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SPOUT | Rant, React, Chat, Blather

The Landscapes That Define Us

A colt above a lake in Band-e-Amir, Afghanistan's first national park. | Steve McCurry/Magnum Photos

I stood outside a mud-walled buzkashi stadium in Herat, waiting to watch men on horseback battle for possession of a headless calf carcass, when a commotion erupted behind me. Spinning around, I saw a bombardment of fists drive a terrified man into the dirt, where a tangle of sandaled feet continued the assault. I started to bolt. I felt a hand on my elbow.

Like so many Americans today, I was 19 when I traveled to Afghanistan. Unlike those who arrive each day now by air, wearing camouflage, I'd hitchhiked across Europe, ferried to Istanbul, and rattled on gaudy local buses across Turkey and Iran on the way to India. The realm of Kipling and Kublai Khan, where camels loped across a mirage-strewn desert that evoked Death Valley and the Grand Canyon, lived up to my longing for otherworldly adventure.

Decades later, I look at some of the faces in "Wilderness Diplomacy" and see the eyes of the man who'd grabbed my elbow that hot summer afternoon to hand me back my wallet, which had been lifted by the pickpocket who'd become the object of that swift sentencing and punishment.

I have always appreciated that brutal gesture of hospitality, extended to a stranger. And ever since, I have seen the Afghan people as a clear reflection of their fierce and gorgeous landscape. They are proud of the windswept deserts and wolf-tooth peaks that have shaped their tribal culture over millennia. They are part of the land.

Aren't most living things—coyotes, snakes, humans—like that? We live in our dens, nests, or apartments, but we're defined by the plains, canyons, and bays that surround us. That's why it's natural to think that human hearts can connect through mutual admiration of the landscapes many of us fight to preserve.

Others had much more to do with this extraordinary cover story than I did, but I still offer this gallery of stunning scenery and beautiful faces as a small way to repay an old debt. —Bob Sipchen, editor in chief

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