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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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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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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?"
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.
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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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
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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It’s hard to imagine a place in the world where you can’t find a bird—a place where you can’t look to the sky and see one flying overhead, or see one hop across the sidewalk, or close your eyes and hear at least one singing its song.
Take the Red Knot, a shoreline bird that migrates to the Delaware Bay in summer to indulge on horseshoe crab eggs until it’s fat enough to fly all the way to the Arctic Circle to breed. Or consider the Baltimore Oriole, a songbird that breeds in summer from Louisiana up along the U.S. East Coast and into Central Canada, then spends its winters in the Caribbean, across Central America and down to the northern regions of South America.
Birds thrive in grasslands, deserts, mountains, forests, tundra and along the oceans’ coasts. But the skies have grown more silent in recent decades. Since 1970, North America has lost more than 2.9 billion birds, according to a study published today in the journal Science. In less than half a century, the avian population of the continent has declined by some 29 percent, or more than one in four birds.
For the first time, researchers found that threatened species aren’t the only birds suffering population loss. In fact, common birds—including beloved backyard companions like sparrows and blackbirds—are taking the biggest hit.The red knot, a shoreline bird with range reaching from the Arctic to the Delaware Bay, will be among the North American migratory birds on display in the National Zoo's new bird house in 2021. (Gregory Breese/USFWS)
“You can be anywhere in the world, at any time of day and see a bird,” says Jordan Rutter, a spokesperson for American Bird Conservancy. “We’re not talking about penguins here. Birds like the common grackle are birds we can directly resonate with because they’re birds that we always see. They’re not in far distant places. They’re in our backyard.”
The new study used nearly 50 years of monitoring data collected largely by bird watchers and citizen scientists. These efforts include the North American Breeding Bird Survey coordinated by the United States Geological Survey and the Canadian Wildlife Service, Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count, and the International Shorebird Survey. The team then cross-referenced bird count data with radar data from 143 weather satellites that have been used to track migrating birds at night for the last decade.
The results of their analysis of 529 avian species reveal some stark realities. “A total of 419 native migratory species experienced a net loss of 2.5 billion individuals,” the study says. More than 90 percent of the total loss can be attributed to just 12 bird families, including sparrows, warblers, blackbirds, larks and finches. Some of these widespread birds are so-called “habitat generalists,” or birds that can thrive just about anywhere. The large-scale loss of these hardy birds reveals the extent to which avian animals across the world are struggling to survive.
“We’re losing common species. We’re not keeping common species common. We’re failing at that,” says study co-author Pete Marra, former director of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center and current director of the Georgetown Environment Initiative at Georgetown University.Hummingbirds are key pollinators. They'll occasionally fly up to 500 miles nonstop when migrating to warmer climates. (iStock / mantaphoto)
Grassland birds, such as meadowlarks and grasshopper sparrows, took the biggest hit. They’ve lost 700 million individuals across 31 species, equivalent to a 53 percent population loss since 1970. Forest-dwelling birds, which are more abundant, lost one billion individuals. Shorebirds, which traverse across full hemispheres during migration, are “experiencing consistent, steep populations loss” at a rate of 37 percent in less than 50 years.
Even invasive or introduced species are faring poorly, suggesting declining species aren’t being replaced by species that do well in human-altered landscapes.
“This is a big, big punch in our continental gut in terms of what we’re doing to our environment,” Marra says.
Scientifically speaking, birds are considered indicator species, or animals used to infer the health of an entire ecosystem. They are worldwide “canaries in the coal mine,” which refers to the 20th-century practice of carrying caged birds into mines to detect toxic gases before humans suffer harmful effects.
Famed 20th century ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson called birds “an ecological litmus paper.” They are crucial to the health of many ecosystems, and their populations anticipate the health of whole environments.A chart showing the population losses and gains of various types of birds since 1970. Many common types of birds experienced major losses, such as sparrows and warblers, while raptors and game birds experienced modest gains in population numbers. (Rosenberg et al. via Science)
Birds are “amazingly efficient” dispersers of seeds, explains Scott Sillett, current director of Smithsonian’s Migratory Bird Center who was not an author of this study. Take jays, for instance, which not only harvest acorns but replant them as well, successfully maintaining oak forests. Hummingbirds are important pollinators across North America, and birds keep insect populations in check. Black-billed cuckoos happily devour defoliating caterpillars that can destroy forests, for example. And predatory birds, like falcons, devour rodents that often spread human diseases. Even the smallest bird helps control the spread of plants or insects.
“Birds are at the top of the food web,” Sillett says. “Birds are the sentinel. If you have huge declines of birds, it tells you something is amiss.”
We have lost avian species before. Consider the passenger pigeon. The species numbered in the hundreds of millions in the 1870s, by at least one naturalist’s count. Others have estimated the pigeons once boasted closer to 3 to 5 billion individuals. They were stable, even dominant, for 20,000 years. But their large population left them vulnerable to threats, such as human hunting and habitat loss, and the easy breeding they enjoyed for thousands of years left them poorly equipped for adaptation. By the 1890s, there were only dozens. And by 1914, the last captive passenger pigeon, Martha, died.
“It’s the passenger pigeon story. Those were the most numerous. It went from billions of birds to nothing. It can happen again,” says Sara Hallager, the Smithsonian National Zoo’s curator of birds, who was not involved in this study.
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Not all species are in decline, however. Wetland birds were the “the only biome to show an overall net gain in numbers,” up 13 percent, according to the study. And waterfowl—a subset of wetland birds—are thriving, up an astounding 56 percent from 1970s numbers.
Conservation efforts are largely to thank for the success of waterfowls, experts say. Consider the wood duck. “Being shot at all seasons of the year, [wood ducks] are becoming very scarce and are likely to be exterminated before long,” renowned naturalist Joseph Grinnell wrote in 1901, according to Cornell University’s All About Birds blog.
But thanks in large part to efforts by hunters, federal lawmakers introduced the “Duck Stamp Act” in 1934, mandating hunting licenses and seasons, and putting 98 cents of every dollar sold on so-called “duck hunting stamps” toward the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund. That money is used to “purchase or lease wetlands and wildlife habitat for inclusion in the National Wildlife Refuge System,” according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Since 1934, the fund has accumulated about $800 million dollars through duck stamps, and more than 5.7 million acres of habitat have been protected. Today, wood ducks have a population of about 300,000 and are not considered endangered or threatened, according to the National Wildlife Federation.
“The rebounding of the waterfowl population is a good object lesson in protecting wildlife,” says Sillet. “Waterfowl conservation has a dedicated funded stream. It’s a reminder that those of us who like to hike, who like to watch birds, who like to paint birds—we have to come up with innovative ways to contribute financially and make a difference.”
Raptors, including eagles and hawks, have also found success since 1970, according to the new study. These predatory birds, along with waterfowl and other game birds like turkeys and grouse, gained some 250 million individuals since 1970. Raptors in particular have recovered from grave losses sustained from the harmful pesticide DDT, which caused many raptors to lay eggs with abnormally thin shells that would crack under the weight of incubating chicks. The USDA started regulating the chemical in the late 1960s, and ultimately banned it in 1972, after public concern grew following naturalist Rachel Carson’s landmark serialized New Yorker essay and later book, Silent Spring.
Raptor recovery was successful, Marra explains, because researchers knew exactly which species were dying and why. The new study, however, identifies the losses without knowing all the causes. Scientists do know what birds are up against, however, with habitat loss identified as the biggest damager. Climate change, disrupted migration patterns and pesticide use are also major factors. All in all, birds are likely being hit with a several threats at once.
“There are enormous things happening now that are converging,” Marra says.
For researchers, the next step is pursing long term, species-level investigations in specific geographic locations. Advances in tracking methods, especially the ability to tag smaller birds, is driving the research forward. Right now, there isn’t an easy way to figure where birds are dying or at what stage in their lives, says Christy Morrissey, a professor of biology at the University of Saskatchewan who was not involved in the study.
“This paper doesn’t dig into the ‘why.’ It’s just the ‘what’ at this stage,” Morrissey says. “But there are lots of clues here. It’s a detective story. Which environment did we lose the most birds? Which geographic location?”
Jordan Rutter of the American Bird Conservancy points out that lawns account for more than 40 million acres of land in the United States, making grass the biggest crop in the country. Converting some of that to natural spaces, by growing native plants and planting trees in yards, can make an impact, she says. Individuals can also contribute to bird conservation by reducing kills at windows, reducing the use of pesticides in gardens, and keeping cats indoors, Marra says.
Industrial agriculture may present an even bigger challenge. Morrissey notes that the species disappearing most rapidly—sparrows, blackbirds, larks—are associated with agriculture. In recent decades, agriculture has shifted to an industrial model.
“We’ve increased food potential, but we’ve created sterile landscapes,” Morrissey says. “We need to change the way we grow food. Birds are signaling that we are doing it wrong.”
Revamping farming practices may seem like a massive undertaking, but Morrissey points to the 1990s effort to switch to no-till farming, which reduces greenhouse gases and soil erosion, as an example of relatively rapid implementation of change in U.S. agriculture. “It’s quite doable. Farmers are innovators. And they’ve done it before. There’s this great opportunity to have a huge impact on birds and other biodiversity.”
In Silent Spring, Rachel Carson imagines a desolate future without birds. “It was a spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh.”
To prevent such a future, humans may once again need to rally their efforts to identify and prevent a crisis of wildlife.
The sirens started blaring at 9:15 p.m., May 4, 2007. School supervisor Darin Headrick was returning from his son's track meet and decided to get to the safety of his friends' basement nearby, which was also a good excuse for a visit with them. "Usually you get a lot of wind and rain and hail," Headrick says. "And then a little tornado touches down in a couple places. It's not a big deal." But when they felt their ears pop with a sudden change of air pressure—ten times worse than what you feel in an airplane, according to Headrick, "we looked at each other and went: 'Oh no, this isn't good.'"
Amid the sound of shattering glass, they ran to a corner bedroom in the basement, shut the door in the darkness, and tried to cover the children on the floor. "From the time we shut the door until the house was gone was probably thirty seconds. There was nothing but storm and sky above." After the tornado passed, Headrick climbed up the rubble to peek out from the top of the basement. "When the lightning flashed we could see little rope tornados," he says, "just a couple skinny ones on the east side of town that were pretty close."
Then he and a few neighbors heard a woman next door yelling: "I'm in here! Help my baby! Please get my baby!" That house had had no basement. The woman had hidden in a closet with her baby as rafters splintered, bricks tossed, and the family car flew overhead, spattering the baby with its transmission fluid. The walls had collapsed over them.
Hedrick and the others rushed over and shined their flashlight on a little foot; they pulled away more boards and bricks until they could lift out the infant.
"And the baby wasn't crying," Headrick recalls, "just big eyes looking up like: 'man, where you been?'" They were relieved to figure out that the red all over the child wasn't blood, just transmission fluid; the mother was bruised but able to walk away with them.
"We just thought it was these five or six houses on the south end of town that got hit, because it was dark and raining and we couldn't see anything." It wasn't until they and other people started walking into town that they realized ... there was no town.
Typical tornados cover about 75 yards of ground at a time. The monster that chugged north along Main Street was 1.7 miles wide at its base, smashing or blowing away everything between the east and west edges of the 2-mile-wide town.
Twelve people died from the town of 1,400. About 95 percent of the homes were destroyed. Headrick's school, the hospital and the John Deere dealership were gone.
The next night, a smaller storm passed through the region. People still in town met in the basement of the courthouse, the only structure that still offered some protection. Gathering together with the mayor and city officials to talk about Greensburg's survival was not exactly a novel experience for these folks. Like most small Midwestern towns, Greensburg had been losing jobs, entertainment, and population—especially young people, with the school population cut in half in recent decades. According to Headrick, "we were probably destined to the same outcome every other small rural town is, and that is, you're going to dry up and blow away." Why bother rebuilding? "We thought: What can we do that gives our community the best chance to survive in the long term? What would make people want to move to our community?"
No one is sure who first voiced the green idea, because it occurred to many people simultaneously. They could leave to start over elsewhere, they could rebuild as before only to watch their town slowly die—or, as Bob Dixson, who has since become mayor, says, "we could rebuild in a green, energy-efficient manner that would leave a legacy to future generations." As the conversation gained momentum, the people became excited with their unique opportunity to start from scratch, to live up to their town's name—and perhaps to run an experiment that could lead others into greenness by proving its value.
When President Bush visited a few days later, he stood on the debris of the John Deere dealership and asked the co-owner: "What are you going to do?" Mike Estes answered that they were going to rebuild.
Governor Kathleen Sebelius heard that Greensburg was planning to rebuild green. At a Topeka Statehouse news conference, she announced, "we have an opportunity of having the greenest town in rural America." The leaders of Greensburg decided to do one better: They wanted the greenest town in America, rural or urban.
A reporter trying to make sense of this sudden enthusiasm for greenness soon learns that nearly everyone in Greensburg makes the same two points. First, greenness didn't start with city slickers. As Mayor Dixson puts it: "In rural America, we were always taught that if you take care of the land, the land will care of you. Our ancestors knew about solar, about wind, and geothermal with their root cellars to store their crops through the winter. They used windmills to pump water for their cattle. They used water to cool their eggs and their milk. And then they pumped it up above, and the sun heated it and they had a hot shower at night. We've been aware of the concepts in rural America. We knew that you had to be good stewards of the land and the resources. It's just that now we have such advanced technology to take advantage of."
Daniel Wallach, a relative newcomer to the community, had long been passionate about green technologies. When he brought a concept paper to a town meeting a week after the tornado, he found that the people needed no convincing. "These are people who live off the land," says Wallach. "Ranchers and farmers are the original recyclers—they don't waste anything. They innovate and are very ingenious in their responses to problem solving, and all of that is very green."
But couldn't Greensburg have done all this before the tornado? Sure, the seeds of greenness were there all along, but what caused them to sprout now, in particular? That evokes the second motive people keep bringing up: their belief in a higher purpose. They say their search for meaning in the face of disaster has led to their resolution to be better stewards of this world.
"I think it's more than coincidental that this town's name is green," maintains Mike Estes. "I think there's some providential irony here that God had in mind, because that is bringing our town back."
Such sentiments go a long way toward explaining why most Greensburgians show so much resolve. FEMA made it clear from the outset that it could offer advice and financing to replace what was lost, but it could pay nothing toward the extra costs involved in rebuilding green. Tax incentives were minor compared to initial outlays. In large tent meetings attended by 400 of the townspeople at once, the leaders committed to going green regardless.
An architecture and design firm in Kansas City called BNIM showed town leaders what would be required to rebuild according to the U.S. Green Building Council's specifications. And Daniel Wallach helped map out the broader vision: "if we can be that place where people come to see the latest and greatest, we think that that's going to provide the economic base we need, both in terms of tourism and ultimately green businesses locating in Greensburg. I see the town itself being like an expo or science museum, where people come to see the latest and see how it all works."
Twenty-one months later, 900 people have returned so far. Most of them have moved out of the temporary trailers, called FEMA-ville, and most have become experts at rebuilding green. Mike Estes gazes out beyond his rebuilt John Deere building to view the rest of town—which still looks like a disaster zone from most angles, a landscape of tree stumps. Yet, he says, "It's pretty incredible progress that's been made. A lot of that can be credited to going green. It's giving us the momentum that we didn't have before."
And last week, Mayor Dixson sat in the gallery as a guest of first lady Michelle Obama during President Obama's first address to Congress. The President pointed to Greensburg residents "as a global example of how clean energy can power an entire community."
The town is becoming a showcase for a series of firsts in applying energy-efficient standards. It recently became the first city in the United States to light all its streets with LED streetlights. The new lamps focus their beams downward, reducing the amount of light usually lost to the sky and allowing people to see the stars once again. They are also projected to save 70 percent in energy and maintenance costs over the old sodium vapor lights, lessening Greensburg's carbon footprint by about 40 tons of carbon dioxide per year.
Image by Fredric Heeren. Greensburg Mayor Bob Dixson and wife Anne planted desert grasses thatrequire less watering and mowing. (original image)
Image by Fredric Heeren. Scott Eller is building a home of "SIPs," or structurally insulatedpanels. (original image)
Image by Fredric Heeren. Skylights and other features make Mike Estes' new John Deere dealershipgreener than before. (original image)
Image by Fredric Heeren. The 5.4.7. Arts Center, named for the day the tornado destroyedGreensburg, is the first LEED Platinum building in Kansas. (original image)
Image by Fredric Heeren. Greensburg's new hospital is expected to earn a LEED Platinum rating. (original image)
Image by Fredric Heeren. A "Silo Eco-Home" is one of a chain of 12 houses that will showcase greenbuilding features. (original image)
Image by Fredric Heeren. Greensburg's previous claim to fame, the world's deepest hand-dug well,is closed for repairs. (original image)
Image by Fredric Heeren. The environmentally friendly "Business Incubator Building" on Main Streetwill offer low-rent office space to small businesses. (original image)
Greensburg's 5.4.7 Arts Center, named for the date of the town's destruction, is the first building in Kansas to earn a LEED Platinum certification—which is no small feat. Developed by the U.S. Green Building Council, LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification is based on six categories: sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, indoor environmental quality, and innovation and design. The rating system qualifies buildings according to levels of simple certification, Silver, Gold, and at the top, Platinum.
Designed and built by graduate students of the University of Kansas School of Architecture, the 5.4.7 Arts Center is powered by three wind turbines, eight solar panels, and three geothermal, 200-foot-deep wells. At that depth the temperature is around 55 degrees Fahrenheit, which cools water that is then pumped up to chill the air in summer. In winter, relatively warm below-ground temperatures warm the water. Either way, less energy is required than in conventional heating and cooling. The tempered-glass-covered building also demonstrates passive solar design; it is oriented to take full advantage of heat from the southern sun in winter.
And that was just the beginning. Greensburg's new city hall, hospital, and school are all now being built with the goal of achieving LEED Platinum standards. A wind farm is being planned on the south side of town.
Daniel Wallach founded a nonprofit called Greensburg Greentown to attract outside companies to try out their most promising technologies in Greensburg. "Given the small scale of our town, it really lends itself to being a platform for even small companies that have good ideas—a lot like a trade show—that's what we want to be for these companies."
Among other projects, Greensburg Greentown is organizing the building of up to 12 "eco homes," each modeling a different design. Wallach calls them "a science museum in twelve parts: the only science museum that you can spend the night in." People thinking about building green, he says, can come and experience a variety of energy efficient features, green building styles, sizes and price ranges. "So before they invest in their new home, they get a real clear sense of the kinds of wall systems and technologies that they want to integrate into their house—and see them in action." One of the twelve homes has been built, an award-winning solar design donated by the University of Colorado. The second, shaped like a silo, is halfway through construction.
A number of proud homeowners have undertaken green designs on their own. Scott Eller invites John Wickland, a volunteer project manager for Greensburg Greentown, to tour the interior of his eye-catching domed home.
"This whole house is built out of 'structurally insulated panels' (SIPs), which are solid styrofoam laminated to oriented strand board on both sides," explains Eller. A builder in Lawrence, Kansas, found them to be the most efficient way to fit these 8 x 40 panels into dome shapes. They are well insulated and fit together tightly, preventing heat loss. Even better, given concerns about high winds and tornados, "these have survived what they call the 205-mph two-by-four test, which they shoot out of a cannon, and when it hits these, it just bounces off," Eller says.
Much of going green is also about the little things, and Wickland encourages Eller to take some dual-flush toilets off his hands. Wickland’s own living room is congested with large boxes of water-saving plumbing manifolds. An Australian company donated 400 toilets, stored in a warehouse nearby, that together could save 2.6 million gallons of water a year.
Bob and Anne Dixson invite Wickland over to see their new home, which is partly surrounded by a fence made out of recycled milk jugs and wheat straw. "It looks like wood," says the mayor, "but you never have to paint it, and it doesn't rot." Inside, they have built and wired the house with a "planned retro-fit" in mind. "When we can afford it," says Anne, "we'll be able to put solar on the south part of the house and retrofit that. Technology is changing so fast right now, and the prices are coming down all the time."
Mennonite Housing, a volunteer organization, has built ten new green houses in Greensburg and plans to build as many as 40 more. Most people are choosing to scale down the size of their homes, but otherwise, as Community Development Director Mike Gurnee points out, "you can have a green house and it can look like a traditional Cape Cod or a ranch house. It can be very sustainable without looking like it came from Star Wars."
The National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL), part of the Department of Energy, is advising people on how to design green and energy-saving features in their new homes. NREL has tested 100 recently built homes in town and found that, on average, they consumed 40 percent less energy than required by code. Community Development Director Mike Gurnee notes that, "with some of the houses, now that they're getting their utility bills, they see that the increased cost of construction is being made up rapidly with the smaller cost for utilities. They remember that in their prior house, their heating bill was $300, and now it's under $100."
Some energy-saving features, like geothermal heating systems, are just too expensive for most homeowners. "If we could really have started from scratch," says Gurnee, "if we could have erased property lines, I'd have liked to have tried geothermal or wind turbine or solar system on a block and have the cost shared by all the houses." That's not something that's been done on a large scale anywhere else in the United States. But, according to Gurnee, when the town expands and a developer subdivides new lots, "I want to make sure that there's a provision in our subdivision regulations so that the lots can be situated so that alternative energy sources can be shared among people on the block."
The first retail food store to rebuild was a Quik Shop/Dillons, which was designed as a national prototype to implement energy-saving features including extensive skylighting, efficient coolers and motion sensors that light up refrigerated cases only when people are near.
This month the LEED Platinum-targeted Business Incubator Building will open on Main Street, with funding provided by SunChips, the U.S.D.A., and actor Leonardo DiCaprio. The building will offer temporary, low-rent office space for ten small and emerging businesses being encouraged to return to the community.
The new John Deere dealership not only has a couple of its own wind turbines, but has begun a new business, BTI Wind Energy, to sell them internationally. The building combines skylights with mirrored reflectors to direct light as needed. Fluorescents are staged to come on partially or fully according to need on darker days, and the entire showroom makes use of motion detectors to use lights only when people are present. "You can imagine in a building this size what kind of energy we can save by doing that," says Mike Estes.
After the tornado, school superintendent Headrick had just a few months to get temporary facilities in place for the next school year. He also had to come up with long-range plans to make it worthwhile for families to return. He succeeded on both counts. Today, while providing for a growing student body in trailers, he is also supervising the design of a new school that he hopes will achieve LEED Platinum certification.
The new school will feature natural daylighting, meaning that most rooms will receive enough illumination from windows and skylights that artificial lights will seldom need to be turned on. All the heating and cooling will be done with geo-thermal heat pumps. "There are 97 geo-thermal wells we have to drill," says Headrick.
He hopes to generate all the school's electricity from wind power. As for water reclamation: "we'll have water cisterns both below ground and above ground. Any water that falls on our building will be captured and transported through roof lines. And we'll use that rain water that runs off to do any irrigation that takes place on the facility."
Do Greensburg's young people care about clean energy and recycling? Charlotte Coggins, a high school junior, says, "a lot of people think it's way nerdy, it looks dumb. They've been raised that way."
"My family wasn't against it," says another junior, Levi Smith. "My dad always thought wind generators and recycling made sense. But we never really did it—until after the tornado." A few in the community still ridicule alternative energy, seeing it as a radical political issue. "Those negative feelings are dying fast," says Smith.
Taylor Schmidt, a senior in the school's Green Club, agrees: "It's really encouraging that every day more kids are learning about it and figuring out: 'Oh, this really makes sense.' Every day the next generation is becoming more excited about green, and everything it entails, whether it be alternative energy, conservation, recycling—they get it, and they choose to be educated. This affects every single person on earth, every single life, now and to come."
Greensburg gets it. Old and young, they have been on a faster track in their green education than perhaps any other people on earth. "In the midst of all the devastation," says Bob Dixson with a slight quaver in his voice, "we have been blessed with a tremendous opportunity, an opportunity to rebuild sustainable, to rebuild green. It brought us together as a community, where we fellowship together and we plan together about the future. So we've been very blessed, and we know we have a responsibility to leave this world better than we found it."
And that's how a tornado became a twist of destiny for Greensburg, ensuring that a town expected to "dry up and blow away" met only half its fate.
Fred Heeren is a science journalist who has been writing a book about paleontology for so many years that he says he can include personal recollections from the Stone Age.
An extremist, radical and searcher, Jack London was never destined to grow old. On November 22, 1916, London, author of The Call of the Wild, died at age 40. His short life was controversial and contradictory.
Born in 1876, the year of Little Bighorn and Custer’s Last Stand, the prolific writer would die in the year John T. Thompson invented the submachine gun. London's life embodied the frenzied modernization of America between the Civil War and World War I. With his thirst for adventure, his rags-to-riches success story, and his progressive political ideas, London’s stories mirrored the passing of the American frontier and the nation’s transformation into an urban-industrial global power.
With a keen eye and an innate sense, London recognized that the country’s growing readership was ready for a different kind of writing. The style needed to be direct and robust and vivid. And he had the ace setting of the “Last Frontier” in Alaska and the Klondike—a strong draw for American readers, who were prone to creative nostalgia. Notably, London's stories endorsed reciprocation, cooperation, adaptability and grit.
In his fictional universe, lone wolves die and abusive alpha males never win out in the end.
The 1,400-acre Jack London State Historic Park lies in the heart of Sonoma Valley wine country, some 60 miles north of San Francisco in Glen Ellen, California. Originally, the land was the site of Jack London’s Beauty Ranch, where the author earnestly pursued his interests in scientific farming and animal husbandry.
“I ride out of my beautiful ranch,” London wrote. “Between my legs is a beautiful horse. The air is wine. The grapes on a score of rolling hills are red with autumn flame. Across Sonoma Mountain wisps of sea fog are stealing. The afternoon sun smolders in the drowsy sky. I have everything to make me glad I am alive.”
The park’s varied bucolic landscape still exudes this same captivating vibe. The grounds offer 29 miles of trails, redwood groves, meadowlands, wine vineyards, stunning scenery, a museum, London’s restored cottage, ranch exhibits and the austere ruins of the writer’s Wolf House. An idyllic bounty of pristine northern California scenery is on full display. For a traveler in search of a distinctly pastoral escape fortified with a rustic dose of California cultural history, Jack London State Historic Park is pay-dirt. (It also doesn’t hurt that the park is surrounded by a myriad of the world’s premier wineries.)A 9-year-old Jack London with his dog Rollo, 1885 (Wikimedia Commons)
London grew up on the grungier streets of San Francisco and Oakland in a working class household. His mother was a spiritualist, who eked out a living conducting séances and teaching music. His stepfather was a disabled Civil War veteran who scraped by, working variously as a farmer, a grocer and a night watchman. (London’s probable biological father, a traveling astrologer, had abruptly exited the scene prior to the future author’s arrival.)
As a child, London labored as a farm hand, hawked newspapers, delivered ice and set up pins in a bowling alley. By the age of 14, he was making ten cents an hour as a factory worker at Hickmott’s Cannery. The scrimping and tedium of the “work-beast” life proved stifling for a tough, but imaginative kid, who had discovered the treasure trove of books in the Oakland Free Library.
Works by Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson and Washington Irving fortified him for the dangerous delights of the Oakland waterfront, where he ventured at the age of 15.
Using his small sailboat, the Razzle-Dazzle, to poach oysters and sell them to local restaurants and saloons, he could make more money in a one night than he could working a full month at the cannery. Here on the seedy waterfront among an underworld of vagabonds and delinquents, he quickly fell in with a roguish crew of hard drinking sailors and wastrels. His fellow ne’er-do-wells tagged him as “The Prince of the Oyster Pirates,” and he declared that it was better “to reign among booze fighters, a prince than to toil twelve hours a day at a machine for ten cents an hour.”Jack London, 1903 (Wikimedia Commons)
The pilfering, debauchery and comradeship were totally exhilarating—at least for a while. But London wanted to see more of the world.
So he shipped out on a seal hunting expedition aboard the schooner Sophia Sutherland and voyaged across the Pacific to Japan and the Bonin Islands. He returned to San Francisco, worked in a jute mill, as a coal heaver, then took off to ride the rails and hobo across America and served time for vagrancy. All before the age of 20.
“I had been born in the working-class,” he recalled, “and I was now, at the age of eighteen, beneath the point at which I had started. I was down in the cellar of society, down in the subterranean depths of misery . . . I was in the pit, the abyss, the human cesspool, the shambles and the charnel house of our civilization. . . . I was scared into thinking.” He resolved to stop depending on his brawn, get an education, and become a “brain merchant.”
Back in California, London enrolled in high school and joined the Socialist Labor Party. By 1896, he had entered the University of California at Berkeley, where he lasted one semester before his money ran out. He then took a lackluster crack at the writing game for a few months, but bolted to the Klondike when he got the chance to join the Gold Rush in July of 1897. He spent 11 months soaking in the sublime vibe of the Northland and its unique cast of prospectors and wayfarers.
The frozen wilds provided the foreboding landscape that ignited his creative energies. “It was in the Klondike,” London said, “that I found myself. There nobody talks. Everybody thinks. There you get your perspective. I got mine.”Jack London with daughters Bess (left) and Joan (right), 1905 (The Book of Jack London by Charmian London, 1921. Wikimedia Commons)
By 1899, he had honed his craft and major magazines began snapping up his vigorous stories. When it came to evoking elemental sensations, he was a literary maven. If you want to know what it feels like to freeze to death, read his short story, “To Build a Fire.” If you want to know what it feels like for a factory worker to devolve into a machine, read “The Apostate.” If you want to know what it feels like to have the raw ecstasy of life surging through your body, read The Call of the Wild. And if want to know what it feels like to live free or die, read “Koolau the Leper.”
The publication of his early Klondike stories granted him a secure middle class life. In 1900, he married his former math tutor, Bess Maddern, and they had two daughters. The appearance of The Call of the Wild in 1903 made the 27-year-old author a huge celebrity. Magazines and newspapers frequently published photographs showcasing his rugged good looks that exuded an air of youthful vitality. His travels, political activism and personal exploits made ample fodder for political reporters and gossip columnists.
London was suddenly an icon of masculinity and a leading public intellectual. Still, writing remained the dominant activity of his life. Novelist E. L. Doctorow aptly described him as “a great gobbler-up of the world, physically and intellectually, the kind of writer who went to a place and wrote his dreams into it, the kind of writer who found an Idea and spun his psyche around it.”
In his stories, London simultaneously occupies opposing perspectives. At times, for instance, social Darwinism will seem to overtake his professed egalitarianism, but in another work (or later in the same one) his political idealism will reassert itself, only to be challenged again later on. London fluctuates and contradicts himself, providing a series of dialectically shifting viewpoints that resist easy resolution. He was one of the first writers to seriously, though not always successfully, confront the multiplicities unique to modernism. Race remains an acutely vexing topic in London studies. Distressingly, like other leading intellectuals of the period, his racial views were shaped by the prevailing theories of scientific racism that falsely propagated a racial hierarchy and valorized Anglo-Saxons.Jack London and his second wife Charmian, c. 1916 (Wikimedia Commons)
At the same time, he wrote many stories that were antiracist and anticolonial, and which showcased exceptionally capable non-white characters. Longtime London scholar and biographer Earle Labor describes the author’s racial views as “a bundle of contradictions,” and his inconsistences on race certainly demand close scrutiny.
An insatiable curiosity impelled London to investigate and write about a wide range of topics and issues. Much of his lesser known work remains highly readable and intellectually engaging. The Iron Heel (1908) is a pioneering dystopian novel that foresees the rise of fascism, born out of capitalism’s income inequality. The author’s most explicitly political novel, it was a crucial precursor for George Orwell’s 1984 and Sinclar Lewis’s It Can't Happen Here.
Given the economic hurly-burly of recent years, readers of The Iron Heel will readily grasp London’s depiction of a totalitarian oligarchy that makes up “nine-tenths of one per cent” of the U. S. population, owns 70 percent of the nation’s total wealth, and rules with an “Iron Heel.” His fellow socialists slammed the book when it came out because the novel’s collectivistic utopia takes 300 years to emerge—not exactly the jiffy revolution London’s radical compatriots envisioned. A political realist in this instance, he recognized how entrenched, cunning and venal the capitalist masters really were.Jack London in Hawaii (Wikimedia Commons)
He also produced an exposé of the literary marketplace in his 1909 novel Martin Eden which castigates the folly of modern celebrity. Closely modelled on his own rise to stardom, the story traces the ascent of an aspiring author who, after writing his way out of the working class and achieving renown, discovers how a slick public image and marketing gimmickry trump artistic talent and aesthetic complexity in a world bent on glitz and profit. Thematically, the novel anticipates Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and it has always been something of an underground classic among writers, including Vladimir Nabokov, Jack Kerouac and Susan Sontag.
London became even more personal in his confessional 1913 memoir John Barleycorn, where he recounts the heavy significance that alcohol—personified as John Barleycorn—plays in his life. London seems aware that he abuses alcohol too frequently, but he also proclaims that he will continue to drink and dial down John Barleycorn when necessary.
For many, the book is a classic case study in denial, while others see it as an honest existential descent toward the pith of self-awareness. The problem with John Barleycorn for London (and the rest of us) is that he both giveth and taketh away. Drink paves the way for comradery, offers an antidote to life’s monotony, and enhances the “purple passages” of exalted being. But the price is debility, dependence, and a nihilistic despondency he calls the “white logic.” Remarkably unguarded and frank, London discloses how the pervasive availably of drink creates a culture of addiction.
As a journalist, London’s articles on politics, sports and war frequently appeared in major newspapers. A skilled documentary photographer and photojournalist, he took thousands of pictures over the years from the slums of London’s East side to the islands of the South Pacific.
In 1904, he traveled as war correspondent to Korea to report on the Russo-Japanese War but was threatened with a court marital for punching out a Japanese officer’s thieving stable groom. President Theodore Roosevelt had to intervene to secure his release. The next year, London purchased the first piece of land in Glen Ellen, California, which would eventually become the 1,400-acre “Beauty Ranch.” He also embarked on a nation-wide socialist lecture tour that same year.
After his marriage collapsed in 1904, London married Charmian Kittrege, the epitome of the progressive “New Woman”—gregarious, athletic and independent—and with whom he had an affair during his first marriage. They would remain together until London’s death.
Following the publication of two more immensely successful novels that would became classics, The Sea-Wolf and White Fang, London began designing his own 45-foot sailboat, the Snark, and in 1907 he set sail to Hawaii and the South Seas with his wife and a small crew. A host of tropical ailments would land him in an Australian hospital, and he was forced to end the voyage the following December. Though he projected enormous personal energy and charisma, London had frequent health issues over the years, and his hard drinking, chain smoking and a bad diet only worsened matters.
London was well ahead in the real estate game in 1905 when he began buying up what was then exhausted farmland around Glen Ellen. His intention was to restore the land by using innovative farming methods such as terracing and organic fertilizers. Today, docents lead tours showcasing London’s progressive ranching and sustainable agricultural practices.
The author’s tidy ranch cottage has been painstakingly restored, and London’s workspace, writing desk, and much of the home’s original furniture, art and accoutrements are on display. Visitors can learn much about London’s action-packed life and agrarian vision. “I see my farm,” he declared, “in terms of the world and the world in terms of my farm.”
But London took time out from his farm for extended excursions. In 1911, he and his wife drove a four-horse wagon on 1,500-mile trip through Oregon, and in 1912 they sailed from Baltimore around Cape Horn to Seattle as passengers aboard the square-rigged sailing bark Dirigo.
The next year London underwent an appendectomy, and doctors discovered his seriously diseased kidneys. Weeks later, disaster hit when the London’s 15,000 square-foot ranch home, dubbed Wolf House, burned down shortly before its construction was completed. Built out of native volcanic rock and unstripped redwoods, it was to be the rustic capstone of Beauty Ranch and architectural avatar Jack London himself. He was devastated over the fire but vowed to rebuild. He would never get the chance.
Late photographs show London as drawn and noticeably puffy—the effects of his failing kidneys. Despite his deteriorating health, he remained productive, penning innovative fiction like his 1913 The Valley of the Moon, his 1915 “back to the land” novel, The Star Rover, a prison novel about astral projection, as well as a medley of distinctive stories set in Hawaii and the South Seas.
He also remained politically engaged. “If, just by wishing I could change America and Americans in one way,” London wrote in a 1914 letter, “I would change the economic organization of America so that true equality of opportunity would obtain; and service, instead of profits, would be the idea, the ideal and the ambition animating every citizen.”
This remark is probably the most succinct expression of London’s sensible brand of political idealism.
In the last two years of his life, he endured bouts of dysentery, gastric disorders and rheumatism. He and his wife made two extended recuperative trips to Hawaii, but London died on Beauty Ranch on November 22, 1916 of uremic poisoning and a probable stroke. In 18 years, he had written 50 books, 20 of them novels.
The stony ruins of Wolf House still stand today with eerie dignity on the grounds of the Jack London State Historic Park. They are there and will remain simply because Jack London lived.
A scenic six-mile trail leads to the top of Sonoma Mountain and visitors can also explore trails on horseback or by bike. The park has a museum in “The House of Happy Walls,” where displays of London’s books along with paraphernalia unique to the author’s adventures and writing career help reveal his life story. Particularly fascinating are the artifacts London and his second wife, Charmain, collected on their travels in the South Pacific, which include an array of masks, spears and carvings.
A major attraction are the ruins of London’s Wolf House, which is a short hike from the museum. Wolf House was London’s dream home, a rugged Arts and Crafts style residence constructed of native volcanic rock and unstriped redwood timbers.
In 1963, the Wolf House site was designated a National Landmark, and its craggy remains emit a special energy—simultaneously ghostly and restorative. Perhaps this eeriness has something to do with the fact that London’s cremated remains lie a few hundred yards away from the ruins under a rock rejected as too large by the builders.
London wrote of his Beauty Ranch, “All I wanted was a quiet place in the country to write and loaf in, and get out of nature that something which we all need, only the most of us don't know it.” For the hiker, nature lover, reader, historian and environmentalist—for everyone—“that something” endures at the Jack London State Historic Park. It’s worth the drive.
Kenneth K. Brandt is a professor of English at the Savannah College of Art and Design and the executive coordinator of the Jack London Society.
Editor's Note, December 14, 2016: This story has been updated to include new information about visiting and touring Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen, California.
Anyone who grew up in New York has a “remember when” story about the city’s restless landscape. Remember when Hudson Street in TriBeCa was stoplight-free? Or Harlem didn’t have a cineplex? Or a bike ride across the bridge to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, meant running a gauntlet of junkies? So much of the dynamic energy of New York is reflected in the ebb and flow of neighborhoods as artists, entrepreneurs, and other elements in the avant-garde of gentrification push into new territory and pioneer the transformation of run-down warehouse districts and urban wilderness into vibrant communities. Sometimes you know where you are in New York just because a neighborhood has consolidated sufficiently to achieve a signature look. Neat Bill Blass suits defined the Upper East Side of Babe Paley and company in the 1960’s as precisely as the asymmetrical hairdos and baggy, all-black Yohji Yamamoto suits did 1980’s SoHo, or today’s bearded L-train hipsters, accessorized with mini fedoras and fixie bikes, let you know you are in a Williamsburg your grandfather would not recognize.
I remember in the late 1970’s when West 57th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues was a no-man’s-land of construction sites, sickly health-food stores, and discount-clothing joints. It’s hard to imagine that the block where my brother and I relinquished our skateboards to a pair of muggers has now become a glamorous thoroughfare of high-end boutiques and hotels. What comes into fashion in New York can just as easily go out. It seems equally hard to imagine that there was a time when the now semi-suburbanized East Sixties were drop-dead cool: the fashion designer Halston was throwing decadent parties in his Paul Rudolph town house; Andy Warhol and Liza Minnelli were buying steaks at Albert & Sons, on Lexington Avenue, and the singles scene at places like Maxwell’s Plum inspired the movie Looking for Mr. Goodbar. Mention the East Sixties now and most people will mutter “nowhere to eat”—a wasteland.
At the moment, three of the most dynamic neighborhoods in New York City are TriBeCa, Harlem, and Williamsburg. Although vastly different in their histories and demographics, all three have blossomed into destinations with coveted addresses and trendy denizens while maintaining an authentic sense of community. In fact, you could say they’ve each become brands in their own right, clearly defined not only by physical boundaries but also by their architecture, attitude, fashion, and the ways they both embrace change—and resist it. If starving artists and farsighted businesspeople traditionally begin the process of change, real estate brokers often finish it.
TriBeCa: Hollywood East
“Everyone says New York is just a bunch of villages laid end to end,” says writer Karl Taro Greenfeld, whose novel Triburbia chronicles TriBeCa’s transformation from a cutting-edge no-man’s-land of famous clubs like Area on Hudson Street in the 1980’s and artists such as Richard Serra and Chuck Close in the 1970’s into a stomping ground for affluent celebrities including Meryl Streep and Gwyneth Paltrow. When my husband and I moved there in the late 1990’s, the neighborhood—with its cast-iron buildings and wide, cobblestoned streets—still felt like a village. It was a small community of mostly writers, artists, Hollywood types, and some prescient developers. There was a sense of separateness from the rest of New York City’s urban grid—mostly enforced by Canal Street and its rush-hour traffic. John F. Kennedy Jr. and his wife, Carolyn Bessette, were fixtures at the Hudson Street newsstand run by Mary and Fred Parvin, two early pioneers who were also considered the unofficial mayors of TriBeCa. Fred & Mary’s, as it was known, was a compulsory stop on every resident’s daily rounds, if not to buy the newspaper, then to catch up on gossip or catch a glimpse of Julia Roberts, Eric Bogosian, Edward Albee, or Adrian Lyne browsing the shelves and listening to Mary rant about George W. Bush and, later, the tragedy of 9/11. It was after the towers fell that TriBeCa began its reincarnation as an upscale neighborhood. Many of the original loft dwellers and young families fled, but even more residents stayed, determined to help the community and its small businesses survive.
Today, TriBeCa is having a second renaissance inspired by a new generation of change agents (the first being Drew Nieporent, Robert De Niro, and David Bouley, who transformed the place into a culinary destination in the 1980’s and 90’s with restaurants like Montrachet, Nobu, and Bouley). Now a younger group, including chef Andrew Carmellini of Locanda Verde and Matt Abramcyk of Smith & Mills, Warren 77, Tiny’s & the Bar Upstairs and, most recently, Super Linda, are bringing comfort food and trattoria style to the 19th-century Italianate and Beaux-Arts façades of the neighborhood. These days, instead of trucks backing into warehouse loading docks, you’re more likely to see Bugaboo strollers backed up alongside zinc-topped café tables outside Locanda Verde while young couples in Toms shoes and cuffed jeans scoop up Carmellini’s sheep-milk ricotta with squares of burned toast.
Before it was rezoned in the 1970’s, TriBeCa (for Triangle Below Canal Street) had been known since the early 1800’s as Washington Market, after the merchant-focused businesses and warehouses that stored produce, butter, eggs, and cheese and manufactured everything from soap to glass. Residents (what few there were: in 1970 only 370 people lived in TriBeCa) and passersby would smell the daily roasting coffee beans and desiccated coconuts. If a stray car ventured down Greenwich Street on a weekend, the driver was most likely lost. Once the merchants moved to Hunts Point, in the Bronx, and the artists began migrating in, the neighborhood was transformed from industrial zone to creative enclave. In the 1980’s, late-night restaurants like El Teddy’s and local clubs catered to a cool crowd of artists and aristos who would flock to Area for the openings of theme nights such as “Night” and “Gnarly” that featured everything from a masked welder to skateboard ramps.
Although Mary and Fred’s newsstand is long gone, many of the neighborhood’s industrial buildings still look the same, with steel loading bays and cast-iron flourishes. Parking lots have given way to three-bedroom condos and fancy establishments like Robert De Niro’s Greenwich Hotel. Whole Foods, Barnes & Noble, and Bed Bath & Beyond have opened. A favorite greasy spoon, Socrates, has been replaced by Tamarind Tribeca, a gigantic Michelin two-starred Indian restaurant serving $34 lobster masala. Celebrities are still drawn to TriBeCa, but that incognito, under-the-radar cool has been replaced by the pack of paparazzi chasing Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt into the caravan of Escalades purring outside De Niro’s hotel.
Still, some of TriBeCa’s pioneers are holding on to a certain mystique. Matt Abramcyk, who with his knit cap and beard looks more like a lumberjack than a savvy restaurateur, moved to the neighborhood after 9/11, when it was more affordable. “I grew up in New York City, and TriBeCa was always kind of mysterious,” says Abramcyk, whose wife, Nadine Ferber, is a co-owner of the TenOverTen nail salon above Super Linda. “The buildings were different, and it had a lot of potential to be exciting.” Back then fancy restaurants weren’t accessible, so Abramcyk had the idea to open smaller establishments with personality—what he calls “warm, neighborhoody environments,” where you could peel away the stories and textures from the bartenders and from the stuff on the walls. Smith & Mills, a former storage space and seafarer’s inn, was the perfect backdrop for such a place. The tiny interior, designed by Abramcyk, has a bathroom made out of a turn-of-the-century elevator with a flip-down sink from a Depression-era railway car. Tiny’s is modeled after Lower East Side butcher shops with handmade white ceramic tiles and 60-year-old wallpaper. At Super Linda, a Latin grill serving ceviche and grilled meat, the banquettes are covered in vintage burlap coffee-bean sacks, and Buenos Aires phone books from the 1940’s are piled on shelves behind the bar.
Old-timers who are prone to “There goes the neighborhood” reactions to the influx of bankers and Upper East Side types might balk at another new TriBeCa addition—an 1883 textile factory on Franklin Street that has been transformed into a Roman-style bathhouse where stressed-out visitors can soak the afternoon or evening away in tubs filled with red wine or cava for $450. A group of Spanish investors modeled Aire Ancient Baths after a similar outpost in Seville, Spain. The 16,000-square-foot space, which has been stripped down to the original columns, beams, and bricks, features 16th-century Spanish fountains and Moroccan lanterns and wooden benches made from original scaffolds of the Triboro Bridge.
Harlem: Uptown Renaissance
Like TriBeCa, Harlem is still defined by a strong sense of community and history, no matter how many developers slap together high-rise condos. “Harlem has always been a neighborhood. People say hello to each other,” says Bevy Smith, the founder of Dinner with Bevy, a networking series for VIP’s, who grew up on 150th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard. And that social, neighborhood familiarity is what ultimately inspired chef Marcus Samuelsson to open Red Rooster Harlem nearly two years ago, on Lenox Avenue between 125th and 126th Streets—a few blocks south of the tenement where Sammy Davis Jr. grew up and not far from the YMCA where Langston Hughes lived in the 1930’s.
“To me, Harlem is very Parisian, very social on the street, and with the big boulevards,” Samuelsson says. “I wanted a place with a large bar where you can be social. This is not the kind of place where you have to have your 8:15 reservation. Come in, take a book, talk to someone you’ve never talked to before.” What annoys Samuelsson is when people come up to Harlem but don’t interact with the people of Harlem. “I wanted this restaurant to be in front of the bus stop, so that the guy who gets off the bus sees the restaurant and says, ‘I want to take my girl there,’ ” he explains.
A Top Chef Master, author, and Obama favorite, Samuelsson has found his most important role in helping to rejuvenate this historic neighborhood where million-dollar condos are adjacent to some of the city’s poorest blocks. As a kid I remember taking the bus up through Harlem to school in the Bronx and passing blocks of abandoned 19th-century brownstones. You could still see the bones of once-beautiful buildings, but back then they had been taken over by squatters and crack dens, their windows boarded up, graffiti scrawled over doors. Certain blocks are still off-limits, still plagued by crime, but many of Harlem’s brownstones have been renovated and restored to their earlier grandeur.
Harlem’s latest renaissance—what was a literary and musical movement in the 1920’s and 30’s is now a culinary and real estate boom—respects the traditions that have made the neighborhood the historic center of African American culture. “If you’re going to move to Marcus Garvey Park, that’s lovely, but you have to know that on Saturday mornings there will be African drummers setting up there,” Smith says. You also have to know that Harlem residents always say Lenox and never Malcolm X Boulevard, and Lenox is like Fifth Avenue and Seventh Avenue is like the Champs-Élysées in a very traditional way—it’s the place to stroll on Easter Sunday. On a woven map hanging above the bookshelf at Red Rooster, Samuelsson identifies Harlem landmarks, including the Studio Museum in Harlem, where his friend, the stylish director and chief curator Thelma Golden, holds forth. Then there are Sylvia’s soul-food restaurant up the street and Parlor Entertainment at Marjorie Eliot’s, a free Sunday evening concert series in her northern Harlem home.
“I knew the place was changing ten years ago when I overheard developer Rodney Propp one morning in Settepani telling the owner he was investing in real estate up here,” says Elaine Griffin, an interior designer and author who lives near Marcus Garvey Park. Her instincts were right. Since then, movie theaters, Duane Reade drugstores, and banks have popped up. There’s a Target in East Harlem and an Aloft Hotel on Frederick Douglass Boulevard between West 123rd and 124th Streets. Frederick Douglass Boulevard between 110th Street and 125th Street is now known as Restaurant Row, with places like Lido, Five & Diamond Harlem, and Frederick Café Bistro packed on weekend nights. A new ramen place called Jin Ramen, a beer garden called Bier International, and a French bistro called Chez Lucienne all reflect Harlem’s influx of multicultural residents. According to the recent census reports, now there are more Hispanics, Caucasians, and Asians in greater Harlem than there are African Americans. Yet it is still the neighborhood’s history as the seat of African American intellectual culture that makes it one of New York City’s prime tourist destinations. Visitors—especially Europeans—head to 125th Street to sip Harlem Mules and listen to Roberta Flack or the Rakiem Walker Project at Ginny’s Supper Club downstairs at Red Rooster, or to attend Reverend Calvin O. Butts III’s service at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, on Odell Clark Place.
When Samuelsson opened Red Rooster, he was inspired by another groundbreaking restaurant, the Odeon, in TriBeCa. “That restaurant changed forever the relationship between restaurant and community,” Samuelsson says. “Anyone could feel comfortable there.” Indeed, when it opened on West Broadway in 1980, Odeon, with its mirrored mahogany bar, became a kind of clubhouse where everyone was welcome. The food was unpretentious and the atmosphere was unpredictable. You could be seated next to Jean-Michel Basquiat or Martin Scorsese. In many ways, Odeon became a model for the change-agent restaurants that would help gentrify other fringe areas of New York City over the coming decades.
Williamsburg: The New Brooklyn
Andrew Tarlow, an artist who waited tables at Odeon in the mid 1990’s, moved to Williamsburg 17 years ago for the cheap rent and abundant studio space, but he couldn’t find a convenient place to get a meal. Even the bodegas were off-limits, mostly because drug dealers ran them. So in 2000 Tarlow opened Diner, on Broadway in South Williamsburg, and served organic, locally sourced food in a simple setting. Like Samuelsson, he had been inspired by the power of restaurants such as Odeon to establish a neighborhood and bring together the community. “The idea was that anyone could come,” Tarlow says. He followed Diner’s success with Marlow & Sons, another restaurant and shop, and Marlow & Daughters, a butcher that serves locally sourced beef and poultry. Although he is loath to agree, Tarlow is considered the unofficial mayor of Williamsburg’s artisanal food movement. He’s also a great champion of the community, using craftsmen and resources from the area for most of his projects. The cramped shelves of Marlow & Sons are stocked with Mast Brothers chocolate bars (their factory is just a few blocks away), McClure’s pickles, and Goldie’s soap.
Last spring, in partnership with Australian hotelier Peter Lawrence and DUMBO developer Jed Walentas, Tarlow opened his fifth Brooklyn restaurant, Reynards, in the new $32 million Wythe Hotel, a 1901 former barrel factory on Williamsburg’s more industrial northern edge. Much like Tarlow’s restaurants, the Wythe Hotel has a very local vibe. Most of the interior wood in the original building was salvaged and used to create beds and ceilings. The wallpaper in each of the 72 rooms was custom-made by Flavor Paper, in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill. The toiletries are from Goldie’s and the mini-bars offer fresh granola from Marlow & Sons, small-batch booze, and house-made ice cream. There’s a bar on the sixth floor with an enormous terrace and a killer view of the Manhattan skyline. Bands who come to play in the neighborhood or at the annual summer music festival can crash on the second or third floor, where rooms with floor-to-ceiling bunk beds go for $175.
Originally, Tarlow liked the site because it had a desolate feel, not unlike Broadway when he opened Diner. But in the time it’s taken them to renovate, the area has filled in with music halls like Brooklyn Bowl, a design studio that turns into a Swedish-inspired restaurant called Frej three nights a week, and another hotel, King & Grove Williamsburg, from the team behind hot spots in Miami and Montauk. When Tarlow first moved to Williamsburg, there were no amenities. In fact, it was cheaper to buy pressed white shirts from a thrift store than it was to take his shirts to be cleaned in another borough.
Although Bedford Avenue, the main artery of Williamsburg, is now lined with restaurants, nail salons, bodegas, and Laundromats, many more esoteric stores can be found on side streets stretching down toward the river. Moon River Chattel and Sprout Home on Grand Street sell refurbished antiques and do-it-yourself terrarium kits. At Pilgrim Surf & Supply, a new surf shop around the corner, owner Chris Gentile sells Andreini surfboards, M. Nii Makaha board shorts, and a dizzying array of DVD’s and books. Gentile, an artist, took over the former motorcycle shop last winter and built the interior out of reclaimed wood he found on site.
Everyone in Williamsburg seems to be making something—whether it’s fixed-gear bikes, organic soaps, or chocolate. Michael and Rick Mast of Mast Brothers Chocolate were among the first to support this idea of local manufacturing. In 2006, they began creating chocolate from scratch. Soon they were selling their handmade bars at markets and doing special orders for weddings. Now they have a booming chocolate business out of their North Third Street factory, where they roast, crack, and grind cocoa beans imported from Central and South America. Derek Herbster, a resident chocolate expert at Mast Brothers who has lived and worked in the area for two years, cannot get over the changes to Williamsburg. “It’s weird to me to live in the biggest city in the world and have it feel like a small town,” he says.
On an early Friday evening in June, I had dinner at Reynards with some friends. The cavernous bar room, with its black Thonet café chairs and exposed-brick walls, was already hopping with Brooklyn foodies dressed in floral-print minidresses, flip-flops, and shorts with plaid shirts. Was it possible that every diner in this restaurant was 26? Tarlow, in a cotton suit with too-short pants, was manning the maître d’s desk, smiling at drop-ins as he politely turned them away. A tattooed waiter with peroxide-blond hair explained that the menu changes every day and the water is carbonated in-house. The plainspoken menu, which includes bluefish, lobster served with snap peas and vanilla, and grilled chicken, belied the rich and delicious flavors of the seriously fresh food.
When Tarlow dropped by our table to chat, we pressed him on his idea to open a restaurant that was a strange juxtaposition of fine dining and neighborhood joint serving food grilled or baked in a wood-burning stove—“touched by fire,” as he put it. How had Tarlow known that Upper East Siders would trek all the way across the bridge for a meal? He shrugged. Many of the neighborhood’s pioneers, including Tarlow, have already fled to the more residential Greenpoint. Artists like Gentile have moved their studios to the Navy Yard. And when I asked Tarlow where he might venture for his next restaurant he shrugged and said, “the Upper East Side.” We all burst out laughing. “I’m not kidding,” he said with a sheepish smile. “It’s a wasteland.”
“Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans, are a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn. To me, life without veal stock, pork fat, sausage, organ meat, demi-glace, or even stinky cheese is a life not worth living. Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, and an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food.”
I didn’t say that. Anthony Bourdain did. Actually, the TV chef thought it first, then wrote it, read it over a time or two, passed it by his editor and finally saw that it went to print in his 2000 hit memoir Kitchen Confidential. Even today, Bourdain is known for trash-talking vegetarians. He seems to hate them, really, with an enraged, pit-bull-on-a-rope passion. Their selective eating patterns offend Bourdain, who proudly devours anything that another person tells him might be food. Meanwhile, he has called vegans “self-indulgent,” and in his 2001 eat-your-way-around-the-world chef’s adventure story, A Cook’s Tour, he flaunts a bean-brained idea in Chapter 13 that First World vegetarians are somehow, to some degree, to blame for the misfortunes of hungry people in developing nations. Isn’t it just bizarre how a group of people that elects not to participate in the killing of animals can incite such boiling antipathy?
Anyway, last time I discussed some of the impacts that raising livestock incurs on the planet. This time, I suggest a few things to eat abroad, where many diners discover that the world is a vegetarian’s oyster.
Mexico. Corn tortillas, beans, avocado and salsa. It’s the bread and butter of Mexico and perhaps the most common table staple in Central America—yet there’s not much that beats a hot-off-the-skillet handmade corn tortilla, especially when stuffed with basic vegetarian taco fillings. Such tacos were a staple for me about a decade ago, when I spent many months trudging around the deserts of Baja California. Often, as I hiked across the sunburned wilderness, I caught a whiff on the wind of cooking tortillas—that toasty, warm scent of carbohydrates turning brown on a cast-iron pan. The telltale smell of a ranch! Following my nose, I would soon hear the pat pat pat of tortillas being made by hand (as well as the jingling of goat bells). I was a cheese-eater without relent in those days, but often I would buy 30 corn tortillas and for dinner have tacos filled only with avocados, tomatoes and lime. But travelers, watch out for lard; though corn tortilla dough usually consists only of masa, water and salt, some tortillas are cooked on skillets rubbed with swine fat. If you make them at home, rub the pan with a fleck of coconut oil before cooking each tortilla.
India. Chana masala. The great garbanzo bean (a.k.a. chickpea) stars in this classic dish of India, home to about 400 million vegetarians. Chana masala is simply protein-packed garbanzos stewed with onions, tomatoes and a curry of spices, including coriander, cumin and turmeric—and is often served over rice or eaten with naan (beware of buffalo butter, called ghee, or, heck—just enjoy it). Garnished with cilantro, mint or green onion, chana masala, though almost always a staple of cheaper Indian restaurants, can be as elegant and satisfying as any celebrated dish of Mediterranean Europe.
Thailand. Coconut curry. For many travelers, Thailand means bamboo beach huts, elephant rides in the jungle and snorkeling in water as clear as air, while for those of the epicurean persuasion, Thailand is just about synonymous with thick and creamy coconut curries. These are often based on animal broths or spicy shrimp pastes, and are often served with meat. If you want vegetarian options and can’t find any at the street stalls, make your own back at the palapa. You’ll need a pot, a fire beneath it, vegetable broth, coconut milk, palm sugar, lemongrass and curry spices. Beyond that, the curry crock is your playground. Try stewing sweet potatoes, taro root and plantains. And for dessert, step over the border to Laos and try a scoop of khao niao durian, the flesh of the famously pungent fruit smashed into a helping of sticky rice with coconut milk.
Italy. White Bean Peasant Soup. They wrap their figs in bacon, they stuff their truffles into veal slabs and they grate cheese over nearly every main plate—and Italy is hardly a vegan’s paradise. But white bean peasant soup, or ribollita, was traditionally a vegetarian dish, and often without even cheese. Chef Mario Batali explains here that the poor of old Italy often had no meat to cook and, when fortunate enough to have leftovers (or unfortunate enough to have only scraps and crusts), they sometimes combined all in a stewing pot. With white beans, the dish provided protein and carbohydrates in one hit. For those trying this dish at home, add some dried porcini mushrooms and red wine to the broth for a heartier kick. Or follow this recipe, which leans to the lighter side, and includes sautéed apples. As Batali says, “You can’t mess up ribollita.”
Chile. Porotos Granados. Built of New World ingredients, porotos granados is a stew of pumpkin, cranberry beans, corn, onion, spices and broth. The final consistency is much like porridge, with the squash mashed into a purée. Flavor can be enhanced by roasting the corn over a flame first, and caramelizing the onions in the pot before adding the broth also enriches the dish. Kabocha squash can be substituted for the pumpkin, and a light sweetness can be added with mashed overripe plantains.
Lebanon. Tabouleh. It’s made of bulgur, onions, parsley, mint, tomatoes and cucumber, with a dressing of olive oil and lemon juice. Light but substantial, tabouleh, eaten cold, is refreshing on a hot evening and an easy last-minute make for a bring-along party dish. Home cooks might even take the Middle Eastern theme a step further and add diced dried and toasted walnuts. Served with hummus, olives and falafels, tabouleh completes a classic vegan feast of the Middle East.
Eritrea. Injera and Wat. One of the most memorable parts of any Eritrean or Ethiopian meal is the simplest—the injera, or sour, spongy flatbread. Injera is made with the flour of teff, an indigenous mountain grain, and wheat or barley. Mixed with water, it is left to ferment for several days until the batter smells like buttermilk. The bubbling batter is ladled onto a skillet and cooked like a pancake. On the table, the injera serves as a utensil, a sponge and a napkin, and the meal is officially over when the sheets of injera spread over the table have been eaten. Injera is typically eaten with soups, such as wat, a dense and spicy lentil stew.
Greece. Dolmas. I was devastated in 2006 after traveling from Italy to Greece by ferry and discovering, after several visits to produce markets, that hummus simply didn’t exist in this land. After 30 hours aboard the boat, I had been anticipating a meal of hummus and dolma grape leaf wraps. Turns out, hummus is strictly Middle Eastern. However, my expectations of the illustrious dolma, or dolmade, were met—for rice seasoned with olive oil and spices and wrapped in grape leaves is the ubiquitous bread-and-butter comfort food of Greece. Like so many vegetarian staples, dolmas are as delicious and satisfying as they are simple. They can be bought nearly anywhere for a trifle, or they can be made at home—and whether you’re camped alone in the woods after a long day of journeying, or hosting friends for a potluck, a plate of dolmas meets the mark.
Lesotho. Moroko. OK—so this dish may underwhelm, but when I asked a friend what vegetarian dishes she enjoyed while traveling recently in Lesotho, that little landlocked island of sovereignty within South Africa, she immediately said, “Moroko.” So simple and nondescript that I’m surprised it even has a name, moroko is just greens roughly chopped, simmered with some oil and broth and mashed into a soggy green porridge. Should you visit Lesotho, take a drive, inhale the astonishing mountain views, then gather wild greens along the roadsides to stew later for dinner. Vegetables like kale, spinach, chard, dandelions, mustard and radish can all be used in moroko. The dish is often eaten with rice or potatoes.
A few famous vegetarians:
Chris Martin, lead singer of Coldplay.
Brad Pitt, actor.
Paul McCartney, musician.
Gandhi, pacifist and social revolutionary.
Larry Mullen Jr., drummer of U2.
Plato, Pythagoras, Aristotle, Plutarch and Socrates, scholars of ancient Greece.
A few famous vegans:
Thom Yorke, lead singer of Radiohead.
Kevin Nealon, comedian and former Saturday Night Live cast member.
Tobey Maguire, actor.
Chrissie Hynde, lead singer of The Pretenders.
Scott Jurek, long-distance runner. I spoke with Jurek recently by telephone. One of the world’s most acclaimed long-distance runners, Jurek was the featured superstar in the 2009 book Born to Run. He has been a vegan since 1999 and names quinoa, brown rice, beans, hummus and burritos as a few of his favorite plant kingdom staples. Jurek partly credits the very absence of animal protein in his diet as a source of his health, athletic dominance and collection of world records—including the world’s fastest time on a 165-mile run.
Are you a vegetarian or a vegan? Have environmental factors played a role in your decision?
And what foods did I miss from this list?
In his graduate school days at Arizona State University, Jim Zimbelman, emboldened by a student discount and an artist spouse, purchased the occasional pair of tickets for campus dance performances. One performance, which featured the work of trailblazing American dancer and choreographer Martha Graham, left him mystified.
“I didn’t have a clue,” he says of that and the several other encounters with modern dance. For a scientist engrossed in the geologic interpretation of remote sensing data for a Martian volcano, the cultural gulf was vast. In those days, the Smithsonian planetary geologist says, “I wasn't thinking about art, I was thinking about rocks.”
But time has a way of serving up second chances. And so last May, the affable Zimbelman, who has worked at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., for the last 20 years and relishes the opportunity to interact with non-scientists, responded to an email that had bounced from queue to queue in museum channels: choreographer Dana Tai Soon Burgess, described by a Washington Post dance critic as the “poet laureate of Washington dance,” was in search of scientists to interview for his new dance work about space. Zimbelman, whose professional interests lean toward extraterrestrial sand dunes and volcanoes, recalls thinking, “Dance company? Sure! I'll see why he wants to talk to a scientist.”
In short order Zimbelman found himself face-to-face with Burgess, whose troupe, The Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company, has been a lauded presence on the Washington dance landscape for more than 20 years. Each man confessed to a modicum of uncertainty about how such a conversation would unfold, but the exchange was exciting—even “fun,” as Burgess puts its. “I think each of us came away from the visit having learned something about the other and about our different perspectives on this broad topic of space,” Zimbelman says.
What Burgess learned will be revealed on Saturday and Sunday, September 19 and 20, at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, when he and his dancers premiere the new half-hour work, “We choose to go to the moon,” an exploration of the connection between human beings and space. The title alludes to the 1962 “Moon” speech delivered by President Kennedy and establishes for the piece a note of nostalgia—a nod to the early bold days of the space program and to the now-ebbing generation that led the way. Laced through the score are sound bites from Burgess’s interviews with scientists—Zimbelman and others—reflecting upon the mysteries and majesty of space.
Just as chance played a role in bringing Burgess and Zimbelman into conversation, so, too, had it played a role in leading Burgess to the subject of space for his new dance. In fact, the connection was as random as a seat assignment on an airplane.
Last year, en route to visit his ailing father in New Mexico, Burgess and his partner found themselves chatting with their seatmate, a NASA communications manager, Barbara Zelon, who works on the Orion program. The meeting and subsequent conversations with Zelon fortified Burgess’s curiosity about how the relationship between humans and space could be articulated by dance.
On a more profound and personal note, however, during what became a series of visits over the final months of his father’s life, Burgess often found himself sitting outside his house, peering up at a clear night sky bedecked with stars and pondering existential matters of life and death, enunciated in his father’s waning days and writ large in the cosmos.
“All my projects have a personal interest factor,” Burgess says. “Something occurs in my life and I think, ‘This is fascinating—I need to learn more.’" As the idea of space—the nation’s 50-year commitment to exploration, the ever-burgeoning body of knowledge, the poignant image of a fragile Earth—took hold, Burgess reached out to scientists at NASA and the Air and Space Museum, exploring their own relationships, professional and personal, with space.The work choreographer Dana Tai Soon Burgess crafted embraces both nostalgia and wonder, casting a wistful backward look at the space race and marveling at the scientific revelations of the present. (Photo by Mary Noble Ours)
While Burgess initially viewed these half dozen or so interviews as research, he came to see them as integral to the texture of his piece. “There was a passion and wisdom about their voices that I loved,” Burgess says of the scientists. “And their voices were so diverse—they sounded like music to me.”
Into the score, then, Burgess incorporated sound bites from his interviews with Zimbelman and NASA scientists, among them Neil Gehrels, an experimental astrophysicist who studies gamma-ray bursts and supernovae, and Bruce McCandless, a former astronaut who, in 1984, made the first untethered flight in space.
The work Burgess crafted embraces both nostalgia and wonder, casting a wistful backward look at the space race and marveling at the scientific revelations of the present. Popular songs of bygone years—“Stardust,” “Fly Me to the Moon,” and “Catch a Falling Star”—alternate with documentary elements like an excerpt of President Kennedy’s 1962 speech and a NASA recording of the magnetosphere.Dancers Kelly Southall, Sarah Halzack and Alvaro Palau perform “We choose to go to the moon.” (Photo by Jeff Watts)
As the dance begins, the rising curtain reveals a line of dancers whose individual faces are tightly framed with light. To the melodious strains of “Star Dust,” they “toss” the lights toward the back of the stage and create a star field. When the work draws to a close, a lone figure remains on stage, gazing at an image of Earth diminishing slowly until it vanishes from view.
Of their meeting and his brief speaking part—an ominous reference to dark matter—in Burgess’s score for “We choose to go to the moon,” Zimbelman says, “It makes me consider my work in a different light—it makes me try to appreciate it not just as a scientist but as a human being. Who would have thought that, years down the road, I might somehow influence a choreographer?”
For Burgess, the conversations with scientists left him with a sense not of the gap between science and art, but of the common ground: “They are using creativity in order to make discoveries. Like a choreographer, a scientist cannot reach for discovery without leaps of faith—a hypothesis of what could be.”
On Saturday, September 19, and Sunday, September 20, at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company presents Fluency in Four: three repertory works by Burgess—Picasso Dances, Mandala, and Confluence—and the premiere of his newest work, "We choose to go to the moon," created in collaboration with NASA.
What most people remember about Charles Foster’s stint impersonating a badger is the worms. For six weeks, Foster and his eight-year-old son Tom did what badgers did, keeping their noses to the ground and learning to burrow in the moist earth of the Black Mountains of Wales. Afterwards, Foster described in exquisite detail the experience of sampling the culinary delights of eating earthworms, which “dripped from the hill like mucus candles from a snotty-nosed child,” as he put it in The Guardian in January.
But the focus on stomaching worms and other nasty fare rather misses the point, Foster insists. “It's about seeing what it's like when your nose is down there in the dirt,” he says.
Animal behavior researchers have long gleaned knowledge about other species by trying to fit in with animals and their social structures. British primatologist Jane Goodall famously spent years living among chimpanzees, our closest primate relatives, to understand more about their behavior. Zoologist and primatolgoist Dian Fossey gained insight into the group dynamics of Africa's mountain gorillas by integrating into their communities. Animal expert and autism advocate Temple Grandin has gotten into the minds of cows to think up ways to build more humane farms and slaughterhouses.
But Foster, a lecturer on medical law and ethics at the University of Oxford, wasn’t just trying to learn about animals—he was trying to learn about identity, and whether it's ever truly possible to know what's in another being's mind. For his immersive forays into the worlds of other animals, which he described in his 2016 book Being a Beast, Foster was jointly awarded the 2016 Ig Nobel Prize in Biology, the tongue-in-cheek award that honors “achievements that make people laugh, and then think.” The other half of the prize went to Thomas Thwaites, who lived among a herd of mountain goats by creating and donning a goatlike prosthetic exoskeleton.
Foster’s fascination with the minds of animals began young. As a child in Sheffield, he was struck by the way a blackbird in the garden looked at him with what seemed a knowing eye. “It plainly knew something about that little suburban garden that I didn't know. I thought I knew that garden fantastically well. I wanted to know what it saw, in that place, that I didn't see,” says Foster. “That seeded in me a fascination with what the natural landscapes I loved so much are like to the animals that know them so much more intimately than I do.”
Foster has spent time as an otter, floating, swimming and generally immersing himself in the riverine ecosystems of Exmoor. A turn as a red deer on the Scottish highlands had him experiencing the thrill of the hunt—but as prey. (Foster, a former hunter, arranged for a friend's hound to run him to ground.) He even explored the world of urban animals as a fox in London's East End, trailing the animals through the dark corners, dumpsters and alleys of the nocturnal city. Among the foxes, he found a sense of community he hadn't felt before, in a city where his human neighbors all seemed to be transplants from some other place.
“That was an attempt to see us the way that animals see us," he says.
Foster, a former lawyer and trained veterinarian, had long been fascinated with the philosophical question of whether we can see the world the way another person sees it. “Who am I, and can I ever really know another person, even my wife and children? What's in the head of even the people we know best?” as he puts it. Since that question is essentially unanswerable, he asked what seemed to be a simpler question: can I see a wood the way that a badger, fox or bird sees it? “I came to be fascinated with that question,” he says.
No matter which animal's skin he was donning, his method for doing so was the same. Humans rely heavily on their sense of vision, "which immediately gets distorted by the ways it's translated in the brain, meaning that we have a very warped and incomplete view of the natural world as it really is,” he says. So Foster tries to pay more attention to the other senses—smell, taste, touch and hearing—that are better utilized by animals in the wild. After all, these senses still deliver information to our brains even when we don't consciously realize it—running on background, so to speak.
Foster tried to “reawaken” the other senses by using sensory games, like trying to navigate by the smell of incense or simply by focusing his attention on them. “I marinated myself in the literature describing how the sensory apparatus of each species works, and how the information received is centrally processed,” he says. “And then I went out and lived as far as I could like each species.”Can living the life of a badger teach us about ourselves? (Volodymyr Burdiak / Alamy)
Thomas Thwaites, a designer by trade, was honored for his humorous investigation of what it's like to be a goat in the Swiss Alps. The result was GoatMan: How I Took a Holiday From Being Human. Like Foster, though in a different way, he sought to shed his distinctly human perspective and see the world through new eyes.
Thwaites originally considered living as an elephant, but settled on a goat, in part because it was easier to approximate the goat's physical attributes and relationship to the environment. He built a goatlike exoskeleton with help from Glyn Heath, a prosthetics design expert at the University of Salford in England. Together they created appendages that let Thwaites move as a goat and experience the world from the animal's perspective. The disguise went both ways: The appendages also let the goats see him as a similar species, rather than a bipedal human.
Since the better part of a goat's waking life is grazing, Thwaites tried to come up with a way to become a grazer himself. Unfortunately, mammals like ourselves can't digest grass the way that goats can. So he experimented with making an artificial rumen, the digestive chamber filled with bacteria and other microorganism that can break down grasses and extract nutrition. Experts warned him against relying on this for nourishment, since might contract serious stomach illnesses, so he chewed up grass during the day and cooked it at night in a pressure cooker.
The goal of his experiment, however, was more lofty than merely earning to subsist on a goat’s diet. “I suppose at root much of art and science is ultimately looking for new perspectives on this otherwise mundane world,” he explains. “The main goal was to see what present day science and technology have to say about this ancient human dream of becoming a non-human animal. I say 'ancient' because some of the earliest figurative art is of part human part non-human animal hybrids.”
Experiencing the world as a goat meant changing his perceptions and behaviors as well. For example, since goats are social animals, inter-goat communication was key. So Thwaites had to learn the goat “language,” which meant tapping into non-verbal skills, like posture, that he discovered that he already knew.
“Humans are all about communicating and reading each others thoughts, and of course that involves lots of non-verbal communication too,” he says. “This non-verbal communication translates across species, or at least the ones we’ve grown up around for the last few millennia, fairly well. When you walk through a scary part of town you can change your gait to be a bit more confident yet disinterested, and I guess being disinterested is a non-threatening signal.” In trying to fit in with the heard, he says, "I was aware of all the non-verbal language I’d picked up hanging around the various social situations and social groups that I have over the course of life in London.”
Even though Thwaites didn't set out to study the lives of goats, living among them did teach him some things that non-goat-impersonating humans probably wouldn’t know. For example: the astonishing variety of grasses in a given pasture. “I now realize that not all grass tastes the same: some is bitter, some is sweet, and much more desirable, at least to me,” he says. This realization gave him insight into the dynamics of goat hierarchy. “So the grass is a reason for a new goat introduced to the herd to try and secure it’s place high up in the hierarchy if it thinks it’s tough enough," he adds.
One of the revelations that any human impersonating an animal quickly learns is the fact that humans aren't always at the top of the pyramid. On goats’ turf, Thwaites says, you have to play by their rules—and they play by a strict hierarchy. In his case, he found out he wasn’t tougher than the average goat. “I was very submissive,” he reports. “I walked away from my one possible confrontation.”
There will always be limits to how far humans can go toward experiencing the world as other species do. The question is, how much does such impersonation teach us about what it's like to be them—and how much is learning about what it's like to be us? The answer remains to be seen. Foster notes of his earthworm experience: "all that it tells you is the adjectives that I have learned over the course of a lifetime to describe how worms taste. It doesn't tell you anything at all about how they taste to a badger.”
My main memory as a fourth grader in 1972-73 was playing "Little Willy" by The Sweet on the classroom's record player while waiting for the school bus to arrive. I also remember Wednesday nights in front of my grandparents' television, watching Walter Cronkite on the evening news talk about the latest developments in the Vietnam War. The war was far away, and, for a nine-year-old, that was enough to know. But for a certain fourth grade class taught by Jeryl Davis in the Yorkship School in Camden, New Jersey, the war was a bit more personal. It was the 1967-1968 school year when a bunch of nine-and-ten-year-olds adopted a platoon of soldiers serving in Vietnam, and the soldiers in turn adopted them.
The story of these unlikely pen pals began in 1967, when Mrs. Davis assigned homework to her students in the form of writing letters to soldiers in Vietnam. A local boy, Glenn Williams, was the recipient of these letters. Glenn was killed in action in October that year, and in response to his death the children began sending packages and letters to other members of Co. A, 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry. The children donated their Halloween candy and sent it off; Christmas packages filled with cookies and other treats were put in the mail in November. They even recorded a tape of Christmas greetings and songs for the soldiers. In return, the soldiers sent Christmas cards to the children, and photographs of their Christmas celebrations in country.
Each student was assigned a pen pal within the 4th platoon; some students wrote to several soldiers that January. Letters from the soldiers were read out loud to the rest of the class, and afterward pinned onto the board Mrs. Davis had created especially for the pen pal project. The members of the platoon sometimes sent small gifts to the children, usually insignia patches or pins.
In February 1968, Co. A 4th platoon's leader, LT Eugene Moppert, was killed in a sniper attack near Hue, Vietnam. Word of his death reached Mrs. Davis, who gently broke the news to her students. The students were stunned. Some began to cry. It was unthinkable that one of their pen pals had been killed in action in a war so far away.
In June of that year, Eugene Moppert's widow Sandra came with her toddler daughter to Yorkship School, bearing a special gift. It was the flag that had been draped over Moppert's casket as he was laid to rest. She felt that the children should have it, as they had given so much happiness to Moppert and his men, so it was placed in a case and hung in the hallway of the school.
This past August, an inquiry made to Smithsonian Visitor Services came to my attention. The inquirer, Bill Harrison, asked if the Smithsonian would be interested in collecting the casket flag, which was still hanging in the hallway in the Yorkship School. Bill had been a member of that long ago fourth grade class. He and another of Mrs. Davis' students, Kathie Cromie Gabriel, approached the Yorkship School about the possibility of donating the flag. The story of the flag had been lost over time, so the school agreed that it would be better off in the collections of the National Museum of American History.
Bill and Kathie each had treasures to donate related to their pen pals. Bill had letters and insignia from his pen pal SGT Joseph Meskaitis, which were still in the same box he had stored them in as a child. Kathie had several pen pals, and had kept those letters, but she also had a number of letters that had been given to her by Mrs. Davis. In addition to the students, the soldiers wrote regularly to Mrs. Davis and her husband Bob, and she had kept all the letters.
On November 14, 2014, Bill and Kathie came to the museum with the casket flag, the letters, and items sent by the soldiers. Also in attendance were some of the fourth graders and their families, SGT Joseph Meskaitis and his family, and Mrs. Davis, who flew in from South Carolina. Many of the students had not seen Mrs. Davis or each other for many years. The reunion was a great success. The former Yorkship School fourth graders of 1967-68 are together again, and the museum now has a collection of letters and mementos of the Vietnam War which remind us that the soldiers in Vietnam were young men a long way from home and in need of comfort, and found it through the innocent musings of fourth graders.
Kathleen Golden is an associate curator in the Division of Armed Forces History.