Skip to Content

Found 6,551 Resources

Here Are 12 Things You Might Miss in the Smithsonian's New Fossil Hall

Smithsonian Magazine

It’s easy to get caught up gazing at the towering dinosaurs in the new fossil hall at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, but the story of our planet’s life history is much more complicated than Tyrannosaurus rex and its cousins.

The exhibition is set up to take visitors on a journey through prehistoric time, hence the hall’s moniker: Deep Time. Covering 4.6 billion years, the show captures what life looked like in the oceans, details how it emerged onto land, and explores all of what life looked like before, during and after the dawn of dinosaurs. The nuance of millions of years of evolution plays out in elaborate works of art, digital displays, tiny dioramas, molds, models and detailed fossils big and small.

It’s tough to catch everything the first—or even second—time around so we've put together a list of things that you might miss, but shouldn't.

Watch a Lizard Decay and a Gecko Catch a Fly

The scientific practice of recreating the fossilization process is called taphonomy. In the new Deep Time exhibition, you can watch it unfold before your eyes with time-lapse imaging of a decomposing lizard. Over the course of a little more than a year, you can see the lizard’s body bloat up, get devoured by flies and maggots, and eventually disintegrate down to its bare bones. (Be sure to move the cursor ever-so-slowly so you can see a gecko sneak onto the carcass to catch flies for dinner.)

Featured behind the interactive touch screen video, you can see the fossil of an early synapsid, Ophiacodon uniformis. Replicating the fossilization process helps researchers learn more about the creature’s final moments and the earliest stages of fossilization.

Touch Something 4.4 Billion Years Old

The zircon, or silver bits, in this 3.4 billion-year-old metaconglomerate rock are about 1 billion years older than the rock itself. (Rachael Lallensack)

To tell the story of the history of life, you have to start at the very, very beginning. Before life could inhabit Earth, the planet had to become habitable.

On display is a 3.4 billion-year-old metaconglomerate rock with 4.4 billion-year-old zircon bits embedded inside it. Minerals in the zircon show a time when Earth’s oceans, atmosphere and plate tectonics began. At that time, the ingredients for life on Earth were merely microscopic, organic material found in the early oceans. Today, those same materials still exist, but only in harsh environments like hot springs.

Charles Darwin's Book Holds a Secret

Image by Rachael Lallensack. At the top of the journal page, Darwin wrote with great authority: “I think.” (original image)

Image by Rachael Lallensack. The bird on his shoulder is a finch, the species Darwin studied on the Galapagos Islands while establishing his theory of evolution. (original image)

Image by Rachael Lallensack. The last line of Darwin's Origin of Species is displayed prominently throughout the exhibition: “From so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” (original image)

Adorning several walls of the hall in colorful typeface is the elegant quote: “From so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” It is the last sentence from On the Origin of Species written by the famed English naturalist Charles Darwin.

The quote is a unifying theme of the hall and centers around the idea that life on Earth is forever changing, was changing in the past and will change again. That’s also why a bronze statue of Charles Darwin sits at the center of the exhibition. With his notebook in hand, the sculpture of Darwin is seated on a bench, as if he's just exhausted himself touring the show. Sit down beside him and take a look at the open page of his journal. There you'll find recreated his first-ever sketch that he made of his “tree of life.” With ancient creatures branching off to modern-day animals, this was the catalytic moment when Darwin realized with all certainty that all plants and animals are related. At the top of the journal page, Darwin wrote with great authority: “I think.”

Another curiosity? The bird on Darwin's shoulder is in fact a finch, the species he studied to illustrate his theory of evolution.

A Man in the Bushes Hunts Down a Mastadon

Behind the massive mastodon skeleton, find in the mural on the wall near it, a man who is hunting it. (Rachael Lallensack)

The hall is set up to take you through time. Right around the exhibition’s entrance, you can find displays featuring early humans. By around 13,000 years ago, our ancestors were on every continent, sharing the Ice Age-era Earth with megafauna like the mastodon.

A bronze statue of Homo sapiens appears pathetically diminutive against the massive mastodon skeleton, but if you look closely at the intricate artwork behind the mastodon, on the wall, you will find one of our ancient cousins peering out from the brush at the great beast.

A Frog and a Salamander Swimming in a Dino Footprint

Researchers often look for microfossils in the sites of larger fossils to understand the prehistoric ecosystem. (Rachael Lallensack)

During the Cretaceous period, flowering plants started to take root and dinosaurs lived in a brilliantly biodiverse ecosystem. Right next to T. rex devouring a Triceratops, there’s an illustration of a dinosaur footprint filled with water. In the tiny pool, swims a frog and a salamander.

By collecting microfossils, or super small skeletal remains, at dig sites, researchers know that prehistoric amphibians shared the ecosystems that dinosaurs inhabited. A teeny prehistoric salamander jaw in the nearby display case dates to the age of the dinos.

“These are critical tools in the study of dinosaurs,” the display text points out, quoting the museum's curator of dinosaurs Matthew Carrano. “I’m especially interested in finding small fossils from many different species, so I can understand more about the whole ecosystem.”

It’s Not a Glitch in the Matrix: That Bronze Reptile Is Pixelated

Image by Beth Py-Lieberman. If you look closely, the bronze cast of this early mammal is pixelated. This choice was made to intentionally convey that researchers don't know the exact details of it's appearance. (original image)

Image by Rachael Lallensack. All researchers have to identify Steropodon galmani is part of its jaw and some teeth. (original image)

A lot of times when researchers find the remains of an ancient organism, they have to work backward to figure out exactly what it was. That process can get really tricky if they only have one or two fossilized body parts to go off of. That’s the case with Steropodon galmani, or what researchers suspect is an early mammal. Because they don’t have all the details filled in, they decided to display it as a work in progress.

We may not know much about what Steropodon galmani looked like, but we do know that many early mammals did something they’re modern counterparts can’t: lay eggs. You’ll notice the pixelated rat-like statue is guarding a nest.

It’s a Messy World—The Dioramas Have Dung Piles

Image by Rachael Lallensack. The dinosaurs' environment was probably pretty messy—and presumably smelly. (original image)

Image by Rachael Lallensack. The fossil hall team wanted to make sure the dioramas were as realistic as possible, which meant displaying beautiful dinosaurs alongside their dung. (original image)

A major goal for the team behind the new exhibition was making sure the displays were as realistic as possible. That meant major innovations when it came to how to pose the skeletons and how to provide more context about the environment the animals inhabited. And that meant making things a little messier. Earth wasn’t a completely pristine, luscious utopia before humans came along and life has always been a little dirty. When putting the final touches on the diorama models together, Smithsonian researchers noticed something was missing: poop.

Look closely at these tiny worlds and yep, your eyes don’t deceive you. Those are poo piles.

And You Can Read About Dino Poop Before You Go

Image by Rachael Lallensack. Only one dinosaur was large enough to leave this behind: a Tyrannosaurus rex. (original image)

Image by Rachael Lallensack. Researchers learn a lot about a creature's habitat and diet from its fossilized poo. You can learn all about it while you wait in line for the bathroom. (original image)

Ever wonder what T. rex poop looked like? It might not be the most glamorous feature of the hall, but researchers learn a lot about diet and habitat from fossilized excrement, or coprolites as they’re technically called, like T. rex’s.

In this particular coprolite cast, paleontologists found crushed, undigested bone. That tells researchers that T. rex chewed its food, rather than swallowing it whole.

You can read all about it in a strategically placed location: on the walls as you wait in line for the bathroom.

Is That a Bug or a Leaf—or Both?

Image by Rachael Lallensack. Here is an artist's rendering of what the prehistoric scorpionfly might have looked like camouflaged amongst ancient gingko leaves. (original image)

Image by Rachael Lallensack. Can you tell which fossil is the bug and which one is the leaf? (original image)

One of the coolest features that modern insects have evolved is the creative ways that they blend into their surroundings using physical camouflage. If you look closely, you’ll see a prehistoric bug, the Scorpionfly, Juracimbrophlebia ginkofolia, next to an early Ginkgo tree relative, Yimaia capituliformis. Both are estimated to exist between 157 to 161 million years ago.

You can also catch early evidence of eyespots on the wings of a Kalligramma lacewing butterfly. Scientists suspect eyespots first evolved in Jurassic lacewings and then a second time in modern butterflies.

This Huge Prehistoric Fish Ate a Slightly Less Huge Fish

Look closely and you'll see the giant fish's last meal—a slightly less giant fish. (Beth Py-Lieberman)

This fossil might have you seeing double: A massive prehistoric fish, Xiphactinus audax, devoured a still impressively large, Thryptodus zitteli. Both then met their fate and became fossilized in incredible detail. These two teleosts, or relatives of bony-tongues fish, lived between 89 and 90 million years ago.

Nearby you’ll even see three animals and two meals in one fossil. A mosasaur, specifically Tylosaurus proriger, ate a Plesiosaur as evidenced by bones found within the mosasaur’s stomach. That’s not all: The Plesiosaur also seemed to have a recent dinner, and researchers found smaller bones from a third unknown species in its stomach. (All three were fossilized in a Russian nesting doll of last meals, you could say.)

That Palm Leaf Fossil Was Found in Alaska

There were once tropical plants in Alaska, but what does that tell researchers about today's warming world? (Rachael Lallensack)

The new fossil hall isn’t just about dinosaurs—you’ll find fossils of plants, insects and more, too. It’s all part of the overarching story the researchers behind the exhibition are trying to tell: that everything on our planet is interconnected and always changing.

Yes, fossils of tropical plants—and even crocodiles—can be found in Alaska. About 60 million years ago, Alaska was covered in dense, wet forest. The estimated 50-million- to 57-million-year-old giant palm leaf poised above other rainforest foliage was found in what’s now Petersburg Borough, Alaska. Sure, Earth’s climate may have been much warmer than it is today, but that doesn’t mean we can relax and kick back.

As several displays in the hall explain, today’s climate change is happening at an “extremely fast pace” and “humans are the cause.” And just because climate change has happened before doesn’t mean we humans will survive it, which is why there is a section of the hall dedicated to solutions.

The Big Picture: How Rapidly the Human Population Has Grown

Image by Rachael Lallensack. Those tiny dots on the wall are actually people and they progressively become more numerous, just as the human population has expanded rapidly in recent history. (original image)

Image by Beth Py-Lieberman. Notice that the wall paper is covered with bird’s eye view photos of people that gradually get more numerous and densely spaced from the right side of the wall to the left. (original image)

Image by Beth Py-Lieberman. That’s not just a cool design element: it’s a precise depiction of how the human population has grown rapidly over time. (original image)

The history of Earth and all life on it is also our history. Our actions matter and what we do has an immense effect on the planet. As the exhibition explains, the human population is “three times larger than it was in 1950” and we use “five times as much energy.”

Along the wall, screens display videos about climate change solutions happening in communities around the world. Behind those, you’ll notice that the wall paper is covered with bird’s eye view photos of people that gradually get more numerous and densely spaced from the right side of the wall to the left. That’s not just a cool design element; it’s a precise depiction of how the human population has grown rapidly over time.

But it conveys a message of hope: “We are causing rapid, unprecedented change to our planet. But there is hope—we can adapt, innovate, and collaborate to leave a positive legacy.”

This Galentine's Day blog post is for you. You poetic, noble land-mermaid.

National Museum of American History

On February 13, women everywhere (we hope!) will be gathering together to celebrate Galentine's Day. First introduced in 2010 by character Leslie Knope on the TV show Parks and Recreation, Galentine's Day is about "ladies celebrating ladies," be they friends, co-workers, family members, or personal heroes. What began as a fictional holiday for women to honor other women has merged into real life as more women learn about and celebrate this happy day. In honor of Galentine's Day we have chosen some of our favorite gal pals in our collections. Below are some of the women and girls who could have had their own Galentine's Day celebration.

The Monterey Gals

Black and white posed photo of women, each with their hair piled on top of their head and high-collared blouses.

Postcard with typed words and handwritten words. Green postage stamp.

Before telephones were common forms of communication, real photo postcards were the rapid messaging tool of the day. The postmark indicates that Elsie sent this card from Monterey, Virginia, at 9:00 a.m. on 23 May, 1907, to a Miss Jay (maybe a nickname?) Yager in Bartow, West Virginia, some 30 miles away. With mail services often delivering twice a day, you could send a quick note in the morning to invite a friend for a late-night horseback ride as Elsie did in May 1907, "am going horse back riding to night [sic], come and go along 'Moon-light' you know." Enticing!

If Elsie or Jay are depicted among the group of young women photographed in an unidentified photographer's studio, we don't know. It sounds like perhaps Elsie was a store clerk at Dunlevie Drug Store in Dunlevie (now Thornwood), West Virginia. "Do you ever go to Dunlevie, anymore(?)/ Would love you to. Come in and see me." Maybe then Jay could have gotten the scoop from her gal pal, "Rec'd card it was a rich one." When this postcard was written, senders were not allowed to write on the back of the postcard; it was to be the address only. Our rebellious sender, Elsie, continued her message there anyway. With their spunk, contemporary hair and clothes, and tight friendship, we would like being friends with these gals!

The Seven Sutherland Sisters

Black and white photo of seven women with exceedingly long hair.

Women of late-19th-century America flaunted hair as their "crowning glory," the ultimate marker of feminine beauty, luxurious vitality, and even moral health. For the seven Sutherland sisters of Cambria, New York, luscious locks were never in short supply. Together, their womanly manes measured 37 feet, a fact that helped them become national celebrities and entrepreneurs.

Glass bottle labeled "hair grower" beside packaging featuring black and white image of seven women with long hair.

Sarah, Victoria, Isabella, Grace, Naomi, Dora, and Mary toured the country first as a musical act and later with the Barnum and Bailey Circus. Eventually, they took their show to the drug store, offering demonstrations and consultations to admirers and selling their father Reverend Fletcher Sutherland's Seven Sutherland Sisters hair and beauty products. Their success allowed them to retire from the road and build a mansion where they lived together back in New York. By the 1920s, however, the fashion for bobbed hair cut their sales short.

The Navy Nurses of Base Hospital No. 5

Black and white group photo of women wearing uniform coats and hats.

In May 1917, just a month after the United States officially entered World War I, four women set sail from New York Harbor amidst a flurry of noisily cheering crowds. Beulah Armor, Faye Fulton, Halberta Grosh, and Bertha Hamer were nurses with the Navy Nurse Corps and, along with hundreds of soldiers and sailors, they were heading to France well before the troops of the American Expeditionary Force could be fully mobilized to follow them. As young nurses in Philadelphia at the time of the war, the women joined a group of fellow medical professionals from Philadelphia to establish Navy Base Hospital No. 5 in Brest, France.

The hospital began operations in December 1917 and was quickly inundated with patients including new soldiers arriving from the United States, wounded soldiers returning from the war front, civilians injured in German submarine attacks, and victims of the 1918 flu epidemic. There's nothing like a war zone to forge lasting relationships, and no doubt the nurses of Base Hospital No. 5 relied on each other to get them through the long, grueling war.

Coat with "USR" on collar and two lines of buttons, vertical. Dark navy blue.

With the end of the war in November 1918, and the closing of the Base Hospital in March 1919, the four women returned to Philadelphia. Fulton, Grosh, and Hamer continued working as professional nurses, while Armor married a fellow member of Base Hospital No. 5: a cook named Elwood Basler, who was also briefly a patient. Clearly the relationships formed among the nurses in Brest remained strong over the years, as the women got together in 1970 to donate objects from their time in the war. These objects serve as a lasting reminder of brave women facing difficult situations with the support of their friends and colleagues.

Takayo Tsubouchi Fischer and Jayce Tsenami

Black and white photo of two smiling children. Standing outside, with a very plain building behind them. They are both smiling.

Screen, stage, and voice actress Takayo Fischer, was one of 120,000 citizens or residents of Japanese ancestry who were forcibly removed from their homes in Western states and incarcerated in camps during World War II. The youngest of five girls, she grew up with a rich tradition of valuing female friends. The communal nature of the camps—where inmates ate common meals in central mess halls and used bathrooms and showers without individual stalls—broke down the traditional Japanese family structure. As families lost the opportunity to create private family meals or carve out family time, friends, like Jayce Tsenami, took on an even greater importance. Both Takayo and Jayce were inmates at the Jerome camp in Arkansas, where the wooded swampland of the Mississippi delta brought with it mosquitoes, poisonous snakes, malaria, and dysentery. The friendship they forged in camp helped to sustain them through the long and difficult incarceration.

Mary Hill and the Ladies of Maltaville

Quilt with white background and simple shapes in a variety of colors. These include flowers, leaves, and shapes.

In 1847, the women of the Presbyterian Church of Maltaville, New York, honored their friend Mary Hill by making her an album quilt. Album quilts, also called friendship quilts, are made up of appliquéd and embroidered blocks which are joined together to form a quilt. The blocks often contain inked inscriptions with special meaning to the maker, including names, dates, places, or poems.

For Mary Hill's quilt, the women of the church made, joined, lined, and quilted 61 blocks. Each block is signed in ink and features motifs such as birds, flowers, hearts, and stars. At the center of the quilt is a large block with a wreath of flowering vines surrounding the inscription, "Presented to Mrs. Mary B. Hill as an expression of esteem by the Ladies of Maltaville." The quilt was clearly treasured by Mary Hill and her family, as it remained with them for almost 100 years until it was donated to the museum by her granddaughter in 1930.

Gertrud Friedemann and Eva Morgenroth Lande

Black and white portrait of a young girl in a plaid coat. Her hair is on top of her head, perhaps in a hat. Her hands are in muff or hand warmer.

In the 1930s Gertrud Bejach Friedemann and her husband, the bacteriologist Ulrich Friedemann, took refuge in Great Britain and then the United States to avoid the terrors of Nazi Germany. They brought with them Gertrud's two children by her first marriage, Eva and Anton Morgenroth. Among their belongings was a small paper puzzle, called Zauberspiel (Magic Game), which Gertrud had played with as a child in Berlin.

Green piece of paper with rectangular windows cut into the top piece of paper. One window reveals the number 73.

Many green sheets of rigid paper with rectangular windows cut into them, some revealing numbers.

Gertrud passed the game on to her children and it remained a favorite of theirs in their new home in America. In 1988 Eva gave her Zauberspiel to the Smithsonian. The game suggests not only the enduring fascination of mathematical recreations and the rich culture of early 20th century Berlin, but also the power of a small object to tie a mother and daughter who took refuge in the United States to the past they left behind.

Care to try Zauberspiel? Visit our collections record to learn more. But be warned: according to Eva, when family friend Albert Einstein tried his hand at the game he spent days puzzling over it to no avail.

Patri O'Gan is a project assistant in the Division of Armed Forces History. Shannon Perich is a curator in the Division of Culture and the Arts. Mallory Warner is a curatorial assistant and Rachel Anderson is a research and project assistant in the Division of Medicine and Science. Lucy Harvey is a program assistant in the Division of Armed Forces History. Madelyn Shaw is a curator in the Division of Home and Community Life. Peggy Kidwell is a curator in the Division of Medicine and Science.

Patri O’Gan, Shannon Perich, Mallory Warner, Rachel Anderson, Lucy Harvey, Madelyn Shaw, and Peggy Kidwell
Posted Date: 
Monday, February 13, 2017 - 08:00
OSayCanYouSee?d=qj6IDK7rITs OSayCanYouSee?d=7Q72WNTAKBA OSayCanYouSee?i=D1CbjnWLoRw:Xu5C0SFpGgg:V_sGLiPBpWU OSayCanYouSee?i=D1CbjnWLoRw:Xu5C0SFpGgg:gIN9vFwOqvQ OSayCanYouSee?d=yIl2AUoC8zA

Wildlife Photographer Frans Lanting on the Difference Between Taking Pictures and Making Photographs

Smithsonian Magazine

The aye-aye is a rare, nocturnal Madagascar primate with a bushy tail that resembles a cross between a squirrel and a possum and grows to about 16 inches long. For its bizarre appearance, it has been called the world’s strangest primate. Thirty years ago, nature photographer Frans Lanting, on assignment for National Geographic magazine set out to track the elusive primate to capture it on film. At the time, there were “practically no photographs of aye-ayes, ” he says.

“Frans became known before he even reached a village as ‘The man who searches for aye-aye,’” says Chris Eckstrom, Lanting’s wife, a videographer and former National Geographic writer, on a recent tour of the show.

“The local people are so fearful of those creatures that they often didn’t even want to hear the name pronounced,” Lanting adds. “It’s associated with evil and bad luck.” But a farmer finally led him to a place where an aye-aye could be seen in the tree canopy scooping out the flesh of a coconut.

Lanting's image of the aye-aye is one of more than 60 currently on view in the new exhibition, “National Geographic Into Africa: The Photography of Frans Lanting” at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., which includes a booth where viewers can snap selfies in front of one of Lanting's wall-sized images of two rhinoceroses.

Lanting sees the explosion of interest in photography, including the sort that is sure to happen at the rhino  photo booth, as refreshing. Where photography was once a highly specialized activity, now anyone with a smartphone can take and share photographs. “There’s no excuse not to take pictures,” Lanting says. “Everyone is a citizen with a camera in their hands. We know with recent social issues and political eruptions how important that is.”

Amateur photographers can also get very creative with their smartphones and apps. “I think we are just seeing the beginning of a new era in photography,” Lanting says. “What it does to the more deliberate kinds of photography, of which this exhibition is a result—hopefully it’ll stimulate a small percentage of the people who start with this to consider taking the next step from taking pictures to making photographs.”

Walking through the exhibition with Lanting and Eckstrom and hearing some of the stories behind the photographs, one has a sense of what former National Geographic photography director Thomas Kennedy meant when he said of Lanting: “He has the mind of a scientist, the heart of a hunter, and the eyes of a poet.”

Frans Lanting and wife and partner Chris Eckstrom, a writer and videographer, in Senegal in 2007. (Frans Lanting/

Asked about the description, Lanting says: “You have to be analytical. If you don’t understand what you are photographing, you are just looking at the surface of things. If you can’t get into this dance with wild animals, you remain a scientist,” he says. “There’s an interaction that goes on between animals and myself, and I’m working with them. It’s not as simple as sitting there and aiming a large telephoto lens from a great distance.” Although he isn’t a hunter, there are aspects of his photography that resemble hunting, Lanting adds. “And ultimately, you have to be able to express things in a way that is lyrical and poetical, or else it’s just a record.”

Even if the overwhelming majority of the works in the show are “realistic,” some of Lanting’s works on display in “Into Africa” have abstract components. The image “Hunters Reflected,” taken in Botswana in 1989, shows a detail of a zebra’s head, but in its green eye, there is a hint of a reflection of the trophy hunter who shot it, a hunting guide, and Lanting himself. The work shifts the focus from the humans to the animal, whose stripes and eyelashes dwarf the tiny reflected figures. Lanting framed the work that way, he says, not to condemn hunting, but to “make it more of an abstraction of the activity itself.”

Botswana’s president recently placed a moratorium on all hunting in the country. “That’s a bold move,” Lanting says. “There was an era when people went to Africa to connect with wildlife through the [clicking sound], through a gun. These days, it’s mostly through a camera, or through binoculars. That’s certainly a more sustainable activity.”

The photograph of the zebra epitomizes what Lanting describes as the couple's artistic process. “What Chris and I do together is to not just [capture] the surface beauty, but also to come up with an interpretation of the wild places and the wild places that are dear to our hearts,” he says. “There’s a lot of technical and aesthetic considerations that go into how I frame a situation, but at the same time we are thinking of the storytelling. And that is, of course, part of the great tradition at National Geographic.”

Lanting credits his wife with helping put words to his photographic vision, and nowhere is that more pronounced than in “Bullfrog,” also taken in Botswana in 1989, which depicts a huge, semi-submerged frog in the foreground, as grass and trees appear along the high horizon line. “Bullfrogs in the Kalahari Desert lead secret lives. For most of the year they hide underground, encased in a protective membrane, until the first heavy downpours bring them back to the surface,” reads the wall label. “By the edge of a rain-filled pool, I crept up to this male on hands and knees to create a portrait of seasonal rebirth, expressed in a face larger than life.”

The lengthy National Geographic assignment, Lanting adds, had him searching for images that were symbolic of broader themes, rather than just specific animals. He used a wide-angle lens to enlarge the frog—which he shuffled closer to each time it ducked under the water to wet its skin. “We ultimately had a pretty close encounter,” he says, noting also the billowing clouds atop the composition. “Everything says it’s the beginning of the season of plenty.”

Creeping up on animals can be a struggle at the beginning. “You can’t go to school for this kind of work. You have to learn by doing it,” Lanting says. “I made all the mistakes myself. I just got better and better at it.”

Asked about his safety shooting photographs in the wild, particularly after a lion mauling made the news recently, Lanting says it comes with the territory. “When you work with nature, there are uncertainties,” he says. “I believe that if you understand the situation, and you understand the animals, a lot of the myths about animals that are dangerous give way to very specific situations, where we can often gauge what is the right thing to do.”

That said, Lanting notes that one never quite knows how a hippopotamus (like the one gaping in “Hippo” in the show), an elephant, or a lion will react. “The core of a hippo threat display is a wide-open gape, a gesture sometimes mistaken for mere yawning. But what I saw through my lens could not be mistaken: His upright body position, perked ears, and bulging eyes were exclamation points on his emotion. I lingered only long enough to expose a few frames,” the wall label notes.

“We are not just operating from the safety of a Land Rover. Sometimes we are out there on foot or we are lying on our stomach. You’re never quite sure,” Lanting says. But he is quick to prescribe that humans shoulder the blame. “I don’t want to put a burden on animals and make them dangerous. If we are so smart, we should know better,” he says. “The key to this work is to pay respect to the animals, the places and the people you work with.”

Animals give signals, Eckstrom adds. “If you watch carefully, they’re letting you know how comfortable they are with your presence and your approach. If you read their language, then you either know that it’s OK to move in a little bit more, or back off,” she says. Elephants, for example, flap their ears, raise themselves up, and shuffle their front feet.

“Elephants are very expressive. Crocodiles are harder. They’re not as expressive,” Lanting says.

Beyond the potential for danger on their shoots, nature photographers also endure daily routines that evoke military training.

Videographer Chris Eckstrom and her husband photographer Frans Lanting hid inside a concrete bunker by a water hole in Namibia in 2009 to capture images of animals that came to drink there. (Frans Lanting/

“A lot of people say, ‘Your job is so much fun. It’s so glamorous.’ Sometimes I take the trouble to describe a typical day in the life, or something like that. And people go, ‘Ew! I couldn’t do that,’” Eckstrom says. One example, she says, is tracking chimpanzees, which requires being on location where the chimps went to bed the night before prior to their awakening.

“Sometimes that would be, get up at 3:30 in the morning. Hike out in blustery heat; 100 percent humidity; 30 to 40 pound packs on our backs. Hike, hike, hike. Get to the chimps. If we were lucky they were still there, and then following them on foot all day long, carrying a gallon of water,” she says. “And then having to go all day long until they go to bed at sunset. And then hiking back out in the dark and downloading things, and then back up at 3:30 in the morning.”

Still, there is something so addictive about photographing nature that it can make it difficult for the couple, based in California, to return home in between assignments. “It’s a real culture shock going from the natural world to human society,” Lanting says.

Lanting and Eckstrom met through a mutual friend when Eckstrom was a National Geographic staff writer. “The rest is history,” Lanting says.

Eckstrom notes that the two had been working alone, albeit doing the same kind of field work, for more than a decade prior to their collaborations. “We both had very different, specific ways we went about things. It took us a little time to merge that,” she says. “But basically, there’s so much to do that you have to divide and conquer, both with the research and the planning.”

“Now we are going into couple counseling mode,” Lanting says. “You have to share the same fundamental values and aspirations, of course, because otherwise you’re going off in different directions.” And there is too much work for just one person to do. “That is why quite a few of the great natural history filmmakers, especially in the earlier days, were husband-and-wife teams: Des and Jen Bartlett, Alan and Joan Root, and we could cite many more examples. Dieter and Mary Plage,” he says. “They were our role models. They were often people who lived on location for a long time, who could prop each other up, make up for each other’s weaknesses.”

Frans Lanting in Kenya in 2011. (Frans Lanting/

The National Geographic community also helps prop its own up.

“We are an eclectic bunch of photographers,” Lanting says. “We all stimulate each other. We all speak a common language, a visual language that National Geographic has refined over the years. It doesn’t really matter whether you aim your camera at an animal or a human being. There are common challenges and shared creative responses to that. We drive each other.”

The group isn’t necessarily in regular contact, but it comes together for an annual “gathering of the tribe” in Washington, D.C., Lanting says. A colleague once observed that there are more brain surgeons than National Geographic photographers. “Maybe it’s because there’s a need for more brain surgeons,” Lanting says. “I think he’s right. It’s a really unusual profession.”

As is often the case with National Geographic photography, the exhibition has both an aesthetic and an activist component to it. “The planet is precious. And it’s under a lot of pressure,” Lanting says. “I hope that it will help people gain a bit more of an understanding of what exists out there, and what goes into making the images. … I hope that maybe some people will be inspired to become a more active part of the solution.”

Eckstrom adds that it is important for people to realize that not all of the stories coming out of Africa are bad ones. “There are some really hopeful conservation stories embedded in this exhibition,” she says. “We hope people will pay attention to those and celebrate them.”

"National Geographic into Africa: The Photography of Frans Lanting" will be on view through the summer of 2016 at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

William Steinway's New York

National Museum of American History

What was the Big Apple like in the second half of the 19th century? The daily diary of piano manufacturer William Steinway opens a window into a New York of concerts, politics, sports, theater, restaurants, and much more. Steinway’s diary resides in the National Museum of American History’s Archives Center as part of the Steinway & Sons Records and Family Papers, 1857–1919. The diary covers the period from April 20, 1861, through November 8, 1896, about three weeks before Steinway’s death.

“I wanna wake up in the city that doesn’t sleep…”

In the last half of the 1800s, long before Frank Sinatra sang those words, before the city had a subway, when there were no Yankees and Knicks, the singer’s words would still have resonated with many residents. Piano manufacturer William Steinway, who lived in upscale Gramercy Park in Lower Manhattan, was among them, and his daily diary opens a window into the New York he knew.

He saw great artists in a great concert hall, which he happened to own. He smelled the sea as he ate oysters at the famous Fulton Fish Market. He attended a ball—and mocked some of the ladies—at the old Madison Square Garden. A German immigrant, he attended plays at a German-themed theater. He went to a grand hotel to meet with the Democratic Party bosses. He left work one day to take in a baseball game at the Polo Grounds. He was a regular at the restaurant that was the “in” place for songwriters. Browse through the diary and you’ll find the New York that Steinway knew.

Steinway Hall

A group of musicians performing on stageOct. 31, 1866: “Inauguration Concert by the Bateman Concert troupe. Everybody is delighted with the acoustic qualities. House filled to overflowing. Great Success. Supper afterwards, jolly time til 3 AM.” Henry Z. Steinway Archive

Steinway was a bit of a genius in building one of New York’s finest concert halls, which opened on East 14th Street in 1866. Concertgoers had to walk through Steinway & Sons piano showrooms to enter the hall, and the manufacturer demanded that artists appearing there could only press the keys of a Steinway piano. Steinway once caused the New York Philharmonic—then the resident orchestra—to cancel a performance when a guest wanted to play on a rival’s keyboard, according to Music and Culture in America, 1861–1918. Steinway Hall hosted 40 to 70 major concerts a year and other programs such as Charles Dickens’s reading before a capacity audience on December 9, 1867. The hall’s last event was in 1890, and Carnegie Hall opened the next year as the city’s top concert venue.

Fulton Fish Market

A man in overalls stands among tables piled with seafoodJune 17, 1870: “Go with wife to Fulton market eat oysters” Image credit: T. H. McAllister / Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.10058

In March 2005, as the Fulton Fish Market got closer to its move from Manhattan to the Bronx, the New York Times wrote that it was “easy to become sentimental” in the market’s 184th year. “Arrive at daybreak, when the sky is turning pink beyond the Brooklyn Bridge, and you have found a forgotten city,” the article said, describing salesmen hoisting fish over their shoulders, workers pushing carts, and night laborers huddling around bonfires in cold weather. But the famous market also had a sordid history. A Time magazine report on organized crime in 2001 mentioned the mob influence on the fish market, and noted: “In 1988 the U.S. succeeded in placing a trustee at the fish market with a four-year mandate to battle racketeering. . . . In reality, little has changed.” William Steinway’s love of oysters took him to the Fulton Fish Market but, by 1927, New York’s oysters were exposed to too much pollution to eat. The Billion Oyster Project, launched in 2014, is working to restore one billion live oysters to New York Harbor by the year 2035.

Thalia Theatre

Illustration of Thalia Theater with horses and carriages in the foregroundOct. 14, 1885: “Very busy, in eve'g to Thalia Theatre” Image credit: Samuel Hollyer (1826–1919) / Museum of the City of New York. 29.100.870

The Thalia, previously the Bowery Theatre, was in the Bowery section of the Lower East Side, and lasted for 103 years under different names. It survived a succession of fires but burned down for good in 1929. Productions at the theater were geared to different ethnic groups, depending on the ownership, and at different times servedJewish, Italian, and Chinese audiences. German plays were performed there from 1879 through 1888, and Jewish actors gave performances in 1889 and 1890, according to King’s Handbook of New York City. Lyricist Yip Harburg (“Over the Rainbow,” “April in Paris,” “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”) once said, “On many a Saturday . . . my father packed me up and told my mother that we were going to shul to hear a magid. But somehow . . . we always arrived at the Thalia Theater.” (A shul is a synagogue, and a magid was an itinerant Jewish preacher, or story narrator.)

Hoffman House Hotel

Men pose behind a desk and barOct. 15, 1885: “Park Com. McLean takes me to Democratic Headquarters at Hoffmann House…” Image credit: Byron Company (New York, N.Y.) / Museum of the City of New York.

Political power brokers from Tammany Hall, the city’s Democratic political machine, considered the hotel on Broadway between 24th and 25th Streets their headquarters. The major attraction, however, was not politics but rather William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s painting Nymphs and Satyr showing four nude women prancing around a faun. In The Epic of New York City, author Edward Robb Ellis recounts how, during the paralyzing blizzard of 1888, actor Maurice Barrymore—“his face flushed with brandy”—began reciting Shakespeare in the hotel’s bar. After a stockbroker tried to silence him, a free-for-all broke out. But Barrymore “kept his perch on the table, and ignored the shattering of glasses and the smashing of furniture, his eyes flaming and his magnificent voice booming, ‘A horse! A horse! My Kingdom for a horse!’” from Richard III. The hotel closed in 1915.

Madison Square Garden

Exterior shot of Madison Square GardenFeb. 20, 1891: In evg with wife, Louis v. B. (son-in-law Louis von Bernuth) and Paula (daughter) in Box 9 Madison Square Garden, at Arion Ball, grand affair, immense number of the demimonde remain til nearly 1 AM (Steinway was referring to a term for women on the fringes of respectable society). Image credit: Photographer unknown / Museum of the City of New York. 91.69.31

Steinway went to the second of four Madison Square Gardens, built by a syndicate that included business titans J. P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, and W. W. Astor. Opened in 1890 at the site of the original, Madison Avenue and 26th Street, this Madison Square Garden was a Beaux Arts building designed by renowned architect Stanford White. Ironically, White was shot to death in the upstairs cabaret in 1906 by the husband of his previous lover. There were 5,000 seats with the floor area left open, and 9,000 with floor seats. The Madison Square Garden had a movable skylight that covered half the building, giving operators the option of bringing in fresh air. The building had a cafe, a concert hall, a roof garden, and events that included circuses, concerts, horse and dog shows, and bicycle tournaments. A tower offered great views of the city, with a statue at the top, of the Roman goddess Diana. She was unveiled in 1891, with “a grand illumination of red fire, colored lights, and rockets” revealing that Diana was nude, according to Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. Moralists protested, “but J. P. Morgan liked it and it stayed.” The second Madison Square Garden was demolished in 1925


A baseball game on the polo grounds with horses and carriages in the foregroundSept. 1, 1894: “I then drive to Polo grounds 155th str. & 8th Ave. and see a most interesting baseball game between Cincinnati + New York. At least 15,000 spectators are there.” Image credit: National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, Cooperstown, New York.

Steinway held a board meeting on this Saturday but then ditched any further work to attend a Giants-Reds doubleheader. His diary suggests he only saw one of the games. As noted in an earlier post about Steinway’s visit to the Polo Grounds, the Giants “lost the first game and won the second by the identical scores of 8-6. The attendance in the box score of the second game was 12,000. And the reporters who covered the doubleheader wrote of what then appeared to be a missed opportunity in the pennant race, since the 68–38 Giants were playing the 45–60 Reds.”

Luchow’s Restaurant

Illustration showing restaurant laid out for guests, with white tablecloths and numerous American flagsApril 17, 1896: “Lovely party… in all 24 persons at Luchows, one of the most glorious days of my life, drank two Würzburger (a brand of German beer). Image credit: Advertising Souvenir & Calendar Co. / Museum of the City of New York. X2011.34.3835

August Lüchow opened his famed German restaurant in 1882. Some reports said he received a $1,500 loan from William Steinway, but the diary doesn’t mention it. The restaurant was at East 14th Street, now the site of a New York University dorm. Steinway’s concert hall and showroom were across the street, and the piano manufacturer was a regular. In 1914 composer Victor Herbert and eight associates founded the organization that became the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers in the restaurant, according to a plaque erected at the site in 1965. According to The Big Onion Guide to New York City: Ten Historic Tours, Luchow’s and nearby restaurants “became legendary hot spots where celebrities and performers mingled . . . while critics wrote their reviews at the dinner tables. The popular tune ‘Yes Sir, That’s My Baby’ is said to have been written one drunken night by Gus Kahn on a Luchow’s tablecloth.”

Larry Margasak is a retired Washington journalist and museum volunteer. He previously wrote articles on the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Fair Housing Law, Steinway’s seven-year struggle to plan New York’s subway, and Steinway’s vision of suburban America, which became a reality in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens, New York.

Larry Margasak
Posted Date: 
Tuesday, July 3, 2018 - 08:00
OSayCanYouSee?d=qj6IDK7rITs OSayCanYouSee?d=7Q72WNTAKBA OSayCanYouSee?i=CC7InQQAxe0:FaGTRLbYNYs:V_sGLiPBpWU OSayCanYouSee?i=CC7InQQAxe0:FaGTRLbYNYs:gIN9vFwOqvQ OSayCanYouSee?d=yIl2AUoC8zA

How Food Brought Success to a Chef, a Cookbook Author and a Restaurateur

Smithsonian Magazine

Two men walked towards the demonstration kitchen stage, but only one looked the part of a chef. He was clad in a denim apron over a white shirt and khakis. His counterpart, bespectacled and wearing a suit and tie, strode onto the stage like a professor approaching a lecture podium, a map of China tucked under his arm.

What museum visitors that day may not have realized was that the professorial Paul Ma was about to resurrect his popular “Dine and Learn” class that he taught from the late 1970s to the 1980s at his upstate New York restaurant, Paul Ma’s China Kitchen. In the classes, guests enjoyed a live cooking demonstration that paired storytelling and lectures with a multi-course meal. His apron-clad assistant onstage at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History that day in October 2017 was none other than his nephew, the famed DC-area restaurateur and chef Tim Ma.

The yellowing map marked with grease stains and ink-like blotches of soy sauce was the same map that he used to guide eaters through the provincial cuisine of China during his original Dine and Learn classes. Just like a cookbook or a cleaver, this map was integral to Paul Ma’s China Kitchen and the educational experience he created for his guests. Later, he noted: “I combine good food with good stories. And the educational story. That’s why I carried my map all over.”

That day at the demonstration kitchen, Ma relied once again on his map to illustrate the regional variations in Chinese cuisine, but also to tell his own story of migration within China. Ma’s father was the chief arsenal engineer for Chiang Kai-Shek’s army, and so Ma’s childhood was marked by frequent moves throughout China, which also exposed Ma to the country’s vibrant and varied regional cuisines.

Ma sizzled with energy as he talked about the culture and politics of mid-Century China. Throughout the telling of his early life history, he discussed the food cultures of each region and how his cooking is a mosaic of these different local cuisines. He took those experiences of Chinese culinary traditions with him when he emigrated to the United States around 1970, and his mélange of Chinese cookery techniques became part of the story of American migration and food.

Carrying his yellowing map, Paul Ma (above with his nephew, the chef Tim Ma) resurrected his highly popular "Dine and Learn" class for museum audiences in 2017. (NMAH)

Ma’s story and its place within the broader history of migration in the U.S. are examples of the cultural narratives studied by the Smithsonian’s American Food History Project. Migration has been a particular area of focus for the Project in recent years, especially during the current revamp of the exhibition, “FOOD: Transforming the American Table,” which examines the cultural and technological changes that shaped the ways people eat in the U.S. from 1950 to the present.

The Project seeks to understand the history of the U.S. through the multi-faceted lens of food. Food serves as a powerful window into the past because we interact with it on a daily basis, multiple times a day. What and how we eat expresses who we are as individuals, but also as members of a community. Food, though, stretches far beyond an individual’s personal experiences and ties into broader themes in American history related to capitalism, industrialization, technology, the environment, migration and more.

Later this month a new display “The Migrant’s Table,” debuts in the exhibition. The experience of migrant food entrepreneurs defines the American story. Food-related businesses and services like grocery stores, food trucks, restaurants and farms serve as an economic toehold for many new arrivals and have proven to be a path towards business ownership. According to the National Immigration Forum (NIF), immigrants are much more likely to start businesses than people born in the U.S. In 2015, immigrant-owned businesses, which made up 16 percent of businesses with paid employees in the U.S., generated $65.5 billion in income.

Image by Paul Ma Papers, Archives Center, NMAH. Some participants waited up to four years to attend Ma's classes. This pamphlet was one way he reached those audiences. (original image)

Image by Paul Ma Papers, Archives Center, NMAH. A guest book with its hand-drawn cover served as a registry of class participants. (original image)

“The Migrant’s Table” focuses on the experiences of individuals who came to the U.S. after the landmark 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, also known as the Hart-Celler Act, which eliminated previous immigration policies that largely discriminated against working class people from non-Western European countries.

According to the Power Research Center, the population of immigrants living in the U.S. quadrupled after 1965 and resulted in the resettlement of millions of people from parts of the globe that previously had far lower migration numbers to the U.S. Because of de facto discrimination, immigrants from areas like East Asia, Central and South America, the Caribbean, Africa and the Middle East had long been underrepresented. Like other migrants and refugees before them, they brought foods, flavors and ideas about what and how to eat, diversifying the palates of people living across the U.S.

In the exhibition, seven migrants from China, Guatemala, Ethiopia, Iraq, Pakistan, Morocco and Spain, who found new life as community leaders and entrepreneurs, tell stories of sharing food traditions with fellow migrants, but also with a broader, diverse American public. The display also showcases the stories of three second-generation Chinese Americans.

Two major themes emerged as Smithsonian researchers got to know these individuals on a more personal level. Meals—whether shared in the home, restaurants, street markets or prepared with ingredients from home or community gardens—are one of the most vital ways that migrant families maintain the tastes and traditions of their homelands. Meals are also an important way that migrants build connections and community with new neighbors in the U.S.

Researchers also found that food entrepreneurs saw their work not only as a way to stay connected to the traditions of their home countries, but also as an opportunity to share their food cultures and educate others. Of no surprise to anyone was that Paul Ma was a grocer and restaurant owner.

Ma always wanted to open a grocery store. When he first came to the U.S. in 1964, though, he was in pursuit of a degree that would support his career as a medical statistician.

But while working as a statistician, he began offering Mandarin language lessons and cooking classes on the side. He found that he truly enjoyed teaching and building meaningful connections with students not only through language, but also through discussions about culture. His cooking classes grew increasingly popular, quickly filling up with students. He found a deep pleasure in creating a communal table where cultural exchange and education went hand-in-hand.

Ma hosted the popular classes near his specialty grocery store, a purveyor of Chinese products. Later on, he opened a restaurant downstairs to meet increasing customer demand. The store and restaurant were in Yorktown Heights, New York, about an hour north of Manhattan, and in close proximity to middle- and upper-class whites who desired to live close to, but not in the hustle and bustle of New York City.

The business was a family affair. Linda Ma, his wife and business partner, managed finances and helped to run the store and restaurant. Daughters, Pauline Ma-Hoffman and Eileen Ma, grew up in the store, as well as the restaurant that shared the same building. Like many children raised in family businesses, Ma-Hoffman’s childhood was marked by her parents’ daily schedule. “Once a month, we would get into the big station wagon, my sister, my parents, [to go] down to Chinatown. We’d bring back buckets of beansprouts,” she recalls.

The Mas went on to establish several other restaurants, including Shandong Inn and Shanghai Place, and also built another business leading culinary tours to China for American tourists. Immediate and extended family members, at one time or another, came to work at the Ma’s restaurants, which became “a center of the family,” according to Ma-Hoffman.

Of all of the Ma family businesses, the Dine and Learn class emerged as something separate and unique because of its attention to history, culture and community making. As Dine and Learn guests arrived—some having been on the waitlist for up to four years—they signed a guest book with a hand-drawn cover, with the words “Paul Ma’s China Kitchen. . . a place to browse, share, learn, cook, & add a little bit of China to your life!” For Ma, this education was not a one-way street. As expressed in a pamphlet advertising Ma’s classes, “Chinese Cooking is Togetherness.”

While living in the American South, cookbook author Sandra Gutierrez (above right with the author) learned about Southern food traditions from her neighbors and in turn taught them about diverse Latin cuisines. (NMAH)

Cook and author Sandra Gutierrez is at heart a culinary educator. Gutierrez was born in the U.S. in Philadelphia, but raised in Guatemala, where she attended an American school that brought Guatemalan and U.S. cultural practices together.

Gutierrez’ life was not defined by two distinct cultures, but by a single culture that shared the traditions of Guatemala and the U.S. “Food at home was also a reflection of my fused reality: we ate tamales for special occasions. . . . and Carolina hot dogs every chance we got,” she explains in her cookbook, The New Southern Latino Table.

As an adult, Gutierrez and her husband, Louis Gutierrez, moved to the U.S., eventually settling in Durham, North Carolina. There in the American South, Gutierrez learned about Southern food traditions from her neighbors and in turn taught them about diverse Latin cuisines. It was while living in the South that she began to take note of the culinary movement that combines regional Southern and Latin American foodways and which now lies at the center of her culinary career. She notes in her cookbook that the regional cuisines of Latin America and the Southern United states share many ingredients and cooking techniques in common: ingredients like tomatoes, corn, pork, beans, sugar, potatoes and key techniques like barbecuing, braising, roasting and deep frying.

Culinary writing is one of the many ways Gutierrez builds interpersonal relationships. Inviting people into her family’s inner sanctum, she also hosts cooking classes in her home. In her kitchen, where ceramics from Guatemala share counter space with antique Jell-O molds found in Southern antique shops, Gutierrez shares her migration story and passion for food cultures.

Restaurant owner Sileshi Alifom notes the integral role of Ethiopian and Eritrean dining establishments throughout Washington, D.C. in bringing the Ethiopian migrant community together. (NMAH)

Most nights, Sileshi Alifom can be found conversing with customers at his restaurant, DAS Ethiopian, in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C., relying on his strong interpersonal skills to make meaningful connections.

Alifom and his wife, Elizabeth Wossen, opened DAS Ethiopian in 2011 after purchasing and rebranding an existing Ethiopian restaurant in the same location.

The restaurant’s look and feel is quite different from the city’s other Ethiopian establishments, which are often decorated with vibrant tapestries, woven baskets and other art from Ethiopia. Alifom drew upon his experience working 30 years for Marriot Hotels to create a striking interior décor fashioned after the international look: white tablecloths, cream colored walls, white plates and napkins, and black and white photographs. For his clients, Alifom has curated a playlist of international jazz music to complement the soothing ambiance.

Alifom and Wossen take seriously their role as cultural liaisons, considering themselves “cultural ambassadors.” For some of their restaurant clients the taste of tangy injera and richly aromatic chicken doro wat, the national dish of Ethiopia, might be the first. Alifom and Wossen want that experience to highlight the distinct spices, ingredients and flavor combinations of Ethiopian cuisine.

Both Alifom and Wossen were born in Ethiopia. Alifom emigrated when he was 17, and Wossen when she was three. Eventually, the two settled in Washington, D.C. where they pursued careers in the hospitality industry and diplomacy, respectively. A few years after Alifom migrated, Civil War broke out in Ethiopia, and thousands of Ethiopians came to Washington, D.C. The 1970s war-time immigration led to the areas around the city boasting some of the largest Ethiopian communities in the United States. As of 2017, U.S. Census Bureau data shows that around 5,000 Ethiopians are living in the District. Other sources like the Ethiopian Community Development Center, suggest that there may be up to 100,000 living in the greater D.C.-area.

Alifom notes the integral role of Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurants in D.C. in bringing the Ethiopian migrant community together. These were places “where people met, not necessarily for the food, but the food is what gravitated everybody to come.” These early restaurants were in D.C. neighborhoods like Adams Morgan and Shaw. As rents soared in the past few decades, however, many Ethiopian restaurants and specialty grocery stores have moved out to the suburbs including areas like Silver Spring, Maryland and Alexandria, Virginia.

Conversation is made easier over coffee, Alifom suggests, as caffeine awakens the mind and encourages people to open up. His coffee server is now in the Smithsonian collections. (NMAH)

Inspired by those early restaurants, Alifom seeks to create communal experiences among his own diners. In late spring and early fall, when temperatures linger at a pleasant 80 degrees or so, Alifom invites some patrons to return to the restaurant the following day for a special Ethiopian Coffee ceremony, a social ritual with deep roots in Ethiopian culture.

“The coffee is a place where I feel that a conversation begins. Whatever type of conversation. It could be social, it could be political for all you know, but the coffee is a setting that allows [for] that sort of conversation.”

Conversation made easier, Alifom suggests, as caffeine awakens the mind and encourages people to open up to one another and converse in a more vulnerable and meaningful way. The coffee ceremony is a catalyst for some people, he says, to “express thoughts, feelings, inner feelings in some cases.”

For Alifom, like Ma and Gutierrez, food and beverage are more than just a means of sustaining the body, but a means of sustaining the inner self and one’s community. One of the major takeaways of this research is that the process by which we feed our neighbors can also be the process by which we feed the soul.

The exhibition, “Food: Transforming the American Table” at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. opens October 24, with new displays on migration and food, America’s brewing history, a history of diets and dieting, and the emergence of Mexican-American vintners.

The museum’s fifth annual Food History Weekend takes place November 7 to 9, 2019. On November 8 and 9, migrant food entrepreneurs, community activists and chefs will speak about their work and life experiences during “Deep-Dish Dialog” and “Cooking Up History” programs. Attendees can sample several of the dishes prepared on stage at the museum’s café, Eat at America’s Table.

A View From a Console

National Air and Space Museum
Ink drawing on paper. A View From a Console, 22 April 1972. A page from a spiral-bound sketchbook. Two rectangles against a dark blue and black background depict screens at the Network Operations Control Center. The TV screen on the left shows two astronauts, one in the foreground and one in the background. The rectangle on the right is a green map of the moon with details drawn in brown. Text in the lower left corner reads: "Apollo 16 / EVA II / 22 April 72 / Goddard Spaceflight Center / TV of the moon on the left and graphic display of the path of the command module orbiting above…on the right. Former landing sites are noted…and the white star marks "Orion's" position on the lunar surface." Text in the lower right reads: "A view from a console inside the Network Operations Control Center."

In March 1962, James Webb, Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, suggested that artists be enlisted to document the historic effort to send the first human beings to the moon. John Walker, director of the National Gallery of Art, was among those who applauded the idea, urging that artists be encouraged "…not only to record the physical appearance of the strange new world which space technology is creating, but to edit, select and probe for the inner meaning and emotional impact of events which may change the destiny of our race."

Working together, James Dean, a young artist employed by the NASA Public Affairs office, and Dr. H. Lester Cooke, curator of paintings at the National Gallery of Art, created a program that dispatched artists to NASA facilities with an invitation to paint whatever interested them. The result was an extraordinary collection of works of art proving, as one observer noted, "that America produced not only scientists and engineers capable of shaping the destiny of our age, but also artists worthy to keep them company." Transferred to the National Air and Space Museum in 1975, the NASA art collection remains one of the most important elements of what has become perhaps the world's finest collection of aerospace themed art.

The spring of 1962 was a busy time for the men and women of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. On February 20, John H. Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth. For the first time since the launch of Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957, the U.S. was positioned to match and exceed Soviet achievements in space. NASA was an agency with a mission -- to meet President John F. Kennedy's challenge of sending human beings to the moon and returning them safely to earth by the end of the decade. Within a year, three more Mercury astronauts would fly into orbit. Plans were falling into place for a follow-on series of two-man Gemini missions that would set the stage for the Apollo voyages to the moon.

In early March 1962, artist Bruce Stevenson brought his large portrait of Alan Shepard, the first American to fly in space, to NASA headquarters.(1) James E. Webb, the administrator of NASA, assumed that the artist was interested in painting a similar portrait of all seven of the Mercury astronauts. Instead, Webb voiced his preference for a group portrait that would emphasize "…the team effort and the togetherness that has characterized the first group of astronauts to be trained by this nation." More important, the episode convinced the administrator that "…we should consider in a deliberate way just what NASA should do in the field of fine arts to commemorate the …historic events" of the American space program.(2)

In addition to portraits, Webb wanted to encourage artists to capture the excitement and deeper meaning of space flight. He imagined "a nighttime scene showing the great amount of activity involved in the preparation of and countdown for launching," as well as paintings that portrayed activities in space. "The important thing," he concluded, "is to develop a policy on how we intend to treat this matter now and in the next several years and then to get down to the specifics of how we intend to implement this policy…." The first step, he suggested, was to consult with experts in the field, including the director of the National Gallery of Art, and the members of the Fine Arts Commission, the arbiters of architectural and artistic taste who passed judgment on the appearance of official buildings and monuments in the nation's capital.

Webb's memo of March 16, 1962 was the birth certificate of the NASA art program. Shelby Thompson, the director of the agency's Office of Educational Programs and Services, assigned James Dean, a young artist working as a special assistant in his office, to the project. On June 19, 1962 Thompson met with the Fine Arts Commission, requesting advice as to how "…NASA should develop a basis for use of paintings and sculptures to depict significant historical events and other activities in our program."(3)

David E. Finley, the chairman and former director of the National Gallery of Art, applauded the idea, and suggested that the agency should study the experience of the U.S. Air Force, which had amassed some 800 paintings since establishing an art program in 1954. He also introduced Thompson to Hereward Lester Cooke, curator of paintings at the National Gallery of Art.

An imposing bear of a man standing over six feet tall, Lester Cooke was a graduate of Yale and Oxford, with a Princeton PhD. The son of a physics professor and a veteran of the U.S. Army Air Forces, he was both fascinated by science and felt a personal connection to flight. On a professional level, Cooke had directed American participation in international art competitions and produced articles and illustrations for the National Geographic Magazine. He jumped at the chance to advise NASA on its art program.

While initially cautious with regard to the time the project might require of one of his chief curators, John Walker, director of the National Gallery, quickly became one of the most vocal supporters of the NASA art initiative. Certain that "the present space exploration effort by the United States will probably rank among the more important events in the history of mankind," Walker believed that "every possible method of documentation …be used." Artists should be expected "…not only to record the physical appearance of the strange new world which space technology is creating, but to edit, select and probe for the inner meaning and emotional impact of events which may change the destiny of our race." He urged quick action so that "the full flavor of the achievement …not be lost," and hoped that "the past held captive" in any paintings resulting from the effort "will prove to future generations that America produced not only scientists and engineers capable of shaping the destiny of our age, but also artists worthy to keep them company."(4)

Gordon Cooper, the last Mercury astronaut to fly, was scheduled to ride an Atlas rocket into orbit on May 15, 1963. That event would provide the ideal occasion for a test run of the plan Cooke and Dean evolved to launch the art program. In mid-February, Cooke provided Thompson with a list of the artists who should be invited to travel to Cape Canaveral to record their impressions of the event. Andrew Wyeth, whom the curator identified as "the top artist in the U.S. today," headed the list. When the time came, however, Andrew Wyeth did not go to the Cape for the Cooper launch, but his son Jamie would participate in the program during the Gemini and Apollo years.

The list of invited artists also included Peter Hurd, Andrew Wyeth's brother-in-law, who had served as a wartime artist with the Army Air Force; George Weymouth, whom Wyeth regarded as "the best of his pupils"; and John McCoy, another Wyeth associate. Cooke regarded the next man on the list, Robert McCall, who had been running the Air Force art program, as "America's top aero-space illustrator. Paul Calle and Robert Shore had both painted for the Air Force program. Mitchell Jamieson, who had run a unit of the Navy art program during WW II, rounded out the program. Alfred Blaustein was the only artist to turn down the invitation.

The procedures that would remain in place for more than a decade were given a trial run in the spring of 1963. The artists received an $800 commission, which had to cover any expenses incurred while visiting a NASA facility where they could paint whatever interested them. In return, they would present their finished pieces, and all of their sketches, to the space agency. The experiment was a success, and what might have been a one-time effort to dispatch artists to witness and record the Gordon Cooper flight provided the basis for an on-going, if small-scale, program. By the end of 1970, Jim Dean and Lester Cooke had dispatched 38 artists to Mercury, Gemini and Apollo launches and to other NASA facilities.

The art program became everything that Jim Webb had hoped it would be. NASA artists produced stunning works of art that documented the agency's step-by-step progress on the way to the moon. The early fruits of the program were presented in a lavishly illustrated book, Eyewitness to Space (New York: Abrams, 1971). Works from the collection illustrated NASA publications and were the basis for educational film strips aimed at school children. In 1965 and again in 1969 the National Gallery of Art mounted two major exhibitions of work from the NASA collection. The USIA sent a selection of NASA paintings overseas, while the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service created two exhibitions of NASA art that toured the nation.

"Since we …began," Dean noted in a reflection on the tenth anniversary of the program, the art initiative had resulted in a long string of positive "press interviews and reports, congressional inquiries, columns in the Congressional Record, [and] White House reports." The NASA effort, he continued, had directly inspired other government art programs. "The Department of the Interior (at least two programs), the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Army and even the Veterans Administration have, or are starting, art programs." While he could not take all of the credit, Dean insisted that "our success has encouraged other agencies to get involved and they have succeeded, too."(5)

For all of that, he noted, it was still necessary to "defend" the role of art in the space agency. Dean, with the assistance of Lester Cooke, had been a one-man show, handling the complex logistics of the program, receiving and cataloguing works of art, hanging them himself in museums or on office walls, and struggling to find adequate storage space. In January 1976, a NASA supervisor went so far as to comment that: "Mr. Dean is far too valuable in other areas to spend his time on the relatively menial …jobs he is often burdened with in connection with the art program."(6) Dean placed a much higher value on the art collection, and immediately recommended that NASA officials either devote additional resources to the program, or get out of the art business and turn the existing collection over the National Air and Space Museum, "where it can be properly cared for."(7)

In January 1974 a new building for the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) was taking shape right across the street from NASA headquarters. Discussions regarding areas of cooperation were already underway between NASA officials and museum director Michael Collins, who had flown to the moon as a member of the Apollo 11 crew. Before the end of the year, the space agency had transferred its art collection to the NASM. Mike Collins succeeded in luring Jim Dean to the museum, as well.

The museum already maintained a small art collection, including portraits of aerospace heroes, an assortment of 18th and 19th century prints illustrating the early history of the balloon, an eclectic assortment of works portraying aspects of the history of aviation and a few recent prizes, including several Norman Rockwell paintings of NASA activity. With the acquisition of the NASA art, the museum was in possession of one of the world's great collections of art exploring aerospace themes. Jim Dean would continue to build the NASM collection as the museum's first curator of art. Following his retirement in 1980, other curators would follow in his footsteps, continuing to strengthen the role of art at the NASM. Over three decades after its arrival, however, the NASA art accession of 2,091 works still constitutes almost half of the NASM art collection.

(1) Stevenson's portrait is now in the collection of the National Air and Space Museum (1981-627)

(2) James E. Webb to Hiden Cox, March 16, 1962, memorandum in the NASA art historical collection, Aeronautics Division, National air and Space Museum. Webb's preference for a group portrait of the astronauts was apparently not heeded. In the end, Stevenson painted an individual portrait of John Glenn, which is also in the NASM collection (1963-398).

(3) Shelby Thompson, memorandum for the record, July 6, 1962, NASA art historical collection, NASA, Aeronautics Division.

(4) John Walker draft of a talk, March 5, 1965, copy in NASA Art historical collection, NASM Aeronautics Division.

(5) James Dean, memorandum for the record, August 6, 1973, NASA art history collection, NASM Aeronautics Division.

(6) Director of Planning and Media Development to Assistant Administrator for Public Affairs, January 24, 1974, NASA art history collection, NASM Aeronautics Division.

(7) James Dean to the Assistant Administrator for Public Affairs, January 24, 1974, copy in NASA Art history Collection, Aeronautics Division, NASM.

Tom D. Crouch

Senior Curator, Aeronautics

National Air and Space Museum

Smithsonian Institution

July 26, 2007

Crowdsourcing Project Aims to Document the Many U.S. Places Where Women Have Made History

Smithsonian Magazine

For nearly 30 years, Alaskan Ahtna Athabascan elder Katie John awaited resolution to her peaceful battle over Native subsistence rights. The legal dispute—centering on her family’s right to fish in Batzulnetas, a historic village and fish camp in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park—made it all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court's ruling cleared the way for the subsistence fishing rights of many Alaska Native to be included under federal subsistence protection. Although John died in 2013 before litigation was complete, her 2014 win was a victory for Native Americans everywhere.

Today, the fish camp remains a testament to John's life work, and it represents just one of the many sites where women's history and achievements happened, often with no official sign or record recognizing their importance.

Since mid-January, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has been crowdsourcing places like the fish camp for its 1,000 Places Where Women Made History, and the process to submit is simple. Anyone can log an online entry, which consists of a photo, as well as a short paragraph about the U.S.-based property and its location. “This is our way of bringing people together to tell us what are the places and stories that matter to them,” says Chris Morris, a National Trust senior field officer who's spearheading the campaign. Through submissions from local preservation societies, community organizations, and everyday people, they've already compiled more than 750 sites. Some, like the fish camp, may not have much recognition of their role in history while others have been named National Historic Landmarks.

“Although 2020's 100th anniversary of women's suffrage is the impetus for this work,” says Morris, “we also wanted to use the project to fully honor those many female leaders related to American history and culture.”

According to Morris, the 1,000 Places project is part of a larger mission of the Trust’s to preserve women’s history. The Trust encourages local organizations to take direct action in preserving buildings and homes where women have “made a stand, raised their voice, and found the courage to change the world,” she says, and identifies historic sites that recognize women as part of its annual 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list, which in 2019 included the Excelsior Club in Charlotte, North Carolina—a once-thriving hub of the city's African American social scene—and Nashville's Music Row. The National Trust also operates 27 of its own historic sites at which they're working to bring to light the many amazing women associated with these places. The Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois, for instance, was designed by famed modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, but it was native Chicagoan and doctor Edith Farnsworth who commissioned it. “So this year Farnsworth House is shifting its perspective to tell the story of the house from her point of view,” says Morris.

The ever-growing list of 1,000 Places Where Women Made History currently includes everything from homes where pioneering women once lived, buildings where specific events that involved them occurred, and where women-led accomplishments happened. It includes spots like the former home of prominent investigative journalist Ida Tarbell in Titusville, Pennsylvania; the historic Auditorium Theatre in Chicago, saved through a fundraising campaign led by Beatrice Spachner; and Trumpet Records in Jackson, Mississippi, the former work site of a young record producer named Lillian McMurry, who recorded both black and white artists during the height of Mississippi segregation.

“We want to reveal those sort of lesser-known and untold stories, because we recognize that women's history is America's history,” says Morris. “This crowdsourcing effort has been very successful in revealing such underappreciated tales, ones of women’s vision, courage and leadership countrywide. They make up the majority of our entries. They’re tales of thinkers, artists, scientists, entrepreneurs...those women who have really shaped the nation that we are today, and who continue to help us to move forward.”

One of the Trust’s main goals with this project is to help a new generation of Americans, especially young women, see their own potential in the history of these places, says Morris. “We also will encourage everyone who submitted an entry to consider applying for funding from our many grant programs,” she says, “to support the broader interpretation and long-term preservation of these places where women made history.”

Five Sites Where Women Made History

Here are six lesser-known sites in the U.S. where women made history. Most of them are recognized in the 1,000 Places project, and all are on the Trust’s radar for renovation and reuse in some capacity. Though each is in various stages of preservation and redevelopment, they're all moving forward as a testament to women's achievements and inspiration for new stories to come.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas House; Miami, Florida

Marjory Stoneman Douglas House (National Trust for Historic Preservation)

Located on a residential block in Miami's upscale Coconut Grove neighborhood, this uninhabited wood-framed and T-shaped cottage has a special place in American history, as the former home of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, a journalist, author and conservationist known as the “Grand Dame of the Everglades.” (She may sound familiar, too, as the namesake of the high school in Parkland, Florida, where 17 people were killed in a mass shooting in 2018.) Douglas published her seminal book, The Everglades: River of Grass, highlighting Florida's endlessly diverse subtropical wilderness and its need for ongoing preservation, in 1947. A month later, 20 percent of the Everglades’ southernmost portion became a national park. Douglas also founded the still-thriving Friends of the Everglades—an activist organization dedicated to protecting the landscape—in 1970, and often held meetings for conservationists at her Coconut Grove home, where she lived from 1926 until 1998. The Land Trust of Dade County currently oversees the property, which became a National Historic Landmark in 2015, and is working with other local and national preservation organizations for a reuse plan that continues Stoneman's legacy as an environmentalist, while also being respectful of the community that surrounds it. One possibility, says Morris, is to use the property as a residency where scientists can come to continue their research on environmental issues and climate change.

Pauli Murray House; Durham, North Carolina

Pauli Murray House (National Trust for Historic Preservation)

Pauli Murray was both a civil rights and women's rights activist, an author, lawyer and member of the LGBTQ community, as well as the first African American woman to be ordained as an Episcopal priest. She spent her formative years in this one-and-a-half-story home, built by her grandfather, alongside her grandparents and aunts—all of whom helped raise Murray. In 1944, this descendent of both enslaved laborers and slave holders graduated first in her class at Howard University. Murray later received a Masters of Law degree from U.C. Berkeley in 1945, and in 1947 was named one of 10 “Young Women of the Year” by Mademoiselle magazine. She was also a founding member of the National Organization for Women (NOW) Foundation, which tackles a wide range of women's rights issues, from economic justice to reproductive rights.

Murray's Durham childhood home has been a National Historic Landmark since 2016, and is both an entry on the National Trust's crowdsourcing campaign as well as one of its National Treasures. The Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute runs the Pauli Murray Project, which oversees the property, renovated it and is preparing to open it to the public as the the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice later this year.

Harada House; Riverside, California

Harada House (National Trust for Historic Preservation)

In 1915, Japanese immigrants Jukichi and Ken Harada wanted to purchase a home in Riverside, but the California Alien Land Law of 1913 prevented them from doing so. Instead, the couple acquired their modest Lemon Street property by putting it in the name of their three young children—a move that soon became a focal point for the groundbreaking legal case California v. Harada. Under the 14th Amendment, the Haradas won the right to keep their 1884 home, though their lives would never be the same. In 1942, the entire family was relocated to Japanese internment camps where both Jukichi and Ken died. However, their youngest daughter Sumi returned to the Riverside home in the wake of World War II, taking in as boarders other Japanese families who'd lost their properties. Sumi resided at what's now known as Harada House until 1998, during which time she preserved many of the home's furnishings and fixtures, and kept a wealth of family heirlooms, including kimonos featuring the Harada family crest, personal letters and kitchenware. She also saved a message that her brother scribbled on a bedroom wall on the day his family was forced into a relocation center.

Today the Riverside Metropolitan Museum oversees the home, which Jukichi had transformed from a single-story saltbox into a multi-story space, and is working to both restore it and turn it into an interpretive center highlighting the Harada story—one of lost city rights, a fight against racial discrimination, and immigrants. The property has been a National Historic Landmark since 1990.

Doolan-Larson Residence and Storefronts; San Francisco, California

Doolan-Larson Residence and Storefronts (Scott Hahn/SF Heritage)

On the famous San Francisco corner of Haight and Ashbury streets—the heart of the 1960s counterculture movement—stands the Doolan-Larson building, a mixed-use, multi-story property built in the 20th century. This Colonial Revival-style structure, which survived the city's 1906 earthquake before being elevated to add storefronts, became home to San Francisco's first-ever hippie boutique. Twenty-four-year-old Peggy Caserta opened this mod clothing store, called Mnasidika (its name a shout-out to The Songs of Bilitis, a French book of lesbian poetry from the late 19th century), in 1965 and ran it until 1968, during which time it was a pivotal part of the Haight-Ashbury's counterculture scene. Caserta herself was bisexual—she was Janis Joplin's lover until Joplin's death in 1970—and according to Levi Strauss & Co., it was at Mnasidika that Jimi Hendrix developed his iconic Flower Child style. Caserta is also credited with convincing Levi Strauss to create bell-bottom jeans, which she then sold at Mnasidika and became a seminal part of '60s fashion.

When the property's owner Norman Larson died in 2018, he donated the Doolan-Larson building to San Francisco Heritage. Mnasidika’s original storefront—now a jewelry store and barber shop—remains largely as it was during the Summer of Love.* Though not yet on the list of places “Where Women Made History,” it is a part of the Trust's National Treasures. San Francisco Heritage and other preservation groups are currently looking at ways to reuse the structure in telling the stories of San Francisco's counterculture movement, including those of women like Caserta, as well as to highlight both its overall impact and continued relevance today.

Villa Lewaro; Irvington, New York

Another addition to the National Trust's 100 National Treasures list, Villa Lewaro was the summer home of Madam C.J. Walker (born Sara Breedlove), an early 20th century entrepreneur who made a fortune in developing hair products for African American women. Walker, who is considered the first African American female millionaire in the U.S., is the subject of the new Netflix TV series, “Self Made,” starring Octavia Spencer as Walker. Along with being a businesswoman, Walker was a philanthropist and political and social activist. She occupied the 34-room, Italianate-style Villa Lewaro from 1918 to 1919, and though it's not currently open to the public, visitors can take a virtual tour of the estate led by Walker's great-great granddaughter, A'Lelia Bundles. The New Voices Foundation—created to empower entrepreneur women of color— acquired the property in 2018 and is working toward turning it into a “think tank,” according to New Voice's founder Richelieu Dennis, “to foster entrepreneurship for present and future generations.”

*Editor's Note, March 30, 2010: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the hippie boutique Mnasidika in San Francisco was in a storefront now occupied by a t-shirt shop, when, in fact, it was in a storefront now occupied by a jewelry store and barber shop. The story has been edited to correct that fact.

Armor Plate, Boeing-Vertol CH-46E Sea Knight "Phrog"

National Air and Space Museum
Armor plate removed from aircraft by Marines.

Boeing-Vertol CH-46E Sea Knight

Known as the “Phrog” for its amphibian-like appearance, the CH-46 served as the U.S. Marine Corps’ primary assault helicopter in over four decades of active service. As the Marines’ first turbine-powered assault helicopter, it proved well suited to the challenging environment of South Vietnam, where it began operations in 1966. Since then, the CH-46 has served in nearly every major American military action and supported dozens of smaller operations, ranging from embassy evacuations to humanitarian and disaster relief.

The aircraft wears a special heritage paint scheme, used in its final year of service, that evokes its extensive Vietnam War service, including a mission that resulted in the award of a Navy Cross. Its other combat deployments included tours in Afghanistan during 2004 and Iraq from 2007 to 2009, which coincided with some of the most intense period of combat in those theaters.

Lent by the National Museum of the Marine Corps

Rotor diameter:15.5 m (51 ft)

Length:13.9 m (45 ft 8 in)

Height:5.1 m (16 ft 8 in)

Weight, empty:7,048 kg (15,537 lb)

Weight, gross:11,022 kg (24,300 lb)

Engines:2 General Electric T58-GE-16 turboshafts, 1,870 shp each

Crew:3 to 5 crewmembers, up to 16 troops

Armament:Up to two 12.7 mm and one 7.62 mm machine guns

Manufacturer:Boeing-Vertol, 1967

Increase and Diffuse Knowledge for the Holidays With These Smithsonian Curated Books

Smithsonian Magazine

One of the most cherished of American traits is the quest for knowledge. When Englishman James Smithson endowed the United States with his great fortune, he had never visited America, but he knew that the new Republic was a place where the great engines of industry would generate a growth in ideas and require an ongoing thirst for knowledge among its populace. His funds to “found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge” today endows a host of scientists, historians, educators and scholars, many who contribute to in our popular Curators’ Corner. We asked Smithsonian scholars to make book recommendations to our readers for this holiday season of gift giving; and here is what they offered.

Ryan Lintelman, curator, entertainment, National Museum of American History

Born to Run

Springsteen fans like myself couldn't wait to get their hands on The Boss' epic memoir, Born to Run, and it didn't disappoint. In 510 pages of compelling prose that's part confessional, part stage banter, Springsteen lays bare his soul, reflecting on mental illness, family, faith and redemption, as well as the details of his career in Rock.

Colonial Spirits: A Toast to Our Drunken History

A whimsically illustrated, thoroughly entertaining history of early American drinking and its relevance to the development of the nation, including immigration, war, temperance, and the Founding Fathers. Colonial Spirits: A Toast to Our Drunken History by Steven Grass includes recipes so that aspiring mixologists can whip up glasses of history at home.

David Ward, senior historian, National Portrait Gallery

Wonders Will Never Cease

How is it that I am just learning about Robert Irwin? His magical novel Wonders Will Never Cease about England, in the late 15th century, and the dynastic struggle between the houses of York and Lancaster (as well as the usual problems with the French) against the backdrop of the mythic past of Arthurian England. The main character is Anthony Woodville who rises—literally—from the dead after being “killed” in battle to become an observer of his own life as a knight, courtier and inadvertent myth maker. Amazingly readable.

Hitler: Ascent

Overall, as an historian, I have been interested in the two great themes of modern times: slavery (and freedom) in the 19th century and the Holocaust in the 20th. The first of this German historian/journalist’s two-volume biography of Adolph Hitler, Volker Ullrich is instructive in showing how a particular historical circumstance combined with a messianic new-style of populist politics led to the destruction of democracy in Germany.

Grand Illusions: American Art and the First World War

Frederic Church: The Art and Science of Detail

On cultural history, I learned much from David Lubin’s Grand Illusions, a sweeping yet incisive survey of the impact of World War I on more than just America’s art and artists (the chapter on plastic surgery is fascinating), Grand Illusions as well as from my friend Jennifer Raab’s more specialist, yet still accessible, study Frederick Church: The Art and Science of Detail and the meaning of 19th-century landscape paintings.

The Swimmer: Poems

The Hatred of Poetry

I didn’t read as much poetry this year as I would have liked but can recommend one of my favorites, John Koethe for his latest book The Swimmer. A former philosophy professor, Koethe surveys the hidden world of appearances in daily life in a style that I envy for having the smoothness of a powerful river. I also enjoyed arguing (on with poet and novelist Ben Lerner’s polemical The Hatred of Poetry.

Chris Wilson, director, program in African American culture, National Museum of American History

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America

Nancy Isenberg’s account is a fascinatingly relevant look at American history through the lens of class, arguing that to really understand ourselves we have to work to challenge the myth that anyone can be anything in this country.

March, Book Three

In his final installment of his Civil Rights Movement memoir in which he looks at the tumultuous years 1963- 1965, Congressman John Lewis deftly and artfully illustrates what we attempt to teach the public at the Smithsonian with regard to the Movement—successful activism isn’t just passion and protest, it is also—and sometimes chiefly—strategy, organization, coalition building, logistics and day to day work at the grass roots.

The Underground Railroad

In my work with film and theater as a public historian, I always look to what can be best achieved through artistic exploration of the past. The stirring images and scenes in The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead bring a new understanding to the experience of American slavery beyond what can be discovered from scholarship alone. “Truths” are not always facts and I found so many relevant emotional truths in this novel that are just as important for us to tackle.

Paul Gardullo, curator, National Museum of African American History and Culture

The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics (Postmillennial Pop)

I love books that begin with a subject that we think we know but then completely throws me for a loop. Ramzi Fawaz's book does just that. It provides a strikingly new view of looking at the real power and impact of comics, their seriousness and their subversiveness. It provides a pantheon of alternative heroes and heroics, rewarding readers with the multidimensionality of this 2D world. What's incredible is that it does so without sacrificing any of the fun and joy of why we devour comics.  

Citizen: An American Lyric

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape

I missed so many books this year in the run up to opening of our museum in September. I really want to read Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and Marlon James A Brief History of Seven Killings, but they sit, still unopened and set aside. Most of the life changing books for me that first come to mind are all releases from last year–but tremendous they are. Here is a mighty trio:  Claudia Rakine's Citizen; Bryan Stevenson's Just Mercy and Trace: Memory, History, Race and the American Landscape by Lauret Savoy (a current Smithsonian Institution Senior Fellow). These three provided me with profound ways to think deeply about our past, present, future, about myself, about others and about the places that shape us as individuals and communities.

Amy Henderson, curator emerita, National Portrait Gallery

Peacock & Vine: On William Morris and Mariano Fortuny

Prolific critic, author and Booker Prize-winner A.S. Byatt explores the lives and designs of two of her favorite artists, Morris and Fortuny. She argues that “their revolutionary inventions…inspired a new variety of art that is as striking today as when it was first conceived.”

The French Chef in America

The grand-nephew of Julia Child, writer Alex Prud’homme collaborated with her on her best-selling memoir about her life in Paris. In this follow-up, he writes about her life from 1963 to her death in 2004—years when she became an iconic celebrity figure  in American culture.

Sweet Dreams and Flying Machines: The Life and Music of James Taylor

Mark Ribowsky chronicles the life of “America’s Troubador” from his youth, through his major hits in the early 70s to his career today. He also tracks the generational shift in rock artistry and the transformation of the music industry in the post-Beatles decades.

The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals, and Breakthroughs in Modern Art

Sebastian Smee explores the rivalry, friendships and connections between eight of the most famous artists of the modern era. His objective is the show that the art of rivalry is “the struggle of intimacy itself: the restless, twitching battle to get closer to someone…balanced with the battle to remain unique.”

Kenneth Clark: Life, Art and Civilisation

A wonderfully written biography by James Stourton of one the great figures of the 20th-century art world. Delicious stories about everyone from the Bloomsbury set to Bernard Berenson to such major artists as Henry Moore. Clark was best known for his British TV series “Civilisation” and his biographer happily wraps him in the cloak of connoisseurship—an interpretation now out of fashion, but one that previously set all the rules about how art itself was to be viewed.

Doug Herman, geographer, National Museum of the American Indian

Hawaiki Rising: Hokule'a, Nainoa Thompson, and the Hawaiian Renaissance

For all the armchair voyagers out there wishing they could travel around the globe with the Polynesian sailing vessel Hokule'a, this one I can heartily recommend, it’s a great read!

Bill Pretzer, curator, history, National Museum of African American History and Culture

We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation

Executive Director of the Center for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford University, Jeff Chang provides trenchant essays exploring the idea of “diversity,” the roots of student protest, changing notions of Asian American identity and the impact of a century of segregated housing.

Power to the People: The World of the Black Panthers

Published on the 50th anniversary of the Black Panther Party’s founding, Power to the People is an insider’s chronicle of that iconic revolutionary organization by Bobby Seale and Steven Shames. Seale was co-founder along with Huey Newton of the Black Panthers; Shames was a student at UC Berkeley who became the preeminent photo-documentarian of the party. Shames provides memorable images while Seale offers colorful commentary.

North of Dixie: Civil Rights Photography Beyond the South

Mark Speltz, senior historian at the toy and publishing company American Girl, has assembled an eye-opening collection of images of the Civil Rights Movement from the American North and West. The emphasis is on the everyday foot soldiers who protested segregation, police violence and job and housing discrimination in cities from Los Angeles to Philadelphia, a timely reminder that race has always been a national, not sectional issue.

Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy

University of Michigan professor Heather Ann Thompson reconstructs the events of the 1971 uprising at New York’s Attica Prison, the subsequent lengthy legal proceedings, both criminal and civil, and the decades of official miscalculations and cover-ups that continue to this day. Thompson explains how she knows what she knows and even explores her own methodological and ethical quandaries…a master historian discussing her craft and illuminating the crisis of prison reform.

Nancy Pope, curator, postal history, National Postal Museum

Wings Across America: A Photographic History of the U.S. Air Mail

Before his death, Jesse Davidson amassed an extensive and wonderful collection of photographs from the early years of the airmail service. This book allowed him to share the photographs with the world

R.F.D. Country! Mailboxes and Post Offices of Rural America

Everyone has a mailbox, but some rural Americans have taken those plain looking boxes and surrounded them with the most interesting objects and creatures.

Letters From the Sand: The Letters of Desert Storm and Other Wars

The American military has long recognized the crucial importance of mail to their personnel’s morale. Letters maintain essential connections between men and women overseas and family and friends back home.

An American Postal Portrait: A Photographic Legacy

Photographs from the U.S Postal Service and the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum are used to tell an engaging story of America’s postal service.

Every Stamp Tells a Story: The National Philatelic Collection (Smithsonian Contribution to Knowledge)

Cheryl Ganz, a former chief curator of philately for the National Postal Museum, edited this collection of stories about stamps and stamp collecting, a companion guide to the museum’s William H. Gross Stamp Gallery.

Scott Wing, research geologist, National Museum of Natural History

Atmosphere of Hope: Searching for Solutions to the Climate Crisis

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World

Lisa Kathleen Graddy, curator, political history, National Museum of American History

Dead Presidents: An American Adventure into the strange Deaths and Surprising Afterlives of our Nation’s Leaders

Both thoughtful and laugh out loud funny, Dead Presidents by Brady Carlson takes readers on a tour of the tombs, monuments, and museum of the nation’s deceased leaders with commentary on how they died, what we remember about them, and how their memory is being used by the rest of us.

When Women Win: Emily’s List and the Rise of Women in American Politics

A lively "backstage” political story about Ellen Malcolm’s creation of Emily’s List and some of the key campaigns it fought to put women in the United States Congress. A great read for political junkies.

Peter Liebhold, chair, division of work and industry, National Museum of American History

Lords of the Harvest: Biotech, Big Money, And the Future of Food

GMOs are a complicated and largely misunderstood topic. This is a great book that the activists and big ag dislike.

Born in the Country

This book, written two decades years ago, still resonates with a fresh, accurate and surprisingly eye-opening look at the real rural history of the United States. Not a romantic journey.

Bad Land: An American Romance

A friend told me I had to read this book; she was right. Turns out that many pioneer farmers were not very good at their job. Good book if you want color and no footnotes.

Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore

Brilliant look at slavery and the antebellum working class in the United States.

Empire of Cotton: A Global History

A classic story retold with nuance and thought.

Nine Days of a Sailor-Scholar’s Life Aboard the Canoe Circumnavigating the Globe

Smithsonian Magazine

“Welcome to voyaging!” says Nā‘ālehu Anthony after a wave washed over the bow of the canoe and soaked the three of us. We are aboard Hōkūleʻa, the famous Hawaiian voyaging canoe that is going around the world, as it is being towed out of Yorktown, Virginia, and into the Chesapeake Bay.

Hōkūleʻa, which was recently honored by United Nations in recognition of its historic four-year journey to sail around the world, is raising consciousness about caring for Mother Earth. Since departing Hawaiian waters in May 2014, the craft has sailed more than 22,000 nautical miles, visited 13 countries and made stops at 60 ports. I am standing at the forward mast with Zane Havens, another newbie to Hōkūleʻa, and Nā‘ālehu, who at this moment is the captain, and we are literally learning the ropes—the daunting mass of coils and cleats involved in working the sail and the mast.

I have been granted the rare honor of crewing for a portion of this leg of the World Wide Voyage, and will be with the canoe for nine days as it makes its way to Washington, D.C. We will visit Tangier Island, Northern Neck Virginia, Piscataway, and this article along with my other dispatches will detail what we learned along the way.

But first there is the learning necessary to serve as crew: the straightforward lessons about how to work the canoe and how to live on the canoe, and the far more elusive learning of one’s place on the canoe.

My aim before we headed out to the high seas was to get ma‘a to the wa ‘a.

Ma‘a—(MAH-ah) means “accustomed, used to, knowing thoroughly, habituated, familiar, experienced,” and wa‘a  (VAH-ah) is the Hawaiian version of the pan-Polynesian word for canoe.

I am also in the process of building a four-foot model of Hōkūleʻa, and these two processes feed each other: knowing the canoe will help me make the model accurate, and building the model will help me know the canoe better.

Hōkūleʻa is a “performance replica.”  She is built to perform like a traditional canoe, but made of modern materials. The hulls are plywood and fiberglass, the rigging is Dacron. But in other ways, she is an intricate vessel compared to the Hikianalia, the larger and more modern-style canoe I trained on a few months ago. The sails are traditional crab-claw style, the rigging more complicated, the accommodations more…rustic, and on the whole, it is wetter.

A daunting mass of coiled ropes confronts me at Yorktown. Will I ever learn what they all do? (Doug Herman)

When I first came aboard Hōkūleʻa in Yorktown, the coils of lines on the masts were daunting. It was hard to imagine I would ever know what all of these did. “Mau understood this canoe immediately,” I was told by master navigator Kālepa Baybayan, referring to his teacher Pius “Mau” Piailug, the famous navigator from the island of Satawal. “He just looked over all the rigging and understood right away.” But for someone with only a little experience on large sailing canoes, it would take longer.

Hōkūleʻa has two masts—the main mast in front, and the mizzenmast in the center. Each is held in place by a large number of stays—ropes that pull the mast from enough different angles to keep it securely perpendicular to the deck. Unlike most modern sailboats, the masts rest in blocks on the deck. The sails are fastened to a spar—the piece that goes up against the mast—and a boom, which curves outward when the sail is open.

Our first task was to attach the sails to the spars and booms (why they were off in the first place I do not know). Each one is tied on loosely around the spar and boom with little strings, so that the sail can slide freely to attain its proper shape when the wind pushes against it. We had to be careful not to tie these strings around the many lines running up the spars, and several had to be redone. 

Image by Doug Herman. The boom of an open sail (original image)

Image by Doug Herman. Na‘alehu Anthony (foreground, in dark coat) instructs us in how to tie the sails to the spar and boom while in port at Yorktown. (original image)

Image by Doug Herman. The “heiau” (temple) that holds the base of the mast. (original image)

Image by Doug Herman. Keala Kimura (left) and Kalā Tanaka at the steering paddle. The deck is framed by the many stays holding up the masts, as well as the sheets—ropes that would pull the sails to one side or the other. (original image)

Then the closed sail is hoisted up against the mast. This takes four people, one on each of four halyards, with some others on the deck lifting the sail until it is beyond their reach.  Once the sail is up, the halyards are coiled in a certain way that allows them to be hung on cleats on the mast. This is true of all the lines used in the rigging. A simple loop in the cleated end can be lifted off and the entire coil dropped to the ground when the line needs to be used again.

Opening the sail involves loosening two sets of three tricing lines. These are attached to the boom and they let it out. One person gets on each set of these lines. In addition are what they called “bag lines.” These are attached to points along the top of the sail. When we close the sail, someone pulls on these first to help bundle up the sail nice and tight so that it doesn’t bag out. To open the sail, these need to be loosened.

Nā‘ālehu had us practice raising the sail, opening the sail, closing the sail, and lowering the sail several times until we were all familiar with the process. Of course, most of the crew were seasoned voyagers who had done multiple legs of the Worldwide Voyage already, but this was good practice nonetheless.

Diagram of the many lines used to raise, open and close each sail. The tricing lines are doubled on the other side. (Doug Herman)

Much more complicated is the raising and lowering of the masts themselves. This we needed to do to get under the many bridges leading into Washington, D.C. In fact, we had to do it twice—once to get up to the Lincoln Memorial, where we then put everything back up and opened the sails for a photo shoot, and then down again to get under the next two low bridges; and then up for the final ride to the Washington Canoe Club. 

This process would be easy if we could take down the mizzenmast first, but because there is not sufficient room out in front of the main mast to get a good angle on the rope, the main mast comes down first. It was necessary to put a block and tackle on the front stay, and use lines from the mizzenmast to help lower it down. Problem is, all the stays from the mizzenmast are in the way of lowering the main mast. So they had to be moved, one at a time, as the main mast came down. Plus, the whole process ran in reverse to put it back up. By the third run, we managed to do it all in an hour and a quarter—down two hours the first time. We also had recruited some tall fellows from the Washington Canoe Club to come aboard to help lift.

The complex task of stepping the mast (Photo courtesy of Ōiwi TV )

The other workings of the canoe were familiar to me already: the giant steering sweep—a huge, 18-foot paddle on a pivot that is used to steer the canoe; the workings of the tow line (we were towed the entire way by a separate boat, with the indefatigable Moani Heimuli at the helm.)

Life aboard Hōkūleʻa is rather like camping. Full crew is 14 people—12 crew, the captain and the navigator. Under normal conditions, we would be operating in two shifts, each doing stretches of four, five or six hours at a time as the captain sees fit. In this case, except when we were coming into port, there was little activity on board. Someone needed to be at the steering sweep at all times—sometimes two people, depending how rough it got. Each night we came into a port, where we had access to bathrooms, hot showers and cold drinks. In most places, we also had accommodations with real beds, walking distance from the canoe.

Towards the end, I preferred to sleep on the canoe. I had an assigned bunk that was just my size along the side of the canoe and I could roll back the canvas to watch the stars before drifting off.

Hōkūleʻa is brilliantly designed with a series of hatchways down into each hull, regularly spaced between the booms that hold the two hulls together. A guardrail around the deck has diagonal supports going out to the far edge of each hull. Canvas is stretched over these supports to create kind of a long tent. On the deck side, the zipper doors in the canvas hid the sleeping compartments atop the hatchway. The Hawaiian word “puka” was often used to refer to these. Puka means both “hole” and “doorway,” and so is particularly apt for these low places you crawl into.

Plywood boards have been placed over the hatches, and thick foam pads on top of those.  I had puka #2 on the starboard side—the one closest to the bow (#1 being the entry way onto the canoe). My belongings were kept in a waterproof sea bag, with a few extra things stashed in a cooler alongside the hatchway under the plywood. A clothesline above the door allows you to hang things you need to access regularly—headlamp, hat, sunglasses and so forth. There are also some pockets for things like toiletries and sunscreen.

Image by Doug Herman. The canvas cover over the sleeping areas (pukas), also showing the catwalk and (above it) the safety line that rounds around the outside of the canoe. Far left is the navigator’s platform, the outside of which is the ocean-going toilet. (original image)

Image by Doug Herman. The foam sleeping pad lies atop a sheet of plywood, which rests atop the hatch cover. (original image)

Image by Doug Herman. Lifting up the plywood shows the hatch cover, some coolers, and a life jacket. A small gear bag needs to be moved to open the hatch. (original image)

Image by Doug Herman. Looking into my puka. My hat, waterbottle and sunglasses are clipped to a line outside, my orange sea bag visible inside. (original image)

Image by Doug Herman. Down the hatch: cracker boxes and water jugs. (original image)

Image by Doug Herman. Moani Heimuli drives the tow boat, with Arthur C. Harris providing the navigation for the complex conditions of the Chesapeake Bay. (original image)

Inside the hatchways is storage, and the ship’s quartermaster has to keep track of what is stored under each puka. In mine there were a dozen waterproof boxes labeled “crackers” and a handful of five-gallon jugs of potable water. A water cooler was kept on deck and everyone had a water bottle with a carabiner on it so it could be clipped to a line when not in use. 

When the cooler ran out, which happened a few times, I had to move all my gear into the next person’s bunk or out on deck, lift up the plywood and foam pad, remove the hatch cover, and climb down into the hull to lift out another five-gallon jug. This occurred often enough that I kept my puka pretty tidy, and it was used for demonstrations when we came into port.

Over the last two sleeping pukas on each side are the navigator’s platforms. This is where the navigator sits—on which ever side allows him or her to see past the sails. To the rear of these is an open puka on each side. On one side are the buckets for washing dishes: two with plain water for before-and-after rinsing, and one with soap for washing. All this was done in seawater, except coming up the Potomac where we were uncertain about the cleanliness of the water.

Cooking takes place on a two-burner propane stove on deck. It sits in a box with awnings at the sides to keep out the wind. Another box contains all the cooking gear and utensils.  Breakfast and lunch were mostly a hodgepodge of snacks, cut-up oranges and other lite fare. Dinner, however, was a hot meal: something with noodles, often. And hot noodle dishes were also served for lunch on colder, rainier days. During real voyaging, there would be hot water going all day for tea, coffee or cocoa.

Cooking up SPAM singles for a delicious lunch. The crew packet paperwork states that the diet tends to be high fat and low fiber, and that constipation is likely. (Doug Herman)

Everyone wants to know how you go to the bathroom on the canoe. First, if you are not already wearing a safety harness (and on this leg of the voyage, we almost never were) you have to put one on. Then you tell someone that you are going to the bathroom. It’s all about avoiding a man-overboard situation—nobody wants that. (I am told it has happened only three times in 40 years of voyaging on this canoe.)

Then you go out through that back puka, around the back of the navigator’s platform, and onto the catwalk on the outside edge of the hull. Here you clip a tether from your harness onto the safety rope that runs all the way around the outside of the canoe. If you fall off, at least you will be dragged along rather than left behind. Once you are secure, you hang your bare bottom out and do what needs to be done. When you return, you tell that same person that you are back. “Sometimes in rough conditions I’ll be talking to people as they go out,” says Mark Keala Kimura, “and I’ll keep talking to them while they go to the bathroom, just to make sure they’re still there.”

Back in 1976, it was even less private: “The rails are all open, there was no covering, so pretty much when you went you were in full view of everybody,” recalls veteran voyager Penny Rawlins Martin—“with your escort boat behind you!”

On this trip, two small shipboard toilets had been installed in the stern compartments, with canvas curtains that could be drawn. Going up the Intracoastal Waterway from Florida, it was thought to be poor form to have bare bottoms hanging over the side.

The open puka behind the navigator’s platform where dishes are washed also provides access to the catwalk for going to the toilet. In this case, a ship-board toilet is located here as well. Note the curtain that can be pulled. (Doug Herman)

Plain to see on the back of the canoe is a giant plate of solar panels. There is no modern navigational equipment on Hōkūleʻa—not even a compass—but there does need to be power for lights at night, for radio communication with the tow boat, and for the triple-redundancy emergency systems. Safety first.

Overall, the crew is a family, but like any family, there is hierarchy on the canoe: the navigator, the captain, the watch captains, the apprentice navigators. Everyone on board has, in addition to regular crew duties, a particular kuleana—responsibility or skill, such as fisherman, carpenter, doctor, sail-repairer and so forth.

This time our crew contained three people from ‘Ōiwi TV, the only Hawaiian-language television station in the world, working on documenting the voyage with still and video cameras, including a drone. There were educators who ran programming when we were in port. And there was me, documenting the trip for the Smithsonian Institution.

Rex Lokeni watches as the ‘Ōiwi TV crew lift off the drone from the rear solar panels. (Doug Herman)

I also consider myself an educator. A former university professor and now Smithsonian scholar, I’ve been teaching about Polynesian voyaging and migrations for 30 years. More recently, I’ve been writing and lecturing on traditional navigation, and the values of the voyaging canoe and what they tell us about how to live on this planet. I built and sail my own outrigger sailing canoe and have been both blogging and giving lecture and demonstrations about traditional canoe building. And I did do a training voyage in February on the Hikianalia

So I arrived with a certain, tentative confidence, and when in port at educational activities, felt it my kuleana to share the lessons I have derived from so much research. But I quickly felt that something was not going well, and this feeling got stronger as the trip went on. Yes, we were not functioning like a normal crew, and as we were being towed, my inexperienced presence was really hardly necessary. These folks knew what to do and moved like clockwork when things needed to be done. 

These were young, sea-hardened voyagers, some of whom were now on their fifth leg of the Worldwide Voyage (and legs take up to 40 days). I was simply not one of them. 

What right did I have to talk about lessons of the voyaging canoe? I had never been on a real voyage. Finally someone pulled me aside and said “Brah, you are always saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.” There were also protocols I was breaking, of which I was not aware.

“You got to have thick skin and you’ve got to work your way up the ropes,” Kālepa had told me in an interview back in 2011. Learning to sail the canoe involves a lot of hard knocks.

Humbled, I realized, even before this calling out, that I needed to shut up. Enough talking about voyaging; now was the time to listen. I came on board thinking I was, well, someone—someone with a part in this. I realized that, for purposes of the canoe, I was no one. A total newbie. And once I realized that, a letting go feeling came over me, and I was happy. I now knew my place on the canoe, and it was good.

The next day, when we were docked in Alexandria and giving tours, I ran into Nā‘ālehu.  “Hey ‘Lehu,” I said cheerfully, “I finally learned my place on the canoe.”  “Oh really?” he responded with a smile.  “Yes,” I said, “I guess everyone has to make that journey at some point.”  He shook his head kindly and replied, “Some people just keep on sailing…” –and never arrived at that shore.

Now I am practicing my knots, building my strength, and continuing work on my Hōkūleʻa model—work that requires knowing all the ropes. I will be ma‘a to the wa‘a to the best of my ability, and someday, maybe I will get to go voyaging for real.

Here’s What’s Brewing in the New Smithsonian Beer Collections

Smithsonian Magazine

Sam Calagione’s boil kettle—discolored from heavy use and topped with a repurposed kitchen pot lid, looking a bit like a mismatched hat—didn’t arrive alone last week to the storage shelves at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Calagione, the founder of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, formerly Dogfish Head Brewings & Eats in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, also donated a vintage vibrating electric football game—yes, you read that correctly.

The innovative Calagione purchased the novelty toy at a nearby thrift store, added a few self-fabricated parts, angled it over his kettle, and used the vibrations to shake hops gently and continuously into his brew, inventing the technique of continual hopping. “My Dogfish Head co-workers and I are excited to have our brewery’s original boil kettle and continual-hopping invention now within the Smithsonian’s permanent collection. This American institution is all about shaping the future by preserving our country’s heritage,” says Calagione.

The trick that packs a powerful—and, to many, tasty—bitterness became familiar to craft beer “hop heads” in the brewery’s 60 Minute IPA, named for its sixty minutes of continual hopping. The ends were quirky; the means of achieving the ends even more so.

With its arrival into the Smithsonian collections, Calagione’s longtime brewing equipment began a new life, beyond the brewery. Dogfish Head’s founding stainless steel boil kettle and vibrating football game joined the growing archive of homebrewing and craft beer history that is being built by the museum’s American Brewing History Initiative.

Researching, collecting, preserving and sharing this history has been my charge as curator of the Initiative. Since January 2017, my search for the histories of homebrewing and craft beer has led me to destinations as far away as 49th State Brewing Company in Anchorage, Alaska, and as close to home as Denizens Brewing Company in Silver Spring, Maryland. There have been more than a few destinations in between, from lagering caves in Cincinnati, Ohio, to a brewer’s off-the-grid cabin in Lincoln, Arkansas, to the breezy shores of Lake Mendota in Madison, Wisconsin.

The Initiative is the first national-scale, scholarly research and collecting project to gather and preserve the artifacts, documents, and voices associated with the beer industry’s recent growth—a phenomenon known as the craft beer revolution. Supported by a gift from the Brewers Association, the museum is constructing this archive for the benefit of scholars, brewers and millions of Americans.

Founder and Brewer Sam Calagione, of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, purchased this vintage vibrating football game at a thrift store, outfitted it with self-fabricated parts and angled it over his boil kettle to shake hops gently into the brew. (Courtesy of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery)

Dogfish Head’s story is exemplary and at the same time one of many. In 1995, when Calagione first opened his brewpub, space was tight and so was the budget. He could afford to buy only a small set of brewing equipment: a 12-gallon system designed for homebrewers, not professionals.

But the beer he made was good. Customers kept coming back for more, bringing their friends. Now he had to brew multiple batches a day, one after the other, each taking four to six hours on burners (followed by cooling, fermenting, and bottling), five days a week. The recipes were starting to feel a bit rote.

The brewpub’s kitchen was full of ingredients, colors and aromas, but most of them were linked to the dishes headed out to diners rather than the sugary wort boiling in the kettle. Nevertheless, Calagione had already imagined the possibilities of pulling from one world into the other. His business plan had set the goal for Dogfish to be the first commercial brewery to make the majority of its recipes with culinary ingredients—cherries, ginger, honey, orange slices, coriander and more—in addition to beer’s standard components of barley, water, hops and yeast.

Inspired by a TV chef sprinkling pepper continuously into a pot of soup, Calagione invented the technique of continual hopping in 1999. Using this vibrating electric football game, Calagione added hops slowly and continuously into the boil kettle as he brewed beer. (Division of Work and Industry, NMAH)

With these ingredients—the first of many—that Calagione introduced into the boil kettle of his diminutive brewery (a microbrewery, literally) a new approach to brewing American beer began.

Statistics show that most producers and consumers of beer in the U.S. today are white men. But brewing was first the domestic labor of women and enslaved people. As the American economy evolved, beer became the product of immigrant European professional brewers and the output of sophisticated factory breweries.

When happy hour rolls around, most Americans reach for a beer; it is the most consumed alcoholic beverage in the country. In 2017, American drinkers spent more than $119 billion on beer, nearly two times what they spent on wine. According to federal government statistics, more than 6,000 breweries are now in operation, with a staggering 10,000-plus holding a Brewer’s Notice—a measure of potential brewery growth to come.

When Sam Calagione opened Dogfish Head Brewings & Eats in 1995, he brewed beer multiple times a day, five days a week, in this boil kettle sized for homebrewing rather than professional brewing. (Division of Work and Industry, NMAH)

But the American beer industry hasn’t always looked like this. Homebrewing and microbrewing were grassroots responses to a post-Prohibition brewing industry that had reached peak consolidation in the late 1970s. Very big breweries were making virtually a single style of beer: light-bodied lagers, often brewed with adjunct grains like rice or corn.

Inspired by beers encountered during educational travel or military service abroad in the 1950s and 1960s, some American homebrewers began to brew an adventurous range of beers on a small scale, using only traditional ingredients.

An even smaller number tried to go pro. An initial handful of microbreweries opened their doors in the mid-1970s, mostly in California and the west. At first, this effort was slow-going. Brewers struggled to source capital, ingredients and equipment suited to their modest operations. They had to build distribution networks, marketing strategies and consumer bases from scratch. Many failed.

Homebrewers pride themselves on a do-it-yourself approach to brewing beer. When steam from the boiling wort broke Calagione’s original electric football game during its first use, he purchased this second game and used it to brew again, in fall 1999. As Dogfish Head Craft Brewery expanded, its brewers designed increasingly sophisticated continual hopping devices. (Division of Work and Industry, NMAH)

But many brewers caught several waves at the right moment: the counterculture, the do-it-yourself movement, the consumer movement and even the advent of California cuisine. The federal government legalized homebrewing in 1978. Microbreweries proliferated. And the “craft beer revolution” took hold.

The American Brewing History Initiative is collecting the story of these events and those that followed, gathering artifacts from men and women who changed the American palate and revolutionized an industry.

A labeled, though empty, bottle from New Albion Brewing Company in Sonoma, California, the nation’s first from-the-ground-up microbrewery, feels in many ways like the place where this story began. From Sierra Nevada Brewing Company in Chico, California, the Initiative has acquired a first run of labels for beers like its iconic Pale Ale. Buffalo Bill’s Brewery, one of the nation’s first brewpubs, in Hayward, California, has donated a colorful sidewalk sign, bar stool, menu board and tap handles. Other objects reflect growing relationships between fledgling brewers and their customers, such as a guest book recording visits to Boulder Brewing Company (now Boulder Beer Company) in Boulder, Colorado, soon after it opened.

A cherished childhood microscope; a well-worn brewing textbook, its dust jacket patched with tape; a set of white brewer’s coveralls; and a printer’s press sheet of labels from the first modern bottling of Anchor Steam Beer—these objects came from Fritz Maytag, who grew up in Newton, Iowa, where his father managed the Maytag Washing Machine Company. Maytag purchased San Francisco’s struggling Steam Beer Brewing Company—now Anchor Brewing Company—in 1965.

During his oral history, Maytag cited a passion for “alchemy” that he had learned in his childhood basement lab. “I have this magic sense of mixing things together to see what will happen,” he said. Maytag used his childhood microscope to diagnose and fix inconsistencies in the brewery’s beer. He breathed new life into Anchor–and the larger brewing industry–with styles unheard of at the time, like porter and barleywine, making Anchor Brewing Company the nation’s first modern microbrewery.

Image by Division of Work and Industry, NMAH. Brewers at Colorado’s first microbrewery, Boulder Brewing Company (now Boulder Beer Company), made wood crates by hand to store their beer. (original image)

Image by Archives Center Brewing History Collection, Archives Center, NMAH. Printer’s press sheet from Boulder Brewing Company (now Boulder Beer Company) labels, 1979-1980 (original image)

Image by Archives Center Brewing History Collection, Archives Center, NMAH. Michael Lewis, UC, Davis emeritus professor of brewing science, used this copy of his co-authored textbook to teach homebrewers and professional brewers in his classroom and lab (original image)

Image by Division of Work and Industry, NMAH. Jack McAuliffe founded the first from-the-ground-up microbrewery in 1976, in Sonoma, California. His operation was so small, he made plaques like this by hand so retailers could announce his beer for sale. (original image)

Image by Division of Work and Industry, NMAH. When Sierra Nevada Brewing Company's Pale Ale (above: label) debuted in 1981, many consumers rejected it as too bitter. This beer initiated a craving for hops among American beer drinkers. (original image)

Image by Archives Center Brewing History Collection, Archives Center, NMAH. A 1988 bicycle trip to Belgian breweries and bars—chronicled in this journal—inspired Jeff Lebesch to bring Belgian brewing techniques to Colorado. Three years later, he and Kim Jordan cofounded New Belgium Brewing Company. (original image)

Michael Lewis, a biochemist born and trained in England and a specialist in the properties of yeast in beer, arrived at the University of California at Davis in 1962 and dedicated the rest of his career to building one of the nation’s preeminent brewing science programs.

As the first professor of brewing science in the United States, Lewis taught homebrewing before it was legal, in the late 1960s. In the mid-1970s, he took his students to visit Sonoma’s tiny New Albion Brewing Company. Lewis donated a selection of his syllabi and teaching notes as well as his co-authored brewing textbook. Its binding is broken and pages marked with marginalia and coffee stains from hours teaching in the lab—traces of a teacher inspiring the creativity of others.

Charlie Papazian was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia in 1970 when he tasted a sip of beer that an acquaintance had homebrewed. Transfixed by the idea that he could make what he realized was “flavorful” beer, he began to brew, too, using ginger ale bottles from the local market to bottle his beer.

Papazian donated two of these bottles to the museum as well as his last original copy of his first homebrew recipe: “Log Boom Brew,” typed while still an undergrad. After college, Papazian moved west, to Boulder, Colorado, where he taught homebrewing classes, authored a popular manual (a self-published first edition now resides in the collections), and founded associations for homebrewers and professional brewers, plus the nation’s largest beer festival.

Papazian’s maxim is “Relax. Don’t worry. Have a homebrew.” His humble tools—a wooden kitchen spoon, an aluminum stepladder, and a green plastic garbage pail—now have a new home at the museum.

Image by Division of Work and Industry, NMAH. Tap handle for Pumpkin Ale brewed and served at Buffalo Bill’s Brewery in Hayward, California, 1983 to1994. (original image)

Image by Division of Work and Industry, NMAH. This sidewalk sign announced to passersby in 1983 that Buffalo Bill’s, one of the nation’s first brewpubs, was open for business. (original image)

Image by Division of Work and Industry, NMAH. Fritz Maytag received this microscope as a childhood gift from his father. Many years later, he used it to understand and correct inconsistencies in the beer at Anchor Brewing Company after he purchased it in 1965. (original image)

Image by Division of Work and Industry, NMAH. Soon after Jeff Lebesch and Kim Jordan co-founded New Belgium Brewing Company in the basement of their Fort Collins, Colorado, home in 1991, they used this milk can to store yeast. (original image)

Image by Division of Work and Industry, NMAH. Brewers at San Francisco’s historic Anchor Brewing Company don these white coveralls when they brew. Former owner Fritz Maytag donated his set of coveralls. (original image)

Image by Division of Work and Industry, NMAH. Coaster featuring the Rocky Mountains from Odell Brewing Company (formerly Odell’s), one of Colorado’s first microbreweries, founded in Fort Collins in 1989. (original image)

Image by Division of Work and Industry, NMAH. In 1978, homebrewer Charlie Papazian founded the American Homebrewers Association to serve as a forum for education and communication among homebrewers across the country. Papazian’s maxim is “Relax. Don’t worry. Have a homebrew.” (original image)

Image by Division of Work and Industry, NMAH. When learning how to homebrew beer as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, Charlie Papazian bottled his homebrew in this repurposed ginger ale bottle. (original image)

Image by Archives Center Brewing History Collection, Archives Center, NMAH. Charlie Papazian self-published this first edition of Joy of Brewing, his homebrewing manual, in 1976. When homebrewing became legal in 1978, he republished the manual with a professional press. It became one of the most influential homebrewing guides ever written. (original image)

Image by Archives Center Brewing History Collection, Archives Center, NMAH. While a student at the University of Virginia, Charlie Papazian wrote his first recipe for homebrewed beer, specifying, “Guaranteed to work in Charlottesville, and it just might work other places too.” (original image)

Image by Archives Center Brewing History Collection, Archives Center, NMAH. While a student at the University of Virginia, Charlie Papazian wrote his first recipe for homebrewed beer, specifying, “Guaranteed to work in Charlottesville, and it just might work other places too.” (original image)

Image by Division of Work and Industry, NMAH. Charlie Papazian used basic equipment like this wooden spoon to homebrew. (original image)

Image by Division of Work and Industry, NMAH. Fritz Maytag collected textbooks such as this to learn techniques of brewing and sanitation as he revitalized and expanded Anchor Brewing Company between 1965 and 2010. (original image)

In 1988, Jeff Lebesch carried a small, yellow notebook during a bicycle trip around Belgium. Inside, he recorded tasting notes and observations of the beers and bars he found. Lebesch flew home to Colorado inspired to co-found a Belgian-style brewery, New Belgium Brewing Company, with then-wife Kim Jordan. Lebesch would eventually end his ties to the brewery; Jordan stayed on, becoming CEO and greatly expanding the brewery’s reach. The Initiative has acquired Lebesch’s notebook and a dairy’s milk can used to store yeast during the brewery’s early years.

In addition to these historic artifacts, oral histories recorded with more than 75—and counting—members of the industry contribute in equal measure to this new collection. Professional brewers and homebrewers make American beer what it is today. So, too, do teachers, writers, an artisan maltstress of gluten-free grains, destined for gluten-free beers and a designer of tap handles. Annie Johnson spoke about her experience winning the American Homebrewers Association’s Homebrewer of the Year award in 2013, becoming the first African-American to win that honor. Day Bracey and Ed Bailey, hosts of Drinking Partners Podcast, reflected on their work melding comedy, culture and craft beer for listeners in Pittsburgh and beyond. Liz Garibay talked about enlivening traditional museum work with walking tours of Chicago’s beer history and building a new museum of the city’s brewing past. Oral histories such as these preserve often-winding career paths and capture memories from childhood to the present.

These conversations have taken place while sitting at a bar or in an office; huddled around a barrel amidst fermentation tanks; under the stone arches of a refurbished 1800s malting room; and in conference hotels. Pristine quiet is ideal, but these are oral histories of an industry; some recordings have background noise ranging from taproom bustle to the continuous clink of bottling lines. Interviewees have laughed when reflecting on initial homebrewing escapades and cried remembering mentors who have passed away. These are the details that are harder to preserve and convey in objects or documents, as powerful as those sources are.

From bottles to boil kettles to vibrating football games to oral histories, American brewing history is a series of stories that are economic, social, cultural and gastronomic alike. And as a development of the past 50 years, this history is one that is newly written and still being written.

To a public historian, that fact is an imperative to collect: to gather, preserve and share the material culture and voices of beer’s recent past and present, for the future.

On October 25, the exhibition, FOOD: Transforming the American Table, reopens with the new section “Beer: An American History,” featuring a selection of artifacts from this growing archive. The exhibition includes other new sections on migration and food, dieting history, and Mexican-American vintners.

The museum’s fifth annual Food History Weekend takes place November 7 to 9, 2019. On November 8, craft brewing pioneers Fritz Maytag, Michael Lewis, Charlie Papazian, and Ken Grossman, founder of Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, will speak at the after-hours event “Last Call.” Attendees can sample several of the historic beers created by this star-studded panel of speakers.

Bracket, Boeing-Vertol CH-46E Sea Knight "Phrog"

National Air and Space Museum
Bracket removed from aircraft by Marines.

Boeing-Vertol CH-46E Sea Knight

Known as the “Phrog” for its amphibian-like appearance, the CH-46 served as the U.S. Marine Corps’ primary assault helicopter in over four decades of active service. As the Marines’ first turbine-powered assault helicopter, it proved well suited to the challenging environment of South Vietnam, where it began operations in 1966. Since then, the CH-46 has served in nearly every major American military action and supported dozens of smaller operations, ranging from embassy evacuations to humanitarian and disaster relief.

The aircraft wears a special heritage paint scheme, used in its final year of service, that evokes its extensive Vietnam War service, including a mission that resulted in the award of a Navy Cross. Its other combat deployments included tours in Afghanistan during 2004 and Iraq from 2007 to 2009, which coincided with some of the most intense period of combat in those theaters.

Lent by the National Museum of the Marine Corps

Rotor diameter:15.5 m (51 ft)

Length:13.9 m (45 ft 8 in)

Height:5.1 m (16 ft 8 in)

Weight, empty:7,048 kg (15,537 lb)

Weight, gross:11,022 kg (24,300 lb)

Engines:2 General Electric T58-GE-16 turboshafts, 1,870 shp each

Crew:3 to 5 crewmembers, up to 16 troops

Armament:Up to two 12.7 mm and one 7.62 mm machine guns

Manufacturer:Boeing-Vertol, 1967

Miscellaneous Parts, Boeing-Vertol CH-46E Sea Knight "Phrog"

National Air and Space Museum
Metal Storage Box containing the following loose parts:

Arming Panel

RPM Gage

STBY Display

Ammo Can

INS Display with keyboard

Avionics Mount tray (2)

Intercom PPT Cable

Boeing-Vertol CH-46E Sea Knight

Known as the “Phrog” for its amphibian-like appearance, the CH-46 served as the U.S. Marine Corps’ primary assault helicopter in over four decades of active service. As the Marines’ first turbine-powered assault helicopter, it proved well suited to the challenging environment of South Vietnam, where it began operations in 1966. Since then, the CH-46 has served in nearly every major American military action and supported dozens of smaller operations, ranging from embassy evacuations to humanitarian and disaster relief.

The aircraft wears a special heritage paint scheme, used in its final year of service, that evokes its extensive Vietnam War service, including a mission that resulted in the award of a Navy Cross. Its other combat deployments included tours in Afghanistan during 2004 and Iraq from 2007 to 2009, which coincided with some of the most intense period of combat in those theaters.

Lent by the National Museum of the Marine Corps

Rotor diameter:15.5 m (51 ft)

Length:13.9 m (45 ft 8 in)

Height:5.1 m (16 ft 8 in)

Weight, empty:7,048 kg (15,537 lb)

Weight, gross:11,022 kg (24,300 lb)

Engines:2 General Electric T58-GE-16 turboshafts, 1,870 shp each

Crew:3 to 5 crewmembers, up to 16 troops

Armament:Up to two 12.7 mm and one 7.62 mm machine guns

Manufacturer:Boeing-Vertol, 1967

Armor Plate, Boeing-Vertol CH-46E Sea Knight "Phrog"

National Air and Space Museum
Armor Plate removed from aircraft by Marines.

Boeing-Vertol CH-46E Sea Knight

Known as the “Phrog” for its amphibian-like appearance, the CH-46 served as the U.S. Marine Corps’ primary assault helicopter in over four decades of active service. As the Marines’ first turbine-powered assault helicopter, it proved well suited to the challenging environment of South Vietnam, where it began operations in 1966. Since then, the CH-46 has served in nearly every major American military action and supported dozens of smaller operations, ranging from embassy evacuations to humanitarian and disaster relief.

The aircraft wears a special heritage paint scheme, used in its final year of service, that evokes its extensive Vietnam War service, including a mission that resulted in the award of a Navy Cross. Its other combat deployments included tours in Afghanistan during 2004 and Iraq from 2007 to 2009, which coincided with some of the most intense period of combat in those theaters.

Lent by the National Museum of the Marine Corps

Rotor diameter:15.5 m (51 ft)

Length:13.9 m (45 ft 8 in)

Height:5.1 m (16 ft 8 in)

Weight, empty:7,048 kg (15,537 lb)

Weight, gross:11,022 kg (24,300 lb)

Engines:2 General Electric T58-GE-16 turboshafts, 1,870 shp each

Crew:3 to 5 crewmembers, up to 16 troops

Armament:Up to two 12.7 mm and one 7.62 mm machine guns

Manufacturer:Boeing-Vertol, 1967

Armor Plate, Boeing-Vertol CH-46E Sea Knight "Phrog"

National Air and Space Museum
Armor Plate removed from aircraft by Marines

Boeing-Vertol CH-46E Sea Knight

Known as the “Phrog” for its amphibian-like appearance, the CH-46 served as the U.S. Marine Corps’ primary assault helicopter in over four decades of active service. As the Marines’ first turbine-powered assault helicopter, it proved well suited to the challenging environment of South Vietnam, where it began operations in 1966. Since then, the CH-46 has served in nearly every major American military action and supported dozens of smaller operations, ranging from embassy evacuations to humanitarian and disaster relief.

The aircraft wears a special heritage paint scheme, used in its final year of service, that evokes its extensive Vietnam War service, including a mission that resulted in the award of a Navy Cross. Its other combat deployments included tours in Afghanistan during 2004 and Iraq from 2007 to 2009, which coincided with some of the most intense period of combat in those theaters.

Lent by the National Museum of the Marine Corps

Rotor diameter:15.5 m (51 ft)

Length:13.9 m (45 ft 8 in)

Height:5.1 m (16 ft 8 in)

Weight, empty:7,048 kg (15,537 lb)

Weight, gross:11,022 kg (24,300 lb)

Engines:2 General Electric T58-GE-16 turboshafts, 1,870 shp each

Crew:3 to 5 crewmembers, up to 16 troops

Armament:Up to two 12.7 mm and one 7.62 mm machine guns

Manufacturer:Boeing-Vertol, 1967

As the Arctic Erodes, Archaeologists Are Racing to Protect Ancient Treasures

Smithsonian Magazine

A headless body, stretched out along the beach, appears through the smudged window of our ATV as we sail across the sand. There’s a windy lawlessness up here along the Chukchi Sea; I’m reassured by the rifle lashed to the lead ATV in the caravan. The archaeologist at the helm passes the decaying creature without pause. Anne Jensen has seen many headless walruses before—this one was likely already dead when it washed ashore and was relieved of its tusks. Jensen’s not worried about poachers; the rifle is for polar bears—the Arctic’s fiercest of predators. And Jensen seems entirely capable of staying calm and slamming a bullet into one.

We’re just south of Barrow, Alaska, heading to an archaeological site at a place called Walakpa Bay. It’s a grassy coastline that’s been occupied by semi-nomadic native Alaskans for at least 4,000 years. Their story, told in material remains, is scattered across the landscape we traverse at 60 kilometers per hour, past flocks of ducks and eroding bluffs. Most archaeologists mine the soil to better understand how the animals, landscape, and climate of the past may have shaped a culture. For three decades, Jensen has tried to find and tell the stories locked in frozen dirt here on Alaska’s North Slope, the home of the Iñupiat, as they are known today. But as much as Jensen wishes she could do just that, her most important work on this thawing, eroding land is simply trying to protect what’s left of Walakpa, and other vanishing sites, from a warming climate.

At the world’s edge, the Arctic coastline is on the front lines of climate change. As the length of time ice stays fastened to it has plummeted, the shoreline here has eroded faster than almost anywhere else in the world. Two years ago, villagers alerted Jensen to a storm that had wiped out about half of the Walakpa site. The rest could be erased soon, she says, when the storms whip up again. “It’s like a library’s on fire,” says Jensen, equal parts bitterness and Midwestern matter-of-factness. Jensen is the kind of person who would find the notion of books burning for any reason deeply unjust.

Saving Walakpa properly would require months of encampment, dedicated freezers, and soil engineers. There’s no money for all that. “But you gotta try,” she says. “We need to get this data now.” She’s known up here on Alaska’s North Slope for her thoroughness and respect for local traditions—and perhaps above all, her tenacity. Exhibit number one: this five-day mini excursion, a Hail Mary dig to document and preserve a few artifacts on a shoestring budget. The North Slope Borough government has chipped in a few support staff; an archaeologist from Maryland, a local anthropologist, and a PhD candidate from Ohio have volunteered their time; Jensen gave frequent-flier miles to a geoarchaeologist from Idaho to round out the five-scientist crew. She paid out of her pocket for quick and easy field meals—ramen cups.

Two days before leaving, Jensen rummaged through excavation equipment in a dusty garage. Tendrils of her dark hair, sometimes corralled in a ski cap, fell on the beige overalls she often wears. (They reflect the industrial culture that many Iñupiaq have embraced here on the North Slope.) “Okay, so we packed the toilet paper already,” she said. Though she’s tightly focused out in the field, here her small black eyes roved across shovels and buckets. Much of the gear was purchased a few years ago, back when the grant money flowed. Her phone frequently vibrated. (Her chronically ill daughter and a client—a telecom firm—were apparently competing with the remains of hundreds of generations of native Alaskans for her attention.) “Bungee cords are always good,” she said, and we tossed some into a plastic tub.

A sign on her office door quotes US president Teddy Roosevelt: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” Jensen has made a steady career on the edge of civilization with limited resources, studying archaeological sites before the sea devours them. Over the centuries, Walakpa’s inhabitants have, even more so, exemplified Roosevelt’s credo. They’ve learned the rhythms of the whales and the ice and the birds, and they’ve mastered the art of adaptation to a challenging life at sea and on the tundra. But as our ATV thrums along the hard sand and waves relentlessly crash against the shoreline, I wonder to myself: what does saving Walakpa even mean?

Archaeologist Anne Jensen has worked in the Arctic—racing to save valuable archaeological sites before they disappear forever—for over 30 years. (Joe Van Os)

Raised in Ballston Spa, New York, Jensen first came to Barrow in 1983 with her husband, Glenn Sheehan, an archaeologist who no longer works in the field. The richness of high-latitude sites, she hoped, would yield novel archaeological data. An average dig in the lower 48, she likes to say, might yield “a banker’s box full of stone tools.” Permafrost sites, by contrast, allow scientists to “actually see what [inhabitants] were eating.” Alaska’s frozen soils preserve organic materials that provide a wealth of ecological and environmental data. Jensen has built her career in hopes of making new kinds of conclusions about the climate, animals, and hunting behaviors of indigenous peoples that once settled Alaska. Just by living, day-to-day, season-to-season, the ancient tribes Jensen studies “were doing environmental sampling back then for us, going back three, four thousand years.” The DNA she collects hints at population dynamics and migratory patterns. Stable isotopes from bones can provide clues to animals’ diets and their positions in the food web. “If we excavate one of these sites we could fill a 20-foot [six-meter] shipping container full of artifacts and samples. Which we’ve done, by the way,” she says.

Jensen and Sheehan have made a comfy home in Hut 170 on the rusty, old Naval Arctic Research Laboratory campus, known as NARL. New Yorker magazines and coffee-table books on archaeology abound, and outside Jensen tends buttercups and willow in what she calls North America’s “northernmost garden.” But what matters most to her is proximity to world-famous archaeological sites. Birnirk—a National Historic Landmark first excavated in 1936, with some of the first evidence of ancient northern Alaskans—is only a 10-minute drive away. Several kilometers farther up the beach lies Nuvuk, the deserted spit of land at one of the most northern tips of North America, where some of Barrow’s oldest Iñupiaq residents remember growing up. And Walakpa, to the south, may be the most important site in the region, says Dennis Stanford, an archaeologist at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, whose excavations in the late 1960s and graduate dissertation on Walakpa published in 1976 put the site on the scientific map.

So it’s a heady place for Jensen to serve as de facto town archaeologist. Jensen is an archaeological contractor, her employer a science firm in Barrow that provides research studies and logistics to the local government and visiting scientists. Hers is an almost daily task of evaluating threats to artifacts—and human remains. The ancestors of Barrow’s residents, many in unmarked graves, are found everywhere in the region. That makes archaeology part of the social fiber. And Jensen has become the keeper of this thawing legacy. In 2005, a few dozen archaeologists and volunteers were finishing up a dig at Point Franklin, a coastal site south of Walakpa, when a massive search and rescue helicopter landed on the beach. “People dropped their shovels and their jaws,” recalls Sheehan. “There’s an emergency; we need an archaeologist!” a helicopter crew member called to Jensen. Twenty minutes away, in a village called Wainwright, holes for pilings were about to be drilled in an area where residents thought the unmarked grave of their stillborn child lay. Jensen examined the site for a few hours and declared it free of burials. Jensen knows from deep experience that Iñupiaq oral knowledge is often dead right. “I’d be upset too if someone told me that, but we were glad to allay their concerns,” she says.

(Illustration by Mark Garrison)

Indigenous Alaskans have coped with eroding coasts for centuries or more. In 1852, locals told British captain Rochfort Maguire that erosion forced their grandparents to move Nuvuk more than two kilometers inland. So the community was concerned, though not entirely surprised, when in the 1990s human remains began to poke out of a bluff along the Nuvuk beach. The disintegrating coastline was claiming a graveyard that was once far inland. “The wishes of the community were to see [the bones] reinterred near where they were originally buried,” says Jana Harcharek, Director of Iñupiaq Education for the North Slope. Following careful procedures specified by village elders, a team of volunteers and students, led by Jensen since 1997, reinterred the bones. The team has subsequently found and reburied dozens more. “Anne has always been very consultative—she consults with elders and community members about how to proceed. She’s helped the community tremendously,” adds Harcharek.

While Jensen’s efforts at Nuvuk fostered goodwill, the site also proved scientifically valuable. Archaeologists had written off the site as “contact era”—too young to yield important data. Jensen’s work, however, revealed arrowheads of an early culture known as Ipiutak that existed in Alaska until roughly 400 CE. “We were completely surprised,” says Jensen during an afternoon visit to the windswept, empty site. By luck, she’d dug deeper than previous archaeologists—they hadn’t had exposed human remains to clue them in—and warming permafrost had helped, too. She called a bulldozer in to carefully remove top layers, subsequently allowing volunteers to reveal buried wooden Ipiutak structures that had tantalizing detail. But when Jensen applied to the US National Science Foundation to mount a full excavation, her grant application was—like most applications on the first try—denied. “I didn’t bother reapplying because by the time we would have reapplied and gotten funded the land wasn’t going to be there,” she says, pointing at the waves. The soil containing the wooden structures is now tens of meters out to sea.

Jensen nurtures her ties to the Iñupiaq community, and their knowledge has in turn informed her archaeology. She brings her staff, for example, to the early summer Nalukatuq celebrations, in which whaling crews share meat and throw each other in the air with sealskin blankets. That “may not sound like archaeology, but whaling has been the organizing focus of this culture since before most of the sites I work on were formed,” she wrote on her blog. “I really don’t see how one can expect to interpret these sites without a pretty good understanding of what whaling actually entails.” In 2012, she published a paper showing that modern whalers keep their whaling gear outside of their homes; it was an effort to challenge researchers who she felt focused too much on the interior of excavated dwellings, leading to inaccurate conclusions about Eskimo culture.

But a debate over which parts of a site to excavate is meaningless if the site disappears entirely. In 2013, after a summer storm slammed the coast, hunters reported seeing wooden structures protruding from a bluff at Walakpa. For Jensen, the site has special scientific value. Unlike other sites, such as Nuvuk where the occupation record includes gaps, archaeologists believe indigenous people continuously hunted, fished, and camped at Walakpa for millennia. That makes comparisons of flora, fauna, and human culture particularly telling. Its cultural significance is deep too, says Harcharek. “People continue to use it today. It’s a very important waterfowl hunting site in the spring and a regular camping spot.” (Ualiqpaa, as the site is called in the modern Iñupiaq language, means “western settlement entrance.”) Some of the last elders to live at Walakpa remembered complaining about the smell of ancient sea mammal oil in the sod houses. (Many in Barrow call the place Monument; a modest-sized concrete monument there commemorates American humorist Will Rogers and aviator Wiley Post who died when the airplane they were flying for a “happy-go-lucky aerial tour” crashed on the site in 1935.)

What had been a mostly stable site was suddenly at mortal risk. Jensen and a team of volunteers worked in the cold to rescue artifacts as the Arctic Ocean lapped right up to their screening buckets. A ground squirrel had burrowed under the excavation area, destabilizing it further; a polar bear wandered 200 meters in the distance. But the crew’s perseverance paid off. The midden they were excavating yielded clay pottery and tools made of baleen, bone, ivory, and myriad other animal parts.

But the following fall, after a storm, Jensen was crestfallen to find the area of Walakpa she had excavated completely gone. In a damage report she wrote following the storm, she mentioned that the exposed soil allowed looters to steal an ice pick, a bucket made of baleen, and possibly a couple of human skulls. Erosion, however, was the main enemy. “We need to find funds for a field season next year if we do not want to risk losing precious cultural heritage,” she wrote. The rest of Walakpa could disappear at any moment, but at least one archeologist in Northern Alaska wasn’t yet willing to concede defeat.

Archaeologist Anne Jensen has the difficult task of evaluating threats to artifacts as the Arctic coastline erodes, taking valuable clues to the past with it. (Joe Van Os)

Funds for a field season have not been found. It is next year. Precious cultural heritage has been lost.

There will be no respite from the waves at Walakpa. There is no strong barrier in place to fully protect Barrow, population 4,400, let alone one to defend this tiny patch of beach that’s known only to the world as the place a pair of Yankees perished eight decades ago.

In lieu of an extended excavation, Jensen has arranged a four-day, five-scientist crew. And in the days before the dig her attention is, as ever, divided. She flies to Kotzebue, 500 kilometers to the south, to do a survey for the telecom company. Then a series of canceled flights keeps her stuck in Fairbanks for a day, her luggage lost by the airline. The dig gets rescheduled and rescheduled again. On the morning of the trip, the packing of the ATVs drags on, with delays for Jensen to send work emails and to collect blood-pressure medication for a member of the team. At Hut 170, she’s fussing over her toiletries. She’s almost out the door when Sheehan says, “And a kiss for your husband?” She stops, smiles, and they share a brief kiss. Outside we all board our vehicles. “Finally,” she declares, “we’re off.”

We arrive at Walakpa after about an hour, in the early afternoon. At the ocean’s edge, the land abruptly ends, forming a high bluff above the sand below. The bluff is cleaved down the middle; from the water, it looks like a 25-meter-wide club sandwich that’s been torn in half. Just last year the bluff, encrusted with artifacts, extended farther out toward the sea by about the length of a small school bus. All that’s there now is salty air.

As the crew unpacks the gear, Jensen lies on her stomach to peer down into the crack, assessing the soil layers that descend to about twice her height and stretch back 4,000 years in time. She lists the dangers to her team: tumbling into the crack, “half a ton of sod falling on you,” “impalement” on stakes, getting crushed by soil. “Nobody goes into the crack,” she declares. Too bad, says geomorphologist Owen Mason, who sees “good wood” of ancient houses in there. Standing in a safe area, Jensen examines the exposed strata. Top layers, still deeper than the researchers went in 1968, could shed light on the most recent occupations. The lower layers could offer clues about when the Paleo-Eskimos first began hunting here. And organic material throughout the strata could shed light on the plants and animals that constituted their world.

With just five days to work, the archaeological team must make a series of painful decisions. “Ideally you’d like to excavate by hand every last inch of everything,” Jensen admits. A full excavation, painstakingly sifting and sorting each level of the soil, is too time consuming, so Jensen opts to bag a bulk sample from each layer and to screen the rest. The team takes what’s called a column sample, digging straight down along the face of the exposed layers. It allows Jensen to preserve the relative position and stratigraphy of the soil and artifacts from each layer. The team debates how wide to make the column: wider means more chance to find items. But Jensen, informed by experience, knows the risks of ambition when time is short. “I’d rather have a narrow, but full, column sample,” she tells her colleagues. (The column sample also comes at a price: it exposes more layers to thawing and erosion.) They “straighten” the bluff face to remove a dangerous overhang, without screening or storing it. “I feel bad doing it, but there’s only so much time,” mutters Jensen.

The delays mount: while Mason carefully records the kinds of layers in the sample—sand, gravel, midden, and marine mammal fat chilled to the consistency of peanut butter—Jensen has to help the field assistants put up a tent, only to discover key metal pieces are missing. And then a local hunter comes by and stops to chat with Jensen. Finally, the scientists select the site for Column Sample 1, or CS1, which measures about the height of an average doorway and about 75 centimeters wide and deep. Excavation reveals wood chips, modified animal bones, and stone flakes. As they excavate, they map the objects’ positions. They document and put the bulk samples into bags that they’ll lug back to Barrow for future analysis. Jensen will later package and mail a quarter of each sample to Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, for the PhD candidate, Laura Crawford, to study. By 2 a.m., the sun has dimmed, though is still up. The team members work until their ability to delineate soil layers dims, too, and then collapse in their tents.

It’s after dinner the next day when Crawford discovers calamity: CS1’s face has collapsed, ruining their work. Later, she says her thoughts ran along the lines of: “Oh shit. What do we do now.” (She was also relieved no one was working at the time. “It could have been disastrous,” she adds.)

“We have to move more quickly,” Jensen tells the others, and then she administers more triage. The team abandons two test layers, just outside the site, that they had been excavating to provide soil comparisons. They begin a new column, CS2—only two-thirds the size of the first—next to CS1, and they dig it with a shovel, not a trowel, taking fewer bulk samples than planned. “Salvage archaeology,” Crawford says.

As the others rush to continue the dig, Jensen commutes back to town on an ATV twice during the week—she’s needed for other work. (“My day job, what are you going to do,” she says.) Before leaving, the group stakes heavy black fabric over the exposed layers to try to protect them from erosion and thawing. “If we don’t get a bad storm, it will be okay. If we do, hasta la pasta,” Jensen says to Mason. Sure enough, after a storm a month later, the half of the “sandwich” facing the ocean is washed away.

The group has long gone its separate ways, back to Idaho and Ohio and Hut 170. Labeled with black marker, the Walakpa bags sit in freezer storage back at NARL. One day soon these bags will be all that’s left of Monument, of Walakpa, of Ualiqpaa. “I’m glad we got the column samples when we did,” Jensen tells me by phone. Do I detect a hint of pride in her voice? Saving Walakpa, it seems, is less about land and more about human determination and dignity. Do what you can, I think to myself, with what you have, where you are.

Reporting for this article was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Read more coastal science stories at

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

How Miraculous Microbes Help Us Evolve Better, Faster, Stronger

Smithsonian Magazine

When you were born, you inherited half your genes from your mother and half from your father. That’s your lot. Those inherited bits of DNA will remain with you for all of your life, with no further additions or omissions. You can’t have any of my genes, and I can’t acquire any of yours.

But imagine a different world where friends and colleagues can swap genes at will. If your boss has a gene that makes her resistant to various viruses, you can borrow it. If your child has a gene that puts him at risk of disease, you can swap it out for your healthier version. If distant relatives have a gene that allows them to better digest certain foods, it’s yours. In this world, genes aren’t just heirlooms to be passed on vertically from one generation to the next, but commodities to be traded horizontally, from one individual to another.

This is exactly the world that bacteria live in. They can exchange DNA as easily as we might exchange phone numbers, money or ideas. Sometimes, they sidle up to one another, create a physical link, and shuttle bits of DNA across: their equivalent of sex. They can also scrounge up discarded bits of DNA in their environment, left by their dead and decaying neighbors. They can even rely on viruses to move genes from one cell to another. DNA flows so freely between them that the genome of a typical bacterium is marbled with genes that arrived from its peers. Even closely related strains might have substantial genetic differences.

Bacteria have been carrying out these horizontal gene transfers, or HGT for short, for billions of years. But it wasn’t until the 1920s that scientists first realized what was happening. They noticed that harmless strains of Pneumococcus could suddenly start causing disease after mingling with the dead and pulped remains of infectious strains. Something in the extracts had changed them. In 1943, a “quiet revolutionary” and microbiologist named Oswald Avery showed that this transformative material was DNA, which the non-infectious strains had absorbed and integrated into their own genomes. Four years later, a young geneticist named Joshua Lederberg (who would later popularize the word “microbiome”) showed that bacteria can trade DNA more directly.


I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life

~ Ed Yong (author) More about this product
List Price: $27.99
Price: $17.94
You Save: $10.05 (36%)

Sixty years on, we know that HGT is one of the most profound aspects of bacterial life. It allows bacteria to evolve at blistering speeds. When they face new challenges, they don’t have to wait for the right mutations to slowly amass within their existing DNA. They can just borrow adaptations wholesale, by picking up genes from bystanders that have already adapted to the challenges at hand. These genes often include dining sets for breaking down untapped sources of energy, shields that protect against antibiotics or arsenals for infecting new hosts. If an innovative bacterium evolves one of these genetic tools, its neighbors can quickly obtain the same traits. This process can instantly change microbes from harmless gut residents into disease-causing monsters, from peaceful Jekylls into sinister Hydes.

They can also transform vulnerable pathogens that are easy to kill into nightmarish “superbugs” that shrug off even our most potent medicines. The spread of these antibiotic-resistant bacteria is undoubtedly one of the greatest public health threats of the 21st century, and it is testament to the unbridled power of HGT.

Animals aren’t so fast. We adapt to new challenges in the usual slow and steady way. Individuals with mutations that leave them best suited to life’s challenges are more likely to survive and pass on their genetic gifts to the next generation. Over time, useful mutations become more common, while harmful ones fade away. This is classic natural selection—a slow and steady process that affects populations, not individuals. Hornets hawks, and humans might gradually accumulate beneficial mutations, but that individual hornet, or this specific hawk, or those particular humans can’t pick up beneficial genes for themselves.

Except sometimes, they can. They could swap their symbiotic microbes, instantly acquiring a new package of microbial genes. They can bring new bacteria into contact with those in their bodies, so that foreign genes migrate into their microbiome, imbuing their native microbes with new abilities. On rare but dramatic occasions, they can integrate microbial genes into their own genomes.

Excitable journalists sometimes like to claim that HGT challenges Darwin’s view of evolution, by allowing organisms to escape the tyranny of vertical inheritance. (“Darwin was wrong,” proclaimed an infamous New Scientist cover—wrongly.) This is not true. HGT adds new variation into an animal’s genome but once these jumping genes arrive in their new homes, they are still subject to good ol’ natural selection.

Detrimental ones die along with their new hosts, while beneficial ones are passed on to the next generation. This is as classically Darwinian as it gets—vanilla in its flavor and exceptional only in its speed. By partnering with microbes, we can quicken the slow, deliberate adagio of our evolutionary music to the brisk, lively allegro of theirs.


Along the coasts of Japan, a reddish-brown seaweed clings to tide-swept rocks. This is Porphyra, better known as nori, and it has filled Japanese stomachs for over 1,300 years. At first, people ground it into an edible paste. Later, they flattened it into sheets, which they wrapped around morsels of sushi. This practice continues today and nori’s popularity has spread all over the world. Still, it has a special tie to Japan. The country’s long legacy of nori consumption has left its people especially well equipped to digest the sea vegetable. We don’t have any enzymes that can break down the algae, and neither do most of the bacteria in our guts.

But the sea is full of better-equipped microbes. One of these, a bacterium called Zobellia galactanivorans, was discovered just a decade ago, but has been eating seaweed for much longer. Picture Zobellia, centuries ago, living in coastal Japanese waters, sitting on a piece of seaweed and digesting it. Suddenly, its world is uprooted. A fisherman collects the seaweed and uses it to make nori paste. His family wolfs down these morsels, and in doing so, they swallow Zobellia. The bacterium finds itself in a new environment. Cool salt water has been substituted for gastric juices. Its usual coterie of marine microbes has been replaced by weird and unfamiliar species. And as it mingles with these exotic strangers, it does what bacteria typically do when they meet up: It shares its genes.

We know that this happened because Jan-Hendrick Hehemann discovered one of Zobellia’s genes in a human gut bacterium called Bacteroides plebeius. The discovery was a total shock: what on earth was a marine gene doing in the gut of a landlubbing human? The answer involves HGT. Zobellia isn’t adapted to life in the gut, so when it rode in on morsels of nori, it didn’t stick around. But during its brief tenure, it could easily have donated some of its genes to B. plebeius, including those that build seaweed-digesting enzymes called porphyranases.

Suddenly, that gut microbe gained the ability to break down the unique carbohydrates found in nori, and could feast on this exclusive source of energy that its peers couldn’t use. Hehemann found that it is full of genes whose closest counterparts exist in marine microbes rather than in other gut-based species. By repeatedly borrowing genes from sea microbes, it has become adept at digesting sea vegetables.

B. plebeius isn’t alone in thieving marine enzymes. The Japanese have been eating nori for so long that their gut microbes are peppered with digestive genes from oceanic species. It’s unlikely that such transfers are still going on, though: Modern chefs roast and cook nori, incinerating any hitchhiking microbes. The diners of centuries past only managed to import such microbes into their guts by eating the stuff raw.

They then passed their gut microbes, now loaded up with seaweed-busting porphyranase genes, to their children. Hehemann saw signs of the same inheritance going on today. One of the people he studied was an unweaned baby girl, who had never eaten a mouthful of sushi in her life. And yet, her gut bacteria had a porphyranase gene, just as her mother’s did. Her microbes came pre-adapted for devouring nori.

Hehemann published his discovery in 2010 and it remains one of the most striking microbiome stories around. Just by eating seaweed, the Japanese diners of centuries past booked a group of digestive genes on an incredible voyage from sea to land. The genes moved horizontally from marine microbes to gut ones, and then vertically from one gut to another. Their travels may have gone even further. At first, Hehemann could only find the genes for porphyranases in Japanese microbiomes and not North American ones. That has now changed: Some Americans clearly have the genes, even those who aren’t of Asian ancestry.

How did that happen? Did B. plebeius jump from Japanese guts into American ones? Did the genes come from other marine microbes stowing away aboard different foods? The Welsh and Irish have long used Porphyra seaweed to make a dish called laver; could they have acquired porphyranases that they then carried across the Atlantic? For now, no one knows. But the pattern “suggests that once these genes hit the initial host, wherever that happens, they can disperse between individuals,” says Hehemann.

This is a glorious example of the adaptive speed that HGT confers. Humans don’t need to evolve a gene that can break down the carbohydrates in seaweed; if we swallow enough microbes that can digest these substances there’s every chance that our own bacteria will “learn” the trick through HGT.

HGT depends on proximity, and our bodies engineer proximity on a huge scale by gathering microbes into dense crowds. It is said that cities are hubs of innovation because they concentrate people in the same place, allowing ideas and information to flow more freely. In the same way, animal bodies are hubs of genetic innovation, because they allow DNA to flow more freely between huddled masses of microbes. Close your eyes, and picture skeins of genes threading their way around your body, passed from one microbe to another. We are bustling marketplaces, where bacterial traders exchange their genetic wares.


Animal bodies are home to so many microbes that occasionally, their genes make their way into our genomes. And sometimes, these genes bestow their new hosts with incredible abilities.

The coffee berry borer beetle is a pest that has incorporated a bacterial gene into its own genome, which allows its larvae to digest the lush banquets of carbohydrates within coffee beans. No other insect—not even very close relatives—has the same gene or anything like it; only bacteria do. By jumping into an ancient coffee borer, the gene allowed this unassuming beetle to spread across coffee-growing regions around the world and become a royal pain in the espresso.

Farmers, then, have reasons to loathe HGT—but also reasons to celebrate it. For one group of wasps, the braconids, transferred genes have enabled a bizarre form of pest control. The females of these wasps lay their eggs in still-living caterpillars, which their young then devour alive. To give the grubs a hand, the females also inject the caterpillars with viruses, which suppress their immune systems. These are called bracoviruses, and they aren’t just allies of the wasps: They are part of the wasps. Their genes have become completely integrated into the braconid genome, and are under its control.

The bracoviruses are domesticated viruses! They’re entirely dependent on the wasps for their reproduction. Some might say they’re not true viruses are all; they’re almost like secretions of the wasp’s body rather than entities in their own right. They must have descended from an ancient virus, whose genes wheedled their way into the DNA of an ancestral braconid and stayed there. This merger gave rise to over 20,000 species of braconid wasps, all of which have bracoviruses in their genomes—an immense dynasty of parasites that uses symbiotic viruses as biological weapons.

Other animals have used horizontally transferred genes to defend themselves from parasites. Bacteria, after all, are the ultimate source of antibiotics. They have been at war with each other for billions of years and have invented an extensive arsenal of genetic weapons for beating their rivals. One family of genes, known as tae, make proteins that punch holes in the outer walls of bacteria, causing fatal leaks. These were developed by microbes for use against other microbes. But these genes have found their way into animals, too. Scorpions, mites and ticks have them. So do sea anemones, oysters, water fleas, limpets, sea slugs and even the lancelet—a very close relative of backboned animals like ourselves.

The tae family exemplifies the kind of genes that spread very easily through HGT. They are self-sufficient, and don’t need a supporting cast of other genes to do their job. They are also universally useful, because they make antibiotics. Every living thing has to contend with bacteria, so any gene that allows its owner to control bacteria more effectively will find gainful employment throughout the tree of life. If it can make the jump, it’s got a good chance of establishing itself as a productive part of its new host. These jumps are all the more impressive because we humans, with all our intelligence and technology, positively struggle to create new antibiotics. So flummoxed are we that we haven’t discovered any new types for decades. But simple animals like ticks and sea anemones can make their own, instantly achieving what we need many rounds of research and development to do—all through horizontal gene transfer.

These stories portray HGT as an additive force, which infuses both microbes and animals with wondrous new powers. But it can also be subtractive. The same process that bestows useful microbial abilities upon animal recipients can make the microbes themselves wither and decay, to the point where they disappear entirely and only their genetic legacies remain.

The creature that best exemplifies this phenomenon can be found in greenhouses and fields around the world, much to the chagrin of farmers and gardeners. It’s the citrus mealybug: a small sap-sucking insect that looks like a walking dandruff flake or a woodlouse that’s been dusted in flour. Paul Buchner, that super-industrious scholar of symbionts, paid a visit to the mealybug clan on his tour of the insect world. To no one’s surprise, he found bacteria inside their cells. But, more unusually, he also described ‘‘roundish or longish mucilaginous globules in which the symbionts are thickly embedded”. These globules languished in obscurity for decades until 2001, when scientists learned that they weren’t just houses for bacteria. They were bacteria themselves.

The citrus mealybug is a living matryoshka doll. It has bacteria living inside its cells, and those bacteria have more bacteria living inside them. Bugs within bugs within bugs. The bigger one is now called Tremblaya after Ermenegildo Tremblay, an Italian entomologist who studied under Buchner. The smaller one is called Moranella after aphid-wrangler Nancy Moran. (“It is a kind of a pathetic little thing to be named after you,” she told me with a grin.)

John McCutcheon has worked out the origins of this weird hierarchy—and it’s almost unbelievable in its twists and turns. It begins with Tremblaya, the first of the two bacteria to colonize mealybugs. It became a permanent resident and, like many insect symbionts, it lost genes that were important for a free-living existence. In the cozy confines of its new host, it could afford to get by with a more streamlined genome. When Moranella joined this two-way symbiosis, Tremblaya could afford to lose even more genes, in the surety that the new arrival would pick up the slack. Here, HGT is more about evacuating bacterial genes from a capsizing ship. It preserves genes that would otherwise be lost to the inevitable decay that afflicts symbiont genomes.

For example, all three partners cooperate to make nutrients. To create the amino acid phenylalanine, they need nine enzymes. Tremblaya can build 1, 2, 5, 6, 7, and 8; Moranella can make 3, 4, and 5; and the mealybug alone makes the 9th. Neither the mealybug nor the two bacteria can make phenylalanine on their own; they depend on each other to fill the gaps in their repertoires. This reminds me of the Graeae of Greek mythology: the three sisters who share one eye and one tooth between them. Anything more would be redundant: Their arrangement, though odd, still allows them to see and chew. So it is with the mealybug and its symbionts. They ended up with a single metabolic network, distributed between their three complementary genomes. In the arithmetic of symbiosis, one plus one plus one can equal one.


The world around us is a gigantic reservoir of potential microbial partners. Every mouthful could bring in new microbes that digest a previously unbreakable part of our meals, or that detoxify the poisons in a previously inedible food, or that kill a parasite that previously suppressed our numbers. Each new partner might help its host to eat a little more, travel a little further, survive a little longer.

Most animals can’t tap into these open-source adaptations deliberately. They must rely on luck to endow them with the right partners. But we humans aren’t so restricted. We are innovators, planners and problem-solvers. And we have one huge advantage that all other animals lack: We know that microbes exist! We have devised instruments that can see them.

We can deliberately grow them. We have tools that can decipher the rules that govern their existence, and the nature of their partnerships with us. And that gives us the power to manipulate those partnerships intentionally. We can replace faltering communities of microbes with new ones that will lead to better health. We can create new symbioses that fight disease. And we can break age-old alliances that threaten our lives.

From the forthcoming book I CONTAIN MULTITUDES: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong. Copyright © 2016 by Ed Yong. To be published on August 9 by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.

The World After Oil

Smithsonian Magazine

On a calm, chilly morning in late March, the four challengers pulled up to the first leg of the 3,500-mile pilgrimage that would, at best, rally awareness for alternative fuels between Washington, D.C. and Costa Rica and, at worst, leave them stranded somewhere in between. Already they were an hour behind schedule. Emily Horgan, the leader of this renewable rat pack, this carbon-neutral crew, inspected her entry: a 1976 mustard-colored Mercedes Benz, splotched with equal parts rust and bumper stickers, that had not been running days earlier. Another Benz, a cargo van and a Volkswagen Rabbit—each flashing bumper stickers of the same quality and quantity—parked behind Horgan. (There was supposed to be a biofuel bus, but it broke down.) A line of elementary school students, dressed uniformly in blue fleece, don't-lose-me fashion and waiting to tour Ford's Theatre, read the stickers' drive-by literature: "This car is powered by fast food grease."

For this pilot run of the Greaseball Challenge, the energetic, dark-eyed Horgan, originally from Reading, England, had gathered some biofuel experts, a Norwegian film crew and a few general adventurers. "There's a lot of awareness about biofuel, but not a lot of knowledge," Horgan, an environmental consultant for the International Finance Corporation, told me that morning. "We want to get a sense of good local projects." This itinerant quest for knowledge will bring the teams to Guatemala to meet biofuel developers running the company Combustibles Ecologicos, or Ecological Fuels; Costa Rica to learn about fuel made from banana waste; Willie Neslon's ranch in Austin, Texas, to fill up at Nelson's onsite biodiesel pump (and listen to his upcoming album); and possibly any number of auto-shops along the way.

Someone had handed the school students additional bumper stickers, and they began placing them on the white 1984 Mercedes with haphazard abandon. "How many are we putting on there?" Ben Shaw, the car's driver, asked the children. "Not too many, I hope. Let's keep it down to five or six." Horgan later explained how the grease cars worked: A simple black switch on the center console allows the driver to toggle between biodiesel, which must be used to start the car, and grease, which powers it. "Flip it to this side, you get biodiesel," she said. "Flip it here, veggie power." A button off to the side purges the grease right before parking the car, a task that also requires diesel. The change doesn't affect the car's performance or how many miles it gets per gallon.

In the larger scheme, grease isn't a very practical alternative fuel. These crews are using it because it will be easier to acquire and store. (Just the afternoon before, someone had whipped up for Horgan an emergency batch of papadum and samosa grease.) Biofuel, which refers to fuel made mostly from plants, is practical, however, and a lot closer to mainstream than the average person might believe.

"Biofuel could be produced in substantial quantities," Suzanne Hunt, director of research on the subject for the World Watch Institute in Washington, D.C. and driver of the Rabbit, told me. Alternative fuels have shown early promise that they can reduce harmful carbon emissions on a global scale, but creating a large enough supply and getting the world to accept life after oil remain tasks-in-progress. Scientists, policy makers and fuel producers "are working on the next generation," Hunt says. "The challenge is to make it sustainable."

Entering the Ethanol Era
A month before, President George W. Bush had convened some of these experts to discuss the future of alternative fuel, a few blocks away from where Horgan's biofuel brigade stocked up for its grassroots reconnaissance. "He started by saying he knew the country needed to reduce its dependence on petroleum, and he didn't know if that was technically feasible," one of the scientists in attendance, Bruce Dale of Michigan State University, told me recently. "The answer is, yes, it is technically feasible."

Lately, the White House has been holding its own biofuel challenge: a two-track race driven by the desire to depend less on the Middle East for petroleum and by the need to reduce carbon emissions in response to global warming. In his 2007 State of the Union address, Bush called for the country to use 35 billion gallons of biofuel by the end of the next decade—about 7 times what's being used right now. By 2030, the Department of Energy would like 30 percent of transportation fuels to come from biomass. Achieving these goals will require producing renewable and alternative fuels more efficiently, and stockpiling loads of them.

Given global political tensions, it's clear why the United States would prefer not to rely on Middle Eastern nations for its transportation fuel supply. What might be less clear is the role alternative fuels play in global warming. "The driver for all biofuel is climate change," says Chris Somerville, a Stanford University biochemist and director of plant biology at the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C. "We wouldn't be bothering with biofuel if there wasn't this problem with climate change."

If people wish to control the greenhouse gases that harm the environment they must reduce the amount of carbon they release when producing energy. Biofuel does just that. As plants grow, they collect energy from the sun. Sugars from these plants can then be converted into heat energy. Burning this energy as fuel releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, but the gas is soaked up by plants at the beginning of the growing cycle. This give-and-take cancels out harmful carbon emissions, which is why biofuel is often referred to as a "carbon neutral" form of energy.

Right now, the most widely used biofuel is ethanol produced from corn—a process that involves breaking down sugars in the plant's grain and fermenting them into ethanol. Nearly all five or six billion gallons of the fuel made in 2006 were made this way. Perhaps unknown to the East Coast urbanites paying $3 a gallon for petroleum, some 150 corn-to-ethanol factories are already in operation in the United States, mostly in the Midwest.

Image by iStockphoto. President Bush recently gathered some of the country's leading biofuel experts to find out whether the United States could reduce its dependence on petroleum. "The answer is, yes," says one of the scientists in attendance, Bruce Dale. "It is technically feasible." (original image)

Image by Eric Jaffe. Four challengers, driving cars fueled by grease and biodiesel, set off on a 3,500-mile pilgrimage to rally awareness for alternative fuels between Washington, D.C. and Costa Rica. (original image)

Image by iStockphoto. The amount of jobs and money funneling into the American Midwest could be an economic boon, says Chris Somerville. "We've gone from a couple to 150 corn-grain ethanol plants in 3 years." (original image)

Image by Corbis. Only 2 or 3 percent of the whole automotive fleet can take the high amount of ethanol needed to make a major difference, estimates David Sandalow. "It's critical to have vehicles on the road that will take ethanol." (original image)

Still, experts almost unanimously see corn-based ethanol as the beta version of biofuel—an early phase of alternative fuel use that, while necessary, must be improved before realizing success. For starters, making biofuel from corn isn't entirely eco-friendly. Because corn is an annual crop—meaning its life cycle is a single season—farming it can release nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide, Dale's research has shown.

Done correctly, though, corn can be grown in a way that won't release a damaging amount of nitrous oxide. The bigger problem with corn has to do with meeting the presidential benchmarks: it takes a lot of energy to produce fuel from the grain of corn. A prohibitive amount, some feel. "We can't make enough ethanol from corn to change our liquid fuel dependence," says Dale. If you were to add up all the energy it takes to create a bushel of corn—from making the farm machinery to tilling the land—you get only about 1.3 times more energy out of the resulting biofuel, says Somerville. A good energy return would be around 10 times that figure.

However flawed, corn-based biofuel's initial promise—it has resurrected the country's agricultural industry—might have paved the way for a more efficient alternative to enter the market. Experts call this next-generation fuel "cellulosic ethanol." The term is intimidating, but the idea is relatively simple: biofuel producers can convert more sugar into energy if they use the whole plant instead of simply the grain.

In addition to diminishing reliance on petroleum, cellulosic ethanol will neutralize more greenhouse gases than corn. "There's a limit on corn-based biofuel," says energy and environmental scholar David Sandalow of the Brookings Institution in Washington. "But if we can break through technical barriers on cellulosic forces, then the potential is much, much higher."

Overcoming these technical barriers won't require a miracle, just a few research advances and lots of money. In the meantime, scientists and producers continue searching for plants that naturally yield more energy than crops like corn and soybeans do. Most of this focus has been on perennial crops such as switchgrass. Because perennials last several seasons, they don't allow nitrous oxide to escape from the soil into the atmosphere; they are both carbon and nitrous neutral. More importantly, the energy return on these crops is some 15 to 20 times what's used to produce them. The star of this group is Miscanthus giganteus, a wild plant native to tropical regions in Africa and Asia. In addition to its high energy output, Miscanthus requires less water than typical crops and stores more carbon in the soil, says Somerville. The trick for biofuel developers will be domesticating this species and sustaining it over long periods of time.

"I think the industry's going to happen more quickly than most people realize," says Dale. "Once we recognize that we can make ethanol from grass grown to purpose, for something in the neighborhood of $1.50 or $1.20 a gallon, then it's going to explode." This recognition might happen more quickly than even Dale would have imagined. Just five days after his meeting with Bush, the Department of Energy announced that over the next several years it will invest nearly $400 million in six cellulosic ethanol plants across the country.

A Bumpy Road
The technological wheels that will carry us into this post-oil world are in full motion, and no brakemen need apply. Farmers, however, might want to have their resumes handy. More biofuel production first requires more plant and crop biomass, and the agricultural industry is in the midst of such a spike. On March 30, the day Horgan and her crew split for the south, the Department of Agriculture predicted that farmers would grow more than 90 million acres of corn in 2007—the highest total since World War II.

The amount of jobs and money funneling into the American Midwest could be an economic boon, the ripple effects of which might be felt by every taxpayer, says Somerville. "We've gone from a couple to 150 corn-grain ethanol plants in 3 years," he says. He describes the tale of one farmer and his neighbor, who raised $50 million for such a plant in nine hours. "There's a fascinating re-adjustment of the agricultural economy going on right now." This agricultural renaissance could diminish the government subsidies that have supported the industry since the Depression.

Some critics have wondered whether enough land exists for this growing crop load, though most experts dismiss this concern, particularly once plants like Miscanthus gain wider use. (The crop is so efficient at harnessing energy, writes Somerville in a recent issue of Current Biology, that, in the right conditions, covering about 3 percent of the world's surface with it could satisfy all human energy needs.) If and when Miscanthus and other high-yield crops displace corn, farmers should have no problem switching to energy crops, Somerville says. "I personally think this is good socially."

For Iowa farmers, that might be true. But abroad, Miscanthus, switchgrass and similar plants might create as many problems as they solve, says Daniel Kammen of the University of California, Berkeley, which in February received a $500 million grant from British Petroleum to open an alternative fuel research facility, the Energy Biosciences Institute. Kammen, already director of Berkeley's Renewable and Appropriate Energy Lab, will direct the social impact side of biofuels when the new institute begins operation this summer. Crops like Miscanthus aren't edible, so if farmers—particularly those in poor countries—find themselves without a biofuel buyer they can't go and sell the plants to food suppliers, Kammen says. Unless those directing the biofuel market require certain amount of crops that are less efficient energy resources but can also be sold as food, we could see a repeat of the green revolution of the 1960s. At that time, an increase in food production drove up the cost of things like irrigation and fertilizer so much that rich farmers prospered at the expense of the poor.

"We can find ways to make poor people have to choose between food and fuel, and that would be a disaster," Kammen says. "We have to be better than we've been in the past."

Watch this video in the original article

Buying in to Biofuel
The barriers to a bio-based fuel supply start way before cellulosic ethanol plants are built and global policy is crafted. They begin in the average garage. All cars can run on fuel that contains up to 10 percent ethanol. But only 2 or 3 percent of the whole automotive fleet can take the high amount of ethanol needed to make a major difference, estimates Sandalow. "It's critical to have vehicles on the road that will take ethanol," he says. These "flex-fuel" cars can take up to 85 percent ethanol, dubbed E85. Even as major motor companies produce such cars in greater numbers—it's quite possible you have one without knowing it—only about 900 stations across the country offer E85, and the majority of them are in the Midwest (one third are in Minnesota alone).

Before people will buy flex, however, they will have to buy in to the importance of biofuel. That's why, just a week after the Greaseball Challengers headed into Central America to learn about on-the-ground biofuel programs, President Bush set course a bit further south to visit Brazil—a country with perhaps the strongest background in biofuel, and one that provides a working model for stirring national pride in the alternative fuel revolution.

The Brazilian government began promoting ethanol use in the mid 1970s to avoid rising oil prices and to create a new market for sugar, the price of which had entered a period of global decline. Almost immediately, the state loaded the country with reasons to use ethanol. They offered low-interest loans on refinery construction, signed agreements with manufacturers to build ethanol-friendly cars, even gave taxi drivers incentives to convert their fleet.

Despite some bumps along the ethanol road, the Brazilian model is considered a success. Today about 40 percent of the country's transportation fuel is ethanol; in the United States, that figure is 3 percent. "The one lesson I take from this is, consistency counts," says Sandalow.

Consistency, and maybe a whole lot of coercion. Atmospheric change has grown so bad, says Kammen, that we no longer have the luxury of waiting until alternative fuels suit our lifestyle. The world must cut its carbon emissions from 7 billion tons to 2 billion in the next 40 years. If some monumental natural disaster occurs before that time—say, a massive chunk of Antarctic ice falls into the ocean—our window will shrink even more. We have to change, or be compelled to change, now. "We're going to need the next big step, that horrible tax word," he says. "We're going to have to tax that which we don't want, and what we don't want is carbon."

Kammen's plan, which he laid out in a recent Los Angeles Times op-ed and described to me later, reflects a person mindful of a reward-seeking society in which people are willing to charge thousands of dollars on their credit card to earn a plane ticket that, purchased alone, would have run a few hundred. In Kammen's proposal, when a person uses fossil fuel instead of carbon-neutral energy, he or she would have to pay a tax. "So," he writes, "the owner of a gasoline-powered Hummer who drives it 10,000 miles a year would pay $200 a year, and a Prius driver would pay $50." But instead of plumping Uncle Sam's pockets, this money—estimated at $555 a year for an average person—would be available for spending on eco-friendly products like solar panels or fast-growing trees. If you wished, he writes, "you could pool your 'cooling tax' money with your neighbors and build a windmill to supply your town with electricity."

As oddly enjoyable as this plan sounds, the situation likely won't reach this point. In early April, the Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 that the Environmental Protection Agency, which has refused to acknowledge that greenhouse gases contribute to climate change, has the authority to regulate these gases. This decision, the first by the Court to address global warming, means that the agency must take one of two actions: deny that greenhouse gases damage the environment—a stance that would conflict with their internal documents, says Kammen—or develop strategies to reduce harmful emissions. Whatever it decides, inaction is no longer an option.

The Future Today
Decades from now, when alternative fuels have become everyday fill-ups, emissions might not even be a consideration. The car of 2050, says Kammen, will be a "plug-in hybrid," running off the electricity of batteries lodged in the doors. (They can double as side air bags, he says.) The back-up fuel supply will be biodiesel. "That's pretty close to no emissions," he says. "That legitimately gets 350 miles to the gallon."

For now, though, electricity remains too difficult to harness economically, so some of us are stuck pumping grease into the refitted trunk of a Mercedes recently covered with a fresh coat of bumper sticker. Still behind schedule, the challengers waited outside for the staff of Hard Rock Café to bring out fresh fuel from the deep fryers. The line of field-trippers now curled around the block, and the bored bystanders filled the time with commentary. "It makes your car smell like French Fries," explained one woman who appeared to be a chaperone.

Horgan, Ben Shaw, the Norwegian film crew and a garbage collector who had parked his truck in the middle of the street to watch the proceedings stuck their heads in the trunk of the white Mercedes. Shaw glanced up at the onlookers. "How many people can you fit in Ford's Theatre?" he asked. "It doesn't look that big." Inside the trunk, right where a spare tire should be, an elaborate ensemble of tubes and filters and pumps seemed as daunting as the task ahead. No one knew how long the mustard Mercedes would hold up, and the van's reliability was untested; it had just been purchased a day earlier. Only Suzanne Hunt's VW Rabbit seemed fit for the journey.

But if any of the challengers had reservations, none expressed them. "Some people are worried about our safety on the trip," said Hunt. "But most of the response is, I want to come with you." Soon, someone plopped down a black bucket of grease. Without pause, without a moment of hesitation despite the unpredictable road ahead, the biofuel brigade dove right in. A bit behind schedule, but gripping everyone in eyeshot, the challenge had officially begun.

Posted April 20, 2007

Is Oilfield School a Path to a Working-Class Future or an Anchor to the Past?

Smithsonian Magazine

This story originally appeared on The Wilson Quarterly.

Valentina Quinonez sets the teeth of her monkey wrench around a cockeyed pipe coupling, squares her shoulders to the wrench’s two-foot-long handle and braces against it. She stands hardly more than five feet tall in her work boots and hardhat, and leverages what looks like her entire weight into the wrench before the coupling twists free with a squeak. A small stream of dark fluid emits from the loosened fitting, tingeing the air with a petroleum scent.

As a puddle of fluid gathers, Kevin Pound, the safetyman, scurries over with a handful of “diapers” and begins to mop it up. The rest of the six-person crew gathers around foreman Ryan Braae, who offers everyone water and sunscreen before laying out their next steps.

From behind a nearby separator—a truck-sized metal box whose mechanical innards remove water from liquid natural gas condensate—David Doane lumbers over to the group. He’s a large, imposing man with a prominent beard. Braae stops talking. All eyes turn to Doane.

“Any idea what check valves are for?” he asks.

Valentina Quinonez, a petroleum technology student, stands near the petroleum tech simulation equipment used at the Wind River Job Corps. (Photo by Kim Raff)

The group stares back, stupefied. They squint against the harsh sun. Gusts of wind amplify their silence.

After a moment, Doane relents and explains: Check valves stop gas from moving in reverse through a pipeline. They’ll need one if they want to hook that compressor up to the separator, he says. Braae, Quinonez and Pound nod their heads intently at their instructor’s advice.

This is the Wind River Job Corps Center, which sits atop a sagebrush-strewn plateau just outside Riverton in central Wyoming. Job Corps is a 52-year-old federal anti-poverty program with centers nationwide that train low-income youth in a variety of trades. Adjacent Doane’s oilfield crew, a group of heavy equipment operator students works with a dirt roller, bulldozer and shovels to shape an earthen base for a new parking lot. Beyond them, screeches of band saws and crackles from arc welders in the carpentry and welding workshops add to a general atmosphere of bustle and productivity. A student training for his Commercial Driver’s License cautiously navigates a big rig down the road that circles campus.

David Doane, a petroleum technology instructor. (Photo by Kim Raff)

Doane is one of two instructors in the Petroleum Technician program here, which launched last August along with the opening of the brand new Job Corps center. His gruff voice and weather-beaten skin make it easy to imagine him barking orders across the decks of a drilling rig. He says he never imagined being a teacher.

“I’m used to telling people I want something done, then it’s done,” he says. “If I have to do it myself, you don’t come back. I can’t do that here with the students. It’s a big change for this old redneck.”

Doane, who was born and raised in nearby Lander, was among the roughly 5,400 oil and gas workers laid off over the past year in Wyoming—the result of a radical drop in oil prices in 2014 that plunged the industry into a bust. He has worked in almost every aspect of the oilfield since leaving the navy in 1976. Most recently, for 15 years he operated a ConocoPhillips facility near Lysite, Wyoming that he helped build with his bare hands. But when business slowed, Doane’s employer cut him loose. He says landing a position at Job Corps was a stroke of extreme good fortune—after 40 years in the oilfield, and with the oilfield not hiring, his options were limited.

Instructor David Doane, second from left, quizzes his students (from left) Eric Roquemore, Valentina Quinonez and Ryan Beaman, all petroleum technology students, about the functions of the petroleum tech simulation equipment. (Photo by Kim Raff)

“The only jobs open were in New Mexico and Venezuela,” he says. “I have a 15-year-old son here, and he said he wanted to live with me. I told him, ‘sure, if I can find a job.’”

* * *

Roughly three quarters of all the jobs that exist in Wyoming require no education beyond high school, aside from various vocational certificates or on-the-job training, says Sandy Barton, executive director of the Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) in Fremont County, where the Wind River Job Corps Center is located. She played a leading role in bringing Job Corps to the state.

“We’re a blue-collar state, and we’re proud of it,” Barton says. “We need students who can learn a trade and get to work.”

Eric Roquemore is photographed at the petroleum tech simulation equipment site. (Photo by Kim Raff)

Among the industries offering blue-collar jobs in Wyoming, oil and gas is paramount. David Bullard, a senior economist with the state’s Department of Workforce Services, says the sector typically employs more than five percent of Wyoming’s total workforce, and that the average wage in the oilfield last year was about $74,000, compared to $45,000 statewide.

“The oil and gas industry will employ a lot of people who might be otherwise challenged in the labor market,” adds Robert Godby, director of the Center for Energy Economics and Public Policy at the University of Wyoming. “Often, these people have less education, they’re younger, very often they’re male. If you look at the unemployment statistics nationally, those are the people who have the most trouble finding jobs.”

So when Barton and her colleagues began developing the proposal for a Job Corps center in Wyoming, it made sense to establish the first-ever Petroleum Technician program.

The campus of Wind River Job Corps in Riverton, Wyoming. (Photo by Kim Raff)

But the oil and gas industry is also famous for dramatic booms and busts.

In 2009, when the Department of Labor approved the Wind River Job Corps Center’s application, advances in fracking technology were fueling a frenzy of natural gas exploration—that year, Wyoming recorded its highest level of natural gas production ever. Man-camps full of itinerant laborers pockmarked the plains.

“The industry was strong then,” Barton says. “Companies were struggling for workers.”

She and her team collaborated closely with oil and gas companies operating nearby, and received assurances that Petroleum Technician graduates would be hired quickly into lucrative positions.

“Then,” Barton says, “wouldn’t you know, as soon as we get started they go through this down slope…Encana sold out of Wyoming. Marathon just sold out. Conoco took most of their operations up into Billings. Everything started dissolving.”

The Petroleum Technician program was designed with slots for 48 students. Today, it enrolls only 10.

“We tell them things are tough in the industry right now,” says Mike Adams, another Petroleum Tech instructor. “Even without me telling them that, they find out pretty quick. One of the things they have to do as part of their training is apply for jobs. They start looking, they find there’s not a whole lot out there.”

Mike Adams, a petroleum technology instructor, teaches a safety class to students. (Photo by Kim Raff)

The task of preparing students for employment in an industry that’s not really hiring forces Adams to improvise. He recognized early on that much of the know-how he gained during his own 11 years in the industry—before he was laid off in 2015—is applicable outside the oilfield.

“The meat and potatoes of what we teach here is related to the oilfield, but they could go to just about any kind of plant, any kind of refinery, and find a lot of the same equipment,” he says.

Adams has taken his students to tour water and wastewater treatment plants, and they have plans to visit a sulfuric acid production facility in Riverton. Recently, a representative from a sugar beet processing plant talked to the students about what options might await them there.

Sitting in the brightly lit, concrete-floored classroom where Petroleum Tech students do bookwork, Ryan Braae says he has no plans to enter the oilfield. He aspires to become an underwater welder. “I’m looking for the adventure and the danger,” he says.

When the 20-year-old arrived at Job Corps from the small town of Sidney, Montana, he learned that welding and several related programs were full. An advisor suggested Petroleum Tech. But Braae says he signed on mostly for the guidance anyway.

Ryan Braae, a petroleum technology student at Wind River Job Corps, is photographed next to separators. (Photo by Kim Raff)

“I never had anyone at high school to help me with scholarships,” he says. “I was on my own since I was 16. I never heard about FAFSA. I never had a counselor or any advice. It was nice to come to Job Corps for that.”

With assistance from the center’s staff, Braae is applying for scholarships to Divers Academy International in New Jersey, which he hopes to attend after he finishes Job Corps later this year.

Valentina Quinonez, who’s also 20, graduated high school with honors in Nogales, Arizona, but couldn’t afford the fashion institute in San Francisco to which she was accepted. A Job Corps advisor steered her toward Petroleum Tech, touting the opportunities for women in the industry.

“Most of my family are carpenters,” she says. “I wanted something different. So I was like, ‘Nobody has ever been in the oilfield. I might as well try it.’”

Her obvious, easygoing intelligence makes it seem somehow fitting that the fashionista would find pleasure in the oilfield’s complex mechanical logistics.

“I like challenges,” she says. “It’s really hard learning all these things like valves and pumps, dissembling them and putting them back together. It’s fun.”

If the oil and gas industry doesn’t pan out, the recently elected student body president says she has several backup plans, including pursuing a degree in psychology.

Other students’ scopes of options, however, seem narrower.

Kevin Pound, a petroleum technology student, listens in a safety training class that is part of the petroleum tech program. (Photo by Kim Raff)

Kevin Pound grew up in Lander and graduated from Riverton High School. He hopes the oilfield, despite the downturn, can offer him a way to remain in Wyoming, where much of his family lives.

“I like staying close to home,” says the 23-year-old, who came to Job Corps after a year of bagging groceries and pushing people’s shopping carts to their cars at Smith’s Food and Drug. Prior to that, he dropped out of Central Wyoming Community College after a year of studying fire science.

“I made the one mistake that’s easy to make: not do your homework. So they pulled my loan and I couldn’t pay for housing,” he says. “I figured I’d come here, learn something more hands-on, something that was other than retail or fast food.”

Pound says he’s watched several uncles chase oilfield jobs around the country, from Wyoming to North Dakota to Colorado, and face layoffs during the bust. After Job Corps, he hopes to enroll in the petroleum engineering program at the University of Wyoming, which trains students in finding and developing oil reservoirs, rather than doing the hands-on work of extraction. But enrollment in the university’s School of Mines has doubled since 2010, and demand for petroleum engineers is low.

“That degree will provide a little more stability,” Pound says. “Not a lot, but a little more stability in the oil and gas industry.”

* * *

Driving northwest out of Riverton on Highway 26, one can speed straight past the Job Corps center and into the heart of the Wind River Reservation. Home to the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes, the landscape is exquisite and rich with wildlife.

LEFT: A mural on Main Street in Riverton depicts "The People of Wind River Country." RIGHT: Oil pumping equipment on the Devon Energy oil fields is seen with the Wind River Mountains in the distance. (Photo by Kim Raff)

But the reservation’s economy depends on oil and gas. Scott Ratliff, tribal liaison to U.S. Senator Mike Enzi, says the oilfield is the main source of living-wage jobs on the reservation. Because unemployment is high there, however—at least double the rate in the rest of the state, according to census figures—just as important are the “per capita” payments that members of each tribe receive from mineral leases on tribal land.

“All those minerals are put into a big pot, and those are collected by the federal government,” Ratliff explains. “They’re divided equally in half, to the dollar. Then, half of that money goes to the Arapaho tribe, half of it goes to the Shoshone. Of those halves, 85 percent of that goes to the membership.”

Although his per capita today as a member of the Shoshone tribe is around $120 per month, Ratliff says he’s seen payments reach $500 when energy prices peak.

“You take a family of four kids and a mom and dad, that’s $3,000. They could live on that,” he says.

If the rest of Wyoming’s population depends less directly on money from oil and gas, the difference is slight. Robert Godby, the University of Wyoming economist, says oil and gas production brings in more than a quarter of the state’s total tax revenue. Wyoming does not have a state income tax, so wild swings in energy prices—like the 70 percent oil price drop in 2014—affect its economic health dramatically.

“When we have an energy downturn, we suddenly have a government downturn,” Godby says.

Eric Roquemore, a petroleum technology student from Texas. (Photo by Kim Raff)

A report released in January estimates Wyoming will face a roughly $600 million revenue shortfall through 2018 due to the energy bust. This results both from the drop in oil prices and an equally severe downturn in the coal industry, which Godby says typically generates another 11 percent of the state’s total tax revenue.

Lawmakers in the most recent legislative session cut $36 million from public schools, $27 million from other state agencies, $35 from the University of Wyoming, and decreased allocations to county and local governments, among other reductions. They also withdrew $488 million from the state’s $1.8 billion “rainy day fund,” in which the state squirrels away money during boomtimes.

“The problem is that the energy sector is so large and so dominant in this economy in terms of how much revenue it generates,” Godby says. “And we don’t otherwise have a large, indigenous economy of our own. When that’s the case, you pretty much have no control over your own economy.”

* * *

Thirty miles down the road from the Wind River Job Corps Center, in Lander, Amber Wilson takes a break in her office from trying to save local recycling. The Fremont County Solid Waste District recently announced it would end its recycling program this spring due to financial constraints—including state funding cuts.

Wilson, an environmental quality advocate for the Wyoming Outdoor Council, says while it’s sickening to read news of mass layoffs and slashed budgets, the way in which many people in the state respond—with vitriol toward the federal government and environmental regulations—is equally dismaying.

“It’s frustrating to see so much anger and rage over the downfall of the oil and gas or coal industries,” she says. “I was born and raised in Wyoming, and my family worked in the trona mines and the coal mines and the gas fields. But it seems like, to me, a no-brainer—we’ve always lived in this boom and bust economy, and as long as we choose to not diversify our economy and rely on these industries that we know go up and down, it just seems like, where is the surprise truly coming from?”

Part of Wilson’s job is to monitor the ways in which the state government interacts with the oil and gas industry. What she often witnesses is a cozy relationship—one in which regulators largely let companies oversee themselves.

“Oil, gas and coal are our biggest sources of revenue in the state, so there’s a lot of incentive to not in any way hinder fossil fuel development,” she says.

Wilson says lax oversight of oil and gas drilling, for example, allows companies to largely self-monitor whether the wastewater they dump into aquifers will contaminate drinking water. This practice came to light during a recent dispute before the state Oil and Gas Commission in which environmentalists argued—successfully, against the commission’s initial ruling—that a company’s experts were misleading the public.

“This kind of thing happens frequently,” Wilson says. “They bring in their experts saying, ‘Yep, we know it’s not going to contaminate any existing drinking water. This is going to be totally fine.’ And then other people bring in their experts who say… ‘This is a terrible idea.’ The only reason this instance gained so much attention is because it affected the main source of drinking water for the city of Gillette.”

Thirty miles due north of Wilson’s office, the small town of Pavillion, Wyoming, has become a focal point in the debate over fracking—and energy-friendly state government’s potential role in obscuring its harm. In response to residents’ longtime complaints about polluted drinking water, the federal Environmental Protection Agency conducted a study and reported in 2011 that nearby fracking activity likely had something to do with it. After pushback from state officials and the oil and gas industry, the EPA demurred and left further studies to the Wyoming State Department of Environmental Quality, who concluded in 2015 that the link between fracking and the town’s poisoned water was “negligible.”

This April, however, scientists from Stanford University published a peer-reviewed study that they say establishes a clear link between fracking and Pavillion’s water problems. The scientists claim their conclusions are the strongest evidence yet proving such a connection anywhere in the nation.

At the same time the oil and gas industry’s outputs may or may not have been seeping into Pavillion’s drinking water, its influence was unquestionably growing in Wyoming’s public schools.

A cut-out of a separator that is used by petroleum technology students. (Photo by Kim Raff)

Sandy Barton, the BOCES director who helped launch the Wind River Job Corps Center, says she already had partnerships in place within the oil and gas industry when her team began to develop the Petroleum Technician program.

In 2008, the Fremont County BOCES launched a pilot program at Riverton High School that brought oil and gas representatives to the classroom, took students on field trips to drilling rigs and production facilities, and allowed students to complete OSHA oilfield safety certification training. In 2010, Marathon Oil donated $20,000 to the project, which expanded to other high schools in Fremont and adjacent Hot Springs County. Other oil and gas companies contributed to the program as well.

Tim DeChristopher says public schools’ actively funneling students into the fossil fuel business strikes him as all too familiar. The Utah-based climate justice organizer witnessed the same relationship in his home state.

“Growing up in what they call ‘coal country’ in West Virginia, we were taught that all we had the ability to do was work in the coalmine,” he says. “If we worked really hard, we could work for the natural gas company. Those were the alternatives we were presented with.”

He says the oil, gas, and coal industries have long depended on undereducated communities who assume their proximity to fossil fuel development predestines them for a life in the oilfield or mines.

“But the people born there are not any less smart or any less capable or any less hardworking than the people born anywhere else who have a whole host of options of what they can do with their lives,” he says. “That’s something that is taught, and that is a form of disempowerment that has always gone hand-in-hand with the fossil fuel industry, because they need that easily exploited labor force.”

DeChristopher says it doesn’t make sense for taxpayers to subsidize the oil and gas industry by training its workforce, given that the industry is made up of some of the richest companies in the history of money. He says the Department of Labor funding an oilfield education program while the nation moves toward renewable energy amounts to training yesterday’s workforce, instead of tomorrow’s.

“I think it’s clear that Job Corps knows what’s wrong about that,” he says. “The website for the Wind River center calls this ‘Green Jobs Training’… They’re deceptive. They’ve got the little green tree icon next to their petroleum extraction career training to try to pretend that this is green jobs. So they’re not only reinforcing the fossil fuel industry, they’re actually taking money that was earmarked for green jobs training and using it to subsidize the oil industry.”

Wind River Job Corps director Julie Gassner (Photo by Kim Raff)

Julie Gassner, the Wind River Job Corps Center’s director, argues that Job Corps’ task is not to take sides in the politicized environmental debate.

“For us, as a training program, the political issue is not the issue that we’re arguing,” she says. “We are providing a workforce that’s going to be knowledgeable on how to conserve and protect the world that we live in.”

Each Job Corps student, including those in the petroleum technician program, must complete a training protocol that includes building awareness of recycling and other green practices, Gassner says.

“They are being trained on the green side of petroleum, so it’s not all damaging to the environment,” she says. “Can we solve it all? No. But we can train a workforce that is prepared to help make that industry greener.”

Gassner says a greener oilfield is one in which operators know how to properly process, package, and handle the petroleum products they work with.

“Our students are learning of these techniques so that when they go out on the job, they can be mindful of, you know, you don’t just dump stuff anywhere.”

But for petroleum tech students, these lessons come from sources with ties to the oil and gas industry, which has an incentive to overstate its commitment to green practices. It was on a field trip to a facility run by ConocoPhillips, one of the program’s primary partners, where students Ryan Braae and Valentina Quinonez learned about industry efforts to stop the emission of harmful gasses.

“They have these devices that, instead of burning carbon out into the atmosphere, they keep it and throw it away,” Braae says. “It takes the carbons, and keeps the carbons, and burns everything else.”

“It’s a continuous flame,” Quinonez adds, “so the chemicals themselves don’t go up into the atmosphere. It’s a lot better if you burn them than if you just release them.”

The practices the students describe have become primary talking points for ConocoPhillips as part of the oil giant’s proclaimed commitment to environmentally friendly practices. But industry reports point out that ConocoPhillips has for years leaked more methane into the atmosphere than any other company in the world. Despite recent emissions cuts it remains a massive polluter.

Whether Braae, Quinonez, or others from the first crop of petroleum technician students at the Wind River Job Corps Center will have the chance to apply what they learn—and even perhaps make the oilfield greener—remains to be seen. Even as the job market remains bleak, they have work to do. A donated pumpjack needs to be set up, and they’ve got a wellhead coming in that will connect to it. There are pipes to thread and run at right angles between machines that, during boom times, pumped the lifeblood of the nation’s energy grid.

For now, the equipment runs dry, as does Wyoming’s economy. The students will have to wait alongside the rest of the state’s working class to see if and when the industry picks back up.

More from The Wilson Quarterly:

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.

The World’s Most-Visited Castles and Palaces

Smithsonian Magazine

Imagine a castle: it probably looks a lot like Germany's Neuschwanstein Castle, the turreted inspiration for Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle.

Each year, more than 1.5 million travelers are inspired to make the steep walk or catch a horse-drawn carriage to reach this castle perched on a rocky outcropping in the Bavarian countryside.

"People have always been interested in celebrities and powerful people and their homes," says Cordula Mauss, PR officer for the Bavarian Administration of State-Owned Palaces. "Immediately after the death of Ludwig II in 1886, the first tourists came and wanted to see what their king had built as his private residence."

While castles, palaces and châteaux naturally pique such curiosity, not all have Neuschwanstein's European fairy-tale looks. Some of the world's most-visited castles, found across Asia, feature red exteriors, pagodas and gates.

Consider Bangkok's gold-spired Grand Palace, where Thai kings lived for 150 years, and where 8 million annual visitors now traipse through ornate rooms, manicured gardens and temples, including one that houses a revered Buddha carved from a single block of jade.

Other longtime royal residences have been repurposed as museums. St. Petersburg's riverfront Winter Palace, for instance, is the sixth-most-visited castle, thanks to the appeal of masterworks by Titian and da Vinci along with lavish restored interiors, where Catherine the Great once held court.

America's closest approximation is California's Hearst Castle, though it fell short of our top 20 list with only 750,000 annual visitors. And while Windsor Castle squeaked in at No. 19, Buckingham Palace didn't make the grade (567,613 annual visitors), nor did Romania's Bran Castle (542,000) or a single Irish castle. Ireland's most visited, Blarney Castle, welcomed 365,000 in 2013.

That said, there can be a downside to having too many visitors—these are delicate, historic structures that have existed for hundreds of years, and some, like Neuschwanstein, limit the daily entries. But it's hard to stem curiosity when it comes to the lives of the blue-blooded.

The Methodology: To tally up the world's most-visited castles, Travel + Leisure gathered the most recent data supplied by the attractions themselves or from government agencies, industry reports and reputable media outlets. In most cases, it was 2013 data.

See eight destinations below and the full 20 on Travel + Leisure.

Other articles from Travel + Leisure:

No. 1: The Forbidden City (Palace Museum), Beijing

Image by © Alan Copson/JAI/Corbis. Tourists in front of the Hall of Supreme Harmony (original image)

Image by © Imaginechina/Corbis. View of the Palace Museum on a clear day. (original image)

Image by © Frederic Soltan/Corbis. A detail on the Nine Dragons Screen in front of the Palace of Tranquil Longevity in The Forbidden City. (original image)

Image by © Chen Yehua/Xinhua Press/Corbis. A watchtower of the Palace Museum in the early morning. (original image)

Image by Hemis / Alamy. The Forbidden City (Palace Museum), Beijing. (original image)

Image by © Chen Yehua/Xinhua Press/Corbis. Forbidden City watchtower in the snow. (original image)

Annual Visitors: 15,340,000 (Source: China National Tourist Office)

Each day, tens of thousands of visitors pour through the Forbidden City to see the 178-acre walled compound that once shielded the Imperial Palace from public view—while housing Chinese emperors and their extensive entourages. (To handle the volume, the government has started requiring advance ticket sales during festivals and holidays and prohibiting annual ticket holders from visiting during peak seasons.) Bright red buildings topped with golden pagodas exemplify traditional Chinese architecture, while the Palace Museum showcases art, furniture and calligraphy.

No. 2: The Louvre, Paris

Image by iStockphoto. The Louvre, Paris. (original image)

Image by © Horacio Villalobos/epa/Corbis. Tourists snap photos of Leonardo da Vinci's "La Gioconda" (Mona Lisa). (original image)

Image by © Scott Stulberg/Corbis. Louvre museum and pyramid at night. (original image)

Image by © Philippe Lissac/Godong/Corbis. School children admire the "Diana of Versailles" in the Louvre's Galerie des Caryatides. (original image)

Image by © Atlantide Phototravel/Corbis. Interior of the Louvre Museum. (original image)

Image by © Arnaud Chicurel/Hemis/Corbis. The Louvre palace and architect I. M. Pei's glass pyramid. (original image)

Annual Visitors: 9,334,0000 (Source: Atout France, the France Tourism Development Agency)

The largest and most famous museum in the world—displaying masterpieces like La Gioconda (the Mona Lisa) and the Winged Victory of Samothrace—got its start as a palace. The U-shaped Louvre housed generations of French kings and emperors beginning in the 12th century, and the remnants of the original fortress that occupied the site (built for King Philippe II in 1190) can be seen in the basement of the museum. The building was extended and renovated many times. Head to the decorative arts wing for a glimpse of Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie's opulent state apartments, built between 1854 and 1861.

No. 3: Grand Palace, Bangkok

Image by © Corbis. Grand Palace Bangkok, Thailand (original image)

Image by © Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters/Corbis. Tourists explore the interior of the Grand Palace. (original image)

Image by © Corbis. (original image)

Image by Michael Snell / Alamy. Grand Palace, Bangkok. (original image)

Image by © John Philip Harper/Corbis. Temple of the Emerald Buddha on the grounds of the Grand Palace complex. (original image)

Image by © Corbis. (original image)

Image by © Atlantide Phototravel/Corbis. Garuda and Nagas statues decorate the Temple of the Emerald Buddha in the Grand Palace Complex. (original image)

Image by (original image)

Image by © Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters/Corbis. (original image)

Annual Visitors: 8,000,000 (Source: Thailand Tourist Services)

Royal offices are still used within the Grand Palace, and state visits and royal ceremonies like the Royal Birthday Anniversary of the current King Bhumibol Adulyadej are held there each year. This was also the official residence of Thai kings from 1782 to 1925 and counts numerous buildings, halls, and pavilions set around open lawns and manicured gardens. The palace’s Temple of the Emerald Buddha is considered one of the most sacred sites in Thailand. Its Buddha was carved from a single block of jade, and his garments, made of pure gold, are changed in a royal ceremony three times a year to reflect the Thai seasons.

No. 4: Palace of Versailles, France

Image by © Bertrand Rieger/Hemis/Corbis. The Galerie des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors), designed by architect Jules Hardouin Mansart (1678-1684), features 17 windows and 357 mirrors. (original image)

Image by © Arcangelo Piai/SOPA RF/SOPA/Corbis. Palace of Versailles. (original image)

Image by © Jose Fuste Raga/Corbis. Versailles gardens. (original image)

Image by © Marc Dozier/Corbis. The 1792 Room in the Chateau de Versailles. (original image)

Image by © Yoshio Tomii/SuperStock/Corbis. Ceiling detail. (original image)

Image by © Charles Platiau/Reuters/Corbis. Hall of Mirrors. (original image)

Image by © Bertrand Rieger/Hemis/Corbis. Park of the Chateau de Versailles outside of the Galerie des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors). (original image)

Image by © Thierry Borredon/Hemis/Corbis. Performance at the Academy of Equestrian Arts in Versailles. (original image)

Image by LLC / Alamy. Palace of Versailles, France. (original image)

Annual Visitors: 7,527,122 (Source: Versailles Press Office)

When Louis XIV built Versailles in the late 1600s, it became the envy of other European monarchs in Europe, and the opulent estate retains an unmistakable allure. Versailles gets seven times the visitors of any other château in France (apart from the Louvre); it helps that it's easily accessible from Paris. No other palace in the world can match the grandeur of Versailles's Hall of Mirrors, dripping with chandeliers, and Marie Antoinette’s bedroom, decorated with hand-stitched flowers. The vast grounds are free most days and an attraction in themselves, with 50 water fountains, a parterre (formal garden), a grand canal, and other sites like the Grand Trianon, built for Louis XIV as a refuge from court life, and Marie Antoinette's Petit Trianon.

No. 5: Topkapi Palace, Istanbul

Image by © Martin Siepmann/Westend61/Corbis. Baghdad Kiosk, Topkapi Palace. (original image)

Image by © Martin Siepmann/Westend61/Corbis. Room of the sultan's mother, Topkapi Palace (original image)

Image by Age Fotostock / Alamy. Topkapi Palace, Istanbul. (original image)

Image by © Atlantide Phototravel/Corbis. The Central Gate of Topkapi Palace (original image)

Image by © Atlantide Phototravel/Corbis. View of Galata from Topkapi Palace. (original image)

Image by © Martin Siepmann/Westend61/Corbis. Private apartments of the Crown Prince, Topkapi Palace, Istanbul (original image)

Image by © Atlantide Phototravel/Corbis. The Harem in Topkapi Palace. (original image)

Image by © Martin Siepmann/Westend61/Corbis. Mustafa Pasa Kiosk, Topkapi Palace (original image)

Image by © Neil Farrin/JAI/Corbis. Queen Mother's Apartment, Topkapi Palace (original image)

Image by © Geray Sweeney/Corbis. Iznik tiles and calligraphic inscriptions decorate the walls and domed ceiling inside Topkapi Palace. (original image)

Annual Visitors: 3,335,000 (Source: Go Turkey, Official Tourism Portal of Turkey)

With a lovely setting overlooking the Bosporus and Sea of Marmara, Topkapi Palace was the royal residence for about 400 years until the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the 1920s. The sultan lived with his wives, concubines, mother and children in the harem, under the fierce protection of eunuchs. Look for the Privy Chamber of Murat III, with its indoor pool, gilded fireplace and walls decorated with blue, white, and coral Iznik tiles from the 16th century. The Palace Kitchens reopened in September 2014, displaying fine china and large cookware. And the complex also includes courtyards, gazebos, gardens and the Imperial Treasury. An emerald-and diamond-studded bow and quivers sent by Sultan Mahmud I to the ruler of Persia is just one example of the lavish gifts on view.

No. 6: The Winter Palace (State Hermitage Museum), St. Petersburg, Russia

Image by © Michael Runkel/Robert Harding World Imagery/Corbis. The front of the Winter Palace (original image)

Image by © Jon Hicks/Corbis. The State Hermitage Museum. (original image)

Image by © Belinsky Yuri/ITAR-TASS Photo/Corbis. Grand Church of the Winter Palace. (original image)

Image by © Michael Runkel/Robert Harding World Imagery/Corbis. Inside the Hermitage (Winter Palace). (original image)

Image by © Metzel Mikhail/ITAR-TASS Photo/Corbis. The renovated Grand Church of the Winter Palace at the State Hermitage Museum. (original image)

Image by © Jon Hicks/Corbis. Marble sculpture in the Gallery of the History of Ancient Painting. (original image)

Image by © Jon Hicks/Corbis. The New Hermitage portico, supported by sculptures by Alexander Terebenev. (original image)

Annual Visitors: 3,120,170 (Source: State Hermitage Museum Press Office)

Catherine the Great and Nicholas I are among the Russian royals who occupied this green-and-white baroque palace along the Neva River from 1762 to 1917. Today, the palace is a museum with one of the finest collections in Europe, including works by Titian, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci (Benois Madonna). Much of the palace was destroyed by fire in 1837, but the beautifully restored interiors speak to the opulent tastes of the Russian elite. St. George Hall (a large throne room) features two tiers of windows, double Corinthian pink marble columns, patterned parquet floors and gilt bronze details.

No. 7: Tower of London

Image by © Michael Tubi/Demotix/Corbis. An installation of 888,246 ceramic poppies surrounded the Tower of London in November 2014 to commemorate Remembrance Day. (original image)

Image by © John Harper/Corbis. The Imperial State Crown, embedded with 2,868 diamonds, 273 pearls, 17 sapphires, 11 emeralds and 5 rubies, displayed at Tower of London. (original image)

Image by © Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters/Corbis. Likenesses of the faces of Kings of England displayed at the Tower of London. (original image)

Image by © Reed Kaestner/Corbis. Interior of the Chapel of St. John inside the Tower of London. (original image)

Image by © Charles & Josette Lenars/CORBIS. Beefeaters stand guard at the Tower of London. (original image)

Image by © Steven Vidler/Corbis. Suit of Amour displayed in the White Tower in the Tower of London. (original image)

Image by © Sylvain Sonnet/Corbis. Armor display in the White Tower in the Tower of London. (original image)

Image by © Tetra Images/Corbis. Tower of London (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Historic Royal Palaces. Tower of London. (original image)

Annual Visitors: 2,894,698 (Source: Association of Leading Visitor Attractions)

This medieval fortress on the north bank of the River Thames was built to intimidate Londoners and keep out foreign invaders. The oldest part of the structure, the White Tower, dates back to the 12th century. While it originally served as a royal residence, the tower has become notorious for its use as a prison and the site of executions that included Henry VI and Lady Jane Grey. Millions flock to the tower today to see historical reenactments as well as the British Crown Jewels, among them, the Sovereign's Sceptre containing the Great Star of Africa, the largest colorless cut diamond in the world. In 2014, the tower's moat was filled with 888,246 ceramic red poppies in remembrance of British soldiers who died in World War I—an example of art installations and events held regularly.

No. 8: Schönbrunn Palace, Vienna

Image by © Rudy Sulgan/Corbis. Fountain in front on Schönbrunn Palace. (original image)

Image by © Atlantide Phototravel/Corbis. Private garden of Schönbrunn Palace. (original image)

Image by © Doug Pearson/JAI/Corbis. Schönbrunn Palace garden. (original image)

Image by © Daniel Kalker/dpa/Corbis. The front of Schönbrunn Palace. (original image)

Image by © Atlantide Phototravel/Corbis. Palm house on the grounds of Schönbrunn Palace. (original image)

Image by © Daniel Kalker/dpa/Corbis. Gloriette of Schönbrunn Palace. (original image)

Image by © Topic Photo Agency/Corbis. The painted ceiling of Schönbrunn Palace. (original image)

Image by © Danica Jorge. Visitors outside Schönbrunn Palace, Vienna. (original image)

Annual Visitors: 2,870,000 (Source: Schönbrunn Palace)

Austria's most-visited site is this Rococo palace, a summer retreat for Hapsburg emperors from the 1700s until 1918. Of the 1,441 rooms, the most famous is the Mirror Room, with white and gold Rococo decoration and crystal mirrors, where Mozart is said to have performed his first concert at age six. The palace's elaborate gardens can claim the world's longest orangerie and the site of the first zoo (est. 1752). The guided Grand Tour provides access to all 40 rooms open to the public, including the Gobelin Salon with tapestries from Brussels and the Millions Room, an office paneled in rare rosewood.

See the next 12 most visited castles and palaces on Travel + Leisure.

Other articles from Travel + Leisure:

The Murderous Story of America’s First Hijacking

Smithsonian Magazine

Earnest Pletch was mad on planes and mad on flying. In itself, that was scarcely uncommon in the America of the 1930s, a dozen years after Charles Lindbergh’s solo crossing of the Atlantic turned the United States into the epicentre of everything exciting in the aviation world. Yet Pletch was a pretty unusual case. He came from a well-off family, but had dropped out of school to find work in a travelling show. He was a serial husband and adulterer who was already, at the age of 29, planning to abandon his third wife. And he had actually been taking flying lessons.

Now – late on the afternoon of October 27, 1939 – Pletch was looking forward to going solo. He was not going to take the controls in the usual way, however. He was going to do so after shooting his pilot in the back of the head.

He may be long forgotten now, but Pletch came briefly to America’s attention that autumn after chartering a flight in Missouri with a pilot by the name of Carl Bivens. Midway through the third of these sessions, while airborne at 5,000 feet and sitting in the rear seat of a tandem training plane equipped with dual controls, he pulled a revolver from a trouser pocket and, without giving any warning, sent two .32 caliber bullets through Bivens’s skull. Pletch then managed to land the plane, dumped the instructor’s body in a thicket, and took off again, heading north to his home state to…well, what he intended to do was never really clear.


Pletch (who was known to his family as Larry) came from an apparently good home. His father, Guy, was a wealthy farmer and a county legislator from Frankfort, Indiana, and the young Earnest seems to have grown up wanting for little. Like many young men in the interwar period, he was a decent mechanic and a self-proclaimed inventor, and, while he was still at school, he began begging his father to buy him an aircraft. It was at this point that Pletch first revealed the self-centeredness that characterizes his life story. Told that he would have to graduate from high school first, he instead left school in disgust around 1926 and impulsively married the first of his at least four wives.

It seems likely that Pletch more or less lost contact with his family at about this time. Later, he would tell the authorities that he had stolen Bivens’s plane so that he could fly it into the side of his father’s barn – which would certainly have made some sort of statement. In the end, he never went through with that plan. But the peripatetic life that the young Pletch led between 1926 and 1939 was scarcely something that his father would have approved of, and perhaps that was the point.

Earnest Pletch, ‘The Flying Lochinvar': pioneer highjacker and committer of a spectacularly pointless murder

How Pletch supported himself for most of those dozen years is largely unknown. One newspaper of the period described him as a “farm hand,” but it seems more likely that he made a living as a mechanic, since he “preferred repairing cars and tractors to working on the family farm.” According to his own account, he began to study flying seriously in 1935, working solely from books. He doesn’t seem to have laid his hands on an actual aircraft until 1938, when – according to his obituary – he took a job at a traveling fair that offered brief airplane rides to thrill-seeking locals.

This was no ordinary job, and Pletch was working with no ordinary fair. His employer was the Royal American Shows, an enormous traveling funfair that toured through the United States and Canada for nine months each year, billing itself both as “the most beautiful show on earth” and as the proud possessor of “the world’s largest midway.” The attractions that Pletch would have worked alongside included girlie shows that featured the likes of Gypsy Rose Lee. When the fair traveled, it did so using its own special train, which at its peak consisted of almost 100 carriages.

In June 1938, now 28 years old and feeling that he had learned all that he could from reading books and watching the pilots of the Royal American, Pletch returned home to Frankfort. While there, he stole an aircraft in the middle of the night and – incredibly – managed not only to take off, but also to return safely to ground in it. “It was the first time I had ever been at the controls,” he later bragged. “The boys said it couldn’t be done. I took off in that plane at three o’clock in the morning and flew it to Danville, Illinois [about 75 miles due west], and landed it in a seven-acre field.”

Presuming that the missing plane would be reported, Pletch kept moving. From Danville, he flew to Vernon, Illinois, where he set up as a freelance pilot offering thrill rides to paying customers. It’s hard to say how long he might have contrived to keep this business going before anyone caught up with him, because he managed, in short order, to get himself entangled in yet another problem. One of the customers who paid for a ride in his plane was a 17-year-old Vernon girl by the name of Goldie Gehrken. Pletch (who was calling himself Larry Thompson and claiming to be 24, five years younger than his real age) quickly fell for her, and the pair embarked on a five day aerial romance, flying from place to place around the state while Pletch repeatedly begged Gehrken to marry him. When she refused, Pletch abandoned her, leaving her sitting under a tree in a field while he flew off.

The girl’s parents, who had been frantically searching for her for the best part of a week, professed themselves reluctant to press charges – because, the mother said, “the young man took such good care of our daughter.” But the police proved less accommodating. Pletch was tracked down and arrested, charged with theft and then freed on bond to await a trial and likely a spell of imprisonment. That trial was scheduled to begin the week after he murdered Carl Bivens and made off with his plane.

The precise circumstances of the Bivens murder are rendered hazy by the endless lies that Pletch spun after the shooting. It seems, though, that he had rejoined the Royal American Shows and that it was the carnival that took him to Missouri – where, in September 1939, he married Francis Bales, of Palmyra. She may have met him at the fair, and she was, apparently, his third wife. Whatever the truth, the marriage didn’t last. Bales left Pletch after only a few days – one source says that he robbed her – and not much more than a month later, after borrowing a car in which he searched unsuccessfully for his missing wife, he did something just as impulsive, but with vastly more serious consequences. He pitched up in the little town of Brookfield, Missouri, and asked Carl Bivens to teach him to fly.

Carl Bivens’s fatal encounter with Earnest Pletch over Missouri left a wife without a husband, and two sons without a father.

Pletch took two lessons on the cool autumn afternoon of October 28, and they went well enough for him to request a third flight in the little yellow Taylor Club monoplane that Bivens had borrowed from a friend. It was 40 minutes into that third session, while “zipping along” at about 5,000 feet, that the instructor was murdered.

Pletch’s motive for killing Bivens was never really clear. He gave several different versions of events, saying at one point that he had plotted to steal the plane in order to use it to test his inventions – which supposedly included a new sort of high-performance aviation fuel – and at another, in an account that was rather plainly intended to reduce the charge he faced from first to second degree murder, that he and the instructor had agreed to abscond together in the plane and head for Mexico.

In this version of events, Bivens had tried to back out of the deal while in mid-air above Missouri. Pletch’s story was that the two men had argued – “I told him that he was not going to double-cross me” – and that Bivens had reached back and attempted to grapple with him, losing control of the plane in the process. It was only because he feared that they were about to crash, Pletch said, that he drew his gun and fired. The best evidence that this was simply a lie can be found in the killer’s own account; having claimed that he acted in a panic to save his own life, Pletch went on to concede that the emergency only really began after he had shot the pilot: “The ship began to pitch and then to dive,” he claimed. “I remembered reading about a dying man ‘stiffening at the controls,’ and then I fired another shot… I reached forward and pulled his body away from the controls, and after a few seconds I got the plane straightened out.”

Given the seating arrangement in the plane (Bivens was seated directly in front of Pletch, and also had to fly the aircraft, meaning that he was scarcely in a position to seriously threaten his student), this last story rings spectacularly false. It seems much more likely that the murder was nothing more than a means to an end, and that Pletch was simply doing what he had already done once before – stealing a plane and fleeing his responsibilities, albeit in a startlingly strange and brutal manner. He seems to have hinted as much in what was probably the closest that he ever came to telling the truth, a statement made to prosecutors in Missouri:

Carl was telling me that I had a natural ability, and I should follow that line [a career in aviation]. I had a revolver in my pocket and without saying a word to him, I took it out of my overalls and I fired a bullet into the back of his head. He never knew what struck him.

Having landed briefly in order to dispose of Bivens’s body – which he did, after relieving the dead man of his wrist watch and several hundred dollars in cash, by dumping it in a cow pasture near Cherry Box, Missouri – Pletch flew north. He landed in another field as it grew dark, spending the night in a barn and moving on first thing in the morning. He was heading, apparently, for his parents home, and even circled over it – but, having decided against the suicidal plan of crashing into his father’s barn, he landed instead in a field in Clear Creek, just outside the central Indiana town of Bloomington. It was dusk by then, and just over a day since the murder: plenty of time for Bivens’s body to be discovered and for word of the stolen plane to spread through the Midwest.

The first people in Clear Creek to notice the plane’s approach were two young children, Bobby Joe and Jimmy Logsdon. The brothers had been doing chores when they heard the sound of an engine overhead. Bobby Joe, who was “crazy about aviation,” just like Pletch, had never seen or heard a plane at such close quarters, but his father would not allow him to run out to touch the aircraft as he wanted to. Plenty of others did hurry to the site, however – nothing quite so exciting had happened in the little farming community for years – and when Pletch climbed down from the cockpit and asked if there was anywhere nearby to eat, they pointed him in the direction of the Williams & Wampler General Store, which had a lunch counter that served hamburgers and coffee.

There was still enough light for several of the locals crowding around the plane to notice something suspicious about the pilot: there was blood on the front of his blue overalls. Pletch explained the stains away by saying that it came from “a nosebleed that he got from the altitude,” but word of his arrival quickly reached Clear Creek’s telephone operator, Bertha Manner, and she had been listening to her radio when it reported a sighting of Pletch’s stolen yellow aeroplane as it circled over Frankfort. Manner, who prided herself on her “vivid imagination and a nose for news,” lost no time in calling the Bloomington police.

Interviewed by a local reporter 70 years after the events of that exciting evening, Bobby Joe Logsdon recalled that the phone soon rang in the general store:

Bill Wampler answered it. The deputy instructed Bill to say only ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in response to his questions. He asked if the pilot was there, then if Bill could stall him, but not to do anything foolish because the man was dangerous. Bill was frying the hamburgers for the pilot. He was a nervous, jittery kind of a guy, but he just scooted the burgers over to the cool part of the grill so they wouldn’t cook so fast.

Thanks to Wampler’s quick thinking, Pletch was still in the middle of his meal when the state and local police arrived and surrounded the building. He gave up without a fight, turned over his pistol, and was led away from the store in handcuffs. Interviewed in Monroe County Jail, he made much of his love for aircraft. “I would rather fly than eat,” he said.

The case threatened to establish some interesting legal precedents. It was, to begin with, the first case of highjacking, or “air piracy”, in the United States – the Chicago Tribune termed it “one of the most spectacular crimes of the 20th century, and what is believed to be the first airplane kidnap murder on record.” Since Pletch could not really navigate (and had every incentive, in any case, to fudge the issue), it was also not at all clear exactly where the murder had occurred, and hence where the case ought to be tried. In the course of their lesson, Bivens and Pletch had flown over three Missouri counties, each of which was a separate jurisdiction. That was confusing enough, but – as James L. Robinson, a law professor and director of the Indiana University Institute of Criminal Law pointed out – the statutes in force at the time had not been drafted to take account of killings that took place in mid-air.

“Suppose a murder is committed in an airplane out of sight of land,” Robinson hypothesized,  “making it impossible to prove the county over which the offense occurred. Could the murder be prosecuted, and, if so, where?”

Etta Bivens and her son Russell shortly after hearing news of Carl Bivens’s murder. Etta asked for mercy for the killer, but did not intend what happened next.

Unfortunately for Earnest Pletch, the prosecutors in Missouri took a much less abstract approach when he was handed over to them next day. There was some potential for a tussle – Fred Bollow, who was the prosecutor for Shelby County, where Bivens’s body had been found, lost little time in filing murder charges. But the plane had spent most of its time in the air over neighboring Macon County, and Bollow’s colleague there, Vincent Moody – “holding Pletch’s confession authentic as to the murder location” – successfully claimed jurisdiction.

Moody wasted no time in bringing Pletch to court – feelings were running so high in the district that there were fears that he might be lynched if there was any delay – and the killer himself speeded things along by waiving his right to a preliminary hearing. When he was brought into the sparsely attended court on 1 November, he pleaded guilty.

There seems little doubt that this was a legal maneuver designed to give Pletch the best possible chance of avoiding the death penalty, but it was Etta Bivens who did more than anyone to save her husband’s killer from an appointment with the gas chamber. She told the presiding judge, Harry J. Libby, that she did not wish to seek the death penalty. Instead, Libby sentenced Pletch to life – having first extracted a promise that he would never apply for either pardon or parole.

What happened next remained something of a mystery for many years. Pletch certainly lived on, and on, finally dying at the age of 91 in June 2001. That ought to have meant that he served a sentence of almost 62 years in Missouri State Prison, long enough to win him an unwelcome place on the list of the ten longest sentences ever served in American jails. When Pamela Keech, an Indiana journalist who interviewed the surviving witnesses to his plane’s landing for Bloom magazine in 2009 wrote up her story, she assumed that Pletch had died in jail.

My own research shows that that was not the case. The U.S. Social Security Death Index lists Pletch, but gives the place of his death as Eldridge, Missouri – an isolated spot nowhere near any of the state’s prisons. And a careful search of local newspapers revealed that Pletch’s name cropped up twice among the small ads published by the Kansas City Star years earlier, in 1964 and 1965 – on the first occasion selling a “new ranch type house” together with an associated lot on the Lake of the Ozarks, and on the second auctioning a service station, together with “several items of personal property including boats, motors, café equipment, and some antiques.” Not only that – a man by the name of Earnest Pletch had found employment as a pilot with a firm called Cox Aviation and married a woman named Mary Leap on the day after Christmas 1973. There must have been other wives as well; when this Pletch died, he left 16 grandchildren and 22 great-grandchildren.

It took some correspondence with the Missouri State Archives to resolve the problem – and reveal an outcome that the merciful Etta Bivens surely never intended when she interceded to save Pletch’s life in 1939. The killer, it turned out, had served less than 20 years for the murder of her husband. Pletch had kept his promise not to apply for a pardon or parole, but then he hardly needed to – his life sentence had been commuted to one of 25 years on January 9, 1953, then further commuted on March 1, 1957, the day of his release.

“We looked at the commutation records,” an archivist wrote, “and they do not give any information as to why his sentence was commuted twice… Commutations for convicted murderers or people with life sentences were fairly common. Overcrowding was an endemic problem at the [Missouri State Prison], so prisoners with good behavior were often let out early.”

There does not seem to be any evidence that Earnest Pletch committed any further crimes after his early release. Perhaps he realized he was lucky. Lucky to have landed the Taylor Club successfully that Friday afternoon with a dead man at the dual controls. Lucky not to have been executed when he was sent back to Missouri. Lucky, again, to have served his time in a grossly overcrowded jail such that commutation was his way to freedom. But fortunate above all to have been offered mercy by a woman to whose husband he had shown no mercy at all.


Contemporary newspapersCapital Times [Madison, WI], 8 Jul 1938; Miami News [FLA], 8 Jul 1939; Daily Republican [Monogahela, PA] 12 Jul 1939; Vidette-Messenger [Valparaiso, IN], 12 Jul 1939; Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, 30 Oct 1939; Sweetwater Reporter, 30 Oct 1939; San Jose Evening News, 30 Oct 1939; Evening Courier (Prescott, AZ), 30 Oct 1939; Montreal Gazette, 30 Oct 1939; Spartenburg Herald, 1 Nov 1939; Joplin Globe, 1 Nov 1939; Ottawa Journal, 2 Nov 1939; and Kansas City Star, 27 Sep 1964 and 13 Jun 1965. Other sources: Private correspondence with Missouri State Archives, July 2014, author’s files; Pamela Keech. “The killer who fell from the sky: a true-life B-town crime story,” Bloom [Bloomington, IN], Oct-Nov 2009; Missouri Obituary and Death Notice Archive; United States Social Security Death Index.

This story was originally published on Dash's "All Kinds of History" blog. Stay tuned for more amazing stories from Mike in the months to come.

When the British Wanted to Camouflage Their Warships, They Made Them Dazzle

Smithsonian Magazine

In late October 1917, King George V spent an afternoon inspecting a new division of Britain’s merchant naval service, the intriguingly named “Dazzle Section”.

The visit came during one of the worst periods in war that had already battered British sea power. German U-boat technology was a devastating success; fully one-fifth of Britain’s merchant ships, ferrying supplies to the British Isles, had been sunk by the end of 1916. The next year brought fresh horror: Desperate to grind down the Allies and bring an end to this costly war, the Kaiser declared unrestricted submarine warfare on January 31, 1917, promising to torpedo any ship that came within the warzone. Imperial U-boats made good on that promise – on April 17, 1917 a U-boat torpedoed a hospital ship, the HMHS Lanfranc, in the English Channel, killing 40 people, including 18 wounded German soldiers. “Hun Savagery” read the headlines. The Lanfranc’s sinking was outrageous, but it was by no means the only one – between March and December 1917, British ships of all kinds were blown out of the water at a rate of 23 a week, 925 ships by the end of that period.

So it was imperative that what George V was about to see worked.

The King was shown a tiny model ship, painted not standard battleship gray, but in an explosion of dissonant stripes and swoops of contrasting colors. The model was mounted on a turntable set against a seascape backdrop. George was then asked to estimate the ship’s course, based on his observations from a periscope fixed about 10 feet away. The King had served in the Royal Navy before the death of his older brother put him first in line for the throne, and he knew what he was doing. “South by west,” was his answer.

“East-southeast” came the answer from Norman Wilkinson, head of the new department. George V was astounded, dazzled even. “I have been a professional sailor for many years,” the confounded King reportedly said, “and I would not have believed I could have been so deceived in my estimate.”

Dazzle, it seems, was a success.

How to camouflage ships at sea was one of the big questions of World War I. From the early stages of the war, artists, naturalists and inventors showered the offices of the United States Navy and the British Royal Navy with largely impractical suggestions on making ships invisible: Cover them in mirrors, disguise them as giant whales, drape them in canvas to make them look like clouds. Eminent inventor Thomas Edison’s scheme of making a ship appear like an island – with trees, even – was actually put into practice. The S.S. Ockenfels, however, only made it as far as New York Harbor before everyone realized what a bad and impractical idea it was when part of the disguise, a canvas covering, blew away. Though protective coloring and covers worked on land, the sea was a vastly different environment. Ships moved through changing light and visibility, they were subject to extreme weather, they belched black smoke and bled rust. Any sort of camouflage would have to work in variable and challenging conditions.

Wilkinson’s innovation, what would be called “dazzle,” was that rather than using camouflage to hide the vessel, he used it to hide the vessel’s intention. Later he’d say that he’d realized that, “Since it was impossible to paint a ship so that she could not be seen by a submarine, the extreme opposite was the answer – in other words, to paint her, not for low visibility, but in such a way as to break up her form and thus confuse a submarine officer as the course on which she was heading.”

Image by The Collection Database of the Australian War Memorial via WIkicommons. Photograph of the Australian Bathurst class minesweeping corvette HMAS Wollongong (J172) (original image)

Image by The collections of the Imperial War Museums via Wikicommons. HMS Fencer at anchor (original image)

Image by via Wikicommons. Submarine commander's periscope view of a merchant ship in dazzle camouflage (left) and the same ship uncamouflaged (right). (original image)

Image by The Canadian Copyright Collection held by the British Library via Wikicommons. Dazzle camouflage (original image)

Image by The collections of the Imperial War Museums via Wikicommons. British destroyer HMS Badsworth under tow on the Mersey. She served as HNoMS Arendal with the Royal Norwegian Navy from 1944 to 1961. (original image)

Image by via Wikicommons. The HMS Argus (I49) in harbour in 1918, painted in dazzle camouflage, with a Renown class battlecruiser in the distance (original image)

Image by U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph via Wikicommons. HMS Furious (British Aircraft Carrier, 1917-1948) In a British port in 1918, after she had been fitted with a landing-on deck aft. Note the large crash barrier rigged behind her funnel, her "dazzle" camouflage, and the steam launch passing by in the foreground. (original image)

Image by The collections of the Imperial War Museums via Wikicommons. HMS Haydon Underway (original image)

In order for a U-boat gunner to fire and hit his target from as far as 1,900 meters away (and not closer than 300 meters, as torpedoes required at least that much running distance to arm), he had to accurately predict where the target would be based on informed guesses. Compounding the difficulty was the fact that he had typically less than 30 seconds to sight the target ship through the periscope, or risk the periscope’s wake being seen and giving away the submarine’s location. Typical U-boats could only carry 12 very expensive and very slow torpedoes at a time, so the gunner had to get it right the first time.

“If you’re hunting for ducks, right, all you have to do is lead the target and it’s a simple process. But if you’re a submarine aiming at a ship, you have to calculate how fast a ship is going, where is it going, and aim the torpedo so that they both get to the same spot at the same time,” says Roy Behrens, a professor at the University of Northern Iowa, author of several books on Dazzle camouflage and the writer behind the camouflage resource blog Camoupedia. Wilkinson’s idea was to “dazzle” the gunner so that he would either be unable to take the shot with any confidence or spoil it if he did. “Wilkinson said you had to only be 8 to 10 degrees off for the torpedo to miss. And even if it were hit, if [the torpedo] didn’t hit the most vital part, that would be better than being hit directly.”

Wilkinson used broad swathes of contrasting colors—black and white, green and mauve, orange and blue—in geometric shapes and curves to make it difficult to determine the ship’s actual shape, size and direction. Curves painted across the side of the ship could create a false bow wave, for example, making the ship seem smaller or imply that it was heading in a different direction: Patterns disrupting the line of the bow or stern made it hard to tell which was the front or back, where the ship actually ended, or even whether it was one vessel or two; and angled stripes on the smokestacks could make the ship seem as if it was facing in the opposite direction. One American dazzle camoufleur (the actual term for a camouflage artist) referred to the optical distortion concept undergirding Dazzle as “reverse perspective”, also known as forced perspective and accelerated perspective, optical illusions that create a disconnect between what the viewer perceives and what is really happening (think of all those photos of tourists holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa). In practice, that meant that the system did have its limitations – it could only be applied to ships that would be targeted by periscopes, because it worked best when seen from the low-down viewpoint of a U-boat gunner.

“It’s counterintuitive. People can’t really believe that you could interfere with the visibility of something by making it more highly visible, but they don’t understand how the human eye works, that something needs to stand out from the background and hold together as an integral figure,” says Behrens.

Wilkinson was, in some ways, an unlikely innovator. At 38, he was known as talented painter of landscapes and maritime scenes – his painting of Portsmouth Harbour went down in the smoking rooms of the Titanic. Nothing in his work augers the kind of modern, avant garde aesthetic that Dazzle possessed. But crucially, Wilkinson had both an understanding of perspective and a relationship with the Admiralty and merchant shipping authorities. An enthusiastic yacht racer, he’d joined the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserves at the outbreak of war. In 1917, he was a lieutenant in command of an 83-foot patrol launch that swept the central English Channel for mines, according to Nicholas Rankin in his book, A Genius For Deception: How Cunning Helped the British Win Two World Wars. And where other innovators, including John Graham Kerr, a Scottish naturalist whose similar camouflage ideas were used briefly and discarded by the Royal Navy, failed, Wilkinson’s straightforward charisma helped his rather outré idea be taken seriously by important people, wrote Peter Forbes in Dazzled and Deceived: Mimicry and Camouflage.

After earning support for the idea, Wilkinson was given the chance to test his theory in the water. The first ship to be dazzled was a small store ship called the HMS Industry; when it was launched in May 1917, coastguards and other ships sailing the British coast were asked to report their observations of the vessel when they encountered it. Enough observers were sufficiently confused that by the beginning of October 1917, the Admiralty asked Wilkinson to dazzle 50 troopships.

Though the new initiative had backing from both the Merchant Navy and the Royal Navy, it was still operating on a wartime budget. The Royal Academy of Arts offered up four unused studios for headquarters and Wilkinson went to work with a team of 19– five artists, three model makers, and 11 female art students who hand-colored the technical plans for the final designs (one later became Wilkinson’s wife). Each design not only had to be unique to prevent U-boat crews from getting used to them, but they also had to be tailored to individual ships. Wilkinson and his artists designed schemes first on paper, and then painted them on tiny, rough-hewn wooden models, which they’d place in the mock seascape George V saw. The models were examined through periscopes in various lighting. Designs were chosen for “maximum distortion”, Wilkinson later wrote, and handed off to the art students to map out on technical drafts, to be then executed by ship painters on ships in dry dock. By June 1918, less than a year after the division was created, some 2,300 British ships were dazzled, a number that would swell to more than 4,000 by the end of the war. 

The United States, which joined the war on April 6, 1917, was then grappling with as many as six systems of camouflage, most of which peddled low visibility or invisibility to private ship owners. The Navy, however, had little confidence in the claims of diminished visibility and moreover, was also dealing with the fact that many of its ships had been German ships – meaning that the enemy knew their speed and vulnerabilities. When news of the dazzle system and its ability to mask the speed and kind of ships reached Britain’s new ally,  a young Franklin Roosevelt, then assistant to the secretary of the navy, agreed to meet with Wilkinson to discuss it. After another successful demonstration of dazzle, in which a confused U.S. admiral reportedly exploded, “How the hell do you expect me to estimate the course of a God-damn thing all painted up like that?”, Wilkinson was asked to help set up an American dazzle department under the Navy’s Bureau of Construction and Repair. Wilkinson spent five weeks in the U.S., with Everett Warner, an artist and Naval Reserve officer who would head up the Washington, D.C. dazzle subsection, as his host. Chummy as that sounds, it wasn’t.

“There was a lot of fighting or jealousy or whatever between the U.K. and the U.S.,” says Behrens with a chuckle. “If you go to the correspondence, you find that the American artists are making fun of [Wilkinson] and all sort of that thing. Warner arrived at the idea that Wilkinson didn’t know what he was doing and that what he was doing was quite haphazard.”

However the British and American departments felt about each other, they were still creating visually disruptive designs that on the face of it, were very much alike: Broad stripes and curves of white, black, green, blue, spiky and jagged and very Modern art. This was not lost on contemporary journalists, who branded the dazzled ships a “futurist’s bad dream” and “floating Cubist paintings”, as well as “an intoxicated snake”, “a Russian toyshop gone mad”, and a “cross between a boiler explosion and a railroad accident”. That dazzle bore such a similarity to burgeoning movements in art wasn’t lost on the artists, either – Picasso even claimed that Dazzle was actually his idea.

But Modern art, which had been introduced in America at the 1913 Armory Show, was an object of derision and suspicion for contemporary newspapers. “Very frequently in newspapers and magazines, they were trying to explain it to the public and I think [the public] had great difficulty believing it was legitimate,” says Behrens. “But on the other hand, that’s why it was fascinating.” This amusement and fascination in equal measure reflected how the public saw dazzle. It was lampooned in newspaper cartoons, of course – one image shows painters tarring a road in dazzle patterns – but its distinctive look also popped up on bathing suits and dresses, cars and window displays. “Dazzle balls”, for which attendees dressed in dazzle-inspired costumes, gained popularity as ways to raise money for the war effort.

Still, convincing Naval personnel dazzle was more than just fun was difficult. “I had a large of collection of [correspondence from] experienced Navy officers and ship captains making fun of it. It made them sick that their pristine ship was painted with all these Jezebel patterns,” says Behrens, noting that the idea of these flashy ships seemed to subvert their sense of military order. The ships were so wild that some American observers started calling them “jazz” ships, after the improvisational style of popular contemporary music. But Warner, who applied a scientific rigor to understanding how his designs worked, rejected that comparison. Dazzle was, he said, “firmly grounded in the book of Euclid” on geometric principles of visual disruption and proportion, and was not the work of a “group of crazy Cubists”, Behrens recounted in his book, False Colors.

However founded on science it was, determining whether Dazzle actually worked is difficult. In theory, it should work: Behrens found that in 1919, near the end of the war, an MIT engineering student studied the efficacy of individual designs using one of the original model observation theaters provided by the Navy. Three sets of observers were given the same test that George V and the unnamed American naval commander failed. Designs that yielded a higher degree of course error were considered successful; the most successful were off by as much as 58 degrees, when just 10 degrees would be sufficient for a fired torpedo to miss its target. Similarly, in 2011, researchers from the University of Bristol determined that dazzle patterns could disrupt an observer’s perception of the speed of a moving target, and could even have a place on modern battlefields.

But lab conditions are hardly real life. Forbes, in his book, writes that the Admiralty commissioned a report on dazzled ships that came out in September 1918. The statistics were less than conclusive: In the first quarter of 1918, for example, 72 percent of dazzled ships that were attacked were sunk or damaged versus 62 percent of non-dazzled, implying that dazzle did not minimize torpedo damage.

In the second quarter, the statistics reversed themselves: 60 percent of attacks on dazzled ships ended in sinking or damage, compared to 68 percent of non-dazzled. More dazzled than non-dazzled ships were being attacked in the same period, 1.47 percent versus 1.2 percent, but fewer of the dazzled ships were sunk when hit. The Admiralty concluded that though dazzle probably didn’t hurt, it also probably wasn’t helping. American dazzled ships fared better – of the 1,256 ships dazzled between March 1 and November 11, 1918, both merchant and Naval, only 18 were sunk – perhaps owing to the different seas in which American ships were sailing. Ultimately, Behrens said it’s difficult to retroactively determine whether dazzle was truly a success, noting, “I don’t think it will ever be clear.”

And in truth, it didn’t matter whether dazzle actually worked or not: Insurance companies thought it did and therefore lowered premiums on dazzled ships. At the same time, the Admiralty’s investigation into dazzle noted that even if it didn’t work, morale on dazzled ships was higher than on non-dazzled and that was reason alone to keep it.

By November 1918, however, the war was over, though the battle between Wilkinson and the Scottish naturalist Kerr over who actually invented dazzle was just heating up. Kerr argued that he’d introduced the Admiralty to a similar idea back in 1914 and demanded recognition. The Admiralty eventually sided with Wilkinson and awarded him £2,000 for dazzle; for years after, however, Kerr never gave up the idea that he’d been cheated and the two men would trade snide comments through the next war. But exactly what they were fighting over was soon forgotten. Ships require frequent painting – it’s part of what keeps them preserved – so the Allied vessels lost their dazzled coating under a more sober gray. Though World War II saw a resurgence of dazzle in an effort to hide a ship’s class and make, its use was limited and dazzle’s legacy was again buried under layers of maritime paint.

Sort of. Because though dazzle’s influence on naval warfare may have been short-lived, its impact on art and culture remains significant even now. Dazzle, though functional in its intent, was also part of a wave of Futurism, cubism, expressionism, and abstract art that eroded the centuries of representational art’s dominance. The look of dazzle later re-emerged in 1960s Op-art, which employed similar techniques of perspective and optical illusion, and in the mass market fashion that followed. Even today, dazzle remains fashionable, recalled in the aggressive patterns of designers like Jonathan Saunders, or more directly referenced in the “Urban Dazzle” collection of French sportswear designer Lacoste, the Dazzle rainboots from Hunter, and upscale British handbag label Mulberry’s Dazzle collection.

“Dazzle is just everywhere, it’s such a successful visual design system. It’s hugely attractive… I think it’s been used – plundered as it were – but used as a kind of inspiration certainly in fashion,” notes Jenny Waldman, director of 14-18 Now, an ambitious arts program working in partnership with the Imperial War Museum, the British government, and U.K. arts organizations to commemorate the centenary of the World War I. Dazzle was everywhere but on ships – even if the designs themselves weren’t forgotten, the link between them and the war was. “There are a lot of great untold stories, and the dazzle ship is a kind of whopping great untold story,” says Waldman.

That changed, however, when in 2014, 14-18 Now called on contemporary artists to dazzle real-life vessels. Explains Waldman, “The brief was very much to be inspired by the dazzle ships rather then try to recreate the Dazzle designs or functionality in any way.”

Finding artists, Waldman says, was easier than finding ships, but they eventually managed to locate three. The Snowdrop, designed by Sir Peter Blake, the artist who created the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover, is actually a working ferry on the River Mersey in Liverpool and will be operational through December 2016. The other two ships recently finished their deployment: The Edmund Gardner, an historic pilot ship in drydock outside the Mersey Maritime Museum in Liverpool, was painted in green, orange, and black stripes by Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz-Diez and the HMS President, which is permanently docked on the River Thames, was dazzled in grey, black, white and orange by artist Tobias Rehberger. The President is one of only three surviving Royal Navy ships that served in the First World War; called the HMS Saxifrage when it was built in 1918, it was actually dazzled by Wilkinson and his team during its tour of duty.

Image by Anthony Beyga/Demotix/Corbis. Legendary British pop artist Sir Peter Blake, who designed the Beatles iconic Sergeant Pepper album sleeve, was commissioned to "dazzle" a Mersey ferry that was unveiled today as part of First World War commemorations. (original image)

Image by FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA/epa/Corbis. Dazzle camouflage ship on the River Thames (original image)

Image by FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA/epa/Corbis. The dazzle camouflage was used extensively during the First World War as a means of camouflaging a ship using bright colors and geometric shapes to make it difficult for the enemy to target it accurately. (original image)

So far, more than 13.5 million people have seen, visited, or sailed on the dazzled ships and 14-18 Now recently announced that a fourth ship, the MV Fingal, a former lighthouse tender docked at the Port of Leith in Edinburgh, will be dazzled by Scottish artist Ciara Phillips. The ship will be unveiled in late May, in time for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

“The wonderful thing about our ships is that they are very big and they’re very public, and the Mersey ferry you can go on, it makes them hugely accessible,” says Waldman. The fact that they show very well on social media has helped to spread the story of the dazzle ships. The ships also speak, as Waldman says, to “the power of contemporary art to reveal and explore the unknown stories of the First World War.” Waldman continued, “People see the dazzle ferry and they think, ‘I want to go on that, that looks phenomenal’ and when they’re on it, they find out more. And then they tell their friends and 13-and-a-half million people now know about the dazzle ships.”

So perhaps this time, the story of the dazzle ships and their place in the science and art of making war won’t be forgotten.