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From 1914 to 1918, the wealthy and powerful Western nations and empires that had come to dominate the globe wrecked themselves in a paroxysm of destruction unmatched in any previous era. Empires toppled, millions died and the world changed forever. In the wake of the First World War, nations sought appropriate forms of public mourning and commemoration to grieve and honor their dead. Among allies and foes, there was an overwhelming desire that such a war never be repeated. “Anything rather than war! Anything! … No trial, no servitude can be compared to war,” wrote French novelist and pacifist Roger Martin du Gard in 1936.
Today, memorials, monuments and museums dedicated to WWI can be found in all of the combatant countries. From a rose garden in Ireland to vast war cemeteries built on or near the major battlefields, these sites ensure that the memory of the war and the sacrifices of those who lost their lives will never fade.
Set in Sydney’s Hyde Park, this is New South Wales’s principal war monument. Designed in an art deco style by C. Bruce Dellit, it is made of granite, with statuary and bas-reliefs created by the artist Raynor Hoff. The buttresses on the outside of the building are each topped by a mournful figure, while the bas-reliefs depict scenes from Australian campaigns at Gallipoli and the Western Front. Ceremonies are held at the memorial on Remembrance Sunday (11 November) and Anzac Day (25 April).
Hyde Park, Sydney(ijeweb/iStock)
The national monument to Australia’s war dead was built in the aftermath of World War I, though it serves to commemorate Australian service personnel killed in all conflicts. The main parts of the memorial are the Commemorative area (which includes the Hall of Memory), Anzac Parade, and the Sculpture Garden. In the museum on the ground floor of the main building, the Anzac Hall, a recently added high-tech exhibition space, includes “Over the front, the Great War in the air”, a permanent display telling the story of aerial combat in World War I. It includes five original aircraft from the war, memorabilia, personal testaments, and a sound and light show.
Remembrance Park, Canberra(Kokkai Ng / iStock)
Built to remember Victoria’s war dead of 1914–18, this is one of Australia’s great memorials. Inspired by the mausoleum to Mausolus, King of Caria, at Halicarnassus in Turkey, the shrine was inaugurated in November 1934. The sanctuary contains the Stone of Remembrance inscribed with the words “Greater Love Hath No Man”, designed so that a shaft of sunlight (or artificial light) falls on the word “Love” held at 11am on 11 November each year. More than 120 ceremonies are held at the shrine each year.
St Kilda Road, Melbourne
The only American Battle Monuments Commission cemetery in Belgium, this commemorates the American contribution to the war on the Western Front. Smaller and more intimate than most of the war cemeteries in Belgium, it consists of 368 burials, with the headstones arranged around a central chapel. Many of the casualties interred here came from the US 91st Division, killed in fighting in this area in October and November 1918. The chapel itself includes 43 names on the Walls of the Missing – rosettes mark the names of soldiers whose remains have been subsequently recovered and identified.
Southeast of Waregem, along the Lille-Gent autoroute E-17(Steve Taylor via Flickr)
The Cloth Hall on the Market Square in the center of Ieper (Ypres), site of three of the war’s most significant battles, has been turned into a museum housing major collections of World War I artifacts and documents. The exhibitions and interactive audio-visual displays cover the invasion of Belgium in 1914 and the first few months of the war, with particular emphasis on the war around Ypres and how war affected the town. A documentation center includes extensive original trench maps, a photographic library and postcard collection, and contemporary newspaper reports.
Visitors can also climb up to the belfry for views over the town and the sites of the surrounding battlefields. Access to the center is free, although some collections can be viewed only by appointment.
Lakenhallen Grote Markt 34, Ieper(vau902 / iStock)
An official German War Graves Commission site, the Langemark Cemetery contains more than 40,000 burials of soldiers recovered between 1915 and the 1930s. The cemetery was officially designated German Military Cemetery 123 in 1930, and was inaugurated two years later. Of the soldiers buried in the cemetery 24,917 lie in mass graves. The German Students’ Memorial annex lists the names of 3,000 students killed in the Battle of Langemarck (part of the First Battle of Ypres) in 1914. Known as the Kindermord (Massacre of the Children), in Germany, First Ypres included many young German volunteers, most of whom had only received two months’ military training. In the cemetery stands a sculpture of mourning soldiers by Emil Krieger. Also of note is a basalt-lava cross on a small mound, marking one of the three original battlefield bunkers.
North of Langemark village, 6km (4 miles) northeast of Ieper(lucentius / iStock)
One of the most visited sights on the Western Front, the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres was designed by Reginald Blomfield and unveiled in 1927. It marks the point where most British soldiers marched out of the town to the battlefields of the Ypres salient. The walls of the Hall of Memory are inscribed with the names of 54,896 British and Commonwealth soldiers killed in the Ypres salient before 16 August 1917. Each night at 8pm, the traffic is stopped and the Last Post is played under the arches of the memorial.
Messines Battlefield and MemorialsMessines Battlefield and Memorials (Wikimedia Commons)
Around the village of Wystchaete, the St Eloi, Peckham Farm, St Yvon, Kruisstraat, and Spanbroekmolen craters bear testimony to the 19 enormous mines detonated beneath the German trenches at Messines. An information board in the village gives directions to the craters, and there are more than 1,000 burials in the Wytschaete Military Cemetery, a short walk from the main square. A smaller cemetery, the Lone Tree Cemetery, near Spanbroekmolen contains 88 burials, mainly of soldiers from the Royal Irish Rifles.
Memorials of the battle include one to the London Scottish regiment on the N365 between Wytschaete and Messines, marking the spot where they first went into action. In Mesen (Messines) itself, which was completely destroyed in the battle, there are the New Zealand Memorial Park and the Messines Ridge Military cemetery. It was in Mesen’s church (rebuilt) that Adolf Hitler reputedly received treatment for combat injuries in 1914. To the south of Mesen is the modern Island of Ireland Peace Park, opened in 1998, to commemorate Irish soldiers killed during World War 1
Around Mesen (Messines)
Passchendaele BattlefieldPasschendaele New British Cemetery (Michael Day via Flickr)
Few battlefield areas evoke the tragedy of the Ypres salient more than Passchendaele, around the modern village of Passendale. The area is littered with memorials to individual battles and regiments, including the Canadian Memorial at Crest Farm, the 85th (Nova Scotia Highlanders) Battalion Memorial, and memorials to French soldiers and the British Seventh Division, both at Broodseinde.
Cemeteries in the area include the Passchendaele New British Cemetery, containing 2,101 British and Commonwealth burials, and the vast Tyne Cot cemetery to the southwest of Passendale. In Zonnebeke, the Passchendaele Memorial 1917 Museum contains a large display of military artifacts.
Various Locations in and around Zonnebeke and Passendale(Wikimedia Commons)
This museum houses collections relating to the whole of Belgian military history, not just World War I, but it includes a large collection of World War I artifacts, documents and memorabilia in a permanent 1914–18 exhibition. Exhibits include fi rearms, artillery pieces, uniforms, armored vehicles, and even a Fokker triplane.
Jubelpark 3, 1000 Brussels
St Julien MemorialSt Julien Memorial (Floor_/iStock)
This granite memorial, designed by the Anglo-Canadian architect Frederick Chapman Clemesha, stands 11 m (36 ft) tall. Known as the Brooding Soldier, it features at its summit the head and shoulders of a Canadian infantryman, his head bowed in mourning. The memorial remembers the Canadian troops killed around St Julien during the Second Battle of Ypres. Many of the dead were killed by the first use of poison gas (chlorine) on the Western Front, as the memorial inscription attests: “This column marks the battlefield where 18,000 Canadians on the British left withstood the first German gas attacks on the 22–24 April 1915. 2,000 fell and here lie buried.”
7 km (4.3 miles) northeast of Ieper, off the N313 towards Roulers
Sanctuary Wood Cemetery and Museum Hill 62Hill 62 Sanctuary Wood Museum, preserved trench systems (Michael Day via Flickr)
In 1914, Sanctuary Wood acted as a protective barrier between British and Commonwealth troops and the front line. During 1915–16, however, it was also swamped with heavy fighting, principally between Canadian and German forces.
Three Allied cemeteries were established in the area at the time. The remains of one of them formed the foundations for the present cemetery, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens just after the war. During the 1920s and 1930s, the cemetery expanded with additions from the wider Western Front. Today, it contains 1,989 burials (spread over five plots), of which only 637 are identified.
Within a short distance of the cemetery is the Sanctuary Wood Museum Hill 62, a privately run institution. An extensive series of preserved trench lines, all open to walk through, can be seen outside the museum. Another feature of the Sanctuary Wood area is the Canadian Memorial at Hill 62, remembering the thousands of Canadians killed in futile battles to retake Hill 62 in June 1916.
5km (3 miles) east of Ieper town, off the N8(Wikimedia Commons)
Field Marshal Lord Plumer, commander of the British Second Army in Flanders during the war, laid the foundation stone of St George’s Church in Ieper in 1927. The building opened for services two years later and is still an active place of worship today. Though the church was built primarily to remember the British and Commonwealth dead of Ypres – its stained glass, wall plaques, banners, and kneelers reflect individual British regiments – it is now the memorial church for all those who died in battle in Flanders during both world wars.
Elverdingsestraat 1, 8900 Ieper(Havana1234 / iStock)
The largest British war cemetery in the world, Tyne Cot contains a total of 11,953 burials, mostly of British and Commonwealth troops but also including four German soldiers. The majority of the men buried here were killed during the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917. The name Tyne Cot is thought to have British origins. According to a local story, the Northumberland Fusiliers thought a barn on the ridgeline here looked like their cottages on the River Tyne, back home in Britain. Landmarks of the cemetery include the Cross of Sacrifice Monument and the curved Memorial to the Missing, listing the names of 35,000 soldiers with no known grave.
Southwest of Passendale, signposted off the N332 after passing east through Zonnebeke(Wikimedia Commons)
This German cemetery is the burial place for 25,644 soldiers, most of whom were moved here from other locations in the 1950s (the site was used as a combat cemetery from 1914). Although some headstones date from the time of the war, most were inscribed afterwards. Each of the flat granite slabs bears 20 names, with name, rank, and date of death. The Grieving Parents, a pair of statues made by the German sculptor Käthe Kollwitz stand in the cemetery. Kollwitz’s son died at First Ypres in October 1914.
3km (1.8 miles) northeast of Vladslo, signposted from N363 from Beerst
Ypres Salient BattlefieldBattle Remains in the Ypres Salient (Andrew Nash via Flickr)
After the Somme, the area around the Ypres salient, centering on the modern town of Ieper, is the most frequented destination for battlefield visitors. Within the town itself are the Menin Gate and St George’s Memorial Church, both moving memorials to those lost around Ypres, and the In Flanders Field Museum. Outside the town are many other sites of interest, including more than 140 military cemeteries and military burial grounds. British cemeteries alone contain 40,000 unidentified graves. The cemeteries are tended by the British, Belgian, French, and Italian war graves commissions.
Among a number of interesting museums around Ieper are the Sanctuary Wood Museum Hill 62, the Hooge Crater Museum, the Memorial Museum Passchendaele (at Zonnebeke), and the Messines Historical Museum (Mesen). Poperinge, 13 km (8 miles) to the west of Ieper was a center for British troops heading to the front. The town’s Talbot House Museum served as a club house for British Army troops. Opened by army Chaplain Philip Clayton as an alternative place of relaxation to the more debauched places in town, it was open to all ranks. Officers going on leave could also spend the night here before catching their train back to Britain.
Neuville-St-Vaast exit from A26 autoroute, follow D49(Nine LaMaitre via Flickr)
This is arguably one of the most powerful memorials on the Western Front. Work on a provisional ossuary – a building where bones of the dead are kept – began in 1920 to provide a sanctuary for the hundreds of thousands of bones that were scattered throughout the Verdun battlefield site. Work on a permanent ossuary began in 1920, and bones were transferred here from the battlefield from 1927. The ossuary cloister contains the bones of 130,000 unidentified soldiers, arranged according to the area of the Verdun battlefield in which they were found.
The many British military camps and hospitals around Étaples meant that the area required a large British and Commonwealth cemetery. In use from May 1915, it contains 10,733 burials from World War I, including those of 35 unknown soldiers, as well as burials from World War II.
Between Boulogne and Etaples(Wikimedia Commons)
Although not the largest German war cemetery in the Somme area – Vermandovillers has 26,000 burials – Fricourt contains 17,027 German soldiers, about 10,000 of whom were killed during the Somme battles of 1916 (the burials date from 1914 to 1918). Only 5,057 of the burials have individual graves; the other 11,970 are contained in four mass graves.
Near Fricourt, the Somme(carterdayne / iStock)
This is the largest US military cemetery in Europe, with a total of 14,246 servicemen buried over 52 hectares (130 acres) of grounds. In the memorial chapel, panels are inscribed with the names of 954 soldiers missing in action (the bodies of those with rosettes against their names were eventually discovered and identified). Staff members at the visitor center provide guidance on navigating the cemetery and locating particular graves.
Romagne-Sous Montfacuon(Wikimedia Commons)
One of the world’s largest military museums, the Musée de l’Armée in Paris contains more than 500,000 artifacts from every period of French military history. Its World War I section contains large collections of uniforms and weaponry.
Les Invalides, Paris(Wikimedia Commons)
Established by the French in 1919 to hold German war dead, this German War Graves Commission cemetery, also known as La Maison Blanche, is the largest in France. A sea of metal crosses, laid out during the 1970s to replace earlier wooden versions, it contains 44,533 burials, with four soldiers in each grave. There is also a mass grave containing the remains of more than 8,000 soldiers.
Notre Dame De LoretteNotre Dame De Lorette (Wikimedia Commons)
Religious buildings have occupied this ridge to the northwest of Arras since the 18th century, but the basilica and ossuary currently on the site were built in 1921 as memorials to the French soldiers who died in the Artois area
during the battles of 1914, 1915, and 1917. The cemetery later became a national necropolis, and the ossuary contains the remains of some 23,000 unidentified soldiers from both world wars as well as French conflicts in Algeria and Indochina. The basilica, designed by Louis-Marie Cordonnier, is adorned with colorful mosaics. Surrounding the basilica and ossuary, the cemetery covers 13 hectares (32 acres) and contains 45,000 burials, the bulk of them from World War I. Behind the cemetery is a military museum, with dioramas, uniforms, artillery pieces, photographs, and a reconstructed trench and bunker system. Outside the museum, original trenches have been redug.
Ablain-Saint-Nazaire, near Arras(Havana1234 / iStock)
The site of one of the greatest and most costly battles in human history, the Somme region is one of the main centres of military tourism. To get the most out of a visit, it is advisable to buy a guidebook to the battlefield sites or join a tour run by one of the specialist companies operating in the area. The officially recommended “Tour of Remembrance” takes in the town of Albert (including the Somme 1916 Trench Museum and the CWGC-maintained Albert Communal Cemetery), Beaumont-Hamel, Thiepval, Ovillers-la-Boiselle (site of the Lochnagar crater), Longueval (including the New Zealand Memorial and Pipers Memorial), and Peronne. All these places are packed with places of interest, including cemeteries, military relics, museums, and memorials. Munitions and artifacts are regularly dug up in the Somme countryside (remember not to touch any munitions you might find). The best way to get around the battlefield privately is by car, as many of the sites are easily accessible from the A29 or A1 motorways.
The Somme(JonathanNicholls / iStock)
This huge memorial in Thiepval was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and opened by Edward, Prince of Wales in 1932. Inscribed on its surfaces are the names of 73,357 Allied soldiers who died in the Somme area between 1916 and 1918 but have no grave. A commemorative ceremony is held here on 1 July every year. Thiepval, the Somme
India GateIndia Gate (PG-1973 / iStock)
Designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and built between 1921 and 1931, the India Gate in Delhi commemorates all Indian soldiers who died in World War I and the Third Afghan War of 1919. Originally called the All India War Memorial, the arch is 42 m (137 ft) tall and inscribed with the names of more than 70,000 men. Beneath the arch is the Amar Jawan Jyoti (The Flame of the Immortal Warrior) and also the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The cenotaph is surrounded by four flaming torches that are kept constantly lit.
Located on Rajpath, Delhi
Irish National War Memorial GardensIrish National War Memorial Gardens (Wikimedia Commons)
Built to remember the 49,400 Irish soldiers who died in World War I, these gardens were designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens in the 1930s. The park covers 8 hectares (20 acres) and includes a sunken rose garden and two book rooms, containing the Rolls of Honour listing the names of the dead. The site also features the Ginchy Cross, a wooden monument built by soldiers of the Irish 16th Division and originally erected on the Somme battlefield. Inscribed on the floor of the domed temple on the bank of the River Liffey, at the northern end of the garden, is an extract of “War Sonnet II: Safety” by Rupert Brooke.
ISRAEL(Archives New Zealand Follow via Flickr)
Established in December 1917 to serve the field hospitals set up in the area, the cemetery in Ramleh (now Ramla) was later augmented by graves moved here from other cemeteries in Palestine and Israel. Ramleh was occupied by the First Australian Light Horse Brigade from November 1917. The cemetery contains 3,300 Commonwealth burials from World War I, plus nearly 1,200 burials from World War II and a number of other burials of non-Commonwealth and non-combat personnel. There is also a memorial to Commonwealth, German, and Turkish servicemen buried elsewhere in Palestine and Israel, in cemeteries that are no longer maintained. The memorial was built in 1961.
Sacrario Militare Di RedipugliaSacrario Militare Di Redipuglia (Hect / iStock)
Built under Mussolini and opened in 1938, the Sacrario Militare Di Redipuglia is a military shrine in the north of Italy, on the slopes of Monte sei Busi, at the eastern end of the Isonzo front. It holds the remains of more than 100,000 Italian soldiers killed during World War I – the 22 steps to the top of the shrine alone contain the remains of 40,000 soldiers. The shrine also contains the tombs of five generals and the Duke of Aosta, the commander of the Third Army. The site includes a chapel and a museum containing a poignant collection of artifacts from the Italian front and some original trench fortifications.
Monte Sei Busi
Isonzo Front BattlefieldsIsonzo Front Battlefields, Remains of Kluže (Wikimedia Commons)
In terms of battlefield tourism, the Isonzo front is often overlooked in preference for battlefields in France and Belgium, but it is just as rich in heritage and places of interest. The challenges for touring the Isonzo front are the distances involved and the arduous terrain. A typical route might run from Kranjska Gora in northwest Slovenia down to Duino on the Adriatic coast in northeastern Italy, although there are many other options. Highlights include the Soca Valley, containing numerous positions and gun emplacements in the rockface; the Vrsic pass, built by Russian prisoners in 1916; and Kluze fortress with its military tunnels. At Kobarid (Caporetto during World War I) in Slovenia, it is possible to walk along former trench lines. The town also has an excellent museum devoted to the ferocious battles along the Isonzo front, with large-scale maps, models of the terrain, artifacts, and photographs. A
long the Slovenian/Italian border
NEW ZEALAND(Onfokus / iStock)
Built in the 1850s, and more generally known as the Auckland Museum, this houses extensive general collections on the whole of New Zealand’s history, not just military history. The modern annexe, which opened in 1929, was built in memory of Auckland province’s many war dead from World War I. The walls of the World War I Sanctuary are inscribed with the names of fallen soldiers with no known grave. Under the central stained-glass skylight are the badges of their units and regiments.
The War Memorial Galleries and Armoury information Centre present extensive collections and research facilities relating to the war, and frequent events, lectures, and exhibitions are held in the museum, particularly around commemorative days. The database contains bibliographic records of the 35,000 New Zealanders killed in wars since the late 19th century.
Mausoleum of MarasestiMausoleum of Marasesti (Wikimedia Commons)
Built between 1923 and 1938, the Mausoleum for the Heroes from the National Unity War, to give it its full title, is an imposing monument to the Romanians killed in World War I. The Battle of Marasesti in 1917 was the last major battle on the Romanian front before the country was occupied. The mausoleum stands some 30 m (100 ft) tall and the remains of 6,000 Romanian soldiers are contained within the crypts. The mausoleum also includes the sarcophagus of General Eremia Grigorescu, who died in 1919, and a rotunda containing the flags of the Romanian units who fought at Marasesti. The main edifice is topped by the “Dome of Glory”. A great bas-relief on the dome depicts scenes from the battle at Marasesti.
Between Focsani and Adjud, Vrancea County.
Gallipoli BattlefieldGallipoli Battlefield (Clay Gilliland via Flickr)
The Gallipoli Peninsula Historical National Park is one of the most rewarding sites for military history tourists and researchers. Covering around 33,000 hectares (81,500 acres), it includes 31 CWGC cemeteries, containing 22,000 graves, most of them easily accessible, and numerous memorials.
There are three main areas of interest: Cape Helles (V-Beach Cemetery, Helles Memorial, and Redoubt Cemetery); Pine Ridge (the Beach Cemetery, No. 2 Outpost Cemetery, Courtney’s and Steel’s Post Cemetery, Chunuk Bair Cemetery and Memorial, Fourth Battalion Parade Ground Cemetery, and Lone Pine Cemetery and Memorial); and Suvla (Green Hill Cemetery and Anzac Cemetery). The main sites can be covered in a day, but two to three days are recommended for a more thorough exploration. Also worth seeing on Cape Helles is the Canakale Martyrs Memorial, the principal memorial to the Turkish dead of Gallipoli.
Special services are held at Gallipoli on Anzac Day on 25 April, commemorating the first day of the Gallipoli Campaign in 1915 when Australian and New Zealand troops landed at Anzac Cove.
THE UNITED KINGDOM(Wikimedia Commons)
This cemetery predates World War I, but land for war burials was granted in 1917, mainly to accommodate the graves of service personnel who had died of battle wounds in the London district. It is now the largest Commonwealth military cemetery in Britain. Although most of the burials are from 1939–1945, there are 1,601 graves dating from World War I. The Brookwood 1914–18 Memorial commemorates more than 200 Commonwealth casualties who died during World War I but for whom no graves could be found. In the grounds of Brookwood, the World War One American Military Cemetery has 468 graves and commemorates 563 US servicemen with no known grave.
On the edge of Point Hope I climb a jumbled pile of sea ice. The giant cubes are tilted and heaped, forced up by a storm sometime before I arrived, and later drifted over with snow. It’s early March, a few degrees above zero, and to the southwest the afternoon sun shines faint warmth. From the north a stiff breeze has bite. I watch carefully where I put my feet; I could fall in, wrench a knee, jam my crotch, or pinch a boot down in a fissure. Small tracks show that a fox has climbed up here. The tracks are set, firm but fairly fresh, probably from last night. I come to older, bigger tracks and occasional brown splats. They tell me a human has been here too—one who wore Sorel boots and chewed tobacco.
At the top, I marvel at the unseasonably warm day. I expected minus 20 and a howling ground blizzard. Now in perfect visibility I stare out across the stunning flatness of land and sea. At the horizon, the sky and earth meet in shimmering shades of silver, gray, white, and blue. The ocean is still but shows a struggle in process—the Chukchi Sea is trying to freeze and very much not succeeding. It’s late winter. Point Hope is 125 miles above the Arctic Circle, near the top western corner of Alaska. I should be looking at white pack ice. Instead I’m looking at the thinnest of pressure ridges, skims of floating slush, and dark open water.
Behind me the land is brown and white, gravel and snow. No mountains, no hills, no trees—not a single shrub. There is only a flat grid of gravel streets, power lines, satellite dishes, metal hangers, plywood houses, and a sprawling school, a gymnasium, and a new, bigger gymnasium under construction. Pickup trucks and huge yellow loaders appear and disappear between buildings. Red and green Honda four-wheelers roam the streets like rolling beetles.
Tikigaq (the Inupiaq name for Point Hope) is a high-tech, modern Native community that might well have been dropped on this spit by aliens. Which it basically was: Nearly everything was floated here on a barge of oil-royalty money. Without an unceasing supply of oil dollars this village of 700 would quickly darken into a cold, windblown ghost town.
In the distance, on a pole cache, a traditional umiak (skin boat) used for whaling is lashed tightly against the wind. Farther down the spit are the remains of sod igloos from the old village. For more than 2,000 years the Inupiat have continuously inhabited this featureless protuberance into the Chukchi, in the past living off caribou from the land, and fish, seals, walrus, and of course the mighty whale, from the sea.
The Bering Strait and this coastline are where the ancestors of the first Native Americans arrived from Siberia, some traveling onward and some settling down, and where initial contact later took place between the Inupiat and Outsiders. Russian explorers and then American whalers sailed through, carrying home a mixture of truth and distortions about a land of ice and snow, of dog teams, and Eskimos dressed in furs—hunters surviving an environment harsh beyond comprehension. The Alaska of myth was born right here. This flat gravel point is the imperceptible beginning, or the far end—depending on perspective—of Alaska, a land as tall, wide, and wild as legend.
Distances in this state are so large they lose proportion, and nowadays the distance between past and present, myth and reality, might be the greatest of them all. Sadly, I’m a perfect example. I’m from this land, born in a sod igloo 200 miles east and a little south, raised wearing skins, mushing a dog team, and eating food from the land—akutuq (Eskimo ice cream), seal blubber, boiled grizzly bear, beaver, salmon, muskrat, moose, and anything else that moved. And now? Now I still gather from the land, but I also hold an iPhone in my hand more often than ax, knife, and rifle combined. Nearly everybody here does. Even now, I snap a photo and breathe on my fingertips long enough to reread an email. It’s from an editor, asking for, of all things... The Meaning of Alaska. How ironic. I’ve been trying to fathom that my entire life.
I picture the other end of our state, and what it might be like for a newcomer arriving for the first time by ship from the south. Southeast Alaska is as different from here as day from night—literally. (Night will cease in Point Hope soon.) There the land has almost too much elevation; your neck hurts from staring up at mountains too steep and disorienting not to stare up. They tower straight out of the sea, draped with trees, frosted with crystalline blue-and-white glaciers—so much rock and ice it blocks out half the sky. Alongside your boat, gulls and other seabirds cry and float over the swells, whales blow mist into damp gray evenings, and seals, sea lions, and sea otters dot the surface of the water. Alaska is astounding. It is real—and everything you dreamed it to be.
For hundreds of miles your ship passes the seemingly endless green timbered islands and fjords that line the Inside Passage, a protected route up from Washington and British Columbia. The men and women of the gold rush came through here, too, on their way to the Klondike and Nome and other strikes in 1898, and at first glance this land may seem to have hardly changed in the intervening years. Likely you have never imagined so much green, so many billions of big tall trees carpeting an uneven world. How can there be this much wilderness? you wonder. How can this place even be possible in the 21st century?
And you have hardly arrived at the toe of this giant state! You’ve never eaten muktuk (whale skin and blubber), never gotten frostbite, never been treed by a moose, never been mailed a $1,000 check—for having a pulse. You haven’t even stepped ashore yet.
When you do walk across the wooden dock of Ketchikan, Alaska—1,400 miles in the straightest line you could ever draw from this heap of ice where I stand (not that anyone could walk straight through that much wilderness, crossing some of the largest rivers, mountains, and ice fields on Earth)—the tourist shops and jewelry stores await you. A salesman from South Asia or somewhere equally far away welcomes you in out of the drizzle. He or she begins pressuring you to buy a diamond bracelet—today! A wire rack beside you is plugged with postcards of THE LAST FRONTIER. Every photo is painfully sharpened, and oversaturated with color. Memories of yesterday afternoon, of humpback whales breaching in the dim distance, and bald eagles soaring overhead—the ones you photographed on your iPad—play in your mind.
With one hand on the glass counter, you glance at the door, out at a steady stream of brightly clad tourists passing. And finally, you feel the first faint twinge of our modern Alaskan dichotomy: 30,000 brown bears share this state with us still, but Jack London left a long, long time ago. And if he were still here—in addition to heating his house with stove oil and hoarding Alaska Airlines frequent-flier miles, receiving the State of Alaska monthly Senior Benefits checks, the annual Permanent Fund Dividend, and untold other state and federal subsidies—Jack, old, gray, bearded, alcoholic, and with bad teeth, would probably be wearing a grubby Patagonia jacket and staring down into his Samsung Galaxy.
Of course, there are ways to reach this far place other than by cruise ship. Flying north by jet, the journey is almost too fast to absorb—not much longer than a good movie—and your seat is so soft and padded. No wind is freezing your face or even blowing back your hair. You can sleep the whole way, or maybe you’re playing with your phone and just happen to look down—on a clear day, on the right side of the plane—above Juneau or Glacier Bay, Cordova, or even on approach to Anchorage. What you see catches your breath. It is unearthly. Your eyes blink. Your mind has to reset. The ice and mountains down there—it’s another planet! Didn’t the news say all the glaciers were receding? But it’s all so unbelievably vast. You check your watch, and order another vodka and tonic to help comprehend the sheer wildness below your pressurized perch.
Driving by car, up the Alcan—the Alaska Highway—the trip is different yet again. When will this wilderness ever end? you might think. It does end, right? It takes you a day or possibly several days behind the wheel just to get to the beginning of the highway at Dawson Creek, and then ahead is 1,500 miles more of spruce forests, lakes, rivers, mountains, and muskegs—until you arrive at Fairbanks, in the middle of the state—surrounded by more of the same.
Just two days ago I was flown to Point Hope from Kotzebue, a hub town of 3,000, to teach writing for a week to Inupiaq middle and high school students. It is not easy, but rewarding. In the morning, in a classroom with the sun leaking in, I have the students free-write for four minutes. The prompt is “I remember when...” While pencils scribble, I pace, wandering my own memories, searching for stories to tell.
After the second prompt, when the kids start to fidget and talk, I show them photos on a large screen: of animals, dog teams, and my life growing up in a sod igloo. There’s not one dog team in this village anymore. The kids ask questions. They can’t quite believe a white man grew up in such a way. Boys tell me of hunting seals and caribou. Every student except one has a smartphone. A boy named Dmitri flips through his, shows me a photo of a grizzly bear lying dead. Another boy brags, “He shoot it with .22. When he was 12.”
People shoot animals here. This is a hunting culture. And down in the “States,” what do they shoot? We mostly know from TV shows. Each other? Deer? “Bad Guys”?
Between classes I have a break and accompany the art teacher, a young woman from Colorado named Carrie Imel, to the million-dollar gym where her theater class is meeting. I know nothing about theater and wish to learn. In the gym, chaos threatens as the boys shoot baskets, until Imel herds them together for a warmup—a game I’ve never heard of called Zip, Zap, Zop. We stand in a circle. A person points suddenly at someone, anyone, and shouts “Zip.” That person points at a random person and shouts “Zap.” The next, “Zop.” And so forth. It’s fast, and gets faster, with all eyes darting. I’m dyslexic, and haven’t had enough coffee for this. Quickly I’m boggled, and out. I lean against a wall reflecting on this Far North, white-teaching-Native experience. It feels surreal and nonsensical, as if all of us are moving nowhere, at warp speed; like we humans are playing Zip, Zap, Zop while our planet plunges toward darkness.
I step outside to clear my head. The snow is bright, the sun warm, and the day reminiscent of May, not March. Dogs bark and snowmobiles growl past. It’s beautiful out, and silently I joke to myself: How did we survive before climate change? This weather, though, everyone knows is wrong. The Arctic is melting. Everything is changing too fast. This spit is eroding due to lengthening ice-free seasons and storm surges, and this town could be washed away in the coming few decades. A nearby village down the coast, Kivalina, is already succumbing to the sea. The government has poured millions into seawalls, only to have the next storms take them away.
Travel to these villages and you might think you see poverty. Actually, more state and federal money per capita is spent here than in nearly any other place in America. You might see trash heaped and strewn around our homes, yet at the edge of our towns is the near-pristine wild. You might see communities that you swear are behind the times—they need water and sewers, jobs and education, right? They need to catch up!
But what if in one crucial way our small far-flung communities are not behind, but ahead? What if they are the bellwethers of what happens when too much change comes too quickly to a society? Inupiaq culture, after all, has traveled from fur-clad hunters with stone-tipped harpoons to kids carrying iPhones—in just 200 years.
Alaska’s official motto, “North to the Future,” is as true as it’s ever been, here, and across this state. In the past few decades, glaciers have been melting at a dramatically accelerated rate, with the state losing more than 20 cubic miles of glacial ice each year. Thawing permafrost is releasing millions of metric tons of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. Spruce are sprouting on the tundra, seals are losing their day care (ice sheets), and an unidentified 12-mile-long brown blob of algae termed “Arctic goo” has formed in the ocean off Barrow, the northern tip of the United States.
Yet our Western myth lives on: Big bears still roam this land, wolves are as common as they ever were, and caribou pass by in the thousands. Uninhabited coastlines go on forever. Millions of acres of wilderness wait, with countless ways to freeze your feet, get a billion mosquito bites, or die absolutely alone from a foolish mistake. America, if you want to glimpse your past, present, and future all at once—all mixed together—this land is your land.
What a year it’s been. Major headlines ran the gamut from optimistic to alarming. Smithsonian's Ocean Portal team has pulled together, in no particular order, the ocean stories that caught our attention:
1. Tackling Ocean TrashWhen it comes to trash, states aren't just talking. (iStock / Herianus)
It’s no secret that ocean pollution is on the rise; however, some communities are taking big steps to clean up their local coastlines. This year, India boasted the world’s largest beach clean-up: volunteers removed more than 4 million pounds of debris from Versova Beach over the course of a year. Located along the western shoreline of Mumbai facing the Arabian Sea, the beach clean-up began with one concerned citizen, and quickly snowballed into a team of 200 active volunteers.
This November, the state of California voted to uphold a landmark plastic bag ban, making it the first state in the U.S. to prohibit these long-lived oceanic nuisances. Environmentalists, concerned about the plastic pollution that is already choking waterways, celebrated the decision. California joins Hawaii, which has a similar plastic bag ban (but allows for biodegradable bags), along with many other counties and states with plastic bag taxes, in enacting waste reduction legislation.
2. Animals that Surprised UsSome deep-sea discoveries defy explanation. (Alamy)
The ocean community (and most everyone else) was shocked this past August when scientists confirmed that the elusive Greenland shark can live up to roughly 400 years. This shark beats out ancient bowhead whales and rougheye rockfish to receive the prize of longest-documented lifespan of any vertebrate. Just consider: some sharks living today could have been swimming in the Arctic Ocean while Shakespeare was still alive!
Scientists were stumped after the ocean exploring vessel, the Nautilus, recorded footage of a curious purple ball off the coast of California’s Channel Islands. “I’m stumped, I have no idea—I couldn’t even hazard a guess,” one researcher said on camera. After some consulting, the Nautilus team suspects that unidentified orb and Internet sensation may be a pleurobranch, a cousin to the more familiar nudibranch.
Some tiny deep-sea creatures have been hiding a big secret. Although we’ve known about a group of tiny shrimp-like crustaceans called hyperiids for some time, researchers are just now discovering they’ve got a super sly party trick: invisibility. Internal nanotechnology allows these critters to cloak themselves, which is especially advantageous in the open ocean where there’s no place to hide.
3. Keeping Spaces Wild and Species SafeThe pristine Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument will enjoy historic protection. (Alamy)
2016 was a banner year for marine protected areas. In August, President Obama created what was at the time the world’s largest marine protected area with the expansion of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, building on an effort initially spearheaded by former president George W. Bush. The UNESCO World Heritage Centre characterized the monument as “an embodiment of the Hawaiian concept of kinship between people and the natural world.”
This paradise of coral reefs and seamounts is home to over 7,000 species—one of which will be named after the 44nd president. The vibrant pink, orange and yellow fish will be named to honor Obama’s commitment to protecting nature in Hawaii and around the U.S. Just a few weeks after the announcement, the president cut the ribbon for the Atlantic’s first-ever marine monument, the Atlantic Ocean National Marine Monument located off the coast of Massachusetts.
But the news for ocean protection gets better. In October, the Ross Sea—home to some of the most productive waters in the Antarctic and known as the “Last Ocean” due to its relatively untouched seascape—was finally declared a marine reserve. After a decades-long push to protect this critical region, a coalition of 24 countries agreed to provide international protection for 598,000 square miles (1,548,812 square km) of water. This area then became the world’s new largest marine reserve. Fortunately, this world is plenty big enough for the two of them.
Not only were wild spaces protected in 2016: Three shark species gained international protection under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. They join corals, sea turtles and other marine species on the list.
4. “It’s the Climate, Stupid”Ice melt is increasing, but there are some bright spots. (iStock / nevereverro)
Some of the most distressing climate stories of 2016 came with the news that the Earth’s carbon dioxide levels had permanently surpassed 400 parts per million, a danger-zone threshold that hasn’t been exceeded in millions of years. In addition to 2016 being the hottest year on record yet, surpassing the record set just the year before, unprecedented ice melt in the Arctic and accelerated melting of ice in Antarctica has scientists increasingly worried about alarming trends at the poles.
Extreme weather, another consequence of climate change, has also taken a major toll on the planet this year. Hurricane Matthew permanently pushed the waterline onto higher ground in the American southeast and claimed the lives of over 1,000 Haitians and many others, including 26 people in the U.S.
Despite the gloom, environmental allies around the globe celebrated a huge victory when the Paris climate agreement officially went into effect this year. Ninety-six countries signed on to support the reduction of greenhouse gasses emissions (and it currently looks like the accord will move forward no matter what). In response to this and other news of environmental progress, the Smithsonian Institution announced its plans to host the first ever global Earth Optimism Summit, Earth Day weekend of 2017 in Washington, D.C. and around the planet—an unprecedented international gathering of scientists, practitioners and change-makers focusing on what’s working in conservation.
5. Reports of my Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated (Or Have They?)Good news and bad for the remarkably resilient Great Barrier Reef. (Alamy)
Australia’s Great Barrier Reef covers over 344,000 square kilometers and is made up of roughly 3,000 coral reefs. This year it wasn’t doing so hot. Well, maybe that’s the wrong phrasing: With global ocean temperatures rising due to climate change made worse by a strong El Niño, many of the tiny algae that provide sustenance for the coral animals have evacuated the premises.
Called coral bleaching, since coral without the algae (called zooxanthellae) turn a startling bone white, severe or prolonged bleaching can kill coral colonies or leave them vulnerable to other threats like disease. Headlines about the demise of this UNESCO World Heritage Site abounded, and in November scientists confirmed that the bleaching event was the worse coral die-off ever recorded.
Outside Magazine even went so far as to pen a satirical obituary for the entire ecosystem. Scientists have pushed back on the death narrative—the reef has a chance yet. But ever-increasing carbon dioxide emissions will have to be curbed in order to protect the Great Barrier Reef and other coral systems around the world. The loss of coral reefs would impact millions of people who rely on reefs for jobs, storm protection and food.
6. Technology Hits the WavesOcean drones are charting new territory, monitoring animal migrations and even assessing the chemical composition of whale burps. (Alamy)
Technology in 2016 helped researchers learn more about the ocean, but the ocean also gave back. One scientist, an integrative biologist, was inspired to mimic nature by a trip to the aquarium with his daughter. The result was a tiny robot stingray—only about half an inch long—built out of muscle cells from the heart of a rat. Another group of scientists built a “biohybrid robot” that utilized muscle cells from the mouth of a slow-moving sea slug, the California sea hare.
Advances in drone technology aren’t just putting them on holiday gift guides this year. Researchers are using drones to help unlock secrets of the sea—from surveying penguin populations to assessing whale health and even learning about mysterious sea turtle behavior. Dealing with sand, salt water and rollicking boat decks required some special adaptations to make the drones seaworthy, however.
We are also learning more from underwater imagery thanks to a microscope that works underwater. The ability to bring a microscope straight to undersea creatures, rather than removing them from their natural habitats, is already revealing new information about the way individual coral polyps interact and the patterns in which algae take over coral ecosystems.
7. Hidden ReefsThis year, the Great Barrier Reef was found to be hiding another reef beneath it. (Alamy)
With only five percent of the ocean explored it’s not all that surprising that scientists find new species regularly. But sometimes they even find entire ecosystems. There is so much left to explore that a previously unknown deep-sea coral reef was discovered along the coast of Brazil in the Atlantic Ocean earlier this year. All 600 miles (965 km) of the reef had been previously overlooked. The reef thrives at the mouth of the Amazon River, and although researchers noted in a 1977 journal publication that something like this might exist, no one had been able to conduct the necessary search for it in the 40 years since its mention.
Scientists also found an entirely new reef simply hiding underneath the Great Barrier Reef. Having known about these “unusual” structures for decades, scientists were finally able to use remote sensing technology to map the region and pinpoint what they are. Not your typical coral reef—the structures are built up from limestone that is a remnant of a type of green alga called Halimeda. The Halimeda algae form the rounded limestone structures as they die. The discovery means that there are many new questions about how the two reefs and their inhabitants interact.
8. All Together Now: “Awwww”
We thought we’d leave you smiling. This purple stubby squid was filmed from an ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle) off the E/V Nautilus while it explored the seafloor off the coast of California. It even had the researchers on board exclaiming excitedly when they came across the wide-eyed cephalopod at a depth of 900 meters (2,950 feet), the equivalent of eight football fields.
The stubby squid is a type of bobtail squid, which is actually most closely related to the cuttlefish. Last year we glimpsed “what might be the world’s cutest octopus.” (Judge for yourself.) This year we’re opening up the competition to all cephalopods, and this little fellow (only about the size of a human fist) is definitely the winner. Take it from the scientists who were narrating as the cameras zoomed in—“It looks so fake! It looks like some little kid dropped their toy!”
It was January 27, 1908, at the Columbia Theater in St. Louis and Harry Houdini was about to debut his first theatrical performance. The great master of illusion stepped inside of an over-size milk can, sloshing gallons of water on to the stage. Houdini was about to do something that looked like a really bad idea.
The can had already been poked, prodded and turned upside down to prove to the audience that there was no hole beneath the stage. Houdini was handcuffed with his hands in front of him. His hair was parted down the middle and he wore a grave expression on his face. His blue bathing suit revealed an exceptional physique. Holding his breath, he squeezed his entire body into the water-filled can as the lid was attached and locked from the outside with six padlocks. A cabinet was wheeled around the can to hide it from view.
Time ticked away as the audience waited for Harry Houdini to drown.
Two minutes later, a panting and dripping Houdini emerged from behind the cabinet. The can was still padlocked. During his lifetime, nobody ever managed to figure out how he had escaped.
Harry Houdini is most often remembered as an escape artist and a magician. He was also an actor, a pioneering aviator, an amateur historian and a businessman. Within each of these roles he was an innovator, and sometimes an inventor. But to protect his illusions, he largely avoided the patent process, kept secrets, copyrighted his tricks and otherwise concealed his inventive nature. A 1920 gelatin silver print by an unidentified artist resides in collections of the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery. It depicts Houdini at his most theatrical, wearing makeup and facing the camera with a calculated mysterious gaze.
The great magician Teller, one half of the famous duo Penn and Teller, recently recalled how he discovered one of Houdini's inventions at a Los Angeles auction held by the late Sid Radner, who amassed one of the largest collections of Houdini materials in the world.
“I got a big black wooden cross, which I thought wouldn't go for much at auction. . . I bought the thing thinking this was a good souvenir,” Teller told me in a telephone interview.
“After I had bought it, Sid came up and said, 'be careful you don't have kids around this thing.' I said, 'why not?' He said, 'you don't want them sticking their fingers in here.' It has holes where you lash a person to it and they try to escape. What I didn't realize is that it is an elaborate mechanism. With a simple movement of your foot, you could sever all of the ropes simultaneously.”
Houdini was born Ehrich Weiss in 1874 in Budapest to Jewish parents, but raised in the United States from the age of four. He began performing magic tricks and escapes from handcuffs and locked trunks in vaudeville shows beginning in the 1890's.
“His name constantly comes up in popular culture any time someone does something sneaky or miraculous,” says John Cox, author of the well-regarded website Wild About Harry. “His tricks are still amazing. Escaping from jail while stripped naked, that is still an incredible feat. His stories feel electric and contemporary. Even though he has been dead for 90 years.”
Escape acts derive from spiritualist history, says Teller. In the mid 19th-century, performers claimed to have connections with unseen spirits that could commune with the dead or work miracles. “In seances, mediums were typically restrained in some way. At least tied and sometimes chained or handcuffed,” he says. Houdini made no such supernatural claims.
“[The spiritualist performer] would escape to do their manifestations and get locked up again,” says Teller. “Houdini said, 'I'm just a clever guy getting out of stuff.' It was a major transformation.”
Harry Houdini was part of a generation admiring new types of heroes—inventors and daredevils. As America moved into the 20th century, automobiles, airplanes, wax cylinder rolls and moving pictures would capture the public's imagination. Technology and Yankee ingenuity were admired and inventors sought patents to protect their ideas.
But Houdini realized early in his career that filing for a patent required that a piece of technology be clearly illustrated and described for public record. The technology of a patent needs to be clearly explained so that other people can avoid infringing on it. As a magician, secrecy was part of his stock in trade. Houdini, the inventor, filed for only a handful of his inventions in the United States and abroad. His U. S. patents include a toy Houdini that escapes from a straitjacket and a special diving suit, designed to allow the occupant to escape quickly in the event of danger.
According to Kenneth Silverman's book, Houdini!: The Career of Ehrich Weiss, in 1900 Houdini filed for a British patent on the handcuff act he was performing at the time. His application is listed as “abandoned.” Other creations were patented but never actually used. In 1912, he applied for German patents on a watertight chest that would be locked and placed inside of a larger water-filled chest that was also locked. His design was intended to allow him to remove himself from the nested boxes without getting wet or breaking the locks. This was never performed on stage. Nor was another German patent for a system of props that would allow him to be frozen inside of a giant block of ice.
Some of his most famous stunts were adaptations of other magicians' ideas. A British magician, Charles Morritt, had invented a trick for making a live donkey disappear on stage. Houdini paid Morritt for the global rights to the trick and found a way to make it bigger and better. He introduced it using an elephant.
“We still don't know how he did the elephant trick,” says Cox. “That is magic. You take some old reliables and find a way to make it special. He would Houdini-ize these more common feats of magic. His mind was always innovating, always inventing.”
While hidden detaching panels and rope-slicing blades have been found in some of Houdini's surviving inventions, most of his secrets have remained just that—secrets. Even 90 years after his death on October 31, 1926 from complications of appendicitis, much is still unknown, says Teller.
“Although people have strong suspicions,” Teller says. “In a lot of cases Houdini would do whatever was necessary to make something happen. And what was necessary included some of the uglier things in magic. Like collusion or bribery. None of those were very heroic, but he would resort to those.”
“Basically there's the magicians code,” says Cox. “Which is not to ever reveal secrets. . .You talk around it. It's just honoring the magician's code. . . . Some people think that you shouldn't even say that there was a secret, even saying that it was tricked in some way is giving away a secret. . . I only learned the secret of the water torture cell probably in the last ten years or so.”
“It might be that when someone owns a piece of apparatus, they know how it works because they have the apparatus,” says Cox. “But Sidney Radler, who owned the water torture cell says that he lied about it throughout his life. It is nice to keep some of Houdini's secrets. Keeps it baffling.”
Eventually, Houdini found a backdoor way of protecting an act as intellectual property without patenting them. He copyrighted it.
One of his best-known escapes is his “Chinese water torture cell.” Houdini had his ankles locked into a frame, from which he was dangled upside down over a tank of water. He was lowered head first into the water and locked in place. To prevent anyone from copying the act, Silverman tells of how Houdini gave a single performance of the trick as a one-act play in England before an audience of one. This allowed him to file for a copyright on the act in August of 1911, which legally prevented imitations without explaining how the trick worked.
“I have in fact had a very close look at the water torture cell, which is shockingly small,” says Teller. “You picture it as this towering thing. But it was a compact, efficient thing. . . . It's a brilliant piece of mechanics.”
The number of people who actually saw Houdini, in person, escaping from the water torture cell was far smaller than the number of people around the world who revered him for it. Houdini was a master at drawing media coverage to his exploits.
“As an innovator, he's the guy who kind of figured out how to use the press,” says Teller. “When you think back, he's the first prominent person that you see doing co-promotions with corporations. If he's coming to your town and you are centered around the beer industry, he would talk to the brewery and arrange to escape from a giant beer keg or something.”
“He was obsessed with being at the cutting edge of everything,” says Teller. "While Houdini had emerged from the world of vaudeville, he was good at using new technology to maintain his celebrity status. . . . He knew that the cinema was the next big thing and tried to become a movie star. And he kind of did. There's a great deal of charm. He's acting quite naturalistically. . .”
In 1918, Houdini began work on his first major film project, “The Master Mystery.” The 15-part series has a complicated plot. An evil corporation entices inventors to sign contracts granting exclusive rights to market their inventions; but the company is secretly stifling those inventions in order to benefit the holders of existing patents. The film features what may be the first robotic villain ever to appear on camera. “Automaton,” a metallic robot with a human brain.Harry Houdini's 1909 Voisin pusher biplane; man marked with a small "X" is presumably Houdini. (National Air and Space Museum Archives)
According to Silverman, Houdini tried to take credit for building a real robot for the film, describing it as “a figure controlled by the Solinoid system, which is similar to the aerial torpedoes.” To modern eyes, this claim is absurd. The “robot” is obviously a human actor marching around in a costume.
Houdini himself was often an unreliable source about his own work. He unintentionally confused dates and places. Deliberately, he tended to exaggerate his exploits and inventions. Teller agreed that Houdini was “not terribly” reliable as a source for his own history.
“Although he had hopes of becoming an author and historian, his job was to be a show man and that's what he was,” says Teller. “He was very interested in the history of magic. . . He collected a lot of information but I wouldn't look to him as a historian because historians have standards.”
“No illusion is good in a film, as we simply resort to camera trix, and the deed is did,” Houdini once said. While the new technology of cinematography helped Houdini to reach a wider audience, it may have ultimately helped to end the phenomenon of professional escape artists. On camera, anyone can be made to look like an escape artist. Special effects can make anything seem real.
At the same time that moving pictures were capturing the public's imagination, aviation was doing the same thing. The Wright Brothers had proven that flight was possible. A collection of daring, clever and wealthy people throughout the world began buying or building airplanes of their own and racing to set new aviation records. The highest flight, the longest flight, the first along a particular route. Houdini decided to join in. He bought a Voisin biplane in Europe for $5,000, equipped with bicycle wheels and a rear-mounted propeller. He also took out what he claimed to be the world's first life insurance policy for an airplane accident. With his dismantled plane, spare parts and insurance, Houdini departed for a tour to perform in Australia where he became the first person to fly an airplane on the Australian continent.
Within a few years, Houdini lost his interest in flight and sold the plane. Airplanes had become common. He had stopped performing simple handcuff escapes because there were too many imitators. Houdini couldn't stand to do anything that everyone else was doing.Houdini's flight in his biplane, Hufaren Exercierplatz, Hamburg-Wandsbeck, November 26th 1909 (National Air and Space Museum Archives)
Perhaps part of Houdini's appeal came from the fact that he lived in an age when America was full of recent immigrants who were all trying to escape from something. Literally throwing off a set of shackles was a powerful statement in the early 20th century.
“I think there's the big-picture psychological reason, which is that everybody was an immigrant and everyone was fleeing from the chains of oppression in another country,” says Teller. “The idea was you could be a tough little immigrant and no matter how hard the big guys came down on you, like the police or the big company in your town, he would take the symbol of authority and defy it in the act of self-liberation. . . and the idea of self liberation has more appeal to people than mere escape.”
In addition to literal shackles, Houdini wanted his audiences to throw off the shackles of superstition and belief in 'real' magic. He was an important philosophical influence on the skeptical movement, which is best known through modern scientists such as Richard Dawkins and Bill Nye. Penn and Teller are also among today's most prominent rational skeptics.
“Houdini was the outstanding exponent of the idea that magicians are uniquely qualified to detect fraud and uniquely qualified to be skeptics,” says Teller. “We're not the first ones to do this. The Amazing Randi is someone of considerable powers who focused on the skeptical angle. When you are a professional magician, you want to see your art respected for what it is, not misused to mislead people about the universe.”
Poking its nose in our direction to sample the sharp October breeze, a juvenile polar bear—one of the two dozen foraging on the pile of bowhead whale bones on a nearby spit—gingerly steps into the sea. It’s slowly heading our way, so Robert Thompson, a local hunter and guide who’s brought me to see the bears, puts his ATV in reverse, pulls back, and parks facing away from the bear, ready for a quick getaway if we need it. A stone’s throw is as close as I ever want to be, knowing polar bears can run down a horse at a short distance and kill a half-tonne walrus.
With one hand vise-gripping the ATV’s rear rack, I aim my camera with the other, trying to keep it steady. The last time I saw a white bear, on a rafting trip in the nearby Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, it was four football fields away, snoozing, but my Remington was unsheathed and ready. For Thompson, a portly silver-haired Vietnam vet with eyebrows like bits of black felt, this polar bear encounter is routine business; the only thing ruffled is the wolf trim of his drab army parka. The bear, deciding we are not worth its while, returns to rummaging at the whale ruins.
Akin to the wildlife presence in other Alaskan towns—moose roaming the backyards of Fairbanks and muskoxen prowling the runway in Nome—polar bears haunt the streets of Kaktovik, an Iñupiaq village of about 300 on Barter Island, set against the stark shores of Alaska’s Beaufort Sea. Alerted by barking dogs my first night at Thompson’s B&B, I looked out the bedroom window to see a plump ghost galloping down the main street, chased by the red truck of the community’s polar bear patrol, which orbits Kaktovik all night long, beginning at sunset.
Here, the front doors of houses stay unlocked, allowing escape into an entryway if you are being chased, and it’s good practice to carry a can of bear repellent. The men and women of the bear patrol carry 12-gauge shotguns with beanbag rounds and cracker slugs for deterrence, and, in extreme cases when non-lethal means aren’t effective, they won’t hesitate to shoot an aggressive bear. In this sleepy hamlet, gunfire signals trespassing polar bears, not crime. But these interlopers also signal tourist dollars: As word spreads about the annual layover of these hard-to-see, popular mammals, polar bear viewing is fast becoming a cottage industry.
But at what cost—for the bears and the community?Kaktovik, Alaska, and Churchill, Manitoba, are two of the most popular, and most accessible, places to view polar bears. The bears come ashore when the sea ice breaks up and it becomes too difficult for them to hunt seals. (Illustration by Mark Garrison)
In Kaktovik, as in the far better known Churchill, Manitoba, and elsewhere along the Arctic coast, polar bears become marooned on shore after the sea ice—their preferred platform for seal hunting—breaks up in the summer. They linger on shore in a state of “walking hibernation,” scrounging for food scraps and napping to conserve energy, waiting for freeze-up when the cold once again puts a lid on the vast Arctic Ocean. The area around Kaktovik hosts growing numbers of bears each summer, and, as the Arctic remains ice-free longer and even the winter ice thins, these ursine guests are lengthening their stay.
In 2015, for instance, the sea ice near Kaktovik was gone by July, one month earlier than normal and the earliest ever according to one seasoned Iñupiaq hunter. This, however, was only a portent for 2017, when global sea ice reached a record low.
It’s not surprising then that the lack of ice and a shortened hunting season has affected polar bear populations. Numbers of the southern Beaufort subpopulation, which includes the Kaktovik bears, have dropped substantially, to 900 animals, in the past three decades. (The exact peak number is hard to determine, but is thought to have been as high as 1,200.) According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), in this, the most-studied polar bear population beside Churchill’s—one of 19 that inhabit the Arctic—fewer cubs now survive. Over the years, the agency’s biologists also have noted that the bears’ size has diminished.
Polar bears are used to at least a partial fast during their summer months on land, but for the bears near Kaktovik, survival rations can be found close to town, at the bone pile near the airport hangar—the remains of bowhead whales that locals butcher on shore. Three whales have been taken this fall—the community’s allotted annual quota—keeping families fed. The remains mark the spit -ike carcasses of some extinct race of giants. Scraps of spoiled blubber and muktuk (whale skin) from people’s freezers on occasion augment this cetacean buffet.
An ATV puttering out to the bone pile loaded with such bounty is like a dinner bell ringing. From miles away, bears resting on the barrier islands catch a whiff of the rank deposit and swim or walk to the smorgasbord, where dozens might congregate at one time. There they’ll feast, peaceably as a rule, now spending more time on land and sometimes mingling with grizzlies as the climate changes. Up to 80 furry gourmands can be seen near town during this ursine rush hour.
Even when they don’t drift through people’s backyards or curl up under houses built on stilts, white bear proxies are everywhere in Kaktovik: spray-painted on a rusty, storm-blasted dumpster; emblazoning a sign welcoming you to Beautiful Barter Island; as logos on van doors and sleds and the defunct B & B, Dance With Polar Bear [sic]. Their pigeon-toed tracks stitch the muddy roads, evidence of bear agendas, bear appetites.
The juncture of lingering bears waiting for freeze-up, the windfall of a bone and blubber cache, and a nearby community eager for economic opportunities, has resulted in a burgeoning bear watching industry in Kaktovik. Thompson, one of seven coast guard-certified tour boat captains, makes a good living from the castaways at the bone pile between September and November.
A popular captain who is already fully booked for 2017, he can get so busy that he rushes to work without breakfast, grabbing a fistful of coffee beans to chew on his way out the door. His boat Seanachaí, Irish for storyteller, is aptly named—the man who can see bears making a beeline to the bone pile from his living room chair and who once got charged by a marauding male right on his doorstep regales visitors with tidbits about life in the North. A favorite is the technique for how to prepare a polar bear skin.
“You stuff it through a hole in the ice and let shrimp pick it clean,” he says, adding that he’s also seen bears steal from set fishing nets and once watched one pull a net to shore. Thompson’s porch is a still life of body parts and implements: a pot with chunks of unidentifiable meat chilling in the frigid air; a caribou leg for his dogs; snowmobile parts; a gas tank; and, like a cluster of fallen angels, a brace of unplucked, white-phase ptarmigans. On a driftwood stump near the shed grins a mossy polar bear skull; it’s not a scene for tender romantics.
Overall, this Arctic community has learned remarkably well how to coexist with stranded megafauna and benefit from them. In the past six years, small ecotourism businesses like Thompson’s have sprung up, cashing in on the white bear bonanza. Between 2010 and 2016, the number of USFWS-issued permits for commercial polar bear viewing on waters managed by the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge rose from one to 19.
During the same period, the number of people bear watching snowballed from about 50 to roughly 2,500 a year. (Refuge staff does not track visits to the bone pile by van or by truck, as that land belongs to the Kaktovik Iñupiat Corporation.) They fly into Kaktovik on twin-prop planes, armed with lenses as long as my forearm, lured by the package of whaling culture, auroras, and views of the Brooks Range blue in the distance—but foremost by the thrill of meeting Earth’s largest land predator in its home environment.Kaktovik’s Robert Thompson is one of a handful of local certified guides who take visitors on boat tours to view polar bears and other wildlife. (Photo by Michael Engelhard)
And therein lies a dilemma. Many visitors are hobby photographers who crave the trophy shot to validate the experience and justify the expense—even without the round trip to Fairbanks, a three-day polar bear viewing excursion can set you back thousands of dollars.
In the bid for satisfied customers, rules and ethics the USFWS has been trying to implement are easily compromised. Bears have been fed from the back of tour boats to attract them, and the prescribed distance of 30 yeards (27 meters) that keeps bears from getting stressed and tourists from getting injured or even killed has been breached repeatedly. There is strong pressure from tourists to get closer, and reportedly a few have forsaken boat captains who refuse to do this, traveling instead with those who will. Any interaction with the bears, such as harassment or attempting to draw their attention, is discouraged to keep them from getting habituated.
Still, some people ask their guide to make a bear stand up, hoping for that prize-winning photo. The guides, if caught in any violations, risk losing their license and cabin boats with powerful motors, an investment of $60,000 or more.
Locals fear that outsiders will launch boats of their own in an attempt to muscle in on the state’s latest boom. Already, tour operators from urban Alaska and even the lower forty-eight siphon off a good deal of the profits. They arrange transportation and chaperoning by natural history or photography guides, at best purchasing boat rides or accommodations at one of Kaktovik’s two lodges or its only bed and breakfast. Bruce Inglangasak, a lanky, mustachioed boat captain in a camouflage suit and a watch cap embroidered Get Wild About Nature, expresses his frustration at guides from the south trying to muscle into the business, a sentiment common among his peers: “It’s our God-given right. We live here, and nobody knows these animals and waters like we do.”
In the ramshackle Waldo Arms, some French tourists fuel up on greasy burgers, while others, bent over laptops, edit their polar bear images. Fringed bowhead baleen with scrimshaw designs lies on the pool table, enticing souvenir hunters to leave a few more dollars in the community. DO NOT FEAR THE WIND, shouts graffiti on the message board beneath the felt-tip pen cartoon of a bear. When lunch is done, an old school bus conveys visitors to the boat launch for their afternoon tour. Others pile into the back of a pickup truck, dressed like members of Robert Scott’s doomed Antarctic expedition. In their fancy goggles, balaclavas, Gore-Tex pants, and red Canada Goose Arctic Program parkas or cold-water immersion survival suits, these polar bear pilgrims stick out in Kaktovik, where the dress code is decidedly working class.
Tourists here expect a more personal experience than in Churchill, where crowds are trucked in on Polar Rovers (deluxe Humvees on steroids that can hold 50 passengers) and the mobile Great White Bear Tundra Lodge, a fat-tired train of hotel rooms, parks right on the fasting bears’ turf. Dinner smells from the lodge windows magnetize the bears, which, tourists complain, come begging for food rather than exhibit wild behavior. From elevated viewing platforms, the bears are also never encountered at ground level, a drawback for many photographers; the boat decks in Kaktovik bring them face-to-face.
Among photographers who visit Kaktovik, an unofficial ranking as arcane as the Boone and Crockett Club trophy hunting register (which scores animal attributes such as fur color and antler or horn size) rules the blazing cameras competition. Bears grimy from foraging in the bone pile or rolling in the dirt are undesirable, but smeared with blood, they become interesting, living up to their “killer” image. Cubs playing, males fighting, bears swimming, or mother-and-cub motifs are also highly coveted, as are photos with a bear mirrored in the still waters of the lagoon or gazing directly into the camera.
“I got my $7,000 worth right there,” one photographer tells me at Thompson’s B&B, recalling her capture of a mother and cream-white cub in the slanting afternoon sun. Return visitors crave a particular image or get hooked on adrenaline’s rush. A few, such as Shayne “Churchill is so passé” McGuire from California, then become tour guides who finance their passion by bringing like-minded seekers to Kaktovik. “I don’t like to see animals harassed,” McGuire says in a voice thick with emotion, recalling Churchill bears being pestered by flightseeing helicopters. But out on the lagoon, even here in Kaktovik, one can see bears corralled by three or four tour boats.
Not all residents embrace the opportunities ecotourism brings. There is concern that pictures of butchered whales, bearskins or skulls—a normal part of the landscape here—could provoke animal rights groups and environmentalists. Occasionally, locals who need to go to Fairbanks or Anchorage for medical treatment have been unable to get seats on fully booked planes. Tired of the recreational takeover, one old-timer, according to Thompson, angrily tried to chase off bears while tourists were watching, and almost got killed when his ATV did not start up again right away. Envy of those few who are lucky or savvy enough to tap this newfound wealth can also sour the atmosphere in a community where members have always depended on each other; for millennia, they’ve survived by sharing and cooperating.
To counter the negative effects of tourism on the locals—bears and people—the USFWS, in concert with the school, mentors Kaktovik’s youth ambassadors, who greet incoming visitors and try to educate them about Iñupiaq culture and bear viewing etiquette.
Perceptive visitors quickly realize that this paradise comes with pitfalls and thorns. Perhaps the community will balance the presence of tourists and bears in the future, but today they face a different balancing act: the environment that has supported both indigenous people and polar bears for thousands of years is shifting below their feet. As changing pack ice shortens the polar bears’ hunting season, shrinking shore-fast ice inhibits the ability of Iñupiaq hunters to intercept migrating whales. And sea level rises and coastal erosion—worsened by storm-agitated surf—puts low-lying Arctic communities at risk of flooding, and means bears lose their den sites.
Humans stand out as one of the most successful species on Earth, in part because of our adaptability—all Iñupiat are a testament to that. But the highly specialized bears are not so blessed. Locked into more fixed behaviors and bound to evolution’s slow clock, the chances that they’ll weather the changes to their place of origin are slim. Their loss will be ours as well.
Related Stories from Hakai Magazine:
The Birth of Flight: NASM Collections
The invention of the balloon struck the men and women of the late 18th century like a thunderbolt. Enormous crowds gathered in Paris to watch one balloon after another rise above the city rooftops, carrying the first human beings into the air in the closing months of 1783.The excitement quickly spread to other European cities where the first generation of aeronauts demonstrated the wonder of flight. Everywhere the reaction was the same. In an age when men and women could fly, what other wonders might they achieve.
"Among all our circle of friends," one observer noted, "at all our meals, in the antechambers of our lovely women, as in the academic schools, all one hears is talk of experiments, atmospheric air, inflammable gas, flying cars, journeys in the sky." Single sheet prints illustrating the great events and personalities in the early history of ballooning were produced and sold across Europe. The balloon sparked new fashion trends and inspired new fads and products. Hair and clothing styles, jewelry, snuffboxes, wallpaper, chandeliers, bird cages, fans, clocks, chairs, armoires, hats, and other items, were designed with balloon motifs.
Thanks to the generosity of several generations of donors, the National Air and Space Museum maintains one of the world's great collections of objects and images documenting and celebrating the invention and early history of the balloon. Visitors to the NASM's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles International Airport can see several display cases filled with the riches of this collection. We are pleased to provide visitors to our web site with access to an even broader range of images and objects from this period. We invite you to share at least a small taste of the excitement experienced by those who witness the birth of the air age.
Tom D. Crouch
Senior Curator, Aeronautics
National Air and Space Museum
Present at Creation:
The NASM Collection of Objects Related to Early Ballooning
The invention of the balloon struck the men and women of the late 18th century like a thunderbolt. The Montgolfier brothers, Joseph-Michel (August 26, 1740-June 26, 1810) and Jacques Etienne (January 6, 1745 - August 2, 1799), launched the air age when they flew a hot air balloon from the town square of Annonay, France, on June 4, 1783. Members of a family that had been manufacturing paper in the Ardèche region of France for generations, the Montgolfiers were inspired by recent discoveries relating to the composition of the atmosphere. Joseph led the way, building and flying his first small hot air balloons late in 1782, before enlisting his brother in the enterprise.
Impatient for the Montgolfiers to demonstrate their balloon in Paris, Barthélemy Faujas de Saint-Fond, a pioneering geologist and member of the Académie Royale, sold tickets to a promised ascension and turned the money over to Jacques Alexandre-César Charles (1746-1823), a chemical experimenter whom he had selected to handle the design, construction and launch of a balloon. Charles flew the first small hydrogen balloon from the Champs de Mars, near the present site of the Eiffel Tower, on August 27, 1783. Not to be outdone, the Montgolfiers sent the first living creatures (a sheep, a duck and a rooster) aloft from Versailles on September 19.
Pilatre de Rozier, a scientific experimenter, and François Laurent, the marquis D'Arlandes, became the first human beings to make a free flight on November 21. Less than two weeks later, on December 1, 1783, J.A. C. Charles and M.N. Robert made the first free flight aboard a hydrogen balloon from the Jardin des Tuileries.
A wave of excitement swept across Paris as the gaily decorated balloons rose, one after another, over the skyline of the city. Throughout the summer and fall of 1783 the crowds gathering to witness the ascents grew ever larger. As many as 400,000 people - literally half of the population of Paris -- gathered in the narrow streets around the Château des Tuileries to watch Charles and Robert disappear into the heavens.
The wealthy and fashionable set purchased tickets of admission to the circular enclosure surrounding the launch site. Guards had a difficult time restraining the crush of citizens swarming the nearby streets, and crowding the Place de Louis XV (now the Place de la Concorde) and the garden walkways leading toward the balloon. People climbed walls and clambered out of windows onto roofs in search of good vantage points.
"It is impossible to describe that moment:" wrote one observer of a balloon launch, "the women in tears, the common people raising their hands to the sky in deep silence; the passengers leaning out of the gallery, waving and crying out in joy… the feeling of fright gives way to wonder." One group of spectators greeted a party of returning aeronauts with the question: "Are you men or Gods?" In an age when human beings could fly, what other wonders might the future hold?
The balloons had an enormous social impact. The huge, seething crowds were something new under the sun. The spectators who gathered in such huge numbers were just becoming accustomed to the idea of change. The old certainties of their grandparent's world were giving way to an expectation that the twin enterprises of science and technology would provide the foundation for "progress."
The balloons sparked new fashion trends and inspired new fads and products. Hair and clothing styles, jewelry, snuffboxes, wallpaper, chandeliers, bird cages, fans, clocks, chairs, armoires, hats, and other items, were designed with balloon motifs. Party guests sipped Créme de l' Aérostatique liqueur and danced the Contredanse de Gonesse in honor of the Charles globe.
The Americans who were living in Paris to negotiate a successful conclusion to the American revolution were especially fascinated by the balloons. It seemed only fitting that, at a time when their countrymen were launching a new nation, human beings were throwing off the tyranny of gravity. The oldest and youngest members of the diplomatic community were the most seriously infected with "balloonamania."
"All conversation here at present turns upon the Balloons…and the means of managing them so as to give Men the Advantage of Flying," Benjamin Franklin informed an English friend, Richard Price. Baron Grimm, another Franklin acquaintance, concurred. "Among all our circle of friends," he wrote, "at all our meals, in the antechambers of our lovely women, as in the academic schools, all one hears is talk of experiments, atmospheric air, inflammable gas, flying cars, journeys in the sky."
Franklin noted that small balloons, made of scraped animal membranes, were sold "everyday in every quarter." He was invited to visit a friend's home for "tea and balloons," and attended a fête at which the duc de Chartres distributed "little phaloid balloonlets" to his guests. At another memorable entertainment staged by the duc de Crillon, Franklin witnessed the launch of a hydrogen balloon some five feet in diameter that kept a lantern aloft for over eleven hours.
The senior American diplomat in Paris purchased one of the small balloons as a present for his grandson and secretary, William Temple Franklin. Released in a bed chamber, "it went up to the ceiling and remained rolling around there for some time." Franklin emptied the membrane of hydrogen and forwarded it to Richard Price so that he and Sir Joseph Banks might repeat the experiment. The delightful little toy was thus not only the first balloon to be owned by an American but also the first to reach England. Both Franklins were soon supplying little balloons to friends across Europe.
Sixteen year old John Quincy Adams also took note of the small balloons offered for sale by street vendors. "The flying globes are still very much in vogue," he wrote on September 22. "They have advertised a small one of eight inches in diameter at 6 livres apiece without air [hydrogen] and 8 livres with it. .. Several accidents have happened to persons who have attempted to make inflammable air, which is a dangerous operation, so that the government has prohibited them."
There was a general sense that the colorful globes marked the beginning of a new age in which science and technology would effect startling change. The results and the implications of the revolution in physics and chemistry underway for over a century were largely unknown outside an elite circle of privileged cognoscenti. The balloon was unmistakable proof that a deeper understanding of nature could produce what looked very much like a miracle. What else was one to think of a contrivance that would carry people into the sky?
If human beings could break the age-old chains of gravity, what other restraints might they cast off? The invention of the balloon seemed perfectly calculated to celebrate the birth of a new nation dedicated, on paper at any rate, to the very idea of freedom for the individual. In the decade to come the balloons and the men and women who flew them came to symbolize the new political winds that were blowing through France. While some might question the utility of the "air globes," flight was already reshaping the way in which men and women regarded themselves and their world.
Of course most citizens of Europe and America were unable to travel to see a balloon. They had their first glimpse of the aerial craft through the medium of single sheet prints. In the late 18th century it was difficult and expensive to publish anything more than the roughest of woodcuts in newspapers or magazines. In an effort to share the excitement with those who could not attend an ascent, to let people know what a balloon looked like, and to introduce the brave men and women who were taking to the sky, artists, engravers and publishers flooded the market with scores of single sheet printed images. Ranging from the meticulously accurate to the wildly fanciful, these printed pictures were sold by the thousands in print shops across Europe.
The business of producing and marketing such images was nothing new. In Europe, block prints from woodcuts had been used to produce book illustrations and single sheet devotional or instructional religious images since the mid-15th century. In the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, the technique was used to produce multi-sheet maps, bird's eye images of cities, and other products. In the early modern era, etching and engraving techniques enabled artists from Albrecht Dürer to Rembrandt van Rijn the opportunity to market copies of their paintings. .
In the 1730's. William Hogarth inaugurated a new era in the history of English printed pictures when he published his, "Harlot's Progress," a series of single sheet images charting the downfall of a young woman newly arrived in London. Other sets, including "Marriage à la Mode," appeared in the decade that followed. Other artists used the medium of the etching or engraving to reproduce portraits and offer examples of their work for sale.
By the late 18th century, Thomas Rowlandson, James Gillray and other English artists made considerable fortunes producing sporting prints and satirical images offering biting commentary on the shortcomings of the political and social leaders of the day. Rowlandson was said to have "etched as much copper as would sheathe the British navy." In order to publish his prints and caricatures while they were still newsworthy, Rowlandson worked rapidly. He would water color the first impression, then send it to refugee French artists employed by Rudolph Ackermann, one of his favored publishers, who would color each of the prints before they were hung up in the shop window. In the 1780's a typical print seems to have sold for a shilling, the price being sometimes included on the print itself.
The appearance of the balloon in 1783 provided artists, engravers and publishers in England, France, Germany and Italy a new subject for their efforts. As the wave of balloon enthusiasm swept across the continent, the production and sale of images depicting the great flights and daring aeronauts flourished. In addition to illustrating the birth of the air age, print makers made use of balloon motifs in comic images satirizing political events or social trends.
In the 19th century new lithographic techniques and the advent of improved presses and smooth paper, led to a revolution in the ability to mass produce images. Balloons remained a common subject of interest to readers, and ready material for satire in the talented hands of artists like Honorè-Victorine Daumier.
Today, the balloon prints produced by 18th and 19th century artists remain as a priceless window into the past. They enable us to share some sense of the excitement that gripped those watching their fellow beings rise into the sky for the first time. Engraved portraits tell us something of the appearance, and even the personality, of the first men and women to fly. Satirical prints utilizing balloon motifs help us to understand the impact that flight on the first generations to experience it.
The National Air and Space Museum owes its collection of balloon prints to the generosity of several leading 20th century collectors. The bulk of the prints in our collection come from Harry Frank Guggenheim (August 23, 1890 - January 22, 1971).. The son of industrialist and philanthropist Daniel Guggenheim and his wife Florence, Harry Guggenheim enjoyed multiple careers as a business leader, diplomat, publisher, philanthropist, and sportsman.
Aviation was the thread that tied his diverse activities together. A graduate of Yale and Pembroke College, Cambridge University, he learned to fly before the U.S. entered WW I and served as a Naval aviator during that conflict and as a Naval officer during WW II. In the mid- 1920's, he convinced his father to establish the Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics, which had an enormous impact on aeronautical engineering and aviation in the U.S.
A collector of everything from fine art to thoroughbred horses, Guggenheim began to acquire aeronautica during the 1920's, gradually focusing his attention of aeronautical prints. His collection had grown to be one of the most complete in the world by the 1940's, when he loaned his prints to the New York museum maintained by the Institute of the Aeronautical Sciences. When the IAS dissolved its museum in the 1950's, Guggenheim donated his own collection to the National Air and Space Museum.
The NASM collection of aeronautical prints also includes items donated by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and by a number of other private collectors, notably Constance Fiske in memory of her husband Gardiner Fiske, who served with the U.S. Army Air Service during WW I and with the USAAF in WWII; Thomas Knowles, a long-time executive with Goodyear Aircraft and Goodyear Aerospace; and Bella Clara Landauer, one of the great American collectors of aeronautica.
There can be little doubt that William Armistead Moale Burden was one of the most significant contributors to the NASM collection of furnishings, ceramics and other objects related to ballooning and the early history of flight. . Burden began collecting aeronautical literature and memorabilia during the 1920's, while still a Harvard undergraduate. Following graduation he rode the post-Lindbergh boom to prosperity as a financial analyst specializing in aviation securities. His business success was inextricably bound to his enthusiasm for the past, present and future of flight.
By 1939, Burden was reputed to have built a personal aeronautical library second only to that of the Library of Congress. He loaned that collection to the Institute of the Aeronautical Sciences, an organization that he served as president in 1949. In addition to his library of aeronautica, Burden built a world-class collection of historic objects dating to the late 18th century - desks, chairs, bureaus, sofas, mirrors, clocks, ceramics and other examples of material culture -- inspired by the first balloons and featuring balloon motifs. After a period on display in the IAS museum, William A.M. Burden's balloon-decorated furnishings and aeronautica went into insured off-site storage in 1959. A member of the Smithsonian Board of Regents, Mr. Burden ultimately donated his treasures to the NASM, as well.
Thanks to the efforts of these and other donors, the NASM can share one of the world's finest collections of works of art and examples of material culture inspired b y the birth of flight with our visitors. We are pleased to extend the reach of our collections to those who visit our web site. Welcome, and enjoy.
Tom D. Crouch
Senior Curator, Aeronautics
National Air and Space Museum
If you’re frustrated with medical care in the United States, try getting appendicitis in Antarctica. This potentially deadly condition can strike essentially anyone at any time—and no time was less opportune for Leonid Rogozov than April 30, 1961, at Novolavarezskaya Station, when the 27-year-old Russian scientist was the only doctor within 1,000 miles. After several days of pain, Rogozov concluded he had appendicitis and might die unless he did something. So he lay down in a hospital cot, had assistants tilt a mirror just above his lower belly, administered a shot of Novocain and called for a scalpel. In an epic feat of bravery and anatomical mastery, Rogozov sliced himself open, found his appendix, removed it, sutured himself shut again and proceeded with the finer things in life at the bottom of the world. A similar episode occurred on February 13, 1984, when Dr. Igor Mogirev removed his companion Valentin Gorbachev’s appendix during a tractor journey between an Antarctic landmark known as Dome C and Mirny Station, from which the team was about 600 miles away. The operation was successful—and conducted in the blistering cold after the diesel heater was shut off to keep the fumes from entering the tent and Gorbachev’s abdominal cavity.
The onset of appendicitis, which involves an organ that we don’t even need to begin with, often causes pain around the belly button that then “moves” to the lower right corner of the abdomen, according to this medical advice website. Such a pattern of pain is a flaming red flag, and if nausea, constipation, swelling of the abdomen and fever follow, one should seek aid promptly. May you not be the only doctor on the continent. And if you are, here’s hoping you brought the Novocain. Of course, the human body is a complex piece of living geography, and ailments may strike in many forms, in many hard-to-reach nooks and crannies. Following are a few illnesses and conditions to be wary of when far away from home.
Giardia. How often have you wished during a hot hike in the mountains that you could step to the edge of a stream, kneel and have yourself a bellyful of cold, clear snowmelt? Of course, most of us know better than to drink the water—because nearly everywhere, in waters still or moving, Giardia lamblia lurks. This bacterium is not a killer—just a nuisance, really, that causes diarrhea and other digestive problems within seven to 14 days of infection, and which may remain in a person’s body for years. Wild and domesticated animals are generally blamed as the source of local Giardia populations in lakes and streams, though in much of New Zealand—home to tens of millions of sheep, cows and other nonnative mammals—locals swear their water is safe to drink. During my time there in January and February, I drank directly from streams and lakes almost every day during several backcountry outings. I never got sick, though that isn’t proof that the waters were clean. You should bring a pump, or at least water purification tablets.
Montezuma’s Revenge. In case you need to be told again, don’t drink the water. In fact, if you’re in parts of Latin America, keep your mouth shut in the shower and drink only bottled water—even when just brushing your teeth. Because Montezuma’s Revenge will spoil your trip to Mexico if you give this bugger a chance. Caused by Salmonella, E. coli and other little critters, Montezuma’s Revenge is itself not a disease but, rather, just a collection of symptoms like stomach upset and diarrhea. In other parts of the world, similar illnesses strike tourists, who may be told they’ve got Delhi Belly or the Turkey Trots. Fortunately, this condition only lasts a few days in most cases and is an annoyance more than a danger—though surely few travelers’ tales can be more gripping than that of Montezuma’s Revenge kicking in on the airplane.
Dehydration: So you’re damned if you drink the water—but you’re also damned if you don’t. A seemingly simple condition with a simple cause and a simple fix, dehydration can kill when water is simply not to be had. The first of its signs may be bright yellow urine. Hours may still pass before one actually feels thirsty, at which point the mouth grows sticky and a person may grow sluggish and lethargic. In advanced stages, the skin may seem to retract in super-slow motion, like bread dough, when pinched between two fingers, and if you feel confused and dizzy and notice that you are no longer able to sweat, it’s official: You need a drink of water. NOTE: Dehydration may occur as a result of another illness that has caused vomiting and/or diarrhea.
Chondromalacia. Say goodbye to your plans to spend three months bicycle touring through Southeast Asia if this nasty condition appears in your knee. Chondromalacia occurs when the cartilage protecting the ball-and-socket joint of the knee becomes inflamed. In severe cases of continued use even after symptoms begin, the cartilage can be worn down to the bone. Chondromalacia causes a dull, throbbing pain inside the knee, with difficulty walking down stairs a distinct symptom. You may even hear cracking and scraping. Icing the joint helps, as does—unfortunately—long periods of rest. Chondromalacia may be caused by the knee-cap beginning to travel off-center in its recurring path over the bone of the knee, causing irritating rubbing. Doctors like to say that treatment is simple—just rest the knee for several months, keeping it elevated and iced every day, while practicing a variety of awkward and seemingly futile leg raises and quad-building exercises. Other overuse conditions that can end a long, body-powered voyage include iliotibial band syndrome, tendonitis and a strained or torn Achilles tendon. Inquire at a bike shop before your next tour to see that your seat height is appropriate, your pedal cranks the right length and your clip-in shoe cleats are properly set.
SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome). The virus that infected some 8,000 people, killing more than 900 of them, in 2002 and ’03—when it was first identified—has caused a small scare after the second man within months was recently infected in England. The 49-year-old is alive and now being treated, though a 60-year-old Saudi Arabian man died earlier this year of the disease. Scientists have reported that both men were infected by what seems to be a new, or at least previously unknown, strain of the virus (which the World Health Organization has reported is, fortunately, not easily transmitted). SARS symptoms are initially similar to those of a common cold—but with a notable difficulty in breathing. Helpful treatments, including antibiotics, can be administered in patients who suspect they are infected, even if tests later prove negative. The World Health Organization has not issued any formal travel warnings—just a global alert—in response to the latest SARS case, but this is a story worth following.
Hantavirus. Fear has crept through Yosemite National Park—as quietly as a mouse. For nine people were infected this summer by the deadly rodent-carried Hantavirus. Three people have died, and the park’s staff is now being served by a voluntary testing plan (even though, mysteriously, not a single employee of Yosemite’s 3,000 annual workers has been infected—yet). The disease, which can take six weeks to incubate in a person before taking effect, usually involves flu-like symptoms at first, like nausea, headache and aching joints, which escalate into organ failure. Hantavirus is carried by deer mice and other like vermin and can be spread via rodent feces, saliva and urine, and it can go airborne via dust particles. Fortunately, the disease is rare, infecting just 30-some people in an average year in America. The death rate, though, among victims averages about 30 percent.
Mushroom poisoning. Mushrooms don’t bite, and the most poisonous of them are only dangerous if eaten (myths abound that just touching a “toadstool” can kill you). Indeed, the only reason mushroom poisonings happen is that some hikers can’t resist taking unidentified mushrooms home, sautéing them in olive oil and serving them at potlucks. The mushrooms involved in many, if not most, serious poisonings are two species of the Amanita genus—A. phalloides, usually called the Death Cap, and A. bisporigera, commonly known as the Destroying Angel. Both reportedly taste quite nice, and guests at the dinner table will likely praise their host’s prowess in garnering dinner from the wild, wild woods—until the stomach ache hits. That’s your liver failing. Go get help. Two to three people have died of mushroom poisoning in America every year for the past 30 years. Note that the death rate runs between 10 and 50 percent of all poisonings—and just getting sick from a Death Cap isn’t fun, a liver transplant often being the only cure. Some people may experience frightening but nonfatal allergic reactions to otherwise coveted edible fungi, like the chicken of the woods, the shaggy parasol and the inky cap (which can cause poisoning if alcohol is consumed within days on either end). Know your mushrooms, and—when eating at a party—know your host. Mushroom rookies should not host mushroom dinners. And, keep your dog leashed in mushroom country. Every year, dogs die when they eat Death Caps.
Learn more about maladies and science-based remedies in Where There Is No Doctor: A Village Health Care Handbook. Available here for sale (or as an online PDF via this website), the handbook is hundreds of pages long, bulky as a Bible, and describes everything from treatment for snakebites to witchcraft cures that don’t work to identifying appendicitis to the threats of mosquitoes, and so on and so on. First published decades ago, the book was revised and updated for its 2011 reprinting.
Disclaimer: This blog post is not meant to be used as a medical guide, and anyone who suspects they may be seriously ill should visit a qualified doctor.
Next week: In detail on snakes. No, I didn’t forget about snakebites. Rather, I’m saving this giant topic for next week. For a quick preview, snakes bite as many as 5.5 million people every year, killing at least 100,000, according to the BBC. In India alone, a million people may suffer snakebites every year. Clearly, this is a topic that deserves a blog post all its own.
Do you have any overseas medical stories to share? Tell us in the comment box below.
A German auction house’s plans to sell 31 paintings and drawings by Adolf Hitler made headlines earlier this week. But in a twist that will come as little surprise to those who keep an eye on the shadowy trade of Hitler’s art, a majority of those works are now believed to be fakes.
As Catherine Hickley reports for the Art Newspaper, a prosecutor seized 63 watercolors, drawings and paintings said to have been falsely attributed to Hitler from the Auktionshaus Weidler in Nuremberg—the city, incidentally, where the Nazis encoded discriminatory laws against German Jews, and where Nazi crimes were prosecuted in the wake of WWII. The auction house had intended to put 26 of the confiscated works on the auction block this Saturday; the starting prices ranged from 130 to 45,000 euros (around $150 to $51,000 USD), according to the Washington Post’s Isaac Stanley-Becker. In the wake of the confiscations, the auction will proceed with five works that are believed to be authentic, along with a vase, a table cloth and a wicker chair that reportedly once belonged to the Führer.
Auctioneer Kerstin Weidler said that the suspected fakes came from private consigners from a number of different countries, reports Hickley. A spokesperson for the prosecutor’s office revealed that “unidentified individuals” are under investigation for forgery, but the auction house is not the subject of the probe.
Before his ascent to power, Hitler painted prolifically; in Mein Kampf he writes that he produced up to three works a day while living in Vienna between 1908 and 1913, Stanley-Becker points out. Hitler made a paltry living peddling idyllic depictions of Vienna to tourists on the streets of Austria’s capital. His work was thoroughly mediocre, or worse, according to some critics, and he was rejected twice from the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. But Hitler “always retained his self-image as an artist and as someone obsessed with art,” historian Birgit Schwarz told Spiegel Online in 2009. “The rebuff from the academy was probably what prompted him to consider himself a genius.”
Germany has banned Nazi iconography, but selling works by the Führer is legal so long as they don’t contain any Nazi symbols. Auktionshaus Weidler is one of the more prominent distributors of art reportedly created by Hitler; in 2015, it sold 14 paintings and drawings for around $450,000 USD.
So, who is buying the art of one of the most reviled figures in human history? When asked by Deutsche Welle if her customers were all “old Nazis,” Kerstin Weidler claimed this was not the case. “Among the buyers, we have collectors who want to own a piece of world history,” she said. “There are customers from all over the world, for example a museum in Brazil.” More generally, though, a global market for Nazi memorabilia still thrives today—a trend that has alarmed activists.
“While there are perfectly legitimate reasons for acquiring Nazi memorabilia, it is also the case that such items are in demand by those who fetishise the Nazi regime or by far-right groups who publicly display them at their events,” Stephen Silverman, director of investigations and enforcement at the Campaign Against anti-Semitism, told the BBC last April.
The buyers of Hitler’s art, whoever they are, might be displeased to learn that this niche market is riddled with fakes—perhaps because “art historians have better things to do than authenticate the artworks of this monster,” as art critic Jonathan Jones put it bluntly in the Guardian. Just a few weeks prior to the seizure of the reported fakes at Auktionshaus Weidler, police confiscated three landscapes signed by “A. Hitler” from on auction house in Berlin, on suspicion that they were forgeries.
“No one is controlling this dubious trade in sick ephemera,” Jones writes. “Is it harmless? No. Every time a supposed painting by Adolf Hitler appears, unquestioned, in a newspaper or on TV, someone will be thinking: ‘That’s not bad, the man was an artist.’ It falsely humanises him.”
Finding aid, based on Joseph M. Upton's Catalogue of the Herzfeld Archive, 1974, is available in the Archives Department and on Internet "http://www.asia.si.edu/archives/finding_aids/herzfeld.html#series2"
- SK-27 is the twenty-seventh of a series of thirty-five sketchbooks (Skizzenbücher), in which Ernst Herzfeld recorded his observations on archaeological remains, reliefs and inscriptions, prehistoric artifacts and decorative motifs related to Nizamabad (Iran) and the prehistoric mound of Tepe Giyan (Iran).
- Original handwritten title on cover reads: "Ernst Herzfeld; Skizzenbuch XXVII: Antiquitäten I (Persien, Teheran, 1926)."
- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 1 reads, "Nizamabad [(Iran)], Sasanian, horseman, stucco [(fragments of a stucco horse)]; details of hooves, [see FSA A.6 04.GN.2158; FSA A.6 04.GN.2160]. The figures in these measured drawings of stucco from Nizāmābād are all fragmentary."
- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 2 reads, "Nizamabad [(Iran)], Sasanian, horseman [(fragment of a stucco horse)], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.2159]."
- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 3 reads, "Nizamabad [(Iran)], Sasanian, horses [(fragments of a stucco horse)], [see see FSA A.6 04.GN.2161]."
- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 4 reads, "Nizamabad [(Iran)], Sasanian, wall panels [(fragments of stucco with vegetal ornamentation)], [see see FSA A.6 04.GN.2147]."
- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 5 reads, "Nizamabad [(Iran)], Sasanian, horse's head [(fragment of a stucco horse)], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.2156; FSA A.6 04.GN.2157] and headless standing figure, stucco [see FSA A.6 04.GN.2147]."
- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 6 reads, "Nizamabad [(Iran)], Sasanian, wall decoration, stucco [(fragments of stucco with vegetal ornamentation)], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.2149; FSA A.6 04.GN.2154]."
- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 7 reads, "Nizamabad [(Iran)], Sasanian, wall panels [(fragments of stucco with vegetal ornamentation)], [see FSA A.6 05.0755]; [see FSA A.6 04.GN.2151; FSA A.6 04.GN.2153]."
- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 8 reads, "Nizamabad [(Iran)], Sasanian, wall fragments [(fragments of stucco with vegetal ornamentation)], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.2154]; and Arabic inscription."
- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 9 reads, "Nizamabad [(Iran)], Sasanian, boot and hands [(fragments of stucco)], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.2154a]; Ray [(Iran)], stucco (?) roundel of face in sun disk."
- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 10 reads, "Nizamabad [(Iran)], Sasanian, [fragments] of stucco wall [ornamentation]."
- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 11 reads, "Nizamabad [(Iran)], Sasanian, [fragments] of stucco wall [ornamentation] with color notes."
- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 12 reads, "Nizamabad [(Iran)], Sasanian, similar pieces and dragon's leg [(fragments of stucco with animal design)], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.2155]."
- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 13 reads, "Nizamabad [(Iran)], Sasanian, fragments of circle and wings [(fragments of stucco with animal design)], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.2155; FSA A.6 04.GN.2155a]."
- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 14 reads, "Nizamabad [(Iran)], Sasanian, [fragments] of stucco plaques with animal design, [see FSA A.6 04.GN.2150]; Sasanian stone elephant [(Sassanid stone sculpture depicting an elephant)], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0331; FSA A.6 04.GN.0332; FSA A.6 04.GN.4009; FSA A.6 04.GN.4010]."
- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 15 reads, "Nizamabad [(Iran)], Sasanian, fragments of stucco, [see FSA A.6 04.GN.2148]."
- In Finding Aid, captions for pg. 16 and 17 reads, "measured plans of unidentified buildings."
- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 18 reads, "Tepe Giyan, dagger hilt, [see N-91, inventory number 2256], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0488]."
- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 19 reads, "Tepe Giyan, ten seal stones: stone seal, [see N-91, inventory number 2330], [TG 9]; stone seal, [see N-91, inventory number 2331], [TG 4]; stone seal, [see N-91, inventory number 2332], [TG 7], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0830]; stone seal, [see N-91, inventory number 2333], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.1081]; stone seal, [see N-91, inventory number 2334], [TG 14], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0822]; stone seal, [see N-91, inventory number 2335]; stone seal, [see N-91, inventory number 2336], [TG 22], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.1081]; stone seal, [see N-91, inventory number 2337], [TG 28], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0835]; stone seal, [see N-91, inventory number 2338], [TG 26], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0822]; stone seal, [see N-91, inventory number 2339], [TG 24], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0834]."
- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 20 reads, "top) bronze dagger from Hamadan, [see N-91, inventory number 2257], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.3180; FSA A.6 04.GN.3182]; bottom) bronze dagger, [see N-91, inventory number 2261], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0492]."
- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 21 reads, "Tepe Giyan, roll [(cylinder)] and stamp seals: stone seal, [see N-91, inventory number 2340], [TG 60], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0832]; stone seal, [see N-91, inventory number 2341], [TG 31], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0822; FSA A.6 04.GN.0834]; stone seal, [see N-91, inventory number 2342], [TG 47]; cylinder seal, [see N-91, inventory number 2309], [TG 173]; stone seal, [see N-91, inventory number 2343], [TG 63], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0835]; stone seal, [see N-91, inventory number 2344], [TG 64], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0825; FSA A.6 04.GN.0835]; cylinder seal, [see N-91, inventory number 2310], [TG 171], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.3958]; stone seal, [see N-91, inventory number 2345], [TG 40], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0829]; stone seal, [see N-91, inventory number 2346], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0829]; stone object, [TG], [see N-91, inventory number 2408], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.1141]."
- In Finding Aid, captions for pg. 22, 23 and 24 reads, "Sasanian and Parthian stamp seals."
- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 25 reads, " five Sasanian seal stones; bronze pitch fork [(elastic fork of thin copper)], [TG 297], [see N-91, inventory number 2272], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0724]."
- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 26 reads, "Tepe Giyan, four lance heads, bronze: top left) [metal lance blade], [TG 275; TG 276], [see N-91, inventory number 2262]; top right) [metal lance blade], [TG 275; TG 276], [see N-91, inventory number 2262], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0492]; bottom left) [arrow blade], [TG 286; TG 289], [see N-91, inventory number 2263], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0495; FSA A.6 04.GN.0793]; bottom right) [arrow blade], [TG 286; TG 289], [see N-91, inventory number 2263], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0495]."
- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 27 reads, "Tepe Giyan, twelve carved stone seals: stone seal, [see N-91, inventory number 2347], [TG 15], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.1081]; stone seal, [see N-91, inventory number 2348], [TG 8]; stone seal, [see N-91, inventory number 2349], [TG 6], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0830]; stone seal fragmented, [see N-91, inventory number 2350], [TG 2], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0830]; stone seal, [see N-91, inventory number 2351], [TG 19], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0834]; stone seal, [see N-91, inventory number 2352], [TG 77];stone seal, [see N-91, inventory number 2353], [TG 18], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0822]; stone seal, [see N-91, inventory number 2354], [TG x], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.1082]; stone seal, [see N-91, inventory number 2355], [TG 41], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0829]; stone seal, [see N-91, inventory number 2356], [TG 42], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0829]; stone seal, [see N-91, inventory number 2357], [TG 35], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0829]; stone seal, [see N-91, inventory number 2358], [TG 32], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0829]."
- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 28 reads, "left) [stone] mace-head, [see N-91, inventory number 2266], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0014]; right) five silver or bronze pins, [see N-91, inventory number 2264 and inventory number 2265], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0243; FSA A.6 04.GN.0244; FSA A.6 04.GN.0245]."
- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 29 reads, "Tepe Giyan, fifteen flat seals ([stone buttons)]: stone seal, [see N-91, inventory number 2359], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0829]; stone seal, [see N-91, inventory number 2360], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0829]; stone seal, [see N-91, inventory number 2361], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0829]; stone seal, [see N-91, inventory number 2362], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.1082]; stone seal, [see N-91, inventory number 2363]; stone seal, [see N-91, inventory number 2364], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0829]; stone seal, [see N-91, inventory number 2365], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0829]; stone seal, [see N-91, inventory number 2366], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0823]; stone seal, [see N-91, inventory number 2367], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.1082]; stone seal, [see N-91, inventory number 2368], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.1082]; stone seal, [see N-91, inventory number 2369], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.1082]; stone seal, [see N-91, inventory number 2370], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.1082]; stone seal, [see N-91, inventory number 2371], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.1082]; stone seal, [see N-91, inventory number 2372]; stone seal, [see N-91, inventory number 2373], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0832]."
- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 30 reads, "left) bronze axe, [see N-91, inventory number 2260], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0542]; right) bronze pick-axe, [see N-91, inventory number 2259], [TG 235], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0534; FSA A.6 04.GN.0789]."
- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 31 reads, "Tepe Giyan, nine flat seals ([stone buttons)]: stone seal, [see N-91, inventory number 2374], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0825; FSA A.6 04.GN.0835]; stone seal, [see N-91, inventory number 2375], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0832]; stone seal, [see N-91, inventory number 2376], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0825; FSA A.6 04.GN.0835]; stone seal, [see N-91, inventory number 2377], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0835]; stone seal, [see N-91, inventory number 2378], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0825; FSA A.6 04.GN.0835]; stone seal, [see N-91, inventory number 2380], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0824]; stone seal, [see N-91, inventory number 2381]; stone seal, [see N-91, inventory number 2382], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0833]; stone seal, [see N-91, inventory number 2379], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0834; FSA A.6 04.GN.0822]."
- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 32 reads, "left) small copper figurine [depicting an idol], [see N-91, inventory number 2267], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.1176]; right) [bronze digitated axe], [TG 248], [see N-91, inventory number 2258], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0537; FSA A.6 04.GN.0542]."
- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 33 reads, "five roll [(cylinder)] seals with cuneiform inscriptions."
- In Finding Aid, captions for pg. 34 and 35 reads, "Tepe Giyan, large jar and rims [(ceramic vessel with painted pattern and animal design)], [see N-91, inventory number 2411 and inventory number 2412], [see FSA A.6 05.0638], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0008; FSA A.6 04.GN.0090; FSA A.6 04.GN.0755; FSA A.6 04.GN.0761; FSA A.6 04.GN.0771]."
- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 35 reads, "Tepe Giyan, two large jars [(ceramic vessels with painted pattern and animal design)], [see N-91, inventory number 2413], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0089]."
- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 36 reads, "Tepe Giyan, [(ceramic vessels with painted pattern and animal design)]: left) large jar, [see N-91, inventory number 2414], [see FSA A.6 05.0637], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.005; FSA A.6 04.GN.006; FSA A.6 04.GN.007; FSA A.6 04.GN.0082; FSA A.6 04.GN.0758]; right) large jar, [see N-91, inventory number 2415], [see FSA A.6 05.0638], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0713; FSA A.6 04.GN.0766]."
- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 37 reads, "Tepe Giyan, [(ceramic vessels with painted pattern and animal design)]: top left) jar, [see N-91, inventory number 2416], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0088; FSA A.6 04.GN.0712; FSA A.6 04.GN.0714]; top right) jar, [inventory number 2421], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0186; FSA A.6 04.GN.0189]; bottom left) jar, [see N-91, inventory number 2418], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0136]; bottom center) jar, [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0186; FSA A.6 04.GN.0189]; bottom right) jar, [see N-91, inventory number 2422], [see FSA A.6 05.0639], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0085]."
- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 38 reads, "Tepe Giyan, [(ceramic vessels with painted pattern)]: top far left) jar, [see N-91, inventory number 2424], [see FSA A.6 05.0639], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0085]; top left) jar, [see N-91, inventory number 2425], [see FSA A.6 05.0639], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0208]; top right) jar, [see N-91, inventory number 2433], [see FSA A.6 05.0639], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0084]; top far right) jar, [see N-91, inventory number 2435], [see FSA A.6 05.0642], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0068]; bottom left) jug, [see N-91, inventory number 2429], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0196]; bottom right) jug, [see N-91, inventory number 2430], [see FSA A.6 05.0640], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0044]."
- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 39 reads, "Tepe Giyan, [(ceramic vessels with painted pattern)]: jar, [see N-91, inventory number 2426], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0186 or FSA A.6 04.GN.0193]; jug, [see N-91, inventory number 2431], [see FSA A.6 05.0640], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0196; FSA A.6 04.GN.0752]; bowl, [see N-91, inventory number 2438], [see FSA A.6 05.0643], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0039]; bowl, [see N-91, inventory number 2440], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0038]; jug, [see N-91, inventory number 2434], [see FSA A.6 05.0638, FSA A.6 05.0639], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0042; FSA A.6 04.GN.0084]; bowl, [see N-91, inventory number 2436], [see FSA A.6 05.0642], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0063]; bowl, [see N-91, inventory number 2437], [see FSA A.6 05.0643], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0039; FSA A.6 04.GN.0108]; bowl, [see N-91, inventory number 2439], [see FSA A.6 05.0643], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0038; FSA A.6 04.GN.0102]; jug, [see N-91, inventory number 2432], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0093]."
- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 40 reads, "Tepe Giyan, [(ceramic vessels with painted pattern and animal design)]: far left) [pottery jar] (albarello), [see N-91, inventory number 2441], [see FSA A.6 05.0642], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0004; FSA A.6 04.GN.0207]; left) [pottery jar] (albarello), [see N-91, inventory number 2442], [see FSA A.6 05.0642], [see ; FSA A.6 04.GN.0754]; right) [pottery jar] (albarello), [see N-91, inventory number 2443], [see FSA A.6 05.0642], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0067]; far right) [pottery jar] (albarello), [see N-91, inventory number 2444], [see FSA A.6 05.0642], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0003; FSA A.6 04.GN.0764]."
- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 41 reads, "Tepe Giyan, [(ceramic vessels with painted pattern and animal design)]: far left) cup, [see N-91, inventory number 2445], [see FSA A.6 05.0644], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0009; FSA A.6 04.GN.0010]; left) cup, [see N-91, inventory number 2446], [see FSA A.6 05.0644], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0092]; right) cup, [see N-91, inventory number 2447], [see FSA A.6 05.0644], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0001]; far right) cup, [see N-91, inventory number 2448], [see FSA A.6 05.0644], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0076]."
- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 42 reads, "Tepe Giyan, [(ceramic vessels with painted pattern)]: far left) jar, [see N-91, inventory number 2449], [see FSA A.6 05.0644], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0047]; left) jar, [see N-91, inventory number 2450], [see FSA A.6 05.0644], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0061]; right) jar, [see N-91, inventory number 2451], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0076]; far right) jar, [see N-91, inventory number 2452], [see FSA A.6 05.0642], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.765; FSA A.6 04.GN.0765a]."
- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 43 [(SK-27, p.43)] reads, "Tepe Giyan, [(ceramic vessels with painted pattern)]: left) large jar, [see N-91, inventory number 2417], [see FSA A.6 05.0639], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0074; FSA A.6 04.GN.0087]; right) three-legged jar, [see N-91, inventory number 2453], [see FSA A.6 05.0642], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0869]."
- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 44 [(SK-27, p.44)] reads, "Tepe Giyan, [(ceramic vessels with painted pattern)]: three-legged jar, [see N-91, inventory number 2454], [see FSA A.6 05.0642], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0772]; three-legged bowl, [see N-91, inventory number 2457], [see FSA A.6 05.0643], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0037]; bowl, [see N-91, inventory number 2458], [see FSA A.6 05.0642], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0069]; jar, [see N-91, inventory number 2461], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0749]; three-legged cup, [see N-91, inventory number 2456], [see FSA A.6 05.0643], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0861]; three-legged jar, [see N-91, inventory number 2455], [see FSA A.6 05.0642], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0770]; jar, [see N-91, inventory number 2459], [see FSA A.6 05.0642], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0137; FSA A.6 04.GN.0193]; jar, [see N-91, inventory number 2460], [see FSA A.6 05.0642], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0764a]."
- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 45 [(SK-27, p.45)] reads, "Tepe Giyan, [(ceramic vessels with painted pattern and animal design)]: left) small jar, [see N-91, inventory number 2462], [see FSA A.6 05.0640], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0133]; center) small jar, [see N-91, inventory number 2463], [see FSA A.6 05.0640], [see; FSA A.6 04.GN.0760]; right) small jar, [see N-91, inventory number 2464], [see FSA A.6 05.0640], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0079; FSA A.6 04.GN.0751]."
- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 46 [(SK-27, p.46)] reads, "Tepe Giyan, [(ceramic vessels with painted pattern and animal design)]: far left) small jug, 2265 (?) [see N-91, probably inventory number 2465], [see FSA A.6 05.0640], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0002; FSA A.6 04.GN.0065; FSA A.6 04.GN.0066]; left) small jug, 2266 (?) [see N-91, probably inventory number 2466], [see FSA A.6 05.0640], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0046]; top right) small jug, [see N-91, inventory number 2226], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0763]; bottom right) small jug, [see N-91, inventory number 2227], [see FSA A.6 05.0640], [ see FSA A.6 04.GN.0763]; far right) small jar, [see N-91, inventory number 2467], [see FSA A.6 05.0638], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0208]."
- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 47 [(SK-27, p.47)] reads, "prehistoric pottery: left) jar [from Varamin], [see N-91, inventory number 2468]; right) bowl [from Tepe Giyan], [see N-91, inventory number 2469], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0073]."
- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 48 [(SK-27, p.48)] reads, "Prehistoric pottery: top left) [ceramic vessel with handle and long spout], [see N-91, inventory number 2470], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0030]; bottom left) [ceramic vessel], [see N-91, inventory number 2471], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0029]; center) [ceramic vessel], [see N-91, inventory number 2472], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0031]; right) [ceramic vessel], [see N-91, inventory number 2473], [see FSA A.6 05.0640], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0034]."
- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 49 [(SK-27, p.49)] reads, " Prehistoric pottery, objects from Demāvand region, Zūn and Sārūn."
When I first began to raise geese, in Hawaii, my more literate friends asked me, "Have you read the E. B. White piece?" This apparently persuasive essay was all that they knew about geese other than the cliché, often repeated to me, "Geese are really aggressive! Worse than dogs!" or "They're everywhere!"—regarding them as an invasive species, spoiling golf courses. Received wisdom is not just unwise, it is usually wrong. But I was well disposed toward E. B. White. In his writing he is the kindest and most rational observer of the world. And a man who can write the line "Why is it...that an Englishman is unhappy until he has explained America?" is someone to cherish.
Though I had read much of White's work, I had not read his essay "The Geese." I avoided it for several reasons. The first was that I wanted to discover the behavior of these birds, their traits and inclinations, on my own, at least in the beginning. I loved the size of geese, their plumpness, their softness, the thick down, the big feet of fluffy just-born goslings, the alertness of geese—sounding an alarm as soon as the front gate opened; their appetites, their yawning, the social behavior in their flocking, their homing instinct, the warmth of their bodies, their physical strength, their big blue unblinking eyes. I marveled at their varieties of biting and pecking, the way out of sheer impatience a goose wishing to be fed quickly would peck at my toes, just a reminder to hurry up; the affectionate and harmless gesture of pecking if I got too close; the gander's hard nip on the legs, the wicked bite on my thigh, which left a bruise. I also marveled at their memory, their ingeniousness in finding the safest places to nest; their meddling curiosity, always sampling the greenery, discovering that orchid leaves are tasty and that the spiky stalks of pineapple plants are chewable and sweet.
But it was the second and more important reason that kept my hand from leaping to the shelf and plucking at the Essays of E. B. White. It was White's conceits, his irrepressible anthropomorphism, his naming of farm animals, making them domestic pets, dressing them in human clothes and giving them lovable identities, his regarding them as partners (and sometime personal antagonists). Talking spiders, rats, mice, lambs, sheep and pigs are all extensions of White's human world—more than that, they are in many cases more sensitive, more receptive, truer chums than many of White's human friends.
But here's the problem. White's is not just a grumpy partiality toward animals; rather, his frequent lapses into anthropomorphism produce a deficiency of observation. And this sets my teeth on edge, not for merely being cute in the tradition of children's books, but (also in the tradition of children's books) for being against nature.
Animal lovers often tend to be misanthropes or loners, and so they transfer their affection to the creature in their control. The classics of this type are single species obsessives, like Joy Adamson, the Born Free woman who raised Elsa the lioness and was celebrated in East Africa as a notorious scold; or Dian Fossey, the gorilla woman, who was a drinker and a recluse. "Grizzly man" Tim Treadwell was regarded, in some circles, as an authority on grizzlies, but Werner Herzog's documentary shows him to have been deeply disturbed, perhaps psychopathic and violent.
Assigning human personalities to animals is the chief trait of the pet owner—the doting dog-lover with his baby talk, the smug stay-at-home with a fat lump of fur on her lap who says, "Me, I'm a cat person," and the granny who puts her nose against the tin cage and makes kissing noises at her parakeet. Their affection is often tinged with a sense of superiority. Deer and duck hunters never talk this way about their prey, though big game hunters—Hemingway is the classic example—often sentimentalize the creatures they blow to bits and then lovingly stuff to hang on the wall. The lion in Hemingway's story "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" is sketched as one of the characters, but that is perhaps predictable given Hemingway's tendency to romanticize what have come to be called charismatic megafauna. Moby-Dick is wicked and vengeful, and Jaws was not a hungry shark but a villain, its big teeth the very symbol of its evil. And goodness is embodied in the soulful eyes of a seal pup, so like a 6-year-old that at seal culling season you find celebrities crawling across ice floes to cuddle them.
The literature of pets, or beloved animals, from My Dog Tulip to Tarka the Otter, is full of gushing anthropomorphists. The writers of nature films and wildlife documentaries are so seriously afflicted in this way they distort science. How many ant colonies have you seen on a TV screen while hearing, "Just putting that thing on his back and toiling with his little twig and thinking, I've just got to hang on a little while longer," speaking of the ant as though it's a Nepalese Sherpa.
Possibly the creepiest animals-presented-as-humans film was March of the Penguins, a hit movie for obviously the very reason that it presented these birds as tubby Christians marooned on a barren snowfield, examples to be emulated for their family values. When a bird of prey, unidentified but probably a giant petrel, appears in the film and dives to kill a chick, the carnage is not shown nor is the bird identified. The bird is not another creature struggling to exist in a snowfield but an opportunistic mugger from the polar wastes. We are enjoined to see the penguins as good and the giant petrel as wicked. With this travesty of science people try to put a human face on the animal world.
This is perhaps understandable. I've named most of my geese, if only to make sense of which one is which, and they grow into the name. I talk to them. They talk back to me. I have genuine affection for them. They make me laugh in their wrongheadedness as well as in the ironies of their often-unerring instincts. I also feel for them, and I understand their mortality in ways they cannot. But even in the pathos, which is part of pet owning, I try to avoid anthropomorphizing them, which is the greatest barrier to understanding their world.
But E. B. White patronizes his geese and invents feelings for them and obfuscates things. After years of goose rearing, I finally read his essays and, as I feared, was in the company of a fanciful author, not an observant gozzard, or goose rearer. Here was "a gander who was full of sorrows and suspicions." A few sentences later the gander was referred to as "a grief-crazed old fool." These are the sentimentalities you find in children's books. A goose in White's "classic" story about a spider, Charlotte's Web, says to Wilbur the pig, "I'm sitting-sitting on my eggs. Eight of them. Got to keep them toasty-oasty-oasty warm."
Edward Lear was also capable of writing in this whimsical vein, yet his paintings of birds rival Audubon's in dramatic accuracy. Lear could be soppy about his cat, but he was clearsighted the rest of the time. E. B. White is never happier than when he is able to depict an animal by humanizing it as a friend. Yet what lies behind the animal's expression of friendship? It is an eagerness for easy food. Feed birds and they show up. Leave the lids off garbage cans in Maine and you've got bears—"beggar bears" as they're known. Deer love the suburbs—that's where the easiest meals are. Woodchucks prefer dahlias to dandelions. The daily imperative of most animals, wild and tame, is the quest for food, which is why, with some in your hand, you seem to have a pet, if not a grateful pal.
White's geese are not just contented but cheerful. They are also sorrowful. They are malicious, friendly, broken-spirited. They mourn. They are at times "grief-stricken." White is idiosyncratic in distinguishing male from female. He misunderstands the cumulative battles that result in a dominant gander—and this conflict is at the heart of his essay. He seems not to notice how at the margins of a flock they bond with each other—two old ganders, for example, keeping each other company. It seems to White that geese assume such unusual positions for sex that they've consulted "one of the modern sex manuals." Goslings are "innocent" and helpless. When I came across the gander White singled out as "a real dandy, full of pompous thoughts and surly gestures," I scribbled in the margin, "oh, boy."
During ten years of living among geese and observing them closely, I have come to the obvious conclusion that they live in a goose-centric world, with goose rules and goose urgencies. More so than ducks, which I find passive and unsociable, geese have a well-known flocking instinct, a tendency to the gaggle. This is enjoyable to watch until you realize that if there is more than one gander in the flock, they will fight for dominance, often quite vocally.
Their sounds vary in pitch and urgency, according to the occasion, from wheedling murmurs of reedy ingratiation, along with the silent scissoring of the beak, as they step near knowing you might have food, to the triumphant squawk and wing-flapping of the gander after he has successfully put to flight one of his rivals. In between are the ark-ark-ark of recognition and alarm when the geese see or hear a stranger approach. Geese have remarkable powers of perception (famously, geese warned the Romans of the Gallic invasion in 390 b.c.); the hiss of warning, almost snake-like, the beak wide open, the agitated honk with an outstretched neck, and—among many other goose noises—the great joyous cry of the guarding gander after his mate has laid an egg and gotten off her nest. Ducks quack, loudly or softly, but geese are large eloquent vocalizers, and each distinct breed has its own repertoire of phrases.
My first geese began as three wobbly goslings, scarcely a day old, two ganders and a goose. The goose became attached to one of the ganders—or perhaps the other way round; the superfluous gander became attached to me—indeed "imprinted" on me so deeply that even years later he will come when called, let his feathers be groomed, scratched and smoothed, and will sit on my lap without stirring, in an astonishing show of security and affection. Konrad Lorenz describes this behavior as resulting from a gosling's first contact. Affection is of course the wrong word—mateship is more exact; my gander had found a partner in me because his mother was elsewhere and no other goose was available.
Every day of the year my geese range over six sunny Hawaiian acres. Penning or staking them, as some gozzards do in northern latitudes, is unthinkable. White mentions such captivity in his essay but makes no judgment: it is of course cruel confinement, maddening big birds, which need lots of space for browsing, rummaging and often flying low. When it comes time to sex young geese, the process is quite simple: you tip the birds upside down and look at the vent in their nether parts—a gander has a penis, a goose doesn't. A little later—weeks rather than months—size and shape are the indicators; the gander is up to a third bigger than the goose.
White never mentions the breed of his geese, another unhelpful aspect of his essay, but if they were Embdens, the gander would be 30 pounds at maturity and the goose five to ten pounds lighter; English gray geese are bigger, China geese a bit smaller, and so forth, but always the gander heavier than his mate. I have raised Toulouse geese, China geese, Embdens and English grays. Toulouse are usually overwhelmed by the Embdens, which seem to me to have the best memories and the largest range of sounds. Embdens are also the most teachable, the most patient. China geese are tenacious in battle, with a powerful beak, though a full-grown English gray gander can hold its ground and often overcome that tenacity.
Spring is egg-laying time. When there is a clutch of ten or a dozen eggs, the goose sits on them and stays there in a nest made of twigs and her own fluffy breast feathers. The goose must turn her eggs several times a day, to spread the heat evenly. Performing this operation hardly means withdrawing from the world, as White suggests. Though a sitting goose has a greatly reduced appetite, even the broodiest goose gets up from her nest now and then, covers her warm eggs with feathers and straw and goes for a meal and a drink. The gander stands vigil and, unusually possessive in his parental phase, fights off any other lurking ganders. When the goslings finally appear, they strike me as amazingly precocious—indeed the scientific word for their condition is precocial, which means they are covered with soft feathers and capable of independent activity almost from the moment of hatching. After a few days they show all the traits of adult behavior, adopting threat postures and hissing when they are fearful.
An established gander will carefully scrutinize new goslings introduced into his flock. It is simply a bewildered gander being a gander, acting out a protective, perhaps paternal possessive response. It is acting on instinct, gauging where the goslings fit in to his society. Their survival depends on it.
Geese develop little routines, favorite places to forage, though they range widely and nibble everything; they get to like certain shady spots, and through tactical fighting, using opportunities, they establish leadership; they stay together, they roam, and even the losers in the leadership battles remain as part of the flock. White's geese, which had to endure the hard Maine winters, were often confined to a barn or a pen, which are prisons producing perverse over-reactive, defensive, aggressive behavior, as all prisons do.
The gander takes charge in normal surroundings: it is part of his dominance—keeping other ganders away. He rules by intimidation. He is protective, attentive and aggressive in maintaining his superior position among all the other birds, and will attack any creature in sight, and that includes the FedEx deliveryman way up at the front gate. When young ganders grow up, they frequently challenge the older one. The victor dominates the flock, and the goslings have a new protector. The old gander has merely lost that skirmish and has withdrawn, because he is winded and tired and possibly injured. But win or lose they remain with the flock. Defeated ganders go off for a spell to nurse their wounds, but they always return. One of the most interesting aspects of a flock is the way it accommodates so many different geese—breeds, sexes, ages, sizes. Ganders go on contending, and often an old gander will triumph over the seemingly stronger young one. Only after numerous losing battles do they cease to compete, and then a nice thing happens: the older ganders pair up and ramble around together at the back of the flock, usually one protecting the other.
There is a clue to White's self-deception in this part of the essay: "I felt very deeply his sorrow and his defeat." White projects his own age and insecurity onto the gander. "As things go in the animal kingdom, he is about my age, and when he lowered himself to creep under the bar, I could feel in my own bones his pain at bending down so far." This essay was written in 1971, when White was a mere 72, yet this is the key to the consistent anthropomorphism, his seeing the old gander as an extension of himself—a metonymical human, to use French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss' definition of such a pet. The essay is not strictly about geese: it is about E. B. White. He compares the defeated gander to "spent old males, motionless in the glare of the day" on a park bench in Florida. He had shuttled back and forth from Maine to Florida; his anxiety is real. He mentions summer sadness twice in his essay, a melancholy that may sadden a person precisely because the day is sunny.
What saddens me about this confident essay is that White misses so much. Because he locks up his geese at night, he never sees the weird sleeping patterns of geese. They hardly seem to sleep at all. They might crouch and curl their necks and tuck their beaks into their wings, but it is a nap that lasts only minutes. Do geese sleep? is a question that many people have attempted to answer, but always unsatisfactorily. If they are free to ramble at night, geese nap in the day. However domesticated a goose, its wakefulness and its atavistic alertness to danger has not been bred out of it.
Their alliances within a flock, their bouts of aggression and spells of passivity, their concentration, their impulsive, low, skidding flights when they have a whole meadow to use as a runway, the way they stand their ground against dogs or humans—these are all wonders. I find them so remarkable, I would not dream of eating a goose or selling a bird to anyone who would eat it, though I sometimes entertain the fantasy of a goose attacking a gourmet and eating his liver.
There are many more wonders: the way they recognize my voice from anyone else shouting and how they hurry near when called; or follow me because they know I have food in my bulging hand. They will follow me 300 yards, looking eager and hungry. I have mentioned their inexhaustible curiosity—sampling every plant that looks tasty, as well as pecking at objects as though to gauge their weight or their use. Their digestive system is a marvel—almost nonstop eating and they never grow fat (Why Geese Don't Get Obese (And We Do) is a recent book on animal physiology); their ability to drink nothing but muddy water with no obvious ill effects; and with this their conspicuous preference for clean water, especially when washing their heads and beaks, which they do routinely. Their calling out to a mate from a distance, and the mate rushing to their side; or if one becomes trapped under a steepness or enmeshed in a fence, and sounds the faint squawk of helplessness, the other will stay by, until it is released. Their capacity to heal seems to me phenomenal—from a dog bite, in the case of one gander I had that was at death's door for more than a month, or from the bite of another gander in one of their ritual battles for supremacy. Such conflicts often result in blood-smeared breast feathers. Their ability to overcome internal ailments is a wonder to behold.
I had an old, loud China gander that was displaced by a younger gander—his son, as a matter of fact, who ended up with the old goose we named Jocasta. From the time of Adam, we humans have had an urge to name the birds of the sky and the beasts of the field. The old gander may have been defeated by the son, but he remained feisty. Then he became ill, got weak, ate very little, couldn't walk, sat only in shade and moaned. He was immobilized. I dissolved in water some erythromycin I got at the feed store and squirted it down his throat with a turkey baster, and added some more to his water.
Several weeks went by. He lost weight, but I could see that he was sipping from his dish. From time to time I carried him to the pond—he paddled and dipped his head and beak, but he was too weak to crawl out. Still he seemed to respond to this physiotherapy. After a month he began to eat. One morning, going out to give him more medicine, I saw that he was standing and able to walk. I brought him some food, and as I put the food in his dish he took a few steps toward me and bit me hard on the thigh, giving me a purple prune-size bruise. This is not an example of irony or ingratitude. It is goosishness. He was thankfully himself again.
Paul Theroux is working on a new travel book, which retraces the route of his bestselling The Great Railway Bazaar.
A serrated rostrum of a sawfish shares wall space with a dozen or so carved wooden masks from Madagascar, Tahiti, Chile, Peru, and beyond. Behind the couch hang four paintings—Chinese landscapes delicately rendered on silk—each depicting a season. On the bookshelf, 80 or so small flags stand at attention, lined up like a miniature United Nations court of flags—one for every country Robert Higgins visited in his lifelong quest for dragons.
Now 85, Higgins’s dragon-hunting days have passed, but the work he pioneered continues—younger searchers are off on modern expeditions. And while the world Higgins traveled was large, the world he studied was not. He spent a lifetime searching for animals smaller than the dot on a 12-point i. His specialty is a group of marine organisms called kinorhynchs, aka mud dragons.
Mud dragons are just one type of meiofauna, animals so diminutive they live between grains of sediment. They swim through the watery film surrounding each grain, or navigate the terrain of sand and mud—veritable mountains to scale—using suction pads, hooks, or tiny toes. Just a handful of marine sediment is a meiofauna metropolis. They’re so numerous that under a single footprint on moist sand there could be up to 100,000 individuals. A brief walk, say just 85 steps, might tromp over eight and a half million organisms, a number equivalent to the population of New York City.For over 60 years, Robert Higgins (right) traveled the world collecting microscopic meiofauna from their sand and mud habitats. Here, in the late 1980s in a makeshift laboratory on a hotel terrace, Higgins and his colleague Fernando Pardos search for life in samples collected earlier in the day on the coast of Santander, Spain. (Photo courtesy of Fernando Pardos)
But for a group of animals so plentiful, they are little known and poorly understood, except by a dedicated few. Meiofauna means lesser or smaller animals, and Higgins has spent a lifetime challenging such a dismissive descriptor. Far from being “lesser,” to him this abundance of life speaks of endless opportunity. Higgins’s passion has been to bring these animals the due they deserve, to bring the obscure out of obscurity.
Forget Daenerys Targaryen, mother of dragons, and her quest for the Iron Throne—Robert Higgins was the original. This father of dragons has been building his kingdom since he snagged his first mud dragon over 60 years ago.
Today, Higgins lives in a modest two-bedroom apartment in a retirement community in Asheville, North Carolina. Widowed in 2010 after his beloved wife, Gwen, died of cancer, he shares the space with a fluffy, white Havanese, Susie, who today is tricked out in a pink, ruffled collar. A talented artist, he spends some time oil painting—a recent subject is Echo, his African gray parrot of 30 years—but is still keenly interested in meiofauna research, and signs of his life’s work fill his home.
A balsa wood model of a mud dragon is prominent atop his media cabinet. The model was once on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, where Higgins spent 27 years. “They had a terrible model of a kinorhynch,” he says, “so I carved this one.”
About the length of his forearm, Higgins’s model is no delicate tchotchke. Scaled up to about 500 times the actual size of the largest kinorhynch, the model brings to life the 13-segment creature, with its retractable head covered in recurved spines. To move through the sediment, a mud dragon thrusts its head out of its cylinder-like body, hooks its spines on the grains of sediment, and then hauls itself forward. Its mode of locomotion explains the etymology of kinorhynch, Greek for moveable snout.
Nearby, a packed bookcase speaks to Higgins’s fascination with the natural world—several atlases, titles on birds and insects, the textbook Cell Structure and Function. The lower shelves hold two bulging black binders filled with copies of Higgins’s professional publications, all neatly collated in color-coded plastic sleeves. Together, they form a paper trail, documenting a career spent searching for life in the world’s sediments.Robert Higgins samples the bottom sediment for meiofauna in the waters near the Smithsonian Marine Station in Fort Pierce, Florida. Various sampling devices including corers and dredges are used to gather the top layers of sediment, which is the most oxygenated and hospitable to meiofauna. (Photo courtesy of Robert Higgins)
Higgins’s travels with meiofauna began in 1952, when he arrived as an undergrad at the University of Colorado Boulder, fresh-faced and buzz cut, newly released from the Marine Corps. In his second year there, he met professor Robert Pennak, who introduced him to the world of invertebrates, including tardigrades, a type of meiofauna so pudgy they’re called moss piglets or water bears.
Pennak hired Higgins for 35 cents an hour to work in the university’s moss and lichen herbarium, where he’d regularly find hundreds of microscopic animals, including water bears, in the moss samples. “If you take a lush piece of moss, put it in a bowl of water and squeeze it … you have about a 50 percent chance of finding a tardigrade,” he says.
Higgins was enamored by the tenacity of tardigrades, with their death-defying adaptions to desiccation, freezing, radiation, and other extreme environmental stresses. So after taking every available course on invertebrates and completing his bachelor’s degree, he went on to do a master’s degree on the life history of a tardigrade species living in the mosses of the Boulder region.
He thought about staying at Boulder for a PhD on water bears, but Pennak encouraged his protégé to go elsewhere, and also delivered some prophetic advice. “He said, ‘Do something no one else has done, and then you make your own science,’” recalls Higgins. “I was quite affected by that.”Tardigrades are also called water bears or moss piglets. They are a well-studied group of meiofauna, famous for their ability to withstand numerous environmental stressors. Tardigrades were Robert Higgins’s first introduction to meiofauna and the subject of his master’s thesis. (Photo by Papilio/Alamy Stock Photo)
Higgins applied to five universities, was accepted to five, and chose Duke University in North Carolina. But between leaving the Colorado mountains and arriving on Duke’s Atlantic shore, Higgins made a trip to the Pacific for a summer fellowship at the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor marine laboratory. Before he left, Pennak asked Higgins to try to collect a few samples he was lacking in his teaching collection, including kinorhynchs.
Even though he’d never seen a kinorhynch, Higgins accepted the mission. Within days of arriving, he was on a boat dredging sediment from the seafloor. Back in the lab, he was confronted with a bucket of mud and water and the tactical problem of trying to extract minute creatures from the crud. “Self, how the heck am I going to go through all this mud?” Higgins recalls of the moment.
The only information he had on technique was from the one scientist who had previously found a few kinorhynchs at Friday Harbor. Squeezing a pipette, she’d added bubbles one by one to the sample, relying on the physics of bubbles to find the animals. The exoskeletons of kinorhynchs and other hard-bodied meiofauna are hydrophobic—they repel water—causing them to stick on the bubbles in the surface film.
Higgins tried the method, picking the speck-sized animals off the water surface using a small tool with a tiny wire loop at one end, but it was tedious work. After an hour, he’d managed to snag just four; his days of squeezing dozens of tardigrades out of Colorado moss seemed halcyon in retrospect. But, just as a weak batch of adhesive gave 3M its Post-it note, a fumble in the lab that day proved serendipitous, perhaps not for the world, but at least for those trying to separate infuriatingly small creatures from a slurry of sand and water.
Higgins accidentally dropped a piece of paper into the water and when he pulled it out, it was covered in specks. He washed the sample into a petri dish and took a look under the scope—kinorhynchs were everywhere. The low-tech, highly effective technique, “bubble and blot,” was born. And so was Higgins’s life’s work.
The senior researchers at Friday Harbor were astounded when Higgins showed them the wealth of kinorhynchs he’d managed to find, and after working on the samples for his summer term’s research paper—and finding a paucity of literature on kinorhynchs—Pennak’s advice was staring him in the face. He’d found his “something” that few people knew anything about.
Back at Duke in the fall, with his Friday Harbor kinorhynch collection in tow, Higgins informed his PhD supervisor that he was switching from moss piglets to mud dragons. His adviser admitted he wouldn’t be much help—he knew next to nothing about kinorhynchs—but provided what support he could. “He bought me the equipment I needed and turned me loose,” says Higgins.
Higgins worked through the hundreds of mud dragons he’d collected, painstakingly detailing the morphological minutiae of spines and scalids, oral styles and cuticular hairs. The seven species he’d found were undescribed, which left the meticulous work of scientific description up to him. “Doing my thesis on the life history of kinorhynchs got me started,” he says, “and that got me everything.”
He became an expert in kinorhynchs, and quickly became the go-to taxonomist for that phylum as well as many other groups of meiofauna. Soon researchers from around the world leaned on his skills, shipping all manner of unidentified animals his way. “Send them to Bob, he works on these weird things,” Higgins later recounted in a speech.
But Higgins didn’t want to remain the only guy who works on weird things. As he progressed in his career from Duke to Wake Forest University and finally to the National Museum of Natural History, where he served as curator in the department of invertebrate zoology, he nurtured a community of researchers who collectively animated the hidden micro-kingdoms below our feet.
In 1966, he cofounded the International Association of Meiobenthologists and launched its newsletter, with an eye to keeping the communication, both professional and personal, flowing. Three years later, while working for the Smithsonian in Tunis, Tunisia, he co-convened the first International Conference on Meiofauna. Twenty-eight participants from seven countries attended. It was a start.
Almost 50 years after Higgins first snagged some mud dragons on a sheet of paper, María Herranz, a kinorhynch biologist doing a postdoc at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, is bubbling and blotting the sediment sample she collected that morning near the Hakai Institute’s Calvert Island Ecological Observatory on British Columbia’s central coast. As she works, she recounts the story of how Higgins discovered the technique—with slight tweaks as one expects in an as-told-to story (her version had Higgins with a cold, and a tissue in his shirt pocket falling into the sample). The details of paper versus tissue don’t matter so much, but what is clear is the legacy that has come down via the generations from when Higgins was pretty much on his own studying kinorhynchs, and today, when the international kinorhynchologist club has grown to about 10.
Out sampling, Herranz uses a dredge, modeled after one designed by Higgins, to grab the top layer of mud . (“The first five to 10 centimeters is where the action is,” explains Higgins, “that’s where it’s still oxygenated.”) All the other dredges he’d tried dug too deep, so Higgins designed one. Rather than patent it, and hold the idea close, he readily shared the plans with any researchers who asked so they could build their own.
When she’s ready to strain the creatures she’s blotted from the mud slurry, Herranz uses a small net (think butterfly net meets coffee filter). It’s another Higgins-designed piece of equipment used by kinorhynch researchers, and each one was sewn by his wife, Gwen. The net’s resemblance to a bra cup—a pointy vintage number—was not lost on a crewman on one of Higgins’s research expeditions who saucily held the net to his chest. The name “mermaid bra” stuck and regularly makes its way into the methodology section of scientific papers. During her lifetime, Gwen made nets for anyone who asked and they all came with a label and serial number. Herranz’s reads: Gwen-Made Ltd., Mermaid Bra, SN 070703. (To recognize Gwen’s contribution to the science, Herranz named a new species of kinorhynch after her: Antygomonas gwenae.)
Herranz has never met Higgins, but his name comes up often in her kinorhynch work. There’s bubble and blot, the dredge, the mermaid bra, the meiofauna bible—Introduction to the Study of Meiofauna—he coauthored, but most importantly there is lineage. Higgins and Herranz are linked by Fernando Pardos, a zoologist at Complutense University of Madrid, who encouraged Herranz to study kinorhynchs instead of jellyfish, a suggestion strikingly similar to the encouragement Higgins once gave him.The mermaid bra is standard equipment in meiofauna research. The net was designed by Robert Higgins and for years sewn for researchers around the world by his wife, Gwen. Here, Robert Higgins and Reinhardt Kristensen ham it up at the Den Lille Havfrue (the Little Mermaid) in Copenhagen, Denmark. (Photo courtesy of Reinhardt Møbjerg Kristensen)
In 1986, fresh from completing his PhD, Pardos, then 30, was applying for a university teaching position. In preparation for the interview, and anticipating he’d be asked to teach invertebrate zoology, he was searching for information on a newly described group of meiofauna. Pardos knew Higgins had been involved with the discovery, so he wrote him a letter asking for information.
“To my surprise, Bob Higgins answered with a stack of scientific papers and a letter,” says Pardos. In the chatty letter, Higgins noted that his specialty was phylum Kinorhyncha and added a sentence that would send any ready-to-launch zoologist’s heart aflutter: “Did you know there is nobody studying [kinorhynchs] in Spain?”
Just as Pennak had encouraged Higgins to study something that no one else was, Higgins was offering the opportunity of a lifetime to Pardos. And it came with room and board. In his letter, Higgins invited Pardos to stay with him and Gwen in Washington, DC, despite never having met the young student. “These are the kind of things that happen maybe once in your life,” says Pardos. “My only English was, ‘My tailor is rich,’ but I traveled to the States and I found there the most generous people, both in personal terms and in scientific terms.”
Pardos and Higgins spent two weeks together in the summer of 1989, one in Washington at the National Museum of Natural History, and one at the Smithsonian’s field station in Fort Pierce, Florida.
“Bob opened my eyes to the meiofauna world,” says Pardos. “He was so enthusiastic and could transmit the excitement of seeing something that very few zoologists have seen.” He recalls a quiet moment in the lab when they were both at the microscope looking through samples, when Higgins cried out, “Kiiiiiiiiii-no-rhynch!” “This may have been his 100,000th kinorhynch, but he looked as excited as the first time,” says Pardos, adding that when he found his very first mud dragon, Higgins took him out for a beer. “It was the first time I’d seen a kinorhynch alive and I thought, ‘This is fascinating.’ I am still fascinated.”
From that initial time together, Pardos and Higgins forged a strong bond that persists to this day. The summer after Pardos’s stint in the United States, the pair met on the north coast of Spain where they collected and described the first two species of Spanish mud dragons. Their collaborations continued until Higgins’s retirement, but they still have long chats on the phone every few months during which Pardos passes on research updates. “He is absolutely curious about my work and he’s very proud,” says Pardos.
With Pardos and other colleagues from the meiofauna nexus, Higgins traveled the world collecting wherever he could, taking along a portable dredge—the “mini-meio”—in his impeccably packed luggage. No meiofauna anywhere was safe from his shovel and sieve. Higgins was encouraged by the Smithsonian to describe and collect what he could, snagging life from marine sediments, piecing together a picture of life in the mysterious muck animal by animal. His work created an international repository of meiofaunal life, an essential time capsule given that coastal habitats are dredged and polluted with astonishing speed.Meiofauna live within moist sediments throughout the world. Robert Higgins (left) and his colleagues Yoshihisa Shirayama, from Tokyo, Japan, and Supawadee Chullasorn, from Thailand, search for meiofauna on a Japanese beach. (Photo courtesy of Robert Higgins)
And the collection is still a meiofauna mother lode for contemporary researchers. “There is more than one scientific life of work waiting there,” says Pardos, who regularly sends students to the Smithsonian for research, scouring Higgins’s collection of prepared microscope slides and tiny vials with their impeccably lettered labels.
In a world with macroscopic spectacles such as Komodo dragons, sea dragons, snapdragons, and dragonflies, it might seem like the epitome of obscure pursuits to geek out on row after row of jars and slides and lipstick-sized vials housing microscopic mud dragons and other species from this nanosized wonderland. But as with many scientific pursuits, you never know where a serendipitous sample causes a life to zig when it might have zagged.
Higgins recognizes that serendipity—“my old friend” as he once called it—is a central character in his life story: a sheet of paper falls into a bucket, a letter from Spain crosses a desk, an almost-missed train leads to the discovery of an entirely new life form.
Years before Pardos received his life-changing letter from Higgins, another meiofauna researcher, Reinhardt Kristensen, was sampling the sediment near the Roscoff Marine Station on the coast of Brittany, France. It was his last day in the field and he was racing against the train schedule. Kristensen, then a senior lecturer at the University of Copenhagen and a colleague of Higgins’s through the meiofauna network, was processing a large sample, preserving it for future study. The protocol for separating the meiofauna from its sediment is multistep, but Kristensen didn’t have time, so instead he quickly rinsed the sample with fresh water. The temporary salt imbalance shocked the creatures within, causing them to loosen their grips on the sediment. He strained them into a vial, and was off to catch the evening train to Copenhagen.
Several months later, in the fall of 1982, newly arrived at the Smithsonian Institution to do a postdoc in Higgins’s lab, he showed his colleague one of the unfamiliar animals he’d collected that day near Roscoff. It looked familiar to Higgins. “I went over to the cupboard and pulled out a little vial and dumped it into a petri dish. They were the same things, or species of the same things,” Higgins says.
Eight years before, Higgins had found a single specimen of this type of animal among thousands of meiofauna collected on a six-day expedition off the North Carolina coast. From the moment he looked at it under the scope, Higgins knew he had something special on his hands, but with only one specimen, there was little he could do but preserve it and file it in his collection. “Every once in a while, I’d take it out of the cabinet to take a look,” he says.
When you’re working with poorly studied yet ubiquitous animals, finding organisms new to science is not uncommon. (As Pardos notes, “Every time I look at a sample, I see more things that I don’t know than things I do.”) But while finding a new species may be almost routine, the higher up you move on the classification ladder, through class, order, family, and such, finding new animals that deserve an entirely new grouping is increasingly implausible. And discovering an organism different enough to warrant its own phylum comes only to a rare few. After all, all known animal life on Earth—to date almost one million species and counting—is categorized into one of only 35 phyla.
And a new phylum is just what Higgins and Kristensen had on the lab table before them.This illustration shows the loriciferan Pliciloricus enigmaticus, the species found by Robert Higgins off the Atlantic coast. (Illustration by Carolyn Gast, National Museum of Natural History/Wikipedia)
An ocean apart, the two men had discovered two species of a new kind of animal. Higgins had found an adult of one species in 1974, and Kristensen found the full life cycle—adult and larval stages—of another species in 1982. Using the Latin words loricus (corset) and fero (to bear), they called the phylum Loricifera, the “girdle wearer,” to reflect the corset-like rings making up the animal’s armored cuticle.
After painstakingly detailing the original specimen for their proposed new phyla, Kristensen, now curator at the Natural History Museum of Denmark, made the announcement of their discovery with details of Nanaloricus mysticus, the “mysterious girdle wearer,” to the world in a 1983 paper. Loricifera was one of only four new phyla described in the 20th century.
In honor of his colleague’s contribution, Kristensen named the loriciferan’s larval stage the Higgins larva. “That was my payoff and a wonderful one,” says Higgins.
Beside the balsa wood kinorhynch on Higgins’s media cabinet, sits another sculpture—this one a 3D computer-generated glass model of Pliciloricus enigmaticus, the loriciferan Higgins found off the North Carolina coast. The art piece, which renders the animal in delicate bubbles, was made by Kristensen and created in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the publication of the new phylum Loricifera.
Kristensen and Higgins continued to work together throughout the rest of Higgins’s career, in the United States and around the world, discovering and naming many new species, including a loriciferan they named for Gwen Higgins—Nanaloricus gwenae. As with Fernando Pardos, Higgins was a professional colleague, a mentor, and a generous personal friend to Kristensen and his family. At times, Higgins, who is 16 years older, offered some life skills to help the young scientist launch his career. He gave him pointers on delivering scientific talks for instance, and even instructions on how to tie a tie. “You can’t go to meet a president without a proper knot,” says Kristensen. It was a life skill that came in handy as the men were recognized for their discovery in several ceremonies, including one at the Smithsonian hosted by then-US vice president George H. W. Bush, and another in Denmark where they were honored by Queen Margrethe II.
But for all of the accolades—the times his colleagues have added higginsi to a newly discovered animal; the hundreds of scientific papers with Robert Higgins as contributing author; and even to his part in discovering a new phylum of animals—it is the work that Higgins has done to build networks, foster relationships, and share generously that is, perhaps, his greatest legacy.
At its core, at its purest non-cynical, non-competitive center, science is about sharing. Through journals, researchers share their discoveries; at conferences, they speak a common language with their peers, reveling in the knowledge that, for a few days at least, they’re not the only wonk in the room; in the field, they slog through the mud and haul nets, and share a beer at the end of a hard day. And, just as for Higgins’s prized meiofauna, where a magnificent world unfolds in the interstitial spaces between the grains of sand, for scientists it is often in the interstices between all the formalities—a chance comment over coffee, a tossed out phrase in a presentation, a brief mention of something observed or collected or pondered—where the wonder happens.
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This year’s roster of Academy Award nominees is much like those of previous decades: predominantly male and white. Of the 20 men and women nominated for acting awards, only one—Harriet’s Cynthia Erivo—is a person of color. And despite strong offerings from the likes of Greta Gerwig, Lulu Wang and Lorene Scafaria, the list of Best Director contenders is all-male for the second year in a row.
The movies set to be honored at this weekend’s ceremony fare no better in the diversity department. 1917, widely predicted to win Best Picture, has just one female character. Anna Paquin says a single line in the more than three-and-a-half hour The Irishman, while Margot Robbie, who plays actress Sharon Tate in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, is seen more often than heard. Because these and similarly biographical films take place in the past, which is assumed to be “overwhelmingly white and male” in and of itself, points out Aisha Harris for the New York Times, filmmakers have a ready excuse for centering their narratives on white men.
Hollywood creatives certainly have the artistic license to continue elevating stories dominated by white men, but as Harris writes, “[L]et’s not pretend that this isn’t also a choice—a choice dictated not by the past, but by an erroneous (and perhaps unconscious) belief that white men have done the most and lived the most interesting lives of us all.”
Though the movie industry is making some progress in rejecting this perception—biopics of such prominent women as Sally Ride, Rosa Parks and Aretha Franklin are currently in the works—gaps in the cinematic record remain. Harriet, for instance, is the very first biopic centered on the Underground Railroad conductor. Civil rights leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, American Red Cross founder Clara Barton, and American flag creator Betsy Ross are among the famous women who are long overdue for either their very first biopics or new takes on decades-old productions.
To perhaps inspire Hollywood, Smithsonian magazine has curated a list of nine women—one for each of this year’s Best Picture nominees—who you may not have heard of but whose fascinating lives warrant the biopic treatment. All of these individuals, drawn from an array of countries and backgrounds, are now deceased.
Bessie ColemanBessie Coleman in 1923 (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
The Backstory: Eleven years before Amelia Earhart piloted her first transatlantic flight, Bessie Coleman earned her international pilot’s license, becoming both the first African American and Native American woman to do so. “Queen Bess,” as the aviatrix became known, had saved up money to leave her sharecropper mother and some of her 12 siblings in Texas and join her brothers in Chicago. Her brother John, a WWI veteran, talked about the women overseas who piloted aircraft, and Bessie grew determined to take to the skies too. She swapped her job as a manicurist for a higher-wage gig as a restaurant manager and secured the financial backing of the Chicago Defender’s millionaire owner Robert Abbott, among others. Since stateside flight instructors refused to tutor a black woman, Coleman studied French and then sailed across the Atlantic to an esteemed flight school in northern France.
By 1921, Bessie was a licensed pilot. After a second round of training in Europe, as Doris L. Roch relates in Queen Bess: Daredevil Aviator, she took to the skies as a “barnstorming” pilot, who’d perform flashy and dangerous figure eights, walk on wings, and parachute down from the plane. She made a foray into showbiz, too, signing a contract to star in a feature film, but then left the project when she learned her character would arrive in New York City wearing tattered clothing. “No Uncle Tom stuff for me!,” Coleman told Billboard. Her commitment to the black community was apparent in other areas of her professional life too: Coleman refused to fly for segregated crowds, had ambitions to start an African American aviation school and once, when the Chicago Herald offered to interview her if she’d pass as white, brought her darker-skinned mother and niece with her to the newspaper’s offices, flat-out refusing to whitewash herself.
Stunt flying only 20 years after the Wright brothers’ first flight was a risky endeavor, and after surviving a California crash that took two years to recover from, Coleman died at the age of 34 in another crash. The plane flipped mid-air. Coleman hadn’t been wearing a seat belt—she was too short to peer out at the land below otherwise—so she fell out of the plane and plummeted 500 feet down. According to a New York Times obituary written just this past December (as part of a series that pays due respect to notable figures whose deaths were unreported at the time), 10,000 people attended the memorial services for the barrier-breaking pilot.
Frances Glessner LeeFrances Glessner Lee, at work on one of the Nutshells in the early 1940s (Courtesy of Glessner House Museum)
The Backstory: The field of forensic science owes much to Frances Glessner Lee, a 20th-century American heiress who used her vast fortune—and crafting skills—to train a generation of criminal investigators. Introduced to forensics by her brother’s friend, a future medical examiner and pathologist named George Burgess Magrath, during the 1930s, Lee spent much of the following decade creating dollhouse-sized crime scenes she dubbed the “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.”
Numbering 20 in all, the dioramas draw on true-life crime files to present intricate domestic interiors populated by battered, bloodied figures and decomposing bodies. Each Nutshell—the roster runs the gamut from a farmer found hanging in his barn to a charred skeleton lying in a burned bed and a high school student murdered on her way home from the store—includes clues pointing to the case’s solution, but as Lee warned the students tasked with studying her macabre scenes, red herrings abound.A magazine cover featuring Glessner Lee (Courtesy of Glessner House Museum)
The Nutshells’ goal, according to Lee, was to teach detectives-in-training the skills needed to “convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find the truth in a nutshell.”
Speaking with Smithsonian magazine in 2017, Nora Atkinson, curator of the “Murder Is Her Hobby” exhibition then at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery, said the Nutshells’ subversive qualities reflect Lee’s unhappiness with domestic life. Married at age 19, she was unable to pursue her passion for forensic investigation until later in life, when she divorced her husband and inherited her family's fortune.
“When you look at these pieces, almost all of them take place in the home,” explained Atkinson. “There's no safety in the home that you expect there to be. It's really reflective of the unease she had with the domestic role that she was given.”
Artemisia GentileschiArtemisia Gentileschi, Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandra, 1615-17 (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
The Backstory: For centuries, European artists looked to the biblical story of Judith killing the Assyrian general Holofernes as an example of serene courage in the face of tyranny. But when 17th-century artist Artemisia Gentileschi put paint to canvas, what emerged was a scene art critic Jonathan Jones describes as "revenge in oil." Painted in the aftermath of a seven-month rape trial, the violent work casts Gentileschi as Judith and her rapist as Holofernes. Here, on the confines of the canvas, she emerges victorious, enjoying the vindication she never received in real life.
Born in Rome in 1593, Gentileschi received artistic training from her father, a successful Tuscan painter named Orazio. She worked in the tenebrism style pioneered by Caravaggio, completing commissions for nobles and producing large-scale history scenes at a time when most female artists were consigned to still lifes and portraiture. She became the first female artist admitted to Florence’s Accademia del Disegno and the toast of cultural hubs from Venice to Naples and London. Her religious scenes centered on powerful women; she casted herself in the roles of such figures as Saint Catherine of Alexandra and Judith, and didn’t shy away from the gorier aspects of history. But before finding success across Europe, Gentileschi endured a traumatic experience that would reverberate throughout the rest of her career.Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Beheading Holofernes, c. 1612 (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
In 1612, Orazio accused his daughter’s art teacher, Agostino Tassi, of sexually assaulting her. (At the time, women were barred from pressing rape charges themselves, so Orazio acted on Gentileschi’s behalf, detailing the decline in “bartering value” inflicted by her loss of virginity.) During the months that followed, Gentileschi retraced Tassi’s actions in excruciating detail, even undergoing torture in hopes of proving her claim. Subjected to “moderate use of the sibille,” a torture device consisting of metal rings tightened around the fingers by strings, she declared, “It’s true, it’s true, it’s true.”
Despite being found guilty, Tassi—who evaded similar physical torment during the trial—was never actually punished.
Though Gentileschi’s reputation faded in the centuries following her death, she has since enjoyed a resurgence of critical acclaim—a trend evidenced by the London National Gallery’s upcoming “Artemisia” exhibition, which will feature the museum’s $4.7 million 2018 acquisition, her 1615-17 Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandra.
Policarpa SalavarrietaPolicarpa Salavarrieta (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
The Backstory: La Pola, as Policarpa (or Apolonia—her given name is disputed) Salavarrieta is affectionately known in Colombia, is a famous enough revolutionary within the country that her face graces the 10,000 peso bill. She’s also been the subject of an eponymous telenovela. The fifth of nine children, Salavarrieta was orphaned by smallpox at age 6 and grew up in the colony of New Granada (largely modern-day Colombia and Panama), which, by the time she reached her 20s, was rife with tension between the pro-Spanish-rule royalists and the independence-seeking patriots. La Pola became involved with the patriot movement starting in her hometown of Guadas, where she worked as a maid, and only escalated her anti-royalist activities once she moved to present-day Bogotá.
In the capital city, La Pola used her skills as a seamstress to ingratiate herself into wealthy households, learning about the movement of enemy troops. Along with other patriot women, many of whom came from aristocratic backgrounds, La Pola made uniforms, secured weapons, sussed out which impressed soldiers in the royalist forces could be persuaded to desert and join the patriot troops—she even, according to BBC Mundo, distilled illicit aguardiente (liquor) to bankroll the revolutionary efforts.
Soon enough, royalist forces arrested her. As historians James and Linda Henderson relate, La Pola’s lover, Alejo Sabaraín, and others were caught making their way to the plains to join the rebels, with signed evidence of La Pola’s counterintelligence efforts on them. She and eight other patriots, including Sabaraín, were sentenced to death by firing squad in November of 1817. To the end, La Pola remained unrepentant and sharp-tongued; she’s said to have argued with the priests sent to administer her last rites and cursed out the soldiers and government at her own execution so vehemently she competed with the noise of the drums and refused to comply with the executor's demands. “Although I am a woman and young, I have more than enough courage to suffer this death and a thousand more!” shouted La Pola, only in her early 20s, to the assembled onlookers.
Empress Dowager CixiKatharine Carl's 1904 painting of Empress Dowager Cixi, as seen at the Smithsonian Institution's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (Lumrs via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0)
The Pitch: The political machinations of “Game of Thrones” meet the opulent costuming of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette
The Backstory: China’s last empress, recently spotlighted in the exhibition “Empresses of China’s Forbidden City, 1644-1912” at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art, had an unusual rise to power. At 16 years old, she was selected in a nationwide search for consorts for the Xianfeng emperor. After initially coming to the Forbidden City as a concubine, she gave birth to the emperor’s only heir.
In 1861, when her son was five and Cixi herself was only 25, the Xianfeng emperor died, and the low-ranking consort became Dowager Empress Tzu Hsi, or Cixi. A cadre of ministers was initially supposed to help direct her son's rule, but Cixi and a former senior consort of Xianfeng’s ultimately shared power as regents. After her son died in 1875, the dowager empress consolidated power by breaking with succession tradition to adopt her three-year-old nephew, who was also too young to rule. All told, Cixi was China’s de facto leader for nearly half a century, ruling Qing China and holding imperial audiences from behind a screen in accordance with gender norms.
Was she a good leader? Historians have debated that point, as sensationalized Western accounts and modern Chinese schooling both maligned the “Dragon Lady,” who was said to have “the soul of a tiger in the body of a woman.” Theories have swirled that Cixi may have had a hand in the death (officially by suicide) of her son’s pregnant consort, or the arsenic poisoning of her nephew. In a recent biography, writer Jung Chang argues that Cixi helped China modernize, but it’s also true that she had a taste for opera and palatial extravagance and backed the anti-Western Boxer Rebellion, a string of attacks on missionaries and diplomats that resulted in thousands of Chinese deaths and a humiliating foreign occupation of Beijing. One thing’s certain: The complicated legacy and the palace intrigue of this contemporary of Queen Victoria would make for an engrossing biopic.
Victoria Claflin Woodhull and Tennessee ClaflinVictoria Claflin Woodhull (left) and Tennessee Claflin (right) (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
The Backstory: Despite sharing a name with Britain’s then-monarch, Victoria Claflin Woodhull was far from a shining beacon of Victorian propriety. She was so controversial, in fact, that political cartoonist Thomas Nash dubbed her “Mrs. Satan,” while Susan B. Anthony described her as “lewd and indecent.”
During the 1870s, Woodhull and her younger sister, Tennessee “Tennie” Claflin, scandalized Gilded Age America with their outspoken embrace of free love, otherworldly spirituality and women’s rights. After starting a stock brokerage firm backed by Claflin’s rumored lover, railroad baron Cornelius Vanderbilt, the sisters earned enough money to launch a newspaper—and a presidential campaign centered on Woodhull, who became the first woman to run for the nation’s highest office.An 1872 political cartoon by Thomas Nast satirized Woodhull as "Mrs. Satan." (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
When election day arrived in April 1872, Woodhull was unable to vote for herself, in part because many American women were still decades away from enfranchisement, but mainly because she and Claflin were being held in jail on charges of obscenity and libel. The pair had published a newspaper detailing the sordid stories of a New York orgy and, more controversially, an affair had by preacher, abolitionist and free love critic Henry Ward Beecher, whose reputation was irreparably damaged by the adultery trial that followed. (Beecher’s sister, Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe, responded to the incident by labeling Woodhull a “vile jailbird” and “impudent witch.”)
In August 1877, the sisters left their home country for London. There, Claflin married a member of the English peerage and became Lady Cook, Viscountess of Montserrat. Woodhull, meanwhile, married a wealthy banker, became an automobile enthusiast, ran yet another newspaper, founded an agricultural school, volunteered with the Red Cross during World War I and worked to preserve the English home of George Washington’s ancestors. Claflin and Woodhull died in 1923 and 1927, respectively.
Carrie A. NationCarrie Nation in 1910 (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
The Pitch: A Paul Thomas Anderson-directed psycho-drama looking at how Nation’s religious zeal and personal hardship brought her to the brink of saloon-smashing. There Will Be Blood, but for booze instead of oil
The Backstory: It’s morning, and a nearly six-foot-tall, 53-year-old woman wearing spectacles and all black enters a Kansas saloon. Wielding a hatchet or newspaper-wrapped bricks, she lays waste to the place, shattering mirrors and bottles everywhere. Meet notorious Temperance crusader Carrie A. Nation, described as “another cyclone out in Kansas” and a “bulldog of Jesus.”
Nation’s anti-alcohol fervor stemmed, in part, from personal experience. Her first husband, a doctor, had died of an alcohol use disorder, and Nation attributed their daughter Charlien’s chronic mental and physical health issues to her father’s drinking and “the curse of rum.” She remarried an older lawyer, David Nation, but it was a loveless marriage. Carrie was deeply religious, although she was kicked out of her Kansas church due to her “strenuous personality,” and spent time as a jail evangelist, an experience that cemented her belief that booze was to blame for many societal problems. In 1899, after “a great anxiety at one time that threatened to take away my reason,” as she wrote in her autobiography, she received guidance from God: Go to nearby Kiowa and wreak havoc on its bars. In her first outing, she damaged three saloons, taking Kansas law (which had technically forbade such businesses starting in 1881) into her own hands and daring people to arrest her.
Though the state Women’s Christian Temperance Union did not endorse her vigilante-justice approach, Nation continued assailing drinking establishments, sometimes accompanied by fellow “Home Defenders,” as she called her followers, and making speeches. She was arrested dozens of times for her “hatchetations,” got into a full-blown fight with a saloon owner’s wife who attacked her with a horse whip, and became a turn-of-the-century celebrity: She once paid the fine for disturbing the Senate peace by selling hatchet souvenirs.
Nation died in 1911, eight years before nationwide Prohibition was enacted, after collapsing during a speech in Arkansas. The New York Times reported that she’d entered a sanitarium for “nervous disorders” (Nation’s mother and daughter both died in mental institutions) after the mid-speech collapse, but her doctor said she’d suffered heart failure. Her last public statement? “I have done what I could.”
Gladys BentleyGladys Bentley’s powerful voice, fiery energy on the piano and bold lyrics made her a star of New York City nightclubs. (NMAAHC)
The Backstory: Even in an era defined by boundary pushing, Blues singer Gladys Bentley stood out. A regular at Harlem’s Clam House speakeasy, she won acclaim for performing raunchy reimaginings of Prohibition-era hits while decked out in a signature tuxedo and top hat. With her deep, throaty voice and unabashed display of sexuality, Bentley quickly became one of the Harlem Renaissance’s biggest stars; at the height of her fame, she headlined gigs at the Cotton Club and the Apollo, hosted her own weekly radio show, led a musical revue backed by a chorus of male dancers dressed in drag, and rented a Park Avenue apartment for the then-exorbitant sum of $300 a month (more than $5,000 today).
She was, in the words of contemporary Langston Hughes, “an amazing exhibition of musical energy … animated by her own rhythm.”Gladys Bentley: America's Greatest Sepia Player—The Brown Bomber of Sophisticated Songs by an unidentified photographer, 1946-1949 (NMAAHC)
As American society grew more conservative with the repeal of Prohibition and dawning of the Great Depression, the openly lesbian Bentley found herself struggling to maintain a career on her own terms. During the late 1930s, she was forced to perform in skirts while living in the Bay Area, and in 1952, with the Red Scare in full swing, she penned an Ebony magazine essay claiming she’d undergone hormone treatments aimed at helping her identify as heterosexual. Eight years later, the 52-year-old Bentley died of complications from the flu while studying to become an ordained minister.
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture has several Bentley-related artifacts in its collections. A black-and-white photographic postcard of her is on view in the museum’s “Musical Crossroads” exhibition.
Wilma MankillerWilma Mankiller, the first woman elected chief of the Cherokee Nation, poses in front of the tribal emblem at the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma on July 19, 1985. (Associated Press)
The Pitch: Milk meets the aspirations of community activism in HBO's “Show Me a Hero”
The Backstory: “Most feminists would love to have a name like Mankiller,” Wilma Mankiller, the first woman elected principal chief of a major Native American tribe, told the New York Times in 1987. “It fits my work real well, and I've broken new ground for women.” But the path that took Mankiller—her last name stems from a Cherokee title for a soldier or watchman—to the helm of the second-largest Native nation wasn’t straightforward. Mankiller was born in 1945 in rural Oklahoma to a full-Cherokee father and white mother, and at age 11, left her family’s land due to a government program that promised jobs in metropolitan areas. “My own little Trail of Tears,” as she’d refer to the move, took her to San Francisco.
It was the Bay Area in the ’60s, and particularly the one-and-a-half-year indigenous activist occupation of Alcatraz as a symbol of “our last lands,” that incited Mankiller to be a leader. “The occupation of Alcatraz excited me like nothing ever had before,” she wrote in her autobiography of the protest, in which four of her siblings participated. Her increased involvement with the local Native community and newfound independence brought her into conflict with her first husband, Ecuadorian-American businessman Hugo Olaya. “I could no longer remain content as a housewife,” Mankiller, who would go on to host famous feminist Gloria Steinem’s wedding, wrote.
In 1977, after divorcing Oyala, she and her two daughters returned full-time to her 160-acre property, Mankiller Flats, in Oklahoma. As Eve McSweeney reports in a Vogue writeup of the 2017 documentary that chronicles Mankiller’s life story, she became a community organizer who fought for improved medical facilities. (She herself faced a slew of medical setbacks throughout her life, including multiple bouts of cancer, life-threatening kidney failure and a head-on car crash.) In 1983, she partnered up with Cherokee Nation chief Ross Swimmer—the political opposite of Mankiller, who considered herself a liberal Democrat—and the bipartisan ticket, with Mankiller as deputy chief, won, despite resistance to a woman filling the tribal leadership position. When Swimmer took a federal government position in 1985, Mankiller succeeded him as chief, winning two subsequent elections in her own right before stepping down in 1995 due to health problems.
Remembering Mankiller after her death from pancreatic cancer in 2010, then-Principal Chief Chad Smith told the Washington Post, “She went to the mat many times, making it clear that the Cherokee Nation will not surrender one more acre as long as we live. Her marching orders were to rebuild the nation.”