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The world’s inland waterways move more than just water; they play a pivotal role in the global carbon cycle, soaking up carbon from the land and releasing it into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. But are rivers or lakes bigger greenhouse gas contributors? A study published today in Nature finds that, cumulatively, rivers and streams release about five times more carbon dioxide than all the world’s lakes and reservoirs, even though the latter cover far more of the Earth’s surface.
Figuring out how much carbon dioxide these water bodies contribute to the carbon cycle is a complex task. Scientists have to determine the global surface area of the world’s lakes, streams, rivers and other water bodies. Then, they have to figure out how much carbon dioxide those bodies hold, and how quickly that carbon is transferred from water to atmosphere, a factor called the gas-transfer velocity. Uncertainties and a lack of data in all three areas have hamstrung efforts to determine exactly how much carbon inland waters are releasing.
To get better estimates, a team led by biogeochemist Peter Raymond of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies had to create more detailed data sets for all three parameters. They revised a census of lakes and reservoirs, and drew on data from sources as varied as space-shuttle missions and U.S. river monitors to determine the extents of global waterways. Inland waters are generally supersaturated with carbon dioxide, but how much carbon the waters hold differed by type. Gas-transfer velocities had been determined in earlier experiments; factors such as turbulence and lake size played a role in how quickly carbon dioxide moved through the system.
The researchers calculated that all the planet’s inland waters contribute about 2.1 gigatonnes of carbon to the atmosphere each year. Rivers and streams, which cover some 241,000 square miles (624,000 square kilometers) of the Earth, release about 1.8 gigatonnes of carbon each year. Another 0.32 gigatonnes come from lakes and reservoirs, which account for 1,200,000 square miles (3,000,000 square kilometers). These estimates were about twice as high as any done previously, the researchers note. However, the results are in line with detailed studies that have been done of places like the Amazon and temperate regions. To put this all in perspective, humans are expected to contribute about 36 gigatonnes of carbon to the atmosphere in 2013.
“Understanding the relative importance of these sources is crucial to the global carbon budget,” the researchers write. “A flux of 1.8 for streams and rivers is large considering their small surface area, reinforcing the concept that streams and rivers are hotspots for exchange.” In addition to giving researchers a better overall picture, the study highlights locations that are the biggest contributors of carbon dioxide released through rivers, such as Southeast Asia, the Amazon, Europe and southeast Alaska.
There are still uncertainties in these calculations, however. The researchers left out the world’s wetlands because, with their vegetation, they function in a very different manner than open bodies of water–a wetland’s canopy can alter the movement of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. There’s also a need for even better data than is currently available. “Because tropical regions are seriously under-represented in global data sets, additional studies of carbon concentrations in the predicted hotspot areas in the tropics are urgently needed,” Bernhard Wehrli, a biogeochemist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, writes in an accompanying News & Views article.
Plus, Wehrli notes, humans have been altering waterways for hundreds of years—damming them, draining them, channeling them. Some of these constructions, such as turbine releases associated with dams, along with natural features such as waterfalls, can be places of high gas emission. Others, such as human-made channels and drained wetlands, have produced such altered systems that they act very differently from the natural systems on which models of carbon budgets are based.
These uncertainties, however, give much food for thought. Do certain agricultural practices promote the transfer of carbon to rivers, which then escapes into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide? How much does the unnatural alteration of our waterways contribute to the amount of carbon dioxide released by rivers? Answering these questions will help scientists understand the degree to which human behavior is increasing greenhouse gas emission rates, giving us a fuller picture of the causes of human-induced climate change and where efforts to reduce carbon emissions might have the greatest effect.
Andrew Carroll, founder of the Center for American War Letters at Chapman University), an archive of wartime letters from every U.S. conflict, is the author of the new book My Fellow Soldiers: General John Pershing and the Americans Who Helped Win the Great War, a vivid retelling of the American experience in World War I. The book features many little-known and previously unpublished journals and letters, including ones by a young man, incorrigibly fearless and much loved by his family, who died in a fiery plane crash behind enemy lines on July 14, 1918. He was President Theodore Roosevelt’s son Quentin. In an excerpt from Carroll’s book, the young Roosevelt’s last days are told in letters from friends and family.
“I am now plugging along from day to day, doing my work, and enjoying my flying,” 21-year-old Quentin Roosevelt wrote to his fiancée, Flora Whitney, from Issoudun, France, on December 8, 1917. Quentin was the youngest son of former president Theodore Roosevelt, and his letters exuded the same enthusiasm that the Lafayette Escadrille pilots had expressed years before. “These little fast machines are delightful,” he wrote, referring to the Nieuport 18s they used.
You feel so at home in them, for there is just room in the cockpit for you and your controls, and not an inch more. And they’re so quick to act. It’s not like piloting a lumbering Curtis[s], for you could do two loops in a Nieuport during the time it takes a Curtis[s] to do one. It’s frightfully cold, now, tho’. Even in my teddy-bear,—that’s what they call these aviator suits,—I freeze pretty generally, if I try any ceiling work. If it’s freezing down below it is some cold up about fifteen thousand feet. Aviation has considerably altered my views on religion. I don’t see how the angels stand it.
Roosevelt had been drawn to airplanes since he was eleven years old. In the summer of 1909, he was with his family vacationing in France when he watched his first air show. “We were at Rheims and saw all the aeroplanes flying, and saw Curtis[s] who won the Gordon Bennett cup for the swiftest flight,” Roosevelt wrote to a school friend, referring to aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss. “You don’t know how pretty it was to see all the aeroplanes sailing at a time.” (Ironically, when Roosevelt later learned to fly, his least favorite planes were those built by Curtiss, whose name he also regularly misspelled. Roosevelt had suffered a serious back injury in college, and he found the Curtiss planes extremely uncomfortable.)
Roosevelt had started his flight training at the age of 19 in Mineola, New York, where there was an aviation school less than half an hour from his family’s home in Oyster Bay. Graduated as a lieutenant, he was assigned to Issoudun. Roosevelt was an experienced mechanic—he grew up tinkering with broken-down motorcycle and car engines—and along with his flight duties, he was put in charge of maintaining and repairing more than 50 trucks. He was also given supply duties and, because he was fluent in French, frequently asked to serve as an interpreter for senior American officers when they had to converse with French officials.
Roosevelt earned the admiration of the enlisted men and junior officers for an incident involving a clash with an obstinate captain who wouldn’t give the men desperately needed winter boots. “When, as flying cadets under the command of Lieutenant Quentin Roosevelt,” a fellow lieutenant named Linton Cox recalled to a newspaper back in the States, “we were receiving training at Issoudun in the art of standing guard in three feet of mud and were serving as saw and hatchet carpenters, building shelters for the 1,200 cadets who were waiting in vain for machines in which to fly, affairs suddenly reached a crisis when it was discovered that the quartermaster refused to issue rubber boots to us, because the regular army regulations contained no official mention or recognition of flying cadets.”
Cox went on to relate how appeal after appeal was rejected, and the men were starting to get sick, standing for hours in freezing mud up to their knees. Roosevelt decided to approach the captain, who, in Cox’s words, “was a stickler for army red tape, and did not have the courage to exercise common sense,” and requested that the soldiers be given the proper boots. When Roosevelt was refused as well, he demanded an explanation. Infuriated by the young lieutenant’s impertinence, the captain ordered him out of his office. Roosevelt wouldn’t budge.
“Who do you think you are—what is your name?” the captain demanded.
“I’ll tell you my name after you have honored this requisition, but not before,” Roosevelt said. He wasn’t afraid of identifying himself; he simply didn’t want there to be even the appearance of expecting favoritism because of his famous last name.
The confrontation escalated, and, according to Cox, “Quentin, being unable longer to control his indignation, stepped up and said, ‘If you’ll take off your Sam Browne belt and insignia of rank I’ll take off mine, and we’ll see if you can put me out of the office. I’m going to have those boots for my men if I have to be court-martialed for a breach of military discipline.’”“There’s one good thing about going to the front,” Roosevelt wrote to his mother. “I shall be so busy worrying about the safety of my own neck that I shan’t have time to worry about the way the war is going.” (Courtesy of Penguin/Random House)
Two other officers who overheard the yelling intervened before any fists were thrown, and Roosevelt stormed out of the office and went directly to the major of the battalion. He explained the situation, and the major agreed with Roosevelt and assured him that the boots would be provided.
“Roosevelt had hardly left the major’s office when the quartermaster captain came in and stated that there was a certain aviation lieutenant in camp whom he wanted court-martialed,” Cox recounted.
“Who is the lieutenant?” asked the major.
“I don’t know who he is,” replied the captain, “but I can find out.”
“I know who he is,” said the major. “His name is Quentin Roosevelt, and there is no finer gentleman nor more efficient officer in this camp, and from what I know, if anyone deserves a court-martial you are the man. From now on you issue rubber boots to every cadet who applies for them, armed regulations be damned.”
The boots were immediately issued, and the cadets were loud in their praise of Lieutenant Roosevelt.
Apologizing to his family and fiancée that his letters were “unutterably dull and uninteresting,” Roosevelt explained that he remained mired in bureaucratic and official duties. (He had also suffered from recurring pneumonia and a case of the measles, information he withheld from his family until he had fully recovered.) Disorganization and delays plagued the entire Air Service; in a January 15, 1918, letter to his mother, Roosevelt railed against the “little tin-god civilians and army fossils that sit in Washington [and] seem to do nothing but lie” about how well things were supposedly progressing in France. “I saw one official statement about the hundred squadrons we are forming to be on the front by June,” he wrote.
“That doesn’t seem funny to us over here,—it seems criminal, for they will expect us to produce the result that one hundred squadrons would have.” Currently, there were all of two squadrons at Issoudun. Congress had appropriated funding to build 5,000 American warplanes, but by early 1918, U.S. manufacturers were unable to construct anything comparable to what either the Allies or the Germans had developed.
Without even checking with the War Department, General Pershing summarily ordered several thousand planes from the French, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“There’s one good thing about going to the front,” Roosevelt continued in his letter to his mother. “I shall be so busy worrying about the safety of my own neck that I shan’t have time to worry about the way the war is going.” He also felt an obligation, as a Roosevelt, to be in the fight. “I owe it to the family—to father, and especially to Arch and Ted who are out there already and facing the dangers of it.” Less than a month later, Roosevelt was offered a plum assignment in Paris to fly planes from their factories in the capital out to their designated airfields throughout France. Although not dangerous, the job was, in fact, critical, and it offered the thrill of flying different types of aircraft, with the added benefit of living in posh quarters. Roosevelt turned it down.
Another two months passed, and Roosevelt was still stuck at Issoudun. There was, however, some good news to report. “Things are beginning to hum here at school,” he wrote to his mother on April 15, 1918. “For one thing, we hear that they are not going to send any more pilots over here from the states for the present, which is about the first sensible decision that they have made as regards the Air Service. As it is they must have two thousand pilots over here, and Heavens knows it will be ages before we have enough machines for even half that number.”
“I am now a member of the 95th Aero Squadron, 1st Pursuit Group,” Quentin Roosevelt proudly announced to his mother on June 25, 1918. “I’m on the front—cheers, oh cheers—and I’m very happy.”
On July 11, he sent her a more detailed letter describing his experiences. “I got my first real excitement on the front for I think I got a Boche,” Quentin wrote.
I was out on high patrol with the rest of my squadron when we got broken up, due to a mistake in formation. I dropped into a turn of a vrille [i.e., a dive]—these planes have so little surface that at five thousand you can’t do much with them. When I got straightened out I couldn’t spot my crowd any where, so, as I had only been up an hour, I decided to fool around a little before going home, as I was just over the lines. I turned and circled for five minutes or so, and then suddenly,—the way planes do come into focus in the air, I saw three planes in formation. At first I thought they were Boche, but as they paid no attention to me, I finally decided to chase them, thinking they were part of my crowd, so I started after them full speed. . . .
They had been going absolutely straight and I was nearly in formation when the leader did a turn, and I saw to my horror that they had white tails with black crosses on them. Still I was so near by them that I thought I might pull up a little and take a crack at them. I had altitude on them, and what was more they hadn’t seen me, so I pulled up, put my sights on the end man, and let go. I saw my tracers going all around him, but for some reason he never even turned, until all of a sudden his tail came up and he went down in a vrille. I wanted to follow him but the other two had started around after me, so I had to cut and run. However, I could half watch him looking back, and he was still spinning when he hit the clouds three thousand meters below. . . .
At the moment every one is very much pleased in our Squadron for we are getting new planes. We have been using Nieuports, which have the disadvantage of not being particularly reliable and being inclined to catch fire.
Three days later, Quentin was surrounded by German fighters and, unable to shake them, was shot twice in the head. His plane spun out of control and crashed behind enemy lines.
News of Quentin’s death was reported worldwide. Even the Germans admired that the son of a president would forgo a life of privilege for the dangers of war, and they gave him a full military burial with honors.
General Pershing, who had lost his wife and three little girls in a house fire in August 1915, knew Quentin personally, and when his death was confirmed, it was Pershing’s turn to send a letter of sympathy to his old friend Theodore Roosevelt: “I have delayed writing you in the hope that we might still learn that, through some good fortune, your son Quentin had managed to land safely inside the German lines,” Pershing began.
Now the telegram from the International Red Cross at Berne, stating that the German Red Cross confirms the newspaper reports of his death, has taken even this hope away. Quentin died as he had lived and served, nobly and unselfishly; in the full strength and vigor of his youth, fighting the enemy in clean combat. You may well be proud of your gift to the nation in his supreme sacrifice.
I realize that time alone can heal the wound, yet I know that at such a time the stumbling words of understanding from one’s friends help, and I want to express to you and to Quentin’s mother my deepest sympathy. Perhaps I can come as near to realizing what such a loss means as anyone.
Enclosed is a copy of his official record in the Air Service. The brevity and curtness of the official words paint clearly the picture of his service, which was an honor to us all.
Believe me, Sincerely yours, JPP
“I am immensely touched by your letter,” Roosevelt replied. He well remembered the trauma that Pershing himself had endured before the war. “My dear fellow,” Roosevelt continued, “you have suffered far more bitter sorrow than has befallen me. You bore it with splendid courage and I should be ashamed of myself if I did not try in a lesser way to emulate that courage.”
Due to Roosevelt’s status as a former president, he received countless letters and telegrams from other heads of state, as well as total strangers, offering their sympathy for the family’s loss. Roosevelt usually responded with a short message of appreciation, but there were two letters of condolence, one to him and one to Mrs. Roosevelt, from a woman named Mrs. H. L. Freeland, that particularly touched them, and on August 14, 1918, exactly a month after Quentin was killed, Theodore sent back a lengthy, handwritten reply.
Last evening, as we were sitting together in the North Room, Mrs. Roosevelt handed me your two letters, saying that they were such dear letters that I must see them. As yet it is hard for her to answer even the letters she cares for most; but yours have so singular a quality that I do not mind writing you of the intimate things which one cannot speak of to strangers.
Quentin was her baby, the last child left in the home nest; on the night before he sailed, a year ago, she did as she always had done and went upstairs to tuck him into bed—the huge, laughing, gentle-hearted boy. He was always thoughtful and considerate of those with whom he came in contact. . . .
It is hard to open the letters coming from those you love who are dead; but Quentin’s last letters, written during his three weeks at the front, when of his squadron on an average a man was killed every day, are written with real joy in the “great adventure.” He was engaged to a very beautiful girl, of very fine and high character; it is heartbreaking for her, as well as for his mother; but they have both said that they would rather have him never come back than never have gone. He had his crowded hour, he died at the crest of life, in the glory of the dawn. . . .
Is your husband in the army? Give him my warm regards and your mother and father and sister. I wish to see any of you or all of you out here at my house, if you ever come to New York. Will you promise to let me know?
Faithfully yours, Theodore Roosevelt
After Quentin’s death, the once boisterous former president was more subdued, and his physical health declined rapidly. In his final days, Roosevelt often went down to the family’s stables to be near the horses that Quentin as a child had so loved to ride. Lost in sorrow, Roosevelt would stand there alone, quietly repeating the pet name he’d given his son when he was a boy, “Oh Quenty-quee, oh Quenty-quee . . .”
The Roosevelts decided to leave Quentin buried in Europe, but they did retrieve the mangled axle from his plane, which they displayed prominently at their home in Oyster Bay.
MY FELLOW SOLDIERS: General John Pershing and the Americans Who Helped Win the Great War by Andrew Carroll, is to be published on April 4th by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2017 by Andrew Carroll. Carroll is also a historical consultant to the PBS film, “The Great War,” about WWI, and in April, Carroll will launch as well the “Million Letters Campaign,” in which he will travel the country encouraging veterans and troops to share their war letters with the Center for American War Letters to be archived for posterity.
“My Fellow Soldiers: Letters From World War I” is on view at the National Postal Museum through November 29, 2018.
From 1914 to 1918, the wealthy and powerful Western nations and empires that had come to dominate the globe wrecked themselves in a paroxysm of destruction unmatched in any previous era. Empires toppled, millions died and the world changed forever. In the wake of the First World War, nations sought appropriate forms of public mourning and commemoration to grieve and honor their dead. Among allies and foes, there was an overwhelming desire that such a war never be repeated. “Anything rather than war! Anything! … No trial, no servitude can be compared to war,” wrote French novelist and pacifist Roger Martin du Gard in 1936.
Today, memorials, monuments and museums dedicated to WWI can be found in all of the combatant countries. From a rose garden in Ireland to vast war cemeteries built on or near the major battlefields, these sites ensure that the memory of the war and the sacrifices of those who lost their lives will never fade.
Set in Sydney’s Hyde Park, this is New South Wales’s principal war monument. Designed in an art deco style by C. Bruce Dellit, it is made of granite, with statuary and bas-reliefs created by the artist Raynor Hoff. The buttresses on the outside of the building are each topped by a mournful figure, while the bas-reliefs depict scenes from Australian campaigns at Gallipoli and the Western Front. Ceremonies are held at the memorial on Remembrance Sunday (11 November) and Anzac Day (25 April).
Hyde Park, Sydney(ijeweb/iStock)
The national monument to Australia’s war dead was built in the aftermath of World War I, though it serves to commemorate Australian service personnel killed in all conflicts. The main parts of the memorial are the Commemorative area (which includes the Hall of Memory), Anzac Parade, and the Sculpture Garden. In the museum on the ground floor of the main building, the Anzac Hall, a recently added high-tech exhibition space, includes “Over the front, the Great War in the air”, a permanent display telling the story of aerial combat in World War I. It includes five original aircraft from the war, memorabilia, personal testaments, and a sound and light show.
Remembrance Park, Canberra(Kokkai Ng / iStock)
Built to remember Victoria’s war dead of 1914–18, this is one of Australia’s great memorials. Inspired by the mausoleum to Mausolus, King of Caria, at Halicarnassus in Turkey, the shrine was inaugurated in November 1934. The sanctuary contains the Stone of Remembrance inscribed with the words “Greater Love Hath No Man”, designed so that a shaft of sunlight (or artificial light) falls on the word “Love” held at 11am on 11 November each year. More than 120 ceremonies are held at the shrine each year.
St Kilda Road, Melbourne
The only American Battle Monuments Commission cemetery in Belgium, this commemorates the American contribution to the war on the Western Front. Smaller and more intimate than most of the war cemeteries in Belgium, it consists of 368 burials, with the headstones arranged around a central chapel. Many of the casualties interred here came from the US 91st Division, killed in fighting in this area in October and November 1918. The chapel itself includes 43 names on the Walls of the Missing – rosettes mark the names of soldiers whose remains have been subsequently recovered and identified.
Southeast of Waregem, along the Lille-Gent autoroute E-17(Steve Taylor via Flickr)
The Cloth Hall on the Market Square in the center of Ieper (Ypres), site of three of the war’s most significant battles, has been turned into a museum housing major collections of World War I artifacts and documents. The exhibitions and interactive audio-visual displays cover the invasion of Belgium in 1914 and the first few months of the war, with particular emphasis on the war around Ypres and how war affected the town. A documentation center includes extensive original trench maps, a photographic library and postcard collection, and contemporary newspaper reports.
Visitors can also climb up to the belfry for views over the town and the sites of the surrounding battlefields. Access to the center is free, although some collections can be viewed only by appointment.
Lakenhallen Grote Markt 34, Ieper(vau902 / iStock)
An official German War Graves Commission site, the Langemark Cemetery contains more than 40,000 burials of soldiers recovered between 1915 and the 1930s. The cemetery was officially designated German Military Cemetery 123 in 1930, and was inaugurated two years later. Of the soldiers buried in the cemetery 24,917 lie in mass graves. The German Students’ Memorial annex lists the names of 3,000 students killed in the Battle of Langemarck (part of the First Battle of Ypres) in 1914. Known as the Kindermord (Massacre of the Children), in Germany, First Ypres included many young German volunteers, most of whom had only received two months’ military training. In the cemetery stands a sculpture of mourning soldiers by Emil Krieger. Also of note is a basalt-lava cross on a small mound, marking one of the three original battlefield bunkers.
North of Langemark village, 6km (4 miles) northeast of Ieper(lucentius / iStock)
One of the most visited sights on the Western Front, the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres was designed by Reginald Blomfield and unveiled in 1927. It marks the point where most British soldiers marched out of the town to the battlefields of the Ypres salient. The walls of the Hall of Memory are inscribed with the names of 54,896 British and Commonwealth soldiers killed in the Ypres salient before 16 August 1917. Each night at 8pm, the traffic is stopped and the Last Post is played under the arches of the memorial.
Messines Battlefield and MemorialsMessines Battlefield and Memorials (Wikimedia Commons)
Around the village of Wystchaete, the St Eloi, Peckham Farm, St Yvon, Kruisstraat, and Spanbroekmolen craters bear testimony to the 19 enormous mines detonated beneath the German trenches at Messines. An information board in the village gives directions to the craters, and there are more than 1,000 burials in the Wytschaete Military Cemetery, a short walk from the main square. A smaller cemetery, the Lone Tree Cemetery, near Spanbroekmolen contains 88 burials, mainly of soldiers from the Royal Irish Rifles.
Memorials of the battle include one to the London Scottish regiment on the N365 between Wytschaete and Messines, marking the spot where they first went into action. In Mesen (Messines) itself, which was completely destroyed in the battle, there are the New Zealand Memorial Park and the Messines Ridge Military cemetery. It was in Mesen’s church (rebuilt) that Adolf Hitler reputedly received treatment for combat injuries in 1914. To the south of Mesen is the modern Island of Ireland Peace Park, opened in 1998, to commemorate Irish soldiers killed during World War 1
Around Mesen (Messines)
Passchendaele BattlefieldPasschendaele New British Cemetery (Michael Day via Flickr)
Few battlefield areas evoke the tragedy of the Ypres salient more than Passchendaele, around the modern village of Passendale. The area is littered with memorials to individual battles and regiments, including the Canadian Memorial at Crest Farm, the 85th (Nova Scotia Highlanders) Battalion Memorial, and memorials to French soldiers and the British Seventh Division, both at Broodseinde.
Cemeteries in the area include the Passchendaele New British Cemetery, containing 2,101 British and Commonwealth burials, and the vast Tyne Cot cemetery to the southwest of Passendale. In Zonnebeke, the Passchendaele Memorial 1917 Museum contains a large display of military artifacts.
Various Locations in and around Zonnebeke and Passendale(Wikimedia Commons)
This museum houses collections relating to the whole of Belgian military history, not just World War I, but it includes a large collection of World War I artifacts, documents and memorabilia in a permanent 1914–18 exhibition. Exhibits include fi rearms, artillery pieces, uniforms, armored vehicles, and even a Fokker triplane.
Jubelpark 3, 1000 Brussels
St Julien MemorialSt Julien Memorial (Floor_/iStock)
This granite memorial, designed by the Anglo-Canadian architect Frederick Chapman Clemesha, stands 11 m (36 ft) tall. Known as the Brooding Soldier, it features at its summit the head and shoulders of a Canadian infantryman, his head bowed in mourning. The memorial remembers the Canadian troops killed around St Julien during the Second Battle of Ypres. Many of the dead were killed by the first use of poison gas (chlorine) on the Western Front, as the memorial inscription attests: “This column marks the battlefield where 18,000 Canadians on the British left withstood the first German gas attacks on the 22–24 April 1915. 2,000 fell and here lie buried.”
7 km (4.3 miles) northeast of Ieper, off the N313 towards Roulers
Sanctuary Wood Cemetery and Museum Hill 62Hill 62 Sanctuary Wood Museum, preserved trench systems (Michael Day via Flickr)
In 1914, Sanctuary Wood acted as a protective barrier between British and Commonwealth troops and the front line. During 1915–16, however, it was also swamped with heavy fighting, principally between Canadian and German forces.
Three Allied cemeteries were established in the area at the time. The remains of one of them formed the foundations for the present cemetery, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens just after the war. During the 1920s and 1930s, the cemetery expanded with additions from the wider Western Front. Today, it contains 1,989 burials (spread over five plots), of which only 637 are identified.
Within a short distance of the cemetery is the Sanctuary Wood Museum Hill 62, a privately run institution. An extensive series of preserved trench lines, all open to walk through, can be seen outside the museum. Another feature of the Sanctuary Wood area is the Canadian Memorial at Hill 62, remembering the thousands of Canadians killed in futile battles to retake Hill 62 in June 1916.
5km (3 miles) east of Ieper town, off the N8(Wikimedia Commons)
Field Marshal Lord Plumer, commander of the British Second Army in Flanders during the war, laid the foundation stone of St George’s Church in Ieper in 1927. The building opened for services two years later and is still an active place of worship today. Though the church was built primarily to remember the British and Commonwealth dead of Ypres – its stained glass, wall plaques, banners, and kneelers reflect individual British regiments – it is now the memorial church for all those who died in battle in Flanders during both world wars.
Elverdingsestraat 1, 8900 Ieper(Havana1234 / iStock)
The largest British war cemetery in the world, Tyne Cot contains a total of 11,953 burials, mostly of British and Commonwealth troops but also including four German soldiers. The majority of the men buried here were killed during the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917. The name Tyne Cot is thought to have British origins. According to a local story, the Northumberland Fusiliers thought a barn on the ridgeline here looked like their cottages on the River Tyne, back home in Britain. Landmarks of the cemetery include the Cross of Sacrifice Monument and the curved Memorial to the Missing, listing the names of 35,000 soldiers with no known grave.
Southwest of Passendale, signposted off the N332 after passing east through Zonnebeke(Wikimedia Commons)
This German cemetery is the burial place for 25,644 soldiers, most of whom were moved here from other locations in the 1950s (the site was used as a combat cemetery from 1914). Although some headstones date from the time of the war, most were inscribed afterwards. Each of the flat granite slabs bears 20 names, with name, rank, and date of death. The Grieving Parents, a pair of statues made by the German sculptor Käthe Kollwitz stand in the cemetery. Kollwitz’s son died at First Ypres in October 1914.
3km (1.8 miles) northeast of Vladslo, signposted from N363 from Beerst
Ypres Salient BattlefieldBattle Remains in the Ypres Salient (Andrew Nash via Flickr)
After the Somme, the area around the Ypres salient, centering on the modern town of Ieper, is the most frequented destination for battlefield visitors. Within the town itself are the Menin Gate and St George’s Memorial Church, both moving memorials to those lost around Ypres, and the In Flanders Field Museum. Outside the town are many other sites of interest, including more than 140 military cemeteries and military burial grounds. British cemeteries alone contain 40,000 unidentified graves. The cemeteries are tended by the British, Belgian, French, and Italian war graves commissions.
Among a number of interesting museums around Ieper are the Sanctuary Wood Museum Hill 62, the Hooge Crater Museum, the Memorial Museum Passchendaele (at Zonnebeke), and the Messines Historical Museum (Mesen). Poperinge, 13 km (8 miles) to the west of Ieper was a center for British troops heading to the front. The town’s Talbot House Museum served as a club house for British Army troops. Opened by army Chaplain Philip Clayton as an alternative place of relaxation to the more debauched places in town, it was open to all ranks. Officers going on leave could also spend the night here before catching their train back to Britain.
Neuville-St-Vaast exit from A26 autoroute, follow D49(Nine LaMaitre via Flickr)
This is arguably one of the most powerful memorials on the Western Front. Work on a provisional ossuary – a building where bones of the dead are kept – began in 1920 to provide a sanctuary for the hundreds of thousands of bones that were scattered throughout the Verdun battlefield site. Work on a permanent ossuary began in 1920, and bones were transferred here from the battlefield from 1927. The ossuary cloister contains the bones of 130,000 unidentified soldiers, arranged according to the area of the Verdun battlefield in which they were found.
The many British military camps and hospitals around Étaples meant that the area required a large British and Commonwealth cemetery. In use from May 1915, it contains 10,733 burials from World War I, including those of 35 unknown soldiers, as well as burials from World War II.
Between Boulogne and Etaples(Wikimedia Commons)
Although not the largest German war cemetery in the Somme area – Vermandovillers has 26,000 burials – Fricourt contains 17,027 German soldiers, about 10,000 of whom were killed during the Somme battles of 1916 (the burials date from 1914 to 1918). Only 5,057 of the burials have individual graves; the other 11,970 are contained in four mass graves.
Near Fricourt, the Somme(carterdayne / iStock)
This is the largest US military cemetery in Europe, with a total of 14,246 servicemen buried over 52 hectares (130 acres) of grounds. In the memorial chapel, panels are inscribed with the names of 954 soldiers missing in action (the bodies of those with rosettes against their names were eventually discovered and identified). Staff members at the visitor center provide guidance on navigating the cemetery and locating particular graves.
Romagne-Sous Montfacuon(Wikimedia Commons)
One of the world’s largest military museums, the Musée de l’Armée in Paris contains more than 500,000 artifacts from every period of French military history. Its World War I section contains large collections of uniforms and weaponry.
Les Invalides, Paris(Wikimedia Commons)
Established by the French in 1919 to hold German war dead, this German War Graves Commission cemetery, also known as La Maison Blanche, is the largest in France. A sea of metal crosses, laid out during the 1970s to replace earlier wooden versions, it contains 44,533 burials, with four soldiers in each grave. There is also a mass grave containing the remains of more than 8,000 soldiers.
Notre Dame De LoretteNotre Dame De Lorette (Wikimedia Commons)
Religious buildings have occupied this ridge to the northwest of Arras since the 18th century, but the basilica and ossuary currently on the site were built in 1921 as memorials to the French soldiers who died in the Artois area
during the battles of 1914, 1915, and 1917. The cemetery later became a national necropolis, and the ossuary contains the remains of some 23,000 unidentified soldiers from both world wars as well as French conflicts in Algeria and Indochina. The basilica, designed by Louis-Marie Cordonnier, is adorned with colorful mosaics. Surrounding the basilica and ossuary, the cemetery covers 13 hectares (32 acres) and contains 45,000 burials, the bulk of them from World War I. Behind the cemetery is a military museum, with dioramas, uniforms, artillery pieces, photographs, and a reconstructed trench and bunker system. Outside the museum, original trenches have been redug.
Ablain-Saint-Nazaire, near Arras(Havana1234 / iStock)
The site of one of the greatest and most costly battles in human history, the Somme region is one of the main centres of military tourism. To get the most out of a visit, it is advisable to buy a guidebook to the battlefield sites or join a tour run by one of the specialist companies operating in the area. The officially recommended “Tour of Remembrance” takes in the town of Albert (including the Somme 1916 Trench Museum and the CWGC-maintained Albert Communal Cemetery), Beaumont-Hamel, Thiepval, Ovillers-la-Boiselle (site of the Lochnagar crater), Longueval (including the New Zealand Memorial and Pipers Memorial), and Peronne. All these places are packed with places of interest, including cemeteries, military relics, museums, and memorials. Munitions and artifacts are regularly dug up in the Somme countryside (remember not to touch any munitions you might find). The best way to get around the battlefield privately is by car, as many of the sites are easily accessible from the A29 or A1 motorways.
The Somme(JonathanNicholls / iStock)
This huge memorial in Thiepval was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and opened by Edward, Prince of Wales in 1932. Inscribed on its surfaces are the names of 73,357 Allied soldiers who died in the Somme area between 1916 and 1918 but have no grave. A commemorative ceremony is held here on 1 July every year. Thiepval, the Somme
India GateIndia Gate (PG-1973 / iStock)
Designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and built between 1921 and 1931, the India Gate in Delhi commemorates all Indian soldiers who died in World War I and the Third Afghan War of 1919. Originally called the All India War Memorial, the arch is 42 m (137 ft) tall and inscribed with the names of more than 70,000 men. Beneath the arch is the Amar Jawan Jyoti (The Flame of the Immortal Warrior) and also the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The cenotaph is surrounded by four flaming torches that are kept constantly lit.
Located on Rajpath, Delhi
Irish National War Memorial GardensIrish National War Memorial Gardens (Wikimedia Commons)
Built to remember the 49,400 Irish soldiers who died in World War I, these gardens were designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens in the 1930s. The park covers 8 hectares (20 acres) and includes a sunken rose garden and two book rooms, containing the Rolls of Honour listing the names of the dead. The site also features the Ginchy Cross, a wooden monument built by soldiers of the Irish 16th Division and originally erected on the Somme battlefield. Inscribed on the floor of the domed temple on the bank of the River Liffey, at the northern end of the garden, is an extract of “War Sonnet II: Safety” by Rupert Brooke.
ISRAEL(Archives New Zealand Follow via Flickr)
Established in December 1917 to serve the field hospitals set up in the area, the cemetery in Ramleh (now Ramla) was later augmented by graves moved here from other cemeteries in Palestine and Israel. Ramleh was occupied by the First Australian Light Horse Brigade from November 1917. The cemetery contains 3,300 Commonwealth burials from World War I, plus nearly 1,200 burials from World War II and a number of other burials of non-Commonwealth and non-combat personnel. There is also a memorial to Commonwealth, German, and Turkish servicemen buried elsewhere in Palestine and Israel, in cemeteries that are no longer maintained. The memorial was built in 1961.
Sacrario Militare Di RedipugliaSacrario Militare Di Redipuglia (Hect / iStock)
Built under Mussolini and opened in 1938, the Sacrario Militare Di Redipuglia is a military shrine in the north of Italy, on the slopes of Monte sei Busi, at the eastern end of the Isonzo front. It holds the remains of more than 100,000 Italian soldiers killed during World War I – the 22 steps to the top of the shrine alone contain the remains of 40,000 soldiers. The shrine also contains the tombs of five generals and the Duke of Aosta, the commander of the Third Army. The site includes a chapel and a museum containing a poignant collection of artifacts from the Italian front and some original trench fortifications.
Monte Sei Busi
Isonzo Front BattlefieldsIsonzo Front Battlefields, Remains of Kluže (Wikimedia Commons)
In terms of battlefield tourism, the Isonzo front is often overlooked in preference for battlefields in France and Belgium, but it is just as rich in heritage and places of interest. The challenges for touring the Isonzo front are the distances involved and the arduous terrain. A typical route might run from Kranjska Gora in northwest Slovenia down to Duino on the Adriatic coast in northeastern Italy, although there are many other options. Highlights include the Soca Valley, containing numerous positions and gun emplacements in the rockface; the Vrsic pass, built by Russian prisoners in 1916; and Kluze fortress with its military tunnels. At Kobarid (Caporetto during World War I) in Slovenia, it is possible to walk along former trench lines. The town also has an excellent museum devoted to the ferocious battles along the Isonzo front, with large-scale maps, models of the terrain, artifacts, and photographs. A
long the Slovenian/Italian border
NEW ZEALAND(Onfokus / iStock)
Built in the 1850s, and more generally known as the Auckland Museum, this houses extensive general collections on the whole of New Zealand’s history, not just military history. The modern annexe, which opened in 1929, was built in memory of Auckland province’s many war dead from World War I. The walls of the World War I Sanctuary are inscribed with the names of fallen soldiers with no known grave. Under the central stained-glass skylight are the badges of their units and regiments.
The War Memorial Galleries and Armoury information Centre present extensive collections and research facilities relating to the war, and frequent events, lectures, and exhibitions are held in the museum, particularly around commemorative days. The database contains bibliographic records of the 35,000 New Zealanders killed in wars since the late 19th century.
Mausoleum of MarasestiMausoleum of Marasesti (Wikimedia Commons)
Built between 1923 and 1938, the Mausoleum for the Heroes from the National Unity War, to give it its full title, is an imposing monument to the Romanians killed in World War I. The Battle of Marasesti in 1917 was the last major battle on the Romanian front before the country was occupied. The mausoleum stands some 30 m (100 ft) tall and the remains of 6,000 Romanian soldiers are contained within the crypts. The mausoleum also includes the sarcophagus of General Eremia Grigorescu, who died in 1919, and a rotunda containing the flags of the Romanian units who fought at Marasesti. The main edifice is topped by the “Dome of Glory”. A great bas-relief on the dome depicts scenes from the battle at Marasesti.
Between Focsani and Adjud, Vrancea County.
Gallipoli BattlefieldGallipoli Battlefield (Clay Gilliland via Flickr)
The Gallipoli Peninsula Historical National Park is one of the most rewarding sites for military history tourists and researchers. Covering around 33,000 hectares (81,500 acres), it includes 31 CWGC cemeteries, containing 22,000 graves, most of them easily accessible, and numerous memorials.
There are three main areas of interest: Cape Helles (V-Beach Cemetery, Helles Memorial, and Redoubt Cemetery); Pine Ridge (the Beach Cemetery, No. 2 Outpost Cemetery, Courtney’s and Steel’s Post Cemetery, Chunuk Bair Cemetery and Memorial, Fourth Battalion Parade Ground Cemetery, and Lone Pine Cemetery and Memorial); and Suvla (Green Hill Cemetery and Anzac Cemetery). The main sites can be covered in a day, but two to three days are recommended for a more thorough exploration. Also worth seeing on Cape Helles is the Canakale Martyrs Memorial, the principal memorial to the Turkish dead of Gallipoli.
Special services are held at Gallipoli on Anzac Day on 25 April, commemorating the first day of the Gallipoli Campaign in 1915 when Australian and New Zealand troops landed at Anzac Cove.
THE UNITED KINGDOM(Wikimedia Commons)
This cemetery predates World War I, but land for war burials was granted in 1917, mainly to accommodate the graves of service personnel who had died of battle wounds in the London district. It is now the largest Commonwealth military cemetery in Britain. Although most of the burials are from 1939–1945, there are 1,601 graves dating from World War I. The Brookwood 1914–18 Memorial commemorates more than 200 Commonwealth casualties who died during World War I but for whom no graves could be found. In the grounds of Brookwood, the World War One American Military Cemetery has 468 graves and commemorates 563 US servicemen with no known grave.
"Édition de l'Académie ... limited to three hundred numbered copies ... this set .. no. [five pt. star]."
Several weeks before President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany, the United States became the world’s first modern nation to enlist women in its armed forces. It was a measure of how desperate the country was for soldiers and personnel to assist with operations stateside, and American women seized the opportunity to prove their patriotism.
Initially, they worked as clerks and journalists. But by late 1917, General John Pershing declared he needed women on the frontlines for an even more crucial role: to operate the switchboards that linked up telephones across the front. The women would work for the Signal Corps, and came to be known as the “Hello Girls.”
These intrepid women are the subject of Elizabeth Cobbs’ new book, The Hello Girls: America’s First Women Soldiers. “Telephones were the only military technology in which the United States enjoyed clear superiority,” Cobbs writes, and women were by far the best operators. At the start of the 20th century, 80 percent of all telephone operators were women, and they could generally connect five calls in the time it took a man to do one.
When the United States declared war, the Signal Corps had only 11 officers and 10 men in its Washington office, and an additional 1,570 enlisted men around the country. The Army needed more operators, bilingual ones especially, and it needed them quickly. Fortunately, women were quick to respond. In the first week of December 1918, before the War Department even had the chance to print out applications, they received 7,600 letters from women enquiring about the first 100 positions in the Signal Corps. Eventually 223 American women were sent across the ocean to work at Army switchboards across Europe.
To learn more about these women and the role of telephones in the war, Smithsonian.com talked to Cobbs about her research.
What brought you to this subject?
I was searching for a topic for a new book a couple years go, thinking about [the WWI] centennial, and we probably didn’t need another thing about Woodrow Wilson, though someone will write it. In the context of all that, I can’t remember how I tripped across these women, but it struck me there was an important story here. [Women in the military] is one of those problems that seems very new, and yet it’s something women were experiencing 100 years ago.The women of the Signal Corps prepare to depart for the war. (Courtesy of Robert, Grace and Carolyn Timbie)
How did you find information about the women featured in your book?
There wasn’t much. When I talk with some people they say, ‘How can you write this story? These are obscure people.’ I was aware that Mark Hough, a young man in his 20s in the 1970s, became a champion for the women. I went to the Seattle Bar Association, contacted them, asked can you get me in touch with him? They had an old email, tried a few times and didn’t hear back, and after a couple months I heard back. He said, ‘Oh yeah, this is me. I’ve been in Bosnia and Iraq for eight years, and I have three boxes of materials from the Hello Girls. I worked with them for several years to get [them recognized by Congress].’
He had a box that was memorabilia the women shared with him. They didn’t want to see it lost forever. One of the first things he showed me was a charm-bracelet-size pair of binoculars. He said, ‘Take a peek, you can see in them.’ I put this penny-sized pair of binoculars on, and I took a peek. I see a glimmer and I think it’s his shelves, the room. But then I’m looking through them and on the other side are these perfectly crisp pictures of naked women! French pornography of the 1910s, it was very tasteful. These were the things the women brought back from WWI, which also gives you a peek into their own mindset, their sense of humor, their willingness to laugh at their circumstances and themselves.
What role did the telephone play in getting women to the front?
The way this worked in WWI was the telephone was the key instrument in the war. Telegraphs operated on Morse code and it was a slower process. As a general, you couldn’t talk to somebody directly. The radios were similar. To get a radio field unit required three mules to carry it. The other problem with radios was that there wasn’t any measure for disguising the transmission so they weren’t secure forms yet. The signal could be plucked out of the air and you could trace where it came from. Telephones were secure and immediate; they were the primary way men communicated. In WWI, telephones then were called candlestick phones. You lifted up the speaker tube and you would tell them who you wanted to talk to, and then every call had to be connected manually.
Women were really the best doing this job. General Pershing insisted when he got over, they needed bilingual women [to operate the switch boards]. The way telephones worked with long distance was an operator talked to another operator, who talked to another, and the call was relayed across the multiple lines. The U.S. ultimately ran an entirely new telephone system all throughout France that would allow operators to talk with English-speaking operators. But when they first got there they were interacting with French lines and French women. These were generals and operators who had to communicate across lines with their counterpart in other cultures. An American officer might not speak French, and a French officer might not speak English, so the women also acted as simultaneous translation. They were not only constantly fielding simultaneous calls, they were translating, too. It was this extremely high-paced operation that involved a variety of tasks. They were sweeping the boards, translating, even doing things like giving the time. Artillery kept calling them and saying, can I have the time operator? The women were really critical.
And the women who were working for the Signal Corps, a number at the end of their shifts would go to the evacuation hospitals, they’d talk to the men and keep up their spirits. One night Bertha Hunt [a member of the Signal Corps] was on the lines and wrote about just talking to men on the front lines. They would call just to hear a woman’s voice.Raymonde and Louise Breton in the Signal Corps barracks at Neufchateau (Courtesy of National Archives)
Was sexism a major issue the women had to deal with on the front?
I think sexism falls away fastest under fire because people realize they just have to rely on each other. Yes, the women encountered sexism, and there were some men who were grumpy, who said, ‘What are you doing here?’ But as soon as the women started to perform, they found the men were very grateful and very willing to let them do their job, because their job was so critical. It created this enormous camaraderie and mutual respect.
At the same time as women were going to war, the suffrage movement was coming to a head in the U.S. How did these two things go together?
Worldwide, the war was the thing that enabled women in multiple countries to get the vote. In the U.S., they’d been fighting for 60 years and it went nowhere. Curiously, it’s women elsewhere who get the vote first—20 other countries, even though the demand was first made in the U.S.
The women’s suffrage movement brings the topic to fruition, but it’s women’s wartime service that converts people. For Wilson, it’s also the knowledge that the U.S. is way behind the implementation of liberal democracy. Women’s suffrage becomes intertwined in his foreign policy. How can we claim to be the leaders of the free world when we’re not doing what everybody else is doing? Are we going to be last to learn this lesson?
If you’re a full citizen, you defend the republic. One of the longtime arguments [against suffrage] had been women don’t have to pay the consequences. The vote should be given to people who are willing to give their lives if necessary. With the war, the women could say, ‘How can you deny us the vote if we’re willing to lay down our lives?’Grace Banker was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for her work in the Signal Corps. (Courtesy of Robert, Grace and Carolyn Timbie)
You follow the journeys of several women in the book. Are there any that you felt an especially close connection to?
My two heroines are Grace Banker and Merle Egan. You identify with them all, but with Grace, I love the fact that here’s this 25-year-old woman who one day, doesn’t know if she’ll even be inducted and five days later is told she’s going to head this unit—the first women’s unit in America to serve in this particular capacity, the first official group of women’s soldiers. Everybody all over the U.S. was talking about them doing this unusual thing, and she writes in her diary, ‘I suddenly realize this duty settling on my shoulders.’ I found her desire to rise to the occasion very moving.
She was also a naughty girl, because you’re not supposed to keep a diary—it’s against the rules. I said to myself, I wonder why she would do this? I wonder if maybe she liked history? So I went to Barnard and said, ‘Can you tell me what Grace Banker’s major was?’ They said she was a double major, history and French. She had an eye to history, and I love that about her. Grace is just this firecracker. At one point, she’s talking in her diary about this person who came in who’s such a bore, and she went out the back window.
With Merle Egan, I found it so poignant that throughout the decades, this lonely fight [for recognition], she keeps it up. For her the meaning of old age wasn’t to slow down, but to hurry up. Her files and her letters and her campaign intensified when she was in her 80s. She knew she didn’t have much time left. By this time the second wave of feminism had come up. She hops on the second wave, and it’s really a story also about men and women working together. Mark Hough and General Pershing were men who saw that women were people too and wanted to recognize women’s service and give women the opportunity to serve and fully live out the meaning of citizenship.
Merle’s story is really interesting. She comes back to the U.S. after being the switchboard operator at the Versailles peace conference, and she’s denied any recognition of her service. What was that like for them?
At 91, Merle got her victory medal and said, ‘I deserve this as much for fighting the U.S. Army for 60 years as for heading up the switchboard for the Versailles conference.’ The women were not given discharges at the same time because somebody had to stay behind and run communications. Men who went home for the armistice were followed six months or even a year later by the women, because they weren’t discharged until the army was done with them. They got home and—here’s the totally bizarre thing that tells you the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing in government—the Navy and Marines formally inducted 11,000 women to serve in roles at home, clerks, telephone operators and journalists. But the Army took in a much smaller group of people, only 300 women altogether, and they hated the idea of inducting anybody.
The women found, if they were in the Army, despite everything they understood, when they got home the Army said you weren’t in the Army. You never took an oath. And there were multiple oaths in the files for them. One of them, their leader Grace Banker, won the Distinguished Service Medal awarded by Pershing, which was the top medal for officer at that time. Despite all that, they were told, ‘You weren’t actually in the Army.’ And of course it was heartbreaking for these women. A majority did what soldiers do, they buttoned it up and moved on with their lives, but a group said this isn’t right. Especially Merle Egan. There were women who died, two who lost their lives in influenza, and several were disabled. One woman’s arm was permanently disabled because somebody had treated it improperly and she ended up with permanent nerve damage. Another had tuberculosis. The Army, unlike the Marines and Navy, which provided medical benefits, said, that’s not our problem.Elizabeth Cobbs, author of The Hello Girls: America's First Women Soldiers (Harvard University Press)
We’re still having these arguments today, about women’s role in combat. Do you think things have improved since WWI?
I think there has been a lot of change and there remains a lot of resistance. The WWI women got on the same piece of legislation as the WWII women in the Army, who were also denied full status as military personnel. One of their jobs was to tow targets for other soldiers to shoot at. Women in that group [the Women Airforce Service Pilots] were being denied burial rights at Arlington [until 2016] because they weren’t real soldiers. Despite the legislation headed by Barry Goldwater that overturned the original ruling, the Army was coming back again and saying, we don’t have to obey that.
Remembering and forgetting that women are real people, full citizens, is something that it seems we encounter in every generation. People have to be reminded, the fight has to be taken up again, but at a different point. There has been real progress, but you can’t take it for granted.
Editor's Note, April 5, 2017: The article previously misstated that General John Pershing needed women on the frontlines at the end of 1918.
Laura Bush may have been a quiet First Lady—her clothes didn’t make headlines, her political positions didn’t make news—but she is no wallflower.
When she latches on to an issue, it sticks. And her involvement with the country of Afghanistan goes way, way back. When Bush was a sixth-grader in her hometown of Midland, Texas, her teacher assigned the students to do a report on a country of their choosing. In the introduction to a new book, We Are Afghan Women: Voices of Hope, Bush writes that she wanted to focus on a place “completely exotic and remote from anything I had ever seen.” She traced a map of the world and her pre-teen finger landed on faraway Afghanistan.
She recently toured a new Smithsonian exhibition focusing on the traditional arts of Afghanistan, and at the end of her visit stated her strongly held conviction that whoever becomes the next president, a continued American presence in Afghanistan is vital: “It is important that we stay engaged—with a real commitment—for a long time.”
The tumultuous decades after Laura Bush wrote her school report have seen the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, September 11th, the rise of the Taliban, and the years-long, much-debated American involvement in the country. Decades of conflict have not only decimated the country’s political institutions and economy but also laid waste to its cultural heritage. But slowly, that is beginning to change. “Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan,” a new exhibition from the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery that makes Afghan artisans and craftspeople the stars of the show, is testament to that change.Afghan artist Sughra Hussainy and all the craftspeople featured in the exhibition were trained at an extraordinary institution in Kabul called Turquoise Mountain whose mission is to preserve and foster the age-old arts of Afghanistan. (Courtesy of Turquoise Mountain)
Intricately worked jewelry, stunningly glazed pottery in vibrant hues, and meticulously woven rugs are on display, but it is the people themselves who are an integral part of the exhibition, making this show more of an experience than a traditional art museum viewing.
The mix of traditional arts and contemporary, innovative approaches to creating a museum show is exemplified by the traditional wooden sayaban (or pavilion) at its center: It is outfitted with handsome maroon striped pillows that beckon a visitor to sit—but also with iPads. Museumgoers are encouraged to touch, magnifying glasses hang from the wall, and the show is on Instagram and Twitter. A rotation of 17 artisans will be in residence at the museum while the show is up (through January 2017), and one of them, diminutive, exuberant Sughra Hussainy helped guide Bush through the exhibition on a recent evening.
Image by Courtesy of Turquoise Mountain. The Institute is home to the Alwaleed Bin Talal School of Calligraphy and Miniature Painting, the premier school for these arts in Afghanistan. (original image)
Image by Courtesy of Turquoise Mountain. Master carver Nasser Mansouri, fled Iran at age 11 following the Soviet invasion, and is now working in the old city of Kabul, employing a large number of young Afghan craft artists. (original image)
Image by Courtesy of Turquoise Mountain. A geodesic dome crafted by master carver Nasser Mansouri, who is producing woodwork for UNESCO's restoration of the Gowhar Shad Mausoleum in Herat. (original image)
Image by Courtesy of Turquoise Mountain. Detail of a Nuristani carving (original image)
Image by Courtesy of Turquoise Mountain. After incorporating 25 different colors into the design, rug maker Erbil Tezcan employed a team of weavers that worked for six weeks to complete the rug. (original image)
Image by Courtesy of Turquoise Mountain. Wool drying near the old city of Kabul at Turquiose Mountain, Afghanistan's premiere institution for vocation training in the arts and crafts. (original image)
Image by Courtesy of Turquoise Mountain. Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Nasser Mansouri (left) fled to Iran at the age of 11. There, he was apprenticed to an Iraqi master of classical wood carving. When he returned to Afghanistan in 2006, Mansouri became a woodwork master at the Institute. (original image)
Image by Courtesy of Turquoise Mountain. Calligraphy from the shop of Samira Kitman (original image)
Image by Courtesy of Turquoise Mountain. Artisan Samira Kitman (middle) runs one of Afghanistan's most successful businesses, employing 15 professional caligraphers. (original image)
Image by Courtesy of Turquoise Mountain. Afghanistan is one of the last countries where carpets are made completely by hand with natural dyes. (original image)
Image by Courtesy of Turquoise Mountain. Fakhria Nezami was born a refugee in Peshawar, Pakistan, in 1989. At the Turquoise Mountain Institute, she specializes in the technique of 'nuqtapardazi'—a type of pointillism that requires use of the tip of a paintbrush to dab thousands of tiny dots in an intricate design. (original image)
Image by Courtesy of Turquoise Mountain. 'Jali' is a form of woodwork that uses slivers of wood, heldtogether by delicate joints, to form hundreds of geometricpatterns. (original image)
Image by Courtesy of Turquoise Mountain. Afghanistan was once a great center of civilization at the heart of the Silk Road. It inherited the traditions of India, Persia and Central Asia and over the centuries blended them into a unique artistic culture. (original image)
Image by Courtesy of Turquoise Mountain. British jewelry designer Pippa Small (left) has been visiting Turquoise Mountain since 2008 and has produced eight collections in collaboration with Afghanistan’s jewelers. Her firm was named the Ethical Jewelry Business of the Year at the 2015 UK Jewelry Awards. (original image)
Image by Courtesy of Turquoise Mountain. Afghan lapis lazuli has been traded for thousands of years. It can be found in Tutankhamen's funeral mask and was ground into powder for the blue pigments used by Renaissance artists in Europe. (original image)
Image by Courtesy of Turquoise Mountain. Since 2006 Turquoise Mountain has worked in partnership with the community of Murad Khani, providing employment, education, healthcare, and a renewed sense of pride. (original image)
Image by Courtesy of Turquoise Mountain. During the 1990s rubber shoes were made from tires at this site. Today this grand serai is home to the Institute's ceramics school. (original image)
Image by Courtesy of Turquoise Mountain. Applying to the Institute is a highly competitive process, with only 15 students selected in each craft every year. (original image)
Image by Courtesy of Turquoise Mountain. Until recently, the Old City of Kabul was buried under several feet of garbage. It had no running water, drainage, or electricity. Its historic buildings were in ruins and were being threatened by modern development. (original image)
Image by Courtesy of Turquoise Mountain. Turquoise Mountain is also committed to providing a sustainable source of income for Afghanistan's young women. Currently over half of the school's calligraphy and jewelry students are women. (original image)
Image by Courtesy of Turquoise Mountain. Today this building houses the Turquoise Mountain Institute dormitory, where visiting students and teachers stay. (original image)
Image by Courtesy of Turquoise Mountain. When Turquoise Mountain started working in the historic district of Murad Khani in Kabul, it was on the World Monuments Fund Watch List of the world's most endangered sites. On the verge of collapse, the wall of this building had to be held in place with wooden props. (original image)
Image by Courtesy of Turquoise Mountain. Born in 1988 in Mazar-e-Sharif, Zahir Shah Amin is the son of one of Afghanistan's most renowned tile makers. He joined the first tile-making program at the Turquoise Mountain Institute in 2007—today he is its head teacher. (original image)
Image by Courtesy of Turquoise Mountain. The small class sizes allow students to work closely with the Institute's distinguished master artisans, with one teacher to every four students. (original image)
Image by Courtesy of Turquoise Mountain. Born in 1992 in Pakistan, Storai Stanizai comes from an Afghan family with a strong connection to the arts. "In life you must do the things you want," she says. "I do not see myself as just a jeweler... I am also an artist." (original image)
Image by Courtesy of Turquoise Mountain. Turquoise Mountain woodworkers often incorporatetraditional styles and techniques, such as 'jali' latticework and 'nuristani' carving, into contemporary pieces for everyday use. (original image)
Image by Courtesy of Turquoise Mountain. A teacher at the Turquoise Mountain Institute in Kabul delicately crafts calligraphy. The Institute has trained more than 450 artisans since its founding eight years ago. (original image)
Image by Courtesy of Turquoise Mountain. Young artisans are mentored through the first years of theirtraining, given access to equipment and workspace, and connected with international markets. (original image)
Bush, fully absorbed and seemingly oblivious to the circling photographers, asked interested questions of Hussainy, whose richly patterned blue head scarf contrasted with Bush’s tailored blue-green dress. Hussainy, orphaned when she was young, explained to Bush in accented but excellent English, how she and two other artisans created the work of calligraphy and illumination on display. As wall panels and photographs show, they made from scratch the materials needed to create the final artwork—pigments, pens, paper.
Hussainy and all the craftspeople featured in the exhibition were trained at an extraordinary institution in Kabul called Turquoise Mountain whose mission is to preserve and foster the age-old arts of Afghanistan—the traditional jali style of lattice woodworking, ceramics, rug-making and more. Conceived at the joint request of Britain’s Prince Charles and Hamid Karzai, former president of Afghanistan, its founder is the writer and British politician Rory Stewart, author of the best-selling The Places in Between, the story of his 2002 solo walk across Afghanistan.
The country and its arts had thrived for thousands of years during the time of the Silk Road trade route, mixing influences from Persia, India and Central Asia into a vibrant aesthetic stew. Since its inception in 2006, Turquoise Mountain, named for a “lost” 12th-century Afghan city, has set about reviving Murad Khani, the traditional Old City of Kabul. Shoshana Stewart, Rory’s wife and the indefatigable CEO of the organization, explains that Murad Khani was in complete ruins.
Turquoise Mountain volunteers and workers had to clear away thousands of tons of debris and waste before starting work in earnest on the district’s historic buildings. To date, 112 of these structures have been rebuilt or restored, and hundreds of Afghan artisans have been trained in the country’s traditional arts, ensuring that the artisans’ precious skills will not be lost to future generations.
Turquoise Mountain’s work has an economic as well as a cultural motivation. Part of the goal is to help get the country back on its financial feet, and the organization is engaged in setting up partnerships with such famous Western commercial names as Bloomingdale’s and the handbag designer Kate Spade.
For Laura Bush, the motivation is to support Afghan women. In a March 7 Washington Post opinion article, timed to coincide with International Women’s Day, Bush spoke out about what Afghan women have faced and how far they have come: “Fifteen years ago, if you were a woman in Afghanistan, you could be beaten for laughing in public or if your shoes made noise. … Fifteen years ago, barely 5,000 girls were enrolled in primary school. Soon that number will exceed 3 million. Thirty-six percent of teachers are women. … In government, women hold 69 seats in parliament. There are four female government ministers and two female provincial governors. Thousands of women have started their own businesses.”
Bush, no stranger to politics, believes that if the United States withdraws completely from Afghanistan, the losers would be Afghan women like Sughra Hussainy, the talented Turquoise Mountain calligrapher who was Bush’s guide through the exhibition.
Tommy Wide, Turquoise Mountain’s energetic and erudite director of exhibitions, was also on hand during Laura Bush’s visit. His goal is to change the way the world sees the country about which he is so passionate. “Everyone thinks it’s just dusty desert,” he says. “That’s what you see on the news. We’re just trying to show another side. We’re not trying to pretend it’s not difficult.”
"Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan" is on view in the Smithsonian's International Gallery at 1100 Jefferson Drive in Washington, D.C. through January 29, 2017.
With a non-stop babble of hums, grunts and shrill squeals as they argue over fish and defend their territories, the Amazon’s giant otters are one […]
The post With voices joined in chorus, giant otter families create a distinct sound signature appeared first on Smithsonian Insider.
After Columbus, Magellan and Drake; after Steller, Nansen and Amundsen; after the golden age of exploration fizzled into the era of idleness and suburbia; after the deepest jungles of New Guinea were finally mapped; and after the conquest of the solar system—still there remained one thing undone.
And now Matt Rutherford is doing it: He is on the homestretch of a nearly one-year journey that should make him the first person ever to circumnavigate the Americas on a single voyage. The 30-year-old sailor from Annapolis, Maryland is currently riding the wind northwest through the western Atlantic Ocean. The journey runs 25,000 miles from the edge of Arctic Canada to the tip of Patagonia and two oceans in between. He’s sailing alone, though that isn’t essential to the record.
“Nobody, period, has done this before,” Rutherford told me by satellite telephone on March 8. “Not on a 100-foot boat with a crew of 50, not on an aircraft carrier.”
Rutherford’s boat is the sort, as he says, that could be moored at a wharf and not attract a second glance. It’s a modest 27-foot Albin-Vega with a tendency for mechanical things to break and a ceiling so low that the 6-foot-tall Rutherford bumps his head any time he wakes up and forgets where he is. Rutherford, a sailor since 2004, has not set foot on land for almost 280 days, with an estimated 30 left. When we spoke, he was about 200 miles north of the mouth of the Amazon River and moving homeward, and certainly the most perilous parts of the journey are in the sack.
Indeed, right after setting out last June, he tackled the once almost mythical, now plain legendary Northwest Passage. Then he braved the nasty Bering Sea, and southward he went along the West Coast of Canada, the United States and Mexico. He entered the 30-to-35-degree latitude zone of famously windless weather, often called the “horse latitudes,” where many a sailing ship of the old days was stranded for sweltering, thirsty weeks. But Rutherford sailed through and into the sticky, balmy tropics. He paid little notice to the Panama Canal—the lazy sailor’s gateway to the Atlantic—for Rutherford was taking the scenic route. Ecuador, Peru and Chile sailed by before the American faced off with the tip of South America. As most sailors do when they find themselves in this neighborhood, Rutherford slipped through the Strait of Magellan, which brought him back again to the ocean he knows best, and the final leg of the trip began.
Rutherford has been fishing, he said. He trolls a lure behind him and, about two weeks ago, landed a mahi mahi worth a few good meals. He took a mid-sized yellowfin tuna off of New England early on and has lost a good many lures to strong strikes that broke his line. Those may have been sharks, swordfish or bluefin tuna. But the ideal catch, Rutherford explains, is a skipjack tuna, since they’re big enough for a feast but small enough to not to be wasted.
He is also eating freeze-dried foods provided by a sponsor, Shelf Reliance. The Utah company’s products are of high quality, Rutherford says, and he’s been preparing restaurant-quality soups and stews.
“All the great freeze-dried foods come out of Utah because of the Mormon ideology that you should have at least a year’s worth of freeze-dried food on your shelf,” Rutherford explained. “They make good freeze-dried food. You’ve gotta go to the Mormons if you want the good stuff.”
Rutherford has fought through just enough nasty weather to keep him on his toes, and he had a close call in the Bering Sea when an icy wave nearly flipped him over. Elsewhere, he has seen about 15 gales, he says, adding that he respects the ocean but doesn’t fear it.
“If the boat sinks and I drown, so be it,” he said. “That’s just how it is, but there’s no sense in being scared all the time.”
His vessel has had a few technical problems – not the least of which was when his water desalinator conked out off of Newfoundland. More recently, off Brazil, his engine petered out. Rutherford’s engine has served mostly as a generator for various appliances and lights, not for locomotion (he is, after all, a sailor). In each minor crisis, nearby vessels came to his assistance, tossing him the parts needed to make repairs.
Other vessels have been less helpful—like the one in early March that approached him in the middle of the night and began circling, coming closer and closer at each pass until, when the strange boat came to within 20 feet away, Rutherford fired a gun twice into the night sky. The boat departed in a hurry.
Asked whether any peers have criticized his voyage as haphazard or foolish, Rutherford said, “With these kinds of trips, it just depends on the outcome. If I had failed early on, then it could have been easily ridiculed, like, ‘Oh, you can’t do that trip on such a small budget or sailing alone, or on such a small boat.’ Basically, I either fail and everyone thinks I’m crazy, or I succeed and I’m a hero.”
Rutherford’s journey is a fundraising venture for Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating (CRAB), a nonprofit sailing program for people with disabilities, and donations can be made via his website. His progress can be followed through his blog. Rutherford is an experienced adventurer and a self-titled “gypsy,” and this journey will not likely be his last. He has already pedaled a bicycle around Southeast Asia and spent 2008 to 2010 on a 32-foot sailboat zigzagging between four continents in the Atlantic Ocean. Next up may be a return to the Arctic, where Rutherford hopes to film a documentary. But first: home, where he says he’s anticipating “a cold beer and a hot shower.”
In a competition for most improbable place to host the World Cup, the city of Manaus would surely make the finals. Its Arena da Amazônia sits in the middle of the Amazon Rainforest, 900 miles up the Amazon River in Brazil’s isolated Amazonas state bordering Venezuela, Colombia, and Peru. “The Amazon Arena” will host four matches next month– including one featuring the English team, whose coach got into a spat with the mayor of Manaus after complaining about the prospect of having to play “in the middle of the Amazonian jungle.” So perhaps more than any other of Brazil’s 12 World Cup host cities, Manaus faces a Sisyphean task during next month’s influx of futebol superstars and their rabid fans: prove that it was worthwhile to build a $300 million, 42,000-seat stadium in an isolated port city lacking a serious futebol culture, or experience hosting major events.
"I didn’t have any idea how difficult this would be,” said Eraldo Boechat Leal, executive coordinator of the Unidade Gestora do Projeto Copa (“UGP Copa”), the project management unit overseeing all World Cup preparations for the state of Amazonas. "It was a huge, huge, huge challenge."
Leal and I had lunch recently at a restaurant on the banks of the Rio Negro, an Amazon tributary that had supplied our spread of baked tambaqui fish and bolinhos de bacalhão (fried codfish). Outside the windows, an afternoon monsoon obscured the view onto an inlet littered with refuse, filled with fishing boats, and surrounded by colorful pink and orange shanty homes. The previous evening, Arena da Amazônia had hosted the top-flight Brazilian team Santos, giving Leal and his team a final chance to iron out the wrinkles before Manaus hands the stadium keys to FIFA at the end of May.
But “wrinkles” may be an understatement, considering that Arena da Amazônia saw three construction-related deaths—out of the eight total deaths that have occurred during Brazil’s $11 billion World Cup preparations. This is four times as many deaths as South Africa experienced during its preparations for the 2010 World Cup. Leal, however, was nonplussed. “We had almost four years of building and construction from the bottom until the stadium was ready,” he said. “We’re saying close to 1,500 days, with workers every day. At least eight hours a day and, in some months, three shifts of eight hours. Imagine how many events happened without accident.”
Image by Marcus Brandt/dpa/Corbis. Construction work at Amazon Arena. (original image)
Image by Reuters/Corbis. Workers rest at the entrance to the Amazon Arena three days before its scheduled inauguration. (original image)
Image by Marcus Brandt/dpa/Corbis. The Amazon Arena Stadium under construction. (original image)
Image by BRAZIL/Reuters/Corbis. Haitian construction worker Milice Norassaint carries mason's supplies through the Amazon Arena stadium. (original image)
Image by Marcus Brandt/dpa/Corbis. Construction work at Amazon Arena. (original image)
Image by Marcus Brandt/dpa/Corbis. Arena Amazonia under construction. (original image)
Image by Marcus Brandt/dpa/Corbis. Arena Amazonia under construction. (original image)
Image by Marcus Brandt/dpa/Corbis. Arena Amazonia under construction. (original image)
Image by Marcus Brandt/dpa/Corbis. The Arena Amazonia stadium under construction. (original image)
Image by Marcus Brandt/dpa/Corbis. "Brazuca," the official match ball for the 2014 World Cup, in Arena Amazonia stadium. (original image)
Image by Reuters/Corbis. Workers look out over the Arena Amazonia soccer stadium three days before its scheduled inauguration. (original image)
Image by BRAZIL/Reuters/Corbis. Fans arrive for the inaugural match of the Arena de Amazonia soccer stadium. (original image)
Image by Reuters/Corbis. An aerial view of the Arena Amazonia soccer stadium two days before its scheduled inauguration. (original image)
Image by BRAZIL/Reuters/Corbis. Players from the Nacional of Amazonas soccer club warm up in the Arena Amazonia stadium before the its inaugural match between the Nacional and Remo clubs in Manaus. (original image)
Image by © BRAZIL/Reuters/Corbis. An overview of the stadium on the day it was inaugurated in Manaus. (original image)
Not that all the work is done. Manaus is still rushing to complete sidewalks and roads outside the arena, while other stadiums such as the Arena de São Paulo are yet to be completed. I wanted to see these last-minute preparations first hand, and so I arrived to Manaus in late April to live here for three months while reporting on the tournament and more generally about the dynamics between environment and industry for The Christian Science Monitor, where I am a correspondent and an editor. I’d lived in Rio before, but never been to Manaus before, which people in Rio consider a continent away.
I was at the May 8 test-run match between São Paulo state’s Santos (the most-winning team in Brazilian history) and Amazonas state’s Princesa do Solimões (whose team highlight is having once been good enough to compete in the Serie B division, which is a full division below the Serie A). And, admittedly, I was also one of many people posing for photos outside and inside the beautiful white stadium, designed to resemble a traditional indigenous straw basket.
The stadium stands in juxtaposition to most everything else about this unruly and unplanned city, constantly clogged with cars and buses because of the absence of ring roads or bypasses. Many people in Manaus work jobs related to the free trade zone created in 1967 under the military government as a geopolitical strategy to populate and guard this porous border region. Since then Manaus has become the nation’s fastest-growing city, with a population of 2 million, and third-largest industrial hub, a base for 550 major companies from Samsung to Honda assembling pieces of TVs and motorbikes that are shipped in from around the world and then shipped 900 miles back downriver to the Atlantic Coast for distribution to Brazil’s more populous southern states.
The future of the city is inextricably tied to the future of the free trade zone, which the Brazilian Congress is currently debating whether to extend by 50 years to 2073. Arena da Amazônia is a symbol that Manaus is here to stay, regardless. Some 20,000 people had quickly snatched up tickets for the sold-out May 8 match (only half the arena was opened) and there was a palpable excitement that the famed Santos – the team forever associated with Pelé – had deigned to fly 1,700 miles to the Amazon. Even the police on guard couldn’t take their eyes off the field, stepping forward to the guardrail whenever Princesa managed to mount an attack against the visiting Goliath.
During the second half, I made my way up to the security control room, escorted by two members of the military police. There, in an extra-large luxury box high above the field, I met Igor Menezes Cordovil—who will oversee all city security during the World Cup (FIFA itself is in charge of security inside all stadiums). The white-walled room was filled with desks and computers and security monitors with feeds from 107 cameras inside the stadium and 50 cameras around the perimeter.
“Intelligence services saw you,” Menezes told me. “They asked me who you were.”
For this trial run, Menezes had deployed a veritable army of 3,500 security personnel that included police from the civil, mounted, military, federal, and special forces; a traffic unit; a bomb squad; gate stewards checking tickets and enforcing rules; and volunteers. The security room was connected in real time to the city’s command center a couple of miles away. Menezes claimed that in the event of an incident, it would take less than 8 minutes to evacuate all 42,000 spectators — though it took me 10 minutes just to walk up the long concrete ramps into the stadium, let alone reach the nose-bleed section.
So far, instead of security problems, Manaus officials have encountered cultural hurdles that would be unfamiliar to other World Cup host cities. Because Manaus doesn’t have a team of its own or a tradition of hosting big matches, Manaus fans didn’t know to arrive early to a match, which meant many were rushing into the stadium at the last minute, causing confusion over seating. Amazonian weather is another challenge. The high humidity and heat—averaging 93 percent humidity and 81 degrees in June—are more than a concern for players and coaches: the tropical weather repeatedly delayed stadium construction and caused Manaus to miss FIFA’s end-of-2013 deadline for finishing the stadium.
It rains so much in Manaus that even as the rest of Brazil is experiencing its worst drought in decades, the stadium here is recycling rainwater for both the field irrigation and sanitation systems. Recently, heavy rains caused a partial ceiling collapse at the newly upgraded international airport, according to local reports.
The bigger challenge for Manaus, according to Leal, still lies ahead, in ensuring that the World Cup leaves behind a positive legacy and that the arena does not become the white elephant that critics have predicted. “We designed the World Cup in Manaus to provide a legacy to our people,” Leal said. “All the things we’re doing, every detail is connected to people.” That means using the event to attract investment and speed up construction of other planned city projects, such as a new water treatment system. It means reframing the World Cup not as a “cost,” but as an “investment.”
Brazil already faced an uphill slog in recouping its investment. As Americas Quarterly detailed in an article three years ago, the World Cup normally only generates $3.5 billion in revenue (most going to FIFA), but Brazil would incur costs more than three times greater. The physical legacy of the World Cup, therefore, would need to yield a future stream of financial benefits for Brazil to recoup costs.
“I think it will be a waste of money,” Eryco Gomez, a 20-year-old biology student here in Manaus, told me in one of many conversations I’ve had with disgruntled Brazilians. “We don’t have good teams in Manaus, so why do we need a good stadium? After the World Cup, this stadium will be nothing.”
Many Brazilians have come out against hosting the World Cup because of the soaring costs and pervasive corruption. Massive nationwide protests erupted a year ago during the Confederations Cup, with fans booing President Dilma Rousseff during an opening event and later marching to the chant "Não vai ter Copa!" (“There won’t be a Cup”). Leal and Menezes told me that such protests in Manaus have been minimal and nonviolent.
“It’s going to be a strong emotion to see the World Cup open in Manaus,” Leal said. “I believe I will not hold back tears.”
I imagine the same for many people looking upon the future shell of the Arena da Amazônia, memories fading of the highly anticipated face-offs here between England’s Wayne Rooney and Italy’s Mario Balotelli, Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo and USA’s Clint Dempsey. It is hard not to draw parallels to the grand opening in 1896 of the city’s Teatro Amazonas, a world-class opera house built with riches from the rubber boom to lure the great Italian tenor Enrico Caruso into the Amazon. The city’s downward spiral soon began as Asia began producing rubber more efficiently, and the opera house was shuttered from 1924 until 1997.
Today, no one seems to remember if Caruso ever actually came.
Stephen Kurczy is a Latin America correspondent for 'The Christian Science Monitor'. He wrote this for Zocalo Public Square.
Fires raging across Bolivia’s forests and grasslands have razed 4.2 million acres since May. The blazes—largely believed to be started by farmers intentionally clearing land for agricultural use—pose a threat to some 500 animal species, including jaguars, tapirs and parrots. As Agence-France Presse reports, the consequences of this unusually serious fire season aren’t limited to living creatures: Archaeologists say the infernos are also destroying Bolivia’s famed rock art.
“We believe that the damage is big and wide in terms of our heritage of rock art,” Danilo Drakic, chief archaeologist of the eastern Santa Cruz region, tells AFP.
The eastern town of Robore, which is home to sites of engravings dating to as early as 1,500 B.C., has sustained significant damage in recent months. Based on an initial assessment, Drakic says a “dark layer of soot” has blanketed all of the images, while heat from the fires has “caused stones to break, even to collapse.” Archaeologists will only be able to gauge the full extent of the devastation once the blazes have been extinguished.
According to Bolivia’s Rock Art Research Society, or SIARB, the country is home to more than 1,000 rock carving and painting sites. These artistic renderings grace the walls of small caves and rock shelters, as well the sides of vertical cliffs and large boulders. Spanning several millennia, the drawings range from a nearly 6-foot-long stylized serpent found at the El Buey Rock Shelter to the village of Calacala’s llama engravings and Peña Colorada’s abstract geometric patterns.Stylized serpent found at Bolivia's El Buey Rock Shelter (Courtesy of the Bolivian Rock Art Research Society)
Bolivia’s oldest rock art dates to the Paleo-Indian period, which began with early humans’ arrival in the Americas around 12000 B.C. Per SIARB, other examples date to the pre-Inca period, the Inca occupation of Bolivia, and the colonial and republican eras. Almost all of the images refer to religion, either overtly (some representations painted during the 19th and 20th centuries depict saints) or implicitly (certain battle scenes carry both historic and ritualistic connotations).
A number of archaeological sites have escaped the flames unscathed—at least so far. As CNN Español’s Francho Barón reports, rock paintings in El Parque el Manantial are among the artistic renderings still intact.
In addition to threatening Bolivia’s rock art, the fires are poised to damage the Jesuit Missions of the Chiquitos, an Unesco World Heritage Site constituting six 17th- and 18th-century settlements. Although Culture and Tourism Minister Wilma Alanoca told state media that the blazes have “not yet … affected” the Jesuit sites, she added, “There is no doubt that there is an impact on the intangible heritage of the area, which will have to be evaluated once all heat sources are eradicated, which is a priority for the central government.”
According to the New York Times’ Anatoly Kurmanaev and Monica Machicao, this year’s fire season has been far larger and more widespread than previous ones. Per an estimate by Bolivia’s land management authority, some 87 percent of the wildfires were illegally set by farmers emboldened by President Evo Morales’ pro-agribusiness policies—a situation with clear echoes of neighboring Brazil, which has lost more than 7,000 square miles of land to manmade fires this year to date.
Speaking with the Times, Miguel Crespo of nonprofit environmental group Probioma says it could take up to 200 years for Bolivia’s forests to recover from the flames. He adds, “I’ve never seen an environmental tragedy on this scale.”
In June 2011, a hanging scroll sold for $62.1 million at Poly auction house’s spring sale of ancient calligraphy and painting in Beijing, setting both a new world record for Chinese artwork at auction and the record for a painting by the 14th-century artist, Wang Meng.
The ink wash, Zhichuan Resettlement, ca. 1350, was attributed to Wang Meng, a Chinese literati who lived from 1308 to 1385 and is still revered as one of the renowned “four masters of the Yuan dynasty” (1271 -1368). The painting depicts a famous Taoist medical scientist of the East Jin dynasty (317 – 420 AD) moving his entire household on horseback across rocky terrain to the sacred Mt. Luofu to make elixirs and practice alchemy. (To this day the mountain is a forested park dotted with Taoist temples and tributes to the fourth-century scientist.) The painting, which also boasts seven poems by scholars, painters and poets, had been handed down for six centuries.
An arguably more significant work by the same artist can be seen in “Style in Chinese Landscape Painting: the Yuan Legacy,” a show currently on view at the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art.
Dwelling in Seclusion in the Summer Mountains, 1354, is confidently attributed to Wang Meng. It is a relatively small piece, in ink and color on silk, remounted as a hanging scroll. Beautifully painted with several distinct kinds of brushwork, it depicts a peasant walking on a tiny pedestrian bridge over the inlet of a lake, returning home from work. Hidden from his view are his wife and child, anxiously waiting on the deck of a modest house. Not far from the peasant, a scholar stands under a thatch roof in a lakeside pavilion.
“The fellow in the pavilion is the personification of either the artist or the patron, the recipient of the painting,” explains Stephen D. Allee, a curator of Chinese painting and calligraphy at the Freer, who organized the current exhibition. “He is the subject of the title of the painting.”
The tiny buildings and figures are in the lower third of the painting; they are dwarfed by majestic, steep forested slopes in the middle ground and a range of tall misshapen, even grotesque, mountains that recede in the mist in the distance.
Landscape painting is one of the most prized traditions in Chinese culture and dates to the third century. The current exhibition focuses on the Yuan dynasty because several new key styles emerged at that time, a turbulent era when the Mongols came to power in China, the first time foreigners had occupied the country. (The conqueror was the brutal Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan.)The innovative artist Wang Meng spent years studying the affects of certain material, inks and brushes. (Freer Gallery of Art)
The great painters of the time, members of the literati class, resisted serving under the Yuan court and defiantly removed themselves to work and reside in the countryside. They exclusively painted landscapes, which they believed to be the visible key to the invisible reality, Allee says. “No longer viewed as a simple representation of the external world,” he adds, “landscape became a form of self-expression full of personal connotations for both artist and viewer.”
These artists were creating art for themselves and each other, instead of the court. “They restricted their acquaintanceships to other gentlemen scholars,” Allee explains. Wang Meng was the youngest of the “four masters” and least famous in his day, but he greatly influenced the painters of later generations—and not just painters. He has even inspired fiction. Last year John Spurling, the English writer, employed Wang Meng as the central character in his novel, The Ten Thousand Things.”
And his life story is fascinating. The grandson of another famous painter, Zhao Mengfu, who had Song royal blood, Wang Meng “identified with Chinese culture, not the cosmopolitan Mongols,” Allee says. “This was a matter of choice at a certain level and a matter of identity.”
He was from an “artistic family of great prominence” that had produced generations of painters—and collectors. As Allee explains, “Not only was painting a family tradition, but he had old paintings that were available to study and copy. Art was part of the family ambiance. They had great status in the artistic world.”
But how did he actually learn to paint? “Clearly there was some kind of instruction going on in the house, though we don’t have clear descriptions of how it was done, just that there was a high level of exposure to art in the family.”
Wang Meng was in his 40s when he did this painting. He had spent years learning about “what effects you can get from certain material, particularly the ink, as it spreads or holds fast on the surface,” Allee says. “And he had different brushes at his disposal, with hairs of goat, deer, rabbit and sable. Some had a harder core of hair of one kind and softer hair on the exterior. Old brushes were used to create a streaking effect.”Wang Meng used brushwork to differentiate kinds of trees: weeping willow, pine and various deciduous trees. (Freer Gallery of Art)
Surviving works by Wang Meng are incredibly rare. Dwelling in Seclusion in the Summer Mountains is his earliest dated piece, which makes it even more significant. It is also a showcase of the artist’s technical skills. “He is showing off what he can do,” Allee says. “Chinese artwork is always about the art of painting as much as anything else.”
It is a dense picture, full of nervous energy. The vertical composition is a rugged landscape dominated by craggy mountain crests that recede into the misty distance. They are formed by a technique Allee calls “hemp-fiber brushstrokes," because the long, overlapping lines resemble strands of rope. Flecks of dark ink represent boulders on the ridges. He used brushwork to differentiate kinds of trees: weeping willow, pine and various deciduous trees.
“There are five different kinds of trees, each distinct in terms of leaves and roots,” Allee points out. “Wang Meng is making things more complex, more varied, putting more definition into it.” There is a lot going on.
It is worth noting that the human element—the buildings and figures—are completely dwarfed by nature. They are quietly integrated into the bottom third of the landscape and do not immediately attract the viewer’s attention.
“It’s all about identification with landscape and the simple life of the peasant as seen from the vantage point of the artist,” Allee says. “It’s part of Daoism and the yearning for nature.”
The piece is also Wang Meng’s conscious tribute to the style of the 10th-century artists Dong Yuan and Juran. “They were neglected after the Song dynasty, so Wang Meng is “rediscovering their style and reinvesting them with significance,” Allee says.
It is common for Chinese artists to look back to past generations for inspiration. Similarly, Wang Meng was not particularly admired during his own time but was rediscovered later on. “He greatly influenced later painters, but not immediately,” Allee says.
Wang Meng lived long enough to see the Ming dynasty come to power and ultimately become a victim of that reign. It is not known precisely why, but he was imprisoned for five years and died in prison. His legacy lives in incredible paintings like Dwelling that are being discovered yet again.
“Pioneered by the 10th-century artists Dong Yuan and Juran, this once-neglected style had been revived in the Yuan dynasty by Wang’s older contemporaries,” Allee writes in the exhibition notes. “The visual profusion of the composition became a hallmark of Wang’s approach and strongly influenced later generations.”
The Freer Gallery possesses one of the most important collections of Chinese painting outside Asia, with many of its works from the Song and Yuan dynasties holding near-iconic status. Many of these works are available in the Song and Yuan Dynasty Painting Collection. The exhibition, "Style in Chinese Landscape Painting: The Yuan Legacy," is on view through May 31, 2015.
During the Renaissance, Florence was a wellspring of novel thinking. By mid-20th century, Bell Labs in New Jersey was rolling in patents. And, today, California’s Silicon Valley is teeming with entrepreneurial spirit.
So, where will the next hub of invention be?
Christopher M. Schroeder, an internet entrepreneur and venture investor, predicts that with increased access to technology and the connectivity that follows there will be many centers of innovation springing up worldwide, in cities large and small. In his new book, Startup Rising, he makes a strong case for the Middle East, where a surprising number of young men and women are starting tech companies and where global corporations, such as Google, Yahoo and Cisco, are investing.
This story, at least for you, starts with you attending the “Celebration of Entrepreneurship” in Dubai in 2010. What was this event like?
I was at the “Celebration of Entrepreneurship” because [I am part] of this group of American CEOs and Arab CEOs who are really trying to get to know and understand each other. This was one of the first large gatherings of startups in the Arab world, from North Africa to Yemen.
You get to this incredibly beautiful hotel in this spectacular city of Dubai that didn’t exist for all intents and purposes 15 years ago, and you would have felt as at home as if you were at any tech gathering or conference in Silicon Valley or anywhere else. It was a modern facility with people hustling and bustling, checking their mobile devices, connecting with each other, going from event to event. It was utterly familiar in what was a totally unfamiliar setting.
You argue that a new narrative is playing out in the Middle East. What is this new narrative, and how does it differ from the one that most Americans associate with the region?
I think when Americans think about the Middle East they are really thinking about political instability and sectarian violence. If you are old enough, that narrative might have started with the Iran Hostage circumstance, and certainly for all of us September 11 had a certain narrative.
But, there are other narratives going on. Where people have access to technology, they have access to communication and they have the ability to see how everyone else is living and doing things and can connect and collaborate. You have this capability of seeing opportunity and of seeing that you can make things happen, and it all can be done unbelievably affordably.
I think it is because we have such a single narrative in our minds about the region that sometimes it escapes our understanding. Of course, it is going to happen in the Middle East the way it has happened in India, Latin America, the way it has happened in Eastern Europe, the way it happens whenever anybody has access to technology.
What effect has the Arab Spring had on entrepreneurship in the region?
I went to this gathering in Dubai in 2010. So, it was shortly after the young man lit himself on fire in Tunisia, but was three months before things really heated up in Cairo. It is no surprise to me that the Arab uprisings happened when they happened, and it is no surprise to me that that which has driven people to want a new expression in politics and society also wants them to have a new creative expression in art, in music and in building businesses.
To be an entrepreneur, you have to be a little crazy, to believe you can build something that was never there before. I think in the Arab uprisings, there were a lot of people that said, “Holy cow, if Mubarak can fall, anything can happen. Maybe I can really build a business where it was never built before.” But, secondly, I think a lot of them very movingly feel that in building a business they are actually building a better society, that they are solving problems with technology in their day-to-day lives. It could be traffic, it could be crime, it could be education, and it could be creating jobs. The Arab uprising really pushed people to feel like what they were doing was not only great for themselves but also actually great for their communities, their countries and the region.
Investors and entrepreneurs are always, as you know, asking about the next “Silicon Valley.” So, is the Middle East it?
Every so often a geographic location becomes something that really changes the global dynamics. But, I think the wonder and the awesomeness of technology today is that we are going to be seeing hubs of technology and innovation all over the world. That isn’t to say that being in an ecosystem where you have a lot of smart people and people who inspire you around you doesn’t matter. You may see more of it in some great centers where people like to live and therefore great talent want to aggregate. But, I think around the world you are just going to be seeing ecosystems of innovation pop up on a regular basis in multiple locations because people can connect better and better with technology.
I saw unbelievable entrepreneurs and innovators in Egypt. I saw unbelievable entrepreneurs in Amman, Jordan, because I think the government and the young people there are really focusing on it. And, at the same time, I have seen them in Beirut and other places as well. I think the idea of there being one hub that rules it all is just not going to be as much in the calculus. Silicon Valley is the exception and not the rule.
Which heavyweight tech companies are investing in the region, and how?
A lot of the major tech companies for a long time like Microsoft, Cisco, and Intel have been in the region. The Arab world has 350 million people. A lot of growth is happening in mobile and other technologies. But what I loved and was very excited by is that some of these players and newer ones like Google not only are building their services there, but they are actually embracing the ecosystem and helping entrepreneurs to develop.
For example, Google sponsored one of the largest startup competitions in Egypt. They literally hired a bus to travel up and down the country to encourage entrepreneurs not just from Alexandria and Cairo but all around the country and gave a huge award of money. In the last six or nine months, LinkedIn and PayPal have opened up operations in the Middle East. They view their jobs as not only selling and marketing and developing their services but as really doing what they can to educate the markets about the use of e-commerce and about how to find great talent and employees.
Can you tell me about Internet, cell phone and smart phone penetration in these countries?
It ranges. Mobile penetration almost in every country certainly exceeds 50 percent. In many of these countries, like Egypt for example, it is literally over 100 percent, which means that people have more than one mobile phone. What’s exciting is that in many respects the Middle East, like other great emerging markets, has never known a world of landlines. So, they are native mobile users and thinking about how to use technology in a mobile environment.
Smartphone penetration in the [Persian] Gulf region is quite high. It is over 50 or 60 percent in some countries and probably less in a place like Egypt, where the proportion is more like 20 percent. But almost everyone I spoke to in the mobile community expects smartphones to have 50 percent penetration in Egypt in the next three years. As Marc Andreessen wrote in the foreword of my book, the world will have 5 billion smartphones in the next eight to ten years. I think in the Middle East you are going to see 50, 60 or 70 percent smartphone penetration within that time.
Is that 50 percent smartphone penetration a number that you’ve seen to be an indicator in other parts of the world? Once you hit and surpass 50 percent, is there a guaranteed spike in innovation?
I don’t think there is any question that if you look at Asia, if you look at parts of Latin America and Eastern Europe, that as greater and greater technology is available not only did you see a rise in middle class and economic output, but more and more companies that are being driven by and innovated around technology. I think there is definitely precedent for it.
When you dug into specific statistics about Internet use, what were the biggest surprises?
I would not have told you before I got into the data that the number one per capita YouTube consumer on Earth is Saudi Arabia, that the largest plurality of people watching video on YouTube in Saudi Arabia is women and the largest category of videos that they are watching is education. You stop to think about it and it makes perfect sense. If you are in a society where it isn’t easy to get an education in certain areas or the quality of education may not be everything that it could be, and at your fingertips is the ability to be able to get access to any class anywhere in the world, as more of that is starting to get translated into Arabic, it all really kind of fits. It doesn’t seem that surprising anymore.
You have interviewed hundreds of entrepreneurs in the Middle East. How would you describe them? What are the demographics of this population?
The younger generation, 20s, early 30s, has never not known technology and therefore is very comfortable using it and being mobile first in terms of its innovation. A lot of the young people I met had exposure at some point to western education or the West, but hardly a majority of them.
Probably the biggest thing that hit me like a two-by-four, and in hindsight should have seemed obvious, is that at every event I went to anywhere between 35 and 40 percent of the participants were women. Again, I think a lot of the narrative in the West is to think, well, how can women be participating in this in the Middle East? The fact of the matter is I saw more women on average at a Middle East gathering than I would see on average at a Silicon Valley gathering.
You divide the entrepreneurs into three types: the Improvisers, the Problem Solvers and the Global Players. Can you explain what you mean by each?
Improvisers are taking something that is tried and true and successful elsewhere in the world and saying, how can I make this a success in the Middle East? One of the first companies that was a perfect example of this is a company named Maktoob—the Yahoo! of the Middle East that got bought by Yahoo! for almost $200 million. If you get into the Maktoob experience, it is not just Yahoo! It is not just an Arab putting in Arabic that which is in English. There are lots of sensitivities about the Arab world—cultural things and television shows, music, that is unique.
Anyone who has been to Cairo or any major city in the Middle East knows that the street traffic is mind-blowing. So, of course, a bunch of young Problem Solvers said, “Okay, that’s unacceptable. There are alternative routes. We can figure this out. We are going to create a crowdshare to be used so that people can do the best they can to navigate traffic.” There is no cab dispatching service in many cities in the Middle East so young people have built Uber-like abilities to allow you to find a cab that is near you, which of course helps you in bad traffic and, with GPS, makes you feel safer.
The Global Players are folks who realize the world is one click away so why be limited by any one market. Amr Ramadan from Alexandria, Egypt, was pitching this beautiful weather app, WeatherHD [at a startup competition]. The data it had was interesting. The user interface was interesting. The visuals of it were fantastic. As he was talking about it, I looked down at my iPad and realized I downloaded it six months earlier. I had no idea that it was 7 young people at the time—now it’s like 50—in Alexandria, Egypt, who built it. There are lots of folks who are building solutions that they think are not only interesting for a regional context. There is a wonderful woman from Beirut, Hind Hobeika, who was a college swimmer. She has invented these goggles that are almost like Google Glass; they are heart and breath monitors that are visually in your goggles. That’s not a Middle East-only solution. Any swimmer or trainer anywhere in the world would kill for these. She has manufacturing happening in Asia and distribution happening in the fall in the United States.
What measures are being taken to support entrepreneurs and help ensure their success?
The King of Jordan has helped create and put a lot of weight behind one of the great incubators in Jordan called Oasis500. That has spawned other companies, activities, competitions and gatherings. You have these amazing gatherings. They can be as large as thousands of people, at an ArabNet gathering, or hundreds of people at a mix-and-mentor gathering by Wamda.com. There are startup weekends that happen everywhere from major cities like Amman to Nazareth. There is this bottom-up movement of young people helping young people and seeking out mentors and building connectivity as well as raising capital and the other tactical necessities. It’s viral. It’s everywhere.
Of the hundreds of entrepreneurs you interviewed, whose story sticks with you the most?
Ala’ Alsallal was raised in a refugee camp in Amman and got affiliated with Ruwwad, a totally indigenous, of-the-community youth center that Aramex and Fadi Ghandour [its founder] helped create. He got exposure to computers, which just blew him away, and also got to see mentors and other business people. He got a vision.
With his natural drive and that experience, Ala’ was able to effectively start, out of a scrappy office made with his family, Jamalon, the Amazon of the Middle East, which has a real shot at being the number one online book seller in the region. He eventually got a little bit of money from Oasis500. He just got another round recently. He must be 27 years old or something. To see him come from literally a refugee community with almost no vision of a future to taking advantage of the resources is very hopeful.
Italian culinary doctrine – a constitution held up by Italian home matriarchs where infractions can be punishable by no supper or death – is very clear on the subject.
Cheese and seafood shall not be mixed. Ever.
Yet, if you stumble around France long enough you’re bound to find someone who prepares mussels in an earthy blue cheese broth spiked with white wine and garlic. In Chile, you’ll find both millennials and retirees ordering plates of Machas à La Parmesana, clams baked in wine, butter, and a mild-tasting Chilean version of Parmesan. And who can forget social gatherings in the nineties where no party was without oyster dip packed with enough cream cheese to send a marathon runner into cardiac arrest?
If the idea of combining seafood and cheese is such a widely-accepted global phenomenon, why is the concept so distasteful to so many Italian home cooks? And, hey, let’s not just point fingers at Italians here. A lot of people in the United States have adopted this notion, if for no other reason that they’ve heard it since birth.
So where did this commandment originate? One explanation may stem from gustatory common sense: seafood tends to have a more delicate constitution, and those subtle flavors can be drowned out by a heady, assertive cheese. Since cheese is produced by fermenting milk, microbial factors such as molds, enzymes, and friendly bacteria cause drastic changes to the milk’s chemical components and their flavors often become more intense. Cheese also loses moisture as it ages, further concentrating its complex flavors and fatty texture. It’s no wonder cheese can easily overpower seafood’s understated qualities.
Some ocean dwellers are especially delicate -- such as flounder, haddock, clams, oysters, and Atlantic shad -- and they should be carefully seasoned when cooked. This is why many recipes involving these proteins rely on simplicity; a sprinkling of green peppercorns, a quick lashing of lemon juice, perhaps a pat of tarragon butter. The stronger personalities of some cheeses would stomp out those subtle sweet and salty notes, leaving no flavors behind except for, well, cheese.
Another explanation for this taboo may lie in Italy’s geography. Major cheesemaking regions such as Piedmont, Trentino Alto Adige, Lombardy, and Veneto are all largely landlocked. Their regions have a terroir that makes for easy grazing for livestock and, thus, their cuisines are largely accustomed to the addition of cheeses such as Grana Padano, Bra, or Asiago as both a primary and supporting ingredient. Given their distance from the sea, few people in these regions had ready access to a steady supply of fresh seafood (rivers or lakes notwithstanding, and not necessarily always a source of abundance). So, recipes may likely developed over the centuries without giving seafood any consideration.
As always, though, rules are meant to be broken. We’re not saying that you shouldn’t pair fish and cheese. Rather, we’re enthusiastic advocates for smartly coupling seafood and dairy, and in the hands of a skilled chef, recipes combining the two can raise the roof, elevating both ingredients to new heights. “When used correctly, cheese can enhance the flavors of many seafood dishes,” says Dennis Littley, a chef and culinary instructor with decades of experience under his belt. “Those old customs are falling by the wayside as chefs have become more creative with the blending of flavors. One of my most popular specials was a seafood alfredo that included shrimp, scallops and lump crabmeat. It was amazing!”
You don’t need to be a classically trained chef to pair cheese and seafood at home. Consider pizza, where cured fillets of oily, briny anchovies mingle their oils with those of melted mozzarella. Or look to classic dishes such as sea bass with fresh chevré and chopped herbs, bagels with cream cheese and lox, and our personal dinner party favorite, salmon fillets dredged in a Parmesan-bread crumb mixture before being seared in butter. Theses dishes work, and they work well.
And so it seems that seafood and cheese can indeed play nicely. “It's really about finding a balance,” says Kirstin Jackson, trained chef and author of It’s Not You, It’s Brie: Unwrapping America's Unique Culture of Cheese. “Fish and cheese can be a touchy pairing, but when done right they can be as endearing as an eighty year-old couple walking down the street holding hands.”
Stephanie Stiavetti and Garrett McCord are the authors of MELT: The Art of Macaroni and Cheese, available now on Amazon and local retailers.
Brigante with Tilapia, Shallots, Spring Herbs, and Fusilli
Tilapia's subtle sea-life sensibilities are easily drowned out by complicated flavors, though a traditionally seasoned Béarnaise sauce play up the fish's gentle nature. Here we've echoed that experience by pairing shallots, tarragon, and chervil - all classic herbal flavors - with Brigante, a smooth, buttery sheep's milk cheese that contributes a touch of tang to the dish. Shredded tilapia makes this creamy stovetop mac an incredibly decadent experience without extra weight; a perfect marriage of cheese and seafood.
4 tablespoons butter, divided
1⁄4 cup minced shallots
1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon
4 teaspoons chopped chervil
1⁄2 teaspoon coarsely ground black peppercorns
1⁄4 cup dry white wine, such as sauvignon Blanc
2 small tilapia fillets, about 1⁄2 pound total
8 ounces fusilli
2 cups milk
2 tablespoons flour
1⁄2 teaspoon sea salt
1⁄4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
7 ounces Brigante, rind removed, grated
Lemon wedges to garnish
1. In a sauté pan, melt 1 tablespoon of butter over medium heat. Add shallots and cook until soft, then add tarragon, chervil, and pepper. Cook for 1 minute, stirring constantly, then add white wine. Cook, still stirring constantly, until a good amount of the liquid has cooked off—about 2 minutes. Transfer shallots and herbs to a small bowl and return the pan to the stove.
2. In the same sauté pan—do not rinse it—add 1 tablespoon of butter and turn heat to medium. Sauté tilapia fillets for 3 minutes on each side, making sure to get a nice, crispy layer where the fish touches the pan. Transfer to a bowl and shred coarsely with two forks. Set aside.
3. Cook the pasta in a large pot of salted boiling water until al dente. Drain through a colander and set aside.
4. To prepare the mornay sauce, heat the milk in a small sauce pan over medium heat. As soon as the milk starts to steam and tiny bubbles form around the edges of the pan, turn off the heat. Place the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter in a medium saucepan and melt over medium flame. Add the flour and stir with a flat-edge wooden paddle just until the roux begins to take on a light brown color, scraping the bottom to prevent burning, about 3 minutes. Slowly add the milk and stir constantly until the sauce thickens enough to evenly coat the back of a spoon—a finger drawn along the back of the spoon should leave a clear swath. Lower heat to medium-low, add salt, pepper, and sautéed shallots and herbs. Remove from heat and add cheese to sauce, stirring until completely melted.
5. In a large bowl, add pasta to the mornay and toss to coat. Gently fold in the shredded fish; you don’t want to smash it. Serve hot and garnish with lemon wedges.
Alternative cheeses: San Andreas, Berkswell, Shepherd’s way Friesago, Young Mahón
Wine pairings: Musca- det from the Loire Valley (Melon de Bourgogne grape), French Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Grechetto or Vermentino from Italy
Additional pairings for the cheese: Lucques or picholine olives, roasted red peppers with olive oil, smoked paprika
Mussels in White Wine Broth with Fourme d’Ambert
Light, tender, and briny, mussels love the spotlight when they're onstage. In the supporting role, we recommend a flavorful broth that gently hugs each chunk of meat without acting like a prima donna. Here we buddy up our shellfish with Fourme d’Ambert, one of France's oldest cheeses, to provide licks of earthiness and sweet cream, both of which play up the mussels gently salty qualities. Whoever said blue cheese and seafood don't mix?
2 pounds Prince Edward Island mussels
8 ounces spiral pasta
2 tablespoons butter
1 yellow onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 cups dry white wine, such as Sauvignon Blanc
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
6 ounces Fourme d’Ambert, crumbled
Juice of 1 lemon
1/4 cup parsley, chopped
Dash of finishing salt such as Kosher, Maldon, Sel Gris (do not use iodized table salt)
A loaf of crusty bread for serving
1. Soak the mussels in a large pot of cold water for about 30 minutes to coax them to spit out any sand or grit they may have. Toss out the water and cover the mussels again with fresh cold water for another 30 minutes to encourage them to cleanse themselves a bit more.
2. De-beard the mussels by taking their byssal threads (their “beards”) and giving them a good yank until they come off. Discard the beards and set the mussels aside. Toss any mussels that aren’t closed, as these are already dead and not edible.
3. Cook the pasta in a large pot of salted boiling water until al dente. Drain the pasta through a colander and set aside.
4. While the pasta cooks, place a large pot over medium-high heat. Add the butter and allow to melt. Once the butter begins to bubble a bit add the onion and garlic. Cook over medium-high heat and stir occasionally until the onions have softened a bit.
5. Add the white wine and pepper. Bring to a boil and add the Fourme d’Ambert. Once the cheese melts into the wine, lower the heat to medium and add the mussels. Cover the pot with a tight fitting lid and cook for about 6 or 7 minutes, being sure to give the mussels a stir after about 4 minutes. Discard any mussels that are closed as these were dead before cooking. (Some may be only slightly open; if you have to debate about whether it's good to eat or not, toss it. Better safe than sorry.) Remove from heat.
6. Squeeze lemon juice over the mussels and toss together with the parsley and the finishing salt. Spoon the pasta into wide bowls, ladling mussels and broth over them and serve.
Alternative Cheeses: Gorgonzola Dolce, Cashel Blue, Roquefort, Cambozola
Wine pairings: dry Chenin Blanc, sparkling Chenin Blanc, dry Rosé
Additional pairings for the cheese, outside of this recipe: membrillo, quince jam, apple butter
When Ragnar Kjartansson studied painting at the Iceland Academy of the Arts at the dawn of the 21st century, it wasn’t so much the art that excited him, but the act of making the art.
“I use painting often as a performance,” the 40-year-old artist from Reykavik says. “And often it’s about the act of painting the painting rather than the result itself.”
So the performance of painting became part of his wide-ranging, theatrical and often quite musical works, which are getting a suitably entertaining retrospective in his first North American survey, “Ragnar Kjartansson,” newly opened at Washington D.C.’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.
In it, the paintings are artifacts of performances he’s had, such as one at the Venice Biennale in 2009—when he painted 144 paintings of a Speedo-clad fellow Icelandic artist Páll Haukur Björnsson, one a day for six months.
Another work, Die Nacht der Hochzeit, repeats the image of an inky night of clouds and stars, a dozen times. In a third, Blossoming Trees Performance he presents seven plein air works he completed at the historic Rokeby Farm in upstate New York, that also includes a work chronicling the seven paintings he did in two days as well as his other activities (“smoked cigars, drank beer and read Lolita”).
It was Rokeby, too, where he returned for a far more epic work, the nine channel video performance The Visitors, in which Kjartansson, in a tub, leads a group of his musician friends in a long, improvisatory and ultimately thrilling performance of a work that repeats, over an hour, two lines from a poem by his ex-wife: “Once again I fall into my feminine ways” and “There are stars exploding and there is nothing you can do.”
Repetition is a hallmark of Kjartansson’s work. He assumes the role of an old school crooner in one performance, captured in a 2007 video, God, to repeat the line “sorrow conquers happiness.”
The melancholy that music can carry is the point, too, of the one live performance of the exhibition, Woman in E. A female rock guitarist in a gold lamé dress strums a single chord, E-minor, over and over as she spins slowly on a similarly gilded stage behind a curtain of golden strands.
Fourteen different rockers, mostly from D.C. but also from Richmond and Charlottesville, Virginia, were selected to perform the piece, in two-hour shifts.
It’s been done once before, earlier this year at Detroit’s Museum of Contemporary Art. But, Kjartansson says, “it seemed like such a perfect piece to do here, in this space and in relation to all the epic monuments around here. To be on the Mall with the Woman in E is really rad.”
Despite the inherent sadness of the repeated E-minor, humor is pervasive in the exhibition as well, from the beginning, when he presents himself in the character of “Death” to schoolchildren in a graveyard (who clearly aren’t buying the act), to the end, where his mother in four different videos shot in five year increments, spits at her son (at his request).
“We thought we had to end with a bit of punk rock,” Kjartansson says of the piece, Me and My Mother.
The lighthearted approach is necessary particularly in the art world, Kjartansson says at the museum, the echoing cacophony of his videos can be heard just behind him.
“Everything is so serious you have to be lighthearted about it,” he says. “Art is so serious, it’s too serious to be serious about.”
So even his most ambitious pieces, such as a staging of the Icelandic epic World Light—The Life and Death of an Artist which unfolds in four simultaneous life-sized videos playing opposite one another in a large room, has its melodrama that adapts the novel by Nobel Prize-winning Icelandic writer Halldór Laxness, undercut by shambling scenes in which Kjartansson runs through scenes naked.
“I’m very excited about World Light’s four screens,” the artist says. “There’s always this talk about beauty and art, but they’re all superficial. And if you scratch on the surface there is something.”
It would take nearly 21 hours to catch every frame of World Lights, but Stéphane Aquin, chief curator at the Hirshhorn, who helped organize the show first presented at London’s Barbican, notes that “you can stay there 10 minutes, an hour, or 30 seconds.”
Especially with some of the other pieces that loop in the show, “what’s great about art based on repetition is that you don’t have to stay for the whole length of it.”
What was challenging about organizing the mid-career retrospective was to give the pieces with sound and music enough space not to bleed on the other. Taking up a whole floor of the museum’s famous circular floorplan means starting and ending at the neon sign he once devised for a lonely rooftop in the countryside where Edvard Munch once painted in Moss, Norway, that reads Scandinavian Pain.
“The surroundings seemed like a Munch painting or a frame from a Bergman film, so I had to put that title up,” Kjartansson says.
“It’s so good to have it in a circle,” he says of the Hirshhorn layout. “We did the show in the Barbican in London and it was a very different narrative than here. That was square with rooms, but this is like really American—it’s almost like a computer game going through here.”
And America weighed heavily on all the pieces, though he is from Iceland.
“It’s like a recurring thing in my work: This idea of America,” Kjartansson says. “Probably because I was raised by good Communist parents who took me to rallies against America, it became a really big idea in my head.”
He says when he finally came to the states in 2002 he found it “exactly like in the movies.” Since then, he’s crisscrossed the country extensively. “I’m just always fascinated by it—this new land of immigrants.”
Acquin says he organized the show in roughly three parts—reflecting the artist’s hand, his staging and relationships—and the museum layout “allowed for a flow and for the story to unfold in a very narrative way, and a very cinematic way. It’s as if you were walking through a movie, and scene after scene, they all add up to this amazing moment, which is The Visitors, in the final corridor.
“There’s a buildup of emotion and ideas leading up to it,” Acquin says. “People come out of The Visitors crying, regularly.”
Although The Visitors is named after an ABBA album, Kjartansson and his musician friends play a hypnotizing song that’s much more along the lines of an Arcade Fire epic that unfolds with each musician playing in headphones in a separate room of the 19th-century Rokeby Farm mansion.
It’s an interactive work, such that a viewer who approaches the accordionist or drummer will hear that musician louder. Around a corner, a group sings harmonies on the porch, and flinches as the work reaches a climax that involves a canon firing.
It ends with the musicians individually abandoning their posts, joining Kjartansson as he leads them, Pied-Piper-like, down a lush Hudson Valley field while a technician stays back and switches off each camera one by one.
For the artist, seeing a collection of his works that were previously presented individually “is a really high feeling,” At the same time, “It feels like a new chapter after cleaning out the attic,” Kjaransson says.
And what will come next?
“I don’t know, I’m in a bit of a limbo,” Kjartansson says.
But a word of warning: it could be Hell. “I’m reading Dante’s Inferno now,” he says.
“Ragnar Kjartansson” continues at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden through January 8, 2017.
Sometimes, thinking about an old problem from a refreshing new angle is just the thing needed to find that eureka moment.
Cancer, one of the most notorious medical maladies, has been studied intensely in the current era of modern medicine. But a growing number of researchers think that bringing a fresh, out-of-the-box approach to understanding the disease may lead to some novel insights and, perhaps, solutions. And the subject that they’re hoping can serve as a window into the study of cancer may surprise you: ecology.
On face value, oncology and ecology seem vastly different. For starters, one is localized to specific cells in the body, while the other by definition spans the entire globe. But rather than labeling cancer as a group of mutated cells, as the thinking goes, we should see cancer as a disruption in the balance of a complex microenvironment in the human body. Like a damaging invasive beetle eating its way through forests in Colorado, a novel disease breaking out in populations of wild birds, or loggers mowing down parts of the Amazon rainforest, cancer throws a monkey wrench into an otherwise placid, balanced system.
This way of thinking makes cancer seem even more complex than it already is, but it could provide insights that ultimately make cancer more treatable, propose researchers from the Moffet Cancer Center in a paper published in the journal Interface Focus.
“Einstein is known to have said that everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler,” they write. “It turns out that complexity has its place and, as convenient as it would be for cancer biologists to study tumor cells in isolation, that makes as much sense as trying to understand frogs without considering that they tend to live near swamps and feast on insects.”
We tend to think of cancer only in terms of mutated cells, the authors continue. But adopting this narrow approach is like trying to understand why a frog has a sticky tongue without taking into account that frogs use their tongues to catch insects. Cancer cells, likewise, need context. A voracious cancer cell, for example, may situate itself next to a blood vessel not by chance, but so it can obtain more nutrients and oxygen to support its unlimited division.
Cancer cells must compete within the body for nutrients and other resources, just like animals living in an environment must compete with one another in order to survive. This means that cancer, like any organism, must adapt to its environment in order to thrive. The researchers explain:
It is now beginning to be widely accepted that cancer is not just a genetic disease but the one in which evolution plays a crucial role. This means that tumour cells evolve, adapt to and change the environment in which they live. The ones that fail to do so will ultimately become extinct. The ones that do, will have a chance to invade and metastasize. The capacity of a tumour cell to adapt to a new environment will thus be determined by environment and the cellular species from the original site, to which it has already painstakingly adapted.
So how can all of this theory be applied in real life? The environmental approach to understanding cancer is so complex that it rules out normal experiments; they could easily go awry with so many different components to consider. Instead, the researchers suggest turning to mathematics and computational for understanding the greater environmental context that leads to cancer. Ecologists use one such mathematical approach, game theory, as a way to study evolutionary biology and the way animals interact:
The force of natural selection keeps ecosystem denizens focused on optimizing the bottom line: long-term reproduction. In the games studied by evolutionary game theoreticians, individuals compete for available resources using a variety of strategies. These features and behaviours, known as the phenotypic strategy, determine the winners and losers of evolution.
Behavioral strategies may change depending upon both an animal’s nature and the situation’s context. Here’s a hypothetical example, based upon game theory thinking: If two hyenas are digging into a large, tasty wildebeest carcass, they’ll happily share that resource. But if two lions find that same carcass, they will fight for exclusive rights to eating it, meaning one lion emerges victorious and takes all the meaty spoils, while the other gets no food–plus is injured. Finally, if a lion meets a hyena at the carcass, the hyena will bolt, surrendering its goods to the stronger lion. In other words, game theory players can react one of three ways depending upon who they are and what’s going on: they can share, fight or forfeit.
Similar games may be played with tumor cells. “A good example would be a tumour with cells that move away when confronted with scarce resources (motile) and cells that stay to use them (proliferative),” the authors write. To make things even more complicated, however, tumor cells are known to change their behavior as they proliferate and metastasize throughout the body, meaning they could switch from a hyena to a lion.
One crucial thing that game theory at an ecosystem level shows us, they continue, is that indiscriminately focusing on killing as many tumor cells as possible might not provide the best outcome for the patient. According to game theory models, the eventual long-term result of the game depends upon specific interactions between the players, not on the number of players involved. Lions will continue to fight one another for food, regardless of whether two lions or 2,000 lions meet. “A treatment based exclusively on indiscriminately removing most (but not all) cancer cells may only have a temporary effect; as in most cases, the original number of tumor cells will eventually be restored and exceeded,” the authors write.
Instead, game theory indicates that a more effective alternative would be based on trying to change the ways that cells interact with one another and with their environment. This may affect the cells’ behavior, strength and reproductive success, the authors explain, which could drive a tumor’s evolution towards less aggressive cell types, or to a more stable coexistence with non-cancerous cells.
“The ecosystem view is, ultimately, a holistic one that sees cancer progression as a process that emerges from the interactions between multiple cellular species and interactions with the tumour microenvironment,” the authors write. “An ecosystem perspective presents us with intriguing implications,” they say, along with a host of questions about how far the analogy between ecosystems and cancer can be taken.
For example, if cancer cells spread like an invasive species through an ecosystem, what evolutionary gain is achieved when the closed off ecosystem (a body) is irreparably damaged (through a person’s death) such that the pestilence also dies? Unlike a virus, which may kill its host but spread to other hosts in the process, cancer cells themselves, for the most part, have no means of spreading from individual to individual. And are cancer cells taking their cues from processes driven by competition or from cooperation? Thinking more proactively, can non-cancerous cells be triggered so that they behave like lions and usurp cancerous cells’ resources until the cancer is manageable?
While ecology and mathematics likely will not defeat cancer on their own, viewing the disease from this perspective could allow doctors to better predict where in the body tumor cells have the best and worst chances of survival, and how to most effectively prevent them from proliferating.
“The heart of the matter is that an ecological view of tumours does not invalidate but complements and builds upon decades of cancer research and undoubtedly this will lead to a better understanding of the biology of cancer and to new and improved therapies,” the researchers conclude. “We need to properly understand the trees (e.g. every leaf, twig and branch) before we can understand the forest but we cannot afford to ignore the forest because the trees are so interesting on their own.”
The Japanese company Funai Electronics will produce its last batch of VCRs this month, officially pushing that technology into the dustbin of media history. Movie lovers of a certain age fondly remember browsing Blockbuster or the local video store for the tapes, which were introduced in the United States in 1977. Twenty years later, however, when DVDs hit the scene in 1997, the new technology quickly gobbled up market share, reports Ananya Bhattacharya at Quartz. But 2005 was the true death knell of the technology, Bhattacharya writes—that’s when Circuit City and Best Buy stopped carrying the machines. And in 2008, the last major supplier of VHS tapes stopped producing them.
But if the last 50 years of media turnover is any indication, VCRs and VHS collections will still be around for a long time to come. As of 2014, almost 60 percent of Americans still had the machines in their homes, and it could be just a matter of time before they a trendy throwback, like some other discontinued formats that have survived the long haul. Check out these antiquated technologies that have managed to withstand the test of obsolescence.
Super 8 Film
When Kodak launched the Super 8 film camera in 1965, it was the Baby Boomer equivalent of the iPhone, reports Remy Melina at LiveScience. Unlike previous home movie cameras which had to be threaded into the camera by hand, Super 8 users could just pop in a cartridge, shoot 3 minutes of the warm, grainy film and turn them into a developer. In 1973, Kodak added sound to the cameras, and it became the barbecue and Christmas morning camera par excellence for two decades until VHS camcorders challenged its supremacy in the 1980s. Even though production of Super 8 cameras stopped, affection for the format has not. Steve Rose at The Guardian writes that directors including Steve McQueen, Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino and JJ Abrams have all expressed love for the warm format, and many began their filmmaking careers using the format. In fact, Abrams and Spielberg collaborated on the critical darling Super 8 in 2011.
Plenty of non-superstar directors love the format too. That’s why in January, Kodak, which never stopped making film for the cameras, showed off a prototype of 21st-century version of the Super 8, which will use the film but also integrates into a digital world.
For the vast majority of people, floppy disks, whether they are the big eight-inch, more manageable five-inch, or once ubiquitous 3.5-inch versions are gone and dead, uselessly sitting in a decaying media storage box somewhere in the basement. Thumb drives, CDs and cloud storage made the tech obsolete for typical computer users more than a decade ago.
But according to the BBC, the disk maker Verbatim still ships out thousands of 3.5-inch floppies every month. “The death of the floppy disk has been heralded many, many times,” Ian Rainsford at Verbatim says. “I think once Microsoft started shipping Windows on CDs it was sounded for the first time and that was 21 years ago.”
The disks persist primarily, Rainsford explains, because they are used to control industrial machines that have a long work life. It does not make sense to get rid of expensive equipment like knitting machines, lathes and cutters just to upgrade its software, he says. In fact, it was recently revealed that the computers that coordinate the Pentagon’s nuclear arsenal still run on 8-inch floppy disks. Fortunately, that system is scheduled to get an upgrade next year.
According to Hugh McIntyre at Forbes, vinyl records have been a lone bright spot in the record industry over the last decade. As CD sales have tanked and digital downloads have stagnated, vinyl sales keep going up, increasing by 30 percent in 2015, to about 12 million albums. And its not just a nostalgia trip—while Pink Floyd and The Beatles do appear on the top 10, Adele, Hozier, Taylor Swift and Alabama Shakes also made their mark on vinyl.
In the late '80s, cassettes and newfangled CDs had vinyl on the ropes, and in the 2000s digital downloads and streaming threatened all of those formats. While CDs and cassettes have taken a beating (though cassettes have some retro cachet), vinyl has made it through. One reason, John Harrison at The Guardian reports, is that listening to an entire album is a novel experience for younger people, and listening to music out loud with friends versus jamming in earbuds at a coffee shop also appeals to them. Also, many argue its imperfections make vinyl warmer and more intimate. “Things sound different. They take on a life of their own; they come at you. Vinyl brings something else to it,” DJ and vinyl aficionado Colleen Murphy tells Harrison. “When you listen to CDs after you’ve been listening to vinyl for a long time, it sounds a bit … synthetic.”
While some envision a future where even libraries do away with most of their printed books, readers loyal to physical texts aren’t having it. In 2013, Megan Rose Dickey at Business Insider reported that based on a market research survey, almost 60 percent of Americans reported they had no interest in buying e-books. In the UK, e-book sales dropped for the first time in 2015. And, something no one thought they’d see after Amazon launched the Kindle in 2007, books sales modestly increased in 2014 and 2015, according to Publishers Weekly.
That’s not to say printed books will ever reign supreme, but they are unlikely to go away completely as some tech watchers have predicted. Instead, there will be a mix of both format for years to come. “Paper books and e-books are each distinct modes of technology, with distinct strengths and weaknesses,” Gizmodo blogger Matt Novak writes. “They can co-exist in harmony and almost certainly will forever.”
In March 2016, just a few months before the official death of the VCR, Sony sent out its last batch of Betamax tapes. The format developed by the company in the 1970s is best known for being at the losing end of the format wars, in which VHS, developed by another Japanese company JVC, won. While Beta tried to corner the consumer home video market, most major studios went with VHS, and Beta began its downward spiral, with Sony discontinuing its machines in 2002. It might not be immediately apparent why the company continued to make the tapes for so long. However, Sony may have the last laugh, as its Betacam format—a professional version of Betamax used in television production—became the industry standard when it was introduced in 1981. That format and its upgrades are still popular in the production industry today.
In the coming months, library patrons will likely experience extended wait times for new e-books. Readers can thank Macmillan Publishers—a “Big Five” publishing house with imprints including Picador, Henry Holt and Farrar, Straus, and Giroux—for the delay: As of November 1, the company only allows library systems to purchase one electronic copy of a book during the first eight weeks following publication.
The publisher’s new policy has generated widespread outrage among librarians and book lovers alike. Macmillan, however, argues that the moratorium is necessary to ensure the publishing industry’s survival in lieu of digital lending’s increasing popularity.
CEO John Sargent announced the change in a July memo sent to Macmillan authors, illustrators and agents. According to the note, loaned library copies make up 45 percent (and counting) of the company’s total e-book reads across the United States.
“It seems that given a choice between a purchase of an [e-book] for $12.99 or a frictionless lend for free,” wrote Sargent, “the American [e-book] reader is starting to lean heavily toward free.”
Sargent tells NPR’s Lynn Neary that the publishing industry operates similarly to the movie business. Films generate the biggest box-office returns during their opening weekend, while most book sales take place in the first few weeks after publication.
In the past, library loans had less of an impact on publishers’ sales due to “friction,” or complications, associated with borrowing books: Patrons had to visit the library in person, return loans on time and pay pesky late fees.
E-books have simplified the borrowing process significantly. As Sargent explained in an October 29 letter to concerned librarians, “In today’s digital world there is no such friction in the market. As the development of apps and extensions continues, and as libraries extend their reach statewide as well as nationally, it is becoming ever easier to borrow rather than buy.”
The Macmillan executive added, “This causes a problem across the publishing ecosystem (authors, illustrators, agents, publishers, libraries, retailers, and readers). We are trying to find a solution.”
On October 30, a group of “library advocates” associated with the American Library Association (ALA) stopped by Macmillan’s offices to deliver a petition urging the publisher not to move forward with the embargo. Organizers collected some 160,000 signatures, but as they note on the online petition portal, Sargent “did not listen.”
According to ALA testimony presented in front of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on the Judiciary last month, e-book publishers engage in a host of “anti-competitive conduct” practices. Amazon Publishing, for example, refuses to sell digital titles to libraries, meaning readers have to purchase from Amazon directly. And when publishers do sell copies of e-books to libraries, the prices are often inflated. (Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, the 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction, costs consumers $12.99, but a library purchasing a two-year license for a single electronic copy pays $51.99.)
In an essay written for the San Francisco Chronicle, City Librarian Michael Lambert says the embargo impacts libraries’ central mission of “ensuring access to information and content for all.” He adds that the policy places individuals with visual impairments at a disadvantage, as these readers rely on easily formatted e-books to keep up with the latest titles. Large-print paper copies of new books often take months to come out. People with dyslexia and other learning disorders also rely on e-books to make reading easier.
Macmillan’s policy is poised to disproportionately impact larger library systems. A small rural library may be able to manage with just one copy of an e-book, but cities or counties with hundreds of thousands of patrons will have to place would-be borrowers on lengthy waiting lists.
Former ALA president Sari Feldman tells NPR’s Neary she doesn’t think the policy will increase retail or digital sales for Macmillan, as many people who borrow e-books have a limited income and will simply opt to read more accessible options. Given the fact that libraries purchase a significant number of e-books, the publishing house could also lose digital sales during the key weeks immediately post-publication.
Moving forward, Feldman says, the ALA may pursue legislative action against the restrictions.
In his open letter, Sargent said the decision is designed to help authors, booksellers and other players in the publishing world.
“We are not trying to hurt libraries; we are trying to balance the needs of the system in a new and complex world,” he wrote. “We believe windowing for eight weeks is the best way to do that. I am the first to admit we may be wrong. But we need to try to address this issue.”
In her new book, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, writer Sarah Vowell tells the story of the American Revolution through the life and experiences of Marquis de Lafayette, the French aristocrat who joined the Continental Army as a teenager, convinced King Louis XVI to ally with the rebels, and became a close friend of George Washington.
Lafayette symbolizes many things for Vowell: the ideals of democratic government, the hard reality of those democracies, the tremendous debt early Americans owed to France and the importance of friendship. Like her previous books, such as Assassination Vacation, Lafayette strikes witty blows against the stodgy sorts of U.S. history taught in classrooms. It's less a history book than a collection of stories. I spoke with her last week about her work, her opinion of Lafayette, why she doesn't consider herself a historian, and what she admires about the hit Broadway musical Hamilton.
The interview was edited and condensed.
Why did you decide to write a book about Marquis de Lafayette?
That question always stumps me. There are so many answers to that. I lived near Union Square in New York City for about 10 years. There's a statue of Lafayette in the square and it's right next to the sidewalk, so I walked by him pretty much every day. He was one of my neighbors so I was always thinking about him. And also, I had written a shorter piece a number of years ago about Lafeyette's return trip to America in 1824
Was that the story that appeared on This American Life?
Yes, yeah. It was for a show about reunions and that piece was a very kind of sentimental journey, literally, about how he came back in 1824. He was invited by President Monroe, he stays for over a year and the whole country goes berserk for him. It's just Lafayette mania. Two-thirds of the population of New York City meets his ship. Every night is a party in his honor. And I guess the reason that story attracted me was because of the consensus that the whole country embraced him. By 1824, the Civil War is pretty much a foregone conclusion. But because he was a Frenchman and because he was the last living general from Washington's army, the whole country—north and south, left and right—he belonged to everyone and that seemed so exotic to me.
So Lafeyette comes back to America in 1824, just shy of 50 years after the revolution. Eighty thousand people meet him at New York Harbor. It's an enormous crowd.
Totally. Yes. Only 4,000 met The Beatles in 1964.
So why was Lafayette universally beloved when he returned?
I think there are a few reasons. He is, basically, the most obvious personification of America's alliance with France in the war. And Americans back then were still grateful for French money and gunpowder and soldiers and sailors. The help from the French government was the deciding factor in the revolution. Lafayette was the most swashbuckling symbol of that. There was also, then and now, a great reverence and almost a religious love for George Washington. Lafayette had served with Washington and became his de facto adopted son—Lafayette was an orphan and Washington had no biological children of his own—so their relationship was very close. And so, he was so identified with Washington.
The visit also coincided with the presidential election of 1824, which is basically the first election when Americans had to vote for a non-founding father. There was this nostalgia, this kind of national moment of reflection about how the country had to continue on without its fathers. Lafeyette's secretary kept a diary during that whole trip. He marveled that these newspapers would be full of bile about presidential candidates, then Lafayette would show up, and the day's paper would be all like, "We 'heart' Lafayette." Those two things are related a little bit, nostalgia and reverence for that very singular past and nervousness about the future.
And what happened? Why don't we feel that way anymore?
Well, he has been a little bit forgotten, but I think you could say that about many, many figures in American history. I think the forgetting of Lafayette is just a symptom of the larger cultural amnesia. When I was starting my research on this book, there was this survey done by the American Revolution Center that said most adult Americans they didn't know what century the Revolution was fought in. They thought the Civil War came first. They didn't know the Bill of Rights was part of the Constitution. So yes, Lafayette is a little bit forgotten, but so are a lot of other things more important than him.
You mention in the book this idea that Lafeyette is no longer a person. His name is a bunch of places now.
The most practical effect of his visit in the 1820s was that everything started getting named after him. When I was at Valley Forge, I was with this friend of mine who had lived in Brooklyn. There was a monument to the generals who had been at Valley Forge: Lafayette was one of them, and General Greene and DeKalb. And I remember my friend just calling it "that big monument thing with all the Brooklyn streets." A lot of these people just become street names. It's natural that these people leave behind their names and their stories are forgotten, I suppose. But for me, every time I would walk, say, past the statue of Lafayette down towards Gansevoort Street, the whole city came alive. If there's any practical effect of learning about this stuff, it just makes the world more alive and interesting. And it certainly makes walking around certain cities on the eastern seaboard more fascinating.
Let's rewind five decades. Lafayette crosses the Atlantic in 1777, at age 17. He abandons his pregnant wife—
That was unfortunate.
He leaves behind a comfortable aristocratic life. His family doesn't even know what he's doing and it's all to fight in someone else's war.
When you put it like that it does not seem like a good idea.
Plenty of 19-year-olds have bad ideas.
Oh, for sure. I would distrust one who only made good decisions. There are a few reasons for his decision to fight. Lafayette married quite young. He's a teenager. He's the richest orphan in France, and he's kind of pounced upon by this very rich and powerful family, then he marries their daughter. His father-in-law wants him to get a cushy boring job at the French court and be a proper gentleman, but Lafayette is the descendant of soldiers. His ancestors are soldiers going back to the Middle Ages. One of his ancestors fought with Joan of Arc. His father, who died when Lafayette was almost two years old, was killed by the British in battle during in the Seven Years War.
There's a grudge there.
That's one reason he's pretty gung ho to fight the British in America. He wants to be a soldier like his father before him and all the fathers before that. He's just one of many European soldiers who flocked to the American theater of war to volunteer with the rebels, some of them not for particularly idealistic reasons, but because they were out of a job. The defense industry in Europe was downsizing. Lafayette is one of these Frenchmen who are coming over to fight.
The other thing is, he got bitten by the Enlightenment bug and was enamored with ideals about liberty and equality. The letters he writes to his poor, knocked-up wife while he's crossing the ocean are incredibly idealistic. He says that the happiness of America will be bound up with the happiness of mankind, and then we'll establish a republic of virtue and honesty and tolerance and justice. He's laying it on a little bit thick because he has just abandoned her. But it's still very stirring, and I do think he believed it.
So after all of your research, after writing this book, spending a lot of time trying to get into his head, how do you feel about Lafayette? Do you like him?
Do I like him? Yes, I do like him. I am very fond of him. He's a very sentimental person I think part of that was his youth, maybe his being an orphan. Jefferson complained of his canine appetite for affection. Lafayette has this puppy-dog quality.
He was kind of a suck-up.
Yeah, he was. But I like puppy dogs. And when push came to shove, Lafayette got the job done. For all of his French panache, he really did roll up his sleeves and set to work on behalf of the Americans. Maybe it was bound up with his lust for glory.
Washington was constantly dealing with desertion crises. His soldiers are deserting him in droves throughout the whole war. And who can blame them? They're not getting paid. They're not getting fed. There's frequently no water. A lot of them don't have shoes. It's a really crummy job. But then this kid shows up like a football player asking his coach to put him in the game.
In his first battle, the Battle of Brandywine, he's wounded and barely notices because he's so busy trying to rally all the patriot soldiers to stand and fight. He never turns down an assignment. He's always ready to get in the game. And then, when he goes back home to Paris after the war, he's constantly helping the American ministers, Jefferson and Monroe, with boring economic stuff. There's not much glory in that. But Lafayette lobbied to get the whalers of Nantucket a contract to sell their whale oil to the city of Paris. That's real, boring, grownup friendship. And then to thank him, the whole island pooled all their milk and sent him a giant wheel of cheese. What was your question?
Do you like him?
Yes, I do like him. The thing I like about nonfiction is you get to write about people. The older I get, I feel I have more empathy for people's failings because I've had so much more experience with my own. Yes, he was an impetuous person. But generally, I think he was well intentioned. And he also really did believe in these things that I believe in. So, yes. Is he a guy that I want to have a beer with?
Yeah, of course. Who wouldn't want to meet him?
In this book, you describe yourself as "a historian adjacent narrative nonfiction wise guy." Self-deprecation aside, how does that—
I don't think of that as self-deprecation. You're thinking of that as self-deprecation in the sense that a proper historian is above me on some hierarchy. I don't think that way at all.
I meant that, in the book, it's played a little bit as a joke. You're teasing yourself, right?
I am, but I'm also teasing Sam Adams, because he says, ["If we do not beat them this fall will not the faithful Historian record it as our own Fault?"] I don't think of myself as an historian and I don't like being called one. And I also don't like being called a humorist. I don't think that's right, partly because my books are full of bummers. I reserve the right to be a total drag. I just consider myself a writer. That's one reason I don't have footnotes. I don't have chapters. I just want to get as far away from the stench of the textbook as I can. I inject myself and my opinions and my personal anecdotes into these things in a way that is not historian-y.
Given how you describe your work, and the empathy you've developed towards peoples' flaws, what can you write about that historians can't?
For one thing, empathy can be really educational. If you're trying to look at something from someone else's point of view, you learn about the situation. You might not agree. But as I go on, I become maybe more objective because of this. Ultimately, there's something shocking about the truth.
I'll give you an example. My last book was about the American takeover of Hawaii in the 19th century. It's the story of how native Hawaiians lost their country. It's a big part of their lives and it's a huge part of their culture. And if you go back to the historical record, there are kind of two narratives. There's the narrative of the missionary boys and their descendants, how these New Englanders took over these islands. Then there's the native version of those events, which is necessarily and understandably upset about all of that.
You're trying to parse complicated histories. There's one line early in the Lafayette book that seems related to this: "In the United States there was no simpler, more agreeable time." Why do you think it's so hard for us to recognize dysfunction within our own history? And where does this temptation to just indulge nostalgia come from?
I don't know. I just loathe that idea of the good old days. Immoral behavior is human nature. So I don't know why there's this human tendency to be nostalgic about the supposedly superior morals of previous generations.
Why is it so difficult to recognize and acknowledge the role that dysfunction has played?
I think it has to do with this country. History is taught not as a series of chronological events, but as adventures in American exceptionalism. When I was growing up, I was taught America never lost a war because "America is God's chosen nation." I started kindergarten the year the helicopters were pulling out of Saigon.
It's funny, one reason why Americans loved Lafayette was because of how much he loved them. In 1824 or 1825, he's speaking before the joint houses of Congress and he says, "America will save the world." What European thinks that? We love to think about ourselves as helpful and good.
Yeah. And sometimes, the historical record doesn't back that up. That's true of every country. But unlike every other country, we have all of these documents that say we're supposed to be better, that say all men are created equal. All of the great accomplishments in American history have this dark backside. I feel very reverential of the Civil Rights Movement. But then you think, well, why was that necessary? Or all of these great amendments we're so proud of. It's like, oh, everyone can vote? I thought we already said that.
So how do you—
Let me say one more thing. You know that scene in Dazed and Confused where the history teacher tells the class that when you're celebrating the Fourth of July, you're celebrating a bunch of like old white guys who didn't want to pay their taxes? I'm not one of those people. I don't think it's all horrors and genocide and injustice. I do think it's still valuable to celebrate those founding ideals. And there are some days that the idea that all men are created equal, that's the only thing I believe in. I think those ideals are still worth getting worked up about.
Just because Jefferson owned slaves, I don't think that completely refutes the Declaration. I think you have to talk about both things. I'm not completely pessimistic about it. That's what I love about nonfiction: if you just keep going back to the truth, it's the most useful and it's the most interesting. I don't want to be a naysayer or a "yaysayer." I want to like say them both together. What would that word be?
Yeah, kind of.
So what's next? Do you have plans for another book?
It's what I do for a living so I would hope so. I have a few ideas floating around but I was actually so late.
With this one?
Yeah. And I still haven't recovered. My books, I think they seem breezy to read. I write them that way purposely. But it's incredibly time consuming to put all that together and edit out the informational clutter. I just hate jargon and pretentious obfuscation. This book, which seems like a nice romp through the Revolutionary War, was actually tedious and life sucking to put together. So, yes, I'll write another book when I get over writing this one.
Have you seen Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton musical [which features a rapping, dancing Marquis de Lafayette]?
What did you think of it?
I mean, what's not to like?
Well, it's not about Lafayette.
No, it's not about Lafayette. That is my one complaint about Hamilton. It has too much Hamilton sometimes. The thing I loved about it most, honestly, was aesthetic. It so perfectly utilized every aspect of theater. It just milked the meaning out of everything. And the nonstop force of the narrative and the rhythm is so effusive and hilarious. I love how alive it is and how alive the people onstage are.
Daveed Diggs, yes. Daveed Diggs and his hair. He has so much swagger and joie de vivre. I do love how funny it is. But I also like how it doesn't run away from all of these people and their foibles and how they didn't get along.
What would happen if you and Lin-Manuel Miranda went head-to-head, high school debate style?
I'm glad it's high school debate style and not a rap battle because I'm pretty sure he would kick my ass.
Hamilton versus Lafayette. The battle of American heroes. Who wins?
That's the thing. You don't have to choose. I mean, basically, it's going to be Washington. That's even one of the songs, "It's good to have Washington on your side," I think. They each have their contributions. I mean, probably, ultimately, the banking system is more important day-to-day.
We're lucky we don't have to choose.
It'd be a pretty interesting choice to have to make. But, obviously I hope I never have to debate that guy.
The musical is very concerned with the legacies of historical figures. We talked a bit about this already, the idea of what Lafayette has become. What do you think his legacy is today, aside from the statues and the colleges and the towns? What does he represent?
More than anything, he represents the power and necessity and joys of friendship. I think of him as America's best friend. The lesson of the Revolutionary War in general, and of Lafayette in particular, is the importance of alliance and cooperation. A lot of my book is about how much bickering was going on, but I still call it the "somewhat United States" because the founders were united enough. Britain loses because Britain was alone. America wins because America has France. It's easier to win a war when you're not in it alone. And it's easier to live your life when you're not in it alone.
The friendship among those men is one of their more enduring legacies. It's why we call them, we think of them, we lump them together as "the Founding Fathers." Even though they didn't really get along, and maybe they didn't even like other a lot of the time, but they were in it together.
From an early age we’re told to be nice, play well with others, color inside the lines, and be cooperative and respectful to those around us. Yet it doesn’t take too long—high school or one’s first job—to realize that this ideal state of social harmony rarely exists in the world. And, that being nice may actually hurt you.
Indeed, rivalry seems to make the world go round.
Extrapolating from the personal, most theories of civilization, from Darwin (survival of the fittest) to Marx (class struggle) to Freud (psychologically killing dad), find the motor of history in competitive rivalry and the drive to conquer. Not just to win, but to win at the expense of your nemesis.
Even in the intellectual professions, the reality of life in the arts and sciences is not so much a tranquil arcadia of disinterested inquiry than a bear pit of conflicting agendas and egos. Tabloid-style gossip aside, the question of rivalry is not just intriguing from the perspective of individual psychology, but in the deeper relationship between the encounter with styles and ways of writing or seeing.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Sebastian Smee, while not avoiding the personal, is interested in this larger question in his new book The Art of Rivalry in which he considers how the making of art develops and evolves out of the collision between rival artists. The pun in his title suggests that he’s interested in looking at the work that results from the personal and artistic relationships of his four pairs of modern painters: Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud; Edgar Degas and Édouard Manet; Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse; Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.
Rivalry in the arts is probably worse than in any other profession given the subjectivity involved in judging who’s ahead and who’s slipping behind either among one’s contemporaries or in the eye of posterity. Artistic rivalries may indeed be more angry and feverish because most artists are sole practitioners—they work on their own, putting their own egos on the line, and are not protected, or repressed, by having to adhere to organizational and bureaucratic norms.
Success in the arts is so chancy and uncertain, and so dependent on one’s self, that it’s no wonder that writers and artists are always checking over their shoulders, preternaturally alert to slights and insults, and are quick to take offense at any threat. Money is important here: one’s livelihood is at stake in the jostling for sales, royalties and prizes.Ernest Hemingway by Willis W. Sanders, 1952 (NPG/SI; gift of Willis W. Sanders © Willis W. Sanders)
The most famous American case of naked egoism played out at the expense of his “colleagues” is undoubtedly Ernest Hemingway. “Papa,” as he liked to be called, always had to be the Daddy.
The one constant in his life and career was his willingness to viciously turn on his contemporaries and, especially, those who had helped him. Hemingway wrote muscularly about how literature was a boxing match in which he would “knock out” not just his contemporary rivals, but his literary fathers: Gustave Flaubert, Honoré de Balzac and Ivan Turgenev. Amidst all this personal mayhem, psycho-drama, and tabloid-style feuding, Hemingway’s boxing analogy actually contains the germ of a more interesting idea—the extent to which writers and artists are influenced by one another in creating their own work.
As masters of a prose style that he sought to emulate for his own time, Flaubert and Turgenev did influence Hemingway, despite his unpleasant braggadocio.
Tracing these genealogies of influence is a main task of literary and art history; it’s what Smee is doing, in a very accessible way, in his book. And it’s also the main task of academic scholarship. The literary critic Harold Bloom wrote an influential 1973 study called The Anxiety of Influence about how writers play off each other across time as they seek to assimilate the lessons and achievements of previous generations, while also implicitly trying to surpass their artistic mothers and fathers. At the Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery, aside from collecting art and artifacts for the permanent collections and for special exhibitions, my task as a historian there is to untangle the connections between artists and show the consequences of historical influences.Self-Portrait by Francis Bacon, 1958 (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn Foundation)
But the question of artistic influence becomes especially heightened, and perhaps especially rich, when it is played out between contemporaries, working through the problems of their art, either competitively or cooperatively, at the same cultural moment. F. Scott Fitzgerald did Hemingway the enormous service of editing the ending of the latter’s novel, A Farewell to Arms.
Ezra Pound, a great poet, but a strange and troubled man, never allowed his own ego to get in the way of his whole-hearted advancement and support of other writers, from T.S. Eliot to Robert Frost. Eliot dedicated his great poem “The Waste Land” to Pound, recognizing the American’s editorial role in shaping the poem. Pound’s generosity to others is perhaps rarer than we’d like it to be, but the question of the relations between contemporary artists remains a fruitful area of exploration to understand how art advances.
Of these pairings that Smee addresses, that of Bacon and Freud (a grandson of the psychologist) is probably most unfamiliar to an American audience. And in terms of artistic reputation, it is not quite evident that they are of the same stature of the others; important yes, but perhaps not world-historical in their influence. The Bacon and Freud relationship is, however, the most entertaining to read about, since Smee adroitly sets their relationship within the context of the wildly complicated London art scene that emerged after World War II.
You need an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of the personal relationships between friends, relatives, lovers (of both sexes), rent-boys, gangsters, disinherited aristocrats, and the mandarins of the English art establishment. There’s a lot of bed swapping and fistfights all played out against the serious work of art making for both Bacon and Freud. Bacon was slightly older than Freud and was the dominant partner in the relationship. It’s clear that Freud had a personal, but more importantly, an artistic crush on the older man. Conversely, Bacon was not adverse to having admirers but he recognized, as did many others, Freud’s talent.Night Portrait by Lucian Freud, 1985-1986 (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn Foundation)
Personal style and patterns of behavior (both artists loved to gamble) aside, what Freud learned from Bacon was to loosen up. Stylistically, the artists were poles apart at the start of their relationship. Freud’s was rigid, focused and based on intense looking and meticulous replication of detail. Bacon eschewed accuracy of detail for the sensuosity of thick layers of paint loosely applied to canvas. Under Bacon’s influence, Freud’s work became more free, more discursive, going after psychological or metaphoric, not actual, truth. It’s charming that the grandson of Sigmund Freud should overcome his repression through what amounted to artistic therapy. Despite their long relationship, Freud and Bacon eventually fell out, perhaps over money, perhaps because the younger man had become as successful as his master.
The generosity of Édouard Manet to Edgar Degas broke the younger artist out of the straightjacket of academic and history painting. When they met, Degas was laboring on large paintings on biblical themes that were taking him years to complete or, worse, abandon. Manet took Degas out of the studio and into the street, engaging him with modern life both emotionally and then stylistically.
In terms of the history of modern art, it is the Matisse and Picasso relationship that is central. The two men did not have the personal relationship that Smee’s other pairs had, although they knew each other. Instead, there is an element of pure artistic competition as the younger Picasso sought to assimilate the lessons of Matisse and then surpass him. Smee is excellent in how the expatriate American siblings, Gertrude and Leo Stein, incubated the origins of 20th-century modernism in their Paris salon, and in the choices they made in the artistic marketplace, favoring first Matisse and then the upstart Spaniard.
It is not altogether clear from Smee’s telling that Matisse realized how Picasso had set his sights on him; unlike the other encounters, it is a rivalry in which only one man was playing. But Smee writes about how Picasso was looking for a way out of the personal and artistic impasses of his early career—he was still very young during the now famous Blue and Rose periods—and found it in Matisse’s acquisition of a small African figure.Woman Rubbing Back with a Sponge (Torso) by Edgar Degas, 188-1892 (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Photograph by Lee Stalsworth)
The Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock story is the closest to the Bacon and Freud narrative, not least because of the tempestuous personal lives of both men, especially Pollock whose personality problems caused him to become alcoholic and self-destructive. As with Bacon and Freud, de Kooning was an adroit, meticulous draftsman whose work was liberated by its encounter with Pollock’s drips and slashing lines of flung paint; de Kooning deserved his success but Pollock’s fall makes for horrific reading, ending, as it does, with his fatal car crash in 1956.
Smee is excellent in his speculation that Picasso initially resisted the vogue that Matisse, who was very much “The Master” of the Paris art scene, set off in Africaniana. But instead of just following, he eventually assimilated these “primitive” figures and then went beyond Matisse in his 1907 painting, Les Demoiselles de Avignon, a painting which combined the louche appeal of the bordello with the timeless masks of Africa.
Personally, the painting, marked Picasso’s declaration of independence; and he would go on in his long life and career to become the epitome of the modern artist. Artistically, it engendered the initial Cubist revolution that accelerated the 20th century’s artistic commitment to abstraction. More than the other pairings in The Art of Rivalry, the Matisse-Picasso relationship had crucial ramifications, not just for their two careers, but for the history of art; the others are interesting, important but not world historical.Willem de Kooning by Elaine de Kooning, 1952 (NPG/SI, © Elaine de Kooning Trust)
Are there such rivalries today? It’s hard to know, living as we seem to be in an era of fragmented cultures in which the market place sets the public reputations of “our” artists and writers.
Is Damian Hirst in competition with Jeff Koons? Doubtful; except at the auction house. Locally and in small ways, though, in terms of the practice of art, creativity will always proceed in opposition to what came before—or in opposition to the poet or painter in the studio next door.
One of the secondary themes that emerges through Smee’s biographically grounded art criticism is how artists, previously invisible and unknown, come into our consciousness as influential and important. What looks inevitable—the rise of Freud or DeKooning; the emergence of Picasso—is as chancy and contingent as the personal encounters played out in the lives of artists.
Flipper, dolphin tattoos and the performing dolphins of SeaWorld all share one thing in common: the ocean. But although sea-loving dolphins dominate popular imagination, lesser known sentient cetaceans do, in fact, exist outside of salty waters.
They are the river dolphins, comprised of several species that are specially adapted to inhabit freshwater bodies around the world. Habitats include the Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Mekong and Irrawaddy rivers in Asia, as well as South America’s Amazon river system.
River dolphins never rose to Flipper-esque fame, probably in part due to their rarity. While bottlenose dolphins are regularly sighted off the majority of the world’s coasts and are a staple of aquariums and zoos, all of the world’s freshwater dolphins are currently listed as either critically endangered or endangered. One, the Yangtze River dolphin from China, is almost certainly already extinct, as it hasn’t been spotted for about a decade.
All told, freshwater dolphins are one of the world’s most endangered groups of mammals. One of the problems standing in the way of saving the freshwater dolphins, however, is an overall lack of knowledge about them.
When the Yangtze River dolphin disappeared, that event happened to quickly that researchers didn’t even have time to figure out what exactly caused its decline and eventual extinction. They suspected a combination of factors—including giant hydropower dams, ship traffic, pollution and accidental capture in fishing nets—played roles, but without scientific study before the species was lost they couldn’t be sure which of these things, if any, was most detrimental.
In an effort to prevent history from repeating itself, researchers from Scotland, Pakistan and Tanzania teamed up to study one of the surviving species of river dolphins: the Indus River dolphin. That species calls the Indus River—which mainly flows through Pakistan—home. As of 1990, the Indus River dolphin’s range had shrunk by 80 percent, and the authors wanted to know why.
They undertook a number of activities to figure this out. They compiled historical dolphin sightings along the river, conducted interviews with older fishermen living in the dolphin’s former ranges, surveyed previous studies published in the scientific literature and assembled data about major construction events along the river.
They found that humans, not surprisingly, were the extreme home-wreckers behind the dolphins’ decline. From 1886 to 1971, a series of 17 gated, largely impassable dams were built along the river, essentially splitting the dolphin’s habitat into 17 disjointed sections. Some of those sections are regularly drained for agriculture, leaving them almost completely dry for months on end. In most fragments, the dolphins disappeared within 50 years following dam construction. Today, they can be found in just six of those sections.
The length of the river fragment that the dolphins lived in proved to be one of the most important factors for predicting whether they would still be around 50 to 100 years after those barriers were built. Likewise, the more water that flowed through those habitats, the better the chances the dolphins could make ends meet.
This finding “underlines the great importance of maintaining large sections of intact river habitat to sustain tropical aquatic biodiversity,” the researchers write in PLoS One.
Unexpectedly, some human activities that seem like obvious extinction culprits in fact played little if any role. Although more than 90 percent of industrial and municipal effluent that Pakistan dumps into its rivers is untreated, the authors point out that by the 1980s—the time Pakistan ramped up its industry and agriculture to the point that pollution was a major problem—the dolphins had already been missing from those river sections for years.
Likewise, until 2010, most fishing in the river took place in side channels rarely used by dolphins, meaning collisions with boats and entanglement in nets probably didn’t play a major role in the dolphins’ decline.
No plans are in motion to restore the Indus River to a healthy state, and the authors point out that that ecosystem serves as a warning to other nations that are considering damming Himalayan, Southeast Asian and other global rivers. “Hundreds of new dams and water developments are planned or are under construction in many of the world's rivers, and large losses of aquatic biodiversity can be expected," Gill Braulik, lead author of the study, said in a release.
As for the Indus River dolphins, their long-term survival is questionable. The authors’ model predicted that 100 years after being isolated by the dams, dolphin populations only have a 37 percent probability of survival. In other words, so long as the dams remain, the dolphins will probably never be completely free from the threat of extinction.
At the same time, people and the larger environment will continue to suffer, too. As the authors write, “The amount of habitat fragmentation and level of water withdrawals from rivers in Pakistan is extreme, negatively affecting human communities, eroding the delta, destroying fisheries and concentrating pollutants.” So the decline of Indus dolphins may also be a harbinger of worse things to come.