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Ned Kahn: The Limits of the Knowable

Smithsonian Magazine

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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Ecuador, Land of Malaria, Iguanas, Mangoes and Mountains

Smithsonian Magazine

This sign just north of Tumbes is a clear sign, if the mangroves aren’t, that one is entering the muggy, and in some ways dangerous, tropics. Photo by Alastair Bland.

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.

The wild, rapturous foliage of the breadfruit tree—native to the Pacific islands—is a common roadside sight in the lowland regions of Ecuador. Photo by Alastair Bland.

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.

At a roadside banana shack, the author checks out the selection of fruit-flavored homemade traga, or sugarcane liquor. Photo by Andrew Bland.

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.

Here, the author has only just begun one of the hardest climbs in Ecuador on this sunny day. The mile-high town of Pallatanga lies in the background, while ahead, the highway climbs for 30 steady miles. Photo by Andrew Bland.

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.

Andrew Bland stands at 12,700 feet, on the pass between Pallatanga and Rio Bamba. The northern horizon is seen in the background. Photo by Alastair Bland.

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

Rebuilding Greensburg Green

Smithsonian Magazine

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.

North America Has Lost Nearly 3 Billion Birds Since 1970

Smithsonian Magazine

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.”

Other organisms on Earth are experiencing similar losses. We’re facing an “insect apocalypse,” and amphibians are declining at an “alarming and rapid rate.

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.

Watch this video in the original article

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.

Touring New York's Most Dynamic Neighborhoods

Smithsonian Magazine

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.”

The Short, Frantic, Rags-to-Riches Life of Jack London

Smithsonian Magazine

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. 

4th graders' notes made a difference to Vietnam War soldiers

National Museum of American History

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.

Young, blond soldier with large gun, at a high point above a mountainous landscape

A military tent with "Merry Christmas" and decorations hanging over it

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.

Lined notebook paper with blue pen matching students with soldiers

Black and white photo of a young boy and girl, looking at a bulletin board, with a uniformed soldier

Yellow triangular patch with horse at top right, bar going diagonally across, and pins at the bottom

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.

Flag folded triangularly in a wooden case with a gold placard at the bottom

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.

An adult man and woman and a uniformed soldier stand in front of the flag case in a school hallway

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.

Battered white shoe box with letters in black script in front

Two letters and their envelopes

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.

Ten adults around a table with the flag and boxes of letters

Kathleen Golden is an associate curator in the Division of Armed Forces History.

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What Richmond Has Gotten Right About Interpreting Its Confederate History

Smithsonian Magazine

In the past couple of weeks, how we remember and commemorate the Civil War has undergone seismic shifts. The city of New Orleans is in the process of removing four monuments that celebrate Confederate leaders and an 1874 attempt by white supremacists to topple Louisiana's biracial Reconstruction government. In Charlottesville, Virginia, a court injunction temporarily halted the city's plans to sell its Robert E. Lee monument while alt-right leader Richard Spencer led a torchlight protest this past weekend reminiscent of Klan rallies of the past. White supremacist support for the Lee statue will likely strengthen and broaden the call to remove this and other Confederate monuments throughout the city. Curiously, however, the former capital of the Confederacy, Richmond, Virginia, has not seen a similar outcry. Why?

The city boasts some of the most significant sites of Confederate commemoration. Its famed Monument Avenue is studded with massive statues of Generals Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart along with the president of the confederacy, Jefferson Davis. Thousands of Confederate soldiers and officers, and Davis himself, are buried in the city’s Hollywood Cemetery—a sacred space for white Southerners grappling with defeat. Veterans’ reunions, battlefields, monument dedications, parades and the opening of the Confederate Museum in 1896 helped solidify the city itself as a shrine to Confederate memory by the beginning of the 20th century. If ever a city was ripe for calls to remove Confederate monuments, it is Richmond.

But beyond scattered acts of vandalism, locals have remained largely quiet. Part of the reason why is that over the years, the city has recognized changing perceptions of the Confederacy—and officials have addressed concerns that public spaces devoted to the city’s past do not sufficiently reflect Richmond’s diversity.

In the past few decades, Richmond has dedicated new monuments that have greatly expanded its commemorative landscape. A statue of homegrown tennis star Arthur Ashe joined Monument Avenue in 1996—arguably one of its most high-profile and controversial additions. While some Richmonders welcomed the statue, others argued that it would “disrupt the theme of the avenue,” and both its supporters and detractors mocked the statue itself.

In 2003, the city dedicated a monument of Abraham Lincoln and his son to mark the president’s April 1865 visit following the abandonment of Richmond by the Confederate government. The dedication helped re-interpret Lincoln's visit as a symbol of slavery’s end as opposed to the entrance of a conquering tyrant. While in Richmond just 11 days before his assassination, Lincoln famously corrected newly freed slaves who knelt at his feet: "Don’t kneel to me,” Lincoln responded. "That is not right. You must kneel to God only, and thank Him for the liberty you will afterward enjoy." Four years after the Lincoln statue was erected, the city installed the Richmond Slavery Reconciliation Statue, a 15-foot bronze sculpture depicting two enslaved individuals embracing not far from the center of Richmond's former slave market.

The Virginia Civil Rights Memorial, located on the grounds of the capitol building and dedicated in 2008, celebrates the efforts of African-American students in rural Prince Edward County. Their decision to protest the condition of their school led to one of the lawsuits that comprised the 1954 landmark Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education.

Taken together, these monuments point to a city that in recent years has proven a willingness to acknowledge its dark past, using its public spaces to highlight history that reflects and inspires the entire community. This goodwill is also revealed in monuments that the community declined to erect. In 2008, the Sons of Confederate Veterans hoped to place a statue of Jefferson Davis holding hands with his son and Jim Limber—a mixed-race boy who lived with Davis and his family for approximately one year—on the grounds of the American Civil War Center near the Lincoln statue. The SCV hoped to highlight what they believed was Davis's liberal outlook on race, but the deal ultimately fell through after the museum, a private institution, revealed it would use the statue to demonstrate "how people choose to remember" history.

Over the course of the five-year sesquicentennial of the Civil War, no city was more active than Richmond. In addition to Virginia’s official state commission, numerous city institutions joined forces not to celebrate the war (as was the case 50 years earlier during the centennial), but to work toward understanding it in its totality, including slavery and emancipation. Museums large and small, including the Black History Museum and Cultural Center, National Park Service, American Civil War Museum, Virginia Historical Society and Museum of the Confederacy, offered a wide range of lectures and educational programs and new exhibits, while The Future of Richmond's Past hosted a series of community conversations about the history and memory of the war that attracted roughly 2,000 residents.

The collective narrative that emerged by the end of the sesquicentennial would have been unidentifiable to white Richmonders who experienced the centennial in the early 1960s. The centennial catered to an exclusively white audience that featured reenactments of major battles and focused on honoring the soldiers on both sides without acknowledging slavery as the cause of the war or emancipation as its most important result. One civil rights leader described it as a "stupendous brain-washing exercise. This time around, Civil War events attracted segments of the community who had never considered the city's Civil War and its continued relevance to their own lives and the broader community.

No program better reflected the tone of Richmond’s Civil War self-reflection than its culminating event, which took place in April 2015, a week before the 150th anniversary of the Confederacy’s surrender. At night artists projected simulated flames against buildings in the area that were burned by fleeing Confederates. Black and white Union troop reenactors and an Abraham Lincoln impersonator marched triumphantly through city streets before throngs of visitors. The event marked not just the defeat of the Confederacy, but also the liberation of a large segment of the city's black population. Among the keynote speakers was Mayor Dwight C. Jones, who is African-American. He characterized the event as "a testament of just how far we've come."

Before the end of the war, Richmond was the United States’ second-largest hub of slave dealing. Today, it continues to preserve and come to terms with its connection to slavery and the slave trade. Ongoing efforts to preserve Lumpkin’s Slave Jail and Archaeological Site, uncovered in 2005, engage and challenge the community on how best to interpret and memorialize the city's legacy.

In the wake of the murder of nine churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina by Dylann Roof in 2015, Richmond's historic St. Paul's Episcopal Church—known to many as the "Cathedral of the Confederacy"—removed plaques honoring Lee and Davis and images of the Confederate battle flag to an area in the building where they could be properly interpreted. The church continues to host public forums to discuss this decision and has invited historians to engage the church community about the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction. There are plans to erect a memorial to honor the enslaved community of St. Paul's Episcopal.

Richmond's efforts in this area have not been without missteps, nor have they allayed suspicions of older African-Americans who have lived too long in a community that refused to see beyond its sites of Confederate memory. In a Boston Globe report about the city’s Confederate past, African-American community activist Ana Edwards remarked, ““Right now, truly, these monuments are just literally the grandest things the city shows off, and therefore it represents us. This is hard. It makes you feel like you live in two different places.”

At some point, Richmond may experience the same demands to remove Confederate monuments that have been heard elsewhere. But for now, it may be more helpful to reflect on why this hasn't yet taken place in the former Confederate capital. Perhaps Richmond offers other communities important lessons about how they can successfully navigate the many landmines at the intersection of history and memory.

Kevin M. Levin is a historian and educator based in Boston. He is the author of Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder, now available in paperback and the forthcoming collection of essays, Interpreting the Civil War at Museums and Historic Sites. He is currently working on Searching For Black Confederates: The Civil War's Most Persistent Myth for the University of North Carolina Press. You can find him online at his website: Civil War Memory and on Twitter.

A Dancer and a Scientist Deliver a New Take on the Moon Walk

Smithsonian Magazine

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. 

See How Artists Have Turned Farm Silos Into Stunning Giant Murals

Smithsonian Magazine

It’s a hot day in Pingrup as the red sand of Western Australia dances across the pavement. A welcome sign reading “Small Town - Lots of Spirit” greets visitors as they enter the rural lakeside town, population 264. But until 2018, not many tourists made the four-hour drive from Perth. There wasn’t any reason to venture to Pingrup. Then three silos near the center of this tiny town were transformed into giant works of art.

In remote communities across Australia, water and grain silos have become the canvas for paintings inspired by their local communities, culture and way of life. Completed in September 2018, the PUBLIC Silo Trail—more than 620 miles of road linking Northam, Merredin, Katanning, Pingrup, Newdegate, Ravensthorpe and Albany—combines six different silo sites and one town (Katanning) filled with street art. A perfect road trip for art enthusiasts looking for something literally off the beaten track, the seven-town route offers visitors a different side of Australia.

American artist HENSE and British muralist Phlegm created the country’s first-ever silo mural in Northam, Western Australia, in March 2015, when FORM, a creative non-profit organization based in Perth, and CBH Group, the state’s main grain handler, commissioned them to paint eight silos. HENSE’s four depicted colorful shapes and patterns, while Phelgm’s portrayed whimsical, black and white flying machines. Perth-based artist Brenton See painted four silos in Newdegate showcasing the area’s wildlife: the western bearded dragon, the red-tailed phascogale (a rare marsupial) and a malleefowl bird. Also in 2018, New York-based The Yok & Shero painted a ruby seadragon, a rare marine creature found in the waters of Western Australia, across four huge silos in Albany. In the fall of that year, Miami-based artist EVOCA1 painted the three silos in Pingrup. In an effort to capture the essence of this farming town, the silos showcase a jockey on a horse, a man holding a lamb and a dog on top of a tractor. By September, FORM, inspired by the number of silo artworks across the region, established the PUBLIC Silo Trail. Since then, one-off silo art projects have blossomed across other states of Australia—Victoria, South Australia, Queensland and New South Wales—with the current count at 35 painted silos and 69 smaller painted water towers.

Image by Photograph by Bewley Shaylor, courtesy of FORM. Hense for PUBLIC Silo Trail, Northam (2015) (original image)

Image by Photograph by Bewley Shaylor, courtesy of FORM. Six Stages of Banksia baxteri by Amok Island for PUBLIC Silo Trail, Ravensthorpe (2016) (original image)

Image by Photograph by Bewley Shaylor, courtesy of FORM. Brenton See for PUBLIC Silo Trail, Newdegate (2018) (original image)

Image by PUBLIC Silo Trail. Phlegm for PUBLIC Silo Trail, Northam (2015) (original image)

Image by Photograph by Bewley Shaylor, courtesy of FORM. Kyle Hughes-Odgers for PUBLIC Silo Trail, Merredin (2017) (original image)

Image by Photograph by Bewley Shaylor, courtesy of FORM. The Yok & Sheryo for PUBLIC Silo Trail, Albany (2018) (original image)

Image by Photograph by Bewley Shaylor, courtesy of FORM. Evoca1 for PUBLIC Silo Trail, Pingrup (2018) (original image)

Annette and Eric Green are silo art enthusiasts and the creators of In March 2018, during an epic road trip, they discovered a wildflower-inspired silo in Ravensthorpe, Western Australia. “When I stood in the shadow of my first painted silo, I was blown away by the sheer magnificence of it,” says Annette Green. “They are so huge, you marvel at how they were completed in the first place and how they painted them around a curve and at such great heights.”

After that, the Greens wanted to see as many silo murals as possible but couldn’t find a lot of information online. The couple created a Facebook page to document the artwork, and in September 2018, they released the Australian Silo Art Google Map, which clearly marks all silos, water towers and even street art. It gives detailed descriptions of each piece, including parking information. Today, the map has more than 526,000 views.

“For me, also it was the awakening that there was much more to this than the great works of art. It was also about the people of these struggling communities and the towns that they lived in,” says Green.

Image by Annette Green. GrainCorps Silos at Sheep Hills, by Adnate, Sheep Hills, Victoria (2016) (original image)

Image by Annette Green. Weethalle Silos, by Heesco Khosnaran, Weethalle, New South Wales (2017) (original image)

Image by Annette Green. GrainCorps Silos at Rochester, by Jimmy Dvate, Rochester, Victoria (2018) (original image)

Image by Annette Green. Wirrabara Silos, by Smug, Wirrabara, South Australia (2018) (original image)

Image by Planet Tex. Barraba Silos, by Fintan Magee, Barraba, New South Wales (2019) (original image)

Image by Annette Green. Kimba Silos, by Cam Scale, Kimba, South Australia (2017) (original image)

Image by Annette Green. Goorambat Silo, by Jimmy Dvate, Goorambat, Victoria (2018) (original image)

Image by Annette Green. Goorambat Silo, by Jimmy Dvate, Goorambat, Victoria (2019) (original image)

Image by Annette Green. GrainCorps Silos at Thallon, by Joel Fergie and Travis Vinson, Thallon, Queensland (2017) (original image)

Silo art isn’t just a beautiful addition to the local landscape; it's a lifeline. Small farming communities around Australia continue to face some of the worst droughts in recent history, forcing them to abandon their farms. So, towns throughout Australia have decided to invest in silo art as a tourism opportunity.

“Have you ever heard of the town of Goorambat in northeast Victoria? Neither had I. But now thousands of Australia's and international travelers have. Not only are they [Goorambat residents] seeing the benefits of their hard work in the way of tourism dollars, but there is also new community pride as the story of the town is also depicted on the silos,” says Green.

Jimmy Dvate, a Melbourne-based artist and graphic designer, has painted numerous silos around the outback of regional Australia, some depicting the massive Clydesdale horses harnessed for farming in Goorambat, Victoria.

“Having the human element of a harness really added an extra level of complexity, also trying to capture the movement and dust around the feet was really satisfying,” says Dvate of the artwork. “The town is also like a second home to us. The hospitality is ridiculous, and it's been so awesome to see the social and economic difference the silo art has made.”

While Australia’s borders are shut for an indefinite period of time due to COVID-19, these towns will need support once the country reopens. “Now, more than ever, it's so important to support our regional communities, and silo projects give people another reason to explore outside the city,” says Dvate.

Much of the art depicts native Australia flora and fauna as well as portraits of the locals. “Where possible, I choose a plant, bird or animal that is either endangered or threatened, helping to educate and raise awareness,” says Dvate. This includes Milli, a barking owl from a sanctuary in Badger Creek, Victoria, painted on one of the silos in Goorambat. Just over 75 miles west in Rochester, Victoria, Dvate painted an azure kingfisher and a wrist-wringed squirrel glider once thought to be extinct.

South Australia’s Wirrabara silo art, painted by the Glasgow, Scotland-based artist Smug, is an exceptional showing of native birds and the importance of the area’s foresting industry. The five silos show an arborist holding an ax and a red-capped robin perched on a branch against a beautiful forest backdrop. In Sheep Hills, Victoria, there are six silos painted with the faces of living Aboriginal elders and children against a vibrant night sky, a common subject for Melbourne artist Adnate.

According to Green, there are at least 50 towns seeking government grants to get proposed silo art projects off the ground.

“I would love to see the Australian Silo Art Trail get the recognition that it deserves,” says Green. “It truly is Australia's ultimate road trip.”

What Living Like Goats and Badgers Can Teach Us About Ourselves

Smithsonian Magazine

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.” 

Welcome to Rawda

Smithsonian Magazine

It's 8 p.m. on a Friday night at Rawda, a coffee house in the Al Sahin district of Damascus, Syria, and the regulars are filing in. They occupy chairs and tables under languid ceiling fans and a haphazardly joined ceiling of corrugated plastic sheets. Water pipes are summoned, primed and ignited, and soon the din of conversation is dueling with the clatter of dice skittering across backgammon boards.

Once a movie theater, Rawda is an enclave for artists and intellectuals in a country where dissent is regularly smothered in its crib. Lately, it has become a bosom for the dispossessed. The war in Iraq has triggered a mass exodus of refugees to neighboring Syria, and Rawda plays hosts to a growing number of them. Most are artists, orphaned by a conflict that has outlawed art.

"We can no longer work in Iraq," says Haidar Hilou, an award-winning screenwriter. "It is a nation of people with guns drawn against each other. I can't even take my son to the movies."

Some two million Iraqis have fled the sectarian violence in Iraq. They are Sunnis driven out by Shiite militias and Shias threatened by the Sunni insurgency. They include some of the country's most accomplished professionals—doctors, engineers and educators—targets in the militants' assault on the Iraqi economy.

But there is another war in Iraq, one on artistic expression and critical thought. Among the exiles slumping their way to Damascus are writers, painters, sculptors, musicians and filmmakers, who are as important to Iraq's national fiber as its white-collar elites. Rawda, which means "garden" in Arabic and was itself founded by Russian émigrés before World War II, has become their smoke-filled sanctuary.

"People from all walks of life come here," says dissident Abu Halou, who left Baghdad in the 1970s and is now the unofficial "mayor" of Syria's Iraqi diaspora. He says the owners were once offered several million U.S. dollars in Syrian pounds by a developer who wanted to turn Rawda into a shopping mall. "They turned him down," Abu Halou says, seated as always at the main entrance, where he appraises all new comers. "The family understands how important this place is to the community."

For the Iraqis, Rawda is a refuge of secularism and modernity against pathological intolerance back home. They swap tales, like the one about the Baghdadi ice merchant who was attacked for selling something that did not exist during the time of the Prophet, or the one about the motorist who was shot by a militant for carrying a spare tire—a precaution that, for the killer, betrayed an unacceptable lack of faith. In Syria, at least, the art colonists of Rawda can hone their skills while the sectarian holocaust rages next door.

"The militants believe art is taboo," says Bassam Hammad, a 34-year-old sculptor. "At least here, we can preserve the spirit of Iraq, the smells of the place. Then maybe a new school can emerge."

After the fall of Saddam Hussein, Hammad says he was cautiously optimistic about the future. But as the insurgency grew in intensity, so did proscriptions against secular expression. Liquor stores were torched, women were drenched with acid for not wearing the veil and art of any kind was declared blasphemous. In July 2005, Hammad was commissioned by a Baghdad municipal council to create a statue that would honor 35 children who were killed in a car bombing. It was destroyed by militants within two months, he says.

Image by Stephen J. Glain. Once a movie theater, Rawda is an enclave for artists and intellectuals in Syria, where dissent is regularly smothered in its crib. (original image)

Image by Stephen J. Glain. "We can no longer work in Iraq," says Haidar Hilou, an award-winning screenwriter. (original image)

Image by Stephen J. Glain. Rawda, which means "garden" in Arabic, has become a smoke-filled sanctuary for writers, painters, sculptors, musicians and filmmakers. (original image)

Though Hammad turned down two more such commissions, he began receiving death threats taped to the door of his home. He remained locked indoors for five months before he abandoned Iraq for Syria. "They made me a prisoner in my home," he says. "So I came here."

Iraq was once legendary for its pampered bourgeoisie, and its artists were no exception. Just as Saddam Hussein, a frustrated painter who fancied himself an adept playwright, subsidized Iraq's professional classes, he also gave its painters, musicians and sculptors generous stipends. They were allowed to keep whatever money they could make selling their work, tax-free, and the state would often buy what was left over from gallery exhibitions. Like athletes from the old Soviet Union, young students were tested for artistic aptitude and the brightest ones were given scholarships to study art and design, including at the Saddam Center for the Arts, Mesopotamia's own Sorbonne. Iraqi art festivals would attract artists from all over the Middle East.

In a surreal counterpoint worthy of a Dali landscape, Baghdad under Saddam was a hothouse for aestheticism and culture. "It was so easy to be an artist then," says Shakr Al Alousi, a painter who left Baghdad after his house was destroyed during an American bombing raid. "It was a golden age for us, providing you stayed away from politics."

Filmmaker Ziad Turki and some friends enter Rawda and take their positions in one of the naves that abut the main courtyard. At 43, Turki was born too late to experience modern Iraq's artistic apex. A veteran of several battles during the Iraq-Iran war, he remembers only the deprivation of the embargo that was imposed on Iraq following its 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Turki studied cinematography at the Art Academy of Baghdad and after graduating made a series of short films with friends, including Haider Hilou.

In July 2003, they began producing a movie about the U.S. invasion and the insurgency that followed. They used rolls of 35-millimeter Kodak film that was 22 years older than its expiration date and shot it with a borrowed camera. Whenever firefights erupted and car bombs exploded, says Turki, the crew would grab their gear and compete with news teams for footage. Everyone on the project was a volunteer, and only two of the players had any acting experience. Post-production work took place in Germany with the help of an Iraqi friend who was studying there.

Turki called his movie Underexposed. "It's about what is going on inside all Iraqis," he says, "the pain and anguish no one ever sees." The film cost $32,000 to make and it won the 2005 award for best Asian feature film at the Singapore International Film Festival. (Critics hailed the production's realistic, granular feel, says Turki, which he attributes to that outdated Kodak film.)

Syria once had a thriving movie industry, but it was claimed decades ago by cycles of war and autocracy. There is little for a filmmaker to do in Damascus, even celebrated ones like Turki and Hilou. They are currently producing short documentaries about refugees, if nothing else, to lubricate their skills. Turki draws inspiration from Francis Ford Coppola but models himself on the great Italian directors like Federico Felinni and Luigi Comencini, who could finesse powerful emotions from small, austere films. "As a third-world country, we will never make high-tech blockbusters," Turki says between tokes from a water pipe. "Our movies will be simple, spare. The point is that they be powerful and truthful."

Turki fled Iraq in November 2006 after militant set fire to his home. Like his fellow émigrés, he is grateful to Syria for allowing him in. (Neighboring Jordan, also home to about a million Iraqi exiles, is turning many away at the border.) But he's not sure where he'll end up. "Frankly, I don't know where I'll be tomorrow," he says.

Tonight at least, there is Rawda, proudly anachronistic, an old-world coffee house in one of the planet's final Starbucks-free frontiers. It may seem strange that refugee artists would find asylum in an authoritarian state like Syria, but perversity is one of the Arab world's most abundant resource these days. A war that was waged, retroactively at least, in the name of liberty and peace has made a neighboring autocracy look like an oasis.

"Art requires freedom of expression," says Hammad, the sculptor. "If we can't have it in Iraq, then at least we can create art in exile."

Stephen J. Glain is a Washington, D.C.-based contributing editor to Newsweek International.

Snapshot: Paris Underground

Smithsonian Magazine

An extensive network of abandoned quarries, sewers and subway lines twists beneath modern Paris. Read about this netherworld below then click on the main picture to view a photo gallery.

Origins: About 45 million years ago, Paris was part of a vast shallow sea whose shifting waters left sediment layers that over time compressed into massive stores of limestone and gypsum. The Parisii, the area's early tribal inhabitants, made little use of the resource. When the stone-loving Romans arrived in the first century B.C., they began a legacy of quarrying. By 1813, the year digging beneath Paris was banned to prevent further destabilization of the ground, some 170 miles of labyrinthine tunnels had been carved far below the city proper. In 1786, to stanch the spread of disease from overcrowded cemeteries, a portion of these old quarries were consecrated as burial grounds, and human remains were transferred there. Burials in the newly anointed "catacombs," both direct and as cemetery transfers, continued until 1860.

Napoléon Bonaparte ordered the creation of the underground sewer system, now some 300 miles long, in the early 19th century. Baron Georges-Eugène Haussman, the urban planner who shaped modern Paris, expanded the network, and it was finally completed in 1894 under Napoleon III.

Launched in 1900, the Paris Metro was not the first underground rail in Europe—London's Tube holds that honor—but it's one of the largest and most convenient. Almost every address in Paris is within a third of a mile of a Metro station.

The appeal: We love what makes us scream or squirm. In the catacombs, visitors descend more than 60 feet to a stone entrance bearing the warning (in French), "Stop! This is the Empire of Death." Beyond that welcome, the bones of six million people line the dim tunnels. Across town, tourists can channel the hero of Les Misérables, Jean Valjean, by exploring the city's sewer system. Those able to stomach the full tour pass through exhibits illustrating sewage technology to reach gangplanks that hover alongside a gently flowing river of water and human waste, sometimes even glimpsing a fat rat or two (toy versions of which are available in the gift shop).

Image by Click image for more photos / Bettman / Corbis. Small, chapel-like niches punctuate the catacombs' narrow passageways. Dimly lit by electric lights today, the passages and niches were once pitch-black, illuminated only by visitors' torches. A thick black line runs along the ceiling of the tunnels, originally drawn to help tourists stay on the correct path and out of the many dark, winding side passages that branch off into dead ends. (original image)

Image by Stefano Bianchetti / Corbis. The construction of Paris's modern sewers symbolized innovation, wealth and the power to sculpt the urban landscape—just as the Cloaca Maxima, or Great Sewer, did for ancient Rome. Perhaps more importantly, the underground sewage system helped keep Paris relatively clean and disease-free compared with most European cities. This illustration from 1858 depicts General Espinasse's visit to the main sewer below what is now the Gare de l'Est, or Eastern Train Station. The first dignitary to tour the sewers ranked even higher: Pedro V, King of Portugal, visited not long after the sewer tours began in 1855. (original image)

Image by Fred de Noyelle / Godong / Corbis. Before being interred in the catacombs, many of the remains originally were buried in traditional cemeteries. This sign indicates that the surrounding bones came from the ancient Madeleine Cemetery, were moved to the Western Ossuary in 1844 and were transferred to the catacombs in September of 1859. The first remains transferred were from the Cemetery of the Innocents, in the neighborhood of Les Halles. (original image)

Image by iStockphoto. Almost everyone who visits Paris goes underground for transportation. The Metro, the city's storied subway, has some 380 stations and is the densest underground rail system in the world. If you know where to look while riding, you can spot abandoned stations including the Croix-Rouge and Champ de Mars on the 8 line. Both have been closed for decades, and graffiti now covers their walls. (original image)

Image by Siobhan Roth. Ancient Rome's imperial glamour was not lost on Napoleon. Rome's famous catacombs drew tourists and inspired legends; so too, then, should the Paris catacombs. In 1809, Napoleon's prefect of the Seine, Count Frochot, and the Inspector General of the Quarries, Hériart de Thury, had the bones arranged in decorative patterns to impress visitors. A new tourist destination was born. (original image)

Interesting historical facts: In 1783, a porter named Philibert Aspairt got lost in the pitch-black quarry tunnels. His body wasn't found until 1804, just a few feet from an exit passage. During World War II, both the French Resistance and the Nazi forces used the ancient quarries as operational bases. Legend has it that they observed an unofficial ceasefire while underground. Until recently, farmers cultivated mushrooms, les champignons de Paris, in portions of the old quarry tunnels.

Famous sons and daughters: Many of the players in the French Revolution found their final resting places in the catacombs. Elizabeth of France, sister of King Louis the XVI, as well as the revolutionaries Robespierre and Georges Danton, all of whom were guillotined during the war, were buried in the catacombs—as was, perhaps, Madame de Pompadour, and the actor Scaramouche were among those transferred to the catacombs from the overcrowded cemeteries.

Then & Now: At the turn of the 19th century, the city was scandalized and titillated by the news of a secret concert held in the catacombs. On the program that night: Frédéric Chopin's Funeral March, Camille Saint-Saën's Danse Macabre and Ludwig van Beethoven's Third Symphony, the Eroica. Today, urban cavers, or cataphiles, throw parties, carve sculptures out of the limestone and decorate the walls with everything from basic graffiti tagging to minor masterpieces. Just a few years ago, police discovered in one of the tunnels a fully functional movie theater, some 4,300 square feet, powered by pirated electricity.

Who goes there?: Public tours of the catacombs commenced in 1810, and tours of the sewers began in 1867. From the start, crowds thronged at each. The king of Portugal was the first of many dignitaries to tour the sewers. Today, the Paris Sewer Museum and the Catacombs of Paris, on-site museums run by the city, draw hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. To explore all three sets of tunnels in one day, start with the sewers on the Left Bank of the Seine, then zip over to the catacombs by Metro.

Siobhan Roth, based in Washington, D.C., last wrote about a third-generation French perfumer for

Best Vegetarian Foods of the World

Smithsonian Magazine

Hot, handmade corn tortillas may be among the simplest and tastiest staple food items of the world. Here, the author presses out a batch. Photo by Andrew Bland.

“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.

If none of these curries at a street food stall in Thailand are vegetarian, at least chat with the lady and glean a few of her recipe secrets—then make your own back at the hostel. Flavored with heavy spices and thickened with coconut milk, virtually all Thai curries, with meat or without, are outstanding. Photo courtesy of Flickr user backpackfoodie.

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.

Khao niao durian occurs throughout Southeast Asia, though Laos is often credited as the origin of this dessert, made of sticky rice and coconut milk with durian flesh folded into the porridge. Photo by Andrew Bland.

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.

Tabouleh, in the trough at the bottom, is often served alongside other staples of Middle Eastern cuisine, like dolmas, hummus, falafels, olives and pita bread—a vegan feast. Photo courtesy of Flickr user stijnnieuwendijk.

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.

Should you visit the mountainous landscape of Lesotho, do like locals and harvest wild edible greens to make moroko, a popular regional dish of stewed and mashed vegetables. Photo courtesy of Flickr user scifilullabies.

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.

Mike Tyson, boxer (recently converted, Tyson chomped Holyfield’s earlobe ages ago).

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?

This Tilting, Twirling Artwork, Sculpted Entirely of Sticks, Is Having a Shindig

Smithsonian Magazine

There’s a magical ascendency to Patrick Dougherty’s work. The world-renowned sculptor, who twists switches and saplings into towering whimsical structures, holds a kind of sovereignty over the simple stick.

You wouldn’t immediately recognize his supremacy upon meeting the mild-mannered craftsman from North Carolina, but he has created more than 250 site-specific sculptures on four continents over the past three decades using hundreds of truckloads of sticks.

“A stick is an imaginative object,” says Dougherty, while taking a break recently from the installation of his new work Shindig at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

A parade of playful tent-like structures lean against the gallery walls or appear to be roaming about the 2,400 square-foot room. Soaring 16-and a-half-feet-high, the tips of their switches tease at the ceiling lights of the newly renovated museum. They look, in fact, like individuals possessing a hint of a mischief, as if when the lights go down at night they might take off in a whirl of dance.

Patrick Dougherty is one of nine contemporary artists featured in the Renwick's new exhibition "Wonder." (David C. Calicchio)

But by day, they evoke that primordial need for shelter, and visitors will likely want to hide inside of them.

“I think we have a kind of shadow life of our hunting and gathering past, especially in our childhood play. Because a stick—a piece of wood—is an object that has an incredible amount of vibration for us,” says Dougherty. In a child’s hands, a stick becomes a marching baton, a flute, a sword or even just a simple tool to poke at, or flick something away.

“Sticks really give me a lot of energy,” he says. “I’m very keen to the material and I feel like I sense the potential of a sapling.”

Indeed, since his first visit to the Smithsonian Institution in 2000 when he built Whatchamacallit at the National Museum of Natural History, Dougherty has become known as the "Stickman."  And like a capstone to a full and engaging career, he returns now to welcome the Renwick Gallery back to life as it reopens on November 13 after a two-year, $30 million renovation, and as one of nine contemporary artists in the museum’s inaugural exhibition entitled “Wonder,” named for the awe and splendor that these works bring to the museum’s galleries.


Image by Zan Maddox. Ain't Misbehavin' 2010,Winthrop University, Rock Hill, South Carolina (original image)

Image by Duncan Price. Call of the Wild, 2002, Museum of Glass, Tacoma, Washington (original image)

Image by Fin Macrae. Close Ties, 2006, Scottish Basketmakers Circle, Dingwall, Scotland (original image)

Image by Chandler Curlee. Double or Nothing, 2011, Washington University, st. Louis, Missouri (original image)

Image by Sapristi-Emmanuell Tran-le. Fit for a Queen, 2014, Ville de Nantes, France (original image)

Image by Doyle Dean. Just Around the Corner, 2003, New Harmony Gallery, New Harmony, Indiana (original image)

Image by Paul Kodama. Na Hale 'Eo Waiawi, 2003, Contemporary Art Museum, Honolulu, Hawaii (original image)

Image by Charles Crie. Sortie de Cave, 2008 Jardin des Arts, Chateaubourg, france (original image)

Image by Solku Choi. Traveling Companions, 2013, Deokpyeong Ecoland, Seoul, Korea (original image)

Image by Rob Cardillo. Summer Palace, 2009, Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia (original image)

To Dougherty, the stick is a tapered line of a drawing. He thinks of his works as illustration and the sticks as the lines of his drawing. But the ease with which he does his work is illusory. There's a lot more to it then it seems. Only after years of painstaking craftsmanship, can he build them as if by magic.

First there is the gathering of the material. Volunteers clamor to help. “There are a lot of closet stick gatherers out there, it turns out,” he says with a chuckle.

And then later, the volunteers join him to build the structure. Dougherty starts the process, crafting out the base of the structure, marking it with paint or rope and then weaving it all together stick after stick before finally finishing it, loosening, clipping and correcting, with his only tool—a pair of pruning clippers. Sometimes his volunteers are a little too good at weaving, he says, a little too tight sometimes. "I'll go around and loosen it up and give the surface a sense of the flyaway."

And the weaving is nothing like that of a basket. “Don’t go horizontal or vertical,” he tells his helpers. “It’s not geometric. We want it to be more loose and friendly.”

Dougherty found his artistry only after a first career as a hospital administrator, But in the early 1970s, after leaving his job to care for his two children while his first wife worked, he bought property and built a home by hand, using as guidance the how-to Foxfire books, popular with the back-to-the-land movement of the time.

Finding in that creation his passion, he went back to school and sought training as an artist. His first sculpture—a funerary piece, evocative of a cocoon—he built out of maple saplings at his backyard picnic table.

“One could imagine a kind of personage in there for its final resting place,” he recalls. The work entitled Maple Body Wrap was included in the North Carolina Biennial exhibition. And Dougherty’s career took off from there.


Dougherty says he wanted his sculpture Shindig to look as if the "forest is kind of acting up within the geometric space of the gallery." (Ron Blunt/ Renwick Gallery/ SAAM)

His influence was the artist Robert Smithson, known for his provocative large scale earthworks. “I was kind of bent on making really big things. Smithson’s work freed up my mind. I didn’t have to follow the normal rules. Smithson stepped out of line, but for me that was the beginning,” he laughs.

The busy artist has been traveling the world making one monumental sculpture after another from Scotland to Korea to Australia and across the United States, one every three weeks after which he takes a week off—as many as ten a year. He’s booked solid through 2017. Here in Washington, D.C., the sculpture he’s crafted is one he thinks of as “natural beings, windswept, or energized and activating the space.”

An energy perhaps that is channeled from their creator, who beneath his thoughtful and patient demeanor seems never to rest. (He didn’t own a sofa until his second wife, Linda Johnson Dougherty, the chief curator of contemporary art at the North Carolina Museum of Art, made him buy one—because he never sat down.)

The challenge of his schedule and the constant travel is underscored by the simple way he gathers his materials, patiently teaching, instructing and showing his volunteers as if he is mentoring hundreds of future stick sculptors. He explains the best wood—maple saplings are his preference but sweetgum will do. No, he doesn’t like poplar—cutting and bundling, and then bringing them to the next location.

At the Smithsonian, the sticks had to be custom prepped. Leaves were removed and then the wood was frozen first to kill pests and then treated with a fire retardant.

"If you had a drawing on a piece of paper, you're making tapered lines," says Dougherty. "All of these sticks are pretty tapered and so there is a sense of energetic motion." (Ron Blunt/ Renwick Gallery/ SAAM)

Each site where he is invited to work is a blank page or canvas, says the artist who rarely comes with a design in mind.

“I don’t do research. I try to remember how I feel about a place and I make word associations with each location so that I can try to get something going,” he says. It might be something someone says. Or the way the trees line up on the horizon or the way a rooftop of a nearby building fits into the landscape. And soon the creative process begins. “I start imagining that I could make something provocative in that space.”

Dougherty, dressed in jeans and greeting a reporter with a solid workman's handshake, explains his art in a refreshingly uncomplicated manner.

How long do they last? "One year and one pretty good year." Why do they lean? "For fun." Why are they so inviting? “Everyone, even adults, responds to the idea of simple shelter. There’s a call to just go in there and sit.”

And why call this work Shindig? “They are having a hell of a good time.”

Patrick Dougherty is one of nine contemporary artists featured in the exhibition “Wonder,” on view November 13, 2015 through July 10, 2016, at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.

Watch this video in the original article

Shimmy Through the World's Most Spectacular Slot Canyons

Smithsonian Magazine

It begins with a simple crack in the rock on the ground. But add a few million years and that crack opens into a deep winding gorge in the earth, with a narrow path and sheer sides. The crack has become a slot canyon.

Slot canyons—the narrow, tall channels through otherwise solid rock—can be found anywhere in the world, but are particularly numerous in the southwestern U.S. and Australia, where the perfect canyon-forming combination of soft rock and extreme climate collide. It happens like this: the initial crack is covered by a flash flood from heavy rain pooling in a natural wash. The water seeps into the crack, bringing with it rocks, sediment, and other debris that carve a little bit away from the inside edges of the crack. Rain, flood, repeat. Sandstone is most susceptible to this kind of earth carving, but slot canyons can also form out of limestone, granite, basalt and other types of rock.

Once formed, careful hikers can trek through the base of these otherworldly canyons, shimmying through tapered sections, bracing themselves against both walls in the narrowest portions and beholding scenery unlike just about anything else in the world. Intrigued? Be sure to plan carefully or take a guide as flash floods and extreme conditions can make these canyons as dangerous as they are beautiful. 

Antelope Canyon, Arizona

Image by Simone_Amaduzzi_Photographer / iStock. The Heaven's Eyes (original image)

Image by jose1983 / iStock. Antelope Canyon in Page, Arizona (original image)

Image by Left_Coast_Photographer / iStock. Sandfall (original image)

Image by sprokop / iStock. Upper Antelope Canyon (original image)

Image by FilippoBacci / iStock. Light Beams Inside Antelope Canyon (original image)

This slot canyon packs double the punch: it has two parts, upper and lower. Both have a separate entrance fee, but with that small price of admission, they offer different spectacular views. Upper Antelope Canyon has wider, more family-friendly pathways at the expense of more crowds; Lower Antelope Canyon is longer, narrower, deeper and more challenging—thus, less crowded. Antelope Canyon is on Navajo land, so visitors will always need a tour guide regardless of which part of the canyon they want to see. Both routes have Navajo names as well—Upper Antelope is called Tse’ bighanilini (“the place where water runs through rocks”) and Lower Antelope is Hasdestwazi (“spiral rock arches”).

Robber’s Roost Canyon, Utah

Image by Ken Lund, Flickr. Dirty Devil (original image)

Image by Wikicommons. Upper Robbers Roost Canyon, and the South Fork of the canyon (original image)

Ever dreamed of being a part of Butch Cassidy’s dream team? Head to the Dirty Devil portion of Robber’s Roost, where it's said that Cassidy used to hide out from the cops. In fact, this area was used as a hideout for outlaws of all types for about 30 years. The original Wild Bunch corral is still there. According to local lore, the area is so named because Cap Brown, an outlaw of the time, used to lead stolen horses through in the 1870s. This canyon falls under a “protected for solitude” restriction, so visitors will need to get a permit to visit—and only two per day are given.

Robber's Roost actually has three distinct sections: an upper plateau, slot canyons and larger canyons on the other end of the slots. There are three main slot canyons. Chambers Canyon is in a more remote part of the Roost and is quite intense; the quarter-mile slot can take about an hour and a half to complete. Big Bad Ben is short with a 60-foot rappel, but also often has waist-deep pools—so bring a bathing suit. Bluejohn Canyon has become part of current pop culture; it's the site of Aron Ralston's fateful hike in the book Between a Rock and a Hard Place and the accompanying movie "127 Hours."

Siq, Jordan

Image by stevenallan /iStock. The lost city of Petra (original image)

Image by vanbeets / iStock. The Siq in Petra, Jordan (original image)

Image by liseykina / iStock. Petra (original image)

Image by FedevPhoto / iStock. Petra by Night in Jordan (original image)

Image by playinhot / iStock. Three bedouins riding a horse cab through the canyon in the ancient city of Petra (original image)

Image by Mytho / iStock. Sandstone detail (original image)

Most who wish to reach the ancient city of Petra must first walk through Siq, a massive slot canyon leading to the entrance of the Treasury, and one of just two primary passages to the ancient archeological site. The path through the canyon winds along for about three quarters of a mile, at times narrowing to just a few feet across. Unlike most slot canyons that are gradually carved by water errosion, Siq was formed after two tectonic plates forced the mountain to split apart—flash floods later smoothed the canyon walls. The entire route unfolds downhill toward Petra; consider renting a horse or camel to have an easier trek back up when you’re finished exploring.

Buckskin Gulch, Utah

Image by dpenn / iStock. Buckskin Gulch Slot Canyon (original image)

Image by CampPhoto / iStock. Buckskin Gulch (original image)

Image by amygdala_imagery / iStock. Beautiful wildflowers and slot canyon (original image)

Image by ES3N / iStock. Narrow pass in Buckskin Gulch (original image)

Buckskin is the longest slot canyon in the U.S., and some consider it the longest in the world. It's also one of the most dangerous. The 12-mile path barely stretches more than 10 feet wide, and the walls are about 400 feet tall at the canyon's deepest point. A little more than halfway in, there's a single escape route—but otherwise, if a quick storm pushes through and sends floodwater careening into the canyon, you're in big trouble. Luckily, there have been no reported deaths to date.

Colored Canyon, Egypt 

Image by DKart / iStock. Red Canyon (original image)

Image by thrshr / iStock. Zigzag Corridor Of The Colored Canyon (original image)

Image by Givaga / iStock. Canyon in Sinai (original image)

Image by yykkaa / iStock. Colored Canyon (original image)

Image by DKart / iStock. Red Canyon (original image)

On Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, travelers can find a slot canyon with walls of swirling colors. The rock itself is a combination of sandstone and limestone, with magnesium and iron oxide deposits. The whole region was once undersea, and when the water eventually eroded the rock below, it left brilliant shades of red, yellow, purple and orange. Although the walls rise up about 16 stories, they are sometimes only a few feet apart from one another. For a short hike, opt for Colored Canyon; it’s only about half a mile long.

Claustral Canyon, Australia

Image by Vern. Deep within Claustral Canyon. (original image)

Image by Vern. Rappelling down a waterfall in Claustral Canyon. (original image)

Image by Vern. Abseiling through the keyhole further into Claustral Canyon. (original image)

Image by Vern. Waterfall at a dead end in Claustral Canyo. (original image)

Image by Vern. A tunnel swim in Claustral Canyon. (original image)

This slot canyon in Australia's Blue Mountains is accessed by repelling down a series of waterfalls and scrambling over boulders. But the trek to get there is rewarded with a mossy, high-walled canyon and the opportunity to try out all types of technical climbing and canyoneering skills. The trip takes all day and can be quite strenuous.

One of the gems in this canyon is the Black Hole of Calcutta, so named for the 18th-century dungeon in India. The Black Hole marks the start of the main canyon, and looks like you really are descending into a black hole—one full of rushing water and chiseled, colorful walls.

Arizona Hot Springs, Arizona

Canyoning through hot springs in Boy Scout Canyon. (Perrin Doniger)

A few miles south of the Hoover Dam, the three-mile Arizona Hot Springs hiking path heads through multiple slot canyons and four distinct landscapes. All the while, hikers will be walking alongside or through natural hot springs. The final destination is a series of pools of varying temperatures where hikers can rejuvenate their weary bones beneath towering rock walls. Below the pools, a ladder leads hikers down (and through) a 20-foot hot spring waterfall and the trail continues down to the Colorado River where camping spots are available.

Visitors looking for solitude can also arrange to be dropped off by an outfitter with a canoe below the Hoover Dam, allowing access to more remote hot springs slot canyons, including Boy Scout Canyon. Here the hike follows the hot springs up through narrow slots in reddish brown and black volcanic rock. Avoid a summer trip, though—the temperature can rise over 100 degrees, making a dip in the hot springs pretty uncomfortable.

Explore the Heart of the Revolutionary War’s Southern Campaign

Smithsonian Magazine

December 3, 1773.

A British ship glided into the Charles Towne Harbor, loaded down with precious cargo—tea, to be drunk by residents of the thirteen colonies, as dependent on the hot drink as their fellow royal subjects across the Atlantic.

But this time, something was different. Increasingly fed up with what they insisted were unfair taxes levied by the British government on the American colonies, local merchants rallied together in protest. Instead of purchasing the tea, they locked it away in the Exchange building.

The Charleston Tea Party happened days before the more famous one in Boston, and though less well remembered, it foreshadowed the pivotal role South Carolina would play in the war's southern theater. Over 200 battles and skirmishes took place in the state over the course of the Revolutionary War, including some of the most important conflicts of the war. Today, these important battles are honored throughout the state with beautifully preserved battlefields and historic ruins, quite gravesites and vibrant living history museums. Here are just a few of the best spots in the state for exploring South Carolina’s Revolutionary-era spirit.

The Old Exchange & Provost Dungeon (Charleston)

Charleston is filled with Revolutionary-era curiosities, including the Heyward-Washington House, the former home to one of four South Carolina signatories of the Declaration of Independence. Charleston is also where you’ll find the Old Exchange & Provost Dungeon, a meeting place for South Carolina's revolutionary leaders and a storehouse for confiscated British tea. After the British stormed the city in 1780, the basement was converted into a harsh military prison, confining both Colonial prisoners of war and errant British soldiers. After the war, the building served as the site of the 1788 South Carolina convention that would ultimately ratify the United States Constitution. The building is one of only four structures still standing where the nation’s founding document was originally ratified.


Georgetown, about an hour and a half north of Charleston on the coast, was a key port in the operations of General Nathaniel Greene, one of George Washington’s most trusted deputies. Georgetown County was also a key battleground for Francis Marion, nicknamed the “Swamp Fox” by British forces for his craftiness in wreaking havoc on British encampments under the cover of night. Today, sixteen blocks of the downtown area are listed on the National Historic Register, and Swamp Fox Tours offers a 1.5 hour narrated tour of the district's historic sites.

Old Sheldon Church Ruins

In Yemassee, around 20 miles outside of Beaufort, SC, the Old Sheldon Church was once the first example of Classical Revival architecture in the American colonies. Built with Doric-style Greek columns, the original church was burned by British forces in 1779, and while it was quickly rebuilt, it was destroyed again during the Civil War. Now, the ruins offer a unique opportunity to wander amongst the stones of history, including gravesites and memorials dedicated to famous South Carolinians.

Battle of Musgrove Mill State Historic Site

While strolling amongst nearly three miles of nature trails, visitors to the site of the Battle of Musgrove Mill learn about the 1780 clash: 200 Patriots versus nearly twice that number of Loyalists. Outnumbered and trapped by geography, the Patriot militia, hiding in a brush, tricked the Loyalists into attacking first, resulting in a Patriot rout that inspired the tired Americans to keep fighting.

Eutaw Springs Battleground Park

The last major fight of the Carolinas during the American Revolution, the Battle of Eutaw Springs took place on September 8, 1781, when 2,000 troops under Gen. Nathanael Greene's command attacked British forces camped on Eutaw Creek. Although both sides claimed victory, the British took heavy losses, and Greene succeeded in preventing the British troop from joining with forces under Gen. Charles Lord Cornwallis in Virginia, a strategic gain. The battle site is now a park dotted with historic marker telling the story of the engagement. The tomb of British Major John Majoribanks, who fought in the battle, can also be found on the grounds.

Historic Brattonsville

In 1780, morale in the Colonies was low—the British were racking up wins, and the American militias were depleted, especially in South Carolina, whose Charleston contingent had been captured by British forces in May. But on July 12 of that year, a small group of South Carolina fighters went on the offense, and a group of backcountry militiamen took on the fearsome General Christian Huck—and won. It was the first major Southern win of the war, and the people of South Carolina were rejuvenated by the victory. Today, visitors can take in Brattonsville’s 775 acres, dotted with 30 historic structures that interpret life in South Carolina during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Historic Camden

Although the Battle of Camden itself was a crushing defeat to American fighters, its legacy is an important one. After their defeat at the hands of the British Lt. General Lord Cornwallis, the Continental Army returned to strategizing and made changes in their leadership that historians link directly to their eventual victory. Over 450 acres of battlefield are preserved at Camden, as is the 18th century house of local Joseph Kershaw, which served as Cornwallis’ headquarters after his win during the battle.

Each November, Historic Camden hosts the annual Revolutionary War Field Days. Over 500 re-enactors take over the town, performing daily battles and demonstrating Revolutionary-era crafts, cooking and period fashions. The events are family friendly and spectators are welcome.

Lexington County Museum

More than 30 historic structures make up the Lexington County Museum, where visitors can learn about day-to-day life in backcountry South Carolina in the days of the American Revolution. The museum, which includes the oldest home in Lexington, offers the chance to learn about local furniture and quilt making as well as 18th century production of dairy, honey and other household staples.

Living History Park (North Augusta)

Once an overgrown, swampy dumping ground for the city of North Augusta, the Olde Towne Preservation Association transformed the site into the Living History Park of today, where trained historical reenactors invite guests to travel back in time to learn about daily life in the early 18th century. Over 20,000 people visit each year, taking in sites like a greenhouse specializing in 18th century plants and a blacksmithing workshop that demonstrates the art of forging.

South Carolina Revolutionary Rivers Trail

Francis Marion, the “Swamp Fox” of South Carolina, was aided in his raids and surprise attacks by the landscape of South Carolina’s rivers, which offered ample camouflage and hiding places. The Revolutionary Rivers Trail invites would-be Swamp Foxes to follow in Marion’s footsteps on paddling tours that take kayakers through Marion’s swamp hideouts, off-roading adventures, and even overnight camping trips.

Cowpens National Battlefield

The Battle of Cowpens, where the Continental Army employed a still-rare "double envelopment" technique, is widely considered a key turning point in the American Revolution, especially in the southern theater. American troops under Gen. Daniel Morgan retreated back to defensive positions along the Broad River before hitting the British troops with attacks on both flanks. The British forces suffered overwhelming losses, with 110 British soldiers killed, compared to just 12 Americans. Walk the trails run by the National Park Service, and stop for a visit at the official museum to see reproductions of Revolutionary-era weapons.

Kings Mountain National Military Park

Fought in the fall of 1780, the Battle of Kings Mountain was the only conflict of the American Revolution to be fought entirely by Americans—Patriots versus Royalists. The Patriots won, and Thomas Jefferson called it “the turn of the tide of success.” Established in 1931, the park is part of the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail, which marks the route of Appalachian Patriots to fighting areas in South Carolina and other parts of the South.

Walnut Grove Plantation

Built as the home of Charles and Mary Moore in 1765, the main house at Walnut Grove was also home to Charles and Mary’s daughter Margaret Kathryn Moore, who in 1767 married the future Gen. Andrew Barry. Kate, as she was known, became a fierce supporter of the Patriot cause, and used her position as lady of the house to spy on Tory troops and offer a meeting place to would-be Patriot fighters.

From the coastal Lowcountry to the Blue Ridge Mountains, historic landmarks tell our nation's origin story across the Palmetto State. Explore these thirteen locations, and many more, and discover South Carolina's pivotal role in the American Revolution.

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Discover More Revolutionary History in South Carolina

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Minnesota - History and Heritage

Smithsonian Magazine

Historic Fort Snelling (St. Paul)
The restored fort welcomes you to the 1820s. Soldiers, fur traders, servants, cooks, tradesmen, officers and laundresses are eager to share their stories with you.

Take part in the fort's everyday life. Shoulder a musket, mend clothes, scrape a hide or sing along with soldiers' songs. Take tea with Mrs. Snelling or sample the soldiers' bread ration. Shop for supplies at the sutler's store, where only the prices are modern. At historic Fort Snelling, visitors are always welcome and the modern world is checked at the gate. A multimedia exhibit in the officers' quarters shows how historians have traced life at the fort. Back in the visitor center, take in exhibits and films and browse through the gift store. The visitor center has exhibits, film and a gift shop and is open daily from May to October and on weekdays from November to April.

Charles A. Lindbergh Boyhood Home & Interpretive Center (Little Falls)
Now you can hear the whisper of pines from the porch where he slept, enjoy the home's cozy kitchen or walk the trails along the river.

In the basement of the home, young Charles Lindbergh enjoyed tinkering with all things mechanical. His adolescent dreams of flight brought him a job flying the mail. Later, in 1927, he was the first to fly alone over the Atlantic Ocean, for 33-and-a-half hours in a single-engine plane. When he landed safely in Paris, Lindbergh's place in history was assured. The house, which contains original furnishings and family possessions, was built in 1906. A visitor center features a gift shop and exhibits about Lindbergh's family, inventions and aviation accomplishments. Learn about Lindbergh's interest in conservation and the natural beauty of the state as you walk along the Mississippi River on the site's nature trail.

Split Rock Lighthouse Historic Site (Two Harbors)
Split Rock Lighthouse served for nearly six decades as a guide for maritime traffic through the busy shipping lanes of Lake Superior. Today, you can tour the light keeper's dwelling, fog-signal building and the lighthouse, all as they were in the 1920s.

As you explore the visitor center's exhibits, film, store and light station grounds, you'll learn about the building of the light station and about life as a keeper in this remote setting. Tour guides and costumed characters depict the lives of the early lightkeepers and their families, and describe the famous storms that caused many a shipwreck along the rocky North Shore.

Plan a little extra time to enjoy the spectacular views! Shipwrecks from a mighty 1905 November gale prompted this rugged landmark's construction. Completed by the U.S. Lighthouse Service in 1910, Split Rock Light Station was soon one of Minnesota's best known landmarks. Restored to its 1920s appearance, the lighthouse offers a glimpse of lighthouse life in this remote and spectacular setting. Tour the lighthouse, fog-signal building and the restored keeper's dwelling. A visitor center features an award-winning film, exhibits and a museum store.

Historic Murphy's Landing (Shakopee)
Historic Murphy's Landing is a unique living history museum that preserves and interprets 19th century life in the Minnesota River Valley. The idyllic wooded setting that stretches along one and a half miles of scenic river valley brings alive the charm and challenges of life in the 1800s.

Families, history buffs and adventurers of all ages can step in this historic village, which features the rich diversity of early American life.

Visitors can stroll through the site or ride on horse drawn trolleys. Their journey will cover the early days of the fur trade era when people traveled by footpath and canoes, to the bustling village with its shops, homes, church, town hall and railroad depot. Throughout the historic site, costumed interpreters are prepared to spin a tale, demonstrate their craft and explain the daily life of men, women and children. Music and entertainment often fill the daily village routine. Guests may enjoy a beverage, lunch or a keepsake at the gift shop.

Fall Season Special Events
Old West Days: October 6 and 7
Old Fashion Halloween: October 27

Winter Season Special Events
Folkways of the Holiday: November 23 to December 23. Experience what life was like for settlers of all ages living along the Minnesota River Valley during the 1800s. Visit with costumed interpreters in our frontier-era farms and recreated village of Eagle Creek; ride a horse-drawn trolley; enjoy music and demonstrations. Check our Web site for special event dates and times.

Minnesota State Capitol Historic Site (St. Paul)
The Senate, House of Representatives and Supreme Court chambers have been restored to their original appearances. The public is welcome to dine in the newly restored Rathskeller cafe. The Legislature meets the first months of each year. During sessions, all galleries and legislative hearings are open to the public. The Supreme Court hears cases in its historic chambers the first week of the month. Free guided tours that explore the architecture, history and stories of significant Minnesota citizens begin every hour until one hour before closing. Special events, specialized tours and educational programs are available for modest fees throughout the year. A handicapped entrance is available on ground floor front. This is a Minnesota Historical Society site.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum (Walnut Grove)
In 1874, 7-year-old Laura Ingalls and her family traveled by covered wagon from Wisconsin's big woods to the prairie of Walnut Grove. The Ingalls's first home was a one-room sod dugout in the banks of Plum Creek.

The Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum's collections are housed in a series of interesting buildings. An 1898 depot exhibit relates the history of Laura through artifacts from the Ingalls era including Laura's handmade quilt.

Additional exhibits include an 1880s style "little red school house," an ecumenical chapel with artifacts from local churches and an onion-domed 1890 home with early 1900s period furnishings. Other exhibits include memorabilia from the "Little House on the Prairie" TV series, the Kelton doll collection containing 250 dolls dating from the 1870s and artifacts from early Walnut Grove businesses and agriculture.

The Wilder Pageant is held every July on the banks of Plum Creek west of Walnut Grove. The amphitheater setting has been developed to allow for extensive lighting, sound, special effects, and imaginative sets. The Wilder Pageant is a family-oriented outdoor theater production. It is a live performance each night, with all characters from the Walnut Grove area. Laura Ingalls Wilder narrates the story, reflecting on her life in Walnut Grove in the 1870s. It is our hope that visitors will take with them a sense of history and a deeper appreciation of the joys and hardships that challenged our ancestors when settling the prairie.

Mayowood Mansion (Rochester)
The Historic Mayowood Mansion is the former home of Doctor Charles H. Mayo, co-founder of the world renowned Mayo Clinic in Rochester. The site has original furnishings and a one-hour guided walking tour. Call for reservations and tour availability.

SPAM Museum (Austin)
Our 16,500 square-foot museum honors SPAM family of products, one of America's oldest and best-loved icons. The SPAM Museum pays homage to the almost 70 year history, quirky joys and unprecedented excitement SPAM has inspired for generations of people worldwide. The self-guided tour is enhanced with our friendly and knowledgeable SPAMbassadors.

American Swedish Institute (Minneapolis)
Founded in 1929 by Swedish immigrant and newspaper publisher Swan J. Turnblad, the American Swedish Institute is housed in his family's 1904 mansion, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Its French Chateau architecture, detail, craftsmanship and elegance make for one of the finest historic buildings open to the public in Minneapolis. The Indiana limestone exterior includes three turrets and gargoyles of lion and griffin figures. The interior features elaborate hand-carved oak, walnut, and mahogany, which took 18 craftsmen two years to complete. The centerpiece of the grand entrance hall is a two-story carved fireplace mantel. Eleven rooms are furnished with Swedish porcelain tile stoves called kakelugnar. A stained glass picture window, colorful sculpted ceilings and a ballroom with proscenium stage are other highlights.

Museum exhibits showcase collections of immigrant artifacts, Swedish glass, fine art, woodcarvings, decorative arts, textiles and more. The ongoing exhibit "Swedish Life in the Twin Cities" tells the story of Swedish immigrants who settled in Minneapolis and St. Paul. The American Swedish Institute is also the place to find Scandinavian gifts, jewelry, books, prints and other imports at the Bokhandel (bookstore) and Museum Shop.

The American Swedish Institute offers a variety of programs designed to celebrate Swedish culture in America. It is conveniently located just south of downtown Minneapolis at 2600 Park Avenue. Museum hours are Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 12 to 4 p.m., Wednesday 12 to 8 p.m. and Sunday 1 to 5 p.m. (Closed Mondays and holidays.) Museum admission is $5 for adults, $4 for ages 62 and above, $3 ages six to 18 and $4 for groups of 15 or more. Group tours can be arranged with advanced notice.

Mill City Museum (Minneapolis)
An attraction for all ages, the museum chronicles the flour milling industry that dominated world flour production for roughly a half-century and fueled the growth of Minneapolis, recognized across the nation and around the world as "Mill City." The museum is built within the ruins of the Washburn A Mill. The story of flour milling—and its impact on Minneapolis, the nation and the world—comes to life through the eight-story Flour Tower and other hands-on exhibits.

Minnesota Fishing Hall of Fame (Walker)
Legends Hall contains video and memorabilia for 26 of Minnesota's fishing legends. Activity center includes games and activities for children. Free kids fishing pond with bait and tackle supplied.

Ironworld Discovery Center (Chisholm)
Ironworld Discovery Center, located on the edge of the Glen mine, is a museum that collects, preserves and interprets the history of Minnesota's Iron Ranges. The explosive growth of iron mining attracted thousands to northeastern Minnesota. Their courage and tenacity transformed a sparsely populated wilderness into a culturally diverse industrial landscape.

Experience the story of Iron Range mining and immigration: the life, the work, the place and the people. Explore history and heritage exhibits, ride a vintage trolley to a former mining location, marvel at spectacular mine views or acquaint yourself with the local history and genealogy collections of the Iron Range Research Center's renowned library and archives. The Iron Range Research Center contains one of the largest genealogical and local history collections in the upper Midwest. Researchers can access books, census and naturalization records, microfilmed newspapers, passenger arrival records, oral histories, photographs and more.

As the Minnesota iron mining industry exploded at the turn of the 20th century, people seeking economic prosperity and freedom immigrated to northern Minnesota from nations around the globe. These immigrants brought few material goods on their journey, but carried with them the rich traditions and customs of their homelands. Ironworld Discovery Center preserves this important period of American history.

Mille Lacs Indian Museum & Trading Post (Onamia)
The Mille Lacs Indian Museum, which opened May 18, 1996, offers exhibits dedicated to telling the story of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. Trace their journey to Northern Minnesota, learn about their fate during a period of treaties made and broken and follow their story up to the present. The museum exhibit reveals information about the Band's life today, from how dance traditions are carried on to members' interests in music to sovereignty issues.

The museum features videos, listening stations and objects from traditional and contemporary Ojibwe culture, showcasing traditions of language, music, dance and art. A large collection of Ojibwe objects illuminates the lives of Band members, past and present. The Four Seasons Room, a stunning life-size diorama, depicts traditional Ojibwe activities in each season: hunting and spear fishing in winter, maple sugaring in spring, gardening and berry picking in summer and wild rice harvesting in fall.

The museum's crafts room serves as a demonstration area for traditional cooking, birch-bark basketry and beadwork. In a restored 1930s trading post next to the museum-a landmark along Mille Lacs Lake you can shop for books, crafts, clothing and souvenirs. All year, the museum offers demonstrations and classes on a variety of crafts.

April and May: Thursday to Saturday, 12 to 5 p.m. Memorial Day to Labor Day: Wednesday to Saturday and Mondays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday 12 to 5 p.m.
September and October: Thursday to Saturday 12 - 5 p.m. October to April: By appointment for group and educational tours only. See calendar for weekend workshops and special events. Outreach programs and ITV programming also available. Educational group tours and special events are always available by appointment. Attraction Accessible to Disabled and can accommodate groups of 45 or more. Directions to Attraction from Nearest Town/Intersection Located on U.S. Hwy 169 on the southwest shore of Mille Lacs Lake, 8 miles south of Garrison, 12 miles north of Onamia.

A Maze of Palatial Icebergs Has Floated Into a Washington, D.C. Museum

Smithsonian Magazine

In the past few decades, icebergs have become a kind of potent visual metaphor for the threats posed by climate change. The ice dwindles while world leaders debate what should be done.

To the curious general public, however, how climate change affects icebergs and what that means can seem abstract. That's why the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. will offer a chance to visit an iceberg this summer. Fortunately, a harrowing helicopter ride isn't needed.

"Icebergs," an installation designed by the New York-based landscape architecture and urban design firm James Corner Field Operations, is an artistic interpretation of the underwater world of a glacial ice field. From July 2 through September 5, visitors will be able to explore underwater caves and grottos, and climb up a 56-foot-tall "bergy bit" to peer above the waterline—created by a suspended blue mesh bisecting the installation.

"What we are trying to do is create a very unique experience for the museum visitors, where they are able to immerse themselves in a landscape," says Isabel Castilla, a senior associate with James Corner and the project manager for "Icebergs."

The installation is intended to be a fun, family-oriented space to explore, with a mix of open spaces for gatherings of large groups of people and enclosures where a couple of people can chat more intimately. There will be a kiosk selling refreshments, a labyrinth for children to play and a slide providing a quick ride down from one of the icebergs. It is also a space for learning about the science surrounding icebergs. Ideally, the artificial icebergs will help visitors grasp what is happening to real icebergs at the planet's poles.

The firm studied photographs and research papers to understand icebergs. "We really got very involved in the iceberg world," Castilla says. "It is not something you know as much about as say, a forest ecosystem or a river." That deep delve into an icy world of glaciers gave Castilla and her colleagues a wealth of "ideas about design, color and light." They ended up choosing to work with materials they had never worked with before. The towering, pyramidal icebergs they created are built of reusable materials, such as polycarbonate paneling, a type of corrugated plastic often used in greenhouse construction.

Ironically, the National Building Museum's construction team recommended adding better ventilation to the largest icebergs, since they were so good at trapping heat inside, museum vice president of marketing Brett Rodgers says. These bergs won't melt, but visitors might've.

This map of depths in the southern Atlantic and Southern Ocean near the Antarctic Peninsula and South Georgia Island shows tracks for two icebergs in red. (From Journal of Glaciology, Scambos, T et al, 2008)

Another part of the installation features facts about icebergs printed on the bergs themselves. "[An] iceberg known as B15 was the largest iceberg in history, measuring 23 by 183 miles, nearly the size of Connecticut," details one of the factoids. "If melted, the B15 iceberg could fill Lake Michigan, or 133.7 million National Building Museums."

Scientists are still learning about the factors at play in and around icebergs. Researchers like Ted Scambos take extraordinary risks to study the masses and examine what their role is in the Earth's complicated ecosystem. In 2006, Scambos, a senior research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) in Boulder, Colorado, and his team sailed on the icebreaker ship A.R.A. Almirante Irizar to take them close to an iceberg measuring roughly seven by six miles and towering more than 100 feet above the sea surface. There, they climbed aboard a military-style helicopter. Their goal was to set foot on the iceberg, place a group of scientific instruments and then remotely track the berg's movement as it floated north to disintegrate.

But on March 4, 2006, "the light over the huge, very smooth berg was almost hopelessly flat—no features at all, like flying over an infinite bowl of milk," wrote Scambos in a research log for the mission at NSIDC's website.

How could the pilot land the team in those conditions? Throwing a small smoke bomb to the surface provided a point of reference, but it wasn't enough. During the first approach, the pilot couldn't quite judge the helicopter’s angle and one of the landing skids struck the iceberg's surface. "The massive helicopter staggered like a lumbering beast that had tripped," Scambos recalls. Fortunately, the pilot was able to recover, throw another smoke bomb and land safely.

Scambos and his team's measurements would provide them with information about how icebergs move and melt, a proxy for how the great Antarctic ice sheet may melt as the climate changes and global temperatures warm. For the scientists, the risk was well worth the opportunity to contribute to the collective knowledge about how ocean levels may rise and endanger coastal cities.

Scambos has seen how a melting iceberg leaves a trail of freshwater in its wake. As the ice sheet that gave birth to the berg moved over the Antarctic continent, it picked up dirt and dust rich in minerals like iron. When the traveling iceberg carries those nutrients out into the ocean, they nourish the water and provoke a bloom of marine algae. The algae in turn are gobbled by microscopic animals and small fish, which feed larger animals such as seals and whales. An iceberg creates its own ecosystem.

"They are really interesting in their own right," Scambos says. "It is an interaction between ocean and ice." He says he's glad that the installation will give the public a way to learn about icebergs.

For example, physical forces can act on icebergs in surprising ways. Scambos and the team described some of these movements after tracking the iceberg they nearly crash-landed on and other icebergs. The data they gathered allowed them to describe the dance of those huge but fragile plates of ice across the ocean in a paper published in the Journal of Glaciology.

Icebergs are steered by currents and wind, but a major influence on their movements that came as surprise to the scientists was the push and pull of the tides. The ebb and flow of the Earth's tides actually tilts the ocean surface into a gentle slope—a difference of just a few feet over 600 miles or so. An iceberg drifting out to sea inscribes curlicues and pirouettes on this inclined surface.

Some of the counterintuitive tracks that icebergs take has to do with their shape. Even though Antarctic icebergs are sometimes hundreds of feet thick, their wide expanse makes them thin in comparison to their volume. Scambos likens them to a thin leaf that drifts across the surface of the ocean.

(In Greenland and other locations in the Arctic, icebergs tend to be smaller chunks, as they break off from glaciers that aren't as large as the Antarctic ice sheet. In "Icebergs," the mountain-like constructions are inspired by Arctic, rather than Antarctic, bergs.)

Image by Courtesy Ted Scambos and Robert Bauer, National Snow and Ice Data Center. Researchers and crew load up the helicopter used to take Ted Scambos and the team to an iceberg in Antarctica. (original image)

Image by Courtesy Ted Scambos and Robert Bauer, National Snow and Ice Data Center. The team leaves the icebreaker ship behind and sets out over the iceberg. (original image)

Image by Courtesy Ted Scambos and Robert Bauer, National Snow and Ice Data Center. A view from the helicopter window of the edge of an iceberg. (original image)

Image by Courtesy Ted Scambos and Robert Bauer, National Snow and Ice Data Center. Scambos (foreground) and the team set up scientific instruments and cameras on top an iceberg. Thanks to the timing of the good weather window, they had to spend the night on the iceberg. (original image)

Image by Courtesy Ted Scambos and Robert Bauer, National Snow and Ice Data Center. The sunset on an iceberg, with a sled carrying RADAR equipment in the foreground. (original image)

Image by Courtesy Ted Scambos and Robert Bauer, National Snow and Ice Data Center. Another view of the edge of a large iceberg (original image)

Eventually, every iceberg's dance stops. Warm air flowing across the surface of the iceberg gives rise to ponds of meltwater that trickle down into ice cracks created by stresses when the berg was part of the larger ice sheet. The weight of liquid water forces the cracks apart and leads to the rapid disintegration of the iceberg.

The instrument station on the first iceberg toppled over into slush and meltwater in early November 2006, about eight months after Scambos and the team installed it. On November 21, GPS data showed the station "teetering on the edge of the crumbling iceberg," according to the NSIDC. Then it fell into the sea.

Watching the breakup of the icebergs taught Scambos and the other researchers about how ice shelves could collapse. "Within a year or so, we can see the equivalent of decades of evolution in a plate of ice that stays next to Antarctica and all the processes that are likely to occur," Scambos says.

As the ice shelf slides off the coast of Antarctica—a natural process that happens sort of like a tube of toothpaste being squeezed, but instead of a giant hand at work, the sheet moves thanks to its own weight—the ice braces against the rocky islands it encounters. When icebergs move and melt away, the movement of the glaciers that feed the ice shelf can accelerate and squeeze out more ice into the ocean to melt.

Scientists have estimated that an iceberg's lifetime from when snow first falls on a glacial field and is compressed to ice to when that ice melts into ocean can take as long as 3,000 years. Global climate change could speed that timeline up, ultimately sending more water into the oceans than is able to fall again as snow.

That's heavy information to absorb at a fun summer exhibit like "Icebergs," but the designers hope that the theme will seem natural . "We were designing the exhibit with the mission to speak to the general public about the built environment and the science," Castilla says. The icebergs are intended to be beautiful and simple, while still showcasing how the materials and shapes come together to create a useable space. In the same way, the science behind icebergs and climate change should emerge through the exhibit's educational facts and lectures on the subject of climate change.

After all, climate change is increasingly a part of everyday life. "It's less news and more something we are always aware of," says Castilla.

Havana's Hidden Architectural Gems

Smithsonian Magazine

A high piece of wall came down in the middle of dress rehearsal. The musical was Victor/Victoria, the gender-bending comedy, and young dancers in black leotards ran and scattered in all directions, screaming, as the patch of plaster broke free, plummeted down, and landed with a harmless thud off stage right. A puff of powder marked the strike zone, amid elaborate lighting fixtures that run up each side of Teatro América. The big lights were designed to frame rising rows of seating and to illuminate the audience, not the stage. In the Havana of the 1940s and ’50s, the people themselves were the drama.

Jorge Alfaro Samá, the theater’s artistic director, didn’t move. Standing at center stage, he quickly dismissed the falling plaster as “nothing.” The dancers returned, to nervous giggles, and then listened to him finish reviewing their call schedule. Entire buildings collapse all the time in Havana, so losing a patch of wall or ceiling is routine, even in one of the city’s most cherished and popular venues. This is a dress rehearsal, Alfaro Samá reminded the actors—call it good luck and hit your marks.

Offstage, the director suggested that I follow him to a quieter location—presumably one with solid walls. We climbed up the long empty rows and crossed through the marble lobby, with its twin sweeping staircases and fat balustrades. Opened in 1941, the theater evokes an ocean liner, with its lack of straight lines and a floor mural of the Western Hemisphere wrapped in zodiac signs. It’s all curves and soft corners; extravagant art deco styling is squeezed into ticket booths and tangential lobby bars. Alfaro Samá led me through a small office, into a smaller one, and finally into a tiny area behind it, filled by his desk and the two of us. Like the innermost chamber of a snail’s shell, this is the impresario’s safe space. Photos of Latin performers who have appeared at the theater, dating back decades, crowded the little area behind him.

The problem of the plaster, Alfaro Samá said, was typical of Cuba. He was determined to restore the theater “to how it was in its golden age,” but could do little more than repair a few details. The space was heavily used (acts from rappers to musical theater were booked four nights a week, and I’d once felt imprisoned here during an hours-long rumba performance), allowing no time for proper restoration. Maintenance of a public building is the responsibility of bureaucrats outside the theater anyway. “I’ve worked here 18 years, and in that time we learned to work around problems,” Alfaro Samá said. They had patched walls and ceilings before, and they would do it again.

In more than two decades of reporting in Havana, I’ve grown accustomed to the visual signatures of the city: grimy old buildings, rattletrap cars, little that is new or bright. But that is only on the surface; in Cuba, there is always an inside, a life of interior spaces, and this is especially true amid the city’s hidden gems of architecture.

Teatro América is one such gem, concealed in plain sight behind a dull screen of gray polygon concrete on Galiano Street. When the theater opened, this part of Centro was the commercial artery of Havana, and the marble walkways held the names of now vanished department stores. Galiano is still chaotic—during my visit in March, I was nearly flattened by a man unloading smoked ham hocks from the trunk of a 1950s car, and had to push aside mattress vendors to reach the theater. But step inside and you are in the museum that is Cuban architecture.

There is no city in the world so layered with hidden beauty. Yet today, as Havana opens to the world, it is also poised at the edge of collapse. Love of the city, which I have visited regularly for a quarter century, brought me back looking for answers: Can a place long known for its decay become dedicated to preservation? What can be done to protect its architectural legacy? And how can that be accomplished while also meeting the growing demands of Cuba’s hard-pressed and ambitious people?

Lesson one: Keep your eyes peeled for chunks of falling plaster.

Performers at Teatro América, like these dancers on break, sometimes need to be wary of falling plaster. (João Pina)


Havana is a city easy to navigate, limited by the sea and divided from its suburbs by a river. Each neighborhood seems defined by historic landmarks. Old Havana, founded in 1519, still spreads out from the original Plaza de Armas, the civic space of medieval Spain. Next out from the harbor, in distance and time, is its modern equivalent, the Parque Central district, overseen by the National Capitol building, based on the Panthéon in Paris (not the U.S. Capitol, as sometimes claimed). Next are the elegant and faded apartment blocks of fin-del-siglo Centro, followed by the Vedado business district, still dominated by Welton Becket’s 1958 Hilton hotel, a 25-floor modernist statement renamed the Hotel Habana Libre. Beyond, there is the 20th-century suburb of Playa, visually defined by the spacious and arrow-straight Avenida Quinta (“fifth avenue”), lined with the luxurious mansions of Cuba’s old rich and miles of precise topiary.

Even symbols of communist power—the tower of what was once the Soviet Embassy in Miramar, or the barren asphalt plain of Revolutionary Square—have redeeming value in making orientation easy.

Then all you have to do is look up. “Havana is a library of architecture,” says Raúl Rodríguez, a Cuban architect-in-exile with a deep passion for Cuban history and architecture. “Every style is well represented there, and the reason for its magic is the tripartite culture”—African, American, European.

From the very beginning, the city was a mixture: star-shaped forts from medieval Europe, shaded Moorish colonnades, Greco-Roman columns, French landscaping, and the iconic Malecón seawall built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Exiled Bauhaus stars like Walter Gropius visited Cuba during the 1940s, and with an influx of influential Cuban architects trained at Columbia University, the city became an eclectic crossroads.

Various structures and styles competed for attention. In 1930, the Bacardi family built a tower named for themselves that mixed art deco with eccentric combinations of etched amber and steel, and terra-cotta bas reliefs by Maxfield Parrish. (Ask to see the old private bar.) I’m particularly fond of another art deco excess, the Maternity Hospital erected in 1940 by José Pérez Benitoa. The gorgeous Cine-Teatro Sierra Maestra movie theater, located in the Rancho Boyeros suburb, is art deco but features a Maya-motif interior.

The layers continue through 1958, with only a few gestures since then, notably the National Art Schools in suburban Cubanacán. It was there that a collective of Cuban architects turned a private golf course into a winding campus of vaulted rehearsal halls, terra-cotta painting studios, and elaborate classrooms. It was a utopian dream of social progress, but by 1965 the project had collapsed and was abandoned to the jungle. Now partly reclaimed, it struggles along like the revolution itself, leaking badly but still active.


Rodríguez is proud of that extensive catalog of eras past. But most critical to Havana’s architecture may be what has not happened since. “There’s a crust that has developed,” says Washington, D.C., architect Gary Martinez, “an age of time over the entire city.”

Martinez has visited Havana for 15 years, studying the city’s theaters, dance studios, and other public spaces. I asked him the question every visitor grapples with: What makes Havana—dirty, impoverished, dilapidated—so seductive? “We are overwhelmed by the visual complexity,” Martinez said. “The decay. The texture. The colors. The seemingly random organization of buildings. There’s nothing quite like it.”

He described finding an old theater with a retracting roof. Judging from its appearance, he expected it to be abandoned. Instead, he and some companions discovered men repairing cars in what used to be the lobby. Pushing farther inside, they found a dance troupe training onstage. Thanks to decades of improvised and incomplete repairs, the roof still retracted—sometimes.

The past has not passed, not in Havana. It’s very much present. And yet—this is the key—so are the Cuban people, persevering in the here and now, against the odds and after a span of many difficult decades. The result is a surreal overlap of eras, a time-travel experience on every block. That is the magic.

“They were fixing cars in the lobby,” Martinez marveled.

Image by João Pina. The National Art Schools began when Cuban architects turned a golf course into a winding campus of vaulted rehearsal halls, terra-cotta painting studios, and classrooms. (original image)

Image by João Pina. Inside the National Art Schools (original image)

Image by João Pina. The Hotel Nacional is a towering presence in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana. (original image)

Image by João Pina. Opened in 1941, Teatro América evokes an ocean liner, with its lack of straight lines and a floor mural of the Western Hemisphere. It’s all curves and soft corners. (original image)

Image by João Pina. What makes Havana—dirty, impoverished, dilapidated—so seductive? “We are overwhelmed by the visual complexity,” says architect Gary Martinez. “The decay. The texture. The colors. The seemingly random organization of buildings. There’s nothing quite like it.” (original image)


I’ve had that moment—that strange, surreal feeling—often in Cuba. It occurred the next day when I walked the length of the Calzada del Cerro, a neighborhood that twisted toward Old Havana, each house fronted by a portico, loggia, or arched arcade that created one continuous shaded walkway for a mile or so. The richly ornamented 19th-century buildings had become dilapidated. One family invited me inside to drink strong coffee and watch baseball on a flat-screen TV. Rooms were separated only by towels, the stairs were jerry-built out of concrete blocks, the living room was now a garage, and tin roofing kept the rain out.

“The government said it would get the tiles we need” to maintain the historic character of the building, “but it never comes,” said Elmis Sadivar, the matron of the household. As we watched the ball game, she was anxiously checking her cell phone for updates about her adult daughter, who had recently left for America illegally. The family couldn’t afford to fix things themselves, she said: “A bag of cement costs half a month’s salary.”

Next door I found a man in his 70s trying to build a roof for his home, which in the meantime had blue-sky views. A house on the corner was similarly roofless, at least on the front side, and a careening garbage truck had recently taken out two of the four columns supporting the 19th-century arcade. People living in the back had refused to move out of the house, valuing the close-in location more than they feared the risk of collapse.


Yet the revolution has treated some of its treasures with great care. These include homes confiscated from wealthy exiles in 1959, many of them parceled out as embassies and cultural centers. The revolutionary government transferred the contents of those homes—a trove of ceramics, paintings, statues, and other objets d’art—to official buildings and Cuban embassies, as well as to small museums, including the Museum of Decorative Arts in Havana.

Located in the 1927 mansion of José Gómez Mena, whose sister María Luisa was a high-society Havana hostess and patron of the arts, the museum is an overstuffed repository of 33,000 knickknacks and other memorabilia. Sèvres porcelain and Louis XV vitrines are crammed everywhere, mounted on pedestals or encased in flimsy display cases that look vulnerable to any tourist stepping back for a selfie.

I’d come here to ask deputy technical director Gustavo López about our shared passion for art deco architecture, but he immediately clarified a point as we sat down in his office. American-style art deco is strong in Cuba, López said, but it’s not unique; it also exists in Florida and New Zealand. Colonial architecture is more often regarded as “the jewel here,” he explained. And the gems of colonial architecture are in Old Havana, the protected part of the city.

Old Havana, with its narrow streets and centuries-old fortresses, has been largely saved from ruin for one reason: “It had the good luck to be inside the jurisdiction of the city historian,” said López, speaking of Eusebio Leal, an unassuming but highly regarded official. Leal was given unprecedented authority in the early 1990s to rebuild the entire district, serving as its de facto mayor and renovation tsar.

The best example of Leal’s power and methods may be the Plaza Vieja (“old square”), which is, as the name implies, the oldest of Havana’s original five plazas. “I remember as a student climbing over mounds of rubble there,” López said, describing the 1980s. “You had to be careful.” Leal was allowed to create special tourism companies, which recycled income into new renovations that, in turn, created more tourism revenue. The process can be slow—in another neighborhood, I watched Cuban workers take more than a decade to renovate what is now the Parque Central, the district’s flagship hotel—but the improvements have been undeniable.

When I first saw the Plaza Vieja, in 1991, it was a wreck of marshy sinkholes and collapsing buildings, the houses all around it apuntadas, or “on points,” and braced against collapse. Today the Plaza Vieja is filled with restaurants and shops aimed at tourists, but it’s also populated by ordinary Cubans—elementary school students on a class trip, young lovers taking selfies, teenagers chasing soccer balls. The surrounding blocks are dense with longtime residents. “Against wind and tide, he’s done it,” architect-in-exile Raúl Rodríguez said of Leal. “He is a hero even to Cubans who left Cuba. What he has done is going to outlast him and us.”

But Leal’s brief has mainly covered Old Havana, and a few of the oldest historic sites outside it. In much of the rest of the city, budgets for architectural restoration are much less robust and don’t necessarily benefit from tourist revenue. Leal’s team has “more resources; they have their own methods,” López said with a sigh.

When the author first saw Plaza Vieja, in 1991, it was a wreck of marshy sinkholes and collapsing buildings. Today, the oldest of Havana’s plazas is filled with restaurants and shops aimed at tourists, but it’s also populated by locals. (João Pina)


Where no one has the resources or personal interest to help, however, gorgeous architecture crumbles to ruin. One elegant building at risk is the Club Náutico. This prestigious old beach club in Havana’s suburbs is an airy, overlapping series of shells designed in 1953 by Max Borges Recio, who also designed the Tropicana Club. The facility has been corroded by sea spray, a huge problem on the waterfront.

Other grand buildings have been lost in this way, including a seaside amusement park in Miramar called, improbably, El Coney Island. Rusted carousels and a tiny Ferris wheel once fronted a sea-facing pavilion here, but in 2008 Chinese investors replaced it with a concrete theme park called Coconut Island.

In 2013, Camilo Valls, a Cuban arts journalist, told me about a beautiful old Moorish theater whose landmark bronze doors had simply disappeared one day—looted. By 2016 he was losing hope: The imperiled buildings of Havana would soon be “all gone,” he said. Valls then described to me the new Cuban vernacular, which he called “kitsch style.” This is the cringe-inducing tendency to rip out historic features and replace them with new-money displays. People toss away “old” light fixtures and install made-in-China chandeliers and flat-screen TVs. I heard of one man who tore the corner off his art deco house—with a bulldozer—to build a media room for his PlayStation.

“There will be a disaster if we don’t have norms,” López told me.


One building that epitomizes those risks is the López Serrano, an elegant tower in the modern downtown. In 1932, the 14-story apartment building was the tallest structure in Havana, an emblem of modernism that evoked Rockefeller Center. It still has great bones—the ziggurats and shafts of the building, by Ricardo Mira and Miguel Rosich, make it a kind of vertical art deco—but walking up to it, I saw how badly it had aged. The gray concrete is sweat-stained, with many of the wooden window frames cracked and the odd piece of glass punched out and replaced with cardboard. Air conditioners and improvised laundry lines clutter the narrow spaces overhead; rain cracks begin near the roof and run down the facade.

“Five hundred and forty-four windows of real wood and glass,” explained Sarah Vega, a Cuban journalist who lives on the seventh floor. Vega has made a short film, Deconstruction, about the building’s history, which was designed to represent Cuban aspirations for a modern society. The twin portals at the front door are bronzed bas reliefs, still gleaming, and visitors pass through a marble lobby to twin elevators divided by “Time,” a bas relief by Enrique García Cabrera infused with aerial speed and futurism. An art deco clock used to sit over the sculpture but someone stole it. Even the light fixtures on the ceilings are wired shut to prevent anyone from swiping the fluorescent bulbs.

Vega gave me a tour of her apartment, which she shares with her mother and son. The López Serrano was aimed at Cuba’s rich, but the rooms are relatively small—the ideal customer also had a big country house. The 1932 bylaws even banned children—which was possible because this building was the country’s first co-operative apartment corporation, emblematic of Cuba’s turn toward an urbanized society. The building wasn’t progressive—the same 1932 bylaws banned black people from buying apartments—but the López Serrano was long associated with one of Cuba’s greatest heroes, the crusading reformer Eddy Chibás, who kept his offices on the top two floors. In the 1940s, Chibás railed against corruption and dictators from an office with sweeping views of the Cuban Republic. He shot himself while hosting his radio program one day, a suicide-protest commemorated with a plaque by the building’s front doors.

In ’59, the rich fled and the needy moved in. Vega is proud that empty apartments and houses across Cuba were handed out to the poor. But it was a “culture change,” she noted, with many new residents unconcerned with the López Serrano’s history or its preservation. It’s a pervasive problem: “People often don’t know where they are living, when it was built, if it was a famous architect,” said Gustavo López. “If you don’t care for what exists, it disappears.”

During the desperate economy of the 1990s, some of Vega’s neighbors began selling off elegant fixtures and even the building’s original toilets. That’s when the art deco clock over the elevator disappeared. “It’s not just money,” she said of the building’s problems. “It’s lack of knowledge.”

Image by João Pina. The López Serrano building (original image)

Image by João Pina. Visitors to López Serrano pass through a marble lobby to twin elevators divided by “Time,” a bas relief by Enrique García Cabrera. An art deco clock used to sit over the sculpture but someone stole it. (original image)


As in many endeavors, when it came to preserving the López Serrano, Cuban officials had good intentions and poor execution. Distant bureaucrats with scarce resources oversaw the building, making sporadic and only partly effective repairs—the massive front doors were refurbished, but when new elevators were installed, workers trimmed away marble detailing to make them fit. For decades the government vowed to fix the original windows but recently gave up pretending. Residents would have to pay for the job themselves. “That costs a lot of money,” Vega said. “We can’t afford it.”

Perhaps this is the greatest threat to the López Serrano: No one really owns it anymore. The revolutionary government nationalized all apartment buildings in 1959, but about a decade ago retreated from that policy, returning ownership of apartments to the residents. Yet the government retains responsibility for the shared public spaces and exteriors. That works in high-priority areas like Old Havana, but in the rest of the city, decay is the rule. Many buildings look substantially worse now than when I first arrived in 1991. An astounding portion of the city’s buildings are roofless wrecks. No one is truly in charge.

Sarah Vega’s mother suggested they would forge ahead, offering a Cuban truism: “We’ll fix what we can, with what we can get, with what we have,” she said.


The ziggurats of the López Serrano point to a difficult future. If the residents there—at least some of them more educated and historically conscious than the average Havana resident—are incapable of saving their building, what of the rest of the city, and of Cuba?

Paradoxically, there may be hope in Cuba’s economic weakness: In a land with little money but plenty of skilled craftsmen, simple forms of preservation are often the best option. Wealthy foreign developers are not allowed to overwhelm whole neighborhoods, yet Cubans, as they gradually earn more money, can renovate bit by bit. Part of one building becomes a restaurant, a house becomes a hotel, and even without a master plan, the scale of a block and the character of a district are maintained. “Kitsch style” encroachment could be staved off by strengthening Cuba’s historic preservation standards, particularly for exemplary buildings.

Architect Gary Martinez favors this approach. Huge areas of the city are fallow, with buildings either underutilized or simply abandoned, he said; let people fix them up, slowly, on their own. “There is so much building stock,” noted Tom Johnson, his business partner, “that it can almost infinitely accommodate small changes.”

There is also talk of big change—the Cuban government has asked for investment to rebuild the port of Havana, with new and much needed housing on the far side of the harbor. But Havana’s social peace will depend on keeping Habaneros invested in the city themselves. Just as Eusebio Leal has been able to preserve the residential character of Old Havana as he rebuilt it, others should be empowered to extend that model to other parts of the city. The challenge is to accommodate the next Havana, even while preserving all of the previous ones.

Read more from the Smithsonian Journeys Travel Quarterly Cuba Issue

Hawaii’s Last Outlaw Hippies

Smithsonian Magazine

The Neverland is always more or less an island, with astonishing splashes of colour here and there, and coral reefs and rakish-looking craft in the offing, and savages and lonely lairs, and gnomes who are mostly tailors, and caves through which a river runs, and princes with six elder brothers, and a hut fast going to decay, and one very small old lady with a hooked nose.
—J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan

The first person I meet in the Kalalau Valley is a shoeless veteran from the Iraq War with a sun-faded REI backpack slung over his tattooed shoulders like a trophy. Barca, as he calls himself, heard that a kayaker had abandoned the pack in a beach cave and made a beeline out to the bluffs to claim it.

Visitors are always just throwing stuff away in this place. Over here, a folding chair with a broken arm rest. Over there, a half-empty fuel canister. Now, the backpack—that’s a rare find. “Do you know how much these are worth?” Barca asks me.

In, like, dollars? Ten, tops.

“A lot!” he says without waiting for my answer.

Barca, who is 34, subsists as a scavenger deep inside the Nāpali Coast State Park on Kaua‘i’s west coast. The centerpiece of this 2,500-hectare park—the Kalalau Valley—forms a natural amphitheater that opens to the ocean and the ocean alone. The valley’s steep, green walls rise up on three sides like curtains, sealing it off from the island’s interior. Glassy threads of water are tucked into every crease of these walls, cascading down from a height greater than Yosemite Falls. First farmed by Polynesian settlers centuries ago, this remote paradise is nothing short of a feral garden, a breadbasket bursting with nearly everything a crafty human specimen needs to survive. “This is the closest that mankind has come to making Eden,” Barca says. “When the avos are in season, we eat avos. When the mangoes are in season, we eat mangoes.”

Barca is one of the squatters who lives in the Kalalau Valley, in the Nāpali Coast State Park on Kaua‘i’s west coast. (Brendan Borrell)

If you’re wondering whether he’s allowed to be living off the land here, the answer is no. Barca is a squatter in the eyes of the Hawaiian state government; he’s an eco-villain, a rule-breaker who needs to be eradicated. Barca, naturally, calls this slander. “If you don’t love this place with all of your heart, you couldn’t live here,” he says. Though he has only been a resident for eight months, which by valley standards makes him a relative newcomer, he’s already well on his way to becoming an expert in what he calls “Kalalau-ology.” He’s not only a trash recycler, he’s also a defender of the land, a gardener, a botanist, a cultural interpreter, and an anarchist-theorist. His tendency to grin and stroke his goatee when he’s talking gives him a puckish air, which underscores his antiestablishment streak. Spotting a group of tourists clambering across a stream in their pristine Gore-Tex boots, he is contemptuous. “Most of the people who come out here don’t know how to live in the woods,” he says. “They don’t even bury their shit!”

His rapid-fire diatribe is a lot to take in during my first five minutes in the valley, particularly since I’d woken up before dawn to hike the 18-kilometer trail to get here. At the moment, what I want more than a feast of mangoes or a discourse on backcountry sanitation is a place to drop my own pack, which I paid US $200 for and filled with a week’s worth of freeze-dried provisions (the horror). But where to sleep? Camping permits are hard to come by in Eden, and I hadn’t been able to get one before my last-minute trip, so, like it or not, I, too, would have to be an outlaw. I ask Barca if he knows any low-key spots to pitch my tent.

“Follow me,” he says, wrapping a kaffiyeh around his head to shield it from the sun. He needs to pick up an old cooking grate from another campsite and knows of the perfect hideaway for me. The next thing I know, he is off, bounding from rock to rock in his bare feet. To my right, I look down and dizzily watch the waves crashing over rounded stones more than 30 meters below. Next, we hug a boulder and Barca points toward a tunnel in the vegetation that leads to a campsite invisible to the rangers hunting squatters from helicopters.

After dropping off my things, Barca and I head down to the white sand beach and he unspools his life story. After a tour of duty in Iraq a decade ago, he struggled to make sense of the fact that he had killed people and had been nearly killed himself. “I had my issues when I got out,” he says.

Kalalau Valley (iStock / MartinM303)

He worked as an archaeologist in Northern California but realized that he was ill-suited to modern society. He felt as if his brain, rattled from his war years, needed a respite. He was repelled by the idea of walling himself off from his neighbors in a house in the suburbs or paying taxes in support of a system he no longer believed in. Even the idea of ordering a coffee each morning—from that multinational corporation with a mermaid logo—was too much. “It was hard to come back to the real world and take the minutiae of the day seriously,” he says. He’d get angry. He’d get drunk and fight. A friend told him about this dreamlike valley in Hawaii where you could live in the eternal present. Kalalau. He came. He stayed. “I don’t know if any place has felt this much like home to me,” he says, shortly before dropping his camouflage cargo shorts and diving into the surf.

Barca is not the only one who has felt such a bond with this place. Since at least the 1960s, the Kalalau Valley has been a magnet for long-haired hippies, crystal-stroking New Agers, deodorant-free backpackers, and others seeking a spiritual awakening—or at least a good place to skinny dip. During the Vietnam War, a group of draft dodgers and disillusioned veterans living in tree houses at the end of the paved road on the north coast realized that it would be the perfect place to grow marijuana in the summers.

It was the peak of counterculture activity, but as the years wore on idealism smacked into the messiness of society. This haven transformed from an idyllic retreat to a millennial party zone and an occasional pirate’s lair, and right now tolerance is wearing thin. After a local woman was killed when her car was hit by a fugitive named Cody Safadago who had spent some time in Kalalau last spring, the state launched a crackdown to clean out the squatters. They ticketed a total of 34 people last year and took at least one man out in handcuffs. Barca escaped unscathed. “I fucking live here and I know which way to run,” he says. “It’s my house and you’re not going to get somewhere in my house faster than I am.”

Sympathy for the squatters’ plight was scarce around Kaua‘i, however. Photos from the raids showed town folk just how elaborate the valley camps had become. One camp was outfitted with an earthen pizza oven and a queen-sized bed on a bamboo frame and contained what the state referred to, somewhat hyperbolically, as a “marijuana growing operation” complete with solar- and battery-powered lights. The valley also featured a secret movie theater and a library—a musty old tent filled with vintage treasures like The Joy of Partner Yoga and a book of Cat Stevens songs. All told, the state hauled out 2.5 tonnes of trash. “There’s a sense of entitlement,” Curt Cottrell, head of Hawaii’s state parks, told me. “People were crapping on archaeological sites and digging in the beach sand like cats.”

The squatters have made themselves comfortable in the valley, building beds, furniture, and a pizza oven. (Brendan Borrell)

The uproar brought to the fore deep questions about race, sovereignty, and the future of the natural world in commodified, modern Hawaii. How can society benefit the most from a place like Kalalau with its complicated history? Do we give it over to the well-heeled tourists who book hiking permits six months in advance or pay $200 a person for 60-minute helicopter tours? Or does it still belong to the native Hawaiians who rarely visit, but whose ancestors were the first to shape the landscape? And what do you do about the haole (white) outlaws like Barca who, in their ragamuffin way, carry on the countercultural project of the 1960s and maintain some kind of order in a place with only an occasional government presence.

The one thing that is undeniable is that the valley is one of the most desirable places in the world for people who have practically nothing to take a break from the rules and rituals of modern life and eke out a simpler existence. Barca calls it a “Disney forest,” a tropical refuge devoid of venomous snakes or man-eating tigers, where almost everyone speaks English and looks pretty much like everyone else. Living here is like popping a Prozac each morning but without all the bad juju. A fruit smoothie for your soul—or something like that. All I know is I want to experience it before it’s gone.

There’s no easy way into Kalalau. The ring road that wraps around Kaua‘i has a 30-kilometer gap that is the Nāpali coast. For most of the year, the ocean is too rough to bring in a kayak. Motorized boats are forbidden, and the state has cracked down on locals offering an illegal water taxi service. Your best bet is to lug in supplies on the Kalalau Trail, which crosses five steep valleys and has been called “the most incredible hike in America.”

The cliff-side path also happens to be one of the world’s most dangerous. One wrong step at Crawler’s Ledge could send you careening into the sea. The many stream crossings are prone to flash flooding. At the three-kilometer mark on Hanakāpīʻai Beach, a white cross stands in honor of Janet Ballesteros, a 53-year-old woman who drowned there in 2016—the 83rd victim of its treacherous waters, according to a somewhat dubious tally on a sign there. Along with nature, you also have to contend with the people. In 2013, for instance, an Oregon man on a bad acid trip shoved his Japanese lover off a cliff.

Before my trip in July, it was hard to find information on how effective the raids really were and how risky it would be for me to head there. Mango, a former resident who had fled for greener pastures in Oregon, told me he was still getting text messages from a satellite communicator that the valley residents had at their disposal. I was surprised to learn that some of the most die-hard Kalalau outlaws were actually supportive of the rangers. “They are the predators culling the herd,” another regular visitor told me. “They are keeping the people in there strong and vigilant.”

My best bet for sneaking in undetected is to leave before sunrise one Saturday morning. As the first light breaks through the forest canopy, I pad my way down the trail and try to envision what this place was like before the squatters or anyone else set foot here. For one, I would have found little relief from the sun’s rays. The six-meter-high guava trees that now make up most of the forest were only introduced in 1825, and they quickly outgrew the native Hawaiian flora that featured a more open canopy.

In the late 1700s, when George Dixon, a British fur trader who once served under Captain James Cook, sailed along this coast, he concluded that it was barren of civilization. “The shore down to the water’s edge is, in general, mountainous, and difficult to access,” he wrote. “I could not see any level ground, or the least sign of this part of the island being inhabited.”

Dixon was, of course, mistaken. Thatched huts blend in well with the vegetation. In Kalalau, which offers about 80 hectares of agricultural terrain, the population likely numbered in the hundreds, according to subsequent missionary censuses. The oldest known human settlement on Kaua‘i, which dates to the 10th century, was situated at Kēʻē Beach—the starting point of the Kalalau Trail.

While the Nāpali coast is often described as a “wilderness,” the truth is it’s more like an abandoned supermarket surrounded by some epic scenery. The place is crisscrossed by stone walls, remnants of the terraced gardens, or lo‘i, Hawaiians constructed hundreds of years ago to cultivate taro, the principal “canoe plant” that Polynesians moved across the Pacific. These settlers gradually replaced the native forest shrub lands with kukui nuts and ginger, along with pili for their thatch roofs.

Kalalau Valley (iStock / MartinM303)

Later residents and white ranchers brought in livestock, including goats, pigs, and cattle, and planted the guava and Java plum trees that form most of the forest. “As in many lowland areas in Hawaii, introduced plants now form entire communities, dominating major portions of the park,” reads a 1990 report from Hawaii’s Division of State Parks. The Kalalau Valley, the largest valley in the park, is one of the few places on Kaua‘i where you won’t hear roosters crowing each morning. Instead, the forests are filled with another immigrant, Erckel’s francolin—a ground bird from Africa.

As the valley’s hodgepodge ecosystem took shape, it also began to develop its outlaw reputation. In 1893, after a group of American businessmen overthrew the queen of what was then the Kingdom of Hawaii, they decided to round up native Hawaiians under the auspices of a leprosy quarantine.

Sheriff Louis Stolz and two policemen headed out to Kalalau to remove one rogue band of lepers. There, a cowboy named Kaluaikoolau, or Ko’olau, shot the sheriff twice with a rifle, killing him, and became a hero of the native resistance. A bungled manhunt ended with more casualties and Ko’olau remained in the valley, unpunished, until his natural death two years later. “Free he had lived, and free he was dying,” the author Jack London eulogized in a short story about Ko’olau’s life.

Kameaoloha Hanohano-Smith, whose great-grandfather was part of the last generation to grow up in Kalalau, says it took a while for the Hawaiian people to understand what was happening to their culture. “One day we were a kingdom, and the next thing we knew we were part of the US,” he says.

In December 1959, Ebony magazine profiled the only permanent resident in Kalalau: a black physician named Bernard Wheatley (“a crank, a holy man, a schizophrenic and a genius”) who spent a decade living in a cave there until hippies started crowding him out. “Longhairs seek a place in the sun on Kaua‘i,” reads one headline from the time. The Hawaiian state government bought the property in 1974, and tried to evict the squatters before establishing the park in 1979, but they came back. They always come back.

“We were free-minded people looking for a better place to live without the restrictions of society,” says Billy Guy, who first visited Kalalau after serving as an army medic during the Vietnam War and has returned for long stretches over the decades. “I’m fulfilling a dream.” By the mid-1990s, there were as many as 50 or 60 haole frolicking in a paradise that the kanakanative Hawaiianshad created.

Freedom means different things to different people. While the hippies and latter-day outlaws may chafe under the norms of mainstream society, they still have to create their own rules for living together peacefully. The most that even the most hopeful can hope for is not a society without rules, but a tolerant one. And a tolerant place is bound to attract its share of misfits.

From the beginning, something seemed a little off about Cody Safadago. He had washed up in Kalalau last April with almost no possessions and had taken over a communal camp down by the beach. He was a rough-looking fellow in his early 40s with a buzz cut and two fleshy lips that hung on his face in a permanent scowl. Safadago had spent time in prison for beating his wife back in Washington State and, in 2014, was arrested in Belize after absconding from his parole officer and fleeing the country. He had been bumming around Kaua‘i since January at least, and had been arrested for disorderly conduct and assaulting an officer.

Billy Guy first visited the valley after his service in the Vietnam War. (Photo by Brendan Borrell)

The people of Kalalau were wary of Safadago. He insisted, incessantly in almost every conversation he had, that he was God and everyone should bow down before him. “I talked to him for literally two hours,” says 30-year-old Carlton Forrest from Phoenix. “He was crazy, iced out beyond belief.” In the valley, it’s not easy to get help in the event of an emergency. The ranger station is usually empty, and cellphones don’t work here. The “family,” as the squatters sometimes call themselves, knew they needed to boot Safadago before something terrible happened.

A rangy outlaw in his 30s, who asked me to call him Sticky Jesus, began dismantling Safadago’s camp one morning. Befitting at least one part of his name, Sticky has long brown hair and a prophet’s beard. “You need to leave,” he ordered Safadago, who was sprawled out in a lawn chair.

Safadago opened his mouth to protest, making wild accusations about other residents. Sticky spun around and kicked him in the chest, knocking him out of the chair, according to an account described by Sticky and confirmed by other valley residents. “Can I just get my things?” Sticky remembers Safadago begging.

Sticky tossed a few of Safadago’s possessions his way and then pulled a flaming stick from the cooking fire and hit him with it as he retreated from camp. Safadago kept a low profile for a few days until he was ordered onto the back of a jet ski making an illegal drop-off and banished from the valley.

He wasn’t their problem anymore. At least that’s what they thought.

Safadago landed in the town of Kapa‘a, on the developed east side of Kaua‘i, where he got drunk and stole a Nissan pickup. He was driving over 140 kilometers per hour—three times the speed limit—when he crossed the centerline of the highway and struck a Mazda sedan head on. The young woman in the car, Kayla Huddy-Lemn, was pronounced dead at the hospital. Safadago stumbled out of the pickup—face covered in blood—and wandered up to a shopping mall, where he was arrested.

When a person dies like that, the whole island hears about it. About 50 kilometers in diameter, Kaua‘i is about the size of London and has a population of just over 72,000. As the news came out that Safadago had spent time in Kalalau, locals discovered a Facebook group called “Kalalau!” that appeared to show squatters moving stones from an ancient Hawaiian temple, known as a heiau, to divert water for farming projects. A hillbilly hippie named Ryan North (alias: Krazy Red), who spends a few weeks there every year, posted trippy videos of himself saluting the camera while bare-chested white women danced in hula skirts.

Squatters have built furniture and created homes for themselves in the valley. (Brendan Borrell)

“Bitches, this has nothing to do with race. It just so happens all of you fucked up, selfish Kalalau hippies are white,” one angry Hawaiian vented in a social media post.

Some observers complained that the squatters were collecting food stamps, known as electronic benefit transfers, to support their hedonistic lifestyle (true). Others argued that the place had become a breeding ground for sketchballs (sorta true). “You just don’t know who could be hiding out in Kalalau,” a woman named Kristi Sasachika told a local reporter. The vitriol was so worrisome that the Garden Island newspaper published an editorial warning locals against a “vigilante mindset.”

Long-term residents say that it’s not fair to lump them in with the careless partiers who often get dropped off by boat with a case of beer and a pile of Walmart camping gear they’ll probably leave behind. As in any society, there are good actors and bad ones. Kamealoha Hanohano-Smith, one of the locals with a genuine tie to the land, also takes a more measured tack. “I have a lot of aloha for people whether they are haole or whatever,” he told me over the phone. “I understand why they want to be there. They would love to believe they are appropriate stewards of the area, but the better thing would be for them to work with Hawaiian families.”


On my second morning in Kalalau, I decide to go looking for the community garden. Starting at the beach, there’s an official trail that heads about three kilometers up the valley before hitting the steep back wall. It’s possible to walk up and down that trail a few times before you notice an unmarked spur off to one side.

Follow it for a hundred meters and the forest canopy opens up and you can hear a trickling at your feet. A dozen rectangular ponds glisten in the sun, meter-high taro plants sprouting from their waters. Paths leading around the ponds are lined with papaya, banana, jackfruit, soursop, and chestnut trees—all free for the taking. Squatters were once expected to do some work if they wanted to gather some fruit. But things are different now. “There aren’t any rules anymore,” says a resident named Mowgli, who offers to give me the tour.

Slender and muscular with his long brown hair pulled back into a ponytail, Mowgli helped restore these flooded terraces, and is one of the hardest workers in Kalalau. His former camp, which sits on a plateau nearby, gives off a Lord of the Flies vibedecorated with dozens of skulls from the goats and pigs he has slaughtered. The raids broke him. “It’s hard to focus on something when they want to take it apart,” he says. “This is one of the big tourist attractions in the valley,” he says of the garden.

Women rarely stay long in the valley, and their absence leads to a society heavy on testosterone. At the time of his visit, the author met 10 long-term residents, eight of them men. (Brendan Borrell)

“People want to come and see us and have Kalalau pizza,” says Mowgli’s female companion, whose only article of clothing is a baseball cap. She calls herself Joules. “Like the energy unit,” she explains.

I had given myself five days to explore the valley and immerse myself in the hippie-sphere. With a few notable exceptions, I learn that women like Joules rarely stay more than a few weeks in the valley, and, for whatever reason, they had become particularly scarce in the aftermath of the raids. At least during the time I was there, the testosterone surplus made the place feel less like a utopian kibbutz and more like a secret tree fort in your buddy’s backyard where girls are little understood or respected. Except these guys are adults. One offensive song I heard performed one evening referred to the “drainbow bitches” who “don’t do the dishes” after stopping in for a free meal. The men, nevertheless, longed for female company. “A woman who does stay has 10 guys trying to find her every day,” a 68-year-old bachelor named Stevie told me, drawing from his 35 years’ experience in the valley.

One evening, I sit with six other guys under the enormous mango trees at a camp maintained by a guy named Quentin. A bearded, genial host with a self-effacing manner, Quentin landed in Kalalau after his dream of making marijuana chocolates fizzled. “It was overwhelming,” he says of his failed attempt at capitalism. He tried to live out here with his girlfriend, but she couldn’t deal with the mosquitoes. “I started building things to make it more comfortable for her, like the cabinet by my bed,” he says, gesturing toward a bamboo console. “But really, she just didn’t like me.” She ended up hooking up with another guy in the valley—Sticky Jesus—when they were both back in town. “I really wanted to punch him in the face, and I even flicked him off once,” he says.

A handmade cabinet is a little luxury for squatters in the valley. (Brendan Borrell)

There was one tense evening when I thought a physical fight really might break out between two of the guys. I watched the only woman present slip away and head back to her tent. When I asked her about it later, she said it wasn’t the kind of experience she was looking for in Kalalau. The boys, she said, were lost in “never-never land.”

It’s remarkable that even in a place like Kalalau, people still get wrapped up in the same petty dramas they face living within four walls and with roofs over their heads. Paradise is never lost because it can never be found. People are jealous. They’re selfish. Thoughtless. Humans create societies for a reason. They create rules for a reason. A limited kind of social contract may exist in a place like Kalalau when few people are visiting and living there, but it easily frays in times of stress.

And as much as Kalalau—or the idea of Kalalau—means to the squatters, they are far from the only people who have a stake in its future.

Sabra Kauka, an educator in Hawaiian culture and past president of the Nā Pali Coast ‘Ohana, a nonprofit that works with the state to protect the valley’s natural and cultural heritage, says people like Quentin and Barca and Mowgli should not be living in Kalalau. It’s against the law and it’s an insult to the Hawaiian people. In the late 1980s, Kauka took part in early efforts to clean up the valley. She and a group of volunteers would haul rubbish down to the beach and load it into slings that helicopters would carry away. “It stunned me that people who wanted a wilderness experience would be so insensitive,” she says. At a certain point, she simply gave up. “You do not want to do volunteer work that makes you angry.”

A state parks archaeologist, Alan Carpenter, told her about a 14th-century village site along the shoreline, Nualolo Kai, accessible only by boat and fringed by the largest reef on the Nāpali coast. For the past 25 years, Nā Pali Coast ‘Ohana has focused almost all of its work at that site. They built fences to keep out goats and established a small native garden to preserve some of the region’s biodiversity. Under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, they have even brought back the remains of ancestors who were housed at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu and other repositories.

Image by Brendan Borrell. A library tent features all sorts of books to borrow. (original image)

Image by Brendan Borrell. (original image)

Image by Brendan Borrell. (original image)

Image by Brendan Borrell. (original image)

Now, under the auspices of Randy Wichman, a historian and the organization’s current president, they are finally making plans to bring their work back to Kalalau. Whether they can succeed in a place where they failed in the past remains to be seen. Wichman expresses some grudging admiration for the squatters’ ingenuity in terms of the work they’ve done on the lo‘i’s, but he says that some of them have done more harm than good. “Their intentions are good, but you obliterate history by not knowing exactly what you have,” he told me. “The valley would be stunning if it were in working order.”


In 100 years, when their tarps have rotted away and their footpaths have been lost to the forest, I wonder what place the outlaws will occupy in the grand story of Kalalau. Though reviled in some quarters, their ethics questionable at times, the outlaws’ reign demonstrated to the modern world the power of place to the collective psyche. The vulnerable, confused, damaged often end up here, to heal and to grow before they rejoin the world. It’s kind of wonderful. “We’re tool-using monkeys,” Barca told me when I first met him. Being part of an interdependent community like Kalalau feeds a deep primate urge. “Biologically necessary,” is how he put it. More necessary for some than others.

The head of state parks, Curt Cottrell, told me that when he first moved to Hawaii in 1983 as a “bearded hippie guy,” hiking the Kalalau Trail was one of two goals. (The other was hiking to the summit of Mauna Loa.) When his permit expired, he evaded the rangers by swimming a few hundred meters south to Honopū, the next cove over, for a day. When I ask him if one day the park will find a way to commemorate the hippie occupation, he offers a careful response. “We have no desire to erase that history,” he says, “but at this point in time, we don’t feel like celebrating it until we get the place cleaned up.”

Few women choose to live in the valley. (Brendan Borrell)

That may not be so easy. The agency has 117 staff members spread out over Hawaii’s 50 state parks. Kalalau is a priority, but there are so many places for squatters to hide that it’s impossible to kick them all out. The agency had asked the legislature for enough money to have two full-time staff members inside the park. Their request was denied.

Kalalau is already a very different place than it was just a few years ago. It’s undoubtedly the cleanest it has ever been. And apart from the intimate gatherings I’d witnessed up valley, the place had the feel of a ghost town. I spend my days exploring overgrown footpaths from one clearing to another, looking for abandoned campfire rings and other traces of recent human habitation. Even the official campsites were largely empty, hosting no more than 20 or 30 tourists each night while the state allows 60. Though native Hawaiians do visit and hunt inside the park, I met only outlaws during my visit.

Hanohano-Smith, who can trace his family back to the valley, says that he’d like to see regular Hawaiians—not just the state—playing a larger role in the future of Kalalau. He believes that his family should have free access to visit the land without vying for scarce permits and that Hawaiians should be able to benefit from it through jobs, possibly as teachers or guides. “It’s not just an issue of sustainability,” he says. “It’s the pride associated with being connected to the resources that provided for my family 1,000 years ago.”

On one of my last mornings in Kalalau, I see Sticky Jesus and Stevie loading their things onto a kayak on the beach. Stevie, the oldest resident out here, hasn’t been staying in the valley as often as he used to. Five years ago, he qualified for low-income housing and has a small home down in Kekaha. He loves Kalalau but at some point he knows he’ll be too weak to hike in or to take care of himself.

For Sticky, the story is a little more complicated. He is going to live in a van with Quentin’s ex-girlfriend and try to make a little money. I’m not sure if he’s going to come back, and I say as much. “I’ve got a house here still,” Sticky replies. “Most of it got taken a couple weeks ago, but I’ve got a good feeling about it.” He likes being free of his possessions.

A squatter named Stevie prepares to take off, leaving the valley where the outlaw hippies are increasingly unwelcome. (Brendan Borrell)

“You didn’t take it as hard as Mowgli?” I ask.

“I don’t take anything as hard as Mowgli,” he says.

The two squatters hop into the kayak and Carlton gives them one last shove into the knee-deep water. We stand there for a few minutes, watching them disappear around the red bluffs to the south, and then I head back up the trail into the valley. I’m not ready to hike out just yet. I’m not looking forward to pulling out my wallet and paying for a piece of produce with a sticker on it when the fruit out here will drop to the forest floor and rot away without someone here to harvest it. I just need one more day living as an outlaw in the Kalalau Valley. Maybe two.

Related Stories from Hakai Magazine:

The Brilliant, Troubled Legacy of Richard Wagner

Smithsonian Magazine

She is Richard Wagner’s great-granddaughter, and her life has been dominated by the light and shade of his genius. But as a teenager growing up in Bavaria in the 1950s and ’60s, Eva Wagner-Pasquier went googly-eyed for an altogether different musical icon: Elvis Presley. She remembers the excitement he stirred up more than half a century ago merely by passing through a neighboring town on maneuvers with the U.S. Army. So last year, joined by her American-born son Antoine, Eva finally trekked off to Graceland to pay homage to the King. “I’ve always wanted to go there,” she said, flipping open her cellphone to display the idealized image of Elvis she uses as wallpaper. “It was superb! We stayed at the Heartbreak Hotel, of course.”

The trip to Memphis was a lighthearted escape from the burdens of running a family business like no other. Since 2008, when Eva and her half-sister Katharina succeeded their father Wolfgang Wagner, they have directed the famed summer opera festival founded in 1876 by Richard Wagner and managed by his heirs ever since. In this bicentennial year of the composer’s birth, Wagner devotees are now setting forth on their annual pilgrimage to the seat of his still-powerful cultural domain: the charming city of Bayreuth (pronounced BY-royt), nestled far from Germany’s urban centers, in the rolling hills of Upper Franconia. “Wagner without Bayreuth,” observes the cultural historian Frederic Spotts, “would have been like a country without a capital, a religion without a church.”

From July 25 through August 28, the faithful will ascend the city’s famed Green Hill to the orange brick–clad Bayreuth Festival Theater—known globally as the Festspielhaus. It was built by Wagner himself to present his revolutionary works—among them his four-part Ring cycle, Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal—in the innovative architecture and stagings he felt they required. The Bayreuth Festival became the first full-fledged music festival of modern times, the granddaddy of everything from Salzburg and Spoleto to Bonnaroo, Burning Man and the Newport Jazz Festival. At Bayreuth, however, only Wagner’s works are presented. After his death in 1883, the festival and the theater became a hallowed shrine for his followers, many of whom embraced his ideology of fierce German nationalism, racial superiority and anti-Semitism. He was idolized by Adolf Hitler, whose rise was abetted by the Wagner family’s support in the early 1920s.

Through all the cataclysms of modern German history, however, the festival has endured. In the same week Eva Wagner was born in a neighboring village in April 1945, Allied warplanes leveled two-thirds of Bayreuth. Wahnfried—the stately home and gravesite that is the Wagners’ equivalent to Graceland—was 45 percent destroyed in the first of four bombing raids that all somehow spared the Festspielhaus. By 1951, the festival was up and running again under the direction of Wieland Wagner, the composer’s grandson, who had reinvented himself as a post-Nazi opera visionary and rebranded Bayreuth as a haven for avant-garde productions that have periodically offended traditionalists. Yet Wagner loyalists have not wavered, queuing up for a decade and more to attend. This year, for some 58,000 tickets offered for the five-week festival, there were 414,000 applications from 87 countries. The payoff, his admirers feel, is a direct encounter with the sublime. Set aside the associations with the Third Reich, they say, and allow this enthralling music and elemental drama to touch your soul.

If you’ve ever hummed “Here Comes the Bride” (from Wagner’s Lohengrin) or seen Apocalypse Now (the “Ride of the Valkyries” helicopter assault), you have already sipped at the well. Those who have immersed themselves in Wagner’s full operas—lengthy and demanding, yet flowing and churning like a great river of thought and feeling—often experience a sense of awe. “It's so rich and deep—it's like a drug sometimes. If you give up and let go, it really drags you into a mysterious world,” Jonas Kaufmann, the celebrated German tenor, said on NPR in February.“His music is like nobody else’s, emotionally,” says Janet Ciriello, a member of the Wagner Society of Los Angeles who has attended the Bayreuth Festival “six or seven times” since 1985. “It grabs you, and you have to stay with it. Whatever the issue is—greed, or power or Eros—he somehow manages to encompass everybody’s feelings.” Adds her husband Nick Ciriello: “I love Donizetti, Mozart and Verdi, of course, and Puccini. All of these people stir you and grab you, but Wagner picks you up and slams you against the wall. You are in his hands. He’s the grand sorcerer.”

David McVicar, the noted Scottish theater and opera director, believes that potential Wagner fans have been unnecessarily scared off by the perceived difficulty of his works. “I don’t like the idea that any opera composer is approached as a kind of intellectual Everest to be climbed,” says McVicar, who has directed Wagner’s Die Meistersinger and the Ring cycle. “If you have the capacity, if you have the openness of mind, Wagner will talk directly to you. He’ll reach you. He’ll find things inside you.”

By the same token, McVicar says, people tend to find whatever they want in the Wagner cosmos and appropriate it for their own purposes. “Wagner did not create Hitler,” he says. “Hitler found what he was looking for in Wagner. There’s always the dark side and the light side—an inner tension in the works, because it was an inner tension within Wagner himself. I’m interested in the imagination of it. I’m interested in the brilliance of the music, which is on such a high level of inspiration.”

Over time, one’s appreciation intensifies, says Philippe Jordan, the Swiss-born music director of the Paris Opera. “The fascinating thing about Wagner is that it is easily accessible at the very first point—everyone understands the energy of “The Ride of the Valkyries”—but the more you get into his universe, the deeper you can go, and it’s a process which never stops,” Jordan says. “I’m conducting my third Ring cycle [in Paris] now, and I’ve discovered things which I hadn’t been aware of before, although I thought I knew the score very well.”

William Berger, author of Wagner Without Fear and commentator on Sirius XM’s Metropolitan Opera Radio, continually finds more to admire. Most recently, he says, he has been struck by the unity of the operas. “Tristan [und Isolde] is a perfect example,” Berger says, “because the first measure is a famously unresolved chord, and the last measure is the resolution of that chord. And all the five hours in between are getting from A to B.”


Image by Getty Images. This bronze portrait bust of German composer Richard Wagner, by artist Arno Breker, resides in Bayreuth, Germany, home of the annual festival honoring his work. (original image)

Image by WikiCommons. A portrait of Richard Wagner. (original image)

Image by © Bayreuther Festspiele. Eva Wagner-Pasquier and Katharina Wagner, half-sisters and great-granddaughters of Richard, have co-directed the Bayreuth Festival since 2008. (original image)

Image by © Bayreuther Festspiele. The Bayreuth Festspielhaus, which opened in 1876, as seen from the Festival grounds. (original image)

Image by © Bettmann / Corbis. Adolf Hitler walks through the gardens of Wahnfried House during the annual Bayreuth Festival in 1938, accompanied by Richard Wagner's daughter-in-law Winifred and her sons Wieland (right) and Wolfgang (at rear.) (original image)

Image by © Bayreuther Festspiele / Photo: Enrico Nawrath. The Wagner opera Parsifal is regularly performed at Bayreuth. Pictured here from top: Burkhard Fritz (Parsifal), Detlef Roth (Amfortas); in foreground: Kwangchul Youn (Gurnemanz), Susan Maclean (Kundry) (original image)

Image by © Bayreuther Festspiele / Photo: Enrico Nawrath. Lohengrin, performed here with Annette Dasch as Elsa von Brabant, and Susan Maclean as Ortrud, is the source of the tune commonly known as “Here Comes the Bride.” (original image)

Image by © Daniel Karmann / dpa / Corbis. The “Silenced Voices” is seen against the backdrop of the bust of Richard Wagner on the Festival Hill in Bayreuth, Germany. (original image)

Image by © Bayreuther Festspiele. Wagner’s opera house at the Bayreuth Festpielhaus had a number of innovative features for its time, including the sinking of the orchestra pit beneath a curved hood, to eliminate visual distraction for the audience, and the stripping out of the ornate tiers of side boxes where the haut monde normally swanned about and peered through gold–handled lorgnettes. (original image)

Born in Leipzig in 1813 and politically exiled to Zurich and Paris for more than a decade following the revolutionary uprisings of 1848–49, Wagner struggled for much of his early career to gain the recognition and rewards he felt were his due. He was quarrelsome, grandiose, manipulative—by many accounts an awful character. “He used women, deceived friends and was constantly groveling for money to pay for his luxurious lifestyle,” Dirk Kurbjuweit writes in Spiegel Online International. Even worse, from Wagner’s perspective, his operas were widely misunderstood and outright scorned by many of his contemporaries. “The Prelude to Tristan und Islode reminds me of the old Italian painting of a martyr whose intestines are slowly unwound from his body on a reel,” the noted critic Eduard Hanslick wrote in 1868. “Wagner is clearly insane,” suggested the composer Hector Berlioz. Taking a gentler approach, the 19th-century American humorist Bill Nye ventured, “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds”—a line frequently misattributed to Mark Twain, a Wagner enthusiast, who enjoyed quoting it.

By the time of his death in Venice in 1883, however, Wagner had become a cultural superstar. Wagner societies cropped up across the globe. He was hailed as the avatar of a new artistic order, the hero of Baudelaire and Rimbaud, “the idol of the impressionists, realists, decadents, postimpressionists, and modernists down to Proust and Thomas Mann,” the historian Jacques Barzun says in the 1958 edition of  Darwin, Marx, Wagner.

However powerful to non-Germans, Wagner’s works struck an even deeper chord with his countrymen, especially in the heady days that followed Germany’s unification in 1871. He had become a national symbol, like Shakespeare, Cervantes and Dante. There was an ugly side to Wagner’s conception of nationhood, however: He favored a Germany uncorrupted by Jewish influence, spelling out his views in a notorious pamphlet, Das Judentum in der Musik (Jewry in Music), which helped put wind in the sails of a nascent ultra-nationalist movement that fed on widespread hostility to Jews. “Yet even amid the chorus of nineteenth-century anti-Semitism, Wagner’s rantings stood out for their malicious intensity,” writes the music historian and New Yorker critic Alex Ross, who is writing a book on Wagner.

After his death, the composer’s widow Cosima Wagner (the daughter of Franz Liszt) solidified Bayreuth’s identity as the spiritual center of the movement. Wagner’s son-in-law Houston Stewart Chamberlain became its intellectual leader, much admired by the young Hitler. As the future dictator rose in the 1920s, the Wagner family embraced him publicly. When Hitler was imprisoned following the failed beer-hall putsch of 1923, Winifred Wagner, Richard’s daughter-in-law, brought him the paper on which he wrote Mein Kampf. (She died in 1980, still believing in his greatness.) As chancellor, Hitler became a regular guest at Wahnfried and the Festspielhaus: Bayreuth had become “Hitler’s court theater,” in Thomas Mann’s well-known phrase—a reputation which dogs the festival to this day, as do any vestiges of cultism.

Philippe Jordan admits that he hesitated to go to Bayreuth before he was engaged to conduct Parsifal at the festival last year. “I always was fascinated by Wagner and I always loved him, but I wanted to avoid the ‘German’ Wagner and this kind of pilgrimage which you associate with Wagner and Bayreuth, a kind of fanaticism,” says Jordan, who will conduct the Vienna Symphony Orchestra next season. “Wagner is not just a German composer for me—he’s universal. He was the very first pan-European composer.”

In the end, Bayreuth’s genial atmosphere and idyllic setting were a pleasant surprise, Jordan found, and very conducive to performing. “The people there are not fanatics—they just adore his music.” He adds, “Music, by itself, is not political. Music itself cannot be anti-Semitic. Notes are notes, and music is music.”


Needless to say, Germany has changed dramatically since 1945, and today is arguably the best governed and best behaved major power in the world. On the lovely grounds of the Bayreuth Festival Park, just below the opera house, an outdoor exhibition, Verstummte Stimmen (Silenced Voices), individually commemorates the Jewish artists who had been banned from Bayreuth in its darkest period; a number of them were eventually murdered in death camps. The heroic bust of Wagner fashioned by Hitler’s favorite sculptor, Arno Breker, glares at the tall memorial placards. “Germany is the only country that has constructed monuments lamenting its most shameful episode,” Avo Primor, the former Israeli ambassador to Germany, commented in Bayreuth at the opening of the exhibition in July 2012.       

The association of Wagner and Nazi Germany remains so firm that his music is not yet performed publicly in Israel. “There is still the feeling, which I respect, that as long as there are Holocaust survivors, we don’t have to force it on them, not in public places,” explains Gabriela Shalev, an Israeli college president and former U.N. ambassador, who attended the Bayreuth Festival a year ago and was greatly moved. “We can listen to it at home, with friends. Most of us go abroad—people who want to hear Wagner can hear him in London, in New York, in Munich.” Shalev’s maternal grandparents were murdered in Auschwitz, but she grew up in a German-speaking home surrounded by German books and culture. Her parents listened to Beethoven and Wagner. “So this is part of the ambivalence that I as a Jew and Israeli bought to Bayreuth,” she says.

The Jewish conductors James Levine and Daniel Barenboim are among the leading interpreters of Wagner in our time, at Bayreuth and elsewhere. Leonard Bernstein was another whose love of the music kept him performing Wagner in spite of profound misgivings. The late New York Philharmonic conductor explored his conflicts in an unreleased 1985 documentary segment filmed, appropriately enough, in Sigmund Freud’s examination room at 19 Berggasse in Vienna. He asked:

“How can so great an artist—so prophetic, so profoundly understanding of the human condition, of human strengths and flaws, so Shakespearean in the simultaneous vastness and specific detail of his perceptions, to say nothing of his mind-boggling musical mastery—how can this first-class genius have been such a third-rate man?”

His answer did not resolve matters.

“I come out with two, and only two clear, unarguable truths,” Bernstein said. “One, that he was a sublime genius of incomparable creative power, and two, that he was a disagreeable, even intolerable megalomaniac. Everything else about Wagner is debatable, or at least, interpretable.”

Endlessly so. In 1924, biographer Ernest Newman apologized for producing four volumes on the composer. “I can only plead in extenuation that the subject of Wagner is inexhaustible,” he wrote. Today thousands of books are listed in the Library of Congress catalog under Wagner’s name. Still more have been published in this bicentennial year, as 22 new and revived Ring productions are being mounted across the world. Yet each generation comes to Wagner anew, starting from scratch, as it were.

One such newcomer is Antoine Wagner-Pasquier, who, like his mother Eva, tends to shorten his name to Wagner for simplicity’s sake.

Born in Evanston, Illinois, raised mainly in Paris and London, Antoine studied theater at Northwestern University and filmmaking at New York University, traveled widely, learned to speak six languages and became a rock video producer and photographer. He has also learned a thing or two from his father, French filmmaker Yves Pasquier. Antoine was slow to come around to the Wagner family’s history, but now, at 30, has made a film with Andy Sommer, Wagner: A Genius in Exile, shown this spring on European TV and released as a DVD on July 1. It retraces Wagner’s journeys through the mountainous Swiss landscapes that influenced the creation of the Ring cycle. A high point, in every sense, was finding the very spot, above the clouds, where Wagner said he was inspired to write “The Ride of the Valkyrie.” “I felt like I'd been walking through his sets,” Antoine says.

With his background, could he see himself taking on a role at Bayreuth someday?

“I’m slowly going towards that,” he says. “In the near future, I have other plans, other desires. But it’s true that if it presents itself one day, it’s not something that I’ll just kick out of the process, but something that of course I’ll consider.”

That may or may not be music to the ears of his mother, Eva,

She grew up in Bayreuth back when her uncle Wieland and father Wolfgang directed the festival. She lived on the grounds of Wahnfried for many years. She remembers climbing around in the rafters of the Festpielhaus as a young girl, scaring the wits out of the watchman on duty. But her family life had all the Sturm und Drang of the Ring cycle. There was a long estrangement from her father after his second marriage, and always a good deal of controversy, family feuding and gossip—artistic, financial, political. It comes with the territory. The Wagners are the royal family of German culture, with all the public scrutiny that entails.

The result has been to focus all of Eva’s energy on the thing she cares about most, which is the survival of the Bayreuth Festival as a living and ever-evolving cultural enterprise refreshed by new productions of her great-grandfather’s works. It is an enormous, year-long effort involving hundreds of artists and craftspeople in a remote location, all for a short, five-week series of world-class opera performances.

“It starts when you have a little model,” of the proposed stage set, she said several months before the opening of this summer’s much-anticipated new Ring production by Frank Castorf. “And then the designer comes in, and the director, and now, suddenly, last week, this little model was already on stage for Das Rheingold. It’s like a miracle, like a birth—something absolutely outstanding.”

And then, on opening night, the first extended note of the Ring will emerge from the silence of the Festspielhaus orchestra pit, and the drama will begin anew.

Leonard Bernstein quotes are courtesy of The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.

The National Parks Face a Looming Existential Crisis

Smithsonian Magazine

When I drove with forest ecologist Nathan Stephenson on the twisted Generals Highway through Sequoia National Park in central California last September, it was like a tour through the aftermath of a disaster. As we zigzagged up the road in his car, Stephenson narrated our journey blithely, like a medical examiner used to talking about death. “There’s a dead skeleton there,” he remarked, pointing to a bony oak corpse jutting toward the sky. A haze of nude branches clung to the distant slope.

“So all that gray up there is dead live oaks,” he said.

Above us, a band of brown streaked across the slopes—dead pines, their remains still standing upright in the forest—and when we reached nearly 6,000 feet, Stephenson parked on a gated road and led me into a desolate scene of parched earth and dying trees.

Tall and lanky as a sapling, with angular shoulders and a neatly trimmed white beard, Stephenson—who, at 60 years old, has worked here since he began as a National Park Service volunteer nearly four decades ago—looked like he could have sprung from the forest himself. Today, as a full-time research scientist with the United States Geological Survey, stationed in the Sierra Nevada, one of Stephenson’s main jobs is to keep watch over these trees. He tromped through a carpet of brown needles and paper-dry oak leaves to show me a deceased Ponderosa pine about six feet wide at the base and as tall as a 15-story building. Someone from his research crew had peeled the bark back to reveal the cause of death: the curled signature of a pine beetle etched into the wood.

“And there’s another Ponderosa pine,” he said, pointing a few feet away. “They all died.”

Drought suppresses a tree’s ability to make sap, which functions as part of both its circulatory system and its immune system against bugs. About a decade ago, even before the historic California drought, Stephenson and his colleagues saw a slight but noticeable uptick in the number of insect-inflicted casualties in the forest—twice as many as when he started his research—and he suspected that the rising temperatures were stressing the trees.

The mass death of trees, pines especially, accelerated after the winter of 2014-2015 when the weather went haywire and Stephenson walked the foothills in a short-sleeved T-shirt in January, and again during the record-low snowfalls the following year. Then came the swarms of beetles, which appear to be thriving amid the warmer temperatures. That spring, “it was like, ‘Oh my gosh, everything’s dropping dead,’” Stephenson recalled.

Since then, about half to two-thirds of the thick-trunked pines at this elevation have been lost, along with an increased number of fatalities among other species like incense cedars (trees that seemed so hardy before the drought that Stephenson and his colleagues used to call them “the immortals”). His crew keeps a running count of the casualties, but the park doesn’t intervene to save the trees.

Image by Visual by Thom Halls for Undark. Nate Stephenson has spent most of his life as a government scientist working in these forests, and he has witnessed the changes brought on by rising temperatures. (original image)

Image by Visual by Thom Halls for Undark. Tourists arrive in Sequoia National Park and quickly see the results of the drought and the infestation of the western pine beetle. (original image)

Image by Visual by Thom Halls for Undark. Stephenson traces the tracks of the fir engraver beetle for an autopsy patch on the side of a dead white fir. (original image)

Even though the National Park Service is charged with keeping places like Sequoia “unimpaired” for future generations, it doesn’t usually step in when trees meet their end because of thirst and pestilence. Droughts and insects are supposed to be normal, natural occurrences. But it’s hard to say whether the changes witnessed here—or at neighboring Kings Canyon National Park, or at national parks across the nation—still count as normal, or even “natural,” at least as park stewards like Stephenson have long understood the term. And those changes raise a lot of prickly questions that cut to the very heart of what keepers of public lands do, and how they perceive their mission.

After all, even as tens of millions of tourists throng through their gates every year to get a glimpse of the “wild,” official policy has, for decades, directed scientists and managers to keep the parks they oversee as untainted as possible, looking as nature would if humans had never intervened. But how do you preserve the wilderness when nature itself is no longer behaving like it’s supposed to? How do you erase human influence when that influence is now everywhere, driving up temperatures, acidifying oceans, melting glaciers, and rapidly remaking the landscapes we’ve come to know as our national parks?

In Alaska, boreal forest trees are rooting into the previously treeless tundra. The javelina, a hoofed, pig-like mammal, has wandered north from part of its traditional range in southern Arizona into Grand Canyon National Park. The glaciers of Glacier National Park are withering in the heat and will probably be gone in less than 15 years.

Under the Obama administration, the park service took on climate change as a kind of combat mission. A quote from then-National Park Service director Jonathan Jarvis is still emblazoned across a number of agency websites: “I believe climate change is fundamentally the greatest threat to the integrity of our national parks that we have ever experienced.” Three years ago, a memo sent to directors and managers of every region of the park service confessed that “some goals described in our current planning documents reflect concepts of ‘naturalness’ that are increasingly difficult to define in a world shaped by an altered climate.”

Those realizations were already upending the park service and its affiliated agencies when the nation elected its new president, Donald Trump, who has famously called climate change a “hoax.” Since arriving in Washington, the administration has been busy erasing references to climate science on federal websites, and in June, Trump officially withdrew from the Paris climate accord, a landmark global pact reached just two years ago. Several of Trump’s cabinet members and nominees have hedged on their views regarding climate science—including former congressman Ryan Zinke, whom Trump has put in charge of the U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees the park service.

Meanwhile, the agency’s 22,000 olive-and-gray-clad rangers, scientists, and other staff have recently acquired a near-mythical reputation as a cadre of outlaws fighting to avenge assaults on climate science. The internet and social media buzzed with enthusiasm when Badlands National Park’s Twitter account “went rogue” and posted a series of facts about global carbon dioxide concentrations, and spoof national park Twitter accounts proliferated under names like @BadHombreNPS and @AltNatParkSer.

But it’s really nature itself that is going rogue, and while the current administration may dismiss climate change, managers and scientists in places like Sequoia National Park can already see its impacts first-hand. Figuring out what to do about it—or even whether they should do something about it—has been as much an existential journey as a scientific one for the overseers of the nation’s parks. With the evidence all around them, they have spent the last several years painstakingly tracking fire and drought, gathering data from trees and soils, and developing models of possible futures—including ones that might usher in leaders who are unsympathetic to their cause.

“It’s our responsibility under the law to understand and respond to threats to the people’s resources,” said Gregor Schuurman, an ecologist with the National Park Service’s Climate Change Response Program. “Those of us engaged in that try as much as possible to not be too influenced by the day-to-day politics, which are often pretty volatile.” Nonetheless, Schuurman admitted, the threats to parks from climate change are “ongoing” and “concerning.”

For all of this, Stephenson remains optimistic. “Most trees are alive,” he told me. “I’m so used to this idea that we’re going to be seeing big changes that it’s sort of like, ‘Okay, here’s step one. This is our learning opportunity.’”

The National Parks stand at a precipice. (Visual by Anar Badalov/Undark)

When the National Park Service was formed in 1916 to take care of the “scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life” in the parks, it didn’t initially treat nature with that much reverence. It was more focused on providing attractions to visitors. Park managers cut a tunnel in a giant sequoia tree in Yosemite so you could drive your car through it, encouraged visitors at Western parks to watch the bears feeding nightly from the garbage dumps, and in the agency’s first decade, frequently gunned down wolves, cougars and other predators they considered a nuisance.

All of this changed in 1962, when A. Starker Leopold, the son of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold, was put in charge of a committee to examine how to manage wildlife in the parks and whether to allow hunting. He and his committee gave the park service more than it asked for: a sweeping statement of principles that set the parks on what might now look like a quixotic mission. “A national park should represent a vignette of primitive America,” their report declared—something resembling the landscape before European settlers started tampering with it.

The report largely omitted the myriad ways that indigenous people had, of course, managed ecosystems for many thousands of years. But in many ways, it transformed the park service from a tourism bureau into one of the country’s leading agencies for ecosystem science. It advised parks to abide by the best principles of ecology and to keep intact the many interdependent relationships among different species (like the ways that wolves keep deer populations in check so they don’t destroy too much vegetation). After the Leopold Report, parks put an end to most practices, such as bear-feeding, that treated wild animals like entertainment.

Early in Stephenson’s career, he internalized the Leopold tradition and saw it as his mission to help make the forests look something like they did when conservationist John Muir tromped through them in the 1860s and 1870s—sun-speckled groves of thick-trunked sequoias, pines, cedars and firs. In 1979, he spent his first season as a volunteer, hiking through the backcountry to catalog the park’s remote campsites. Then he worked for a few years as a low-paid seasonal employee—until he helped launch a climate change research project in the park in the 1990s. “I wanted to be here so badly,” he recalled.

Image by Visual by NPS. In the earliest days, managers of the national parks were focused on taming the wilds so the public could come and enjoy them. Left, rangers pose with a U.S. Cavalry member (center) at Kings Canyon National Park. (original image)

Image by Visual by NPS. Under the influence of the forester and conservationist A. Starker Leopold, the parks took on a new mission in the 1960s: restoring and preserving the land in a state approximating a natural, pre-colonial America. (original image)

Over the years, part of his work with his forestry colleagues has involved providing information to help correct Sequoia National Park’s fire problem.

Many Western landscapes, including Muir’s beloved sequoia groves, are adapted to wildfires. But before the Leopold Report, firefighters had feverishly extinguished even small fires in the Sierras, and the results were sometimes disastrous. The sequoias, which need light and fire to germinate, languished in thick shade and stopped producing seedlings. In the absence of little fires, forests became dense and stockpiled with flammable bits of tree and leaf debris, and the risk of bigger, hotter, unstoppable infernos grew. In the late 1960s, Sequoia National Park began to fix the problem by lighting low, tame ground fires in the park—“prescribed burning,” as it’s known—a practice that has persisted in part because it works, but also because it is supposed to imitate a natural process, as Leopold instructed.

By the mid-1990s, though, it became clear to Stephenson that recreating the forests of centuries past this way was an unreachable goal. Two of his colleagues used scars on old trees to calculate how many fires burned through the forests of Sequoia before Europeans got there; it was far more than the number of blazes the park’s burn crew had deliberately set on their own. Stephenson realized that, given the vastness of the park and the small number of scientists and firefighters on staff, it would be nearly impossible to recreate the forests that once were. Meanwhile, Stephenson read early predictions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the international body that distills the best climate science from around the world. Already the IPCC was painting a dire picture: “many important aspects of climate change are effectively irreversible,” the group’s 1995 report said.

“I started to do some real hard visualization of possible futures,” Stephenson recalled. “In all of them—since I’m a forest guy—the forest looked pretty beat up.”

Stephenson first fell into despair. “I imagine if you’re a cancer patient, you go through something similar,” he says, “which is, it’s a complete upheaval of what you were thinking, where you thought you were going. And you probably go through all these emotional struggles and then you finally reach a point where you just say, ‘Okay, what am I going to do about it?’” In 2002, he found one outlet for his feelings: He began giving a series of talks to urge park service managers to consider the ways climate change might upset some of their long-held assumptions. Nature—if such a thing could even be defined—was never going to look like it had in the past, he told colleagues in the region, and they would ultimately have to rethink their goals.

It took a while for official park service policy heads to catch up with Stephenson, but there were others in the agency who had begun to think along these lines. Don Weeks, a park service hydrologist, had a climate change epiphany in 2002, while he and colleague Danny Rosenkrans, a geologist, were flying in a propeller plane over Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in southwest Alaska. The plane received a radio transmission about a flash flood roaring down the Tana River at the center of the park, and Rosenkrans “tells me to get ready to see something that’s going to blow my mind,” Weeks recounted.

“It’s a complete upheaval of what you were thinking, where you thought you were going,” Stephenson says as he watched the forest change. (Visual by Thom Halls for Undark)

As they approached the headwaters of the Tana, Weeks gaped at the sight of a 3-mile-wide glacial lake that had split open in one night and dumped its contents downstream. The lake had been stable for about 1,500 years until 1999, when it ruptured for the first time. When Weeks saw the lake collapse, its second occurrence at that point, it was “the most phenomenal thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” he said.

The whole tableau—the empty lakebed scattered with icebergs the size of houses and the engorged river below full of floating tree trunks ripped from the ground by flash flooding—stunned him. “I mean it was the apex of my field work as far as just seeing that level of change and the danger associated with that, the rawness of it,” he recalled recently. “To top that, I got to be standing at the edge of a volcano while it’s going off, I guess.” It was the most memorable event of his entire career. Suddenly, climate change was real to Weeks in a visceral way, and he was fascinated.

In 2010, he took a temporary post with the park service’s newly created Climate Change Response Program that eventually morphed into a full-time job. Here he encountered a group of scientists who were grappling with problems the park service had never before contemplated. For inspiration, they had turned to a strategy first hatched by the 20th-century futurist Herman Kahn, the man who inspired Stanley Kubrick’s dystopian comic film “Dr. Strangelove,” and who helped the U.S. Armed Services plan for the possible outcomes of global nuclear war. One of Kahn’s tools, “scenario planning,” has since become a popular means for business leaders to anticipate futures that are wildly different from the ones they always assumed lay down the road.

Scenario planning is like a role-playing game. You start with a scenario informed by both science and intelligent conjecture. Then you write speculative narratives about what could happen—akin to science fiction. In a national park, thinking the unthinkable sometimes means envisioning the demise of the very things you are devoted to protecting. It also means reckoning with national and local politics: What happens when the political tide turns away from both the science of climate change and the values of the National Park Service?

In a 2011 scenario planning workshop in Anchorage, Alaska, one group of scientists and park managers wrote a scenario that seemed part-warning, part-gallows-humor, in which a family of Alaska Natives tossed a faded park sign into a campfire and watched “the last letters of ‘Bering Land Bridge National Preserve’ turn black and disappear.”

The story implies a situation so dire that the park either is barely functioning or ceases to exist (though when I contacted Jeff Mow, one of the workshop’s participants and now the superintendent of Glacier National Park, he said that story was a reflection on how locals might regard the park and wasn’t intended to sound its death knell). Such bleakness may speak to the level of anxiety felt across parts of the park service. But the ultimate purpose of writing such scenarios is to avoid the worst case by considering options ahead of time.

In 2012, a group of staff from Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, including Stephenson, gathered at a conference center in the Sierra Nevada foothills with scientists and experts from the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, state agencies, and academia. Armed with maps, large sheets of tracing paper, and a set of colorful markers, they sat down to play the game.

They considered different ecological and social-political scenarios—in which, say, there was more or less rain and snow, the public was on board with their work or illegally stealing water from the park, and federal policymakers either offered little or a great deal of support. The players fleshed out the details of their scenarios—tree die-offs, insect infestations, cuts and boosts to the park budget—then made their moves. Over the course of the game, an imaginary fire rose up from the dry forest below the park and raged through the sequoia groves. The players envisioned what would happen next. What had they won and lost because of climate change, fire, and drought?

It was still early in the life of the drought, and “we didn’t know it was going to be the most severe drought in at least 120 years,” said Koren Nydick, science coordinator for the two parks. “We did not expect some of the things in our scenarios to actually happen so fast.”

As the drought wore on, Stephenson became especially concerned about what would happen to the young sequoias. He periodically patrolled Giant Forest, 1,000 feet above his research plot, looking for signs of damage. He had long thought climate change would hit the sequoia seedlings first, and in the fall of 2014, he crept through the forest on his knees, his hands covered with dust, eye-level with the dainty, baby sequoias sprouting like small Christmas trees at the feet of their behemoth parents. He paused at the base of a massive sinewy trunk, took a breath, and turned his gaze skyward. There in the crown of a full-grown sequoia he saw tufts of brown, dying leaves. “I looked up and went, ‘What the hell is going on?’” he says.

That same season, Stephenson and a field crew from the USGS surveyed the sequoias in several groves, looking for more signs of dead leaves. Park managers braced for bad news. While a number of media outlets ran stories speculating whether the old trees might ultimately keel over, in the end, only about 1 percent of old sequoias lost more than half their leaves. Most of those dropped their brown leaves that season and then greened up the next as if nothing had ever happened.

The next year, after an exceptionally snow-deprived winter, a blaze named the Rough Fire ignited in the desiccated slopes of Sierra National Forest, just west of Kings Canyon National Park. It devoured Kings Canyon Lodge, a rustic wood-frame building that hosted a burger-and-ice-cream restaurant, and ascended into Grant Grove, the dwelling place of another famous assemblage of sequoia trees.

In parts of the grove, the flames burned hot and high, seared the crowns of trees and killed off most of them, including some old sequoias. But when the Rough Fire reached the part of the forest where the park service had carried out prescribed burning over the decades, it quieted, and many of the big trees there were spared. Just as they predicted, drought and wildfire had taken a toll, but their work in the forest had saved some of the trees—and that offered some hope.

What happens when the political tide turns away from both the science of climate change and the values of the National Park Service? Here, drought and insect infestation take their toll on California’s Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. (Visual by Thom Halls for Undark)


In the past three years, the Climate Change Response Program has surveyed scientists and managers in the parks about climate change. All over the country, hundreds of units in the National Park Service are facing unusual situations stirred up by climate change—and in some cases, the need to act on these directly contradicts park policy on what is “natural.”

Some parks are even discussing radical interventions in the wild that the agency would never have tried in the past. Glacier National Park, for instance, has experimented with loading bull trout into water containers and carrying them by backpack to lakes at high-elevations, where they might survive if the heat becomes unbearable for them elsewhere in the park—a strategy called “assisted migration.” In-house, the agency jokingly came up with the name “gnarly issues,” from surfer jargon, to describe these situations.

One of the gnarliest issues came up a year later in the Pacific Northwest. In May 2015, during one of the driest springs on record in Olympic National Park, a lightning strike lit a fire in the remote old-growth Queets rainforest. It kept burning through a record-breaking hot summer until September, scorching 2,800 acres. In August, lightning set another 7,000 acres ablaze on the west side of North Cascades National Park. The fire leaped across the Skagit River, jumped a highway, and charged up the mountainsides. It rushed toward the park visitor center, forcing tourists to flee.

Though large fires are common in dry regions like the Sierra Nevada, they rarely occur in wet forests like these. Some trees don’t deal well with fire, and in places like rainforests and alpine forests, pervasive dampness keeps blazes from traveling far. Only when the air is uncommonly dry and hot and the wind steady can a fire grow in size here. It then often kills nearly everything in its path. Fires like this tend to come only every few centuries to patches of forest on the wet, west side of the Cascade Range or Olympic Mountains. But these two fires, the largest west-side burns in either park’s history, had blazed up in the same season. Were they a warning sign of hotter, more fire-prone seasons to come?

On a hot day in August of last year, I donned a heavy black hard hat and followed Karen Kopper, her lead field technician, aptly named Cedar Drake, and a crew of four field researchers into a dusty, blackened section of forest in North Cascades National Park. Kopper, a petite, sandy-haired woman with a serious demeanor, works for North Cascades as a fire ecologist. She’s also writing a history of forest fires of the Pacific Northwest. But until 2015, she’d never seen a blaze burn so large on this side of the park.

We walked into what used to be a lush, dense, old-growth forest: home to centuries-old stringy-barked cedars with sinuous roots, towering Douglas firs, and hemlocks. Before the fire, the ground was a carpet of moss, huckleberry bushes, and sword and bracken ferns, and was usually sodden with rain for about nine months of the year or more.

Image by Visual by Paul Conrad for Undark. Karen Kopper, a fire ecologist in the North Cascades, is writing a history of forest fires of the Pacific Northwest. Until 2015, she’d never seen a fire burn so large on this side of the park. (original image)

Image by Visual by NPS. In May 2015, during one of the driest springs on record in Olympic National Park, a lightning strike lit a fire in the remote old-growth Queets rainforest. It kept burning through a record-breaking hot summer until September, scorching 2,800 acres. (original image)

Image by Visual by Paul Conrad for Undark. New lupine and other forest floor plants are beginning to grow among the remnants of the 2015 fires. But a forest like this can’t grow back if fire returns too often, and Kopper wonders if it will ever be the same. (original image)

That day, the dirt beneath our feet was as loose as beach sand. The fire had eaten up most of the organic matter and left the soil full of ash. The forest floor was nearly bare, except for clumps of charcoal and a few short stems of bracken fern and fireweed, a hot pink flower whose seeds often blow in and germinate just after a conflagration. I spotted a few green branches at the top of a thick-trunked hemlock, but Kopper told me the tree probably wouldn’t make it. Hemlocks don’t like fire. Many of the trees above us were already dead. When we heard a pop from the upper canopy, Kopper and Drake were both startled and exclaimed, nearly in unison, “What was that?” They looked up warily. No one wanted to be in the path of a collapsing dead tree.

Drake and his crew fanned out. They tied strips of pink plastic tape to the trees to flag the edges of a circular research plot with a nearly 100-foot diameter. Then each person stood in a different section of the plot and shouted out an estimate of how much forest was dead and how much was still alive. Drake recorded their figures in a chart. He noted that the soil was almost completely burned through, and the small trees and shrubs were nearly all gone. Over the entire area of the fire, Kopper estimated that more than half of the big and mid-sized trees had died. In some parts of the burn, more than 70 percent of the trees were toast.

Though the park service regularly sets fires in its forests to mimic the natural fires of the past, it hardly ever meddles in the aftermath of a fire like this: to do so would be “unnatural.” Historically, the forest would have grown back slowly on its own, over about 75 to 100 years. But climate change may make these fires more commonplace. A forest like this can’t grow back if fire returns too often. Kopper wonders if this place will ever be the same.

Three years ago, even before these large conflagrations, she suspected west-side fires could become a conundrum for this park and told the agency so in her response to their survey. In 2015, the park service asked her to research this particular gnarly issue (now a semi-official phrase among park service scientists) further.

She and three other scientists have since written up an analysis describing the many quandaries and questions they were wrestling with. Should foresters try to keep the landscape as it would have been before the temperatures warmed—irrigate the forest, set up firebreaks, and aggressively replant moisture-loving trees and plants every time they burn down? Or should they try to revamp the place by transplanting species from, say, the rain-shadow side of the mountains where fires are common? Are any of these things in line with the park service’s long-held ideals about nature, and if not, what would the agency need to do now?

What is truly natural or unnatural anymore?

Should foresters try to keep the landscape as it would have been before the temperatures warmed, or should they try to revamp the place by transplanting fire-tested species from elsewhere? (Visual by Paul Conrad for Undark)


After we left his research plots, Stephenson took me to Giant Forest, and we parked the car in the visitor lot. I caught my breath at the sight of the giant sequoias—muscular, poised, and shocking in their scale and beauty. As we walked, he periodically pulled out a monocular, like a mini-telescope, and stared at their upper leaves. The longer we stayed, the giddier he became, like a kid playing in the woods. He delighted at the sight of a woodpecker. “What a cute little bird,” he said and stared for several minutes. Nearby, he spotted a cluster of sugar pines with full, green crowns. “I’m feeling kinda happy,” he said, “It looks like this group hasn’t been hit by beetles yet.” When we descended from a rock outcrop near the visitors’ center, he slid down a stair railing, grinning.

He said he thought the effects of climate change “will come in bursts” like this drought. Things would look fine, then all at once, trees would die, infernos would rage, insects would throng. So far, the sequoias were mostly doing fine. In 2015, Stephenson spotted 11 that had turned brown and died altogether, still standing. Previously, he had only witnessed the death of two standing sequoias in his entire career. Still, “it doesn’t concern me,” he said. Not yet.

But in the long term, “we don’t know that the sequoias will be okay,” he admitted. He had suggested that the managers of Sequoia and Kings Canyon consider planting a few sequoias at a higher elevation above Giant Forest, where they might stay cooler as the climate warms. He knew a decision like that could be contentious. But young sequoias don’t produce seeds for several years, so Stephenson figured the park would have a while to figure out whether it was a big mistake.

“I can see [the park service] being sued for not doing enough in the face of climate change, and then I could see being sued for doing things in the face of climate change,” Stephenson told me. “In the end, I guess, the courts sort it out, but boy, in the meantime what do you do? Do you get paralyzed and not do anything?”

It’s still not entirely clear how President Trump’s rejection of the science of climate change might affect the national parks. Stephenson told me longstanding rules prevented him from talking politics, even when they directly affected his work. Some employees within the park service also turned down my requests for comment. At the moment, there’s no clear, agency-wide decree that would force their silence on such touchy subjects, but from some, I sensed discomfort and even fear that sharing their opinions might be risky.

Under Trump, there’s no clear, agency-wide decree that would force scientists to remain silent on touchy subjects like climate policy, but from some, I sensed discomfort and even fear that sharing their opinions might be risky. (Visual by Thom Halls for Undark)

Weeks, the park service hydrologist, suggested that scenario planning might have prepared some parks for the new political regime by prompting them to imagine life with both more and less supportive federal leadership. “So if a park has played through this and kind of rehearsed for this, they’re in a better position, because it looks like we’re changing to a different kind of mindset,” he told me in December.

Eight months later, he felt it was still too early to tell how the administration might deal with climate change in the park service. “I do have some concern,” he said, “but I haven’t seen it play out, and I’m always trying to be optimistic.” Glacier National Park Superintendent Jeff Mow said no new political winds had yet blown into his park and affected its immediate management, but he felt that the administration couldn’t forever disregard the impacts of climate change. “There’s things going on around us, like extreme weather events, that can’t be ignored” he said.

For decades, the national parks have been the country’s environmental conscience, the places that reminded us what nature is supposed to look like and who we are by extension. “Certainly, if ever the American psyche survived losing the parks,” the historian Alfred Runte wrote in his book National Parks: The American Experience, “the United States would be a very different country indeed.”

For at least the next three and half years, the problems faced by the park service could get gnarly indeed. Even if the federal government tries to suppress research, education, or public outreach on climate change, there’s no getting around what’s already happening in the parks. Even if they don’t “go rogue,” national park staff will continue to find themselves on the frontlines of a series of ethical dilemmas—about science and the future of nature, which species to save or to relocate, and when and whether to speak out about the changes they are witnessing every day in the American landscape.

In May, Stephenson told me he saw fresh signs of death among the trees while walking through his research plots, even after a wet winter. The White House had just unveiled a budget proposal that would slash the Department of Interior’s funding by 11 percent and lay off more than 1,200 park service employees. Given this, I asked Stephenson if he and his colleagues in this national park and others across the country will be able to keep up with the demands posed by climate change—and the colossal, unprecedented experiment unfolding in front of them as the heat turned up?

He said he couldn’t comment.

Madeline Ostrander is freelance science journalist based in Seattle. Her work also appeared in The New Yorker, Audubon, and The Nation, among other publications.

“My Goodness We Were Hungry!” An Immigrant’s Voyage to Catalonia

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

Llegiu aquest article en català

Maria Àngels Córdoba tells me her story in steady Catalan, but when she wants to emphasize a feeling, like these ferocious hunger pangs, she quickly switches to Spanish.

“In the morning, we had some café con leche [half coffee, half milk]—well, it was brown, but it wasn’t coffee—and sopitas, slices of day-old dry bread. For lunch, chickpeas, olives, corn, grapes. Meanwhile the señoritos owned mountains, forests, creeks, rivers, entire towns even, but they didn’t pay the day’s wages in good time. My dad protested—he had five children to feed and one on the way. He worked days and nights and still owed the daily bread. He didn’t want to leave. He’d been stationed in Catalonia during the Civil War, and he didn’t want to return to Catalonia... but in Catalonia there were jobs and regular weekly wages. In the end, we left.”

In 1963, when Maria Àngels left Salinas, Córdoba, for Navas, Catalonia, she was thirteen years old. What she didn’t realize until she attempted to get in the train with the family mattress on her back was that their journey was a common one. So prevalent, in fact, that between the early 1950s and 1975, Catalonia’s population increased by 2,222,812 people. Maria Àngels is considered an immigrant, even though she was a Spaniard moving to another part of Spain.

“Our train came from Granada, and it was packed with people, belongings of all kinds. The air was thick. We pushed to get in. Grandma and Mama, round as a watermelon, sat down. We, kids crowded on the mattresses on the corridor. It was fun!” says Maria Àngels, looking both excited and sad.

Mora la Nova train station
The packed train in the station of Mora la Nova in the 1960s.
Photo courtesy of Museu d’història de la Immigració de Catalunya

It took them two full days to get to Catalonia—nowadays it takes half a day. They shared games, stories, food, and dreams.

Then, “I saw the sea! It was so big and blue. It hurt my eyes to look.” The sea was, to Maria Àngels, the promise of the good things to come.

In Navas, Maria Àngels went to school for a month, but soon she found a job in a factory in Ametlla de Merola. She remembers the peals of laughter from the teenage girls working next to her. It was there, over the noise of the loud textile machinery, that she realized her manager, Mr. Ton, spoke another language.

He gave her an order, and Maria Àngels stood there dumbfounded. She asked for clarification in Spanish, but he responded in Catalan. She discovered later that he didn’t understand Spanish. She was sure she would be fired. But, in what she interprets as an act of kindess, Mr. Ton approached her and, speaking slowly, showed her what he had asked her to do. This is how she began to learn Catalan.

While Maria Àngels took language lessons with Mr. Ton, other Andalusian immigrants who, like her, escaped hunger or political persecution, weren’t so lucky. Since the 1950s immigration wave took place during Francisco Franco’s dictatorial regime, many Catalans misinterpreted the arrival of 100,000 Andalusian inhabitants per year as an attempt to erase Catalan identity, according to Imma Boj, curator at the History of Immigration in Catalonia Museum. Franco declared these immigrants illegal, and many were even deported. Many immigrants felt not only uprooted but also rejected by many Catalans, as their presence was seen as a form of political occupation.

Workers at the factory of Ametlla de Merola
Maria Àngels (right) with her pals during a break in front of the factory of Ametlla de Merola.
Photo courtesy of Maria Àngels

Meanwhile, Maria Àngels’ family moved as much in Catalonia as it had in Andalusia, looking for a place to settle. “We were like snails” she jokes, because they carried their possessions with them from one house to another. “We stayed in Navas for five years, but then moved to Ribes de Freser. There the bell rang to call the workers to the factory. On winter Sundays, we went to the movies, and in the summers, we hiked the Taga [Mountain]. Life had changed.

“One good day, the director of the Tolrà factory from Castellar del Vallès came to Ribes. He was looking for large families, so the Pérez, Pinilla, Gallardo, Jurado, and Córdoba families moved to Castellar. We were given a new appartment to live in, and we all started to work at the Tolrà factory.”

Founded in 1856, the Tolrà textile factory took advantage of the rugged landscape of Castellar del Vallès by installing two hydraulic wheels in the Ripoll River to generate energy to move the looms. The looms were renowned for two reasons: 1) the quality of the product, with the bright white cotton fabric winning international awards, and 2) the quality of life for the workers. The managers established a daycare center and several schools for children of employees. They gave workers regular holidays and a retirement pension before it was required by the law. They built housing, laundry facilities, a church, a coffee shop, a soccer field, a theater, and a supermarket. The Tolrà patronage is a paradigmatic example of how Catalan industries behaved in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Tolrà looms
Heavy textile machinery of the Tolrà looms in the 1960s.
Photo courtesy of Arxiu d’Història de Castellar

“In Tolrà, my father continued to be an unskilled laborer, but I wasn’t. I worked in the salvage team—there were three of us. The chemical products we worked with were so dangerous that once I saw a cat disappear when it fell, accidentally, into one of the tanks. But what fabrics we produced! Nothing like it today, nothing at all,” Maria Àngels explains melancholically, remembering how the Tolrà looms shut down in 1995.

“It was there that I met Jordi, a handsome industrial master. I kind of had to hurry and learn Catalan well. But, you know, Jordi helped me!” she jokes.

According to geographer Anna Cabré, Catalonia was a pioneer in a new model of population growth, with immigration rather than procreation at its center. Between 1787 and 1887, Catalonia went from having the highest matrimonial fertility rate in Spain to the lowest. This transition paved the way for the capitalist transformation of the Catalan economy. The industry offered tempting job opportunities and higher salaries—just what immigrants sought.

So in the late nineteenth century, immigrants began to arrive from Aragon, Valencia, and the Balearic Islands. In the 1900s, they came from Murcia, Alicante, and Almeria, and in the 1950s, from Andalusia. By 1975, 38.4 percent of the Catalan population had been born outside Catalan territory.

As was common in Catalonia in the 1970s, Maria Àngels stopped working when she got pregnant with her first daughter. In her living room hangs a painting of the Salinas house her father sold to purchase the train tickets, but she has never been back. She would like to, but there was never time or money. Anyway, she found a place to settle and call home a long time ago.

Meritxell Martín-Pardo is a research associate for the Catalonia program at the 2018 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. She studied philosophy at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona and earned her PhD in religious studies at the University of Virginia.

«¡Que hambre había, madre mía!»
El viatge a Catalunya d’una immigrant

La Maria Àngels Córdoba m’explica la seva història en català, però de seguida canvia al castellà quan vol emfasitzar sentiments i sensacions, com aquella gana ferotge i punyent que passava.

«Al matí, preníem cafè amb llet —bé, era de color marró, però no era cafè— i sopitas, llesques de pa sec del dia abans. Per dinar, menjàvem cigrons, olives, blat de moro, raïm... Mentrestant, els señoritos eren els amos de muntanyes, boscos, rius i torrents, fins i tot de pobles sencers, però no pagaven els jornals puntualment. El meu pare protestava, tenia cinc fills per mantenir i un altre en camí. Treballava nit i dia per guanyar-se el pa. No volia marxar. Durant la Guerra Civil havia estat destinat a Catalunya, i no hi volia tornar..., però a Catalunya hi havia feina i es podia cobrar una paga setmanal amb regularitat, de manera que, finalment, vam marxar.»

El 1963, amb tretze anys, la Maria Àngels va deixar el poble cordovès de Salinas per anar a Navàs. Quan va intentar pujar al tren amb el matalàs a l’esquena, es va adonar que el seu era un viatge força comú. De fet, era tan comú que, entre principis de la dècada del 1950 i el 1975, la població catalana va augmentar en 2.222.812 habitants. La Maria Àngels és considerada una immigrant, encara que fos una espanyola que es traslladava a una altra part d’Espanya.

«El nostre tren venia des de Granada i anava ple com un ou. Els viatgers duien tota mena d’efectes personals, les seves pertinences. L’ambient estava carregat. Vam entrar al vagó a empentes. L’àvia i la mare, molt grasses, seien, mentre que els nens ens atapeíem sobre els matalassos al passadís. Era divertit», explica la Maria Àngels, amb una barreja d’emoció i tristor al rostre.

Van tardar dos dies sencers a arribar a Catalunya —avui tardarien mig dia. Compartien jocs, històries, menjar i somnis.
«Vaig veure el mar! Era tan gran i tan blau que feia mal als ulls.» Per a la Maria Àngels, el mar era com la promesa de les coses bones que havien de venir.

A Navàs, la Maria Àngels va anar a l’escola un mes, però aviat va trobar feina en una fàbrica de l’Ametlla de Merola. Recorda les riallades de les seves companyes de feina adolescents. Va ser allà on, amb el brogit de la maquinària tèxtil de fons, es va adonar que el seu cap, el senyor Ton, parlava en una altra llengua.

Li va donar una ordre, i la Maria Àngels es va quedar esbalaïda. Va demanar que li ho expliqués en castellà, però ell va respondre en català. Més tard va descobrir que ell no entenia el castellà. Estava convençuda que la despatxarien, però, en el que ella interpreta com un acte d’amabilitat, el senyor Ton se li va acostar i, parlant a poc a poc, li va ensenyar el que li havia demanat que fes. Així va ser com va començar a aprendre català.

Mentre la Maria Àngels aprenia català amb el senyor Ton, altres immigrants andalusos que, com ella, fugien de la fam o de la persecució política, no eren tan afortunats. Segons Imma Boj, directora del Museu d’Història de la Immigració a Catalunya, com que l’onada d’immigració de la dècada del 1950 va tenir lloc durant la dictadura de Franco, molts catalans van interpretar l’arribada de 100.000 habitants andalusos a l’any com un intent d’esborrar la identitat catalana. Franco va declarar aquells immigrants il·legals, i molts fins i tot van ser deportats. Molts d’aquells immigrants es van sentir no tan sols desarrelats, sinó també rebutjats per molts catalans, perquè la seva presència es percebia com una forma d’ocupació política.

Mentrestant, la família de la Maria Àngels recorria Catalunya com havia recorregut Andalusia, a la recerca d’un lloc on establir-se. «Fèiem com els cargols», comenta rient, perquè s’enduien totes les seves pertinences d’una casa a una altra. «Vam quedar-nos cinc anys a Navàs, però després ens vam mudar a Ribes de Freser. Allà la campana tocava per avisar els treballadors per anar a la fàbrica. Els diumenges d’hivern anàvem al cinema, i a l’estiu, fèiem excursions al Taga. La vida havia canviat.

«Un bon dia, el director de la fàbrica Tolrà de Castellar del Vallès es va presentar a Ribes. Buscava famílies grans, i així va ser com els Pérez, els Pinilla, els Gallardo, els Jurado i els Córdoba ens vam traslladar a Castellar. Ens van donar un pis nou per viure-hi i tots vam entrar a treballar a la Tolrà.»

La fàbrica tèxtil Tolrà va ser fundada el 1856. Aprofitant el terreny accidentat de Castellar del Vallès, van instal·lar al riu Ripoll dos molins per generar energia per fer anar els telers. La fàbrica tenia molta anomenada per dos motius: per una banda, la qualitat dels seus productes (les seves peces de roba blanca de cotó havien guanyat premis internacionals), i per una altra, la qualitat de vida dels treballadors. Els responsables de la fàbrica van obrir una llar d’infants i escoles per als fills dels treballadors. Els empleats tenien dret a vacances periòdiques i a una pensió de jubilació abans que ho exigís la llei. La Tolrà havia construït habitatges, safareigs, una església, un cafè, un camp de futbol, un teatre i un economat. El patronat Tolrà és un exemple paradigmàtic del comportament dels industrials catalans als segles xix i xx.

«A la Tolrà, el meu pare seguia sent un treballador no qualificat, però jo no. Treballava a l’equip de socors —érem tres. Els productes químics amb què treballàvem eren tan perillosos que una vegada vaig veure com desapareixia un gat que va caure per accident en un dels dipòsits. Però quins teixits que fèiem! Avui dia no es fa res semblant, res», explica la Maria Àngels amb malenconia, recordant el tancament de la Tolrà, el 1995.
«Allà vaig conèixer en Jordi, un capatàs molt ben plantat. Vaig haver d’espavilar-me i aprendre bé el català, però en Jordi m’hi va ajudar!», diu rient.

Segons la geògrafa Anna Cabré, Catalunya fou pionera en un nou model de creixement de la població, basat en la immigració, més que no pas en la procreació. Entre el 1787 i el 1887, Catalunya va passar de tenir l’índex més elevat de fecunditat matrimonial d’Espanya a tenir el més baix. Aquesta transició va propiciar la transformació capitalista de l’economia catalana. La indústria oferia oportunitats laborals atractives i salaris més elevats, justament el que buscaven els immigrants.

A finals del segle xix, van començar a arribar immigrants des d’Aragó, València i les illes Balears. A la dècada del 1900, van venir de Múrcia, Alacant i Almeria, i a la del 1950, d’Andalusia. L’any 1975, el 38,4 % de la població catalana ja havia nascut fora del territori català.

Com era habitual a Catalunya als anys setanta, la Maria Àngels va deixar la feina quan es va quedar embarassada de la seva primera filla. Al menjador té penjat un quadre on es reprodueix la casa Salinas, la casa que el seu pare va vendre per comprar els bitllets de tren. No hi ha tornat mai. Li hauria agradat, però no ho ha fet per falta de temps o per falta de diners. En qualsevol cas, fa temps que la Maria Àngels va trobar un lloc on instal·lar-se, una llar.

Meritxell Martín-Pardo és investigadora associada per al programa de Catalunya de l’Smithsonian Folklife Festival del 2018. És llicenciada en filosofia per la Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona i doctora en estudis religiosos per la Universitat de Virgínia.

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