the border with Ukraine, but on the territory of Russia,” says Vladyslav. “We had the route of this Russian officer’s car and we decided to set up an ambush.”
They were in position for hours but the car did not arrive, and the primary goal had to be abandoned as day broke. They needed to get out but they faced the challenge of breaking back into Ukraine, past the watching Russian forces gathered at the border.
“We met a border post of Russian border guards,” Vladyslav recalls. “We engaged, we were four on four. We killed three Russians and slightly wounded one. We captured him, took him to Ukrainian territory and handed him over to the Ukrainian military.”
The Ukrainians had survived another day with just one of their group suffering a gunshot wound to his arm.
But it does not always go to plan. On Christmas Day, four of their colleagues, Yuriy Horovets, 34, Maksym Mykhaylov, 32, Taras Karpyuk, 39 and the rookie of the mission, 19-year-old Bohdan Lyagov, were killed 12.5km (seven miles) into Russia’s Bryansk region, north-east of Ukraine.
The first Olexiy knew of the disaster was when photographs of their dead colleagues lying in the snow emerged on Russian Telegram channels on 26 December. The Kremlin-supporting media outlet, RIA Novosti, reported the men were carrying “SIG Sauer submachine guns, communication and navigation devices, and four bombs with a total capacity of about 40 kg in TNT equivalent”.
They were, the FSB, said, set on carrying out “sabotage and terrorist acts”. The FSB published a video showing the bodies, spread between the pine trees of a Russian forest. “Everyone was shocked,” Olexiy says. “They were our best fighters.”
The manner of their deaths remains unclear. Their bodies have not been recovered. The three older men of the group were hiking champions and veterans of this kind of work, having operated before on reconnaissance missions in the occupied Chornobyl region, among others.
“The guide led them to a certain distance from the border of Ukraine deep into the territory of Russia and left them there,” Olexiy recalls. “We were very calm for these guys and were sure everything would be fine. We do not know the details, but we assume that they accidentally entered the second line of the Russian defence. And in front of it, the Russians laid mines in the ground.”
The men were filmed in the moments before they set out on their mission, putting on their “snow camo” uniform, and readying their weapons. “I asked them, ‘How are you feeling?’’, says Olexiy. “And Yuriy answered: ‘This is my dream. I’m doing the operation I’ve dreamed about all my life’. All these guys were very bright and very motivated.”
It was a hard reminder of the risks they take. Asked whether their parents know about their work, the two younger men, in their early 20s, exhale loudly and laugh. “My parents only know that I am currently at war,” says Vladyslav. “But you have to understand that when we plan our operations, very few people know about it. Information about the operation can be passed to the enemy. The soldiers nearby may say something to their colleagues and the Russians may find out about it. It is better for our parents not to know what we do now.”
Taras adds: “Our operations are actually twice as safe as those performed by the Ukrainian armed forces. It seems that this is a very dangerous job, but we are very seriously preparing for it.”
The importance of their role, for all that it is denied by the government in Kyiv and disliked by western capitals, is clear to them.
“[Western readers] may expect from us that we are going to blow up the Kremlin, but so far this is not the case,” says Taras. “My opinion is that you should start with small tasks and then move on to more complex ones. A friend of mine has a saying: ‘To destroy an enemy military base, you must first blow up the doghouse.’”
Can I increase my testosterone levels through the foods I eat? And if so, which foods or diets work best?
Many men, particularly as they age, are concerned about their levels of testosterone, the male sex hormone touted to build muscle, sex drive and vigor. But individual foods are unlikely to have an impact on testosterone levels — though drinking excessive amounts of alcohol might. If you are overweight, altering your diet to lose weight may help, since carrying excess pounds is a common cause of low testosterone. But in terms of specific foods or diets, any uptick you achieve may not have a noticeable impact on libido, energy or muscle mass.
“If someone was not overweight, I wouldn’t put them on a specific diet to raise testosterone based on the data we have now,” said Alexander Pastuszak, an assistant professor of urology and surgery at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, who co-authored a review on alternatives to testosterone therapy.
In men, normal testosterone levels range from 300 to 1,000 nanograms per deciliter of blood. Ups and downs within that normal range are unlikely to have any impact on sex drive or vitality. Only when levels consistently drop below 300 points — as confirmed in two blood tests by an accredited laboratory — are symptoms like low libido, erectile dysfunction, fatigue, low mood or loss of muscle mass likely to appear, a medical condition known as hypogonadism.
Starting at around age 40, men’s testosterone levels start to decline by about 1 percent per year. But the drop can vary tremendously, with some older men maintaining levels similar to healthy young men. The trajectory of falling testosterone is steeper among men who gain a lot of weight, said Dr. Shalender Bhasin, professor of medicine at Harvard and the director of the Research Program in Men’s Health: Aging and Metabolism at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Studies on foods or diets and testosterone levels have generally been small and the findings far from conclusive. A recent British review that pooled data from 206 volunteers, for example, found that men on high-fat diets had testosterone levels that were about 60 points higher, on average, than men on low-fat diets. Men who followed a vegetarian diet tended to have the lowest levels of testosterone, about 150 points lower, on average, than those following a high-fat, meat-based diet. Still, Joseph Whittaker, the lead investigator and a nutritionist at the University of Worcester in Britain, said he would not recommend a man increase the fats in his diet unless he had low testosterone levels and symptoms of low T and was already restricting fats.
Another study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research tested two styles of diets in 25 fit men between the ages of 18 and 30. Calories consumed were the same, but one group ate a high-fat, very-low-carb, ketogenic-style diet, consisting of 75 percent of calories from fats, 5 percent from carbohydrates and 20 percent from protein. Men in the other group ate a more traditional Western style, low-fat diet, containing 25 percent of calories from fats, 55 percent from carbohydrates and 20 percent from protein. After 10 weeks of eating the high-fat diet, testosterone increased by 118 points, on average, while after the low-fat diet, levels declined by about 36 points
Similarly, a study of 3,000 men found that those who reported eating a low-fat diet had slightly lower testosterone levels — about 30 points lower — than men who ate higher-fat diets. But none of the men had low testosterone.
“The moral is that healthy men who are of normal weight with no significant comorbidities are unlikely to benefit from restrictive diets,” said Dr. Richard J. Fantus, one of the study’s authors and a urologist at NorthShore University HealthSystem in Evanston, Ill.
Diet studies are complicated, because changing one component of the diet, such as fat intake, alters so many other things, such as the amount of carbohydrates, protein and micronutrients consumed. It’s unclear which component of the diet may have prompted the hormonal changes, Dr. Bhasin said. Furthermore, testosterone levels may also be shaped by how much a person sleeps, or whether they are jet-lagged, or if they are eating most of their calories at night or in small meals throughout the day.
Dr. Faysal Yafi, chief of the division of Men’s Health and Reconstructive Urology at the University of California, Irvine, says his patients who opt to follow specific diets tend to start exercising more and drinking less alcohol, all of which can raise testosterone levels. He suspects any links between diet and testosterone may be the result of an overall healthier lifestyle.
Some men worry that eating lots of soy foods may cause their testosterone levels to fall, because soy is rich in isoflavones, which mimic the structure of estrogen. But the evidence doesn’t support their concerns, even if men eat foods like miso, tofu or soy milk at every meal. (Doctors did report one anecdotal case in which a 19-year-old man with Type 1 diabetes who followed a vegan diet containing 360 milligrams of soy isoflavones daily — nine times higher than a typical Japanese diet, and 100 times higher than the typical American diet — developed low testosterone levels along with low libido and fatigue. His symptoms improved when he stopped eating the soy-heavy, vegan diet.)
Long-term alcohol abuse lowers testosterone by damaging cells in both the testes, which make testosterone, and the liver, which alters testosterone metabolism. But binge drinking every now and then does not appear to have much of an impact — it lowers testosterone for only about 30 minutes, according to one study, after which levels bounce back to baseline.
Obese men who have low levels of testosterone can increase levels by cutting calories and losing weight — the type of diet does not matter, studies suggest. On the opposite extreme, Dr. Bhasin said he is seeing an increasing number of men at his clinic who have body dysmorphic issues and are suffering from low libido and fatigue. Strict calorie restriction, exercising intensely and being chronically stressed can all cause testosterone levels to plummet and are likely to blame, he said.
The bottom line is that for otherwise healthy men who are following a reasonably healthy lifestyle, fiddling with specific foods or the composition of the diet is not likely to make much of a difference on the testosterone score card. As Dr. Fantus of NorthShore University put it: “I don’t think there is a way to game the system to get really large increases by changing the diet.”
Lhakpa Sherpa has climbed Mount Everest 10 times, the most ascents ever by a woman. She has no plans of slowing down.
When Lhakpa Sherpa trudged into Everest base camp alongside her 15-year-old daughter, Shiny Dijmarescu, last April, it felt like a homecoming.
She was back in Nepal after four long years, hoping to take in the view from the roof of the world for the 10th time. If successful, Lhakpa would break her own record for most Everest ascents ever by a woman.
Unlike the routines of most climbers, who drop into specialized training for months or even years, Lhakpa’s training regimen took place at a Whole Foods in West Hartford, Conn., where she carried large stacks of boxed fruits and vegetables. Occasionally, she hiked to the top of the 6,288-foot Mount Washington, a meager stand-in for the highest mountain on earth.
When she returned to Nepal last spring, Everest looked different. There was noticeably less snow and ice, and what was left felt less stable. The ropes and ladders that a team of Sherpa guides lashed across the chasms in the notorious Khumbu icefall had to be fixed daily rather than the usual once a week. More garbage was visible than in years past. There were dead bodies, too, a sight that is as devastating as it is common these days when the weather changes. Now, as a mother in her mid-to-late 40s — she doesn’t have a birth certificate and doesn’t know her exact birthday — she felt every ounce of the risk.
The first time Lhakpa touched Himalayan blue ice, she was barefoot. One of 11 children born to a shepherd and homemaker in the village of Makalu, Nepal, she grew up on the slopes of Mount Makalu, the world’s fifth-highest peak at 27,825 feet. Her family couldn’t afford shoes for every child, and only her brothers were sent to school. “We had no television and no phone. I used to spend my day watching sheep and birds,” she said. “I could see Mount Everest from my village.”
Stuck at home, she’d escape the withering glare of her disapproving mother by venturing into those mountains barefoot and alone. When she returned, her worried mother often warned her that if by some miracle she weren’t eaten by a snow leopard, nobody would ever wish to marry her.
Her father saw her strength. One spring, he sent her up above Makalu’s base camp to collect the spring lambs and yak calves before snow leopards found them. There she bumped into Sherpa men in technical clothing with ropes and ice axes, preparing to climb the mountain. She vowed to become one of them, even though Sherpa women were not offered those jobs.
“I promised myself that I would reach the top of Everest one day,” she said.
She began looking for a job as a porter at age 15. Babu Chhiri Sherpa, a legendary guide who in 1999 spent a record 21 hours on the summit of Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen, took a chance on her once she turned 17.
She started as a porter, carrying heavy loads up steep mountains, and was promoted to a kitchen boy — a title that illustrates Lhakpa’s unusual career path — within two years. She’d hike and climb all day, then set up the kitchen tent and peel onions and garlic for hours on end before serving guides and their clients. She was paid roughly $50 a month.
In 2000, not quite 10 years since she’d become a porter, Lhakpa approached the future Deputy Prime Minister Sujata Koirala, then best known as Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala’s daughter, with a pitch to fund the first Nepali women-only Everest expedition. The seven-woman team, known as the Daughters of Everest, began their journey in May that year.
On the day the team was set to reach the summit, six of them succumbed to altitude sickness. Lhakpa went on to become the second Nepali woman to reach the summit, and the first to make it back to base camp safely. (In 1993, Pasang Lhamu Sherpa became the first to summit the mountain, but she died on her descent.)
The very next year, Lhakpa summited Everest again, less than three weeks after her mentor, Babu Chhiri, slipped into a crevasse around the second camp and died. It was not the last time she would lose friends on the mountain.
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She was there in 2014 when a block of ice the size of a building sheared off Everest’s western slope and an ice avalanche wiped out a Sherpa team in the Khumbu icefall. Sixteen died. She was resting at the first camp when a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck on April 25, 2015, triggering several avalanches. The deadliest one swept through base camp. It’s estimated that 22 people lost their lives on Everest that day. Half were Nepali.
“I’ve lost many of my heroes, many of my best friends,” she said.
Her climbing trajectory took a turn when she moved to Connecticut after marrying the Romanian climber George Dijmarescu in 2002. Together, they ran a roofing and painting business. Lhakpa was most comfortable doing the hard work. She’d climb ladders with shingles piled on one shoulder, tear apart old roofs and piece together new ones. But Dijmarescu, who died in 2020, became violent after her first daughter, Sunny, was born, she said. One night in 2012, he beat her so badly that she was taken to the emergency room, she said. With the help of a hospital social worker, she and her two girls fled to a local shelter where they stayed for eight months.
Desperate for work, she took a job cleaning houses and eventually moved the family into a small apartment. Occasionally clients heard her last name and asked if she had relatives who climbed the big mountains. Her cousin and brother had both followed her into the business and were now leading their own expedition agencies, so she’d nod politely and keep her accomplishments to herself.
Eventually, she started washing dishes in the commercial kitchen of a Whole Foods branch. Co-workers gradually learned of her story because she would sometimes leave town to guide foreigners up Mount Everest. The money she earned went toward her daughters’ college savings.
In 2022, she quit her supermarket job to try her 10th summit, a hallowed number in Everest mountaineering akin to 500 home runs or 3,000 hits in baseball. Thirty-four men had achieved it. Twenty-six of them were Nepali of Sherpa descent, including Babu Chhiri, and Lhakpa wanted to shatter one more Himalayan glass ceiling.
As usual, she had no sponsors. Lack of sponsorship deals is not a new issue in women’s climbing, and if she were going to successfully summit the mountain, she would need to do so with her own funding.
When a three-day weather window opened in May, it seemed that all of base camp had mobilized for a summit push. “Everybody has a dream to reach the summit, but there is only one rope,” Lhakpa said, “and there were so many traffic jams.”
She passed 26,000 feet at around 10 p.m., and kept climbing into the death zone above 26,247 feet, where the chances of succumbing to high-altitude pulmonary edema or high-altitude cerebral edema — both of which can be deadly — rise with each passing hour. Lhakpa was breathing bottled oxygen, but those canisters only last so long.
When word of her summit push reached base camp, Shiny made a Puja, a Hindu ritual, to pray for safe passage. She had a walkie-talkie by her ear to hear the exact moment — 6:30 a.m. on May 12 — that her mother reached the roof of the world for the 10th time. But reaching the summit is only the halfway point. She was still in danger, and with 200 climbers coming up behind her Lhakpa didn’t linger long.
She was out of food and water, utterly exhausted, and her anxious mind kept trying to convince her to sit down and rest as she suffered on the hike down the mountain. She fought that deadly impulse time and again by focusing on her children.
Shiny, who had always opted out of hiking trips back home, made the strenuous climb up to the first camp to celebrate with her mother. When Lhakpa arrived, Shiny saw her immigrant mother — who had worked so hard and overcome so much — in full bloom for the first time. Tears streamed down Lhakpa’s cheeks, which had been baked to crackling from the sun and wind.
Though her accomplishment was splashed across the climbing press, sponsors still did not come calling. She arrived home in Connecticut with no job and bills to pay. Whole Foods couldn’t bring her back on board for months. She had no choice but to clean houses again.
But Lhakpa didn’t consider that a setback. And when those Whole Foods hours returned to her in September, she was already visualizing her next spring season in the Himalayas. She’s planning to climb K2 in 2023, in addition to another summit attempt on Everest. This time, she hopes to bring both of her daughters to base camp, along with a team of girls from all over the world.
“I hope I will bring 20 daughters,” she said. “I want to teach them climbing skills and show them that all girls can climb mountains.”