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For me, it is the most beautiful view in the world. I am sitting on my rooftop balcony, looking through a tunnel of sea, mountains and sky that connects this former Venetian town to her ancient metropolis, the Serenissima. It is late afternoon. The northwest wind known as the maestral is whipping down the channel that separates us from the Croatian mainland. Windsurfers, kite surfers and sailboats dart back and forth across the milewide expanse of water. Below me are the ocher rooftops of Korčula (pronounced KOR-chu-la), perched on a rocky promontory surrounded by the translucent sea.
In a couple of hours, the sun will go down over the mountains, creating a seascape of musty pinks, blues and greens. In my mind’s eye, I follow the age-old trade route along the Dalmatian coast to Venice at the head of the Adriatic, nearly 400 miles away. It is easy to imagine Venetian galleys and sailing ships on patrol beneath the ramparts of Korčula, ready to do battle against rival city-states like Ragusa and Genoa, the Ottoman Empire and the Barbary pirates of North Africa.
I have been coming to Korčula—or Curzola, as it was known in Venetian times—for more than four decades, ever since I was a child. It is a place that still has the power to take my breath away, particularly in the quiet of the early morning and evening, when the polished white stones of the Old Town seem to float above the water. With its cathedral and miniature piazzetta, dreamy courtyards and romantic balconies, and elaborately carved Gothic windows and family crests, Korčula is “a perfect specimen of a Venetian town,” in the phrase of a 19th-century English historian, Edward Augustus Freeman.
More than three centuries have passed since the “Most Serene” Republic ruled this stretch of Dalmatian coastline, but her influence is evident everywhere, from the winged lion that greets visitors at the ceremonial entrance to the town to the hearty fish soup known as brodet to the “gondola” references in Korčulan folk songs.
The extraordinarily rich Korčulan dialect is sprinkled not only with Italian words like pomodoro (tomato) and aiuto (help) but also specifically Venetian words like gratar (to fish) and tecia (cooking pan) that have nothing in common with either Croatian or Italian.
Image by Atlantide Phototravel/Corbis. Shadows cast on stone stairs in the medieval Old Town area. The streets are steep and narrow. Often there is barely room for two people to pass each other without touching. (original image)
Image by Atlantide Phototravel/Corbis. A sidewalk café near St. Mark’s Cathedral in the heart of the island buzzes with activity. (original image)
Image by Josef Polleross, Anzenberger/Redux. In a dance called the Moreška, rival Christian and Moor armies fight over the honor of a fair Korčulan lady. (original image)
Image by Doug Pearson, JAI/Corbis. A young man sports a traditional sword fighting costume. (original image)
The legacy of more than 400 years of Venetian rule can also be felt in the habits and mind-set of the Korčulans. “Every Korčulan imagines himself to be descended from a noble Venetian family,” says my friend Ivo Tedeschi. “We feel that we are at the center of our own little universe.” Families with Italian names like Arneri and Boschi and Depolo have been prominent in Korčula since Venetian times. As befits a place that was sometimes called the “arsenal of Venice,” Korčula still boasts its own shipyard, albeit one that has fallen on hard times with the economic crisis in Croatia.
Contributing to the sense of crumbling grandeur is the location of Korčula at the crossroads of geography and history. This was where West met East—the intersection of Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Islamic civilizations. For the most part, these worlds have lived in harmony with one another, but occasionally they have clashed, with disastrous consequences, as happened in the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. My house overlooks the narrowest point of the Pelješac canal, which straddled the dividing line between the western and eastern parts of the Roman Empire—Rome and Byzantium—and marked the seaborne approaches to the Serenissima.
Korčula changed hands several times during the Napoleonic Wars, from the French to the British and finally to the Austrians. Since the early 19th century, it has belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, Communist Yugoslavia and the Republic of Croatia. Each shift in power was accompanied by the destruction of the symbols of the previous regime and the wholesale renaming of streets, leaving people confused about their own address.
My friend Gaella Gottwald points out a frieze of a defaced winged lion, sitting forlornly next to the town hall. “The lion was the symbol of Venetian power,” she explains. “When the Communists took over after World War II, they destroyed anything that reminded the people of Italian rule.” A few winged lions survived high up on the city walls, but most were removed and replaced by the red Partisan star and portraits of Marshal Tito. Similarly, after the fall of communism in 1991, most of the Partisan stars were replaced with the checkerboard emblem of independent Croatia. The Josip Broz Tito Harbor was renamed the Franjo Tudjman Harbor, after Croatia’s new nationalist leader.
Most of what I know about the winds of Korčula I have learned from Rosario Vilović, a retired sea captain who lives up our street. Each wind has its own name and distinct personality. “The maestral blows in the afternoon in summer,” he says, pointing to the northwest, toward Venice. “It is a warm, dry, very refreshing wind.” His brow thickens as he gestures to the northeast, over the forbidding limestone mountains of the Pelješac Peninsula. “The bora is our strongest and most destructive wind. When a bora threatens, we run inside and close all our shutters and windows.” He turns toward the south. “The jugo is humid and wet and brings a lot of rain.” And so he continues, around all the points of the compass.
Winds are to Korčula as canals are to Venice, shaping her geography, character and destiny. When the city fathers laid out the town at least 800 years ago, they created a medieval air-conditioning system based on wind circulation. On the western side of the town the streets are all straight, open to the maestral. On our side of town, facing the Pelješac, the streets are crooked, to keep the bora out.
In Korčula, horses and carriages “are as impossible as at Venice itself, though not for the same reason,” wrote Freeman in his 1881 book, Sketches From the Subject and Neighbour Lands of Venice, which remains one of the best guidebooks to the Dalmatian coast. “Curzola does not float upon the waters, it soars above them.” Viewed from above, the island resembles the crumpled skeleton of a fish, straight on one side but crooked on the other. A narrow spine down the middle serves as the main street, centered on the cathedral and its miniature square, climbing over the top of the humpbacked peninsula. The streets are steep and narrow: There is barely room for two pedestrians to pass each other without touching.
One result of Korčula’s unique wind circulation system is the orientation of the town toward the maestral and therefore toward Venice. The western side of the town is open and inviting, with a seafront promenade, harbor and hotel. The eastern side is fortified, against both the bora and the Moor. It is a layout that reflects the geopolitical orientation of Korčula toward the West, away from the Slavic world, Islam and the Orient.
The battle between East and West is echoed in a traditional sword dance known as the Moreška, which used to be performed throughout the Mediterranean but seems to have survived only in Korčula. The dance is a morality tale pitting the army of the Red King (Christians) against the army of the Black King (Moors), over the honor of a fair Korčulan lady. Sparks fly (literally) from the clashing swords, but needless to say, the fix is in, and the favored team emerges triumphant every time.
Given Korčula’s strategic location, it is hardly surprising that the island has been the prey of numerous foreign navies. The Genoese won a great sea battle over the Venetians within sight of my house in 1298, leading to the capture of the Venetian explorer Marco Polo. An Ottoman fleet led by the feared corsair Uluz Ali passed by here in 1571. According to Korčula legend, the Venetians fled, leaving the island to be defended by the locals, mainly women who lined the city walls clad in military attire. The show was sufficiently impressive to dissuade the Turks from attacking Korčula; they sailed away to pillage the neighboring island of Hvar instead. (An alternative story is that the Turkish fleet was dispersed by a storm.) In recognition of its devotion to Christendom, Korčula earned the title “Fidelissima” (Most Faithful One) from the pope.
The winds and the sea have also endowed Korčula with a long line of distinguished seafarers. The most prominent of them, according to the Korčulans, is Marco Polo himself, whose celebrated travel book gave Europeans their first insight into the customs and history of China. In truth, Korčula’s claim to be Marco Polo’s birthplace is tenuous, but no more so than the claims of others, such as Šibenik (farther up the Dalmatian coast) and Venice itself. It rests mainly on oral tradition and the fact that a “De Polo” family has been living in Korčula for centuries. The Marco Polo connection has proved a boon to the local tourist industry, spawning a “Marco Polo house,” half a dozen “Marco Polo shops” and “museums,” “Marco Polo ice cream,” and several competing Marco Polo impersonators.
Collecting absurd Marco Polo claims has become a pastime of Korčula’s foreign residents. My personal favorites: “Marco Polo brought these noodles back from China” (on the menu of a local restaurant) and “Marco Polo found great food and love in this house” (sign outside another restaurant). A few years ago a friend of ours packaged a bulbous piece of plaster in a cardboard box and labeled it “Marco Polo’s Nose—an Original Souvenir from Korčula.” It was an instant hit with locals and tourists.
A different state of being
One of the qualities that Korčula shares with Venice is a sense of living on the edge of disaster. Venetians face floods, storms and the demands of modern tourism as threats to their noble city. In the case of Korčula, it is the onslaught of vacationers in the summer months that fuels concern over the town’s fragile infrastructure. Megayachts with names like Will Power and Eclipse and Sovereign maneuver for docking space in the harbor. A 15th-century tower that was once part of Korčula’s defenses against the Turks becomes a cocktail bar selling overpriced mojitos to raucous Italians and Australians.
The most obvious evidence of the imbalance between tourism and infrastructure is the unpleasant odor of raw sewage that wafts over parts of the town on hot summer days, particularly when the breeze is blowing in the wrong direction. The Venetian-built sewage canals, known as kaniželas (from the Venetian canisela), have become clogged with the detritus of unauthorized construction and the waste of the Marco Polo-themed restaurants. Short of ripping out the medieval guts of the town and tunneling deep under the cobbled alleyways, there is no obvious solution.
Yet Korčulans are the first to admit that they lack the moneymaking dynamism of their neighbors in Hvar, who have turned their island into the showcase of the Croatian tourist industry. In Korčula, tourists tend to be viewed as a necessary evil. The Hvar city fathers considered silencing the church bells after foreign visitors complained about the noise; in Korčula, the bells are as much a part of the landscape as the sea and the air, and continue to peal at all times of the day and night.
For those of us who consider ourselves adopted Korčulans, the summer crowds and occasional unpleasant smells are a small price to pay for the privilege of living in a magical, almost timeless place. The Croatian tourist slogan “the Mediterranean as it once was” seems an exaggeration on other parts of the Dalmatian coast but encapsulates the laid-back pace of life in Korčula. It is a world of lazy afternoon siestas, invigorating swims in the crystal clear Adriatic, scents of wild mint and rosemary and lavender, sounds of crickets singing in the pine trees, tastes of succulent tomatoes and fresh grilled fish, all washed down with glasses of Pošip (pronounced POSH-ip], the dry white wine that is native to the island.
There is a Dalmatian expression—fjaka, deriving from the Italian word fiacca—that sums up this blissful existence. The closest translation would be “indolence” or “relaxation,” but it has much subtler connotations. “Fjaka is a philosophy, a way of life,” explains my neighbor Jasna Peručić, a Croatian American who works as a hard-charging New York real estate agent when she is not relaxing in Korčula. “It means more than simply doing nothing. It is a state of well-being in which you are perfectly content.”
To fully achieve this state, however, requires a reorientation of the mind: The locals also use fjaka as a one-word explanation for the impossibility of finding an electrician or a plumber—or getting very much done at all—particularly when the humid south wind is blowing in the dog days of summer.
Like other foreigners who fall in love with Korčula, I have come to understand that true relaxation—fjaka—comes from adapting yourself to the rhythms and habits of your adopted town. Every summer I arrive in Korčula with ambitious plans to explore more of the Dalmatian coast, go for long hikes or bike rides, improve the house, or work on an unfinished book. Almost invariably, these plans fall through. Instead I am perfectly content with the daily routine of shopping for fish and pomodori, cooking, eating, talking and sleeping.
The flip side of fjaka is occasional bursts of almost manic energy. A decade or so ago, my neighbors invented a new festival known as “Half New Year,” which is celebrated on June 30. For one hilarious evening, villagers from all over the island compete with one another to devise the most outrageous form of costume, parading around the town in rival teams of prancing minstrels, dancing Hitlers and little green men from Mars. Marching bands lead the revelers, young and old, on a tour of the ancient battlements. And then, as suddenly as it has awakened, the town falls back asleep.
When I sail away from Korčula at the end of the summer, watching the white stones of the old town recede into the watery distance, I feel a stab of melancholy. As in Venice, the feeling of loss is enhanced by the sense that all this beauty could simply disappear. It is as if I am seeing an old friend for the last time. But then I remember that Korčula—like Venice—has survived wars and earthquakes, fires and plagues, Fascism and Communism, Ottoman navies and armies of modern-day tourists.
My guess is that the Fidelissima, like the Serenissima, will still be casting her spell for many centuries to come.
An early form of lie detection existed in India 2,000 years ago. Back then, a potential liar was told to place a grain of rice in his mouth, and chew. If he could spit out the rice, he was telling the truth. If he could not, that meant fear of being caught had parched his throat, and his deceit was confirmed.
Since that time, scientists have searched for a truth tool more reliable than Uncle Ben's—one that can separate fibs from facts with the push of a button. Such a device could slash trial length, aid job screeners and protect borders. The person to fashion this magical instrument—as precise as DNA, and far more applicable—would shift the entire landscape of forensic discovery. It could create a gap in the dictionary between "periwinkle" and "perk," where "perjury" once stood, and a crater in the TV Guide, where "CSI" and all its spin-offs once reigned supreme.
But each advance in the field of lie detection has met with a hitch. Polygraph machines have drawn considerable scientific scrutiny and remain inadmissible in courtrooms. Functional imaging has pinpointed which areas of the brain become active when people lie, but the results are based on group averages and become less accurate when a single person is tested. Even people with incredibly accurate facial analysis skills, so-called lie detection "wizards," were called into question last month in the journal Law and Human Behavior.
What follows is an overview of the long and continued struggle to find the perfect lie detector.
In the early 20th century, Harvard psychologist William Mouton Marston created his "systolic blood pressure test," more commonly known as the polygraph machine. Marston's hodgepodge of gizmos included a rubber tube and a sphygmomanometer—that childhood favorite the pediatrician wraps around a bicep and inflates with each squeeze of an egg-shaped ball. Polygraph 101 is clear enough: a person has typical levels of heart-rate, respiration and blood pressure when answering a basic question like "Is it true you live at 520 Elm Street?" If these levels remain the same during questions such as "Did you kill Jane Doe?" then the person is telling the truth. If not, he or she is lying.
Despite its reputation as the default lie detector, the polygraph has never received much credibility. In 1922, a federal judge ruled that Marston's device could not be used in a murder case; it did not hold "general acceptance" among the scientific community, wrote Justice Josiah Alexander Van Orsdel of the United States Court of Appeals. This decision, known as the "Frye standard," has essentially kept the polygraph out of courtrooms ever since.
In 2002, the National Academy of Sciences orchestrated a massive review of the polygraph. The Academy concluded that the tool was not consistent enough to be used as a screening device when hiring national security employees. The physiological responses measured by the machine can be the result of many factors other than lying, including mere nervousness.
"There are many people who will speak in favor of the polygraph," says William Iacono, who is a professor of psychology and law at the University of Minnesota. "The argument is, if the government uses it 100,000 times a year, how can it be so wrong? The reason they believe it is because of the nature of the feedback they get. Occasionally, people fail the test and they're asked to confess, and they do. But if a guilty person passes, he doesn't turn around on his way out and say: ‘Hey, I really did it.' They never learn of their errors, so they don't think there are any errors."
In the end, Marston's reputation made out better than that of his machine; he went on to earn fame as the creator of Wonder Woman.
The Guilty Knowledge Test
In the late 1950s, modern deception research took a new turn, when psychologist David Lykken of the University of Minnesota adapted polygraph interrogation with his guilty knowledge test.
A typical polygraph question asks a suspect whether he or she committed a crime. The guilty knowledge test focuses its questions on knowledge that only a perpetrator would have. Say, for example, you stole a purse from a woman wearing a bright green dress. A polygraph examiner might ask: "Did you steal the dress?" A good liar could control his response and pass the exam. Lykken would ask two questions: "Did you see a green dress?" and "Did you see a blue dress?" Regardless of your answer, the mere mention of the incriminating detail would cause a noticeable blip in your physiological reactions.
In 1959, Lykken published the first study showing the effects of this method. He had some 50 subjects enact one or two mock crimes, while others enacted none. Then he asked everyone to take a guilty knowledge test. Based on physiological responses, Lykken correctly categorized about 90 percent of the subjects, he reported in the Journal of Applied Psychology.
One of the subjects, it so happens, was a Hungarian refugee who had twice fooled the KGB about his anti-Soviet involvement. After a 30-minute interrogation, Lykken had identified which of the two mock crimes this subject had committed.
Image by Reuters / Arnd Wiegmann. A researcher tests a polygraph machine. (original image)
Image by iStockphoto. A lie detector based on functional imaging, often called fMRI, allows scientists to monitor lying in real time. (original image)
One day in 1983, the phone rang in J. Peter Rosenfeld's psychology lab at Northwestern University. It was a CIA agent. He wanted to know if Rosenfeld would run the agency's new lie detection program.
Rosenfeld froze. How did the CIA know he had planned to start researching deception? After all, he had only told a trusted colleague, and his mother. But it soon became clear that the agent had been calling several researchers in the hopes of luring one to direct the new program. Rosenfeld declined but recommended a promising graduate student, and for the next several months, broad-shouldered men in suits popped out from behind trees on Evanston's north campus.
Finally, the agency decided to hire the student. She flew to Washington, D.C. and took a polygraph test as standard job-screening procedure. But as her husband and children prepared for a new life, she failed the test on a question about her sexuality and lost the job, Rosenfeld says. "It was a simple case of the polygraph making a mistake, but the CIA has to be more safe than sorry," he says. "At that point, I said we might as well try to have one [a lie detector] that's based on science."
Rosenfeld settled on a method that combined Lykken's guilty knowledge test with brainwave research performed by Columbia University researcher Samuel Sutton. In the 1960s, Sutton had discovered that human brains show a burst of activity 300 milliseconds after a person sees a distinct image. Rosenfeld's premise was simple: If a woman wearing a green dress is robbed, then the perpetrator's mind will store an image of the dress, and his brain will respond a certain way when later confronted with this image.
The basic science behind the idea is not much more difficult. Brain cells emit electronic signals in a rhythmic, up-and-down pattern. These signals can be recorded from a person's scalp, and the resulting sequence of peaks and dips is called a brainwave. One of these waves, the P300, swoops enormously when it recognizes an image. The "P" aspect stands for positive, and the "300" refers to the number of milliseconds the wave occurs after recognition.
In 1987, Rosenfeld tried his P300 test on ten subjects. Each subject "stole" one item from a box of nine desirables. By actually touching the item, subjects formed a bond with the object that would result in a P300 response, Rosenfeld predicted. The subjects then watched names of the items flash across a monitor. When non-stolen items appeared, the brainwaves showed up normal. But when the stolen item flashed on the screen, the subject's brainwave formed a distinct P300 response.
The main advantage of this method over the traditional polygraph is striking: deception is implied without the suspect saying a single word. In fact, the P300 cannot even be considered a lie detector. "You're looking at recognition, not lying," Rosenfeld says. "However, I think the inference is justified if you take the proper measures."
In the 1990s, a scientist named Lawrence Farwell combined the guilty knowledge test and the P300 technique to create a commercial lie detector called Brain Fingerprinting. In 2000, Brain Fingerprinting almost gained admission to the courtroom during an appeal of a murder case in Iowa. (A district court judge rejected the appeal but ruled that the technique could have been admissible. A State Supreme Court judge eventually upheld the appeal, but did not take Brain Fingerprinting results into account.)
But a drawback of lie detectors based on the P300 method is that investigators must work very hard to find unusual items that only the criminal would have seen. Take the case of the bright green dress. If that dress is truly unique to the crime, the suspect will produce a powerful P300 response. But if the criminal's wife happens to wear a lot of green dresses, the P300 wave could be blunted down to regular size.
Functional imaging, often called fMRI, allows scientists to monitor brain activity in real time. Subjects are wheeled on a padded platform into a noisy magnetic resonance imaging machine that scans their brains every two seconds in search of increased neural activity. A small mirror allows them to see and react to prompts shown on a screen outside the machine. Meanwhile, from another room, investigators collect brain activity for statistical analysis.
The first fMRI study of lie detection to receive widespread attention was published in 2002 by Daniel Langleben of the University of Pennsylvania. Langleben handed his subjects a playing card—the five of clubs—before sliding them into the MRI machine. He encouraged them to deny having the card, offering a $20 reward for those who successfully deceived the machine, which was more than enough incentive for his undergraduate subjects.
During the test, subjects saw various playing cards on a screen and pushed a button indicating whether or not they had the card being shown. Most of the time, when subjects denied having the card on the screen, they were telling the truth. Only when the five of clubs appeared was the response a lie.
Langleben compared truthful brain activity with deceptive activity and found that a person's mind is generally more active when lying. This result suggests that truthfulness might be our default cognitive status, and that deception requires additional mental effort.
But a lie detector based on functional imaging would suffer from a few potentially fatal flaws. Critics of the method often point out that functional imaging results are averaged from a group, not based on individual subjects. Such a limitation causes obvious problems in the world of criminal law.
In the fall of 2005, Langleben found encouraging evidence that functional imaging can detect deception on an individual basis. Using a modified version of his previous test, Langleben reported being able to correctly classify individual lies or truths 78 percent of the time. His results are the first evidence that functional imaging can detect deception for an individual person regarding an individual question. Still, 78 percent accuracy, while promising, is far from fool-proof.
While driving on a dark night in northern California, Maureen O'Sullivan listened to J.J. Newberry, a former agent in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, discuss how he had been betrayed by a friend. Newberry seemed very upset by the incident, and very involved in the telling of it, O'Sullivan recalls. Then, suddenly, Newberry asked O'Sullivan to pull over. In the middle of his engrossing story he had spotted a man slumped over behind the wheel of a parked car across the street.
Such preternatural awareness has helped make Newberry a lie detection "wizard," says O'Sullivan, who coined the term with her colleague Paul Ekman at the University of San Francisco. The distinction is a select one: in 30 years of testing, the researchers have found fewer than 50 wizards. These people score in the upper ranks on a battery of deception tests developed by Ekman and O'Sullivan.
"These people are super hunters," O'Sullivan says. "What they see is unbelievable."
Ekman and O'Sullivan began testing for people who could identify deception with great accuracy in the late 1980s. They eventually settled on series of three tests. The first involves spotting people lying about their feelings. For this test, potential wizards watch a videotape of ten women, half of whom are lying about their current emotions, half of whom are telling the truth.
The second test shows ten men describing an opinion they have, and the third shows ten men discussing whether they had stolen money. Again, in both cases, half the people are lying and half are telling the truth.
For a person to become a wizard, he or she must first correctly identify nine people in the emotional test, then go on to identify at least eight people in one of the two other tests. As of 2003, having studied more than 10,000 people, the researchers had found just 29 wizards. That number has grown to about 50, O'Sullivan said recently.
Many wizards spent time in the Secret Service, says O'Sullivan. The practice of scanning large crowds for odd behaviors has honed their acuity. Whereas regular people make a quick decision when watching the test videotapes, wizards hold their final analysis until the end, tracking intonation changes, word choice and eye gaze. Therapists also score high on the tests.
Social psychologist Charles F. Bond Jr. of Texas Christian University is unconvinced. Bond believes the wizards are mere statistical outliers—the eventual result of testing thousands of people on the same task.
"They presented the fact that a small number of people did well out of a huge number of people who took the test, as evidence that those people had a special skill, "says Bond, whose argument was published online recently in Law and Human Behavior. "If a lot of people play the lottery, someone wins."
Before government and legal agencies begin consulting these wizards, Bond would like to see outside sources conduct additional tests on them—a measure of validity that O'Sullivan says is now in the works.
But even with additional tests, perfection will have to wait until the next generation lie detector. To date, says O'Sullivan, nobody has scored perfectly on all three tests.
The Seven Natural Wonders of Texas
Texas is famous for vast cattle ranches and oil booms, but our natural wonders are what awe and inspire travelers.
Natural Bridge Caverns
Located 13 miles north of San Antonio, Natural Bridge Caverns is one of the world’s premiere show caves and Texas’s largest natural attractions. Visitors can view more than 10,000 different formations in its underground chambers. More than 250,000 tourists a year visit this Texas treasure that was recently named to the National Register of Historic Places by the U.S. Department of the Interior for sites that have an important role in preserving cultural history.
Located just outside the Texas Hill Country town of Fredericksburg, visitors are invited to backpack, camp, hike, rock climb, picnic, bird watch and star gaze in this Texas state park, which is the second-largest granite dome in the United States. The formation rises 425 feet above ground (1,825 feet above sea level) and covers 640 acres.
Big Bend National Park
Hailed as one of America’s largest national parks, Big Bend National Park encompasses more than 800,000 acres along the Rio Grande River in West Texas. The park ranges in elevation from less than 2,000 feet along the Rio Grande River to nearly 8,000 feet in the Chisos Mountains and encompasses massive canyons, rock formations and vast desert expanses.
Padre Island National Seashore
Visitors are sure to soak up plenty of sun on the Padre Island National Seashore, which is the longest remaining undeveloped stretch of barrier island in the world.
The Meteor Crater
Visitors can travel back in time in Odessa, where they can see the 550-foot meteor crater, the second largest in the nation, which was the result of a barrage of meteors crashing to the earth 20,000 to 30,000 years ago.
Big Thicket National Preserve
Nature enthusiasts will want to visit this national preserve where the southwestern desert meets the eastern hardwood swamps and coastal prairies meet the northern piney woods. The preserve is home to diverse plant communities including orchids, cactus, cypress and pine, as well as many species of birds, insect-eating plants and a wide variety of wildlife.
Palo Duro Canyon State Park
Famed as the second-largest canyon in the United States, the colorful slopes of the Palo Duro Canyon span approximately 120 miles long, 20 miles wide and 800 feet deep.
Outdoor Adventure: Not Just For Cowboys
Whether you are looking to camp, hike, bike, golf, swim, fish, hunt, horseback ride, bird watch or experience just about any other outdoor activity you can think of, Texas is the place to be.
With more than 267,000 square miles to explore, cyclists find many diverse and thrilling rides in Texas, whether it is through the mountains of West Texas or on the trails of the Piney Woods.
Texas also has a number of excellent spots to pitch a tent and spend the night under the stars. State parks, national parks, sandy beaches and nature preserves offer campers a vast variety of areas from which to choose.
One of the most majestic sites for camping and hiking is Palo Duro Canyon State Park in North Texas. If adventure is on the agenda, visitors have their choice at Big Bend National Park in far West Texas that encompasses more than 800,000 acres of mountains and desert along the Rio Grande River, where visitors enjoy hiking, camping, wildlife and more.
The fish are sure to be biting in the more than 90 freshwater lakes and saltwater bays of Texas. From tournament fishing for black bass to fly fishing for rainbow trout, Texas offers fishermen more than any other single state. Deep sea fishing excursions from South Padre Island, Corpus Christi and Galveston offer fishermen a chance to bring home a prize sailfish or shark as a souvenir from their day in the Gulf of Mexico.
For visitors who want to get their feet wet, Texas offers numerous swimming, rafting and scuba diving adventures. Located just 110 miles off the coast of Freeport, the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary is a scuba diver’s paradise and a world premier diving destination.
With more than 600 species of birds to see and catalogue, Texas is arguably the birding capital of America. Famed birding areas in Texas include the Gulf Coast, Texas Hill Country and the Piney Woods of East Texas. Texas is also home to the World Birding Center, a network of nine birding sites dotted along 120 miles of river road from South Padre Island west to Roma along the Rio Grande River of South Texas.
Happy Trails: Discovering Texas Wildlife
Wild treasures in Texas go far beyond cattle, cactus and coyotes. In addition to a world-class bird-watching experience, adventurers who hike, bike, kayak or even camel trek their way through Texas will find opportunities to chase rare butterflies, spot an endangered ocelot, boat with dolphins or watch sea turtles make their nests.
The Rio Grande Valley is a canvas of color and a haven for nature and bird enthusiasts. The World Birding Center in Mission serves as a global model for conservation and ecotourism and is home to rare Altamira orioles and plain chachalacas. Just down the road, the International Butterfly Park serves as an 85-acre refuge attracting native flora and fauna as well as more than 290 species of butterflies. Weslaco’s Valley Nature Center is not only home to hundreds of bird and butterfly species but also 23 varieties of dragonflies and damselflies. Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, the "jewel" of the U.S. National Wildlife refuge system, in Alamo, rounds off some of the Valley’s wildlife attractions. This refuge boasts 12 miles of walking trails and a seven-mile tour road that is open to both drivers and bicyclists.
Texas’s Gulf Coast draws whooping cranes and waterfowl galore, particularly in Rockport at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, which hosts the world’s last natural wild population of whoopers along with nearly 400 other bird species. Sea Turtle, Inc. on South Padre Island allows visitors to see endangered sea turtles and learn how its staff rescues and rehabilitates the turtles before releasing them back into the wild. Just across the island, the Dolphin Research and Sea Life Nature Center offers guests the opportunity to feed creatures including starfish, octopus and sea horses. The center also offers dolphin-watching boat tours.
In the Texas Hill Country, the endangered golden-cheeked warbler and black-capped vireo are on display each spring along with other rare songbirds; and fall brings sandhill cranes to the Panhandle Plains region.
Outdoor enthusiasts are sure to fall in love with the rugged beauty of the Big Bend Region. Anchored by Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park, visitors can take in dramatic vistas while enjoying hiking, camping, river running, horse riding, camel trekking, mountain biking and jeep touring. The park also has more than 450 bird species—more than any other national park. Float or raft down the Rio Grande River or for an out-of-the-ordinary touring excursion, contact the Texas Camel Corps for a Camel trek through the desert.
Tee Off in Texas
With a mild climate, a storied past and more than 900 golf courses strewn across rugged desert mountains, rolling green hills, piney woods and seaside links, Texas is blazing a trail in the world of golf. As lush public, private and resort courses spread across the Lone Star State, Texas is fast becoming a destination hotspot and golf-lover’s getaway.
Some of the top names in golf course design have left their mark on the Texas golf landscape, including Tom Fazio, Arnold Palmer and Robert Trent Jones. Golf Schools in Irving and Austin boast such famous namesakes as Byron Nelson and Harvey Penick.
If visitors do pack their clubs while visiting Texas, they won't be alone. We count more than 70 of the top PGA players as Texas residents. And many of the courses are stops on the tour itself, including the Shell Houston Open in Houston, the EDS Byron Nelson Championship in Irving, the Crown Plaza Invitational at Colonial in Fort Worth, the Valero Texas Open in San Antonio, the FexEx Kinkos Classic in Austin and the Tour Championship in Houston.
In addition to first-rate golfing, Texas’s golf resorts and destination cities boast an assortment of leisure activities, including world-class spa facilities, shopping and fine dining.
From the Gulf Coast to the Big Bend, visitors can play an unforgettable round of golf in Texas.
Just for Kids
Texas’s wide open spaces are matched in size only by the imaginations of its young travelers. Children of all ages can explore their biggest dreams here—or just get lost in the thrill of a theme park or the warm sun shining down on the Gulf of Mexico.
"Lil’ pardners" looking for a taste of the Old West can hop into the saddle at any of the more than 100 Texas dude ranches with cattle, cowpokes and authentic chuck wagon dinners. Bandera, "The Cowboy Capital of the World," is just northwest of San Antonio and offers such experiences. Families vacationing in urban areas can add a dose of cowboy flavor to their trips with an evening at the rodeo or a two-step lesson at an authentic dance hall.
Young travelers have much to experience at Texas’s world-class museums, zoos and aquariums. The Lone Star State houses everything from natural history and children’s museums to a tribute to Dr. Pepper. Kids can discover the past at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin, blast off to new worlds entirely at NASA/Johnson Space Center in Houston or spy the night skies at the McDonald Observatory in West Texas. While in West Texas, another can’t-miss night wonder is the famous Marfa lights.
More new worlds are waiting underwater in the Lone Star State. The 600 miles of Texas beaches on the Gulf of Mexico are among the most calming and beautiful in the nation. Ideal family activities include parasailing, boating, dolphin watching, bird watching, building sandcastles, deep sea fishing and just relaxing on the pristine beaches.
Texas also has hundreds of old-fashioned freshwater swimming holes scattered throughout the state, from Barton Springs Pool in Austin to San Solomon Springs in Balmorhea State Park. The state is also home to numerous lakes perfect for swimming, boating, jet skiing and fishing.
Another outdoor activity for the whole family has a simple recipe—a tent, a cooler and the beautiful Texas scenery. Texas has plenty of parks, RV sites and cabins to set the stage for an evening under the stars. Beginning and experienced campers alike can enjoy hiking, backpacking and rock climbing from Palo Duro Canyon, in the Texas Panhandle, to the Piney Woods of East Texas.
Those wanting to get their adrenaline pumping need look no further than Texas’s theme parks, each with monster roller coasters, stunt shows, musical productions and fun rides for all ages. In addition, Texas is home to some of the nation’s best water parks. Families can also spend lazy days floating along Texas’s many lazy rivers, including the Comal, San Marcos, Frio and Guadalupe.
One of the vital epicenters of European culture, Prague has survived the wars of the last two centuries almost entirely intact. Today, the most atmospheric part of the city’s historic Old Town is the Malá Strana, or “Little Quarter” on the west bank of the river Vlatava: its quiet back alleys, which wind up past mansions and churches to Prague Castle, still have the haunted, Brothers Grimm appearance they had in the late 18th century. Here, it’s easy for visitors to still picture the likes of Giacamo Casanova, albeit in his twilight years, navigating Prague’s cobbled paths in his breeches and powdered wig, on one of his visits from nearby Castle Duchcov. At first, the somber medieval style of the Czech capital might seem an odd retirement choice for the ebullient Venetian who fled his beloved home city in 1783 after he offended powerful figures there. But look a little closer and Casanova’s spirit is everywhere. “Prague is a Gothic city that was baroquized by Italian artists,” explains Milos Curik, a Czech cultural guide. “This was where the Italian Renaissance first reached northern Europe.”
Today, Malá Strana’s ancient buildings still conceal flamboyant interiors. Peer through shuttered windows and one is likely to see designer bars that would not be out of place in Barcelona or New York. On my recent visit, I woke up inside a 14th century monastery adorned with Eastern art: urban conservationists have overseen its renovation by Mandarin Oriental, using an exotic blend of Czech and Asian influences. Even the hotel spa was built on the foundations of a medieval chapel, which can still be admired through the glass floor. And Casanova himself would have been gratified to learn that the staff offer a booklet on “The Ten Best Places to Kiss in Prague” – the Charles Bridge at dawn is particularly auspicious – and a Venetian-style Carnival is now a highlight of Prague’s winter season, complete with masked balls, street theater and parades.
But of all the arts, music has always been central to the city’s reputation. One of the most beguiling stories about Casanova’s sojourn in Bohemia – now part of the Czech Republic – is that he met Mozart in Prague in 1787, and that he worked on the libretto of Don Giovanni, the great opera about a compulsive Lothario not at all unlike Casanova himself. Today, tracing the little-known saga provides a marvelous key to the city.
To follow the Casanova trail, my first stop was the Italian Cultural Institute, which was founded as a Jesuit-run hospital in the early 1600s, complete with a serene cloister and a frescoed church. Thanks to its extensive library, the edifice soon developed into a gathering point for expatriate Italians, who began to live along the same street, Vlašská Ulice. “It’s 99.9 percent certain that Casanova came to this building the moment he arrived in Prague,” said the director, Dr. Paolo Sabatini. “It was the heart of the Italian community in the city. Bohemia was a great refuge for Italians. There were Italian artists, writers, technicians, engineers, many of them escaping charges of the [Roman] Inquisition.”
According to biographer Ian Kelly, author of Casanova: Actor Love Priest Spy, Casanova first met an old friend from Venice Lorenzo da Ponte, a fellow libertine who was now Mozart’s librettist, having written both The Magic Flute and The Marriage of Figaro. Italian opera was little short of a craze in Prague at the time, and Casanova had long been enraptured by the art form. (One of his most memorable episodes in his memoir, The Story of My Life, is his youthful affair with a female opera singer who was masquerading as a castrato). Casanova and da Ponte regularly attended concerts at the rural retreat of local arts patrons Josefina and Fratišek Dušek. Called the Betranka, this villa on the outskirts of Prague was where they mingled with other artistic celebrities – including, it is believed, the 31-year-old Mozart.
Image by Francesco Lastrucci. Of all the arts, music has always been central to the Prague's reputation (original image)
Image by Francesco Lastrucci. Casanova's spirit is everywhere in the Czech capital city of Prague. (original image)
Image by Francesco Lastrucci. Mozart first came to Prague with his wife Constance in January, 1787, for a performance of The Marriage of Figaro. (original image)
Image by Francesco Lastrucci. Prague's quiet back alleys, which wind up past mansions and churches to Prague Castle, still have the haunted, Brothers Grimm appearance they had in the late 18th century. (original image)
Image by Francesco Lastrucci. Casanova himself would have been gratified to learn that the staff offer a booklet on “The Ten Best Places to Kiss in Prague” – the Charles Bridge at dawn is particularly auspicious (original image)
Image by Francesco Lastrucci. In the later years of his life, Casanova wrote his memoirs in Castle Duchcov, near Prague. (original image)
Image by Francesco Lastrucci. One of the most beguiling stories about Casanova’s sojourn in Bohemia – now part of the Czech Republic – is that he met Mozart in Prague in 1787, and that he worked on the libretto of Don Giovanni, the great opera about a compulsive Lothario not at all unlike Casanova himself. (original image)
Image by Francesco Lastrucci. The Estates Theater in Prague is where Mozart premiered Don Giovanni in 1787. (original image)
Mozart first came to Prague with his wife Constance in January, 1787, for a performance of The Marriage of Figaro. He was delighted to discover that his opera was given a euphoric reception in the city, whereas in Vienna he had fallen out of fashion. “Here they talk about nothing but Figaro,” Mozart recorded in his diary. “Nothing is played, sung or whistled but Figaro. Nothing, nothing but Figaro. Certainly a great honor for me!” As a result, he decided to premiere his new work, Don Giovanni, in the city. He returned to Prague in October with da Ponte’s unfinished libretto in hand, and moved into the Bertramka, at the invitation of the Dušeks, to furiously complete it.
Today, the Bertramka is open to the public as a small Mozart Museum, so I took a tram to the suburbs of Prague. The estate is now surrounded by roaring highways, although once inside the gates, it remains an enclave of serenity, with gardens that still host summer concerts. The exhibits are sparse – in 2009, most of the furnishings and instruments were moved to the Czech Music Museum in Malá Strana, including two pianos played by Mozart himself – but the villa itself still exudes an elegant, artistic ambiance. The sole employee sells a series of engravings of famous visitors, who included a virtual Who’s Who of the 18th century cultural elite: Along with Mozart, da Ponte and Casanova, the Dušeks hosted the young Beethoven and German poet Goethe.
The claim that Casanova worked on Don Giovanni was made back in 1876 by Alfred Meissner in his book Rococo Bilder, based on notes made by his grandfather, who was a professor and historian in Prague and was the confidant of musicians at the opera’s 1787 premiere at the Estates Theater. According to the musicians, Casanova visited the theater during rehearsals in October, when Mozart was doling out the last pieces of the music in disjointed fragments. The cast members became so frustrated that they locked Mozart in a room and told him he would not be freed until he finished the opera. Casanova apparently persuaded the staff to release the composer, who completed the overture that night, while Casanova fine-tuned the libretto in several key scenes.
There is strong circumstantial evidence to support Meissner’s report: We know that da Ponte was not in Prague in October, when the last-minute changes were made to the libretto, but Casanova was. However, the account took a more substantial form in the early 1900s, when researchers discovered notes amongst Casanova’s papers from Castle Duchcov that appeared to show him working on a key scene in Don Giovanni.
While the manuscript of Casanova’s memoir now resides in Paris, his personal papers have ended up in the Czech state archive, a hulking edifice in a bleak, Communist-era landscape far from Prague’s charming Old Town. My taxi-driver got lost several times before we located it. Once inside, a security guard directed me to a shabby antechamber, where I had to call the archivists on an antique black telephone. An unshaven clerk in a hooded jacket first helped me fill out the endless application forms in Czech, before finally I was taken to a windowless, neon-lit research room to meet the head archivist, Marie Tarantová.
Despite the Cold War protocol, everyone was very helpful. Tarantová explained that when the Communists nationalized Czech aristocratic property in 1948, the state inherited a vast cache of Casanova’s writings that had been kept by the Waldstein family, who once owned Castle Duchcov. “We have Casanova’s letters, poems, philosophical works, geometry works, plans for a tobacco factory, even treatises on the manufacture of soap,” she said, of the wildly prolific author. “There are 19 cases. It’s impossible to know everything that’s in there. I’ve never counted the number of pages!”
Soon Tarantová laid before me the two pages of notes covered in Casanova’s elegant, distinctive script; in them, he has reworked the lines of Act II, scene X, of Don Giovanni, where the Don and his servant Leporello have been discovered in a ruse that involved swapping clothes and identities. “Nobody knows if he was really involved in writing the libretto or was just toying with it for his own amusement,” said Tarantova. According to biographer Ian Kelly, “the close interest and precise knowledge of the newly performed text argues in favor of (Casanova) having been involved in its creation.” With da Ponte away, it is quite feasible that Mozart would have called on the 62-year-old Italian writer, whose reputation as a seducer was known throughout the courts of Europe, to help with the text. Casanova was also in the audience when the opera premiered on October 29. “Although there is no definitive proof that he worked on the libretto,” sums up the American Casanovist Tom Vitelli, “I think Meissner’s account is likely true, at least to some extent.”
On my final evening, I attended a performance at the majestic Estates Theater, where Don Giovanni still plays in repertory. The gilded edifice is one of the last intact 18th century opera houses in Europe, and was used as a set for Amadeus and the Beethoven biopic Immortal Beloved. A small bronze plaque in the orchestra pit marks the spot where Mozart stood to conduct that night in 1787. (Its interior has changed in only one respect: the red-and-gold color scheme was changed to blue-and-gold after the Velvet Revolution of 1989 – red was associated with the hated Communist regime.)
At this historic performance – which was a huge success, prompting a standing ovation – Casanova sat in a box seat in the wings. When later asked by a friend whether he had seen the opera, Casanova allegedly laughed, “Seen it? I practically lived it!” The very next year, he began to write his own romantic memoirs in Castle Duchcov.
A contributing writer to the magazine, Tony Perrottet is the author of Napoleon’s Privates and The Sinner’s Grand Tour: A Journey through the Underbelly of Europe; www.sinnersgrandtour.com
This year’s titles range across cultures, into the past and toward the future. Their creators have relied on humor to touch our hearts; documentary accounts to bring history alive; biography to convey the true meaning of courage; poetic language to demonstrate the power of the written word—and the artist’s brush or camera to create ravishing illustrations.
The age categories listed below are, of necessity, arbitrary. Adjust any choices to the interests and reading level of the individual child. For example, a book that may prove too demanding for a youngster to read on her or his own may constitute a perfect read-aloud.
For the Youngest Readers
It’s a Secret! by John Burningham
Britain’s acclaimed author-illustrator casts a new and irresistible spell as he answers the age-old question: “Where do cats go at night?” All children deserve an entire shelf full of Burningham’s brilliant creations. Enthralling for all ages.
Mommy, Where Are You? by Leonid Gore
An enchantingly original variation on the lift-the-flap book melds simple yet vivid text and a reassuring denouement.
The Snow Day by Komako Sakai
The Japanese illustrator’s evocation of the hushed and swirling moment when the flakes begin to fall is atmospheric and compressed as a verse by Basho.
Thunder-Boomer! by Shutta Crum, illustrated by Carol Thompson
On a hot day on the farm, clouds are gathering. A spirited tale, rooted in a sense of togetherness, that fairly begs for many a re-reading. A marvelous addition for every family bookshelf.
Red Ted and the Lost Thieves by Michael Rosen, illustrated by Joel Stewart
A bear, a crocodile and a cat set out across town to find their way back to the place where journeys under a lucky star will lead: home.
Budgie & Boo by David McPhail
The distinguished author has created a paean to friendship and its constancy, morning, noon and night.
Piglet and Granny by Margaret Wild, illustrated by Stephen Michael King
What’s a piglet to do when long-awaited Granny hasn’t yet swung open the squeaky garden gate? A picture-perfect portrayal of a bond between generations.
Built by Angels: The Story of the Old-New Synagogue by Mark Podwal
A lyrical evocation of Prague’s synagogue—“older than any other”—recounts its rich and varied history.
Mule Train Mail by Craig Brown
The Wild West meets the modern world in this surprising nod to a living tradition: mule-train mail delivery from the rim of the Grand Canyon to the town of Supai far below.
The Missing Chick by Valeri Gorbachev
There’s always one in every crowd: an errant youngster has the entire town turned inside out and searching high and low.
Dinosaur Woods by George McClements
Witty and warm-hearted, with snappy dialogue aplenty, a tale of forest creatures who band together to save their home. Kids will likely request this again and again.
Yummy: Eight Favorite Fairy Tales retold and illustrated by Lucy Cousins
Imbuing classics from “The Three Billy Goats Gruff” to “The Musicians of Bremen” with fresh energy, Cousins creates an indispensable compendium for the youngest readers.
Lost and Found: Three Dog Stories by Jim LaMarche
Faithful companions who help us find our way in the world—and into a trio of happy endings.
What Lincoln Said by Sarah L. Thomson, illustrated by James E. Ransome
The president’s eloquent words form the basis of a window on the life and times of the farm boy from Illinois who would enter the White House on the eve of the Civil War.
Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11 by Brian Floca
Relayed in adroitly compressed text and accompanied by magnificent illustration, Floca conveys the story of one great leap for mankind to a new generation of readers.
Night Lights by Susan Gal
Counting the ways that darkness is illumined, the illustrator-author also ushers in the stuff of dreams. A perfect bedtime book.
An Eye for Color: The Story of Josef Albers by Natasha Wing, illustrated by Julia Breckenreid
A picture biography of the influential abstract painter illuminates an artistic vision that constituted one of the wellsprings of 20th-century art.
Hands of the Rainforest written and photographed by Rachel Crandell
The Embera of Panama continue to rely on traditional skills and artisanry to maintain their culture. Crandell documents the ways in which day-to-day existence depends on a deep and ancient knowledge of the tropical forest.
For Middle Readers
Nubs: The True Story of a Mutt, a Marine & a Miracle by Major Brian Dennis, Kirby Larson and Mary Nethery
A dog marooned by the Iraq war sets out on an incredible journey across the sands to find the Marines who had shown him the only kindness he had ever known. For anyone who wants to believe that compassion, loyalty and courage transcend all barriers, this book will restore your faith.
Camping with the President by Ginger Wadsworth, illustrated by Karen Dugan
In 1903, Teddy Roosevelt sent the Secret Service packing and dismissed the press when he joined naturalist John Muir for four days of roughing it in Yosemite. The president returned home determined to create the national park system.
Tumtum & Nutmeg by Emily Bearn, illustrations by Nick Price From inside a broom cupboard, two intrepid mice take on the world and protect their human charges. Old-fashioned stories in the best sense of the word.
Dinothesaurus: Prehistoric Poems and Paintings by Douglas Florian
With his signature whimsy and wordplay, the author takes a jaunty excursion into a long, long lost world.
Lin Yi’s Lantern by Brenda Williams, illustrated by Benjamin Lacombe
As the Moon Festival approaches in China, one small boy makes a brave choice and finds that his generosity is repaid in away he least expected.
African Tales retold by Gcina Mhlophe, illustrated by Rachel Griffin
From Namibia to Ethiopia and beyond, magic and healing, kindness and resourcefulness abound: the collected stories merit many a re-reading.
Scat by Carl Hiaasen
The author brings his comic timing and passion for Florida’s wilderness to the suspenseful tale of two kids who decide to investigate after an undeniably unpopular biology teacher disappears after a field trip to a swamp.
Cezanne and the Apple Boy by Laurence Anholt
In his artful introduction to Impressionist painting and his affecting portrayal of a father and son, Anholt pays homage to the power of individual vision. For aspiring young artists everywhere.
Peaceful Heroes by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Sen Addy
From Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King to lesser-known figures—including Ginetta Sagan, a founder of Amnesty International—individuals have risked their lives to forge a better world. The profiles in courage inspire action and light the way into the future.
Classic Animal Stories chosen by Sally Grindley
From Aesop’s Fables to Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, this splendid anthology limns all the wonders of the wild creatures’ world.
Long Shot: Never Too Small to Dream Big by Chris Paul, illustrated by Frank Morrison
The NBA superstar offers an empowering remembrance of his childhood, when he was told: “You’re too small to play basketball.” He was, however, far too busy working toward his dream to listen to the naysayers. For every child who has faced seemingly insuperable obstacles.
My Name is Sangoel by Karen Lynn Williams and Khadra Mohammed, illustrated by Catherine Stock
When an eight-year-old boy arrives with his mother and sister in the United States from a refugee camp in Sudan, life seems dauntingly unmoored—until he devises an ingenious solution for connecting with his classmates and making his way toward friendship.
Lucky Breaks by Susan Patron
As she is about to turn 11, a girl called Lucky hopes that life will become more interesting in the small town that she calls home—Hard Pan. But diversion isn’t always as simple as it seems, in this appealing sequel to the Newbery-winning novel The Higher Power of Lucky.
The Grand Mosque of Paris: A Story of How Muslims Rescued Jews During the Holocaust by Karen Gray Ruelle and Deborah Durland DeSaix
A little-known story of resistance pays homage to those who risked all to create a secret sanctuary in wartime Paris.
Wild Times at the Bed & Biscuit by Joan Carris, illustrated by Noah Z. Jones
The next installment in the quiet exploits of the best fictional vet around. Grampa Bender rescues wild creatures from a cranky muskrat to a wounded Canada goose, nursing them back to health at his animal boardinghouse. A clever chapter book for elementary-school ages or an admirable read-aloud for pre-school children.
January’s Sparrow by Patricia Polacco
Polacco’s extraordinary evocation of a little-known chapter in American history, the tale of a daring rescue on the Underground Railroad, speaks to heroism at its most profound.
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, illustrated by John Lawrence
The celebrated British illustrator has created an heirloom edition of one of the greatest adventure sagas ever told.
Image by Eerdmans, William B.. My name is Sangoel by Karen Lynn Williams and Khadra Mohammed, illustrated by Catherine Stock. (original image)
Image by Holiday House, Inc.. The Grand Mosque of Paris: A Story of How Muslims Rescued Jews During the Holocaust by Karen Gray Ruelle and Deborah Durland DeSaix. (original image)
Image by Candlewick Press. Yummy: Eight Favorite Fairy Tales retold and illustrated by Lucy Cousins. (original image)
Image by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Thunder-Boomer! by Shutta Crum, illustrated by Carol Thompson. (original image)
Image by Penguin Group (USA). January's Sparrow by Patricia Polacco. (original image)
Image by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. Nubs: The True Story of a Mutt, a Marine & a Miracle by Major Brian Dennis, Kirby Larson and Mary Nethery. (original image)
Image by Lee & Low Books, Inc.. Cycle of Rice, Cycle of Life: A Story of Sustainable Farming written and photographed by Jan Reynolds. (original image)
Image by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. Dinosaur, text by Stephanie Stansbie; illustrated by Robert Nicholls and James Robins. (original image)
Image by Candlewick Press. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, illustrated by John Lawrence. (original image)
Image by Candlewick Press. It's a Secret! by John Burningham. (original image)
Raspberries! by Jay O’Callahan, illustrated by Will Moses
Kindness has its own reward, as Simon learns after his bakery is forced to close down. A large-hearted stand-out, accompanied by a CD of the story, recorded by the author.
The Dragons of Ordinary Farm by Tad Williams and Deborah Beale, pictures by Greg Swearingen
Two siblings believe that a summer spent on their elderly uncle’s farm is going to be dull as all get-out—until they spot the dragon in the barn. A yarn invested with a great deal of charm from two master storytellers.
Nasreen’s Secret School: a True Story from Afghanistan by Jeanette Winter
At this moment, teachers in that war-torn land are placing their lives in the balance to give girls a future. Winter’s account affirms the transformative power of education and the healing strength of a grandmother’s love.
Dinosaur, text by Stephanie Stansbie; illustrated by Robert Nicholls and James Robins
For dino-obsessed children on your list, an interactive excursion to the giants of prehistory.
Breakfast in the Rainforest written and photographed by Richard Sobol
The world-class photographer trekked into wilds of Uganda to document the lives of a band of critically endangered mountain gorillas and the rangers committed to protecting them.
Miss Little’s Gift by Douglas Wood, illustrated by Jim Burke
In a second-grade classroom in 1950s Iowa—decades before a condition we now know as ADHD was recognized—a perceptive teacher saw that one child needed individual tutoring before he could learn to read. The author’s recollection of his own childhood experience is a tribute to teachers everywhere.
The Anne Frank Case by Susan Goldman Rubin, illustrated by Bill Farnsworth
In 1958, Simon Wiesenthal, the renowned Nazi hunter, learned that Neo-Nazis were perpetrating the idea that the Anne Frank story was a hoax. Thus began his five-year search for the Gestapo officer who arrested the Frank family, testifying to Wiesenthal’s determination to honor a young girl’s memory.
Stories from the Billabong retold by James Vance Marshall, illustrated by Frances Firebrace
From Australia, how the great Mother Snake created the world and the Kangaroo got his pouch: Aboriginal legends, memorably recast.
First Come the Zebra by Lynne Barasch
Against the backdrop of the annual migration of wildlife to Kenya, and recent violence in that country, a Maasai boy and a Kikuyu child bridge the differences that cast a shadow over both their lives.
Clover Twig and the Magical Cottage by Kaye Umansky, illustrated by Johanna Wright
Open the creaky gate to a disheveled homestead, where a slightly obstreperous witch is badly in need of rescue from a resourceful girl who arrives to put things right. Umansky’s delightful novel, shot through with magic potions and featuring a heroic cat, is this year’s most transporting creation for middle readers.
Muktar and the Camels by Janet Graber, illustrated by Scott Mack
In a Kenyan orphanage on the border with Somalia, a boy encounters a traveling librarian who delivers books by camel train—and suddenly, a life of possibility emerges.
Three outstanding titles mark Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday:
Charles Darwin and the Beagle Adventure by A. J. Wood and Clint Twist
A sumptuously illustrated introduction to the scientific imagination, based on Darwin’s diaries and later works.
One Beetle Too Many: The Extraordinary Adventures of Charles Darwin by Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by Matthew Trueman
Transfixed by the mysteries of the natural world, Darwin set off aboard the Beagle in 1831. This account offers a page-turning survey of the voyage that instigated an intellectual revolution.
What Mr. Darwin Saw by Mick Manning and Brita Granstrom
Whimsical and accessible, the writer-illustrator team presents complex ideas with their characteristic verve.
Mission to the Moon by Alan Dyer
Information-packed text and more than 200 photographs from NASA archives relay the race into space with immediacy and depth.
Bring Me Some Apples and I’ll Make You a Pie by Robbin Gourley
This picture-biography surveys the contributions of Edna Lewis, the pioneering chef, who celebrated regional American cooking well before it was fashionable. Includes recipes.
Stars Above Us by Geoffrey Norman, illustrated by E.B. Lewis
The night sky shines brightly for a father and his young daughter—even when distances created by his deployment separate them. A touching narrative for any child who has awaited a parent’s return.
Yellowstone Moran: Painting the American West by Lita Judge
In 1871, a young artist joined an expedition of scientists setting out to explore the West. The monumental canvasses based on his travels would become iconic images that are now part of our nation’s heritage.
In Her Hands: The Story of Sculptor Augusta Savage by Alan Schroeder, illustrated by JaeMe Bereal
With only her dreams and her genius to guide her, a young girl set out from Florida in the 1890s for New York City. There, she would become a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance.
In the Belly of an Ox: The Unexpected Photographic Adventures of Richard and Cherry Kearton by Rebecca Bond
In the 19th century, two venturesome brothers in the grip of a magnificent obsession—documenting British birds and their nests—carved out a pioneering niche in wildlife photography.
Cycle of Rice, Cycle of Life: A Story of Sustainable Farming written and photographed by Jan Reynolds
On the Edenic island of Bali, farmers have grown rice in harmony with their land for 1,000 years—practices that show promise for rice cultivation worldwide. Reynolds sends us on a compelling odyssey to one of the world’s great intact cultures.
Wildlife Gardening by Martyn Cox
How to do everything from attracting bees to creating an owl’s nest from an old boot: creating a refuge in your own backyard amounts to the ultimate in hands-on family fun.
Testing the Ice: A True Story About Jackie Robinson by Sharon Robinson, illustrated by Kadir Nelson
A daughter pays tribute to her father’s undaunted courage—on and off the playing field—in this quietly moving vignette from her childhood.
Whaling Season: A Year in the life of an Arctic Whale Scientist, written and photographed by Peter Lourie; Extreme Scientists: Exploring Nature’s Mysteries from Perilous Places, written and photographed by Donna M. Jackson
Both these titles, the latest in a series exploring the work of field scientists, vividly convey the thrill of research conducted everywhere from the edge of the ice to the top of great redwoods.
Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Brian Pinkney
David. Joseph. Franklin. Ezell—college students who changed history when they took seats at the whites-only lunch counter in North Carolina on February 1, 1960. Poetic story telling and energetic illustrations illuminate a transformative moment in America.
Erika-San by Allen Say
When a young Japanese-American woman goes in search of her grandparents’ traditions, she locates her future on a Japanese island where the old ways continue to hold sway.
For Older Readers
(Ages 10 and up)
Genius of Common Sense written and illustrated by Glenna Lang and Marjory Wunsch
An American heroine of the first order, Jane Jacobs perceived cities as places where we thrive on interconnectedness. Her vision, eloquently explicated here, revolutionized our urban landscapes. For all ages.
Crows & Cards by Joseph Helgerson
Hilarious, touching and grounded in the American tall-tale tradition, Helgerson’s account of Zebulon Crabtree, who falls in with a riverboat gambler in 1849 St. Louis, has all the makings of a classic. Perfect as a read-aloud for somewhat younger children also.
Earth Heroes: Champions of the Wilderness by Bruce and Carol L. Malnor, illustrated by Anisa Claire Hovemann; Earth Heroes: Champions of the Ocean by Fran Hodgkins, illustrated by Cris Arbo
Profiles of dedicated scientists and environmentalists shed new light on science conducted in the field.
Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork
This novel, richly layered and satisfyingly complex, is at once a legal thriller and a love story—but most of all, a tale of an autistic protagonist finding his way forward when demanding choices must be made.
The Secret of the Yellow Death by Suzanne Jurmain
A portrayal of the researchers who put their lives on the line to solve a medical mystery constitutes a true-life tale that will inspire the next generation of medical investigators.
Lifting the Sky by Mackie d’Arge
On a tumbledown ranch in Wyoming, a teenage girl who befriends wild creatures and possesses her own kind of clairvoyance finds that a real home is at last within her grasp.
Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream by Tanya Lee Stone
In 1958, an unspoken rule was in place: astronauts must be male and must be white. The pioneers who challenged the system were pathfinders for young women who today fly jets and take off for missions in space.
Journey of Dreams by Marge Pellegrino
As a girl and her family set out on a harrowing escape from war-torn Guatemala, they rely on family and a tradition of storytelling to sustain them on their flight to freedom. Pellegrino’s powerful novel is set against the backdrop of events as they unfolded in 1980s Central America.
City Boy by Jan Michael
In Malawi, an orphaned boy, sent to the country to live with his relatives, believes that only the past has any meaning—until he begins to glimpse his future.
Heroes of the Environment by Harriet Rohmer, illustrated by Julie McLaughlin
In Mexico, a superstar wrestler campaigns to preserve habitats for sea turtles and whales. A teenage girl discovers a method for removing a toxic chemical from the Ohio River. What they hold in common is a passionate belief that one person can make a difference.
The Yggssey by Daniel Pinkwater
Wacked out, shot through with sorcery and utterly original as always, Pinkwater’s account of a girl who happens to notice that L.A.’s once-thriving ghosts seem to be vanishing amounts to a first-class page turner.
If I Had a Hammer written and photographed by David Rubel
An absorbing chronicle of Habitat for Humanity, which for a quarter century has created shelter from the ground up, everywhere from West Virginia to a Brazilian village, where children no longer sleep beneath a table when the rains begin.
Hannah’s Winter by Kieran Meehan
Witty and unpredictable, fantastical and touching, Meehan’s novel is set in present-day Japan. An ancient message uncovered in a Japanese family’s stationery shop sends two teenage sleuths on a quest for truth.
Juicy Writing: Inspiration and Techniques for Young Writers by Brigid Lowry
The author of many outstanding young adult novels, including Follow the Blue, shares her secrets and explores the rewards of creativity.
Shine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger
Samar is a typical teenager—obsessed by school, friends and boys—until an uncle arrives from India, wanting to connect her family to its rich and contradictory Sikh heritage.
Marching for Freedom by Elizabeth Partridge
A documentary account of events in Selma, Alabama in the spring of 1965—when even children marched in support of the campaign for voting rights— is amplified by unforgettable contemporary photographs.
Pharaoh’s Boat by David Weitzman
Splendid drawings and compelling narrative meld past and present, revealing the secrets of shipwrights working in the shadow of the Pyramids and recognizing the contribution of the archaeologist who excavated the 4,600-year-old vessel they crafted.
The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner’s Dilemma by Trento Lee Stewart
Four friends who have already sorted out some evildoers find that they must unravel clues in an ominous new plot against their families. Suspense of a high order.
The Man Who Flies with Birds by Carole Garbuny Vogel and Yossi Leshem
Internationally renowned ornithologist Leshem has revolutionized our understanding of migration patterns and also has worked tirelessly for peace in the Middle East—reaching one bird lover at a time.
A Season of Gifts by Richard Peck
It’s quite a high-wire act to create a distinctive novel set in the Christmas season. But the singularly talented Richard Peck has done just that—and managed to bring back the beloved figure of eccentric, no-holds-barred Grandma Dowdel, as he returns to small-town Illinois, this time in 1958.
Laurie Lambert is a runner, always has been, it seems. So when she was snowed in at her remote cabin in New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains nine years ago, she strapped on a tiny pair of children’s snowshoes and went out for a long run.
“It was awesome,” she remembers. “I was like, wow, I think I could make a sport out of this. Little did I know it was already a sport.”
As Lambert soon found out, snowshoe racing has become an increasingly popular sport in the United States and abroad, where last January more than 5,000 people competed in the 37th running of La Ciaspolada Snowshoe Race in the Italian Dolomites, a ten-kilometer event won by a former Olympic marathoner from New Zealand. In the United States, this season began with a race in Truckee, California, in December, and ends in March with the National Snowshoe Championships in Cable, Wisconsin.
Mark Elmore, the sports director for the United States Snowshoe Association, was a die-hard endurance runner who started racing on snowshoes in 1989. “It added variety to the winter season,” he says. “And I really liked the people. There was a different mentality than road racing where you’re just trying to beat the other competitors. In snowshoeing, you’re racing against the course and the snow conditions. You’re competing against yourself a little more.”
Most of the enthusiasts are like Lambert – runners, cyclists or triathletes looking for a new challenge and another way to get outside and raise their heart rates. “It’s so much fun,” she says. “It’s fantastic exercise. I’ve run marathons and done all kinds of crazy things and it’s the best workout I’ve ever done.”
The rise of snowshoe racing parallels the rise in popularity of snowshoeing. According to the Outdoor Industry Foundation, 3.4 million Americans traipsed through the winter wonderland on snowshoes in 2009, a 17.4 percent increase over 2008.
Divining when the snowshoe was invented is difficult because the ancient materials used to make them were perishable, but the consensus is they developed in Central Asia about 4000 B.C. Elmore says snowshoes may have facilitated crossing the Bering land bridge. They appear to have developed independently in both North America and Europe, with European snowshoes longer and narrower).
The traditional webbed snowshoe used in racing was created by American Indians. Explorer Samuel de Champlain wrote in his memoirs of them using “a kind of snowshoe that are two to three times larger than those in France, that they tie to their feet, and thus go on the snow, without sinking into it, otherwise they would not be able to hunt or go from one location to the other.”
In the 1830s, painter George Catlin depicted Indian use of snowshoes in paintings such as Snowshoe Dance at the First Snowfall and Buffalo Chase in Winter, Indians on Snowshoes. Tribes each developed their own shoe, differing in shape and size. The bear paw, an oval design, was short and wide and favored in forested areas. The Ojibwa shoe resembled a canoe, and its double toe helped the tribes of Manitoba cross diverse country. The Michigan, a snowhsoe credited to the Huron tribe, featured a long tail and was shaped like a tennis racket, allowing hunters to carry heavy loads of elk and buffalo.
The forerunners of snowshoe-racing associations were the snowshoe recreation clubs that began in Canada and the northeastern United States in the late 18th century. Outings in places including Montreal and northern New England towns were major events. To make the shoes easier to maneuver, the clubs shortened the long teardrop trapper and tracker’s snowshoe to about 40 inches.
Image by Dino Panato / Getty Images. The La Ciaspolada Snowshoe Race in the Italian Dolomites is a ten-kilometer event. (original image)
Image by Dino Panato / Getty Images. Snowshoe racing has become an increasingly popular sport. Last January more than 5,000 people competed in the 37th running of La Ciaspolada Snowshoe Race. (original image)
Image by The Granger Collection, NYC. The forerunners of snowshoe-racing associations were the snowshoe recreation clubs that began in Canada and the northeastern United States in the late 18th century. Outings in places including Montreal and northern New England towns were major town events. (original image)
Image by Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr.. In the 1830s, painter George Catlin depicted Indian use of snowshoes in paintings such as Snowshoe Dance at the First Snowfall. (original image)
Image by Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr.. Buffalo Chase in Winter, Indians on Snowshoes, by George Catlin. (original image)
Image by From the collection of the Hudson Museum, The University of Maine. Photograph by Stephen Bicknell. Ojibwe Woman, 19th century. The Ojibwa shoe resembled a canoe, and its double toe helped the tribes of Manitoba cross diverse country. (original image)
Beginning in the 1970s, designers of racing snowshoes trimmed them and lightened them even more, using the type of aluminum alloy used in spacecraft. The newest models now weigh as little as 16 ounces a shoe. “The modern racing snowshoe is a marvel that allows you to cover ground on soft snow so much easier,” Elmore says. “If you can walk or jog, you can run on snowshoes. There aren’t any specific skills you have to learn.”
In Europe, where snowshoe racing has been growing for decades, the Snowshoe Cup features six races in five countries from January to March. Organized racing in Europe began earlier than in the United States with the first running of La Ciaspolada in 1972.
In the United States, races are held in most regions of the country, including the Snow or No Snow Race in Flagstaff, Arizona. The courses vary as widely as the snow conditions. Elmore says there’s usually powder out West, where some events require organizers break the trail. In the East, snow conditions tend to be icier and thus the courses tend to follow packed trails, which are faster and require less effort than breaking a trail in powder. Distances are often ten kilometers, but there are also half marathons and even marathons, where the winners post times in the neighborhood of four and a half hours. While records exist for various races, the differences in course conditions make them hard to compare. Big prizes used to be awarded to race winners, but those have faded with the recent economic crises.
Chary Griffin, 62, who lives in Cazenovia, southeast of Syracuse, New York, trains six miles every other day on a packed trail. She stows a box of racing snowshoes in her car to lend to friends so they can come along. Anyone, she says, can run in snowshoes. “It’s my winter sport,” she says. “I’m serious about getting other people hooked into this.”
Scott Gall, 36, of Cedar Falls, Iowa, moved to Wyoming after running distances at Wabash College and fell into snowshoe racing. He found it wasn’t as easy as strapping on snowshoes and taking a jog. “The first ten minutes are killer no matter what you’ve been doing,” he says. “You just have to adjust to it. It’s a lot of work to have things strapped to your feet. But once you’re ten minutes into it, your heart rate settles down.”
Lambert, Griffin and Gall clearly enjoy the competition against others and themselves. (Gall finished second in last year’s national championship.) But they seem to enjoy, just as much, if not more, the bracing air, the diverse landscape, and the joy of being outdoors when most others are huddled inside. As Gall notes, it’s warmer in winter snowshoeing in the woods than running on the roads.
“Going tromping through the woods on a full moon night is awesome,” he says. “It’s not just the competition. It’s getting outside in the fresh air and doing something fun. Somewhere along the way, they told adults you can’t enjoy it when the snow flies.”
Lambert regularly trains above 9,500 feet in New Mexico, below the tree line. But she recalls the stunning beauty of a world cup race she participated in in Austria. “That was way above the trees on the Dachstein Glacier. It felt like we were visitors on some other planet,” she says. “Otherworldly.”
For the past eight months, for a variety of environmental reasons, I have abstained from eating any cheese—but last week I went tumbling off the wagon. I couldn’t help myself any longer. For the Pyrenees, I’ve discovered, is a cheese-producing district about as moldy and musky as they get outside of Roquefort. Cows and sheep seem to outnumber people, grazing on the hillsides in vast herds and clogging the roads as villagers drive them into the high country for the summer—an annual occasion for festivities and celebrations in many villages. These are the animals that have indirectly caused the extermination of bears and wolves from most of the nation. About two dozen brown bears do still tiptoe through the woods in the Pyrenees, leery of gun-toting shepherds, but mostly they have been replaced by milk-making grazers. So you can bitterly hold your grudge and boycott all things milk-related, like I periodically do, or go tasting.
In Gez, on the road from Argeles-Gazost to the Spandelles pass, a small sign midway through the village tells passersby of fromage in the vicinity. Knock on the nearest door, and if that fails to draw a response, make a fuss in the road and stomp your feet, and someone will appear. Spit out some gibberish about “fromage a vendre,” and that should do it. Someone will lead you into the cool damp cellar, quiet and regal as a chapel and home to a hundred-something wheels of cheese—and never illuminated with more than a dim fluorescent bulb.
Some of the wheels are fresh and white as snow, but not yet for sale. Others are covered in greenish fuzz—unintended mold that will be scraped from the rind before long. Still others are crusty, brown, veined inside with the desired Penicillium mold and smelly—and ripe for purchase. Ask for some sample tastes, then buy a hunk for the hills. (This is your last chance for fuel as you ride into the wilderness.) And in Poubeau, along highway D-76 on the east side of Col de Peyresourde, the village fromagerie sells a tomme cow cheese, made on-site from a dozen heifers. Follow the signs, knock on the door, and if no one answers, go bug the neighbors. You’ll get your cheese. And just uphill from Luz-Saint-Sauveur, en route to the spectacular Luz-Ardiden summit, the Ferme de Cascades, operated largely by WWOOF workers (world wide opportunities on organic farms) makes and sells goat cheese. Their hours are odd—just 4 to 6 p.m.—so plan accordingly. The cheese, including creamy day-old chevre and old crusty bricks, is a bit expensive for the area (20 Euros a kilo, or about $10 a pound), but it’s organic, it’s tasty and—as good goat cheese should—it really smells and tastes like a goat. Down in the foothills in the town of Tilhouse, another fine and friendly cheese-making operation is La Ferme de Baptistou. Home to 100-something sheep, the farm also buys cow and goat milk and makes several blends, all up to par with French cheese-making standards (much like European wine is regulated) and classed as Pyrenees tomme. Follow the signs reading “fromage de brebi” (sheep cheese).
For the cyclist, it’s a heartbreaking descent down a steep hill to the farm (I had just climbed about 800 feet out of the Arros River valley, all my gear doubled in weight by a night of rain), but the experience is well worthwhile. Ask to see the cave, and they’ll show you inside. Ask for a few samples, and they’ll taste you through young and old cheeses of goat, sheep and cow. I chanced to arrive just before milking time, and a friendly farm apprentice in training named Julien allowed me to watch the operation and even sent me away with a spot of milk for my coffee. It was my first sheep milk cafe au lait.
Not into cheese? Then tour the local morning farmers markets for other goodies—Thursday in Arreau, Wednesday in Bareges, Tuesday in Argeles-Gazost, Sunday in La Barthe-de-Neste, to name several. Chantecler apples, white asparagus, pre-baked beets and farm-fresh eggs are my staples of living. You might also run into Geert Stragier, who keeps court at multiple farmers markets—including Thursday morning in Arreau. He is not a farmer or an artisan of any sort—just a merchant—but he sells what few else do in this wine-oriented culture: about 50 Belgian beers. Want some locally brewed beer? Of the 400-plus craft breweries in France, three, I’m told, dwell in the Pyrenees. One, L’Aoucataise, is based in Arreau—a homebrewing-size setup in the rear of a small cheese-and-wine boutique. Five year-round staple beers in bottles, including an amber beer, a blonde beer, a honey beer and a beer with no alcohol, make up the repertoire of owner and brewer Christian Arzur, who told me that wine sales are dropping nationwide as artisan beer sales slowly climb. The shop offers beer tastings during the summer months, if you arrive with a group large enough that Arzur isn’t left with several half bottles. Step inside the shop, located across from the market plaza, to inquire.
If you just can’t get enough of the hills, then stay in the mountains—but forget about the trophy climbs of the Tour de France and consider some lesser known but just as grand ascents, like Col de Spandelles, Col de Couraduque, Port de Boucharo and Port du Bales. By the numbers, these ones—oh, never mind meters for a while. Just enjoy the ride. I climbed Bales from the south side. The north side is absurdly steep and a terror just to ride down—but on top was a view about as mighty as any I’ve seen in Europe. To the north and a mile below, the expanse of France lay before me. Out there, on that brown distant landscape, was the Armagnac region, the Landes forest, the lovely Perigord farther north and the posh wine-making castles of Bordeaux off to the northwest. England could not be seen, hidden beyond the curved surface of the Earth, but I almost swore I could see the tip of the Eiffel Tower.
This just in: Want a hot deal on Parmesan cheese? A correspondent of mine who lives in the north of Italy (Aunt Bobbie) reports that in the city of Ferrara, cheese houses damaged by the recent earthquake are selling off their quake-damaged wheels of immature Parmesan at about 25 percent off normal prices. Most families, Bobbie reports, are snagging 10 kilos at a time. Better get there quick.
Most art critics never took Howard Finster seriously. If they wrote about him at all, they shunted him off into the category of “self-taught folk artist” or “outsider artist,” a quaint curiosity but nothing to take seriously. Even when his paintings were shown at the Library of Congress or the Venice Biennale, they were presented as novelty items.
But rock musicians, including the legendary ’80s band R.E.M., recognized Finster as one of their own: an unschooled genius who shrugged off the establishment's condescension to enjoy the last laugh.
After R.E.M. filmed its first music video at the fellow Georgian’s home studio in 1983, Finster and lead singer Michael Stipe then collaborated on the cover for the group’s 1984 album, Reckoning. The New York band the Talking Heads commissioned Finster to paint the cover for their 1985 album, Little Creatures; it was named “Album Cover of the Year” by Rolling Stone. Another Georgia musician, the Vigilantes of Love's Bill Mallonnee, wrote a song about Finster: “The Glory and the Dream.”
Finster’s studio, known as “Paradise Garden,” is still standing on the land he bought in 1961, located at the end of a narrow street in the unincorporated town of Pennville, Georgia. The bicycle repair shop that provided his main income for years lives on, as do many of the buildings Finster built as parts of his “sacred art” project: the Mirror House, Bottle House, Mosaic Garden, Rolling Chair Gallery, Hubcap Tower and the five-story World's Folk Art Chapel.
During the 1980s and ‘90s, it was not unusual to a big tour bus to pull up at Paradise Garden and for a rock band to climb out and marvel at Finster’s exuberant, unruly visions. The exteriors and interiors of his buildings were covered with Biblical verses, floating angels, Satanic flames and celestial clouds, all part of the painter's mission to spread God's word
Image by Geoffrey Himes. Finster's hand-painted Cadillac (original image)
Image by Geoffrey Himes. Depictions of Elvis Presley in the Rolling Chair Gallery (original image)
Image by Geoffrey Himes. Finster's manifesto (original image)
Image by Geoffrey Himes. American icons: Coke, Santa and wagon wheels (original image)
Image by Geoffrey Himes. Memory jars embedded in cement wall (original image)
Image by Geoffrey Himes. Finster's studio (original image)
Image by Geoffrey Himes. An R.A. Miller rooster inside the Rolling Chair Gallery (original image)
Image by Geoffrey Himes. Colored bottles cemented into a small chapel (original image)
Image by Geoffrey Himes. The Hubcap Tree (original image)
Image by Geoffrey Himes. The World's Folk Art Chapel (original image)
Image by Geoffrey Himes. A Purvis Young painting (original image)
But as the painter aged, he moved away in 1994 and finally died in 2001. In his absence, the compound declined dramatically: the detachable art works were removed by family members and looters; the buildings leaked, tilted and sank into accumulating mud. It wasn’t until 2012 when Chattooga County bought the property and turned it over to the non-profit Paradise Garden Foundation that the property began to turn around. Heading up the foundation is 32-year-old Jordan Poole, who grew up in the area before earning a master's degree in historic preservation from Savannah College.
“My grandparents had a grocery store two blocks away,” Poole remembers. “My mother went to grade school at the top of the hill, and my family's buried a block away. I first visited here when I was five years old, and to me it was magical, enchanting. But my dad would say, ‘There’s that crazy Finster place.’ That was the common attitude. He was that crazy Baptist preacher who did what you shouldn’t do.”
When I visited in May, Poole provided a personal tour. He pulled out a mini-album of snapshots to show how bad the property had become by 2010. Water is always the biggest enemy of abandoned buildings, and rain had streaked the walls and ceilings, rotted the beams and carried the mud into every low-lying area. When I glanced from the photos to the landscape in front of me, the transformation was remarkable.
Finster’s former studio, a clapboard bungalow painted with images of George Washington, an orange panther and willowy saints, now serves as a gift shop and visitors’ center, where you can buy a ticket for the low price of $5 (even cheaper if you’re a senior, student or child). As you walk out the back door, you’re confronted by the World's Folk Art Chapel, which resembles nothing so much as a five-layer wedding cake, featuring a 12-sided white-wood balcony, a cylindrical tower and an inverted-funnel spire.
Covering one of the chapel's windows is a painting that serves as the most succinct summary of Finster’s artistic purpose: “Visions of Other Worlds,” it reads across a landscape of exploding volcanoes and swirling stars. “I took the pieces you threw away—put them together by night & day—washed by rain and dried by sun—a million pieces all in one.”
Indeed recycled materials are to be seen everywhere: rusted farm implements, teapots, broken dishes, light fixtures, empty pop bottles, plastic toys, sea shells, shattered mirrors, bicycle rims and much more, all juxtaposed with wire and cement into new arrangements—always startling and often beautiful. A workshop is still filled with such bits and pieces waiting to be assembled into new art works.
Finster dug serpentine paths for the creek that crossed his property so the water snaked between his structures large and small. It was his own, personal “Garden of Eden,” as he put it. The creek had been silted up, but it was one of the first things restored by the new foundation.
One shed is raised on stilts and covered inside and out with mirrors. When you walk into this “Mirror House,” you find your reflection fractured and multiplied many times over. A 20-foot-tall tower of hubcaps is entangled in vines. His hand-painted Cadillac is parked in another shed. Three adjacent trees that he braided into one are still standing. The Rolling Chair Ramp Gallery, designed for wheelchairs, is a long, L-shaped building lined with news reports and testimonials as well as art works by Finster and his colleagues, all annotated by Finster’s black Sharpie.
Outsider folk artists have a reputation for being isolated loners, but Paradise Garden deflates that stereotype. Even as a septuagenarian Baptist minister, Finster loved to have scruffy rock'n'rollers and camera-clicking tourists visit, and their greetings are hung in the gallery. He especially like to meet his fellow outsider artists, and such famous names as Purvis Young, Keith Haring and R.A. Miller all left art works behind in gratitude for Finster’s trail-blazing example.
Finster’s legacy is complicated by the fact that he was more interested in getting his message out to as many people as possible than in creating the best possible art. Later in his career, he started churning out what he called “souvenir art,” multiple variations on a few simple themes to feed the demand. These were inevitably lacking in inspiration and diminished his reputation, but his best work stands up as great American art. He had a strong sense of line and color and a genius for combining text and imagery. But the greatest of his works may be Paradise Garden itself.
The Paradise Garden Foundation has accomplished much in a few years, but there is still much to do. The buildings were originally covered with paintings on plywood, and the foundation wants to restore those—not with originals that will be damaged by the elements but by weatherproof replicas. The most expensive challenge is stabilizing and weatherproofing the World's Folk Art Chapel. Paradise Garden deserved its notoriety in the ‘00s as a dilapidated ruin of its former self, but it deserves that reputation no longer.
The site is worth an out-of-the-way trip not only for art lovers but also for music fans—not just because Finster painted a few album covers but more so because he seemed to embody the unschooled, non-corporate, non-academic spirit of the earliest, strangest and best rock 'n' roll.
We are excited to present a special editorial section about The Land. Please visit www.smithsonian.com/ecocenter for the full feature.
Image by iStockphoto. Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, Alaska
The dramatic tidewater glaciers that define this 3.2-million-acre park are remnants of the Little Ice Age that began about 4,000 years ago. With 16 active glaciers, Glacier Bay is the park's main attraction. As recently as 200 years ago the bay was almost completely covered by a glacier more than 4,000 feet thick and some 20 miles wide. But as it retreated over the years, it left behind smaller, separate glaciers. (original image)
Image by Jim Sugar/Corbis. Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii
From lush rain forests to tropical beaches and snow-covered peaks, Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park protects seven different ecological zones and houses the world's most active volcanoes, Kilauea and Mauna Loa. The more active of the two, Kilauea, has created more than 568 acres of new land and buried almost nine miles of highway with lava as deep as 115 feet. (original image)
Image by iStockphoto. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Perhaps the most iconic park in the U.S., Yellowstone National Park is famous for having the greatest concentration of geothermal features in the world. Geysers, steaming fumaroles, multi-colored hot springs and boiling mud pots make up the 10,000 known thermal spots in the park. Old Faithful is one of the most popular, regularly shooting 8,400 gallons of scalding water into the air every 33 to 120 minutes. Congress officially protected the Yellowstone area in 1872, making it the first American park and the only preserve of its kind in the world. (original image)
Image by iStockphoto. Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida
Located in the biologically diverse Florida Everglades, Big Cypress National Preserve protects more than 720,000 acres of swamp and provides habitat for many mammals, birds, reptiles and plants unique to Florida's climate. It's also home to eight federally listed endangered species that include the Cape Sable seaside sparrow, the West Indian manatee and the Florida panther. The Florida panther is the most threatened mammal in the U.S., and almost 40 of them live within the preserve's boundaries. (original image)
Image by iStockphoto. Arches National Park, Utah
Arches National Park in the desert of eastern Utah boasts more than 2,000 natural sandstone arches formed by wind and water erosion over millions of years. The red sandstone arches range in size from a three-foot opening to Landscape Arch, which measures 306 feet from base to base and is the longest freestanding natural span of rock in the world. Towering spires, fins and balanced rocks are also hallmarks of the park and some of the most unique formations can be seen at popular sites such as Balanced Rock, Courthouse Towers, Delicate Arch, and Fiery Furnace. (original image)
Image by David Muench/Corbis. Ozark National Scenic Riverways, Missouri
The Ozark National Scenic Riverways is world famous for more than 300 known caves. The park's landscape is typified by karst terrain—rocky ground, springs, caves, sinkholes and underground rivers. Jam Up Cave is one of the Ozark's most spectacular, and it's only accessible by boat. The entrance is about 80 feet high and 100 feet wide. During the Civil War, Northern and Southern soldiers received medical care in Hospital Cave, located in a bare-rock cliff, while farmers in the surrounding area are also thought to have used Meeting House Cave as a hideout. (original image)
Image by David Muench/Corbis. Fossil Butte National Monument, Wyoming
Located in southwestern Wyoming's cold sagebrush desert, Fossil Butte National Monument contains 13 square miles of Fossil Lake. This 50-million-year-old lake bed dates back to the Eocene age and is one of the richest fossil sites in the world. It contains some of the most perfectly preserved remains of ancient fish, reptile, bird, mammal, plant and insect life. A combination of quiet, deep waters and fine-grained lake sediments created conditions that kept the skeletons intact. (original image)
Image by Hal Horwitz/Corbis. Name: Resurrection fern (Selaginella lepidophylla)
Habitat: Deserts of Mexico and the southwestern United States
Strange Factor: During frequent droughts, it folds up its stems into a tight ball and goes into a state of dormancy that can last for years. When the rains return, the plant's cells rehydrate, its metabolism increases and the stems unfold. (original image)
Image by Reuters/Corbis. Name: Corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanum)
Habitat: Equatorial rain forests of Sumatra, Indonesia
Strange Factor: The flowers only bloom about three or four times during their 40-year lifespan, releasing a horrible stench that's been compared to the odor of rotting meat. (original image)
Image by iStockphoto. Name: Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula)
Habitat: Nitrogen-poor environments, like bogs, in the Carolinas and northern Florida
Strange Factor: This carnivorous plant catches and digests insects and arachnids when two trigger hairs, called trichomes, on the leaves are touched in succession, or when one hair is touched twice. The two lobes of the leaves then snap shut, usually in less than a second. The plant secretes enzymes that digest the prey over ten days, after which the leaf reopens to prepare for another meal. (original image)
Image by Frank Krahmer/zefa/Corbis. Name: Strangler fig (Ficus aurea)
Habitat: Tropical climates of southern Florida
Strange Factor: The strangler fig is vine-like and grows up a host tree, eventually strangling it and becoming a self-supporting, independent tree. The fig grows to massive size, averaging about 60 feet tall by 60 feet wide. (original image)
Image by Kevin Schafer/Corbis. Name: Sensitive plant (Mimosa pudica)
Strange Factor: Growing up to 18 inches, the plant is known for its movements. When the leaves are touched, they will droop downwards temporarily. The same thing occurs when the plant is shaken or deprived of water. Reacting to the absence of light, the leaflets fold together at night and droop downward until sunrise. (original image)
Image by Frans Lanting/Corbis. Name: Meat flower (Rafflesia arnoldii)
Habitat: Rain forests of Indonesia
Strange Factor: The meat flower has the world's largest bloom; it can grow up to three feet across and weigh up to 15 pounds. This is a parasitic plant that attaches itself to a host plant for nutrients. Like the corpse flower, the plant emits a smell similar to rotting meat when in bloom to attract insects that will pollinate it. (original image)
Image by Martin Harvey/Corbis. Name: Living stones (Lithops)
Habitat: Africa, mainly Namibia and South Africa
Strange Factor: During frequent periods of drought, the plants' thick leaves go below the soil level using contractile roots. The plant gets its name from its strange physical resemblance to stones. (original image)
Image by iStockphoto. Name: Wollemi pine (Wollemia nobilis)
Habitat: Wollemi National Park, 125 miles west of Sydney, Australia
Strange Factor: Prior to its 1994 discovery, the Wollemi pine was presumed to be extinct, only known to botanists through 90 million-year-old fossils. The conifer, or cone-bearing seed plant, can grow up to 112 feet tall and has dark green foliage and a bubbly bark. The pine is critically endangered—fewer than 100 mature trees currently live in Wollemi National Park. (original image)
Image by Frank Krahmer/zefa/Corbis. Name: Bottle tree (Adansonia digitata)
Habitat: From sub-Sahara Africa to South Africa
Strange Factor: The bottle tree is not particularly tall, only reaching about 70 feet. But the tree's name comes from its colossal trunk, which can grow 35 feet in diameter and resembles the shape of a bottle. The trunk—or trunks, as many old trees have more than one—is used to store water during dry periods and can hold more than 1,000 gallons. (original image)
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Image by Cheryl Carlin. (original image)
From the window of a moving car, the landscape passes by all too quickly—without smell, sound or sweat, without headwind, tailwind or even a breeze and with little sense of satisfaction upon reaching a high mountain pass or the day’s destination.
It’s a far cry from bicycle travel, and I’m a bit jealous of the dozens of cyclists we pass every day. New Zealand’s roadways are thick with cyclists, and the nation appears to be a bicycling paradise. The towering Remarkables as they rise over the Clutha River, the sprawling valleys and vineyards, the greenery of the West Coast rainforest, the cliffs along the sea—all must be especially spectacular when seen from the saddle of a bicycle.
But one cyclist I met camping at a small wilderness lake north of Queenstown has been cycling in New Zealand for more than three months. She is now three-fourths of her way into a two-year tour of the world, and Pauline Symaniak, of Scotland, says New Zealand is a notch below thrilling, lacking a blend of adventure and excitement that was never absent from the Americas and Europe.
“To be quite honest, New Zealand has been the least satisfying of all the places I’ve been,” she told me.
Pauline began her journey in 2010 in Edinburgh. After quitting a relatively lifeless job working for the government, she pedaled through France, Belgium, Spain and Portugal. She hopped aboard a cargo ship that delivered her to Argentina, where a continent in the height of summer lay at her wheels. She crossed Patagonia and the Andes, and went north into Bolivia, to Lake Titicaca. Then she boxed up her bike—always a logistical pain for cyclists—and flew to Miami, took the Greyhound to Boston, and from here pedaled with an old college friend across America to Seattle. Time was unlimited, with money in the bank, and so she flew to Auckland.
And then her fast adventure slowed to a puzzlingly sluggish pace, and it took Pauline a few weeks of exploring to realize what was going on.
“Even in America, there is history and magic, in layers,” she said. “There’s culture.”
But New Zealand, it seemed to her, lacks something. This country has tremendous wilderness, vast and unexplored, with thrilling mountain ranges scraping the sky like looming murals and beautiful coastlines of cliff and sea—but it is also orderly, tidy and tame, clean, trim and polished. None of which is bad, exactly, but for a woman who has left her job and home to circle the world on a bike, New Zealand may be too cozy for comfort.
In Pauline’s words, “New Zealand is great if you want to be comfortable.”
Even from a moving car, I can see it: There seems to be no dirt or imperfection across the land. Almost every turn in the road is marked with a neat sign and labeled on the map. Fences demarcate the country like a checkerboard and line every roadside. There is meanwhile an overbearing tourism industry that keeps a wet blanket over the spirit of true adventure. We’ve seen this in towns like Te Anau, Wanaka, Franz Josef and Queenstown, which all somewhat resemble Aspen, Tahoe or many other squeaky clean tourist magnets. In places like these, nearly every conceivable travel experience has been snatched up, polished, packaged and marketed to tourists. In almost every coffee shop and campground office we see posters and pamphlets for guided wine-tasting tours, hiking and river rafting “safaris” and so much else for tourists unable to see that New Zealand is beautiful even without tour buses and guides. Other experiences have been invented from scratch and pumped full of adrenaline, like flying lessons, skydiving excursions, water skiing and heli-biking (for mountain bikers unwilling to fight gravity).
Pauline, like many cyclists, gets her thrills from simply watching landscapes come and go. Speaking of which, she soon leaves New Zealand and flies to Australia. After a brief tour of the Aussie East Coast, she will go to Istanbul, Turkey—where, as almost anyone who has been can attest, the thrills and beauty of discovery will resume. She rides west from there. As she goes, Pauline is blogging; follow her journey as she continues around the world.
Meanwhile, we have arrived in Kaikoura, a town flanked by sea to the east, flat green farmland to the west and staggering mountains to the north, and the beauty here has restored my faith in the possibilities of New Zealand. In fact, while my family is scheduled to go home, I have called the airline to extend my stay, and I’ll be reporting soon from the saddle of the sweetest vehicle and adventure-powerhouse I know: my bicycle.
The violence witnessed in Charlottesville, Virginia, during a white nationalist rally thrust the debate about Confederate monuments onto the nation's front pages. Should statues honoring the leaders of the Confederacy, like that of General Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, remain standing? Or should they be pulled down, as the city had planned to do – the very action that inspired the vicious rally.
While this discussion is not new, the murder of Heather Heyer has accelerated the removal of these monuments in much the same way that the murders of nine Charlestonians by Dylann Roof in 2015 instigated the lowering of Confederate battle flags across the country. Since this weekend’s events, the city of Baltimore removed four Confederate monuments in the middle of the night and the mayor of Lexington, Kentucky, has announced that his city will soon follow. They will join a number of smaller town and cities - most notably New Orleans - that have already taken similar steps.
The most controversial of these monuments already removed or under fire honor Confederate leaders such as Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Nathan Bedford Forrest, and Jefferson Davis. Historians have correctly pointed out that these monuments distort the history of the Confederacy by ignoring the cause for which they were willing to give their lives, namely the creation of a slave-holding republic based on white supremacy.
The disfranchisement of black Americans through legal means and the threat of lynching, throughout the Jim Crow-era, allowed white southerners to frame their struggle as a “Lost Cause” - a defiant and righteous stand against an illegal invasion by a corrupt federal government that sought to wipe out their peaceful civilization.
But if we only focus on monuments that honor Confederate leaders, we miss the many monuments and memorials that intentionally distort history by presenting a false narrative of the “loyal slave.” Well into the 20th century, “Lost Causers” relied on this idea to clearly justify maintaining and extending the ideology of white supremacy. In 1895, local cotton mill owner Samuel E. White and the Jefferson Davis Memorial Association dedicated a memorial in Fort Mill, South Carolina, to honor the "faithful slaves who loyal to a sacred trust toiled for the support of the army with matchless devotion and sterling fidelity guarded our defenceless homes, women and children during the struggle for the principles of our Confederate States of America."
In 1931, the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) and the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) erected a memorial to Heyward Shepherd, a free black man who was accidentally killed by John Brown's men during the October 1859 failed slave rebellion at Harpers Ferry. Shepherd worked as a porter in the town's railroad station, but in the words of the SCV and UDC represented "the character and faithfulness of thousands of negroes who, under many temptations throughout subsequent years of war, so conducted themselves that no stain was left upon a record which is the peculiar heritage of the American people..."
These monuments promulgate the idea that the Confederate cause united both races against invading Yankee hordes. In doing so, they reinforce a myth that ignored the many ways that enslaved people undermined the Confederate war effort, most notably by running off to the Union army and fighting against their former oppressors.
On June 4, 1914, the UDC dedicated what is perhaps the most egregious loyal slave monument, as it sits on the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery, not far from the former home of Robert E. Lee. A 32-feet-tall monument stood in a new section of Arlington, ringed by the graves of 267 Confederate soldiers, who had been reinterred from nearby locations. The dedication followed years of resistance to the idea of honoring Confederate dead on the same ground containing Union troops, black and white soldiers who had given their lives to save the United States.
Atop sits a statue of a human representation of the South, but beneath that, like tiers of cake, lies a ring of 14 shields emblazoned with the 13 seals of the Confederate states plus Maryland, then a series of life-sized friezes of the people of the Confederacy. Moses Ezekiel, a Confederate veteran and sculptor from Richmond, designed the monument and said he hoped to "show without any description how intensely and how seriously the men and women of every station in life had responded to the call to arms."
All together, they represent the pillars of Lost Cause ideology: Confederate military service, white southern family life and crucially, the faithful slave. One of the reliefs depicts, in the words of former Confederate Colonel Hilary Herbert, who chaired the executive committee of the Arlington Confederate Monument Association, "an officer, kissing his child in the arms of an old negro 'mammy.'"
To the left of this scene, Ezekiel placed a black man in Confederate uniform marching alongside white soldiers and officers. The meaning of this was clear for those who attended the dedication ceremony at Arlington. Herbert described Ezekiel's scene in the official history of the monument this way:
Then the sons and daughters of the South are seen coming from every direction. The manner in which they crowd enthusiastically upon each other is one of the most impressive features of this colossal work. There they come, representing every branch of the service, and in proper garb; soldiers, sailors, sappers and miners, all typified. On the right is a faithful negro body-servant following his young master, Mr. Thomas Nelson Page’s realistic “Marse Chan” over again.
Ezekiel's monument fit neatly into the racial and segregated landscape of its immediate surroundings at the time. Just a few years earlier, Virginia re-wrote its constitution to disenfranchise a large segment of its African-American citizens. Shortly after his inauguration in Washington, President Woodrow Wilson, who spoke at the dedication, ordered the segregation of all government offices.
This monument to the Confederate dead and its depiction of enslaved people as loyal, content with their subservient place, and disinterested in their own freedom, was a historical explanation that justified and helped maintain this new racial order that was now well in place throughout the former Confederacy.
Today, these monuments continue to distort the history of the Civil War and the Confederacy. Numerous SCV sites refers to the Ezekiel monument as evidence that black Confederates served in combat. In the hands of one unidentified author, Ezekiel's body servant is now a "Black Confederate soldier...marching in rank with white Confederate soldiers," and the monument itself is identified as "one of the first monument[s], if not the first, honoring a black American soldier." .
In recent years the SCV and UDC have advanced this myth not only to stem the tide of calls to lower Confederate flags and monuments, but to suggest, as their forebears did, that the cause of the Confederacy had nothing at all to do with the defense of slavery. Since black men fought willingly for the Confederacy, the argument runs, the preservation of slavery and white supremacy could not have been its goal. The Confederate flag and the many monuments that dot the southern landscape—properly understood—ought to unite black and white Americans.
The sons and daughters of the Confederacy understood that the key to re-imposing and justifying white supremacy following Reconstruction involved controlling history. Arguments against removing Confederate monuments often raise the dangers of erasing history.
What is often missed, however, is that the depiction of African-Americans as loyal and submissive itself constituted an erasure of history in favor of a fictional narrative that ultimately justified segregation and disfranchisement. The push to remove these monuments is recognition of the damage they have done and continue to do in communities across this country.
If the snow-capped Alps and the stunning landscape of Switzerland aren’t enough of a draw for travelers, the country’s 900 plus museums and cultural institutions might tip the scales. History buffs and art-lovers, rejoice—that’s one museum per 7,500 inhabitants. From the northern border of the rushing Rhine River to the southern tip of Lake Geneva, Switzerland’s major cities offer a cultural extravaganza of information waiting to be explored by the eager-to-learn. From this summer’s highly-anticipated event, Art Basel, where thousands of art lovers will gather to Zürich’s Manifesta 11 Art Festival this June, 2016 will offer a remarkable number of new and exciting exhibitions. Anyone planning a trip this year should be sure to make accommodations around these upcoming events in the following five major cities.
Image by Medienzentrum, Antje Zeis-Loi/Von der Heydt-Museum Wuppertal/MySwitzerland.com. Franz Marc's "Blue-black Fox, 1911" will be displayed as part of the "Kandinsky, Marc & Der Blaue Reiter" exhibit atFondation Beyeler, Basel. (original image)
Image by Estate of the artist/MySwitzerland.com. Ellsworth Kelly's "Blue Red Rocker," 1963, will be on display as part of "Sculpture on the Move 1946 – 2016" from April –18. September 2016 at the Kunstmuseum Basel. (original image)
Along the mighty waters of the Rhine River in Northern Switzerland, the city of Basel touts an artistic playground of over 40 museums within 15 square miles. The city’s rich art history unites a contrasting architectural landscape where buildings dating as far back as the 15th century stand proudly among the contemporary creations of international artists. Though it may be tough to visit all 40 museums, visitors should, at the very least, budget time for these three important stops: The Kunstmuseum Basel, the Foundation Beyeler and the Museum Tinguely.
The Kunstmuseum Basel, the largest publicly accessible art collection in Switzerland, houses the oldest public art collection in the world, and it’s about to get bigger. Its new extension building will open this April, allowing the recently-renovated original building and the new addition to simultaneously display pieces from the world’s first municipally-owned collection known as the the Amerbach Cabinet. Further highlights include masterpieces of classic modern art from Pablo Picasso to Gerhard Richter. The opening will be celebrated on April 17 and 18, 2016.
Three miles northeast of the Kunstmuseum, The Fondation Beyeler, Switzerland’s most-visited museum, welcomes 350,000 visitors every year to view rare works ranging from Monet’s “Water Lilies” to Cézanne’s “The Water Melon Still Life.” In the late 1960s, international art trader Ernst Beyeler founded the museum to house these works and over 34 Picassos. (Beyeler visited Picasso’s studio many times during his career and was personally awarded these works by the artist himself.) This September, the Fondation Beyeler will host the most awaited exhibition in 2016: “Kandinsky, Marc & Der Blaue Reiter” (September 4 through January 22, 2017), which will display examples from one of the most fascinating and brief periods in modern art: Der Blaue Reiter, which celebrated abstract forms and prismatic colors. For the first time since the early 20th century, a Swiss museum will showcase the work of revolutionary artists Vassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc. The presentation will highlight their most notable accomplishment: the Der Blaue Reiter Almanach (The Blue Rider Almanac), a collection of reproductions of more than 140 artworks, and 14 major articles within the movement.
The Tinguely Museum, located directly on the Rhine, showcases the world's largest collection of works by Jean Tinguely (1925-1991), one of Switzerland's most innovative and important modern artists. The museum features four decades of work, including many of the artist's sculptural machines, created in the Dada tradition, for which he is most famous.
For a different type of museum experience, the Schaulager, a unique exhibition space designed by the renowned architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron, offers a completely different way to experience art. Neither a conventional museum nor a traditional warehouse, the Schaulager is a art preservation lab and public viewing area for works from the Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation collection. Stop by to get a fascinating and rare look into parts of the art world that often live off view to the public.
June, however, is the best time to be in Basel for the city will once again become a meeting place for more than 90,000 visitors from around the globe for the highly-anticipated event Art Basel. From June 16 to 19, collectors, gallery owners, curators and artists will gather in a celebration of modern works by over 4,000 artists at the new Exhibition Center. Hailed by The New York Times as the "Olympics of Art," Art Basel has become a world-renowned, “annual family meeting” of the art scene.
Switzerland’s capital, Bern, lures visitors with its charming, historic UNESCO-labelled center and stunning views of the Aare River. The city, which dates back to the Middle Ages, is now home to two spectacular sights: the Zentrum Paul Klee, a world-class museum dedicated to the institution's namesake, one of Bern’s most prominent artists, and the Kunstmuseum Bern, which was opened in 1879 and is one of the oldest art museums in Switzerland. This February 19th to June 19th, both museums will stage the upcoming exhibit “Chinese Whispers,” which will display important works from legendary art trader Uli Sigg. Sigg, who served as the Swiss Ambassador to China in the mid-1990s, amassed a remarkable collection of over 2,200 pieces, one of the largest collections of Chinese art in the world. Visitors can discover China through the eyes of contemporary artists such as Ai Weiwei during the collection’s last hurrah in Europe. From 2019 forward, “Chinese Whispers” will make a permanent home in Hong Kong in the new M+ Museum for Visual Culture.
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Image by Courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth and Luhring Augustine/MySwitzerland.com. Pipilotti Rist's Cape Cod Chandelier, 2011 on display from February 26 to May 8, 2016 at Kunsthaus Zurich. (original image)
Image by Zürcher Hochschule der Künste / Museum für Gestaltung Zürich / Designsammlung/MySwitzerland.com. Jasper Morrison's "Cups Swissair" on display from February through June 2016 at Museum für Gestaltung, Zurich. (original image)
Image by Switzerland Tourism. The Kunsthaus Zürich (original image)
As World War I raged across Europe, artists with a plan to challenge nationalism and the materialism of bourgeois culture gathered in the alleyways of Zürich to turn the art world upside down. Dadaism, as the movement became known, celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, and its home city, which boasts more than 50 museums, will celebrate with events held throughout the year.
In addition to the Dada celebrations, this summer, the renowned international biennial for contemporary art, the Manifesta 11 Art Festival, will take place on the Limmat River from June 11 to September 18, 2016. Visitors are invited to gather on a floating “Pavillion of Reflections” complete with an open-air cinema and public swimming pool to contemplate this year’s theme, "What People do for Money: Some Joint Ventures." In the spirit of creation, this breathtaking temporary art landmark will be constructed in cooperation with 30 architecture students from ETH Zürich. Over the course of the festival, participating artists will use the working life of the people of Zürich as inspiration to develop 35 new art pieces. The Manifesta was founded in Holland and has been taking place every other year at a different location in Europe since 1996.
The Kunsthaus Zürich, located just North of Lake Zürich, has been collecting video art continuously since 1979 and includes works from international and Swiss artists spanning from the medium’s origin to modern day. This February 26 to May 8, the museum will honor internationally-known video artist Pipilotti Rist. Known for her sensual and, at times, risqué video installations, Rist has challenged the topic of eroticism with grace and sophistication since the 1980s. This year’s exhibition will present key works ranging from her early years through today in one single installation—an exhibit definitely worth checking out. If you’re planning a trip this fall, Kunsthaus Zürich will also be honoring the fragile beauty of Alberto Giacometti’s sculptures with a special exhibition 50 years after his death. (October 28, 2016 to January 15, 2017).
Museums aside, the city itself is a work of art. The unmistakable blue spire of the sacred Fraumünster Church, for example, defines Zürich’s skyline and is free for anyone to experience. Though it’s a holy place (Emperor Ludwig founded a Benedictine convent on this site in 853), very few people actually come here to pray: most visit to witness the light pour through the five magnificent windows and the rosette created by the artist Marc Chagall in 1970. Pro tip: the early bird catches the worm at this site, as the church is most beautiful during the morning’s first light.
Head south to the rolling hills of Lausanne, to take in the overwhelming beauty of Lake Geneva cradled by the dramatic peaks of the Swiss Alps. After an afternoon of wine-tasting in the Lavaux Vineyards that stretch for more than eight miles along the lake, thirst-quenched travelers may delight in the collection of the city’s Olympic Museum, which houses the largest archive of the Olympic Games in the world. Alternatively, the Beaulieu Castle displays the exclusive “Collection de l’art Brut,” an impressive assemblage of 15,000 “outsider art” objects from the estate of French painter Jean Dubuffet. The term “Art Brut” according to Dubuffet who studied and collected the creations of psychiatric hospital patients and prison inmates, means "unspoilt, raw art" and refers to the rebellious nature of those who live on the fringe of society. A few hours witnessing this out-of-this-universe exhibit may bring new meaning to the phrase “living on the edge.”
A five-minute walk north of the Olympic Museum, travelers will encounter the Musée de l’Elysée which is dedicated to the art form of photography at its highest international level. Just as the quality of the works inside the Musée de l’Elysée exceed expectations, so does the view—from the late 18th century villa, visitors can feel the vastness of Lake Geneva while they wander the grounds of Europe’s first museum solely devoted to photography. Entrance is free every first Saturday of the month.
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Image by Switzerland Tourism. MAMCO (original image)
Geneva, home of the U.N. and the Red Cross, is Switzerland's most cosmopolitan city and a cultural powerhouse. Nestled at the southern tip of Lake Geneva and surrounded by the Alps and Jura Mountains, the country’s second-most populated city is home to 40 museums, including the Geneva Art Museum (Musée d’Art et d’Histoire) and the Musée d’Art Modern et Contemporain (MAMCO). MAMCO, which includes a network of 14 galleries and cultural institutions, is the newest and the largest museum for contemporary art in Switzerland. Since its opening in 1994, MAMCO, which exists in a beautiful renovated factory building, has been keeping things interesting by designing new exhibitions three times a year with no division between permanent and temporary exhibitions. The collection encompasses 4,000 works presented in vast rooms with even larger windows, creating an intriguing industrial-feel.
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South of the Rhone River, the Quartier des Bains region has become a platform for contemporary art in Switzerland. With more than ten galleries and five cultural institutions, the Quartier des Bains Association hosts events year-round celebrating the art world—the most popular of which is the “Nuit des Bains” street art festival, celebrated three nights a year. On the third Thursday of March, May and September, thousands of artists, collectors, journalists and students gather to discover and appreciate new art in a street party atmosphere.
Switzerland has truly become the meeting place for art-lovers and creatives across the globe. This should come as no surprise, as the Swiss art scene has successfully merged international talent with local history for hundreds of years. It’s the birthplace of Dadaism and Surrealism and has since offered a space for other burgeoning artistic movements in the modern world. For new visitors, the sheer volume of museums alone can be overwhelming. Truth be told, whether you’re planning a trip for a week or several months, you’ll only just scratch the surface of what Switzerland has to offer. But if there’s a year to start exploring the country’s artistic and mountainous landscape, it’s 2016.
Stretching 90 miles along the jagged western edge of the continental United States, Big Sur has long exercised a magnetic pull on people drawn to its dazzling landscape.
Here, earth and ocean meet, not with gently sloping sands but with muscular mountains bristling with redwoods, and rugged cliffs that drop into the turquoise surf below. Just 150 miles south of San Francisco and 300 miles north of Los Angeles, this oblong slice of California is endearingly, enduringly wild.
When construction on a highway tracing the coastline was completed after 18 years in 1937, Big Sur officially opened to the public. Today, roughly 3 million people pass through it each year, slaloming down Highway 1 on one of the county’s most iconic lengths of road.
However, that road is currently closed in four places, cut off by a crumbling bridge and a handful of landslides that have blanketed the asphalt in dirt and rock.
“There are a lot of people with a vested interest in seeing the road open up again,” said Rob O’Keefe, chief marketing officer for the Monterey County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. “This is literally the quintessential California road trip experience that’s broken.”
The closures are expected to cost the area $500 million in lost revenue, but even if you can’t cruise Highway 1 from Carmel to San Simeon this summer, much of Big Sur is still open for business. If reaching sections of this mythic coastline require more of an adventure than usual, that’s just part of the appeal.
Last summer, the Soberanes Fire tore through 130,000 acres of Big Sur, burning for almost three months before finally being brought under control. That brutal season was followed by an incredibly wet winter, with ongoing rains saturating ground already susceptible to slides.
In February, a slip at Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge caused irreparable damage to the supports and span, closing the bridge and highway and effectively cutting off Big Sur village to the north from the businesses to the south. A handful of other slides have been active since January with periodic closures, and in May the region was rocked again: At Mud Creek, an entire hillside collapsed, burying a quarter mile of roadway under millions of tons of rock and dirt. The region’s worst landslide in 30 years, Mud Creek has actually changed the topography of the coastline, creating a new 16-acre crescent of earth that juts into the Pacific.(Stan Russell / Big Sur Chamber of Commerce)
Meanwhile, 15 miles north of Mud Creek, Paul’s Slide also fell, isolating the stretch of highway between it and the bridge that’s home to Post Ranch Inn, Ventana Inn and Nepenthe Restaurant, among other businesses. Finally, Cabrillo Highway is also closed to the south at Ragged Point, where another slide has interrupted traffic at Ragged Point.
Can I still get there?
Yes, but you may have to work a bit more for it.
North of Pfeiffer Canyon, Big Sur is open as usual. The bridge itself has been fully demolished, and a replacement won’t be installed until September, however, starting July 1 you can get around the closure on foot. A trail for locals bypassing the gap has been carved into the hillside and will open to the public next month with shuttles operating on either side.
“It’s not an easy walk,” cautions O’Keefe, who’s done the 40-minute hike himself. But it is a unique entry to Big Sur.
On the opposite end of the sweat equity spectrum, elegant clifftop resort Post Ranch Inn reopened in April with a novel approach to its transportation woes: helicopter shuttles from Monterey. “The goal for this spectacular helicopter experience is to encourage the comeback of Big Sur and welcome guests in true Post Ranch-style, while showcasing the world-famous Pacific coast views from above,” said Inn spokesperson Kelsey Gummow. It’s an experience with an expiration date: Helicopter transfers aren’t usually available, and once the bridge reopens, flights will end.
Finally, there’s Nacimiento-Fergusson Road, a remote, twisting mountain pass that originates inland near the 101, then winds over the Santa Lucia Range to the coast. “It’s a focused drive,” said Megan Handy, front desk manager of Treebones, whose family owns the famed glamping resort. “It should be driven with care during daylight hours.”
The narrow road has no gas stations, no cell phone reception and no services of any kind, but it does offer access to the 14-mile slice of Big Sur between Paul’s Slide to the north and Mud Creek to the South that’s home to Limekiln State Park, Kirk Creek and Plaskett Creek campgrounds, and, of course, Treebones.
“We only had to close for three weeks back in February,” Handy said. “All of our guests have been coming in and out of Nacimiento-Fergusson Road. The majority of people are still making the trip."(Michele Falzone/Getty Images)
Where can I have the Big Sur experience?
In the north
From redwood forests to rugged coastline, Big Sur’s grandeur is easily accessible north of Pfeiffer Canyon, where you’ll find the most dense concentration of businesses as well as iconic vistas like Bixby Bridge’s graceful arches. Garrapata State Park is open west of Highway 1 with two miles of beachfront where sea lions, otters and gray whales make appearances, and a handful of trails are open to walkers inside Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. The park’s Main Camp sites are operating on a first-come, first-serve basis, and the lodge is also welcoming guests.
Spend the night at Glen Oaks Big Sur, where a variety of accommodations nestled among the redwoods pair rustic designs with modern amenities, or bunk stop at the Big Sur River Inn, a historic motel known for its apple pie and the Adirondack chairs that visitors pull into the river to relax with a beer.(Miles Ertman/robertharding/Getty Images)
Beyond the bridge
If you’re up for the trek, this is the time to experience Big Sur in relative solitude. South of the bridge is “really beautiful right now because it’s only locals there,” said Big Sur Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Stan Russell. “You can stand in the middle of Highway 1 and watch birds.”
Starting July 1, leave your car at Andrew Molera State Park and hop the shuttle to Point Sur Station, where you’ll pick up the bypass trail. Once you’re beyond Pfeiffer Canyon it’s a quick stroll to the Big Sur Deli and Taphouse for cold pints and hefty sandwiches or a short shuttle ride to the landmark Nepenthe restaurant, with its expansive patio overlooking a classic Big Sur view. Both have stayed open despite the road closures, serving as rallying points for locals isolated on “Big Sur Island.” Esalen Institute, the counter culture spiritual retreat known for its nude cliffside hot springs, is scheduled to reopen July 28 after five months of closure.
If money’s no object, consider Post Ranch Inn’s Escape Through the Skies package, which will whisk you comfortably over the road closures and straight to the resort, where elegant clifftop bungalows mirror the local hills with curving designs and amenities include wood-burning stoves, private hot tubs and decks that feel like they’re floating over the ocean or mountain ravines. Yoga classes and guided nature walks are included in your stay, and should you want to explore beyond the hotel, hop a chauffeured Lexus Hybrid or borrow an electric bike, and take on Big Sur’s famous curves while the road is essentially traffic-free.
In the middle
While Treebones’ yurts, campsites and human nest are usually booked solid this time of year, right now there are openings on the calendar. Seize the opportunity and brave Nacimiento-Fergusson Road to reach this 14-mile swath of Highway 1, which includes Limekiln State Park’s magical landscape of redwoods and waterfalls, prime coastline at Sand Dollar Beach and three campgrounds. If you can’t snag a spot at Treebones, consider Kirk Creek Campground, set on a bluff just 100 feet above the mighty Pacific.
In the south
From San Simeon, the southernmost section of Big Sur is accessible until Ragged Point. That means road trip-worthy highway, breathtaking coastal panoramas and destinations like Piedras Blanca Light Station (with free hike-in tours June 28, July 26 and August 30) and Hearst Castle, the opulent estate built by W.R. Hearst. Formerly known as Enchanted Hill, guided tours cover sections of this 165-room American palace that stands in stark contrast to its setting: fog-wrapped, ocean-battered Big Sur, where nature exerts its power again and again.
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“I speak of Africa and golden joys.” The first line of Theodore Roosevelt’s own retelling of his epic safari made it clear that he saw it as the unfolding of a great drama, and one that might have very well led to his own death, for the quoted line is from Shakespeare, the Henry IV scene in which the death of the king was pronounced.
As a naturalist, Roosevelt is most often remembered for protecting millions of acres of wilderness, but he was equally committed to preserving something else—the memory of the natural world as it was before the onslaught of civilization. To him, being a responsible naturalist was also about recording the things that would inevitably pass, and he collected specimens and wrote about the life histories of animals when he knew it might be the last opportunity to study them extant. Just as the bison in the American West had faded, Roosevelt knew that the big game of East Africa would one day exist only in vastly diminished numbers. He had missed his chance to record much of the natural history of wild bison, but he was intent on collecting and recording everything possible while on his African expedition. Roosevelt shot and wrote about white rhinos as if they might someday be found only as fossils.
Interestingly, it was the elite European big-game-hunting fraternity that most loudly condemned Roosevelt’s scientific collecting. He had personally killed 296 animals, and his son Kermit killed 216 more, but that was not even a tenth of what they might have killed had they been so inclined. Far more animals were killed by the scientists who accompanied them, but those men escaped criticism because they were mostly collecting rats, bats, and shrews, which very few people cared about at the time. Roosevelt cared deeply about all these tiny mammals, too, and he could identify many of them to the species with a quick look at their skulls. As far as Roosevelt was concerned, his work was no different from what the other scientists were doing—his animals just happened to be bigger.
As you know, I am not in the least a game butcher. I like to do a certain amount of hunting, but my real and main interest is the interest of a faunal naturalist. Now, it seems to me that this opens up the best chance for the National Museum to get a fine collection, not only of the big game beasts, but of the smaller animals and birds of Africa; and looking at it dispassionately, it seems to me that the chance ought not to be neglected. I will make arrangements in connection with publishing a book which will enable me to pay for the expenses of myself and my son. But what I would like to do would be to get one or two professional field taxidermists, field naturalists, to go with us, who should prepare and send back the specimens we collect. The collection which would thus go to the National Museum would be of unique value.
The “unique value” Roosevelt was referring to, of course, was the chance to acquire specimens shot by him—the president of the United States. Always a tough negotiator, Roosevelt put pressure on Walcott by mentioning that he was also thinking about posing his offer to the American Museum of Natural History in New York—but that, as president, he felt it was only appropriate that his specimens go to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.
Compared to those of other museums, the Smithsonian’s African-mammal collection was paltry back then. The Smithsonian had sent a man to explore Kilimanjaro in 1891 and another to the eastern Congo, but the museum still held relatively few specimens. Both the Field Museum in Chicago and the American Museum in New York had been sending regular expeditions to the continent, bringing home thousands of African specimens. Eager not to fall farther behind, Walcott took up Roosevelt’s offer and agreed to pay for the preparation and transport of specimens. He also agreed to set up a special fund through which private donors could contribute to the expedition. (As a public museum, the Smithsonian’s budget was largely controlled by Congress, and Roosevelt worried that politics might get in the way of his expedition—the fund solved this sticky issue).For Teddy Roosevelt, the white rhino was the only species of heavy game left for the expedition to collect, and, of all the species, it was the one the Smithsonian would likely never have an opportunity to collect again. (Smithsonian Institution Archives)
As far as Walcott was concerned, the expedition was both a scientific and a public-relations coup. Not only would the museum obtain an important collection from a little-explored corner of Africa, but the collection would come from someone who was arguably one of the most recognized men in America—the president of the United States. Under the aegis of the Smithsonian Institution, Roosevelt’s proposed safari had been transformed from a hunting trip to a serious natural-history expedition promising lasting scientific significance. An elated Roosevelt wrote British explorer and conservationist Frederick Courteney Selous to tell him the good news—the trip would be conducted for science, and he would contribute to the stock of important knowledge being accumulated on the habits of big game.
Roosevelt saw the trip as perhaps his “last chance for something in the nature of a great adventure,” and he devoted the last months of his lame-duck presidency to little other than making preparations. Equipment needed to be purchased, routes mapped, guns and ammo selected. He admitted that he found it very difficult to “devote full attention to his presidential work, he was so eagerly looking forward to his African trip.” Having studied the accounts of other hunters, he knew that the Northern Guaso Nyiro River and the regions north of Mount Elgon were the best places to hunt, and that he had to make a trip to Mount Kenya if he was to have any chance at getting a big bull elephant. He made a list of animals he sought, ordering them by priority: lion, elephant, black rhinoceros, buffalo, giraffe, hippo, eland, sable, oryx, kudu, wildebeest, hartebeest, warthog, zebra, waterbuck, Grant’s gazelle, reedbuck, and topi. He also hoped to get up into some of the fly-infested habitats of northern Uganda in search of the rare white rhino.The Roosevelt rhinos as seen on display at the Natural History Museum in 1959 (Smithsonian Institution Archives)
As 1909 drew to a close, he prepared to embark on a most dangerous mission. Disbanding his foot safari on the shores of Lake Victoria, he requisitioned a flotilla of river craft—a “crazy little steam launch,” two sailboats, and two rowboats—to take him hundreds of miles down the Nile River to a place on the west bank called the Lado Enclave. A semiarid landscape of eye-high elephant grass and scattered thorn trees, it was the last holdout of the rare northern white rhinoceros, and it was here that Roosevelt planned to shoot two complete family groups—one for the Smithsonian’s National Museum, and another that he had promised to Carl Akeley, the sculptor and taxidermist working on the African mammal hall at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
Nestled between what was then the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan and the Belgian Congo, the Lado Enclave was a 220-mile-long strip of land that was the personal shooting preserve of Belgium’s King Leopold II. By international agreement, the king could hold the Lado as his own personal shooting preserve on the condition that, six months after his death, it would pass to British-controlled Sudan. King Leopold was already on his deathbed when Roosevelt went to East Africa, and the area reverted to lawlessness as elephant poachers and ragtag adventurers poured into the region with “the greedy abandon of a gold rush.”In Northern Uganda, the expedition moved downriver, past walls of impenetrable papyrus, until they came upon a low sandy bay that is to this day marked on maps as "Rhino Camp." (Roosevelt Papers, Smithsonian Institution Archives)
Getting to the Lado, however, required Roosevelt to pass through the hot zone of a sleeping-sickness epidemic—the shores and islands at the northern end of Lake Victoria. Hundreds of thousands of people had recently died of the disease, until the Uganda government wisely evacuated the survivors inland. Those who remained took their chances, and Roosevelt noted the emptiness of the land.
The white rhino lived there—a completely different species from the more common black rhino Roosevelt had been collecting. Color, though, actually has little to do with their differences. In fact, the two animals are so different that they are usually placed in separate genera. The white rhino—white being the English bastardization of the Afrikaans word wyd for “wide,” in reference to this species’ characteristically broad upper lip—is specialized for grazing. By comparison, the more truculent black rhino has a narrow and hooked upper lip specialized for munching on shrubs. Although both animals are gray and basically indistinguishable by color, they display plenty of other differences: the white rhino is generally bigger, has a distinctive hump on its neck, and boasts an especially elongated and massive head, which it carries only a few inches from the ground. Roosevelt also knew that of the two, the white rhino was closest in appearance to the prehistoric rhinos that once roamed across the continent of Europe, and the idea of connecting himself to a hunting legacy that spanned millennia thrilled him.The expedition pitched their tens on the banks of the White NIle, "Rhino Camp," about two degrees above the equator. (Smithsonian Institution Archives)
For many decades since its description in 1817, the white rhino was known to be found only in that part of South Africa south of the Zambezi River, but in 1900 a new subspecies was discovered thousands of miles to the north, in the Lado Enclave. Such widely separated populations were unusual in the natural world, and it was assumed that the extant white rhinos were the remnants of what was once a more widespread and contiguous distribution. “It is almost as if our bison had never been known within historic times except in Texas and Ecuador,” Roosevelt wrote of the disparity.
At the time of Roosevelt’s expedition, as many as one million black rhino still existed in Africa, but the white rhino was already nearing extinction. The southern population had been hunted to the point that only a few individuals survived in just a single reserve, and even within the narrow ribbon of the Lado Enclave, these rhinos were found only in certain areas and were by no means abundant. On the one hand, Roosevelt’s instincts as a conservationist told him to refrain from shooting any white rhino specimens “until a careful inquiry has been made as to its numbers and exact distribution.” But on the other hand, as a pragmatic naturalist, he knew that the species was inevitably doomed and that it was important for him to collect specimens before it went extinct.Roosevelt made a list of animals he sought, ordering them by priority:. . . He also hoped to get up into some of the fly-infested habitats of northern Uganda in search of the rare white rhino. (Roosevelt Papers, Smithsonian Institution Archives)
As he steamed down the Nile, Roosevelt was followed by a second expedition of sorts, led by a former member of the British East Africa Police. But Captain W. Robert Foran was not intent on arresting Roosevelt—whom he referred to by the code name “Rex”; rather, he was the head of an expedition of the Associated Press. Roosevelt let Foran’s group follow at a respectable distance, by now wanting regular news to flow back to the United States. Foran had also been instrumental in securing a guide for Roosevelt on his jaunt into the virtually lawless Lado Enclave. The guide, Quentin Grogan, was among the most notorious of the elephant poachers in the Lado, and Roosevelt was chuffed to have someone of such ill-repute steering his party.
Grogan was still recovering from a boozy, late-night revel when he first met Roosevelt. The poacher thought [the president’s son] Kermit was dull, and he deplored the lack of alcohol in the Roosevelts’ camp. Among some other hangers‑on eager to meet Roosevelt was another character—John Boyes, a seaman who, after being shipwrecked on the African coast in 1896, “went native” and was so highly regarded as an elephant hunter there that he was christened the legendary King of the Kikuyu. Grogan, Boyes, and a couple of other unnamed elephant hunters had gathered in the hope of meeting Roosevelt, who characterized them all as “a hard bit set.” These men who faced death at every turn, “from fever, from assaults of warlike native tribes, from their conflicts with their giant quarry,” were so like many of the tough cowpunchers he had encountered in the American West—rough and fiercely independent men—that Roosevelt loved them.
Downriver they went, past walls of impenetrable papyrus, until they came upon a low, sandy bay that is to this day marked on maps as “Rhino Camp.” Their tents pitched on the banks of the White Nile, about two degrees above the equator, Roosevelt was in “the heart of the African wilderness.” Hippos wandered dangerously close at night, while lions roared and elephants trumpeted nearby. Having spent the past several months in the cool Kenyan highlands, Roosevelt found the heat and swarming insects intense, and he was forced to wear a mosquito head net and gauntlets at all times. The group slept under mosquito nets “usually with nothing on, on account of the heat” and burned mosquito repellent throughout the night.In the end, Roosevelt shot five northern white rhinoceros, with Kermit taking an additional four. (Smithsonian Institution Archives)
Although their camp was situated just beyond the danger zone for sleeping sickness, Roosevelt was still bracing himself to come down with some sort of fever or another. “All the other members of the party have been down with fever or dysentery; one gun bearer has died of fever, four porters of dysentery and two have been mauled by beasts; and in a village on our line of march, near which we camped and hunted, eight natives died of sleeping sickness during our stay,” he wrote. The stakes were certainly high in Rhino Camp, but Roosevelt would not have taken the risk if the mission was not important—the white rhino was the only species of heavy game left for the expedition to collect, and, of all the species, it was the one the Smithsonian would likely never have an opportunity to collect again.Today, the northern white rhino is extinct in the wild and only three remain in captivity. One of the Roosevelt white rhinos is on view at the Natural History Museum. (NMNH)
In the end, Roosevelt shot five northern white rhinoceros, with Kermit taking an additional four. As game, these rhinos were unimpressive to hunt. Most were shot as they rose from slumber. But with a touch of poignancy, the hunts were punctuated with bouts of wildfire-fighting, injecting some drama into one of Roosevelt’s last accounts from the field. Flames licked sixty feet high as the men lit backfires to protect their camp, the evening sky turning red above the burning grass and papyrus. Awakening to a scene that resembled the aftermath of an apocalypse, the men tracked rhino through miles of white ash, the elephant grass having burned to the ground in the night.
Whether the species lived on or died out, Roosevelt was emphatic that people needed to see the white rhinoceros. If they couldn’t experience the animals in Africa, at least they should have the chance to see them in a museum.
Today, the northern white rhino is extinct in the wild and only three remain in captivity. One of the Roosevelt white rhinos is view, along with 273 other taxidermy specimens, in the Smithsonian’s Hall of Mammals at on the National Museum of Natural History.
Adapted from THE NATURALIST by Darrin Lunde. Copyright © 2016 by Darrin Lunde. Published by Crown Publishers, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.
Darrin Lunde, is a mammal scholar who has named more than a dozen new species of mammals and led scientific field expeditions throughout the world. Darrin previously worked at the American Museum of Natural History, and is currently a supervisory museum specialist in the Division of Mammals at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. Darrin independently authored this book, The Naturalist, based on his own personal research. The views expressed in the book are his own and not those of the Smithsonian.
Driving to the headquarters of Far North Spirits, in Hallock, Minnesota (pop. 981), takes gumption and a functioning GPS system. The northernmost distillery in the lower 48 sits in the tip-top corner of the state, six hours northwest of the Twin Cities and an absent-minded turn from the Canadian border. Field & Stream publisher Charles Hallock was this ag town’s namesake. It’s home to narrow county highways, shimmering silos and open skies. The winters are bright and bruising. When it thaws, the town’s trusty siren whirs back into action; it rings at 6 p.m. each night, a signal to farm hands that dinner is warm.(Courtesy of Far North Spirits)
Cheri Reese and Michael Swanson, Far North’s married co-founders, grew up together in Hallock. Her folks ran the flower shop; his family worked 1,200 acres of wheat and sugar beet fields, land the Swansons have owned for four generations. Both were thrilled, following high school, to leave their aging hometown in the rearview mirror. A decade later, in 2000, the pair reconnected on a holiday flight. Reese hadn’t planned on coming home from St. Paul that year, until her mom laid on some Lutheran guilt. Swanson, then living in Denver, looked slick in an ivory turtleneck sweater. Their first date was the very next afternoon, a Christmas Day showing of "Castaway." (Swanson’s dad loaned his eager son a car and instructed him “not to say anything stupid.”)
The couple eventually settled in Minneapolis, where their careers were comfortable but uninspiring. Reese would float the idea of moving back north from time to time, usually in moments of soul sickness. “We had really secure jobs,” she says. “But at the end of the week, there was nothing left. We didn’t have anything to show for it. We had a Powerpoint or something vapid. Mike was honestly just losing his mind.”(Courtesy of Far North Spirits)
During those dreamy conversations, they reached a few conclusions: 1) Were they to flee city life for the northern plains, Reese and Swanson would develop a finished product from the grains that Swanson’s family had long cultivated. 2) They also loved whiskey. In 2013, after loads of background research, training and a few semesters of business school, Swanson felt comfortable swapping his Allen Edmonds for a pair of Red Wings. The two decamped back to Hallock, where Swanson’s parents had set aside one-quarter of their acreage for the new venture. The distillery opened for business that November.
The timing was opportune. A decade prior, there were only a handful of specialty distillers operating in the United States, maybe 50 or 60. Penetrating a market dominated by multinational conglomerates was nearly impossible. Then came the revival of cocktail culture and the subsequent liberalization of both state and federal liquor laws. Spirits drinkers were suddenly willing to pay a premium for flavor and character. According to the latest count from the American Craft Spirits Association, close to 1,600 craft distilleries are now up and running nationwide — making for a growth curve even steeper than the craft beer boom of the 1980s and 1990s.
I met the Far North team at the distillery on a hazy afternoon in August, one of the year’s steamiest. Crops stretched deep into the distance, buried into topsoil so black it looked dyed. There weren’t any neighbors in sight, no other obvious signs of civilization — other than Reese, sliding open the wood door of the main building to welcome me in. Swanson swung around in his truck a minute later. He’d been out harvesting the rye that Far North planted last fall, and he didn’t mind taking a (modest) break to show me around.(Courtesy of Far North Spirits)
Their facility — which Reese jokingly calls “The Chocolate Factory” — was built from scratch, right on top of an old wheat field. Inside are two copper stills (50 and 500 gallons), a gurgling mash cooker, open-air fermentation tanks and dozens of wood barrels stacked neatly in the back. The building has no climate control; extreme temperature swings aid the aging process. Thanks to the mash, everything smells vaguely of hot cereal. It’s also eerily quiet, aside from the hum of equipment and the occasional purr from Eep, a formerly frost-bitten rescue cat who, like his adoptive family, was born and raised in Hallock.
The concept of terroir, more commonly associated with wine and, lately, coffee, is seeping into the vocabulary of craft distillers. It’s the idea that agricultural products are shaped by the climate and the culture in which they’re grown. Corporate distillers tend to use a few giant commodity suppliers; everything starts to taste standardized, even bland. Even among craft distillers, very few grow their own ingredients.(Courtesy of Far North Spirits)
Swanson and Reese are a new breed; like chefs, they’re thinking hard about how to maximize the natural strengths of Hallock and the surrounding region. Swanson monitors the entire process starting when the seeds are planted, giving him tight control over quality and taste. He can pick the precise variant of crop, can tweak the spices in each individual batch, can fiddle with his dials if necessary during production. Their land, meanwhile, is nutritionally (and sentimentally) rich, the same fertile pastures that Swanson’s great-grandparents tilled a century ago, fresh off a boat from Sweden.
Rye — a hardy, drought-resistant grain particularly suited to the soil of both Minnesota and Scandinavia — serves as the foundation for Far North’s sharpest offerings, all of which have Nordic names, specific personalities and a distinct Minnesota heritage. Reese describes Solveig, their first gin, as light and floral, “like Cate Blanchett in a cashmere sweater.” Roknar, the outrageously smooth whiskey for which they’re best known, evokes “Steve McQueen in a convertible — the strong, silent type.”(Courtesy of Far North Spirits)
Locals were excited when Reese and Swanson moved back, if skeptical of their ambitions. “Northwest Minnesotans are very quiet and passive-aggressive,” Swanson says. “They were like, ‘That sounds different.’” It took only a few months, and a few sips of Solveig, to win them over. On Saturday evenings, Hallockians now stream into Far North’s airy tasting room, bellying up to the polished bar for cocktails with birch paper straws. (Considering the beauty of the space and the caliber of the drinks, the prices — $6 for something mixed, $3 for a pour — are shockingly low.) Along one wall, there’s a stack of t-shirts with a simple question printed on the back: Who’s your whiskey farmer?
The couple filled their 100,000th bottle in August, a major milestone for what’s effectively a Mom-and-Pop shop. Distribution is growing steadily, in line with Far North’s burgeoning reputation. (Their wares are stocked at some 1,100 bars or liquor stores nationwide, in the Midwest and on both coasts.) In the past calendar year, they’ve hosted visitors from 23 states and six countries, far-flung locations that Reese marks dutifully on a pinboard map in the warehouse. Those who trek up are rewarded with a comprehensive tour of Far North's operation, charming conversation and drinks as sophisticated as any you’d find in a big-city bar.(Courtesy of Far North Spirits)
The distillery has even inspired a modest cultural boom in Hallock itself, a city struggling to stanch depopulation. A craft brewery (Revelation Ale Works) opened 18 months after Far North, along with a funky coffee shop (Bean and Brush) and a tasteful Airbnb (The Scandinavia), options that compliment northern Minnesota’s abundant camping and hunting. Hallock’s Main Street Committee recently hired a Minneapolis-based creative agency, Bodega Ltd., to help reshape the town’s image, with the goal of attracting 100 new residents over the next decade. (Drawing inspiration from the vastness of the landscape and from Donald Judd’s work in Marfa, Texas, the firm landed on the tagline “Things are clearer up here.”) Lindsey Evenson, who runs Revelation with her husband, calls Far North “pioneers.”
Reese admits that building a life on the geographic margins sounds loony. It’s certainly full of logistical challenges: finding qualified employees, minimizing shipping costs, enduring long and lonely winters. In truth, the owners (along with assistant distiller Johny Barbosa) put in grueling hours, sometimes in adverse conditions, nearly all on their own.
And it’s a mistake, Reese argues, “to assume that because there are 6,000 breweries, there can be 6,000 distilleries.” Given the spirits explosion, winning shelf space is no easy feat, and corporate distillers have pursued acquisitions or taken minority positions in promising upstarts. “There are 30 Minnesota gins on the market right now,” Reese says. “There aren’t that many gin drinkers. In London, there aren’t that many gin drinkers! I think we’re going to reach a tipping point.”(Courtesy of Far North Spirits)
Still, the folks at Far North are confident about the future. They trust their hands and their instincts. They’re deeply connected to that inky Minnesota soil. Swanson, the consummate farm kid, isn’t afraid to take apart his equipment and experiment. Down the line, they’d like to extend their barreling room, maybe add another still, size up the fermenters. They recently hired a Swedish production assistant; his accent is as thick as his beard. They want the world to see, up close, what sets Northwest Minnesota apart. Their project is by no means a marketing gimmick.
Not long ago, some Napa Valley winemakers swung through Hallock, careening down the gravel road that bends toward Far North’s grain bins, kicking up dust behind them. Swanson couldn’t believe they traveled all that way. (“Was it because Napa was on fire!?”) The winemakers had found Far North Spirits on shelves out west and were stunned to see that Swanson personally dug up the rye they’d later imbibe.
“Being in the middle of nowhere,” he says, “can work in your favor.”
The cocktail room at Far North Spirits is open every Saturday from 4-8 p.m, unless noted. The distillery also offers private tours by request; to visit, get in touch through their website (farnorthspirits.com).
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The Smithsonian Institution has been a part of the American landscape since 1846. Yet perhaps because of the breadth and eclecticism of its collections, people still aren’t sure exactly what the Institution does or know much about the objects it contains. With that in mind, we would like to take this opportunity to clear up a few lingering misconceptions.
Myth #1: The Hope Diamond is cursed.
Fact: It isn’t. A coincidental string of unfortunate events befell its handlers.
Backstory: The so-called curse originated as a marketing ploy devised by jeweler Pierre Cartier to entice Washington, D.C. socialite Evalyn Walsh McLean to buy the gem. Cartier created a fantastic story about the jewel’s provenance and how the stone brought grief to anyone who handled it. McLean purchased the jewel—an acquisition reported in the New York Times on January 29, 1911, with a recounting of Cartier’s dark tale. Over the years, other publications picked up the story, helping perpetuate the legend about the stone. McLean’s later misfortunes—her husband ran off with another woman and later died in a sanitarium, a car struck and killed her son and her daughter died of a drug overdose—contributed to the perception that the stone was cursed. After McLean’s death, the diamond came into the possession of jeweler Harry Winston, who later donated it to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, in 1958. The jewel was sent to the museum by registered mail and delivered by postal worker James Todd, who suffered several misfortunes the following year—a broken leg, the deaths of both his wife and dog and the loss of his house in a fire. Todd took it in stride. “If the hex is supposed to affect the owners,” he said, “then the public should be having the bad luck [not me]!” While the Smithsonian was pleased to receive the jewel—the centerpiece of its mineral collections—the public was less enthusiastic. “If the Smithsonian accepts the diamond,” one person wrote, “the whole country will suffer.” Museum curators, however, dismiss the idea of the stone bringing bad luck. The Hope Diamond has attracted millions of visitors to the Smithsonian over the past 50 years.
Myth #2: The Smithsonian mounted an excavation to find Noah’s Ark at Mount Ararat.
Fact: The Smithsonian has never conducted archaeological work on Mount Ararat; in fact, no one knows whether the mountain is indeed the site of Noah’s Ark.
Backstory: According to the Book of Genesis, after the flood, Noah’s Ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat. This description has led many people to focus their search for the Ark on modern-day Mount Ararat (also known as Mount Masis and Agri Dagi), in Turkey. Furthermore, aerial photographs of the site reveal a strange formation, known as the Ararat Anomaly, which some speculate is the Ark.
Myth #3: A Smithsonian curator named Harvey Rowe working in the antiquities department turned down a so-called prehistoric artifact for the Smithsonian’s collections.
Fact: The Smithsonian does not have anyone on staff by that name, let alone an antiquities department.
Backstory: In the mid-1990s, a creative graduate student crafted a letter under the name Harvey Rowe, curator of antiquities, rejecting the claims of an amateur paleontologist who was convinced he had discovered signs of prehistoric life in his own backyard: a Malibu Barbie doll. (A version of the letter appears at http://www.snopes.com/humor/letters/smithsonian.asp.) The letter began circulating on the Internet in 1994 and quickly spread, tickling funny bones all over cyberspace.
Myth #4: The Smithsonian discovered Egyptian ruins in the Grand Canyon.
Fact: It didn’t.
Backstory: On April 5, 1909, the Arizona Gazette ran the following headline: “Explorations in Grand Canyon; Mysteries of Immense Rich Cavern Being Brought to Light; Jordan Is Enthused; Remarkable Find Indicates Ancient People Migrated from Orient.” The article includes testimony of one G. E. Kincaid who says that he, traveling solo down the Green and Colorado Rivers, discovered proof of an ancient civilization—possibly of Egyptian origin. The story also asserts that a Smithsonian archaeologist named S. A. Jordan returned with Kincaid to investigate the site. However, the Arizona Gazette appears to have been the only newspaper ever to have published the story. No records can confirm the existence of either Kincaid or Jordan.
Myth #5: Betsy Ross stitched the Star-Spangled Banner.
Backstory: The making of the first standard of the United States is popularly attributed to Betsy Ross, a professional flagmaker who has become a national folk hero. The legend stems from Ross’ grandson, William J. Canby, who, in 1870, wrote down a story a relative had told him in 1857—well after Ross’ death. The account goes that in spring 1776, George Washington approached Ross with a rough sketch of a flag and asked her to make a national standard. With the United States preparing to celebrate its 100th anniversary, the story about the birth of the national flag captured imaginations. There is, however, no documentation that links Ross with making the first flag, and the events described in Canby’s account take place a year before the passage of the Flag Act—the legislation that dictates the style and substance of the national flag. Visitors to the National Museum of American History sometimes ask if the Star Spangled Banner—currently on display after extensive conservation efforts—is an example of Ross’s work. That flag was stitched by Mary Pickersgill and flew over Fort McHenry during the 1814 Battle of Baltimore, inspiring Francis Scott Key to pen the poem that became our National Anthem.
Myth #6: The Smithsonian Castle is haunted.
Fact: The only souls that haunt the Castle are tourists searching for food and information.
Backstory: Tales of otherworldly inhabitants stalking the Smithsonian’s hallowed halls have been floating around for over a century. The Institution’s founder, James Smithson, is said to be among these otherworldly visitors. Another rumored ethereal presence is paleontologist Fielding B. Meek, who lived in pitifully small rooms in the Castle with his cat. His first residence was under one of the Castle’s staircases before an 1865 fire forced him to move to one of the towers, where he died in 1876. “Many ghost stories have swirled about,” says the curator of the Castle collection Richard Stamm, “but in the 34 years I have been in this building, no ghosts have ever shown their faces to me!”
Myth #7: The Smithsonian owns something that once belonged to John Dillinger.
Fact: The Smithsonian does not own any personal effects of John Dillinger.
Backstory: According to some, a morgue photograph of the sheet-shrouded corpse of John Dillinger suggests nature was rather generous to the gangster. Newspaper editors fearing scandal prudently refused to run the image. However, a popular rumor arose asserting that the gangster’s organ was in the collections of the Smithsonian. This myth has proved so pervasive that the Smithsonian has created a form letter to respond to curious minds: “In response to your recent query, we can assure you that anatomical specimens of John Dillinger are not, and never have been, in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution.”
Myth #8: There is a subterranean archive center underneath the National Mall.
Fact: The Smithsonian’s storage facilities are mostly located in Suitland, Maryland.
Backstory: The notion that a labyrinthine network of storage space exists beneath the Smithsonian museums, under the National Mall, may have started with Gore Vidal’s novel The Smithsonian Institution and was most recently popularized by the movie Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. Unfortunately, no such storage facility is to be found. The archive center depicted in the film is based on the Smithsonian’s storage facilities in Suitland, Maryland. However, there is a staff-only accessible underground complex of passageways that connect the Freer, the Sackler, the Castle, the African Art Museum, the International Gallery and the Arts and Industries Building.
There is also a tunnel that connects the Castle with the Museum of Natural History. Built in 1909, it is technically large enough to walk through; however, a person has to contend with cramped spaces, rats and roaches. A quick jaunt across the National Mall is the preferred means of traveling between the two museums.
Myth #9: The Smithsonian owns a steam engine that was lost on the Titanic.
Fact: While the museums cannot confirm this story, one thing is certain: the Smithsonian will not acquire or display artifacts culled from the Titanic wreck site.
Backstory: Inventor Hiram Maxim—who developed technological wonders such as the machine gun and the mousetrap—supposedly donated a steam engine used in a failed flying machine to the Smithsonian. The equipment was allegedly shipped from Britain to the United States aboard the ill-fated RMS Titanic. However, the ship’s cargo list—published in the New York Times in conjunction with the liability hearings that followed from the disaster—does not include any records of shipments made by Hiram Maxim. The Times article does state that “The cargo consisted of high-class freight, which had to be taken quickly on board and which could be just as quickly discharged.” Specifically listed are articles such as fancy foodstuffs and spirits, but it seems possible that a last crate of machinery could have been loaded on board.
Abiding by the sanctuary principle, the Smithsonian honors the site as a memorial to those who perished and will not disturb the remains of the disaster. While Titanic artifacts—such as articles of mail—have been on view at the Smithsonian, they were pieces retrieved from the surface of the North Atlantic.
Myth #10: James Smithson’s remains are housed in the sarcophagus in the Castle.
Fact: His body resides in the Tennessee marble pedestal beneath the sarcophagus.
Backstory: James Smithson, British scientist and founder of the Smithsonian who never set foot on American soil, died during a trip to Genoa, Italy. His remains were initially interred in the San Beningo cemetery, his gravesite marked with an elaborate sarcophagus (the one on view in the Castle). In 1904, the cemetery was going to be lost due to the enlargement of a nearby quarry, so the Smithsonian Board of Regents decided to collect Smithson’s remains and bring them to the United States.
Smithson was last disinterred in 1973. James Goode, former curator of Castle Collections, said it was because of ghost sightings. Officially, however, the reasons were more scientific: to mount a complete study of the coffin and the skeleton itself. Also, it was thought that documents about his life might have been buried with him. No written material was found with the remains, but a copy of the examination of the bones by the Smithsonian’s physical anthropologist Larry Angel (1962-1982) was filed inside the coffin before it was sealed and returned to the crypt.
Image by Dane A. Penland / Smithsonian Institution. The curse of the Hope Diamond originated with jeweler Pierre Cartier. He used the curse as a marketing ploy to entice Evalyn Walsh McLean to buy the gem. (original image)
Image by Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives. Many believe the Smithsonian Castle is haunted. The Institution's founder, James Smithson, is said to be among the otherworldly visitors. (original image)
Image by Courtesy of Pickersgill Retirement Community. Mary Pickersgill stitched the flag that inspired the National Anthem, the Star-Spangled Banner. The flag currently hangs in the National Museum of American History. (original image)
Image by Smithsonian Institution. The Smithsonian will not acquire or display artifacts culled from the Titanic wreck site. (original image)
Image by Smithsonian Institution. James Smithson's remains are housed in the sarcophagus in the Smithsonian Castle. They were moved to the U.S. from Genoa. Here, U.S. Consul to Genoa, William Henry Bishop, holds Smithson's skull during exhumation. (original image)
Image by Bettmann / Corbis. The body of bank robber John Dillinger is put on display in a Chicago morgue after he is shot to death. (original image)
So many places to go, and so many books to read—and so we continue last week’s list with more suggestions of great books to read, and the best places to read them.
Cameroon, The Innocent Anthropologist. When a pragmatic English scientist meets the superstitions and seeming simplicity of a rural people in Cameroon, multicultural comedy unfurls. So it goes for Nigel Barley as he struggles to interpret the ways of the gregarious, beer-brewing Dowayo tribe, whose friendliness both hinders and helps Barley as he conducts his doctoral research. The story is told from the grad student’s discerning but patient point of view—and the reader who takes this book onto a crowded subway train may fall into helpless fits of giggling as one set of cultural norms runs head-on into the other. No matter; keep reading. Watch for the episode in which Barley, after being informed of yet another setback in a long string of bureaucratic hassles over visas and research funding, glumly takes a seat on a fence post to ponder his uncertain future in academia. Promptly, a local man rushes over with sincere concern to tell Barley that he mustn’t sit on a fence, which will draw vitamins from a body and cause illness. Barley, who had for months displayed an admirable show of patience for the Dowayos’ superstitions, blows his lid, ranting and ridiculing their beliefs. But if we’re to ever learn anything from the science of anthropology, it’s that the watched may also be the watcher—and to the Dowayo, this English white man scribbling in notebooks, eating chicken eggs, sitting on fence posts and having causeless tantrums is probably as inexplicable as they are to Barley. For further reading about Central Africa, The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver’s 1998 bestseller, takes us to the Belgian Congo in 1959, where a determined Baptist missionary named Nathan Price has brought his wife and four daughters. As in The Mosquito Coast, the Americans’ life in the steamy jungle dissolves and is bound for tragedy, while Price’s mind deteriorates.
Alaska, Into the Wild. Beyond the cruise ship and tour bus routes, nearly every traveler in Alaska has come there, in part, to face-off with extreme adventure and virgin wilderness—to be in a place whose rugged beauty goes hand in hand with unforgiving danger. And so went Chris McCandless almost 20 years ago to Alaska, after months spent adventuring in the lower 48 and Mexico, as he sought to break the social contract and connect with nature and with himself. Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer, tells the famous story of McCandless’ abandonment of society, his adoption of the pseudonym Alex Supertramp and his grand finale in America’s greatest, or most terrible, wilderness. Here, McCandless runs out of food on the wrong side of a high-running river. Though he subsists by shooting small game and picking berries, he slowly loses weight—and eventually McCandless dies in the harsh world he had pursued as a sort of Eden. For further reading, To the Top of Denali describes the most terrifying and disastrous attempts to climb North America’s tallest mountain—a four-mile-high peak that may dazzle its admirers from afar but could claim their lives if they attempted to hike to its summit.
The Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Park, Biography of a Grizzly. Published in 1899, Ernest Seton Thompson’s illustrated novella, The Biography of a Grizzly, was one of the first expressions of compassion for what was at the time among the most hated beasts of the Wild West. The book details the life of Wahb, a grizzly born in Wyoming in the late 1800s, when Euro-Americans were at work conquering the West and driving the grizzly bear toward regional extinction. We are introduced to Wahb as a 1-year-old cub, when he and his siblings are still learning the ways of the wilderness—such as how to catch giant buffalo fish in streams and make a meal of an anthill. Then, as the bears pass a warm afternoon in a grassy meadow, bullets begin to fly. All the bears are downed by the distant sharpshooter—except for Wahb, who scurries into the woods, his family dead and he wounded in both flesh and spirit. Embittered with a hatred of people and distrust of the world, Wahb survives—and in spite of bullying by coyotes and black bears, he grows up. He quickly outsizes all his enemies, and he becomes the biggest, kingliest grizzly in the mountains. He can smash logs to pieces with one swipe of his giant paw, and can pull steel-jawed bear traps off his paws like clothespins. The story easily evokes the beauty of the Grand Tetons and the high plains of Yellowstone, but the reader senses a dark future, and the Biography of a Grizzly ultimately calls for a box of tissue paper. For time, and the encroach of mankind, will be Wahb’s doom.
The High Arctic, Never Cry Wolf. It is 1948, and a decline in the caribou population of the Canadian Arctic has spurred government action, and a young biologist named Farley Mowat is assigned to study the region’s wolves, verify that they have played a role in obliterating the great migrating herds and effectively give the Canadian Department of the Interior the green light to cull their numbers. But Mowat, who will become one of North America’s most prominent nature writers, makes a surprising discovery: The wolves are mostly eating mice. Uncertain he can convince his superiors and his critics of such a conclusion without strong evidence, Mowat undertakes to do the same—to subsist, at least for a time, on heaping helpings of one-ounce rodents. Never Cry Wolf is Mowat’s memoir describing his months spent camping on the Arctic tundra, developing a unique friendship with a local wolf community and refining methods and recipes for cooking mice, which infest his tent cabin. The 1983 film version of Mowat’s book brings great comedy to his story but ends with a crushing scene of sport hunters packing wolf pelts into a seaplane as Mowat, played by Charles Martin Smith, looks sullenly on. The plane flies away in a blast of noise and wind, and Mowat is left alone, the wolves he knew dead and gone, and his efforts to exonerate them of wanton caribou-killing seemingly for naught. Critics have questioned Mowat’s integrity as a scientist and as a reliable conveyor of facts—but he tells a good story.
England, Notes From a Small Island. “If you mention in the pub that you intend to drive from, say, Surrey to Cornwall, a distance that most Americans would happily go to get a taco, your companions will puff their cheeks, look knowingly at each other, and blow out air as if to say, ‘Well, now that’s a bit of a tall order’…” So writes Bill Bryson in Chapter 1 of Notes From a Small Island, and though Britons, as he describes them, seem to have no understanding of road-tripping and make a muddy mess of driving directions, the author manages to find his way. And so Bryson tours England, marveling at its ridiculously designed suburbs, its appalling food and the unintentional charm of its people. Bryson proves as he always does in his books: that it’s possible to double over laughing at the cultures and customs of a familiar Western nation. For further reading, Bryson’s Neither Here Nor There is his good-natured laugh-attack of mainland Europe; in In a Sunburned Country, Bryson takes on Australia; and in The Lost Continent, he discovers the absurdities of America.
Other suggestions, briefly:
Italy, The Miracle of Castel di Sangro. Journalist Joe McGinnis takes readers into the mountains of Abruzzo, where a small-town soccer team, through what seems a miracle, ascends into the higher standings of the national soccer leagues—but the great Italian dream crashes amid sour smells of the mafia, cheaters and rats.
Spain, Driving Over Lemons. Author Chris Stewart recounts leaving his life in suburban England for a new one in Andalucia, in southern Spain, where he soaks up the idiosyncrasies and comedy of the region’s friendly but rugged village culture.
California wine country, The Silverado Squatters. In this fast-reading memoir, Robert Louis Stevenson describes his nine weeks of residence in the Napa Valley in the 1880s . The land—wealthy tourist country today—was still frontier country then, and though the wine was still young, it was Stevenson who famously said with foresight “…and the wine is bottled poetry.”
The American Southwest, Desert Solitaire. To bring the desert to life on your next Southwest getaway, pack along a paperback copy of Desert Solitaire—Edward Abbey’s classic eulogy to the canyon lands and mesa country of Utah. Everett Ruess: A Vagabond for Beauty, by W.L. Rusho, may have the same effect. The book tells the famous story of the artist and desert wanderer from Southern California who spent several years developing a fast relationship with some of the wildest country in America before vanishing without a trace in Utah in 1934, when he was only 20.
Greece, The Odyssey. Homer’s most celebrated story brings to life the lands and seas of Greece, depicted then much as they still look and feel today. Whether you’re cycling through Greece’s wild mountains or kayaking along its ragged, rocky coast, you’ll be reminded by a few pages each night of The Odyssey (pick your translation) of the nation’s deep history, and you may never want to quit your travels in this most classic of the world’s landscapes.
Which books did I miss? Name them in the comment box below.
Beginning in the 1920s, widespread car ownership opened new opportunities to travel independently and explore. For black Americans, the central paradox of the American automobile age was that it occurred in the middle of the Jim Crow era, which was marked by a system of laws and customs that segregated public spaces and enforced racial inequality. Before the abolition of legal segregation, black Americans with the financial wherewithal turned to private car ownership to escape the indignities of segregated rail and bus travel. Cars allowed African Americans to drive past segregation.
However, once they pulled off the interstate, the freedom of the open road proved illusory. Jim Crow still prohibited black travelers from pulling into a roadside motel and getting rooms for the night. Black families on vacation had to be ready for any circumstance should they be denied lodging or a meal in a restaurant. They stuffed the trunks of their automobiles with food, blankets and pillows, even an old coffee can for those times when black motorists were denied the use of a bathroom.
African Americans travelling through the country with their prosperity on display upset the racial order of Jim Crow. As a result, white segregationists pushed back against these demonstrations of black success. For example, segregationists who owned gas stations would take black motorists' money at the pump, but then deny them use of the bathroom. Though humiliating, that wasn't the worst that could happen. Black drivers also faced physical dangers. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) kept an active file of incidents of African Americans being accosted while in their cars. In 1948, sociologist Charles S. Johnson uncovered a pattern wherein white drivers would intentionally damage more expensive vehicles owned by African Americans in order to put black drivers back in "their place." Sometimes, being in the wrong town at the wrong time of day could even be fatal.
To avoid these dangers, the Negro Motorist's Green Book offered to help black motorists travel safely across a landscape partitioned by segregation and scarred by lynching. Published in Harlem by Victor and Alma Green, it came out annually from 1937-1964. While the Green Book printed articles about auto maintenance and profiled various American cities, at its heart was the list of accommodations that black travelers could use on their trips. Organized by state, each edition listed service stations, hotels, restaurants, beauty parlors, and other businesses that did not discriminate on the basis of race. In a 2010 interview with the New York Times, Lonnie Bunch, director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, described this feature of the Green Book as "a tool" that "allowed families to protect their children, to help them ward off those horrible points at which they might be thrown out or not permitted to sit somewhere."
The inaugural edition of the guide ran 16 pages long and focused on tourist areas in and around New York City. By the eve of U.S. entry in World War II, it had expanded to 48 pages and covered nearly every state in the union. Two decades later, the guide was nearly 100 pages long and offered advice for black tourists visiting Canada, Mexico, Europe, Latin America, Africa, and the Caribbean. As historian Gretchen Sorin describes, under a distribution agreement with Standard Oil, Esso service stations sold two million copies annually by 1962.
The vast majority of the businesses listed in the Green Book were owned by black entrepreneurs. By gathering these institutions under one cover, Victor and Alma Green mapped out the economic infrastructure of black America. Thus, the Green Book was more than a travel guide; it also described two 20th-century African American geographies.
At first glance, the Green Book maps the territorial limits of African American freedom. The America that black people lived in under Jim Crow was much smaller than the one in which white Americans lived. After World War II, Americans took their cars on the newly built interstate system and invented the road trip. But this open road wasn't open to everyone. When Disneyland opened its gates in 1955, the path to the Magic Kingdom was fraught with dangers for most black travelers, compelled to chart their journey from one oasis of freedom to the next using the Green Book as their guide.
However, the Green Book was also an atlas of black self-reliance. Each motel, auto repair shop, and gas station was a monument to black determination to succeed in a Jim Crow nation. Before the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, these businesses represented a source of black economic power that could be used to build a more just America. A number of these black business leaders would join the NAACP and other civil rights organizations in order to translate their economic power into political power and use that to help bring an end to Jim Crow. They used their money to bail protestors out of jail, fund the operations of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and pay for the buses that sent thousands to the 1963 March on Washington.
Even though the Green Book was never meant to be an explicitly political document, it described the economic infrastructure of the black freedom struggle. Indeed, Victor and Alma Green articulated this hope in the 1948 edition:
"There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States. It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever we please, and without embarrassment."
More information about the Negro Motorists' Green Book:
- The New York Public Library has digitized the Green Book from 1937-1962. You can browse these editions on their website.
- Mapping the Green Book is a project unearthing the histories of locations cited in the guide.
- The University of South Carolina has an interactive Google Map created using the 1956 Green Book.
- In 2010, NPR interviewed civil rights leader Julian Bond about his childhood memories of using the Green Book.
Not long after Japan formally decided to start trading with the West in the 1850s, photography also came to the island nation. Both signaled a new era of modernity.
The quest to understand and depict the soul of Japan as it evolved from Imperialist, agrarian and isolationist, to more populist, global and urban is the theme of two exhibitions now on view at the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries in Washington, D.C. The two shows, “Japan Modern: Photography from the Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck Collection” and “Japan Modern: Prints in the Age of Photography,” share much, says Frank Feltens, curator of the print show.
Neither are in chronological order, but both group images in common themes—with city and country dominating. The photography show is highly documentary; many are in black and white. The prints, made with carved wood blocks, are bold, visual and colorful. But, says Feltens, “between the two shows, you start finding more and more commonalities”—an interest in surfaces, angles, fragments.
The artists are “looking at the world outside, but reimagining it through one time, the lens and then through the wood blocks,” Feltens says.
As it did in the Western world, photography cast a large shadow. Wood block prints had been around for at least a millennium, primarily as a means of communicating something about the culture—telling stories. By the late 19th century, printmaking was dead—a casualty of the easier, cheaper photography.
The first known photograph taken in Japan dates to 1848, says Feltens. Daguerrotypes were popular in Japan—as they were in Europe and America—but photography really took off in the 1920s, with the rise of more portable equipment like Kodak’s vest pocket camera, says Carol Huh, curator of the photography show. The vest pocket, which is about the size of a modern camera, with a lens that pulls out, accordion style, was made between 1912 and 1926, and became extremely popular in Japan, giving rise to camera clubs and the Besu-Tan School photographic style.
The photo show was made possible by the partial gift in May 2018 of a trove of some 400 photographs collected by Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck, Japan aficionados and screenwriters, best known for American Graffiti and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The collection had largely been displayed on the walls of their Brentwood, California, home. Huh selected for the show 80 prints from two dozen artists, focusing on those that influenced the trajectory of Japanese photography.
Image by Freer|Sackler, Purchase and partial gift from Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck. Simmon: A Private Landscape (#1), by Hosoe Eikoh, 1971 (original image)
Image by Freer|Sackler, Purchase and partial gift from Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck. Seikan Ferryboat, from the series Karasu (Ravens) by Fukase Masahis, 1976 (original image)
Image by Freer|Sackler, Purchase and partial gift from Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck. Yokosuka, Kanagawa, by Tomatsu Shomei, 1959 (original image)
Image by Freer|Sackler, Purchase and partial gift from Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck. Koen Dori, Shibuya, from the series Karasu (Ravens), by Fukase Masahisa, 1982 (original image)
Image by Freer|Sackler, Purchase and partial gift from Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck. Peaks of Takachiho Volcano, Kagoshima and MiyazakiPrefectures, by Hamaya Hiroshi, 1964 (original image)
Image by Freer|Sackler, Purchase and partial gift from Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck. Kamaitachi #8, by Hosoe Eikoh, 1965 (original image)
Image by Freer|Sackler, Purchase and partial gift from Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck. Man in a Traditional Minobashi Raincoat, NiigataPrefecture, by Hamaya Hiroshi, 1956 (original image)
Image by Freer|Sackler, Purchase and partial gift from Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck. My Wife on the Dunes, by Ueda Shoji, ca. 1950 (original image)
Image by Freer|Sackler, Purchase and partial gift from Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck. Boku To Neko (The Cat and Me), by Ueda Shoji, ca. 1950 (original image)
Image by Freer|Sackler, Purchase and partial gift from Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck. Evening View, by Moriyama Daido, 1977 (original image)
The initial gallery—with prints from the 1920s and 1930s—shows how Japanese photographers were so keenly influenced by European contemporaries, especially the soft-focus pictorialists. “We’re hitting a kind of peak of affirming photography as a medium of expression—an art medium, and also a transition towards a more modernist aesthetic,” says Huh. Early photos documented the city and country—a canal; wheat waving in the breeze. The transition is seen in Ishikawa Noboru’s 1930s-era light-and-shadow study, Barn Roof, which hones in on a fragment of a cupola with a misty background.
An Afternoon on the Mountain, a 1931 gelatin silver print by Shiotani Teiko, could be an abstract painting. A lone, tiny skier looks to be fighting his way up the sharply angled gray slope that slashes across the bottom quarter of the photograph, dividing it from the equally gray sky. Teiko largely shot in Tottori Prefecture on Japan’s western coast, creating from its huge dunes and mountains. “The landscape becomes an opportunity for these studies of form,” says Huh.
Teiko also shot whimsical prints of unnaturally bent objects—a precursor to the surrealism that became so evident in his student Ueda Shoji’s work. Shoji’s 1950 My Wife on the Dunes features his kimono-clad spouse, cut off at the knees, staring from the right foreground; to her right, stand three men in business suits, facing in different directions with huge shadows looming behind each. Surreal-like, it also depicts a Japan co-existing with its ancient heritage and its modern imagery.
Many of the photos examine that interplay, especially as Japan looked inward and faced the reality of the devastation of World War II and how the country would rebuild and remake itself.
Japan is the only nation to ever have experienced the wrath of an atomic bomb. The show touches on Nagasaki, where the Americans dropped a bomb on the town of 200,000 at 11:02 a.m. on August 9, 1945. Japan barred photography in the aftermath of both Nagasaki and Hiroshima, but some 16 years later—in 1961—the Japan Council Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs commissioned Tomatsu Shomei to document the city’s recovery. “It was not unusual at the time for many Japanese not to have seen actually what happened there,” says Huh. That included Shomei. He delved into Nagasaki’s fabric, photographing current life, bomb survivors and objects at what is now the Atomic Bomb Museum.
One of those, shot on a simple background: a wristwatch stopped at 11:02. A bottle that was distorted by the blast takes on a disturbingly human form. “It looks like a carcass,” says Huh. Shomei’s book 11:02 Nagasaki is a personal reckoning and a key document of that horrific event.
He was also obsessed with—and photographed his take on—the Americans’ post-war occupation of Japan, which officially ended in 1952. The effects, however, were lasting. Many of the images show photographers’ curiosity and dismay with these foreigners who had inserted themselves into their nation. The show includes some prints from Yamamura Gasho’s 1959-62 series on Washington Heights, an American military residential area in Tokyo. In one, a group of mischievous-looking black and white children press up against a chain link fence. Gasho is literally “outside the fence looking in at this strange transplant in the middle of Tokyo,” says Huh.
The show ends with the 2009 Diorama Map of Tokyo, a modernist collage by Nishino Sohei, a 36-year-old artist. He walked Tokyo, snapping street views, echoing a similar project from the late 19th century that created the first measured maps of Japan. Sohei cut out tiny prints from contact sheets, laid them down next to each other and then photographed them again for the final print. “The act of putting them together is remembering that journey,” says Huh.
Pre-photography, that type of Tokyo mapping would have been done on a less grand scale through wood block printing. But printers struggled to prove their relevance in the face of photography’s rising popularity. As early as the 1870s, they began shifting how they worked. Shinbashi Railway Station, a bright, multicolored print done in 1873, was an example of the new style, showing off brick buildings and a train idling outside Yokohama station.
The proportions between the figures and buildings were accurate, and it has a photographic sense of perspective, says Feltens. But the gaudy colors were “emphatically unphotographic”—an attempt to compete with the medium that was then limited to black and white.
The effort, however, failed miserably—and printmaking fizzled out. In the 1920s, two new movements attempted to bring prints back to life. In the “new print” school, a publisher thought he could lure Westerners—who were snapping up idealized photographic views that presented a Japan that was perfectly modern and ancient simultaneously—with wood block prints that offered similar sentimental portraits.
Shin-Ohashi, from 1926, attempts this. It’s a night scene with the flicker of a gaslight reflected off the steel trestle of a railroad bridge; meanwhile, a man in a traditional straw hat pulls a rickshaw, while a kimono-clad woman holding a large parasol stands behind him. It was a naked bid to both outdo photography (pictures could not be taken at night) and to satisfy foreigners. “These kinds of prints were not sold to Japanese, even today,” says Feltens. They were also created as pieces of art to be collected—a new direction for prints.
In the 1930s, the “creative” movement began to take off. Japanese print makers had absorbed from Western art the idea that the creator’s genius was to be visible. Thus, printmakers began adding signatures—often in English—and edition numbers to their works. These were no longer the production of an army of carvers who handed their work off to a printing operation.
The printers were still using wood blocks, but in an increasingly sophisticated way. Color was a significant feature. And the perspective was still very photographic.
Ito Shinsui’s 1938 Mt. Fuji from Hakone Observatory is a masterpiece of photographic perspective and feel. The only tell are the range of blues, whites and browns.
Many of the 38 prints in the show are stunning in the depth of their artistry—a point that Feltens was hoping to make. “We wanted to show the breadth of color and shades, and this explosion of creativity happening,” especially from the 1930s onwards, he says. “These people, in terms of creativity, knew no limits,” says Feltens.
Like the photography show, the prints demonstrate that the artists had “an analytical gaze upon Japan,” Feltens says. But unlike the photographers, the print makers did not engage in direct or indirect political commentary or observations about World War II.
But there is a connection to that war, says Feltens. Many print collectors—including Ken Hitch, who loaned the Freer|Sackler a good number of the prints in the show—lived in Japan during the American occupation.
Both printmakers and photographers struggled to be accepted as fine arts in Japan, says Feltens. Ironically, prints, which were almost extinguished by photography, were the first to be recognized as a true art form, he says.
“Japan Modern: Photography from the Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck Collection,” curated by Carol Huh, and “Japan Modern: Prints in the Age of Photography,” curated by Frank Feltens, are both on view at the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries in Washington, D.C. through January 24, 2019.
Hans van Biljouw, the captain of the motor ship Volendam, is as jolly as Santa Claus, but even he goes quiet as the big ship heads toward Snow Passage in darkness and fog. "It’s only about two cables wide there," he says quietly as he stands on the bridge, watching the pilot give instructions to the man at the helm. A cable measures 608 feet. The Volendam is 106 feet wide and 780 feet long. At 60,906 tons it is considerably bigger than the ship that was once the symbolic apex of technology, the Titanic. But it is going to go through a very small place.
Snow Passage is a pinch of deep water between rocks, a gap among islands in Southeast Alaska’s Inside Passage. Here, wind-whipped tides can build seas big enough to capsize small boats and currents strong enough to drive big ships aground. But though the radar screen shows rock closing in on each side, we can’t see anything out the slanted windows of the bridge but black fog.
"Did the Dawn Princess say anything about fog when she went through here?" Captain van Biljouw asks the pilot. The answer is no. The captain says nothing. Everyone is silent.
The big Holland America Line ship shudders with power. It is racing at its target like an arrow shot at a keyhole. All five of its huge diesel engines roar, pouring out 43 megawatts, enough power for a city of 44,500. Its two electric propulsion motors are using 26 of those megawatts to drive the ship. The ship is going almost full speed—22 knots (about 25 miles per hour)—trying to get to the pass while the tide turns, to avoid dangerous currents. But except for the hum of electronic equipment on the bridge and the occasional blast of the ship’s horn as a warning to anyone else moving in the fog, there is no sound. Eight people stare out at the night, and wait.
Almost no one else on the ship knows what is going on. It is shortly before 5 A.M. All but a few of the 1,479 passengers are asleep. They have no idea of the tension on the bridge, and they will never learn of it. That protection is part of the package. The huge business of cruising, one of the fastest-growing pieces of the booming travel industry, is built on the intricate elaboration of the illusion that, for a week or two at least, complete comfort and security can be had on earth.
I am on board with my wife, Suzanne. We’re on a cruise from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Glacier Bay, Alaska, and back. We chose to take a seven-day cruise to Alaska because that’s one of the most popular single venues in the industry. Every year more than half a million tourists take cruise ships through the Inside Passage. We’re here on an unusual assignment, which is both delightful and unsettling: to revel in the illusion and to look behind it. The story begins, like every ship, with the cutting of steel.
A pond burns in Finland
In a vast building in Turku, Finland, a pond was burning. The pond was a tank about 2,500 square feet. Deep in the tank intense blue fire danced, and streams of silver bubbles rose to the surface, where they burst into smoke and steam that was whisked away by fans. The pond looked as if it were burning because steel plates two-thirds of an inch thick were being cut underwater by computer-controlled plasma cutting devices. This was the beginning of a cruise ship.
Turku is the home of one of two shipbuilding facilities owned by Kvaerner Masa-Yards. It is one of the few shipyards in the world where big cruise ships are built, though the Volendam, it happens, was not built there. I was there to look at the genesis of all this luxury. There, in the steel-cutting rooms, were the plates for a ship that will eventually be one of the biggest cruise liners.
"The first cruise designs were based on ferries," said Kaj Liljestrand, a naval architect and executive vice president of Kvaerner Masa-Yards. "At that time the perception was that only retired people were cruising. It was considered boring for young people."
Kvaerner Masa-Yards’ first large cruise ship, built for Royal Caribbean, was called Song of Norway and was launched in 1969. It was an 18,416-ton ship, big for its day. (In the world of shipping, a ton in this case means 100 cubic feet of enclosed space.) It originally carried 880 passengers.
At that time, about half a million people went to sea on cruises every year. But today the industry has grown to some 250 operating ships. It serves about 10 million people a year and generates an estimated annual gross revenue of $13 billion. Since 1980 the North American cruise industry has grown by an average of 8.4 percent per year, but that seems to be accelerating: in 2000 alone there was a 16 percent increase in the number of passengers over 1999.
Today’s boom is credited to many things, from the television series The Love Boat, which originally ran from 1977 to 1986, to the increased capacity on cruise ships. Other reasons cited are that the baby boomers are getting older and that people have more disposable income; that more younger people are interested in leisure and that cruising is simply one of the least stressful vacations around. "All you have to do is show up," one frequent passenger told me. "They do all the rest." As a result, cruises have become one of the most profitable parts of the travel industry. This has led to a boom in cruise-ship building. And, because cruise passengers seem to make more demands as they grow in number, the boom has led to all sorts of innovations.
More elegant and far more varied in attractions than the Titanic...
The progression of these demands is represented in a chart of "Musts and Wants" that Liljestrand and several others at Kvaerner Masa-Yards showed me. In the 1970s people required only one thing of the ships they boarded: safety. They wanted value for their money. In the early 1980s they needed safety and reliability; they also started to think about what Kvaerner Masa calls "special attractions"—things like Las Vegas-style shows, and fitness centers. In the 1990s the needs list grew to include "environmental friendliness," and people also wanted "impressive design." Now the wants list has grown to include multiple choices of things to do or places to eat on board, and at the top, the idea that a cruise should be a unique experience.
"We’ve studied everything from submarines to airships," Liljestrand said, "and anything in between that floats." The result is ships that are even more elegant and far more varied in their attractions than the Titanic.
For me, however, as for most people, the first impression of the ship was its size. Out on the upper decks we were ten stories above the water. Down among the cabins, several decks of halls stretched away into a distant haze of identical doors, like halls of mirrors.
Suzanne and I had boarded this ship in Canada because of a U.S. law that forbids a ship such as the Volendam, which wasn’t built in the United States and isn’t owned and crewed by Americans, from picking passengers up in one U.S. port and dropping them off in another.
As the ship motored northwest between Vancouver Island and the British Columbia mainland, the landscape became wilder: a few fishing boats, a couple of tiny logging towns, an Indian reserve on an island.
I woke early and went out onto the deck, all but alone at 6 A.M. The air was cold. Wraiths of moonlit cloud draped the forested shoulders of mountains. I leaned on the rail looking out at the rugged world sliding past and thought again about Finland.
The yard by the office of the Kvaerner Masa-Yards in Helsinki looked as if it had been hit by some bizarre kind of earthquake that scattered chunks of apartment buildings all over the place. The chunks were pieces of cruise ships, called blocks, each several stories high. Men clambered over them, installing pipes and cable tracks, before the blocks were welded together to make a ship. "It’s like Lego pieces," said Henrik Segercrantz, also a naval architect, who was my guide. "This is how we build ships."
Those blocks can sometimes weigh more than 400 tons each. A cruise ship is made out of some 100 of them. Air-conditioning ducts, insulation, machinery and even stairways are installed in blocks before trucks larger than train cars carry them to a vast indoor dry dock and overhead cranes lift them into place. When I watched one being installed on a ship, it was impossible to imagine that this was the beginning of luxury.
Luxury in plastic-wrapped boxes
Outside, however, luxury was waiting in plastic-wrapped boxes. The boxes were staterooms, manufactured in a nearby plant and trucked here. They would be popped into the blocks when the blocks were ready. To me these boxes sitting on the dock were a testament to the extraordinary precision of modern engineering. The builders of the boxes had absolute faith that the slots they were going into were all going to be the right size. As they waited on the dock, the nearly completed staterooms already had mirrors on the walls, and there were hair dryers in the drawers.
In their designs, Kvaerner Masa-Yards architects try to give balconies to as many of the staterooms as possible. They have managed to design and build two cruise ships in which as many as 70 percent of the staterooms have a little porch overlooking the water.
We did not have a balcony, but the outside deck was a fine, breezy place to be as the Volendam started up the Inside Passage to Alaska. It’s a labyrinthine path through an archipelago clothed in inscrutable forests of western hemlock and Sitka spruce. The ship turned left at the end of Vancouver Island and then headed north among those woods in mist, and the forests seemed as silent and full of secrets as time itself.
That night we ate a typical meal of Alaska king crab legs, salad, baked stuffed prawns Del Rey on spinach fettuccine, and chocolate cake with our assigned tablemates: Michelle and Rob Rone, from Texas, and Randal and Jan Hundley, from Arkansas. Rob, a tall, young salesman, said they’d gone on the cruise because "I like to be pampered." Randal, a wry and cheerful cardiologist, had bid on the trip on the spur of the moment at an art center benefit auction. "We always wanted to go to Alaska," he said.
In the past, meals on cruise ships were usually set up as ours were: you were assigned to a table with a few other passengers. It forced socialization and was easier for the cooks. That’s all changing. "Choices" is a catchword in cruise marketing. On the Volendam you can also dine at a cafeteria on the Lido Deck or make a reservation at a more intimate restaurant called the Marco Polo. On other ships, even more dining options are offered, and some have developed marketing relationships with onshore restaurant chains.
Recreational choices, too, have come a long way from shuffleboard. Now there are huge fitness centers and spas where you can buy a massage, a seaweed wrap or a course of therapeutic vitamins. There are also multiple swimming pools, jogging tracks, paddle-tennis courts, miniature golf courses, video-game parlors, art auctions, first-run movies, karaoke machines and—on the biggest ships—ice skating rinks and rock climbing walls.
Some of the real advances in cruise liners, however, are not visible to passengers. These are technical developments so fundamental and innovative that people and designers from all over the world, including the United States, have visited Kvaerner Masa-Yards to check them out.
This innovation comes in two parts. First, most new cruise liners are what are called "diesel-electric ships." This means that instead of running propeller shafts directly, via a reduction gear, from the enormous diesel engines, the shafts are connected to electric motors that get their power from diesel-driven power plants. These plants, not much different from generating stations onshore, just provide electricity, and it’s up to switches whether the power goes to propulsion or services. This allows flexibility in the amount of power generated, as well as in things like choosing whether to make the ship cooler or make it go faster, and in deciding where to put the engines to provide the best balance and the most living space. "On these ships," said Captain van Biljouw, "when you ask for the power, you have the power."
The second innovation, which derives from the first, is a revolutionary idea called the Azipod. This is a huge thing that looks almost exactly like the little motor and propeller combination on the end of an electric outboard trolling motor, except for two things: first, an Azipod weighs 200 tons and is bolted on under the ship; second, instead of pointing aft, as on an outboard, the propeller on the Azipod usually faces forward, as on an aircraft engine.
Because an Azipod can turn a full 360 degrees on its mount, it does away with rudders, which means less drag and far greater maneuverability—all of which equals more efficiency. It can save up to 10 percent of the hundred tons of fuel or more that a midsize cruise ship burns each day.
"One Meter Ahead"
Innovations like rotating Azipods, which the Volendam doesn’t have, and powerful side thrusters built into bow and stern, which the Volendam does have, make these cruise liners so maneuverable that a ship can pull up beside a dock and just sidle into place. On the Volendam bridge one day, when we were docking, I heard Captain van Biljouw tell his bridge crew: "One meter ahead." The ship was moved one meter. The captain chortled. He turned to me and said, "Piece of cake."
Azipods and side thrusters, plus advances in electronics, have led to what seems to me a marvelous technological irony. The largest ships in the fleet, the 140,000-ton Voyager-class ships Kvaerner Masa-Yards is building for Royal Caribbean, can be entirely controlled on the bridge by a single joystick that is far less impressive than the one I use to blast aliens on my home computer.
One of the docks the Volendam sidled up to was the first port of call: Juneau, Alaska. There was only one other cruise ship in port. That was unusual. In the peak of summer there are often more—sometimes as many as five at a time.
The number of ships has led to a common cruise ship—port of destination conflict. Juneau is Alaska’s capital, but it’s a small town of roughly 30,000 people. When several thousand tourists rush ashore each summer day, intent on getting something Alaskan out of a nine-hour visit, they have an impact. They have changed the waterfront into a froth of jewelry and trinket shops, and have filled the skies with helicopters. Cruise ship passengers are offered long menus of things to do onshore, and helicopter rides to glaciers are among the most popular. About 35 helicopters are based in Juneau all summer. To help pay to mitigate cruise ship impact, the city of Juneau recently passed an ordinance imposing a fee on cruise lines of $5 for every passenger they bring to town.
That may be just the beginning. Alaska’s governor, Tony Knowles, has been calling attention to discharge of polluted wastewater by cruise ships in Southeast Alaska. A report summary on tests paid for by the cruise industry and conducted in Alaska last year on the outflows of 21 large cruise ships stated that the ships’ marine sanitation devices "are not working well at producing an effluent that meets the standards set by EPA."
Pollution in general has been a stain on the cruise industry. A number of cruise lines have pleaded guilty to charges of dumping oil or garbage against regulations.
Aware that their clientele is sensitive to environmental issues, cruise lines are making efforts to look very green. In spite of the complaints from Alaska, recycling and sewage control equipment on modern ships is more rigorous than in some coastal cities. On the Volendam, some of the efforts were vivid.
One morning when I went to the deserted Lido Deck at six, I saw a crewman hosing it down. I thought he was sloshing the debris of the previous day’s party over the side, but I was wrong. In the scuppers were small traps that caught bits of food and plastic. When he was finished hosing, the crewman scooped handfuls of trash out of the traps and put them in a bucket. "If he’d put anything over the side, anything," Frits Gehner, the ship’s hotel manager, said later, "he would have faced severe disciplinary action."
As the ship moved north, the days lengthened. "In Alaska," the captain said happily, "you have to sleep fast." People started to get into little habits. Jan and Randal Hundley ran on the treadmills every morning and could usually be found in the Java Cafe about two in the afternoon. In Skagway the weather held fine and there were more shore excursions. The Rones rode bicycles on the hillside roads above the trail where gold miners had struggled on their way to Dawson City in the Yukon in the late 1890s. We took a train up the old White Pass & Yukon railroad line to the Canadian border and back, and met a group of six women from Florida and New York, who were traveling on the Volendam without their husbands and were having a great time, except for one thing. "I haven’t seen many whales," said one of them.
"Come see and feel and hear this ice"
The next day, still sunny, saw the journey’s highlight, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, just northwest of Juneau. "Put on all the clothes you brought with you," said a woman’s voice on loudspeakers throughout the ship, "and come on outside and see and feel and hear this ice." The voice was of a National Park Service naturalist named Dena Matkin. The ice was the sheer and craggy face of the Johns Hopkins Glacier.
Glacier Bay is one of the largest national parks in the United States. With 3.2 million acres it’s a million larger than Yellowstone. But it has only 400,000 visitors a year compared with Yellowstone’s 3.1 million. And 85 percent of the visitors to Glacier Bay come by cruise ship.
For a fee, the U.S. National Park Service brings naturalists to the ships. Ours boarded in the morning and took over the ship’s microphone. The naturalists, who were clearly in love with their stunning park, had a little game to ease the monotony of saying the same things day after day. They bet Matkin, who had the day’s public address chores, that she wouldn’t be able to include in her narration words that aren’t normally part of a naturalist’s talk. Today the words were "acrimonious" and "filibuster." Matkin grimaced. Filibuster?
The ship moved slowly into an area sprinkled with icebergs and edged by the wall of ice. We were at the head of the Johns Hopkins Inlet, where the glacier meets the deep water.
Then something I did not expect happened. Hundreds of passengers emerged onto the forward decks, which faced the ice. Many wore tartan deck blankets wrapped around their shoulders to ward off the chill. They stood there watching the glacier where it had carved away the side of a hill. "There," said Dena Matkin on the loudspeaker, "you can see the acrimonious relationship between ice and rock."
The ship was about a quarter of a mile from the ice front. Crew members worked their way quietly among the passengers, handing out cups of Dutch pea soup. Once in a while the glacier gave off a crack like the shot of a rifle. Less often a small piece of ice calved off its face and kicked up a small wave. Streaks of sunlight touched distant ridges. Two bald eagles landed on a chunk of ice near the bow of the ship and appeared to be sharing a fish. But other than that almost nothing moved. Yet the people watched, rapt. For 15 minutes, 30 minutes, an hour.
I wandered among the passengers. Randal and Jan Hundley were there on one of the higher decks, just watching. So, it seemed, was almost everyone else. When a small piece of ice bumped against the hull and I heard its faint clang, I realized that everyone was being intentionally quiet. No voices were raised. People murmured to each other. It was as if the people of the Volendam had suddenly become aware of the world that exists apart from them, and they were in awe. As we left Glacier Bay, the loudspeakers came on again, and Dena Matkin won her bet. "I can’t filibuster you anymore," she said.
That night a group of Tlingit dancers came on board from a nearby village and gave a demonstration of their cultural traditions. It was rough around the edges, but as authentic as the ice. The huge crowd in the theater loved it. But then we unloaded the naturalists and the dancers and turned for home. We would stop once more, at Ketchikan, where the weather was still so good that the bright little town looked Mediterranean.
Even Snow Passage turned out to be an anticlimax. The fog lifted just as we swept past the rocks at 14 knots, and the captain said, "That is the magic of the power of a captain, to make the fog lift." The fog closed back down.
Don't forget the Baked Alaska
Near the end of the trip, as the ship moved through quiet waters next to Vancouver Island, the crew conducted a ritual in the dining room that is common to many cruises. With great ceremony, they carried in Baked Alaska desserts festooned with sparklers.
A number of recent news stories about working conditions on some cruise ships have brought controversy to the lower decks. The registration of vessels to "flag of convenience" countries like Liberia and Panama allows cruise companies to avoid both some taxes and laws relating to crew welfare. So crew members recruited from developing nations where pay scales are very low are often asked to work long hours for very little money. However, crews have recently become more organized, and now about 60 percent of the cruise lines have signed agreements with the International Transport Workers Federation, which represents 600,000 sailors and other seafaring workers worldwide. These agreements have improved wages, living conditions and medical coverage, and they let passengers feel better about conditions for the people who serve them. Holland America is one of those companies, which may be one reason why our cabin steward and waiters seemed particularly cheerful in their work.
The Volendam raced at full speed back down the coast of Vancouver Island in order to get through another tight spot called Seymour Narrows at slack water, when there is minimum current. Then, ahead of schedule, the ship coasted the last hundred miles at five knots. It was still sunny. We disembarked in a flurry of bags and good-byes. The next day we took a ferry to Victoria. As we got off the ferry, we saw people we knew. It was the group of six enthusiastic women without their husbands from New York and Florida. They had gone across to Victoria to watch whales.
We had only known them a few days, but we laughed and hugged. "We saw lots of whales," said one of them. Suddenly we were nostalgic, and I realized that the illusion that cruising gives you is not just of comfort and serenity but of community. A cruise ship is like that perfect small town where you wish you had grown up, where the cookie jars were always open, everyone liked you and the authority figures did just what you asked.
In Finland, cold winds swirled the sky with cloud. With Henrik Segercrantz, I went on board today’s pride of the cruising industry. It was the 137,300-ton Explorer of the Seas. Now in service, she carries more than 3,000 passengers and 1,000 crew. More than 50 new cruise ships will be launched in the next few years. One of them will be even larger: the Queen Mary 2, scheduled to launch in 2003, will be 150,000 tons, and will be able to cruise at 30 knots—7 knots faster than our Volendam. Though not all cruise ships are big—a whole niche exists for smaller vessels dedicated to adventure trips or local voyages—an end to growth at the large end is not in sight. "There is always something you must have in the back pocket for the next generation," said Kaj Liljestrand. "If you ask me will there be bigger ships, I would say yes. Why should they stop?"
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.
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Logs the size of telephone poles drift along the shore of the Salish Sea. Erik Hammond turns the wheel of his aluminum skiff and closes in. He grabs his ax and towlines, then leaps atop the floating wood, much as his father did, and his father did before him. With the butt of his ax he drives anchor pegs into the choicest three and ties them to the stern. When he turns his boat, the lines go taut—the logs startle, then come to heel. Satisfied, he unties the lines and tosses them over before circling back to the beach. But the logs sail on, toward his partner, George Moore, who adds them to the growing haul already tied behind his skiff.
Hammond and Moore are beachcombers, or log salvors, based in Gibsons, British Columbia, a small coastal community less than 50 kilometers north of Vancouver. They are practitioners of an occupation once common on the Pacific Northwest coast. Moore, 72, has been chasing logs since he was a kid. Hammond, 41, was still in diapers when he started tagging along with his father. It’s a demanding and sometimes dangerous pursuit that calls for strength, balance, finesse, and a command of mechanics and physics. In return, it offers uncertainty and little pay.
“I love it,” Hammond declares. “It’s all I know how to do.”
On this calm summer afternoon, Hammond and Moore gather merchantable timber that has escaped log booms owned by logging companies. Once wood is floating free, it’s a hazard to navigation—and fair game for licensed log salvors. Today’s catch, mostly fir and cedar, will be sold through a cooperative that returns a share of the total value back to the logging companies. What’s left for Hammond and Moore averages CAN $25 per log—which they split. They’re also on the lookout for pristine, uncut trees that have ended up in the water through wind, erosion, or flood. With no logging company to lay a claim, this wood can fetch far more. They say the best time for beachcombing is during the fall and winter months, when high tides coincide with the arrival of powerful storms, which upset log booms and topple trees into swollen rivers and streams.
Be it clean sawlogs, twisted branches, or stumps with the rootball still attached—whether the result of industry or flood—driftwood is the remains of any tree that ends up washed ashore or floating in the sea. Beyond a dwindling number of beachcombers hoping to make a buck, and mariners wishing to avoid striking deadheads, why should anyone care?
Driftwood makes an enormous if underappreciated contribution to the food web connecting the forests and the sea. From streams to estuaries to the deep ocean floor, driftwood shapes every environment it passes through. While there’s an awareness that temperate rainforests are enriched with nitrogen from the marine environment, delivered by decomposing salmon, less well known is the fact that dead trees from those same forests travel to the sea and become a vital source of food and habitat. Driftwood is in need of a PR campaign, celebrity spokesperson, or publicist at the very least. Driftwood, it turns out, is also rapidly disappearing.
Dead trees were sailing the seas long before our ancestors conceived of the ax or skiff, long before the continents split and went their separate ways. And yet, when a tree falls in a river or stream today, it can set out on a journey that remains little studied and poorly understood.
A tree undergoes reincarnation when it lands in flowing water. Branches, bark, and heartwood—what appears to be nothing more than floating debris—become either home to or sustenance for a range of plants and animals. In old-growth forests, up to 70 percent of the organic matter from fallen trees remains in streams long enough to nurture the organisms living there, passing through the digestive tracts of bacteria, fungi, and insects. Caddis flies and mayflies undergo their metamorphosis into adults while anchored to floating wood. When they emerge, they in turn become food for salmon fry, salamanders, bats, and birds. Larger logs control the very shape and flow of streams, creating pools and back eddies where returning salmon rest and spawn. These pools provide critical shelter for young salmon as they hatch, feed, and hide from predators before they make a break for the open sea.
As wood passes through the floodplain, it collides with and remakes the shore. Some becomes anchored there, trapping silt and seeds. As new vegetation takes root, deer mice, voles, shrews, and chipmunks move in for the harvest. Weasels, minks, and hawks make meals of them and fertilize the soil. Wood that drifts into estuaries becomes perches for hungry bald eagles and herons; rafts for weary cormorants, pelicans, and seals; and nurseries for herring eggs.
The estuaries of the Pacific Northwest are young, between 15,000 and 10,000 years old. Shaped by ice, they have remained dynamic environments due largely to the transformative power of driftwood. Here, trees still arrive after falling into rivers the old-fashioned way, but since the advent of stream clearing for navigation, industrial logging, riverside development, and hydroelectric dams, humanity has taken the lead in shaping waterways—just as it has the world over.
In Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, logging companies continue to float timber down rivers for processing at lumber mills. As recently as the 1990s, an annual 10 billion board feet of lumber was rafted or stored as logs along rivers in the Pacific Northwest. If only one percent of those logs escaped and somehow eluded beachcombers, that means 100 million board feet of merchantable timber became driftwood each year. But these days, only a fraction of that enters the marine environment. Whether cut logs or whole trees, less wood completes the journey from the forests to the sea.
When Hammond is ready to tow a week’s worth of logs to his booming grounds, he trades up to the bigger boat he keeps tied to the government dock in Gibsons, which sits at the western entrance of Howe Sound, a body of water that was once clogged with tugboats pulling log booms. In fact, the words “Gibsons” and “beachcombing” will be forever intertwined for Canadians of a certain age. The Beachcombers was the immensely popular CBC television show that ran from 1972 to 1990, and was syndicated around the world. While Hammond appreciates what the dramedy did for his hometown’s reputation, he rolls his eyes when asked how accurately it portrayed the job. And yet with gumboots, a beard, suspenders, and belt, he looks as if he just arrived from central casting. Brush off the actual bark and sand, and he’d also fit right in among the young, plaid-wearing lumbersexuals found slouched in hipster coffee shops from Brooklyn to Seattle.
Hammond is in perpetual motion—moving between his boats and wood with remarkable ease. With three dozen logs already trailing behind, he scans the water for more. “Peelers,” Hammond calls them, logs suitable for making into plywood. Currently, cedar is the most valuable. At one time, salvaged fir was worthy of being milled into lumber. Nowadays, most logs he brings in end up being pulped for paper products.
There are fewer logs in Howe Sound than when Hammond’s father and grandfather were around. Across the Pacific Northwest, the volume of timber harvested is down and logging companies are taking greater care in securing their booms and bundling their logs.
“At one time,” Moore declares, “Howe Sound was the largest [log] sorting grounds in the world. There was wood everywhere. A blind man could pick up wood.”Natalie Kramer has spent years researching driftwood on the Slave River in Canada’s Northwest Territories. (Photo by Jesika Reimer)
Though beachcombing’s a sunset industry, for Hammond and Moore, it remains worth doing; worth putting to use the hard-won knowledge and skills, feeling the connections to this place and their past. Both men are obliged to take other part-time work, but find their greatest source of professional satisfaction—and identity—out here, on the water, finding and rounding up logs.
The beachcombers of British Columbia are not alone in their attraction to driftwood. Natalie Kramer has spent the past seven summers paddling among the remains of fallen and floating trees in Canada’s Northwest Territories, 1,400 kilometers north of Gibsons. Kramer is a 32-year-old fluvial geomorphologist, a scientist who studies rivers. And, with an impressive list of epic river descents and elite competitions behind her, she also happens to be one of the top pro female kayakers in the world
Kramer’s PhD in wood transport dynamics focused on the Slave River, which flows north into Great Slave Lake, which in turn flows into the Mackenzie River, which in turn flows into the Arctic Ocean. In North America, only the Mississippi drainage basin is larger. Relatively undisturbed by large-scale industrial development, the Mackenzie River system functions much as it has for millennia, making it a natural laboratory for studying the long-term effects of driftwood and its relationship with marine and riverine ecosystems.
To Kramer, rivers are the lifeblood of the planet, and driftwood the nutrients in that blood, an analogy that came to life for her in 2011, when she watched a huge, continuous mass of logs go floating past her base on the bank of the Slave River for three consecutive days.
“That’s when I was like, oh, this is a lot of material!” she exclaims. “It’s a major component of the landscape many people take for granted.”
One day, Kramer happened upon a massive logjam on the river—the same logjam described in explorer Alexander Mackenzie’s journal in 1789. She cored a tree growing out of the jam itself and found it was over 50 years old.
Immense logjams and floating rafts of naturally occurring wood were once common and well-documented features in rivers and estuaries before they were cleared for navigation. The Great Raft on Louisiana’s Red River, perhaps the most famous, existed for an estimated 375 years before its removal in 1830. The raft and associated jams blocked 227 kilometers of the main channel and stretched approximately twice as far.
Kramer’s research shows that driftwood serves as building blocks for stable sand dunes and spits in estuaries, providing an important buffer from rising tides and waves. But shorelines around the world—especially in developed, temperate zones—are now severely wood impoverished compared to their condition before human settlement. As rivers lose driftwood, water travels through faster and there is less time for nutrient cycling. Excess nitrogen, mostly from agriculture, is one contributor to algal blooms in the marine environment. In wood-starved rivers, there is less opportunity for nitrogen to get reprocessed before being flushed out to sea.Kramer identified the same driftwood raft on the Slave River noted by explorer Alexander Mackenzie in his journal about his 1789 quest to find a route to Canada’s west coast. (Photo by Natalie Kramer)
“With the wood gone, our rivers are simpler, less complex, and offer a lot less buffering capacity against contamination and sea level rise,” she says. “The simpler they are, the less resilient they are to change.”
Although her PhD project is now complete, Kramer still paddles the rivers of the Northwest Territories and still has unanswered questions. Like, how much longer will the Slave River run free?
“This river is under threat from hydropower development, and when you build hydropower you block your wood.” She points out that the threat comes not just from proposed development on the Slave itself, but also from the approved Site C dam farther upstream on the Peace River. “If that wood is no longer being delivered to the delta, what do we stand to lose?”
The Mackenzie River system exports large volumes of driftwood into the Arctic Ocean, where it gets frozen into or rafted on sea ice. The sea ice can become caught in the Beaufort Gyre (a clockwise current) before it melts or otherwise shrugs off its cargo. Driftwood then finds its way to distant shores far beyond the tree line. By studying the amount and distribution of driftwood in the Arctic, researchers have learned more about changing ocean currents, sea ice extent, and climate over the past 12,000 years.
Long before driftwood caught the eye of environmental scientists, Arctic people had a primordial relationship with the wood arriving from a forested world they could scarcely imagine. They transformed this precious resource into everything from shelter and weapons to carved, tactile maps that could be read by hand. So valuable was this gift from the sea, archaeologists have speculated that when Inuit ancestors migrated from Alaska to the east over 1,000 years ago, they carried driftwood with them.(Illustration by Mark Garrison)
The Inuit are not the only Indigenous people who relied on the bounty of distant forests. The wood flowing from the rivers of the Pacific Northwest also shows up in some surprisingly far-off places. Driftwood that escapes inshore tidal currents can get caught in the North Pacific Gyre, which pulls it far to the west. In the subarctic tundra of southwest Alaska, where the vegetation runs from moss to stunted willow, the Yupik have chants, songs, and stories about the importance of driftwood. Driftwood sheltered them in their qasgiq and ena(men’s and women’s houses), warmed and illuminated their nights, and helped invoke the spirit world through its transformation into exquisitely carved shamanic masks. On the treeless Aleutian Islands, between the Alaskan mainland and Siberia, the Unangan people carved and bent yellow cedar from the Pacific Northwest into incomparable baidarkas—precursors of the modern kayaks Kramer uses in her research and competition today.
Far to the south, logs from the Pacific Northwest once made up the majority of wood washing ashore in the Hawai‘ian Islands. Wood from tropical forests in the Philippines, Malaysia, and Japan also arrived, but the Hawai‘ian people chose Douglas fir and coastal red cedar from over 4,000 kilometers away to integrate into the customs and rituals of their culture. They prized the wood from temperate coastal rainforests for building their large double canoes—symbols of wealth, prestige, and power.
Most driftwood, of course, goes untouched by human hands. The afterlife of these dead trees can be just as surprising.
The fate of most driftwood ultimately awaits at the bottom of the sea. But as researchers like Kramer work to advance our understanding of the dynamic force of logs careening down rivers and streams, less is being added to our knowledge about the role it plays in the marine food web. Pioneering research was conducted on that part of the story by Ruth Dixon Turner during the 1970s–1990s, and later compiled by James Sedell, a leading US Forest Service research scientist and director of fish conservation at the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. Sedell was intrigued by the disappearance of driftwood from the beaches of the Oregon coast, where he roamed as a boy.Massive amounts of wood flow from rivers into the ocean. (Photo by Natalie Kramer)
Driftwood can remain afloat in the open ocean, depending on species, for up to 17 months. During that time, these unrooted trees transmute into floating reefs, drifting habitat for a wide range of marine species, including the wingless ocean strider, the only insect known to live in the open ocean. Ocean striders attach their eggs to driftwood even as gribbles (a kind of crustacean) and shipworms (a bivalve mollusk)—the bane of early explorers—consume it from within.
In From the Forest to the Sea: The Ecology of Wood in Streams, Rivers, Estuaries, and Oceans, Sedell and his coauthor Chris Maser explain that over 100 species of invertebrates and 130 species of fish are known to congregate on and around floating objects like driftwood. They do so because of Langmuir currents, pairs of counterrotating convection currents generated by surface winds, which sweep floating logs and organic debris into long, parallel rows often called “slicks.” This in turn attracts plankton and small fish, which in turn draws larger, predatory fish such as dorado, tuna, and sharks. Shade, abundance of food, a place to lay eggs, and protection from waves are among the reasons scientists suspect these temporary environments are so attractive to marine life. It is estimated that, in the habitat associated with a single large piece of oceangoing driftwood, the combined weight of the associated tuna alone can add up to as much as 100 tonnes—or the equivalent of well over half a million cans of tuna.
Tuna are known to time their migration to the continental shelf for spawning with the beginning of the monsoon season. In the eastern Pacific, driftwood carried by the resulting floods arrives just as young yellowfin tuna are emerging from their eggs. Juvenile yellowfin associate with large driftwood and researchers suspect this relationship is important in determining whether or not they’ll reach reproductive age. In the western and tropical Pacific, the tuna fishery went from minuscule to the world’s largest (in terms of total catch) within a decade of recognizing that tuna school around large collections of driftwood—and then seeking out this bait. In the late 1990s, Spanish fishers in the eastern Atlantic even began to enhance natural driftwood with artificial logs to attract more tuna.
For ocean-going driftwood, the journey ends far from where it all began. After a life lived rooted to the land, turning sunshine into energy among insects and birds, after enriching and reshaping rivers and streams, after sheltering and feeding plankton and fish along the surface of the sea, the remains of trees that do not wash ashore sink to the bottom. This submerged wood is most abundant off the estuaries and shores of forested coastlines, but dredging frequently digs up logs in the deep ocean floor and even in deep-sea trenches.
Deep-sea wood borers (Xylophaga, a genus of bivalve mollusks) take over where shallow water gribbles and shipworms left off. These creatures depend on driftwood for survival. They rapidly convert wood into fecal pellets, which in turn support more than 40 species of other deep-sea invertebrates, creating a temporary but productive habitat on the ocean floor, what Sedell called “an island of biodiversity.” Twenty-three years ago, he worried about the decreasing amount of driftwood and the increasing amount of plastic taking its place in the world’s oceans.The Slave River’s outer delta shows the importance of driftwood. For example, the formation of a driftwood barrier protects the mainland from waves. (Photo by Natalie Kramer)
Studies off the coast of Washington State in the late 1990s suggest a rich and vital relationship between the forest and marine environments. Researchers found the amount of organic terrestrial carbon (wood debris and soil from forested rivers and streams) was high, and that dead trees are a significant source of energy in the ecosystem of the ocean floor. How much? Upward of 60 percent of the total organic carbon in shallow coastal waters and about a third in waters up to a kilometer deep. Even at depths beyond that of the Grand Canyon—far off shore—as much as 15 percent of the total organic carbon was byproducts of driftwood.
On the coast of British Columbia, Hammond and Moore recall the late 1990s as being the heyday for log salvaging. Although today’s pickings and profit are comparably slim, Moore says he’ll keep beachcombing as long as he’s able. Will Hammond be the last beachcomber on this stretch of the coast? He shrugs, but points to the half-dozen logs tied to a float in front of his house—all hauled in by his seven-year-old son.
Almost 150 kilometers south of the Hammond family float, a series of explosions between 2011 and 2014 released the Elwha River on its course to the Salish Sea. The US National Park Service destroyed a pair of old hydroelectric dams on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula, initiating the largest dam removal project in US history. While many people are aware that removing a dam can help clear the way for returning salmon, few realize it frees wood to reach the sea.
The dams were in place for just over a century. During that time, the river was not fully alive, according to Robert Elofson, former director of the river restoration project for the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe and current fisheries harvest manager.
“You had higher water temperatures in the summer. No woody debris transport, no sediment transport. Now the wood is doing exactly as predicted,” he says, providing food and habitat for insect nymphs and larvae that in turn become food for salmon.
The removal of the Elwha Dam and Glines Canyon Dam restored over 70 kilometers of spawning habitat—habitat once again shaped in part by floating wood. The river is producing salmon again: sockeye, pink, chum, steelhead, coho, and chinook. Birds perch on beached logs and fertilize the soil at the water’s edge. Seeds get trapped and new shoots sprout as other creatures move in. Young fish hide and adult fish rest in the new back eddies and shadows along the shore. The river system, far more complex and diverse, is free to flow along its original course for the first time in living memory.
The rapid rebirth of the Elwha is precisely why Kramer worries about any plans to dam the Slave: it would be a shock felt far beyond the river system. Like Sedell before her, Kramer hopes to wake people up to the need to better understand the vital role of waterborne wood before it’s gone—like the immense log jams and floating rafts of centuries past. Part of that work lies in reimagining the boundaries between words like river, tree, and sea.
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Last June, sculptor Ned Kahn’s 17-year-old son approached him with a box.
“I got you a traditional Father’s Day gift,” Ben Kahn warned his Dad. “But it’s not a traditional Father’s Day gift.“
Inside was a tie—made of polished, perforated aluminum. The gift was especially significant because Ben had fashioned it in the workshop of San Francisco’s Exploratorium: the legendary hands-on science museum where Ned had served as artist-in-residence for 14 years.
Even so, the tie seemed incongruous; a more appropriate gift might have been a silk-lined hard hat. Though Kahn appears pensive and soft-spoken, this large-scale environmental artist has won international acclaim by building tornadoes, orchestrating the wind and channeling ocean tides into explosive blowholes.
Kahn, a youthful 51, has a narrow face and dark eyes that often focus in the distance. He majored in botany and environmental science at the University of Connecticut, then worked at the Exploratorium from 1982 until 1996. Physicist Frank Oppenheimer, the museum’s brilliant and eccentric founder (and the younger brother of J. Robert Oppenheimer), became his mentor.
“Finally, I had someone I could ask all the questions that had been puzzling me for years. Like, ‘What’s actually flowing through a wire when you turn on the light?’ Frank loved questions like that,” recalls Kahn. “He would lead me through all the electricity exhibits in the museum, explaining them in detail. Then he’d end this long explanation by saying, ‘Basically, we don’t know what flows through a wire!’
“It was an awakening. It made me realize that what we do know of the world is based on our view through very small windows. The whole idea of limits—the limits of what’s really knowable—has been woven through everything I’ve done.”
Kahn’s interactive Tornado—an eight-foot-high fog twister that visitors can literally walk through without being carried away to Oz—is still one of the Exploratorium’s signature attractions. It’s a good example of what Kahn means when he refers to his pieces as “turbulent landscapes.” For nearly 30 years, he has been fascinated by the dynamic interplay of natural forces that operate, often invisibly, around us.
“I spent a year trying to make that first tornado sculpture work,” Kahn confesses with barely concealed amusement. “Sometimes I’d be there late at night. I’d aim the fans and the fog machine, and get it all fine-tuned. The thing would be working perfectly! Then I’d come back the next morning, and it wouldn’t work at all. I was going crazy.
“After months of this, I realized that it was all about the air currents in that old, drafty Exploratorium building. Which doors were open, or where the sun was heating the roof, affected everything. It slowly dawned on me, how intertwined the sculpture was with the building’s entire air system.
“This made me think: Where does an environmental sculpture begin, and where does it end? If my tornado was being affected by the air currents in the building, which were being affected by the wind outside the building, there never was a real border between the sculpture and the whole atmosphere of the Earth.”
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Image by Courtesy of Ned Kahn. Ned Kahn's Avalanche is a moveable wheel filled with a mixture of irregular garnet sand and tiny, spherical glass beads. Pictured here is the much larger version of Avalanche at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. A 8-foot-wide version is installed at the Children's Museum in Pittsburgh. (original image)
Image by Courtesy of Ned Kahn. Kahn's Rain Oculus is a 70-foot-wide whirlpool at the Marina Bay Sands complex in Singapore. The huge whirlpool can circulate 6,000 gallons of water per minute and funtions as a kinetic sculpture, skylight and waterfall. (original image)
Image by Courtesy of Ned Kahn. Kahn has won international acclaim by building tornadoes, orchestrating the wind and channeling ocean tides into explosive blowholes. Shown here is his Wind Facade. (original image)
Image by © 2011 by Jeff Greenwald. Kahn, 51, lives and works in Graton, California. In 2003, his art was recognized by the MacArthur Foundation, which awarded him a "genius" grant. (original image)
Ned Kahn lives and works in Graton, a small town about 50 miles north of San Francisco. His studio is filled with motors, pipes, metalworking machinery and prototypes for kinetic sculptures. It looks like a salvage yard for spaceship parts.
His early works modeled on a Lilliputian scale the gigantic, always interactive forces of nature. Air columns filled with microscopic beads created patterns of ever-changing sand dunes; spinning glass orbs filled with a clever mix of colored liquid soaps appeared to contain the atmospheric storms seething across Neptune or Jupiter.
As he received more public art commissions, his works grew larger. New “tornadoes,” commissioned by science museums in the United States and Europe, added several stories in height. Whirlpools and blowholes were installed near city piers; the bare walls of buildings were surfaced with thousands of tiny hinged aluminum panels, animated by the ever-shifting patterns of the wind. In 2003 Kahn’s environmental art was recognized by the MacArthur Foundation, which awarded him a “genius” grant. Far from making him feel self-important, the honor has given him a droll perspective on the art world.
“It’s much easier to generate ideas than come up with something that really works,” Kahn observes, spinning a fluid-filled sphere called Turbulent Orb. “One of the dangerous things about becoming a MacArthur Fellow is that people start to take even your half-baked ideas seriously. It makes me nervous … because a lot of my ideas are bad!”
But a large percentage of his ideas are brilliant. Recently unveiled projects include the 20-foot diameter Avalanche at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, and the astounding Rain Oculus: a 70-foot-wide whirlpool at the Marina Bay Sands complex in Singapore (designed with architect Moshe Safdie). The huge whirlpool—which can circulate 6,000 gallons of water per minute—functions as a kinetic sculpture, a skylight (and waterfall) for the shopping arcade below, and part of the building’s rain-collecting system.
“I love working with Ned,” says Safdie. “His installations not only harness the forces of nature, but—more relevantly—teach us about them. Since my architecture is about working in harmony with nature, this is a perfect fit. I think we both come out feeling enriched, and that our own work is profoundly complemented by the other’s.”
Avalanche, meanwhile, is a movable wheel filled with a mixture of irregular garnet sand and tiny, spherical glass beads. Flowing together, they evoke the dynamics of moving soil, sand and snow. For this project Kahn consulted with University of Chicago physicist Sidney Nagel, who studies the behavior of water droplets, granular matter and other “disordered systems.”
“The enormous wheel is mesmerizing, as small avalanches build up and interact with one another,” Nagel observes. “Ned has the intuition and insight to see how something that starts out small and simple can take on layers of texture when it is enlarged. He captures the playfulness of the scientist in the lab—on our best days!—and translates the excitement of discovery so that it can be enjoyed by all.”
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Kahn often works on dozens of projects simultaneously. At this writing they include everything from a Cloud Arbor (a mist sculpture for the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum) to an installation on the side of a giant parking garage in Brisbane, Australia. But he finds himself drawn increasingly to works that go beyond the purely aesthetic.
“I’ve been getting more excited about projects where what I’m doing is useful; where the artwork actually has some benefit to the building,”
Solar panels, he believes, can be made far more attractive. “And wind turbines are a great interest of mine,” Kahn says. “There’s a lot of backlash against wind power; people think it’s ugly and noisy and kills birds. I think there’s a potential for me to help change people’s attitudes, and show that you can do it in beautiful ways.”
A current commission, for the new PUC building in San Francisco (in collaboration with KMD Architects), takes a revolutionary approach to wind power. When completed, a wide channel running up the side of the 12-story building will hold a tower of sculptural wind turbines, feeding electricity directly into the building’s power grid.
“How much? No one’s certain. Because what we’re doing—using the architecture as a wind funnel—is uncharted territory. Even the people who make the turbines are excited to see what they can do!”
Laced with thousands of tiny yellow-green lights, the facade of the building will flicker at night like a grid of fireflies, revealing otherwise invisible wind currents.
As the scale of his projects increase, his ideas become ever wilder. He’s currently researching how water droplets generate electrical charges, a process that produces famously dramatic results. “I’ve been working on designs for a fountain that will store and create electrical discharges,” he grins. “A sculpture that would produce real lightning.”
For an artist preparing to throw thunderbolts around, Ned Kahn remains remarkably unpretentious. This arises in part from his 30-plus years of morning vipassana (mindfulness) meditation, as well as the fact that he’s usually channeling forces much larger than himself.
“Most sculptures are a celebration of the skill of the artist,” he admits. “But in the things that I make—even though I’ve created the structure—it’s really not me that’s doing the sculpting. I’ve assembled the symphony, and the musicians, but something besides me is actually composing and recomposing the piece.”
To date, Ned Kahn has collaborated with more than 25 architecture and design companies around the world. With so much time scheduled on hard-hat construction sites, I can’t help but wonder when he’ll next put on that tie.
“Hopefully, never,” Kahn laughs. “I’m just not a tie guy. But it is a good conversation starter.”
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We Enter Malaria Country The desert gave way to the muggy climes of the tropics, at last, in the northernmost 50-mile stretch of Peruvian coastline south of Ecuador. We had been pedaling past cacti in the morning and hadn’t seen a sign of a mosquito in Peru—until that afternoon, when we passed a billboard reminding travelers to defend themselves against malaria. We noted the warning—but anyone who has toured on a bicycle knows that stopping to dig through panniers is a chore best deferred until a later time. “We’ll take our malaria pills tonight,” I shouted to Andrew. Thirty feet ahead of me, he answered with a thumbs up.
Near dusk, we turned toward the coast to stay the night at Puerto Pizarro. We headed down the side road and noted signs for mangrove swamp tours. We realized that malaria country had sneaked up on us—bad news when preventative pills are to be taken daily beginning 24 hours before arrival in the malaria region. Entering town, we encountered a pair of cops who waved us to the side of the road and warned us to get inside quickly, before it got dark. “Ah, yes—mosquitoes,” I said. “No—people here will see the gringos and try to rob you,” one of the men answered. They directed us to a hotel. After paying, we hurried across the courtyard to our room—a separated cabin with three beds and a bathroom for $20. Andrew fumbled with the key. “Quick, there are mosquitoes,” I said. He dropped the keys as he slapped one on his arm. “Bug spray!” he yelped and unzipped his pannier. I went into my own saddlebag for my malaria pills. I shook out two of the shiny red tablets and handed one to Andrew along with some bubbly water. He said, ”I don’t think this is textbook malaria prevention,” but took the medicine anyway. We opened the door, shoved in and slammed it behind us.
We were in the tropics. A brief warm rain fell that night, and in our bungalow beds, sweating in the humidity, we studied our map. We had just 20 kilometers to the border. We would be in Ecuador by noon.
We Enter Ecuador The next day, after passport control, the landscape transformed dramatically and rapidly. Large trees with splayed out trunks like buttresses stood grandly in fields, outliers of the rainforest. Other trees, with huge and voluminous canopies, grew on one side of the Pan-American Highway while their long, graceful branches dropped fruit pods on the other side. Banana orchards began, and continued for miles. Scattered among them were cacao trees, with large football-shaped red pods hanging from the branches, and vast sugar cane fields. Breadfruits dangled from elegant but wildly prehistoric-looking trees 70 feet tall with leaves like fan palms. Large green iguanas skittered across the road. Road-killed animals the size of sea otters with shiny black tails lay on the shoulder—some sort of jungle beast we couldn’t recognize. And while plant life fought for elbow room on almost every square foot of soil, that supreme conquistador of invasive species grew in groves—the eucalyptus tree. The people looked and behaved differently than in Peru, too. There was an obvious African origin in many of the locals we greeted as we rode. They honked their horns less—much less—as well. We also encountered more and more men and women carrying machetes, pocketknives of the jungle. Several miles to the east, across the banana plantations, the Andes began as an abrupt bluff blanketed with forest and disappearing into the rain clouds. Roadside households offered direct sales of fruits grown in the backyard. Avocados, watermelons, mangoes and pineapples lay in piles outside front doors, as did Pepsi bottles full of sugar cane juice. We needed money, and in a town called Pasaje we approached an ATM by the main square. I entered and removed my card, typed in my pin and waited for what riches would emerge. The machine sputtered and rumbled and emitted a smashing surprise—American dollars.
We found beautiful bunches of bananas for sale at roadside fruit shacks—and they were hilariously cheap. A cluster of 25 red bananas—the specialty sort that fancy groceries in the States sell for $1.80 per pound—cost us 50 cents. The same shack was also offering traga, cane sugar-based alcohol infused with different fruits, like grape, apple, watermelon and cacao. We bought a bottle of banana traga and moved onward. We stopped for lunch under a bus shelter, and a local man named Antonio came out of a home with his two kids to meet us. We asked him about local fauna—especially bears and jaguars. Long ago these animals occurred here, he said, but people have shot them all. “But up there, jaguars and bears still live,” Antonio said, pointing toward the mountains.
We Enter the Andes Our destination was Quito in five days, and after 200 miles of pedaling through Ecuador’s muggy, hot lowlands, our road led into the Andes. Our spirits rose with the altitude, and we realized we’d been sorely missing the mountains for two weeks. But cycling in the Andes is not quite like cycling in other ranges. In the Pyrenees, the Alps, the Rockies, the Sierras, the Toros—in nearly any range of large mountains in the world, a cyclist can say with certainty after several hours of hard climbing that the top of the pass is near. Not so in the Andes, where even the lower of the many mountain passes are higher than the highest summits of other ranges. Climbing from La Troncal over the mountains and eventually into the so-called Avenue of the Volcanoes, we saw an amazing transformation of the land. Whereas the lowlands teemed with bananas, iguanas, mangoes and malaria, two miles above we saw country with a strong resemblance to Mediterranean Europe. Cows grazed on green mountainsides among scattered pines. Trout streams flowed out of the canyons. Plum and apple trees grew in yards. The clouds broke occasionally, offering staggering views of the land’s vertical relief. Vast chasms plummeted into V-shaped stream valleys, towns and shacks clinging to the slopes, while the peaks vanished above into the fog. At several points we were able to see what lay ahead—miles and miles more of steady ascent, with no switchbacks in sight.
Descending trucks spewed the smell of burning brake pads. Motorcyclists dropping out of the high country were bundled up like Ernest Shackleton. The summit, obviously, was still hours away. But the monotony, the gasping for air, the slow, slow pedaling, our aching necks—it all finally ended as we crested out on the top of the pass. Trucks, buses and cars honked their congratulations. We believe the elevation there was about 12,700 feet. On the north side were checkerboard farms and villages scattered over rolling hills and looking like Ireland. Beyond, the titans of the Andes loomed, snow-covered volcanoes three miles high and more. The summit of Chimborazo, the highest mountain in Ecuador at 20,500-something feet (sources give varying heights), hid behind a veil of clouds. Due to the shape of the Earth and its equatorial bulge, Chimborazo’s peak is the Earth’s closest point to the sun.
Speaking of the sun, it does amazing things in Ecuador’s highlands. Its path leads it high overhead every day of the year, coaxing plant life into bloom that could never live at such altitudes elsewhere. We saw fig and avocado trees sagging with fruit at almost 10,000 feet—an elevation at which even pine trees struggle to grow in the middle latitudes. And whereas grapevines go dormant each winter in most places, farmers in Ecuador—and winemakers—may harvest two crops per year. The sun is so powerful here that it even burned us through our T-shirts.
Up Next: We Enter the City of Quito