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Q&A: The Technique Behind Martin Schoeller's Photography

Smithsonian Magazine

Large, close-up portraits are in many ways magazine photographer Martin Schoeller's signature style. Over the years, he has photographed dozens of celebrities and politicians, such as President Barack Obama, Sen. John McCain, Angelina Jolie and Jack Nicholson, in this intimate style. Some of his close ups, as well as his portraits from his female body builders series were on display in 2009 at the National Portrait Gallery's exhibition, "Portraiture Now: Feature Photography." spoke with him about how he got his start and why he prefers to get so close to his subjects.

Who are your influences?

I would say my influences are Bernd and Hilla Becher, the German couple that photographed all the water towers and different industrial structures. They have always treated photography as accumulating as a collection of the same, allowing people to compare structures, buildings with each other. And very different places. And that always fascinated me, the idea of taking portraits, in my case, that allow comparison, treating different people from different walks of life and backgrounds all the same. Photographing everybody technically the same. Therefore, building a democratic platform that allows comparison and invites comparison. Also, I like August Sander’s work in a sense that I like his approach that he didn’t just photograph rich people. He was pretty affluent, from an affluent background, and he set out and photographed homeless people and politicians and doctors and back then there was obviously much more of a class system, so for somebody to step down from the pedestal and even take time to deal with farmers and poor people, I think it’s important. I like Richard Avedon’s work in a sense that he gave me the courage to basically focus on what it really means to take a portrait. And not to worry about what your subject might feel like about the picture. Or, what the people that you take the picture for, how they might see the picture. That you really tried to take the picture that pleases you. Not worrying so much about other people’s reactions. has taken many very harsh portraits in his life where his subjects don’t come off necessarily very flattering. I always had this feeling looking at his work that he really didn’t care much about what people would think, especially the people that he photographed, that he just tried to stay true to himself.

So have you always done portraits?

Yes, I’ve always done portraits. In photo school we had to do fashion and still life and things like that. But I came to New York in and wanted to work with Annie Leibovitz or Irving Penn. Even if I tried to do fashion photography, I came quickly to realize that you have to care about clothes to be a fashion photographer. I came quickly to realize that clothes don’t interest me that much. I don’t know which designer’s latest collection, what Marc Jacob’s last collection looked like or what affects new trends or the latest thing, so I wouldn’t be a good fashion photographer.

Why do you like big?

The close up ones? Well, I developed, kind of out of a necessity, even back in photo school, I did really close portraits. I didn’t have a problem, I think sometimes photographers don’t want this intimacy. You’re much closer to your subjects than other times. It’s a reflection maybe of my personality that I feel comfortable being close to somebody. I always felt that it really was the most essential part about a person, stripping away the clothes, stripping away any backgrounds, really focusing in on that person. I never really set out, it’s just something that happened more intuitively over the years.

I worked for Annie Leibovitz for years. And, after I left her, my first assignment I had so little time with my subject. I didn’t have a choice of location. I didn’t have a choice of what they were wearing. I didn’t have a choice to do anything. So I felt, at least this way. I can walk away with a picture that does a person justice. That it’s all about the person rather than about a setting that has nothing to do with them, maybe some clothes that have nothing to do with that person. Also, I always felt that a lot of portraits, and it’s even gotten worse since I started ten years ago, are so much about making people look good, and the artifice behind them and putting people on the pedestal, and celebrating them. So this is a much more honest approach and much more interesting to me. Basically, I don’t really see myself as a photographer who tries to make people look bad, or, which often says "my subjects don’t look very good." I just think I’m trying to take real portraits, what portraits should be like. Showing a person for who they are and what they look like without retouching, without tricky lighting, without distortion, without crazy wide angle lenses, without any cheap tricks, just straight up honest portraits.

One afterthought, with the honest, I would say that comes with a grain of salt, because there is no such thing as an honest picture. It sounds so pretentious when I say "an honest photograph." I just think that some photographs may be closer to what the person is about. A lot of pictures are further away from what the person is about. When I say honest, I mean just something that feels more towards the realistic side of things than to the staged, artificial side of things.

How close do you have to get to the subject?

I’m about four or five feet away. I’m not that close because I’m using a fairly long lens to make sure that the face is not being distorted.

At the risk of getting too technical, how do you do it?

I use a medium format camera that takes roll film. I light them with these light banks. Fluorescent light. Basically they look like fluorescent light bulbs but their color temperature is daylight color temperature. They’re called Kino Flos. They’re mainly used in the film industry, because it’s not a strobe light, so it’s not actually that bright. I mean they’re bright to look at because they're much brighter than the flashing strobe obviously. But they’re for a very shallow depth of field and a very narrow depth of field which kind of also emphasizes what I’m trying to do with bringing out the eyes and the lips, where most of the expression in a person’s face is all about the eyes and the lips. I try to get my focus right so the eyes and the lips are the focus. Everything falls away so quickly because of the shallow depth of field. Everything else becomes secondary. So not only am I focusing on just the face, I’m even concentrating it more by having everything else look like it’s out of focus.

Who was the first person you photographed in this style?

After I left Annie, I photographed all of my friends. I had a different lighting technique back then. I was playing around, I photographed them using an 8x10 camera. Very soft lighting. No one was allowed to smile or have any expression. The women weren’t allowed to wear makeup. Everybody had to pull their hair back. It was more rigid, and even more German than my pictures are now. I photographed a lot of different people. I would set up a shower curtain. I made friends with these guys who had a deli in the Lower East Side, and they let me tape up my shower curtain to their window of this deli. I picked that corner because of the nice daylight. I just setup the shower curtain there and just photographed people on the street walking by, asking if I can take their picture. Nobody famous in the beginning. Family, friends, homeless people, crack victims. All different people.

Who was your best subject?

I get those questions always. Who was your favorite subject, what was your best photo shoot. It’s hard to say. One thing I can say is that going to the White House to photograph Bill Clinton when he was the president, photographing him for The New Yorker, my favorite magazine. Having half an hour with the president of the United States, that was quite memorable. It was quite stressful and memorable

Lately, you’ve been doing things that are a little different than the close-up portraits.

I’m mainly a magazine photographer, so my work is largely based on who the magazine’s hired me to photograph. A lot of people come up to me and say "Why did you never photograph Al Pacino? You don’t like Al Pacino?" It has nothing to do with who I like or don’t like. It’s assignment photography. On the other hand, I see that assignment photography in a sense that I can, at this point, luckily choose my assignments, or at least some of them as my personal work. I don’t really differentiate which magazine I work for. The magazine doesn’t determine the kind of picture I take. I feel basically I’m doing what I want to do and somebody else is paying for it. Then I also did a project on female body builders that was a completely self-assigned project. I went to a body building competition and was just in awe of these amazing and also scary and diverse, multi-level, all these different elements come together when you look at the female body builder. So I decided on building this catalog of professional body builders that I did over the last five years. The first one was 2003. That’s purely my own doing.

Why female body builders?

Photographing for magazines, I end up photographing famous people, different levels of famous people because I guess that’s what most people like to read about and hear about. These female body builders seemed so the opposite. These women who are training so hard, doing all these really harmful drugs, enduring all this pain and stress for basically almost no attention. There’s no market for female body builders. They’re not making any money with it. The one that wins gets a couple thousand dollars, but considering the effort it takes to compete. It’s really not a lucrative endeavor. The question "why would anyone do that?" Why are people… I think in a sense, they are a good reflection of our society which so many people are willing to do anything for attention. All the time when I photograph on the street, people are willing to be photographed. They would do anything to be in a photo, they don’t even know what magazine it’s for or how I’m going to photograph them. I found these women in their search to be recognized as professional athletes and I thought their bodies were just amazing to look at. It's just shocking that a human being can even look like that. So from just a physical aspect, it seemed interesting to me. They style themselves. They design their own bikinis. They don’t have that much money. Most of them don’t have make-up artists, so they do their own make-up, and they come up with this color coordination. They have contact lenses that match the color of the bikini. There’s all this work that goes into it to look like something that is by most people regarded as scary or horrible or unfeminine. That fascinated me. On the other hand, I also found it kind of interesting that our common sense of what beauty is is so narrow and so determined and so homogenous. It seems like the idea of beauty has gotten so narrow that there’s less and less people who are willing to dress differently or be a little bit different. Individuality seems to be eradicated by advertising and magazines that are dictating our understanding of beauty. I found it kind of refreshing to see people who have an entirely different sense of what is good looking. Most of them really think they look good. They perceive a goal. They look good in the mirror. And they’re proud of their muscles. They’re proud of the way they look. They find little imperfections. They’re working on certain muscles because this muscle is too small and this one is too big for their idea of beauty. Those are the things that interested me to take some pictures that go behind that façade of this overwhelming muscle look and to take portraits that kind of go a little bit deeper. That’s why I decided not to show their body too much. You still get the idea of what these women do, but in the same approach like my "Close Up" series, that I’m trying to capture a moment that reflects their personality rather than this mask of this. . . bodybuilding mask.

In keeping the format the same, do you feel it brings out differences in your subject’s personality?

Yes. I think the personality is easier to read in the body builder portraits. The "Close Up" series, I tried to keep it really subtle and to keep away from laughing and really sad looking. I tried to capture these in between moments that feel intimate when the subject for one second, the subject forgets that they’re being photographed. After they just laughed or just smiled and they’re kind of in this in between stage where they haven’t thought about it, their face hasn’t caught up to the next expression yet, so to say. I think those are often the pictures that feel the best to me, the less staged to me. Which is to say that often times, I photographed actors. They’re the hardest to photograph. You think you caught some great in between moments and you come to realize that they’re posing the whole time. With the female body builders it was much easier to get these in between, off moments. They would go into these poses that they thought photographers like, like halfway flexing poses. It was more about telling them "you don’t have to smile." They would smile over the top big. It was more about slowing them down in their posing routine, trying to bring out the person.

Borne on a Black Current

Smithsonian Magazine

The seas are full of the cast-offs of humanity, from tub toys that have fallen off container ships to boats swept away in storms to bottled messages deliberately set adrift. That flotsam has given oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer insight into marine currents and how they have influenced the course of history. In this excerpt from his new book with writer Eric Scigliano, Flotsametrics and the Floating World: How One Man’s Obsession with Runaway Sneakers and Rubber Ducks Revolutionized Ocean Science, the authors explain how a vicious current has swept sailors from Japan all the way to the Americas many times over many millennia.

Storied drifters float forever on the seas of legend and, lately, the Internet, whether or not they ever existed: the drift bottles Aristotle's protégé Theophrastus supposedly tracked across the Mediterranean, Queen Elizabeth I's [official message-in-a-bottle opener, the] “royal uncorker,” the ghost ship Octavius and the Sydney’s phantom lifebelt [which supposedly drifted from Australia all the way to France], Daisy Alexander's [$6-million] will in a bottle, and Clyde Pangborn’s ocean-hopping plane wheel.

These tales have spawned legal battles, comics-page yarns, and endless dinner-table diversion. Other transoceanic drifters have had much larger effects. Some scholars and aficionados believe that ancient drifts brought more than just timbers, nails, and other inanimate flotsam to the Americas. They maintain that sailors, fishermen, or passengers occasionally survived the drift and settled in the Americas, injecting new cultural and genetic elements into its native societies. Some, such as the British-born zoologist and amateur epigrapher Barry Fell, go further. They maintain that Old World peoples—the secretive, sea-mastering Phoenicians in particular—actually sailed to the New World to trade and left their shipwrecked traces off shores as widely scattered as Beverly, Massachusetts, and Rio de Janeiro. Unfortunately, the native peoples of the Americas did not leave records of any such early contacts, so the epigraphers rely on inscriptions and other artifacts—often controversial, if not outright fraudulent—supposedly left by the ancient visitors.

It’s harder to argue that Asian voyagers likewise visited or traded with America, because distances across the Pacific are so much wider. And no flood of Asian artifacts has been reported in the Americas to match the European claims. Nevertheless, another contingent of scholars makes a compelling case for repeated wash-ups by Japanese castaways over the past six thousand years—sometimes with transformative effect on the native cultures of the Americas. The doyen of this faction is Betty Meggers, an eminent anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution, who has advanced this inquiry for more than fifty years despite fierce resistance from her colleagues. In 1966, she published an authoritative account in Scientific American of how Japanese mariners drifted to Ecuador five thousand years ago. Since then she’s uncovered evidence—DNA, viruses that could only have originated in Japan, and pottery techniques found nowhere else—suggesting that ancient Japanese influence also reached Central America, California, Ecuador, and Bolivia.

Well into her eighties, Betty would present her latest research on Japanese diffusion each year at the Pacific Pathways meetings in Sitka, [Alaska]. Before the sessions, we and the other Pathways participants would board a boat to remote beaches near Fred’s Creek, an hour from Sitka. Between exclamations of delight at the telltale flotsam we discovered, Betty would share more of her findings. She approached the problem as a literal jigsaw puzzle, comparing pottery shards unearthed around the Pacific. The patterns on multiple shards excavated at Valdivia, Ecuador, and on Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s main islands, matched so well, she posited that a boatload of Japan’s indigenous Jomon people made the trip some sixty-three centuries ago. Other discoveries suggest that others first made landfall in California and San Jacinto, Colombia.

The impetus to this migration was one of the great cataclysms of humankind's time on earth. Few places are so prone to natural catastrophe as Japan, an island nation floating at the intersection of three tectonic plates, the Pacific, Eurasian, and Philippine. The slow but violent collision of these three plates produces spectacular earthquakes, tsunamis, and eruptions.

About sixty-three hundred years ago, a flyspeck island off southern Kyushu named Kikai exploded with a force that would dwarf all the more famous volcanoes that have since erupted around the world. Kikai weighed in at 7 on the standard volcanic explosivity index (VEI), which runs from 1 to 8, VEI 8 being reserved for the sort of mega-eruptions that cause ice ages and mass extinctions. It ejected twenty-four cubic miles of dirt, rock, and dust into the air, about nine times as much as Krakatoa in 1883, twenty-four times as much as Mount St. Helens in 1980, and forty times as much as the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79 that destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum.

The tsunamis triggered by Kikai obliterated coastal towns. The eruption’s spew was enough to blanket up to 18 million square miles of land and sea. Dust and ash several feet thick smothered the fertile soil, rendering southern Japan uninhabitable for two centuries. Unable to farm, the Jomon set out for other shores in what Betty Meggers calls “the Jomon Exodus.” And that was where a second mighty phenomenon came into play.

The Kuroshio (“Black Current,” named after the dark color it lends the horizon when viewed from the shore) is the Pacific Ocean’s answer to the Atlantic’s Gulf Stream. More than twenty-two hundred years ago the Chinese called the Kuroshio by the prescient name Wei-Lu, the current to “a world in the east from which no man has ever returned.” Surging up from Taiwan, fat with warm tropic water, it arcs past Japan and Southeast Alaska and down the northwest coast. At the same time, cool, powerful offshore winds, the equivalent of Atlantic America’s Arctic blasts, race down from Siberia, pushing boats and other flotsam out into the Kuroshio.

The fleeing Jomon were driven into the Kuroshio. So were fishermen blocked from returning home by the sea-blanketing pumice. The Black Current bore them toward America—surely not the first and far from the last unwitting emissaries to make that journey.

Europeans call drifting ships “derelicts” once their crews have taken to the longboats. But the Japanese use the word hyôryô for a marine mishap in which a vessel, the hyôryô-sen, loses control and drifts without command. Traditionally its crew and passengers—hyôryô-min, drifting people—would stay aboard, awaiting their fate.

In half of known hyôryô cases, at least some hyôryô-min survived to reach land. And some of those survivors dramatically affected the societies they beached upon. Around 1260 CE, a junk drifted nearly to North America, until the California Current caught it and sent it into the westbound trade winds, which deposited it near Wailuku, Maui. Six centuries later the oral history of the event had passed down to King David Kalakaua, Hawaii’s last reigning monarch. As the tale came down, Wakalana, the reigning chief of Maui’s windward side, rescued the five hyôryô-min still alive on the junk, three men and two women. One, the captain, escaped the wreck wearing his sword; hence the incident has come to be known as the tale of the iron knife. The five castaways were treated like royalty; one of the women married Wakalana himself and launched extensive family lines on Maui and Oahu.

That was just the first accidental Japanese mission to Hawaii. By 1650, according to John Stokes, curator of Honolulu’s Bishop Museum, four more vessels had washed up, “their crews marrying into the Hawaiian aristocracy, leaving their imprint on the cultural development of the islands…. Hawaiian native culture, while basically Polynesian, included many features not found elsewhere in Polynesia.”

The Japanese presence in Hawaii may go back much further. Hawaiian legend recounts that the first Polynesian settlers there encountered diminutive menehune (“little people”), marvelous craftsmen who still dwell in deep forests and secret valleys. At that time, the Japanese were more than a foot shorter than average Polynesians and adept at many strange technologies—from firing pottery and spinning silk to forging metal—that might indeed have seemed like marvels.

Japanese influence likewise spread in mainland North America. Archaeological digs occasionally unearth traces: iron (which native Americans did not smelt) discovered in a village buried by an ancient mudslide near Lake Ozette, Washington; arrowheads hewn from Asian pottery discovered on Oregon’s coast; and, of course, the six-thousand-year-old Japanese pottery shards in Ecuador. Just as Betty Meggers found unique artifacts, viruses, and DNA markers in Ecuadoran subjects, the anthropologist Nancy Yaw Davis found telltale Japanese traits in the Zuni of northern New Mexico, distinct from all the other Pueblo peoples. Davis concluded that Japanese had landed in California in the fourteenth century, trekked inland, and helped found the Zuni Nation.

All told, the University of Washington anthropologist George Quimby estimated, between 500 and 1750 CE some 187 junks drifted from Japan to the Americas. The number of drifts increased dramatically after 1603—thanks, ironically, to the efforts of a xenophobic regime to keep foreign influences out of Japan and the Japanese in. In that year the Togugawa shogun, who had united the nation after years of civil war, closed Japan to the outside world, exempting only restricted trade through the port of Nagasaki. Western ships and castaways were to be repelled. Missionaries and other foreigners who entered were to be killed—as were Japanese who left and tried to return.

To ensure that Japanese mariners remained in coastal waters, the shoguns dictated that their boats have large rudders, designed to snap in high seas. Vessels blown offshore were helpless; to avoid capsizing, crews would cut down their main masts and drift, rudderless and unrigged, across the ocean.

Politics conspired with geography, weather, and ocean currents to set this slow-motion, accidental armada adrift. Over the centuries, the shoguns transferred their power to Edo, now Tokyo, and demanded annual tributes of rice and other goods. But Japan’s mountainous terrain made land transport impossible, so each fall and winter, after the harvest, tribute-laden vessels sailed from Osaka and other cities in the populous south up the outer coast to Edo. To get there, they had to traverse an exposed deepwater reach called Enshu-nada, the infamous Bay of Bad water. And they had to cross just when the storms blew down from Siberia—the same weather pattern that rakes Labrador, Newfoundland, and New England and drives kayaks across the Atlantic. Of ninety drifting vessels documented by the Japanese expert Arakawa Hidetoshi, storms blew 68 percent out into the Black Current during the four months from October to January.

To see where the hyôryô-min drifted, the girls of the Natural Science Club in Choshi, Japan, threw 750 bottles into the Kuroshio in October 1984 and 1985. By 1998, beachcombers had recovered 49: 7 along North America, 9 in the Hawaiian Islands, 13 in the Philippines, and 16 in the vicinity of Japan—percentages remarkably similar to those of the known hyôryô. A few swung back onto the Russian peninsula of Kamchatka, just north of Japan. Kamchatkans adopted the slang term dembei for bobbing castaways, after a Japanese fisherman named Dembei whose junk drifted there in 1697—the first known contact between Japanese and Russians.

A few twentieth-century adventurers have traveled as far in open boats as the hyôryô. In 1991, Gerard d’Aboville rowed a twenty-six-foot boat solo for 134 days and 6,200 miles, from Japan to North America. In 1970, Vital Alsar and four companions sailed a balsa raft from Ecuador to Australia, covering nearly eighty-six hundred miles in six months. And in 1952, Dr. Alain Bombard set out to prove that humans could survive being lost at sea by drifting for sixty-five days across the Atlantic in a collapsible raft, catching fish and sipping seawater. But none of these daredevils came near to lasting as long at sea as the hyôryô-min, who often drifted more than 400 and once more than 540 days. Typically just three out of a dozen in a crew would survive—the fittest and most resourceful, who were best equipped to influence, even dominate, the societies they encountered.

As the centuries progressed, the number of Japanese coastal vessels, hence the number of drifters, soared. By the mid-1800s an average of two Japanese derelicts appeared each year along the shipping lanes from California to Hawaii. Four showed up near Hawaii in one thirty-year period in the early nineteenth century; at least five crewmen survived. Many other junks passed unseen along less-traveled routes. During my visits to Sitka, I was afforded the privilege of interviewing many Tlingit elders. I would tell them one sea story, and they would reciprocate with an ancient tale of their own. One elder, Fred Hope, told me that every village along the West Coast has passed down a tale of a Japanese vessel drifting ashore nearby. To the south, around the storm-wracked mouth of the Columbia River, strandings were so frequent that the Chinook Indians developed a special word, tlohon-nipts, “those who drift ashore,” for the new arrivals.

Then, in 1854, a very different landing took place on the other side of the ocean. Commodore Matthew Perry and his “black ships” arrived to open Japan to the world. Perry found skilled interpreters—Japanese who had never left Japan but were fluent in English—waiting to meet him. How could this be in the hermetically sealed hermit shogunate?

The answer lies in the drifts along the Kuroshio. In October 1813, the junk Tokujo Maru left Tokyo, returning to Toba after delivering the shogun’s annual tribute. The nor’westers swept it out to sea and it drifted for 530 days, passing within a mile of California when offshore winds blew it out to sea. Eleven of the fourteen men aboard perished. Then, 470 miles off Mexico, an American brig hailed the hulk and rescued the three survivors. After four years away, the Tokujo Maru’s captain, Jukichi, returned to Japan. Somehow he escaped execution and secretly recorded his travels in A Captain’s Diary. Though it was officially banned, Jukichi’s Diary intrigued and influenced Japanese scholars, paving the way for Commodore Perry and for another foreign guest who arrived six years before him. “Unquestionably,” James W. Borden, the U.S. Commissioner to Hawaii, remarked in 1860, “the kindness which had been extended to shipwrecked Japanese seamen was among the most powerful reasons which finally led to the opening of that country to foreigners and foreign commerce.”

Literary Landmarks: A History of American Women Writers

Smithsonian Magazine

Literary historian and scholar Elaine Showalter has recently published a sweeping and insightful survey of American women writers, A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx (Knopf). She is the first person to attempt this all-encompassing project.

Why do you think that no one before you has attempted to write a literary history of American women writers?

There really wasn’t a sense until the late 1970s or even the 1980s that women writers actually had a history and that it was something worth investigating. For a long time it just didn’t exist as a subject in people’s minds. And then, after that, it came up against a lot of different ideological shifts among scholars that made it seem like a really problematic thing to do. In order to write a literary history you have to make distinctions. You have to make selections. You include some writers and you exclude others. You say that some are more important than others. There was a real wave of feeling against that kind of hierarchy, against the literary cannon. Everybody began to move away from literary history to something more like an encyclopedia, where you wouldn’t make any distinctions, and you wouldn’t create any hierarchy, you would just try to list everybody separately.

My own feeling is that this is the 21st century; it’s time to move on from that. There’s no reason to be concerned about making distinctions with women writers. There are many of them; they are important, and they can withstand that type of judging…. If you don’t have a literary history, if you are really dependent on something like an encyclopedia—individual by individual—it’s very hard for women writers to be recognized in terms of their overall contribution to the American tradition. You’re taking them one at a time; you’re not making an overall argument about how American women have really shaped American culture. For teaching, there isn’t the sense: how do they fit in? How do they change the overall picture? It’s time for that argument to be made. We need a literary history and we need one for the 21st century.

How did you steel yourself for such a monumental project? What motivated you?

It was a big step. I have been wanting to do it for decades, since I wrote my first book on English women writers. But it’s obviously an enormous task. Generally, it’s not a task that’s undertaken by one person. If you look at women’s history now, they tend to be written by huge committees with huge editorial boards [and] many, many contributors, each of whom takes on a small part, and even then a lot of these projects take decades to finish. I wanted to do it alone because I thought, there has to be a “the buck stops here” sense of responsibility. A single person is much more likely to have a strong opinion than a committee. What we need now is somebody willing to say: this is an important writer, this is not such an important writer, and that is something a committee will never do.

Image by Library of Congress. Harriet Beecher Stowe published 30 books over a writing career that spanned 51 years. (original image)

Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection / Corbis. Gertrude Stein is an American writer who made her home in Paris, France. Her first book was published in 1909 but her autobiography, titled The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, was the only one to reach a wide audience. (original image)

Image by © Bettmann / Corbis. Louisa May Alcott is best known for Little Women, which is based on her life growing up with three other sisters. (original image)

Image by © Bettmann / Corbis. Sylvia Plath's autobiography was published under the name Victoria Lucas on January 14, 1963. Nearly a month later she took her own life. In 1981, Plath's Collected Poems won the Pulitzer Prize. (original image)

Did you discover any writers in the course of researching and writing this book?

There were many—so many. And in fact, I’m still finding them even though the book is done! Probably the biggest surprise, and the one that I found most moving, was Julia Ward Howe, the author of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” She published this anonymous book Passion Flowers in 1853, which was about her marriage and [then] her husband threatened that he would divorce her and take the children, which he could have done! [After the disclosure that she was the author, Howe’s husband refused to speak to her for three months.] That was stunning. I was tremendously impressed by the poems and by the whole life of Julia Ward Howe.

Were there writers you felt you had to include, but who disappointed you when you went back to evaluate their work?

Everybody mentions Gertrude Stein. She is always the one who makes it into the literary history. She was an incredible self-promoter, endlessly self-important. And I just think that her work is unreadable—absolutely unreadable. I don’t know anybody, except academics, who reads Stein. Which is not to say that there aren’t interesting bits and pieces—her play The Mother of US All [is worthwhile]. But I think she’s overrated in terms of the attention that she gets and in terms of her influence on American literature.

You write about early American writers turning to Europe for inspiration. George Sand, Maria Edgeworth, and of course George Eliot all seemed particularly influential in the nineteenth century. Did European writers ever turn to American writers for inspiration?

Harriet Beecher Stowe is at the top of the list. You have Stowe, and then you have a huge gap before you get to anybody else [who influenced European audiences]. It wouldn’t be until the end of the century, when you have a lot of Americans going over to Europe. Stowe was read all over the world. She was reviewed by Tolstoy. She was reviewed by George Sand. You really cannot find an American writer whose influence was more profound. And of course Stowe had this correspondence with George Eliot that I think is very delightful. She’s always writing to George Eliot, “my darling” and “my dear”—nobody talks to George Eliot like that. I just love it. Stowe is one of the women I wish I could have known.

I was struck by the extent to which American women writers—from Louisa May Alcott to Sylvia Plath—recurrently referred to The Tempest. Why?

The Tempest was the Shakespearean play that spoke to them most directly. If you say to people, “which play do you think influenced women writers?” I think people would probably say Romeo and Juliet, or something like that. But no, it was The Tempest. As far as I know, each woman writer who used it found it for herself. Because there was no literary history, there was not really any way for women writers to know what other women writers had done. They were drawn to The Tempest first of all because it is a myth of a new world, and it is a myth of starting over again in a new place. They powerfully identified with the figure of Miranda…. Miranda is a woman who grows up in a totally male world. She is a woman who is educated by her father, is tremendously intelligent, never sees another woman, and has to define what it means to be a woman for herself.

You write that Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening was the first novel by an American woman that was completely successful in aesthetic terms” What did you mean by this?

Moby Dick is a masterpiece, but I don’t know that people would say that it’s completely aesthetically successful. There are a lot of parts of Moby Dick that people skip if they read it now. I happen to love Moby Dick, but we Moby Dick fanatics are the ones that read everything about whaling. The Awakening is a real work of art, completely satisfying—in that sense more like a European novel of the time… So I wanted to put that [statement] in. You can’t fault The Awakening on any grounds whatsoever. I think [Harriet Beecher] Stowe is still the most underestimated American novelist. But I would have to say that there are things you can criticize in terms of structure.

Read Elaine Showalter's list of Top 10 Books by American Woman Authors That You Haven’t Read (But Should).

From the Joshua Tree to The Slaughtered Lamb: Destinations of Story and Song

Smithsonian Magazine

U2 was here—and so were thousands of fans who managed to find the remote Mojave Desert location of the very Joshua tree depicted in the photo series accompanying U2's 1987 album. The tree has died and now lies in brittle bits and pieces. Photo by Steve Hall.

Satellite views of the Earth plus the advent of digital photography and remote communication technology have rendered virtually no place on the planet unexplored—or unseen, anyway. To be an explorer in the old days was a legitimate and noble occupation, but traveling today is much less about first-time discovery than it is about rediscovery. But there is a particular thrill in going where certain others have gone before, to walk where they walked and to know that their eyes, too, played across the very landscape before you. So forget the world’s last lingering corners of wilderness for a moment, or the last unsettled islands, and consider these special sites of interest where writers, artists, musicians and heroes once walked:

The toppled Joshua tree. On a cold December day in 1986, the biggest budding rock band of the time—a group of young Irishmen known as U2—walked into the Mojave desert with photographer Anton Corbijn, posed before a lanky-limbed Joshua tree and created one of the most famous rock and roll image galleries, portrayed on the album sleeve of U2′s 1987 album The Joshua Tree. The images spurred a quiet pilgrimage of followers seeking to locate the Joshua tree—the Joshua tree, that is, the one shown on the album. The site is located near Death Valley, and presumably the first U2 fan to locate the place found it by following the skyline seen in the famed black and white photographs. Today, the tree itself lies fallen and broken, while a shrine and plaque, a variety of stone-based artwork and four stone circles indicating where each U2 band member once stood still give visitors a chilling sense of rediscovery.

The Slaughtered Lamb pub. “I vote we go back to The Slaughtered Lamb.” So said Jack Goodman, played by Griffin Dunne, to his friend David Kessler in the 1981 horror cult classic An American Werewolf in London. Two young American men, students on vacation, were walking on the cold, wild moors of Northern England not far from a fictional village called East Proctor. The pair had just left the town’s spooky village pub, The Slaughtered Lamb, where a bizarre cast of locals sent the Americans packing with crazy talk suggesting monsters and witchcraft. But some distance out of the town, piercing half-man howls echoed through the fog and scared Jack and David back again toward the pub—but a werewolf got them first. Jack was killed, and David, played by David Naughton, was rendered a once-per-month monster whose own days would soon end after a bloody rampage in the streets of London. Today, the village of Crickadarn, Wales, which portrayed East Proctor, remains a vaguely known source of attraction for traveling film buffs. If you go, stick to the road, keep clear of the moors and take some good pics—and perhaps post driving directions in the comment box below. Heads up: The interior of The Slaughtered Lamb is actually in The Black Swan, a pub in Ockham, Surrey, in case you should want a pint.

Cephalonia, home island of Odysseus. Just which Aegean waters Homer’s hero stirred and which Greek islands he passed as he voyaged home from Troy may be unclear, but we may know just where Odysseus landed at the journey’s end, the island he called home. Named Ithaca in The Odyssey, the home island of Odysseus is believed to be that now called Cephalonia, off Greece’s west coast, as described in Smithsonian in 2006. An amateur scholar named Robert Bittlestone made this claim after studying translations of Homer’s narration and touring possible islands in Greece, surveying the landscapes and imagining just where was the likeliest abode of Odysseus. The modern-day island of Ithaca seems not to be the old Ithaca—but on Cephalonia, Bittlestone believes he can even trace the footsteps of Odysseus from the moment he came ashore at Phorcys Bay to the hut of the benevolent swineherd to—at last—the cone-shaped hill called Kastelli, where Odysseus’ wife Penelope and their son Telemachus endured for years the hounding of suitors and drunkards—men who died in a bloody, skull-crashing fight when Odysseus finally walked through his door. Should you go to Cephalonia, bring along a pair of binoculars and a copy of the Odyssey, perhaps the truest guidebook there is to this lesser-known Greek island.

Cephalonia, off of western Greece, might be the island where Odysseus—or his real-life prototype—lived. Photo courtesy of Flickr user The Photo Factory by Christel Egberts.

Fairbanks City Bus 142. The broken-down bus in which a young man lived his final days in Alaska in 1992 has become an attraction for back-country visitors in recent years. Made famous by Jon Krakauer in his 1995 book Into the Wild, Chris McCandless, who took up the alias Alexander Supertramp, has been the subject of scorn, sympathy and admiration. He came to the interior Alaskan bush country with idealistic visions of living off the land in a place void of human contact and government control—but things didn’t go well. Though he had a rifle, he failed to feed himself adequately, and after more than 100 days in the wild, he died of starvation inside the retired Fairbanks city bus. McCandless’ tribe of followers exploded in numbers following the 2007 movie adaptation of Krakauer’s book, and today many—too many, perhaps—visit the bus each summer and fall, posing for photos exactly as McCandless did, signing their names inside the bus and taking pieces away. Locals have begun to consider the defunct vehicle an attractive nuisance. Though the bus has long served as a campsite for local hunters, there has been talk of removing it from the bush. Go see this piece of junk while you can.

Steinbeck Country. It’s sunburned, desolate and populated by pigs and cougars—and everywhere you go in the hill country of California’s Monterey and San Benito Counties, you are likely to be viewing the same wild country that inspired the writing of John Steinbeck. While you have a sure bet at mingling with the ghosts of Steinbeck’s past at tourist hubs like Cannery Row, the real excitement lies farther afield—where one might explore the scrubby back country and ask of suspect homesteads, trees and road crossings: “Was Steinbeck here?” Eight years ago while exploring California on a long bicycle tour, this very question came to me, along with a strange and eerie feeling in my gut, when I came upon a lonely intersection in Monterey County, far from any stores or farms or gas stations. I was riding northward on Peach Tree Road, parallel to and east of the Salinas Valley, and came to the junction with Long Valley Road, which led deep into the hill country to the west. I instantly recalled Steinbeck’s The Long Valley and felt with certainty that the author had walked up this road in its unpaved days, through these dry expanses of classic California oak and scrub, absorbing impressions of the land that would later move him to write. But in the lonely hills of Steinbeck Country, fiction overlays reality, and whether here once was a god unknown, or a red pony, or a man named Adam Trask—who really knows but the writer who invented them all?

There are many other literary journeys, sites to see and paths to follow:

Jack Kerouac‘s route in On the Road. Kerouac disguised many of his real-life characters with clever pseudonyms in On the Road, yet travelers and journalists seem to have pinned down where he went, drank, ate and slept, from San Luis Obispo to Colorado to New York.

The pond and cabin of Henry David Thoreau‘s Walden days.

The Overlook Hotel of The Shining. Film director Stanley Kubrick relied on multiple locations, including a set in England, for shooting his 1980 horror hit, but for a face-to-face, head-on look at the hotel that swallowed up the Torrance family for a long, frightening winter, head straight to the Timberline Lodge in Oregon.

The Abbey Road crossing in London as seen on the Beatles album. Should you go, take three long-haired friends, set up a camera and don’t forget the most important part: One of you must walk barefoot.

The Fairbanks city bus in which Chris McCandless died of starvation in 1992 has become a tourist attraction. This photo was taken in 2011. Photo by Dave Korn.

How Would You Rank the Greatest Presidents?

Smithsonian Magazine

In an interview in January 2010, President Obama told Diane Sawyer of ABC News, “I’d rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president.”

The comment didn’t really jibe well with Robert W. Merry, an acclaimed biographer of James Polk, who served as president from 1845 to 1849. Polk is ranked as a “near great” president in polls by scholars, but he is an exception. “History has not smiled upon one-term presidents,” wrote Merry in an editorial in the New York Times. “The typical one-term president generally falls into the ‘average’ category, occasionally the ‘above average.’ ”

In his new book, Where They Stand, Merry opens up the rating game beyond historians, to include what voters and contemporaries said in their own times. The editor of the National Interest, a foreign policy publication, argues that while historians’ views are important, presidential greatness is best seen through the eyes of voters of the president’s time. The greatest of the “greats,” in other words, have the election records to show it. They earned the trust of Americans in their first terms, won second terms and, in some cases, paved the way for their party to maintain control of the White House for the next four years.

Historians and others take joy in ranking the presidents, and debating these ranks. To you, what’s the fun in this?
It is the same fun that we have in trying to determine who is the greatest first baseman of all time. Most people would say Lou Gehrig, but there is plenty of room for debate. Who is the greatest American singer of the postwar period? But the presidents really have the national destiny in their hands. It is a much more significant pursuit than these others, which are more in the realm of trivia. Who was great? Who wasn’t so great? And, why were they great? Ranking presidents is a way we bring order to our thinking about our history.

What factors, do you think, need to be considered when assessing presidential greatness?
Greatness is as greatness does. It is really a question of what a president has accomplished with the country. Reagan’s question, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” is very apt. Put another way, is the country better off? How is the country different? Are those differences good or are they not so good?

The great presidents all did something that changed the political landscape of America and set the country on a new course. That’s not easy to do. That is really the key to presidential greatness.

In your book, your big claim is that we should listen to the electorate at the time of the president’s term, and not just historians. Why do you put such emphasis on the voters?
Presidential politics is like retailing. The customer is always right. In our system, we put faith in the voters, because that is at the bedrock of how we think we should order our affairs politically. If you don’t believe that, then it is kind of hard to believe very strongly in American democracy.

The whole idea is that the voters emerge with a collective judgment, maybe even occasionally a collective wisdom. I happen to buy that. Therefore, I felt that the polls of historians were significant. I didn’t debunk them or toss them aside. But I thought they were incomplete, because they didn’t always take into account what the voters were saying, thinking or doing with regard to their presidents contemporaneously. I wanted to sort of crank that into the discussion.

There are six presidents that you refer to as “Leaders of Destiny.” What makes a president deserving of this title?
The six, in order, are Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt. I happen to believe that Reagan will get into that circle, but right now, the polls of historians don’t quite have him there, although his standing is rising rather dramatically.

The six leaders of destiny pass a three-part test. They are consistently hailed among the greats or near greats by the historians. They are two-term presidents succeeded by their own party, meaning that the voters liked them both times that they served. And then, as I described earlier, they transformed the political landscape of the country and set it on a new course.

What were the major traits that these presidents shared? They all understood the nature of their time, what was really going on in the country, what the country needed, what the voters collectively were hungry for. There are a lot of presidents who don’t understand their time; they think they do, but they don’t. You have to have a vision. All of these leaders of destiny were elected at a time when the country needed tremendous leadership, and these presidents are the ones who stepped up and gave it. Then, they have political adroitness, the ability to get their hands on the levers of power in America and manipulate those levers in a way that gets the country moving affectively in the direction of that vision.

In your opinion, FDR and Ronald Reagan are the two greatest presidents of the 20th century.
The voters hailed them both at the time. What is interesting, in my view, is that Roosevelt was probably the most liberal president of the 20th century, and Reagan was probably the most conservative president of the 20th century. It indicates that the country is not particularly ideological. It is looking for the right solutions to the problems of the moment. The country is willing to turn left or to turn right.

What is the difference between good and great?
We have had a lot of good presidents. I’ll give you a good example of a good president, Bill Clinton. Clinton was elected because the country wasn’t quite satisfied with George H.W. Bush. They didn’t think he was a terrible president, but he didn’t quite lead the country in a way that made him eligible for rehire. The country gets Bill Clinton, and he tries to govern in his first two years as if his aim is to repeal Reaganism. The result was that the American people basically slapped him down very, very decisively in the midterm elections of 1994, at which point Bill Clinton did an about-face and said, “The era of big government is over.” He crafted a center left mode of governing that was very effective. He had significant economic growth. He wiped out the deficit. We didn’t have major problems overseas. There was no agitation in the streets that led to violence or anything of that nature. He gets credit for being a good president.

Once he righted his mode of government and moved the country solidly forward, he was beginning to build up some significant political capital, and he never really felt the need or desire to invest that capital into anything very bold. So, he governed effectively as a status quo president and ended eight years as a very good steward of American polity, but not a great president. To be a great president, you have to take risks and make changes.

Just as we can learn from the successes, there are lessons to be learned from the failures. What can you say about character traits that do not bode well for a successful presidency?
Scandal harms you tremendously. But I would say that the real failures are people like James Buchanan who faced a huge crisis—the debate over slavery that was descending upon America—and just simply didn’t want to deal with. He wasn’t willing to put himself out in any kind of politically risky way in order to address it. The result was it just got worse. It festered and got worse.

Occasionally, a president will make a comeback in historians’ minds. What would you say is the most reputation-altering presidential biography?
Grover Cleveland is the only president we have who actually is a two-time, one-term president. He is the only president who served two nonconsecutive terms. Each time he served four years, the voters said, “I’ve had enough. I’m going to turn away to either another person in the party or another candidate.”

Meanwhile, however, the first poll by Arthur Schlesinger Sr. in 1948 had Grover Cleveland at Number 8. That ranking came a few years after the great historian Allan Evans wrote a two volume biography of Grover Cleveland, in which he hailed him as a man of destiny and a man of character. I am sure that biography had a significant impact.

So, you describe a manner of assessing the greatest of past presidents. But, it is an election year. How do you suggest we evaluate current presidential candidates?
I don’t think the American people need a lot of instruction from me or anyone else in terms of how to make an assessment on the presidents when they come up for reelection. Presidential elections are largely referendums on the incumbent. The American people don’t pay a lot of attention to the challenger. They basically make their judgment collectively, based on the performance of the incumbent or the incumbent party. They pretty much screen out the trivia and the nonsense—a lot of the stuff that we in the political journalistic fraternity (and I’ve been a part of it for a long, long time) tend to take very seriously—and make their assessment based on sound judgments on how the president has fared, how well he has led the country and whether the country is in better shape than it was before. I am pretty confident that the American people know what they are doing.

Do you have any comment, then, on what qualities we might look for in a candidate, so that we maximize our chances of electing a leader of destiny?
One thing that we know from history is that the great presidents are never predicted as being great. They are elected in a political crucible. While supporters are convinced he is going to be great—or she; someday we will have a woman—his detractors and opponents will be absolutely convinced that he is going to be a total and utter disaster. Even after he is succeeding, they are going to say he is a disaster.

You can never really predict what a president is going to do or how effective he is going to be. Lincoln was considered a total country bumpkin from out there in rural Illinois. Oliver Wendell Holmes famously judged Franklin Roosevelt as having a first-rate temperament and a second-rate intellect. Ronald Reagan was viewed as a failed movie actor who just read his lines from 3-by-5 cards. And all three were great presidents.

What idea are you turning to next?
I wrote a history of the James Polk presidency [A Country of Vast Designs] and how the country moved west and gained all of that western and southwestern territory, Washington, Oregon, Idaho and then California to Texas. I am fascinated now by the subsequent time in our history when we busted out of our continental confines and went out into the world in the Spanish-American War. I am looking at the presidency of William McKinley and the frothy optimism of the country at that time when we decided to become something of an imperial power.

This interview series focuses on big thinkers. Without knowing whom I will interview next, only that he or she will be a big thinker in their field, what question do you have for my next interview subject?
I guess a big question I would have in terms of the state of the country is, why is the country in such a deadlock? And how in the world are we going to get out of the crisis that is a result of that deadlock?

From my last interviewee, Frank Partnoy, a University of San Diego professor and author of Wait: The Art and Science of Delay: How do you know what you know? What is it about your research and experience and background that leads you to a degree of certainty about your views? With what degree of confidence do you hold that idea?
I am not a young man. I have been around a long time. I had certainty when I was young, but I have had a lot of my certitudes shaken over the years. But, if you have enough of that, you tend to accumulate at least a few observations about the world that seem pretty solid and grounded. So, you go with them.

You have to take it on faith that you have seen enough and you know enough and you have certain principal perceptions of how things work and how events unfold and how the thesis-antithesis leads to synthesis in politics or government or history. And, so you pull it together as best you can. Ultimately, the critics will determine how successful you were.

Hungry? Pull Over. Here’s Your Guide to the Best Bets of Roadside Foraging

Smithsonian Magazine

Figs are a great prize of roadside foragers—a fruit unwanted by many landowners and as available as it is delicious. The green figs shown here are desert kings, a variety that produces a large first crop in July. Photo by Alastair Bland.

There is no fruit quite like a fresh fruit. Picked ripe and eaten immediately, fresh fruits exhibit the vibrant sugars and zesty acids that make them so attractive to foraging creatures and a key element in their evolutionary strategy. But fresh-picked fruit is generally unavailable to most of us. That’s because farmers usually harvest their stone fruits, berries, figs and other delicate seasonals well before they’ve even ripened. Then, the pickings spend a week or more in transit, finally arriving in the grocery store dull as a billy-clubbed mahi mahi, often mushy or pithy and a sad exhibition of their species’ full potential. Even sadder is that fact that we consumers must take what we can get, and we live our lives buying and eating this sub-prime fruit.

Unless, that is, we hit the road and take matters—and super-fresh fruit—into our own hands. All along the roadways of America, and the world, fruit trees grow within reach of passersby, and about now, as summer heats up, these trees are loaded—and their abundant branches are hanging over a fence near you. Here’s a list of best bets for roadside foraging this July:

Loquats. The orange color and the suffix “quat” (think kumquat) lead many people to assume that the loquat is a citrus fruit—but it’s not even related. A native of East Asia and a favorite summer snack in Europe, Japan, Israel and Brazil, the loquat in America is common yet just as obscure. Many homeowners are unaware that the fruits, growing in their own yards, are even edible—which is good news for you and me. That means you can knock on the door, ask permission and, almost without fail, receive the go-ahead to “take all you want.” Some homeowners may appear baffled and say, “Those are edible?” Yes—fantastic, in fact, and surely one of the most under-appreciated garden fruits. When picking loquats, leave a quarter-inch of stem attached to each fruit, which will reduce bruising, and carry them home wrapped in a sweat shirt for padding. Peel the skins and savor the sweet, juicy, zesty flesh. If you have a real bounty to work with, try juicing a portion and making loquat cider.

Avocados. The fact that avocados, one of the most recognized and desired tree fruits, can be had for free along public roadways is simply wonderful. NOTE: This is NOT an invitation to plunder an orchard, which is illegal, taken seriously by Southern California law enforcement agencies and could land you in jail. Rather, this is simply a reminder to cyclists and pedestrians south of Santa Barbara to watch the roadsides for avocado trees, and, when you see one, look to the ground below, or in the culvert along the road. These are the places where ripe avocados go—and if you don’t get them, the rodents will. Avocado trees, happily, fruit almost all year.

Figs. The bulk of the year’s figs arrive in late summer and fall, but many varieties of the fruit produce an early crop, as well—physiologically distinct from the main crop of September. Called the “breba” crop, this first flush of figs usually consists of fewer fruits than the longer-lasting autumn crop—but not always, and in some places, and with certain fig varieties, a bounty of breba figs may weight the tree branches toward the ground. The black mission fig, one of the main commercial and garden varieties of California, produces a heavy breba crop in June and July. So does the desert king, a jammy, juicy green variety. Countless fig trees grow wild or feral along small rural roadways and can be easily and safely accessed. Texas and other states of the South offer good fig-hunting opportunities, too—and Southern Europe is a fig hunter’s heaven, especially in the fall. Breba crop figs grow from the old-growth wood of the previous year, and so they may often be concealed by summer foliage. Push back the leaves and behold the whoppers. Only take them if they’re splitting, sagging and dripping with juices, as figs will not ripen once picked.

Mulberries. An Old World native grown in America largely as a shade tree, the mulberry is a prolific producer and one of the most under-appreciated of tree fruits. Some mulberry varieties are cotton-candy pink, while others are purple, and others jet black—and all, when ripe, are pure sweetness, lacking the tannins that make blackberries and other thorny bush-berries so often bitter and sour. In nations around the Mediterranean, mulberries are loved, cultivated and often eaten dried, like raisins. In many places, fallen mulberries carpet the pavement a half-inch thick during July. In California and the rest of America, most trees are of non-fruiting varieties—often planted along paths and roadways as shade trees—but those bearing berries begin to drop their crop in June. Cyclists have a great advantage in hunting the mulberry, able to cover large distances but moving slowly enough to watch the asphalt; when you see dark stains of splattered fruit on the ground, hit the brakes and look up.

And you thought blackberries were a prize. These huge fruits came from a Pakistan mulberry tree, which produces the largest and probably the best mulberries of all. Photo by Alastair Bland.

Blackberries. A no-brainer, blackberries are probably America’s favorite wild fruit. The Himalayan blackberry is also one of the most hated invasive species ever to leave its Old World homeland. Introduced in 1885 to Sonoma County by fruit breeder Luther Burbank, the species now grows in wicked bramble patches across the continent, and the world. Road crews and property owners attack the vines with chain saws, but there’s no stopping this thorny invader—and every July and August, it’s pie time. America also has a native blackberry, with gentler thorns than the Himalayan and bearing slender, elongated fruits about a month earlier, beginning in June. Blackberries fall in the genus Rubus, which also includes raspberries, salmonberries and thimbleberries. Blueberries and huckleberries are also a summertime crop, and an easy one to forage.

Wild Plums. Remember the chapter in Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire when he visits Kazakhstan’s wild apple forests and describes the fantastic abundance and diversity of the fruit, and the forest floor littered with a rainbow-colored layer of apples? Well, in parts of coastal California, the abundance of wild plums is almost as tremendous. Plum trees—growing wild, sprouted from seed—cover mountain slopes and bear fruits of a dozen colors. A quick skirmish with the brambles, and you’re among the trees. Taste through them until you find the best. TIP: You’ll find that the plums fallen and hiding in the grass are exceptionally sweet, ripened by days in the sun. Enjoy them on the spot, or take them home to make jam—or even wine. Planning on going Down Under? Then watch along the roads of New Zealand, where plums grow as wildly as in California.

The Prince Agaricus mushroom. A fungus fruit, the prince is one of the very best edible mushrooms, with a smell and flavor like almond extract that will knock almost any foodie to his knees as he begs you to tell just where you found these incredibly delicious things. Don’t tell—just share, and perhaps offer the basic scoop: The prince, Latin name Agaricus augustus, is a close relative of the cultivated portobello mushroom. Many other species in the genus are good to eat, as well—but the prince is the king. The mushroom is a summer fruiter, often occurring in areas touched by fog drip or in parks wetted by sprinklers. The mushrooms like to grow in disturbed soils—and right beside roadways is a great place to look. I’ve even encountered the prince while cycling through Bulgaria and Greece. Unsure I had met my old friend so far from home, I smelled the cap—and that almond-anise aroma left no doubt. When the mushrooms are barbecued, the sweet juices of the prince come out sizzling. The texture remains firm—never slimy—and the flavor is a knockout. Try dipping prince slices in egg, then sautéing and serving with a drizzle of maple syrup for mushroom French toast. NOTE: Do not forage mushrooms if you don’t know what you’re doing. This blog post is not to be used for identification purposes.

A pristine cluster of prince mushrooms, an excellent edible, fresh out of the ground near San Francisco. These mushrooms are young; had they matured for several days more, their caps would have opened and spread as wide as 12 inches. Photo by Alastair Bland

Don’t know where to start? Fallen Fruit serves as a foraging resource and a guide to collecting fruit from public trees in Los Angeles and beyond. Another group, based in the San Francisco Bay Area, calls itself Guerrilla Grafters and stalks the streets, grafting branches of prized fruit varieties onto non-fruit-bearing sidewalk trees with the goal of cultivating a free food resource for public use. How cool is that?

Teller Speaks on the Enduring Appeal of Magic

Smithsonian Magazine

Teller first became infatuated with magic around the age of 5, when he was bedridden with an illness and sent away for a magic set. “That toy became my obsession. I was magnetized to it. I worked these little gizmos till they frayed,” he says. “Nearly 60 years later, I’m still not cured.”

He is now known best as the smaller, quieter half of the performing duo Penn & Teller. In addition to being one of the world’s most famous magicians, he’s also contributed to the New York Times, the New Yorker and the Atlantic; written three books with Penn; edited two volumes on magic history; and published When I'm Dead All This Will Be Yours!, a memoir of his artist parents. Most recently, he directed a horror-influenced version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and in 2010 co-wrote and directed an Off Broadway show, Play Dead.

Teller spoke with Smithsonian’s Joseph Stromberg about the principles of magic, its relevance in everyday life and why used-car salesmen should make jokes when trying to close a sale.

In your article for Smithsonian’s March 2012 issue, “Trick of the Eye,” you write about performing magic in front of a Cub Scout troop when you were 11. Why do children so frequently get interested in magic?
Most kids go through a magic phase when they’re somewhere between 8 and 12, and it usually happens about the time they learn that the Easter Bunny isn’t quite what they thought it was. They learn it’s possible for adults to lie, and that there’s power in lying. Magic is the perfect way to exercise that power safely and ethically. So instead of taking up shoplifting as a hobby, the proper child takes up magic for a few years, then drops it upon maturing out of adolescence.

I came to it through sickness. When I was about 5, I got toxic myocarditis, a very bad heart ailment and was convalescent for many weeks. My family had just purchased our first television set, and one of the first shows I saw was a children’s program called “Howdy Doody,” starring a cowboy marionette and some lovable human friends, including Clarabell, the magic clown. They said if I sent in 25 cents and three candy wrappers, Clarabell would send me a Howdy Doody Magic Set.

So with my parents’ assistance, I sent in a quarter and the required wrappers, and “Lo!,” there arrived a magic set, entirely of flat cardboard pieces to be assembled by the magician-to-be. The set included the “multiplying candy bars miracle” (you put three miniature Mars bars in a little box and shook them around, and when you opened the box, “Behold!,” there were now six). In another trick you snipped a flat paper Clarabell the Clown in half and put him back together again. 

It was wondrous. I sat alone for hours and hours in my parents’ third-floor back storeroom, with the afternoon sun shining in the grimy windows. The “Howdy Doody” magic set pierced me to the bone and chained itself to my soul.

You’ve also worked as a director and playwright. How does magic fit in with other forms of performance, such as music or drama?
In high school I lucked into a great drama coach, David G. Rosenbaum—Rosey, as we called him. Rosey was a sophisticated dramaturg, director and acting teacher. He taught us to move, speak and find the truth in a role. He was also a part-time magician. Rosey was my mentor and from the time I was 16 until his death decades later. We probed the riddle of magic in the theater. The closest we came to a definition was this: ‘Magic is a form of theater that depicts impossible events as though they were really happening.” In other words, you experience magic as real and unreal at the same time. It’s a very, very odd form, compelling, uneasy and rich in irony.

A romantic novel can make you cry. A horror movie can make you shiver.  A symphony can carry you away on an emotional storm; it can go straight to the heart or the feet. But magic goes straight to the brain; its essence is intellectual. 

What do you mean by intellectual?
The most important decision anyone makes in any situation is “Where do I put the dividing line between what’s in my head and what’s out there? Where does make-believe leave off and reality begin?” That’s the first job your intellect needs to do before you can act in the real world. 

If you can’t distinguish reality from make-believe—if you’re at a stoplight and you’re not sure whether the bus that’s coming toward your car is real or only in your head—you’re in big trouble. There aren’t many circumstances where this intellectual distinction isn’t critical.

One of those rare circumstances is when you’re watching magic. Magic is a playground for the intellect. At a magic show, you can watch a performer doing everything in his power to make  a lie look real. You can even be taken in by it, and there's no harm done. Very different from, say, the time-share salesman who fools you into squandering your savings, or the “trance channeler” who bilks the living by ravaging the memories of the dead.

In magic the outcome is healthy. There’s an explosion of pain/pleasure when what you see collides with what you know. It’s intense, though not altogether comfortable. Some people can’t stand it. They hate knowing their senses have fed them incorrect information. To enjoy magic, you must like dissonance.

In typical theater, an actor holds up a stick, and you make believe it’s a sword. In magic, that sword has to seem absolutely 100 percent real, even when it’s 100 percent fake. It has to draw blood. Theater is “willing suspension of disbelief.” Magic is unwilling suspension of disbelief.

The principles you mention in the article—did you develop these on your own, or did you learn them from others?
Thirty-seven years side by side with Penn has taught me a lot. Together we’ve discovered some of the principles. Others I’ve learned from old pros or research or experimentation. And that article was just the tip of the wand-shaped iceberg. There are no “Seven Basic Principles of Magic”—get that out of your head. It’s just not that simple. People who don’t know magic believe it’s all just a simple trick. They say, “oh, it’s all just misdirection.” And they think misdirection means you’re watching the performer, and all of a sudden a gorilla jumps out of the closet behind you, and you turn around and look, and meanwhile the magician has done something sneaky onstage.

Misdirection is a huge term that means whatever you use to make it impossible to draw a straight line from the illusion to the method. It’s an interruption, a reframing. It comes in so many varieties and is so fundamental, it’s quite hard to formulate in a neat definition—rather like the term “noun” or “verb” in grammar. We all know what these are, but only after seeing lots of examples.

“A magician never reveals his secret” is a common cliché. Do you have any reservations about sharing this information in your books or in a magazine article like this one?
Your readers could go to their library, as I did, and learn everything that I learned from books. I do think that with magic, if you explain a trick in an oversimplified way, it can dull the glamor for the casual viewer. On the other hand, to the serious connoisseur, understanding magical methods enhances the beauty.

How are the concepts of magic relevant in everyday life?
Well, let’s take what magicians call a force, where the magician gives you a false sense of free action by giving you an extremely controlled choice. In Smithsonian I compared that to choosing between two political candidates. But I see it everywhere. When I go to the supermarket, I have a choice of dozens of kinds of cereals—all made by the same manufacturer of essentially the same ingredients. I have the gut impression of variety and freedom, but in the end, the only real choice I have is not to buy.

Pretty much every one of those magic principles has an analogue in the everyday world. When you’re about to buy a used car and the used-car salesman has a great sense of humor, he’s doing much the same thing that I’m doing when I make you laugh right after I do a move. He’s incapacitating your rational judgment by making you laugh.

What sorts of reactions do you get from people you deceive? Are people ever upset?
Some people have a grudge against magicians, and that’s easy to understand. Lying respectfully is a terribly delicate art. You must proceed from the proposition that the audience is smarter and better educated than you are. That’s the fact, you know. And I don’t just mean surgeons and physicists and car mechanics; I mean that virtually every spectator has read a magic book or owned a magic set at one stage of life. One is not performing for benighted savages. Some preening airhead magicians forget this and give their audiences an earful of bullshit along the lines of “Is this merely an illusion, or might I have some mystical psychic powers….?” The audience is right to resent that kind of treatment. 

We try to convey our attitude in one of our signature pieces: It’s a version of the ancient Cups and Balls sleight-of-hand trick. But we use clear plastic cups, so that the audience sees every secret move. But they’re surprised. Because in the Cups and Balls, body language plays so much of a part in what makes that trick deceptive, that even as you’re seeing the balls being loaded into the clear plastic cups, part of your mind is not seeing them. That’s a very interesting experience, and lets folks know that we know how smart they are. And the smarter the audience is, the more they naturally enjoy magic. The more you know about gravity, the more amazing a good levitation is. What other art form offers such tingling intellectual stimulation? 

Still, when we first took our show Off Broadway, back in 1984, our producer, Richard Frankel, said, “Lads, the word ‘magic’ will not appear in connection with any advertising on this show. If you say ‘magic,’ people will drive their station wagons in from the suburbs, drop their children off at matinees, and no first-string reviewer will ever take you seriously. Let’s think of ‘magic’ as the m-word.”

So when we opened, we simply called the show ‘Penn and Teller.’ It was the best advice anybody ever gave us.

The Great Dissenter and His Half-Brother

Smithsonian Magazine

He was known as “the Great Dissenter,” and he was the lone justice to dissent in one of the Supreme Court’s most notorious and damaging opinions, in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. In arguing against his colleagues’ approval of the doctrine of “separate but equal,” John Marshall Harlan delivered what would become one of the most cited dissents in the court’s history.

Then again, Harlan was remarkably out of place among his fellow justices. He was the only one to have graduated from law school. On a court packed with what one historian describes as “privileged Northerners,” Harlan was not only a former slave owner, but also a former opponent of the Reconstruction Amendments, which abolished slavery, established due process for all citizens and banned racial discrimination in voting. During a run for governor of his home state of Kentucky, Harlan had defended a Ku Klux Klan member for his alleged role in several lynchings. He acknowledged that he took the case for money and out of his friendship with the accused’s father. He also reasoned that most people in the county did not believe the accused was guilty. “Altogether my position is embarrassing politically,” he wrote at the time, “but I cannot help it.”

One other thing set Harlan apart from his colleagues on the bench: He grew up in a household with a light-skinned, blue-eyed slave who was treated much like a family member. Later, John’s wife would say she was somewhat surprised by “the close sympathy existing between the slaves and their Master or Mistress.” In fact, the slave, Robert Harlan, was believed to be John’s older half-brother. Even John’s father, James Harlan, believed that Robert was his son. Raised and educated in the same home, John and Robert remained close even after their ambitions put thousands of miles between them. Both lives were shaped by the love of their father, a lawyer and politician whom both boys loved in return. And both became extraordinarily successful in starkly separate lives.

Robert Harlan was born in 1816 at the family home in Harrodsburg, Kentucky. With no schools available for black students, he was tutored by two older half-brothers. While he was still in his teens, Robert displayed a taste for business, opening a barbershop in town and then a grocery store in nearby Lexington. He earned a fair amount of cash—enough that on September 18, 1848, he appeared at the Franklin County Courthouse with his father and a $500 bond. At the age of 32, the slave, described as “six feet high yellow big straight black hair Blue Gray eyes a Scar on his right wrist about the size of a dime and Also a small Scar on the upper lip,” was officially freed.

Robert Harlan went west, to California, and amassed a small fortune during the Gold Rush. Some reports had him returning east with more than $90,000 in gold, while others said he’d made a quick killing through gambling. What is known is that he returned east to Cincinnati in 1850 with enough money to invest in real estate, open a photography business, and dabble quite successfully in the race horse business. He married a white woman, and although he was capable of “passing” as white himself, Robert chose to live openly as a Negro. His financial acumen in the ensuing years enabled him to join the Northern black elite, live in Europe for a time, and finally return to the United States to become one of the most important black men in his adopted home state of Ohio.  In fact, John’s brother James sometimes went to Robert for financial help, and family letters show that Robert neither requested nor expected anything in return.

By 1870, Robert Harlan caught the attention of the Republican Party after he gave a rousing speech in support of the 15th Amendment, which guarantees the right to vote “regardless of race, color or previous condition of servitude.” He was elected a delegate to the Republican National Convention, and President Chester A. Arthur appointed him a special agent to the U. S. Treasury Department. He continued to work in Ohio, fighting to repeal laws that discriminated on the basis of race, and in 1886 he was elected as a state representative. By any measure, he succeeded in prohibitive circumstances.

John Harlan’s history is a little more complicated. Before the Civil War, he had been a rising star in the Whig Party and then the Know Nothings; during the war, he served with the 10th Kentucky Infantry and fought for the Union in the Western theater. But when his father died, in 1863, John was forced to resign and return home to manage the Harlan estate, which included a dozen slaves. Just weeks after his return, he was nominated to become attorney general of Kentucky. Like Robert, John became a Republican, and he was instrumental in the eventual victory of the party’s presidential candidate in 1876, Rutherford B. Hayes. Hayes was quick to show his appreciation by nominating Harlan to the  Supreme Court the following year. Harlan’s confirmation was slowed by his past support for discriminatory measures.

Robert and John Harlan remained in contact throughout John’s tenure on the court—1877 to 1911, years in which the justices heard many race-based cases, and time and again proved unwilling to interfere with the South’s resistance to civil rights for former slaves. But Harlan, the man who had opposed the Reconstruction Amendments, began to change his views. Time and again, such as when the Court ruled that the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was unconstitutional, Harlan was a vocal dissenter, often pounding on the desk and shaking his finger at his fellow justices in eloquent harangues.

“Have we become so inoculated with prejudice of race,” Harlan asked, when the court upheld a ban on integration in private schools in Kentucky, “that an American Government, professedly based on the principles of freedom, and charged with the protection of all citizens alike, can make distinctions between such citizens in the matter of their voluntary meeting for innocent purposes simply because of their respective races?”

His critics labeled him a “weather vane” and a “chameleon” for his about-faces in instances where he’d once argued that the federal government had no right to interfere with its citizens’ rightfully owned property, be it land or Negroes. But Harlan had an answer for his critics: “I’d rather be right than consistent.”

Wealthy and accomplished, Robert Harlan died in 1897, one year after his brother made his “Great Dissent” in Plessy v. Ferguson. The former slave lived to be 81 years old at a time when the average age expectancy for black men was 32. There were no records of correspondence between the two brothers, only confirmations from their respective children of introductions to each others’ families and acknowledgments that the two brothers had stayed in contact and had become Republican allies throughout the years. In Plessy, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Louisiana’s right to segregate public railroad cars by race, but what John Harlan wrote in his dissent reached across generations and color lines.

The white race deems itself to be the dominant race in this country. And so it is, in prestige, in achievements, in education, in wealth, and in power. So, I doubt not, it will continue to be for all time if it remains true to its great heritage and holds fast to the principles of constitutional liberty. But in view of the Constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our Constitution is colorblind and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.

In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. The humblest is the peer of the most powerful. The law regards man as man and takes no account of his surroundings or of his color when his civil rights as guaranteed by the supreme law of the land are involved. It is therefore to be regretted that this high tribunal, the final expositor of the fundamental law of the land, has reached the conclusion that it is competent for a state to regulate the enjoyment by citizens of their civil rights solely upon the basis of race.

The doctrine of “separate but equal” persisted until 1954, when the court invalidated it in Brown v.  Board of Education; during that half-century, Jim Crow laws blocked racial justice for generations. But John Harlan’s dissent in Plessy gave Americans hope. One of those Americans was Thurgood Marshall, the lawyer who argued Brown; he called it a “bible” and kept it nearby so he could turn to it in uncertain times. “No opinion buoyed Marshall more in his pre-Brown days,” said NAACP attorney Constance Baker Motley.


Books: Loren P. Beth, John Marshall Harlan, the Last Whig Justice, University of Kentucky Press, 1992. Malvina Shanklin Harlan, Some Memories of a Long Life, 1854-1911, (Unpublished, 1915), Harlan Papers, University of Louisville.

Articles: Dr. A’Lelia Robinson Henry, “Perpetuating Inequality: Plessy v. Ferguson and the Dilemma of Black Access to Public and Higher Education,” Journal of Law & Education, January 1998. Goodwin Liu, “The First Justice Harlan,” California Law Review, Vol 96, 2008.  Alan F. Westin, “John Marshall Harlan and the Constitutional Rights of Negroes,” Yale Law Review, Vol 66:637, 1957.  Kerima M. Lewis, “Plessy v. Ferguson and Segregation,” Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-First Century, Volume 1, Oxford University Press, 2009.  James W. Gordon, “Did the First Justice Harlan Have a Black Brother?” Western New England University Law Review, 159, 1993. Charles Thompson, “Plessy v. Ferguson: Harlan’s Great Dissent,” Kentucky Humanities, No. 1, 1996.  Louis R. Harlan, “The Harlan Family in America: A Brief History,” Amelia Newcomb, “A Seminal Supreme Court Race Case Reverberates a Century Later,” Christian Science Monitor, July 9, 1996.  Molly Townes O’Brien, “Justice John Marshall Harlan as Prophet: The Plessy Dissenter’s Color-Blind Constitution,” William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal, Volume 6, Issue 3, Article 5, 1998.

Botticelli Comes Ashore

Smithsonian Magazine

"How much do you want a Botticelli?" The question was sent to Isabella Stewart Gardner in Boston in a letter posted by Bernard Berenson on August 1, 1894, from London. Berenson, thirty-one, had, with the publication of the groundbreaking Venetian Painters of the Renaissance, recently established himself as an expert on Italian art. Four months before, he had sent Gardner a copy of his book, and earlier that summer, when she was in Paris, he urged her not to miss an exhibition of English pictures.

Soon after, Isabella Gardner asked Berenson his opinion of several Italian Old Master pictures proposed to her by dealers in France. Berenson replied that the paintings were not what these dealers claimed and offered her the Botticelli instead. "Lord Ashburnham has a great one—one of the greatest: a Death of Lucretia," he wrote. But, he "is not keen about selling it." Yet, Berenson thought that "a handsome offer would not insult him."

Berenson also named a price: "about £3,000," or some $15,000. He added, "If you cared about it, I could, I dare say, help you in getting the best terms."

Isabella Stewart Gardner had made her first major purchase of an Old Master painting two years before, on December 5, 1892, at the Paris auction of the collection of the late Théophile Thoré. The day before the sale, an artist friend had accompanied her to peruse Thoré's art, and there she saw the three Vermeers that were to be auctioned. To bid for her, Gardner hired Fernand Robert, a Paris antiques dealer. At the time, auctions generally operated as a wholesale market, where dealers acquired stock. If they knew that a collector wanted a particular work of art in a sale, they would try to buy it in hopes of selling it to the collector immediately afterward.

The first Vermeer in the Thoré auction, A Young Woman Standing at a Virginal, went to a Paris dealer, Stephen Bourgeois, for 29,000 francs. Bidding for the second, The Concert, again climbed to 29,000 francs, and Fernand Robert won the picture.

"Mrs. G. bought the van der Meer picture for fr. 29, 000," John Lowell "Jack" Gardner, Isabella's husband, noted matter-of-factly in his diary.

No doubt The Concert struck Isabella Gardner because of its understated, well-plotted beauty. The small picture was a Dutch interior where two young women, one in a glimmering white skirt seated at a harpsichord, and a young man in a brown jacket with a lute, are performing a piece of music on the far side of a room, across a floor patterned with black- and- white squares. On the wall behind them hang two large Dutch Old Masters in black frames. In the complex interlocking of colors and shapes made from the musicians, the instruments, the fabrics, the paintings, and the furniture, some in shadow and others in light, Vermeer captured the fleeting enchantment of the music, translating the elusive spell of one art form into another. Gardner's new acquisition was the first Vermeer to reach Boston and the second in the United States. With a commission, the canvas cost Gardner 31,175 francs, or just over $6,000. Although Henry Marquand had paid only $800 for his Vermeer five years before, Gardner's purchase soon looked like a bargain.

In August a friend reported that a Dutch art expert "says your concert is now worth easily between 150 and 200 thousand [francs]!" Indeed, soon after, Stephen Bourgeois turned around and sold his Young Woman Standing at a Virginal to the National Gallery in London for 50,000 francs, or $10,000. Prices of Old Master pictures were rising.

Still, in the mid-1890s, the number of Americans buying Old Masters remained small. Gardner's purchase at a Paris auction showed her independence of mind and her ambitions as a collector—and that she had her ear to the ground among progressive artists in London and Paris. In proposing the rare Botticelli to Gardner, Berenson knew well she was likely to leap at the chance to acquire it. She had definite, individual taste, with particular likes and dislikes. She had spent several summers in Venice and was drawn to the art of the Italian Renaissance. Rembrandt was the favorite artist of America's tycoons, but not hers. "You know, or rather, you don't know, that I adore Giotto," she wrote Berenson in 1900, "and really don't adore Rembrandt. I only like him." He shared her pioneering taste for Italian art and sympathized: "I am not anxious to have you own braces of Rembrandts, like any vulgar millionaire," he wrote. A devout Anglican, Gardner had no problem with religious imagery. The same summer she won the Vermeer, she had also purchased a Spanish Madonna and a Florentine Virgin and Child. Soon she spelled out her wish to buy Italian pictures, claiming that a Filippino Lippi and a Tintoretto (along with "a Velasquez [sic] very good") were her "foremost desire always." She added: "Only very good need apply!" Unlike Marquand, Gardner was buying for herself, her own plea sure, and her Beacon Hill house, where she hung both new and old paintings and propped the extras on chairs. Like Marquand and even more emphatically than him, she insisted upon masterpieces.

Image by Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner, John S. Sargent, 1888 (original image)

Image by Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The Tragedy of Lucretia, Sandro Botticelli, ca. 1500-1501 (original image)

Image by Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Mrs. Gardner in White, John S. Sargent, 1922 (original image)

Image by Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis. Bernard Berenson (1865-1959) was born in Lithuania but moved to America ten years later. He was an art critic and became a leading authority on Italian Renaissance Art. (original image)

When Berenson proposed the Botticelli, Isabella Stewart Gardner was fifty- six, slim, and elegant. She directed her life with a theatrical sense of style. She had pale skin, dark hair, an oval face with almond- shaped eyes, a long straight nose, and a full, awkward mouth, which, like her eyes, curved slightly down and suggested the seriousness that, for all her flamboyance, was at the core of her personality. She had a long neck and an erect carriage. She wore well-cut clothes (many designed by Charles Worth and imported from Paris), which spoke to her love of textiles but also to her creativity and skill in shaping her own image. In a black- and white photograph, she stares out with a mix of wisdom and innocence, her willowy figure clad in a fitted dress of dark watered satin with a high collar, long sleeves, and buttons running straight down its front. In summer, she wore large- brimmed hats festooned with veils that she tied down around her neck. Perhaps increasingly self- conscious about her face, she covered it as she aged. In her sixties, she would maintain her narrow form, holding her neck straight and her head high.

Energetic and self- possessed, Isabella Gardner was a New Yorker who cut her own path in Boston, breaking the establishment rules in dress, social practice, and collecting. Her marriage to Jack Gardner, a Boston Brahmin, brought her to the top of Boston's social hierarchy and gave her the freedom to shape her own role as a visible patron of advanced art. She is "the most dashing of fashion's local cynosures," as one critic put it, "who can order the whole symphony orchestra to her house for a private musicale."

Diva and muse, she gathered about her a circle of artists, writers, and musicians—young men whose careers she championed, who kept her up with their work and who were drawn to her larger- than- life persona. "She lives at a rate and intensity," Berenson wrote, "and with a reality that makes other lives seem pale, thin and shadowy." But after three de cades in Boston, Gardner still described herself as a "New York foreigner." Indeed, Boston society never embraced her, and she in turn exploited her outsider identity to fullest advantage. If Bostonians frowned on extravagance, she spent freely on clothes, jewelry ($83,000 on a necklace and a ruby ring), and concerts. By traveling frequently in Europe and making a habit of summers in Venice, she joined a circle of influential American expatriates, including not only John Singer Sargent but also James McNeill Whistler and Henry James, who in various ways encouraged her collecting.

In 1886, Henry James had taken Isabella Gardner to Sargent's London studio specifically to see the notorious portrait Madame X. Far from frightened off, Gardner commissioned Sargent to paint her own portrait, which he began immediately after he finished painting Elizabeth Marquand. Where he had portrayed the wife of the Metropolitan Museum's president conventionally and naturalistically, as an American aristocrat smiling and seated in a chair, he turned Isabella Gardner into an icon, a symmetrical image set before a hanging of Venetian brocade with a radiating pattern of red, ochre, and gold, designed to convey her singularity as a devotee and patron of art. She stands, facing us straight on in a long black dress with a low neck and short sleeves, her shoulders drawn back and her hands clasped so her white arms form an oval. Henry James suggested the artifice of the Sargent portrait when he described it as a "Byzantine Madonna with a Halo." Sargent showed the portrait in his first American exhibition at the St. Botolph Club on Boston's Beacon Hill, entitling it "Woman, an Enigma." What shocked Boston were the ropes of pearls around Gardner's neck and waist, and the décolletage of the dress. In her slightly parted lips and her bold gaze, Sargent also suggested Gardner's engaged presence and quickness of mind. The artist painted the portrait six years before Gardner bought the Vermeer, but his tribute to her as a high priestess of art was one she embraced. Her appetite for art was not a pose but a passion; aestheticism became the guiding principal of her life. Given money, she acquired paintings, sculpture, antique furniture, and other decorative arts—casting herself by means of her collection as a Renaissance patron, and taking the domestic environment to which she as a woman was restricted and turning it ultimately into a public space designed to display art and express herself as a collector. "Mrs. Gardner's collecting seems to have been part of a strategy" the art historian Kathleen Weil-Garris Brandt has written, "that developed to win for herself as a woman, albeit a rich and powerful one in Victorian Boston, the freedoms, the self-definition, and—crucially—the social and intellectual respect which she believed her Renaissance woman models to have enjoyed."

Later, when Gardner built the museum where she also lived, she placed above the door a coat of arms, with a phoenix, and into the stone carved the words "C'est Mon Plaisir"—It Is My Pleasure. The phrase was not simply a declaration of ego ("the justification for her every action," as one biographer put it), but resonated with the aestheticism of the nineteenth century and summarized the creed that art above all involved sensuous plea sure and spiritual enlightenment.

In December 1894, four months after Berenson had written Isabella Gardner about Lord Ashburnham's Botticelli, they met in Paris and went to the Louvre together. The following day, she agreed to buy the painting from him for 3,000 pounds, or $15,000—more than twice what she had paid for the Vermeer. The Death of Lucretia was the first Botticelli to travel to America. The painting was richly colored—a scene with small figures set in an open square framed by monumental classical buildings. Lucretia is a young woman in a green dress prostrate on a tomb, a knife in her chest, surrounded by soldiers who have discovered her suicide. In addition to conveying the emotion of the charged encounter, Botticelli also conclusively demonstrates his abilities to create the illusion of space with linear perspective in the setting of the scene. Later, the art historian Laurence Kanter described it as "certainly one of the great masterpieces of Florentine painting from the last years of probably its greatest period, the golden age of the fifteenth century." With the Botticelli, Isabella Gardner took American collecting in a new direction, and her collaboration with Bernard Berenson began. She enlisted him as a scout for Old Masters and agreed to pay him a 5 percent commission on the price of each purchase. As dealers typically charged commissions of 10 percent when they acted as brokers, she thought she was getting Berenson's advice for a bargain. At least in the short run, she would be wrong.

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Old Masters, New World by Cynthia Saltzman

Copyright © Cynthia Saltzman, 2008

Is the Livestock Industry Destroying the Planet?

Smithsonian Magazine

Seemingly benign bovines and other livestock eat soybeans from the deforested tropics, emit clouds of methane, pollute streams and gobble up 30 percent of the world’s grain production. It makes one wonder whether the world might taste better without them. Photo courtesy of Flickr user orangebrompton.

For the epicurean traveler, discovering new landscapes also means discovering new foods. And no doubt, new tasting experiences are one of the highlights of going places, yet I’m going to suggest something a bit radical, yet simple—that perhaps we all consider abstaining, at least sometimes, from dishes containing either meat or dairy, even while we’re abroad in new lands with exotic cuisines to explore. Don’t panic at the suggestion—just listen: An abundance of science analyzing the impacts on the earth of livestock farming has concluded that humanity’s appetite for meat and dairy products is having serious environmental consequences. Livestock species contribute directly and indirectly to deforestation, water pollution, air pollution, greenhouse gases, global warming, desertification, erosion and human obesity, and virtually anywhere you go in the world, the damage done by ruminants, pigs and poultry, and those who grow feed crops for them, is visible on the land. Dry and scrubby Greece, once a nation of woodlands, has gone to the goats. In Brazil, forests are falling before the advance of soybean fields, cultivated largely as beef fodder. In New Zealand, the banks of wild streams are frequently found trampled and muddied by grazers.

Other ecological problems associated with raising livestock are less obvious to the eye—like loss of biodiversity. On parts of the Great Plains, cows, and the fields of grain they eat, have replaced pronghorn antelope and bison. Livestock ranchers worldwide have participated heavily in the extermination of wild predators. In California, overuse of river water for agricultural use, including a million acres of water-intensive alfalfa (the state’s highest-acreage crop, used for feeding animals), has contributed to the long-term decline of wild salmon runs. Sixty percent of the state’s alfalfa fields lie in the San Joaquin Valley, ground zero in the water wars between farmers and salmon fishermen. And the mighty, man-size totuava, a Mexican fish species that once spawned in huge swarms in the Colorado River delta, has just about vanished partly because the Colorado barely reaches the Sea of Cortez anymore (remember in Into the Wild when vagabond Chris McCandless was unable to find the sea as he paddled a canoe downstream through the Colorado River delta?). Much of the Colorado’s flow is diverted to the Imperial Valley, a regional king of alfalfa hay production. Most California-grown alfalfa is fed to dairy cows—meaning, sadly, that the production of milk and of California’s acclaimed cheeses may be as problematic as raising meat.

This field of alfalfa in California’s Imperial Valley is irrigated with water from the Colorado River, which scarcely reaches the sea today. Of about 20 million acres of alfalfa in America, about one million grow in California. Virtually all this grass—plus millions more acres of corn and oats—is fed to livestock. Is it a waste of resources? Photo courtesy of Aquafornia.

The global scope of the livestock issue is huge. A 212-page online report published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization says 26 percent of the earth’s terrestrial surface is used for livestock grazing. One-third of the planet’s arable land is occupied by livestock feed crop cultivation. Seventy percent of Brazil’s deforested land is used as pasture, with feed crop cultivation occupying much of the remainder. And in Botswana, the livestock industry consumes 23 percent of all water used. Globally, 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to the livestock industry—more than is produced by transportation-related sources. And in the United States, livestock production is responsible for 55 percent of erosion, 37 percent of all applied pesticides and 50 percent of antibiotics consumed, while the animals themselves directly consume 95 percent of our oat production and 80 percent of our corn, according to the Sierra Club.

The United Nations report warns that “(l)ivestock’s contribution to environmental problems is on a massive scale” and that the matter “needs to be addressed with urgency,” and a report from the Worldwatch Institute says that “…the human appetite for animal flesh is a driving force behind virtually every major category of environmental damage now threatening the human future…”

So, what can do we do? Easy: Opt out of the livestock industry. Far from depriving themselves of the greatest foods, vegetarians and vegans often discover that some of the very best edible things, prepared dishes and entire national cuisines are based on plants. And for the omnivores out there, the good news is that shifting toward a more sustainable diet is easy: It simply means the minor adjustment of tipping one’s existing diet to one side; that is, omnivores already enjoy fruits, grains and vegetables—so why not just enjoy them more frequently? (I’ve been leaning in this direction increasingly for a decade, and the only non-plant foods I still firmly cling to are certain types of wild seafood.) Even in meat-centric cultures like Portugal, France, Turkey, Argentina and New Zealand, veggies do grow, and fruits do dangle from the branches. Yes, meat is everywhere. Just ignore it. In spite of warnings from meat-eating friends that “you just can’t make it in (INSERT YOUR COUNTRY HERE) if you don’t eat meat,” the truth is that vegetarians can live well almost everywhere. No culture is void of farmers’ markets or fruit-and-veggie shops, and increasingly, restaurant staffs in many places far afield recognize and respect the word “vegetarian.” And whereas the meat-eating traveler might never look further than the meat kebabs and bland grilled chicken of fast-food street vendors for his or her sustenance, vegetarians, by virtue of requiring plant-derived calories, may be required to look a little further and enter the vast bazaars where local farmers gather with their heaps of vegetables and fruits and nuts and baked goods. Many of us could spend hours on such dazzling epicurean forays. (Try browsing through a meat locker or slaughterhouse without losing your appetite, or your breakfast.)

Still skeptical? Well, the problem is, the math just doesn’t add up. We can’t eat meat at the rate we do in a sustainable world. Listen: This source claims that to feed just one omnivorous human requires more than three acres of land while all it takes to produce food for a vegan is one-sixth of an acre. And with more than seven billion people sharing the earth’s 7.68 billion acres of arable land, that would be an even split of about an acre apiece—plenty of space for growing all the food we need and enjoying what’s left for camping, backpacking, kayaking and wildlife watching—except that habitual meat-eating omnivores are using three times their own share of space, requiring that precious wild lands be used for raising animals.

Next time, we’ll have a look at the global menu of vegetarian options, as well as meet a few famous vegetarians.

Going, going…but not yet gone: The Amazon rainforest, one of the most beautiful and important ecosystems on the planet, is being sacrificed for the cattle industry. The developed world’s appetite for beef is driving the destruction, with cleared lands often used to grow livestock feed crops for export. Photo courtesy of Flickr user leoffreitas.

Questing for Calories in New Zealand’s High Country

Smithsonian Magazine

The author's bicycle patiently poses in a land of "beauty, heartbreak and challenge" in the Molesworth wilderness.

I wrote previously that New Zealand is a bit too clean and tame for one to have real adventures—and in the Teletubby-tidy lowlands and well-worn beaten tracks, it’s true. Here, one encounters scant risk, almost nothing dangerous and little that one hasn’t seen before (I’ll take that back if I ever see a kiwi).

But I’ve just rediscovered an old trick for maximizing the excitement of traveling: Ride a bicycle into the backcountry without enough food. I didn’t mean to do it, but sometimes miscalculations are made in the grocery store while we’re wandering the globe in search of experience. I was in St. Arnaud, Tasman, where the town’s general store robbed me of $12 for four apples, a few raisins and 20 slices of bread. The cheapest wine on the shelf more than doubled the bill, and thusly provisioned, I turned south off of Highway 63 onto the Rainbow Station-Hanmer Springs road, a private track through the wild, windswept cattle country of Molesworth Station, the largest farm in the country, and one generously shared with the public. Though as many as 10,000 cows at a time may trample the region and leave their pies by the countless thousands in meadows and on riverbanks, the land still amounts to almost untainted wilderness. One can even drink straight from the streams here, as all the locals recommend (though the Department of Conservation, which co-operates parts of the region, advises boiling it for three minutes to cover their behinds in case Giardia should ever infect a tourist).

I stopped about 20 bumpy kilometers in to fish on the upper Wairau River. On my first glance at the stream, I saw basking in the shallows a four-pound trout. The sullen beast refused to take a fly. Upriver a few kilometers, I worked a series of shallow pools studded with boulders like stepping stones across the river. In a chute of fast water, I saw in the sunlight the passing flank of a trout fully two feet long. Further upstream still, I looked off the road into a deep blue pool below and saw three lumbering browns, all more than 20 inches, swimming circles in a slow backwater. Only in New Zealand.

At the gates of the Old Rainbow homestead, owned by the lucky family that has inherited this place, a young woman hurried out the door to let me through and take my $2 road toll. (Cars must pay $25 here and motorcycles $15.) I offered an extra dollar for a pair of chicken eggs; she gave me four–eggs with yolks as golden as Jupiter. Famished by evening and frustrated by the poor fishing, I made my camp at the Coldwater Creek campsite, a patch of sweet green grass amidst some trees. At dawn I continued into the heightening wilderness, opening and closing cattle gates as I found them while, above, the stony crowned peaks grew higher. At one of the cattle gates was a placard describing the region, and its writer—perhaps some anonymous freelancer now lost in an urban hive but who clearly had a heart like John Muir’s—couldn’t have said it better: Molesworth Station farm “encompasses all the beauty, heartbreak and challenge of New Zealand’s high country frontier.” Amen. The cold wind screams over the desolate plains and through the valleys, where ribbons of trout stream wind their way seaward. Granite-gray mountain peaks glower at travelers, who gape in helpless awe at the land’s stone-cold beauty. It’s a treeless place to love or hate.

I made several casts with a beadhead nymph into a promising sapphire pool. I released a small brown before, on my next cast, my line seized up at the weight of a fat two-pounder – my dinner fish. I rode on and reached the Fowlers Camp hut as the weather deteriorated. Icy rain and gusts of 50 miles per hour chased me inside to share the cabin with a team of government botanists in the midst of a plant survey. Mandated by some fine point of the Kyoto Protocol, their project amounted to crawling about on hands and knees to quantify just how much carbon the vegetation of New Zealand is sequestering from our polluted atmosphere. One of the men told me as we sipped whiskey, “It’s nonsense, like buying carbon credits. Basically, other nations are paying us to take up carbon so they can pollute.” I ate my last slice of bread, saving a dozen raisins for breakfast, and crawled off to bed, stomach growling, still another half-day away from Jack’s Pass and, on the other side, the well-fed tourist town of Hanmer Springs.

Oh, the hardship! And to think that just three days before I was among the finely heeled, sampling complicated wines from elegant stemware and trying my tongue at such topics as body, balance, tannins and precisely just what dish one must pair with this or that beverage. That was in the vineyard country of Marlborough, origin of some of New Zealand’s most esteemed Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. At Cloudy Bay Vineyards, staff ran me through their lineup—two free tastes, plus four more for $5, including a slightly funky barrel-aged Sauvignon Blanc and a 2006 vintage bubbly that was layered, rich and memorable. Then I needed a beer, and I stepped next door to the Moa Brewing Company, home of some of the brawniest, strongest beers in the nation. I had the imperial stout, with 10.2 percent alcohol, and on the out, I noticed the sign at the gate on Jacksons Road: “Finally, something drinkable from Marlborough.”

The Moa Brewing Company offers fresh beer in the midst of Marlborough's famed vineyards.

But all that was a distant memory now as I prowled over the cold landscape. The biting chill was so harsh that I’d had to pull socks over my fingers, then pull them off again when I found a discarded half apple. With my pocket knife, I carved out the remaining clean bits. It was the best apple core I’ve ever eaten. From a high point on the road I peered through my polarized sunglasses into a pool on a small river below. A big trout surfaced as though on cue. I watched to see where it settled, then assembled my rod, scrambled down the bank and placed a fly just upstream of the fish. Whammo! A two-pounder erupted from the water, somersaulted twice and quickly surrendered itself. I gave the fish my thanks, clunked it cold with a rock and cooked it on my butane stove at the historic St. James homestead. But a trout hardly fills one up, and I rolled forward, feeling hungrier than before—yet strangely elated.

Big trout from a little stream: This beauty gave the author a much needed roadside lunch.

For there is something extremely liberating in running out of food. Concerns about rationing what’s left are out the window because one has absolutely nothing to eat. The world is simplified into a venue of potential meals, a playground for foraging up something—anything—containing calories, and by stripping it of everything indulgent and flavorful, life has, at last, assumed a clear and satisfying purpose.

The Daredevil of Niagara Falls

Smithsonian Magazine

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently signed legislation permitting Nik Wallenda—self-proclaimed “King of the High Wire” and descendant of the legendary Flying Wallendas—to cross Niagara Falls on a tightrope. Wallenda plans to run a cable, two inches thick and 2200 feet long, between two cranes raised 13 feet from the ground. To train, he will take wire walks over water near his Florida home while a caravan of airboats swarm around him, blasting winds up to 78 miles per hour to approximate the winds and spray of the falls. For the real thing, a rescue helicopter will hover nearby. “Worse-case scenario,” Wallenda said, “I sit down on the wire, the helicopter swoops in, I hook on and they get me out of there. I look goofy, but nobody gets hurt.”

History’s most famous tightrope walker (or “ropedancer” or “funambulist,” in 19th century parlance) performed without the luxury of such assurances. During the winter of 1858, a 34-year-old French acrobat named Jean François Gravelet, better known as Monsieur Charles Blondin, traveled to Niagara Falls hoping to become the first person to cross the “boiling cataract.” Noting the masses of ice and snow on either bank and the violent whirls of wind circling the gorge, Blondin delayed the grand event until he would have better weather. He always worked without a net, believing that preparing for disaster only made one more likely to occur. A rope 1,300 feet long, two inches in diameter and made entirely of hemp would be the sole thing separating him from the roiling waters below.

Blondin, born in 1824, grew to be only five feet five and 140 pounds; he had bright blue eyes and golden hair (which gave him his nickname). He believed that a ropewalker was “like a poet, born and not made,” and discovered his calling at the age of four, mounting a rope strung between two chairs placed a few feet apart. The following year he enrolled at the École de Gymnase in Lyon. He first came to America in 1855 at the behest of theatrical agent William Niblo and was about to begin an engagement with Franconi’s Equestrian Troop when the idea struck to cross the falls. “He was more like a fantastic sprite than a human being,” wrote his manager, Harry Colcord. “Had he lived a century or two earlier he would have been treated as one possessed of a devil…. He could walk the rope as a bird cleaves to air.”

Blondin also understood the appeal of the morbid to the masses, and reveled when gamblers began to take bets on whether he would plunge to a watery death. (Most of the smart money said yes.) On the morning of June 30, 1859, about 25,000 thrill-seekers arrived by train and steamer and dispersed on the American or Canadian side of the falls, the latter said to have the better view. Both banks grew “fairly black” with swarms of spectators, among them statesmen, judges, clerics, generals, members of Congress, capitalists, artists, newspaper editors, professors, debutantes, salesmen and hucksters. Vendors hawked everything from lemonade to whiskey, and Colcord gave tours to the press, explaining the logistics of what the Great Blondin was about to attempt.

Blondin with his balancing pole. From "Blondin: His Life and Performances."

A light rope, not even an inch thick, had been attached to one end of his hempen cable so it could be conveyed across the Niagara River. On the American side the cable was wound around the trunk of an oak tree in White’s Pleasure Grounds, but securing it on the Canadian side presented a problem. Blondin’s assistants feared that the light rope wouldn’t bear the weight of the cable as it was drawn up the gorge for anchorage in Canada, but the rope dancer, to the delight of his audience, executed a daring solution.

After tying another rope around his waist, he rappelled 200 feet on the small rope, attached the second rope to the end of the cable, and then blithely climbed back to Canadian ground and secured the cable to a rock. To prevent swaying, guy ropes ran from the cable at 20-foot intervals to posts on both banks, creating the effect of a massive spider web. Blondin could do nothing, however, about the inevitable sag in its center, approximately 50 feet of cable to which it was impossible to fasten guy ropes. At that spot, in the middle of his crossing, he would be only 190 feet above the gorge. “There were hundreds of people examining the rope,” reported one witness, “and, with scarcely an exception, they all declared the inability of M. Blondin to perform the feat, the incapacity of the rope to sustain him, and that he deserved to be dashed to atoms for his desperate fool-hardiness.”

Shortly before 5 p.m., Blondin took his position on the American side, dressed in pink tights bedecked with spangles. The lowering sun made him appear as if clothed in light. He wore fine leather shoes with soft soles and brandished a balancing pole made of ash, 26 feet long and weighing nearly 50 pounds. Slowly, calmly, he started to walk. “His gait,” one man noted, “was very like the walk of some barnyard cock.” Children clung to their mothers’ legs; women peeked from behind their parasols. Several onlookers fainted. About a third of the way across, Blondin shocked the crowd by sitting down on his cable and calling for the Maid of the Mist, the famed tourist vessel, to anchor momentarily beneath him. He cast down a line and hauled up a bottle of wine. He drank and started off again, breaking into a run after he passed the sagging center. While the band played “Home, Sweet Home,” Blondin reached Canada. One man helped pull him ashore and exclaimed, “I wouldn’t look at anything like that again for a million dollars.”

After 20 minutes of rest Blondin began the journey to the other side, this time with a Daguerreotype camera strapped to his back. He advanced 200 feet, affixed his balancing pole to the cable, untied his load, adjusted it in front of him and snapped a likeness of the crowd along the American side. Then he hoisted the camera back into place and continued on his way. The entire walk from bank to bank to bank took 23 minutes, and Blondin immediately announced an encore performance to take place on the Fourth of July.

Blondin and his camera, as rendered in "Blondin: His Life and Performances."

Not everyone admired Blondin’s feat. The New York Times condemned “such reckless and aimless exposure of life” and the “thoughtless people” who enjoyed “looking at a fellow creature in deadly peril.” Mark Twain later dismissed Blondin as “that adventurous ass.” One indignant resident of Niagara Falls insisted that he was a hoax, that there was “no such person in the world.” Nevertheless, on July 4, Blondin appeared at the American end of the cable, this time without his balancing pole. Halfway across, he lay down on the cable, flipped himself over, and began walking backward. He stopped again to take a swig from his flask, and then made it safely to the Canadian side. On the journey back he wore a sack over his body, depriving himself of sight. “One can scarcely believe that the feat was indeed real,” wrote one reporter, “and stands gazing upon the slender cord and the awful gulf in a state of utter bewilderment.… I look back upon it as upon a dream.”

Blondin and his sack, as rendered in "Blondin: His Life and Performances."

Blondin announced subsequent crossings, promising that each would be more daring than the last. On July 15, with President Millard Fillmore in attendance, Blondin walked backward to Canada and returned to the U.S. pushing a wheelbarrow. Two weeks later, he somersaulted and backflipped his way across, occasionally pausing to dangle from the cable by one hand. Shortly after that he made another crossing, and, after a brief rest, appeared on the Canadian end of the cable with Harry Colcord clinging to his back. Blondin gave his manager the following instructions: “Look up, Harry.… you are no longer Colcord, you are Blondin. Until I clear this place be a part of me, mind, body, and soul. If I sway, sway with me. Do not attempt to do any balancing yourself. If you do we will both go to our death.”

A few of the guy ropes snapped along the way, but they made it.

Blondin carrying Harry Colcord across Niagara Falls. From "Blondin: His Life and Performances."

He crossed at night, a locomotive headlight affixed to either each of the cable. He crossed with his body in shackles. He crossed carrying a table and chair, stopping in the middle to try to sit down and prop up his legs. The chair tumbled into the water. Blondin nearly followed but regained his composure. He sat down on the cable and ate a piece of cake, washed down with champagne. In his most famous exploit, he carried a stove and utensils on his back, walked to the center of the cable, started a fire and cooked an omelet. When it was ready, he lowered the breakfast to passengers on deck of the Maid of the Mist.

Blondin performed in China, Japan, Australia, India and throughout Europe. He soured on America in 1888 when he was forbidden to perform in Central Park and had to settle instead for St. George in Staten Island. Although he was then 65 years old, he carried his son and another man on his back and made another omelet for the crowd. By the time he gave his final performance, in 1896, it was estimated that Blondin had crossed Niagara Falls 300 times and walked more than 10,000 miles on his rope. He died of complications from diabetes the following year. In nearly 73 years on this earth, he never had life insurance. No one, he’d always joked, would take the risk.


Books: Blondin: His Life and Performances. Edited by G. Linnaeus Banks. London, New York: Routledge, Warne, and Routledge, 1862.

Articles: “Blondin, The Hero of Niagara,” by Lloyd Graham. American Heritage, August 1958; “High Above Niagara, a Funambulist Cooked a Well-balanced Breakfast,” by Martin Herbert Kaufman. Sports Illustrated, April 16, 1979; “A Daredevil’s Toughest Challenge,” by Charlie Gillis., August 5, 2011; “An Exciting Scene,” New York Times, July 4, 1859; “When Blondin Left America Gasping.” The Hartford Courant, August 1, 1959; “He Walked Across Niagara Falls,” by Bennett Cerf. Los Angeles Times, June 28, 1959; “Poised Between Life and Death.” Chicago Daily Tribune, February 28, 1897; “A Chat With Blondin.” New York Tribune, August 12, 1888; “Blondin, The Rope Walker.” New York Times, June 5, 1888; “The Experiences of a Rope-Walker.” Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, November 1888.

Connected Even on a Ship in the Arctic

Smithsonian Magazine

Not that long ago, going on a research cruise would have meant being out of contact with the world for weeks, maybe months, at a time. Today, though, satellite connections mean that you can easily keep up with the world—and the world can keep up with you—even on a remote ship in the Arctic.

The icebreaker Healy is ferrying 42 scientists this spring through the Bering Sea, where they’re conducting studies of sea ice, phytoplankton and seabirds, among other things. The ship also carries a photographer, Chris Linder, and a writer, Helen Fields (she wrote about dinosaur tissue for Smithsonian in 2006 and snakeheads in 2005). Chris and Helen are onboard to document what happens on the ship, and they publish Today on the Ice daily. Helen is one of a few people Twittering from the ship, and I’ve also been following her on Facebook, her blog Hey Helen and Scientific American’s 60-Second-Science. And when I emailed her last week, she was kind enough to answer some questions.

Why did you decide to take this assignment?

Seriously? There may have been jumping up and down and shrieking when I found out I got this assignment. I thought it would be fascinating to spend six weeks on an icebreaker on the Bering Sea, and I was right. I did worry that I wasn’t quite tough enough, but this has to be one of the cushiest ways to experience the frozen north. There’s a galley turning out four square meals a day, for goodness’ sake. And I’m convinced I have the coolest job on the ship – I spend the whole cruise going around asking people what they’re doing. I’m learning a little bit about everything, from the ship’s potable water system to how scientists figure out what krill like to eat.

Since you mentioned your four square meals, what is the food like?

It’s fine. It’s cafeteria food. I think they do a very good job of feeding 42 hungry scientists and 80 hungry Coast Guard crew members every day. It would be easy to put on a lot of weight on this cruise, with easy access to french fries, onion rings, and pie. I try not to eat pie every day. And I have a new rule: I can eat dessert if I eat something from the salad bar, too. I have been accused of putting carrots next to my dessert so the carrots can soak up the calories from the dessert, then throwing the carrots away, but there is no truth to this rumor. I eat the carrots, too.

What did you find most surprising when you first got on board the ship?

My stateroom is so much nicer than I expected. I can sit up in my bunk and there’s even carpet on the floor.

What has surprised you since?

Pretty much everything. The crew in the galley yells “brown tray” if you use one of the brown trays. (Don’t use one of the brown trays.) A Laysan albatross and a bald eagle have about the same wingspan. The ramp they put out so we can walk down to the ice is really freaking steep. The perfect instrument for moving krill is a Chinese soup spoon. Breaking ice slows the ship way down and is an inefficient use of engine power, so a lot of what you do when you drive an icebreaker is find ways to avoid breaking ice.

How do you spend your days?

I really like to nap. Oh, and work! Work. I’m working with Chris Linder, a fabulous photographer who has a grant to do a series of expeditions like this one, where he takes a writer and they report on a polar research project. Usually sometime in the morning we meet up, chat about what’s going on around the ship, and decide what story we want to do that day. Then we go report the story. He takes pictures and I take notes. After dinner we pick the eight pictures that will be on the web site the next day, then I write an introduction and eight captions. We have some ideas stockpiled – one of these days we’re going to do a story about how the ship moves, from the steering on the bridge to the propeller shafts and rudders in the back of the ship. I do take a lot of naps – being on the ship is sort of exhausting – but I also hate to miss anything, because I only have these six weeks to have this amazing experience. I could watch sea ice all day.

What kinds of animals have you seen?

Ooh! Today I saw my first ever albatross! It was a Laysan albatross. Two of them hung around the ship for a while. I was also excited to see snow buntings and McKay’s buntings in recent days, and to learn to tell a glaucous gull and a glaucous-winged gull apart. I’ve seen a ton of bearded seals and spotted seals, many with their babies. They give birth on sea ice, and some of the pups are so new you can see blood on the ice – once I even saw two gulls snacking on the afterbirth. I know, ew. On the fourth day of the cruise we passed a ginormous conglomeration of walruses – hundreds and hundreds. The bird surveyors on board, who also keep track of mammals, said they hadn’t seen a group like that in years. We’ve seen other walruses since then, but never more than a few at a time.

How do the scientists spend their days?

They work. Then they work, then they work some more. These people have just these 40-odd days to collect a ton of data, and they’re willing to sacrifice sleep to do it. Some also find time to do things like watch movies and knit. (I’m not the only knitter on board!!)

Day 5, April 6: Bongo nets being deployed off the back of the ship to collect krill. (Credit Chris Linder, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

What kinds of science projects are taking place?

Oh golly. Well, the work on board is all part of a big project to understand the Bering Sea ecosystem and how climate change could affect it – for example, if sea ice retreats earlier each year, or disappears entirely. It’s a huge project, incorporating everything from algae to birds and walruses and the people who live in and around the Bering Sea. This cruise is looking mostly at water, algae, and zooplankton. So, the smaller end of the ecosystem. As we go along, we stop at certain set sampling stations that are being used by many scientists over many years. At some stations, the scientists just make observations, like how much chlorophyll is in the water, and what kind of zooplankton, and how salty the water is. At others, a whole bunch of teams start experiments at the same time – for example, to see what krill eat and how fast they eat it, or how fast phytoplankton can suck up carbon at different light levels. Eventually the astounding quantities of data coming out of this cruise will be turned into computer models that will help scientists understand how the Bering Sea ecosystem works – and how it responds to climate change.

You may be connected electronically, but you’re still far from home. What do you miss the most?

My family and friends. It’s pathetic how happy I am when someone e-mails me with news from home. Also, crackers. There are Ritz crackers and saltines on board, but they all taste a little like plastic.

Have you discovered any shipboard romances or feuds?

I haven’t! I probably just haven’t found the right sources of gossip. I heard before I came out that these cruises can be kind of tense, with everyone worried about getting their data or someone getting mad that the other guy got to do his sampling when something else was cancelled, but these scientists all seem to get along really well. There’s a lot of laughter. And occasional profanity-filled tirades, but directed at equipment or ice, not people.

What’s the weather like right now?

Crazy warm. It was 39 degrees the last time I looked, and a few days ago we were getting excited about the temperature getting all the way up to 22. This evening I went out to watch some scientists put their sediment traps in the water and, with the sun shining and the wind blocked by the ship, it was uncomfortably warm for a little while there. (Then the wind found us and my ears got cold.)

Backwoods Workouts With the World’s Fittest Man

Smithsonian Magazine

Participants in a MovNat course carry logs and perform other backwoods workout drills with the goal of retraining their bodies to a level of fitness that our species forgot long ago. Photo courtesy of MovNat.

Erwan Le Corre doesn’t care for treadmills or pumping iron. He gave up karate long ago and lost interest in playing soccer. Nor does yoga, yin to the yang of the weight room, hold much appeal for the 40-year-old Frenchman. Yet Le Corre is built like a track star and can climb a tree as quickly as cat. He is also is adept at carrying logs, tossing rocks, scaling cliffs, slogging through mud pits and wrestling.

In short, Le Corre is a master of his outdoor environment, and he has taught this seemingly bizarre set of skills to thousands of people. Le Corre is the brain behind an alternative fitness program, launched in 2009, that eschews the boring symmetry of weight machines and the vanity of commercial gyms and aims to teach participants the lost art and latent instincts of moving naturally. Called MovNat, Le Corre’s program consists of one-day to week-long outdoor courses around the world. During these camps, Le Corre himself sleeps, eats and plays alongside his students while teaching them the nutrition and the bodily motions that our species utilized in the Paleolithic era and, he says, has since forgotten.

Underlying the fun and games of MovNat is the notion that humans evolved as hunter-gatherers in an environment of dangers, obstacles and elusive foods—an environment that in modern times has all but vanished, replaced by asphalt, supermarkets, automobility and idleness. And though our world may have gone awry in recent centuries, we humans, Le Corre assures, have not changed at all.

“Deep inside of us, we’re still the same animal, and our bodies and minds still expect us to move like we did throughout our evolution,” Le Corre said during a phone interview. “We need to respect our biology, how we eat and sleep, who we are and how we move.”

MovNat’s calendar of programs includes two week-long sessions in Thailand (in January and February), three five-day summer sessions at Summersville Lake, in West Virginia, and one-day weekend workshops throughout the year in cities across North America and Europe. Lodging is provided at the multi-day camps. So are meals, in which nothing passes the lips that did not exist in the human diet prior to the advent of agriculture. This is what is popularly called the “Paleo diet,” though Le Corre prefers not to label his eating regimen in a way that suggests its relevance has come and gone. “I’m on a natural diet,” he explained. “The way I move and eat is not Paleolithic. It’s natural.” Alcohol, sugar, processed foods and snacking are firmly discouraged during MovNat camps, though meals, according to the MovNat website, are “copious.” In other words, it’s days of hard labor, hours of famine and then feasts to sate a caveman three times a day.

Le Corre, though an eccentric by some measures, seems to have struck a chord in many people. His program has become a great success among followers who, as Le Corre says, “are hungry for nature.” And so they pay up to nearly $3,000 to spend a week performing trail-running drills, log hopping, rock climbing, wrestling, swimming and tree climbing. Even crawling and rolling down grassy hillsides are components of a full-body MovNat workout.

Once called "the world's fittest man," exercise instructor Erwan Le Corre explains to students the Paleo principles behind his MovNat program and lifestyle. Photo courtesy of MovNat.

Dubious? Then just take a look at Le Corre, who has posed in magazines and been called “the world’s fittest man.” He didn’t gain that honor through a membership at the gym, which Le Corre notes is one of the only venues in Western society in which adults are encouraged anymore to exercise their bodies. Playgrounds and outdoor jungle gyms even forbid adults (other than parents) from engaging, and a typical job is one of day-long idleness.

“There are societal restrictions on how we move,” Le Corre told me. “It’s unhealthy. Look at kids around the world. They move the same way. They chase each other, jump, play. Why do adults become entirely sedentary so that we have to force ourselves to exercise on machines?”

Le Corre, of course, has much to gain by convincing the world to cancel gym memberships and come out to play in the sun, yet it’s hard to argue with his staid opinion of what he calls “commercialized fitness.” “(It’s) about repetitions and sets, and it’s very mathematical,” he said. “People find it boring.”

Even Yoga, says Le Corre, is too ingrained in tradition and religion to be fully aligned with human instincts and our natural movements. Plus, beyond the clouds of incense smoke, saluting the sun or posing like a warrior may be as useless as curling dumbbells is outside the weight room.

MovNat exercises, though, are about functionality, Le Corre says. They are supposed to be practical. No, not for running down antelope or fighting off scavenging hyenas. Those days are over. But occasions still arise when it pays to be fit—functionally fit, that is: We have buses to chase down and people to sometimes pull from flaming buildings. We may even need to carry a 200-pound log the length of a football field, or leap over a high fence, or climb swiftly up a tree, or jump off a rooftop and land unhurt. Sure, most of us could breeze by without much more than clicking a computer mouse—but I get Le Corre’s point, and I’m pretty much sold: We’ve graduated from the Paleolithic age, yet our world remains an obstacle course. Why not get used to it?

Tapping the Paleo Revoltion

MovNat is not the only trend of backstepping away from commercialized fitness and nutrition, and toward our Paleo beginnings. Trail running with bare feet (or with those funny-looking “toe socks“) may never have been more popular, largely due to the hit book Born to Run, in which author Christopher McDougall tells how human hunters evolved as barefooted trail runners before putting on shoes and becoming farmers.

In urban settings, outdoor fitness classes and boot camps seem to be on the rise, like the Urban Gym program developed by Rat Race Adventure in London.

More and more joggers and cyclists, it now seems by my own observations, are using outdoor pull-up and sit-up stations.

And the increasingly popular Paleo diet is a strong indicator that people are craving the supposedly gluten-free days before agriculture, when we moved as nomads, hunting for meat and foraging for plants.

Erwan Le Corre demonstrates a drill in "water training" at a five-day MovNat course in West Virginia. Photo courtesy of MovNat.

Meet TOPGUN Radar Intercept Officer David "Bio" Baranek

Smithsonian Magazine

It’s difficult to hear the phrase “TOPGUN” and not immediately have F-14 Tomcats zooming around in your brain against a rocking Kenny Loggins soundtrack. For most of us, the epic 1986 movie, Top Gun, starring Tom Cruise as fighter pilot "Maverick" and Anthony Edwards as his trusty co-pilot "Goose," is the beginning and end of our knowledge of the Navy’s elite specialized fighter training academy, the U.S. Navy Strike Fighter Instructions Program.

CDR David Baranek, USN (Ret.), actually lived the TOPGUN lifestyle as both a student and an instructor–yet not as a Maverick, but as a Goose. An F-14 radar intercept officer (RIO), Baranek whose callsign was Bio, eventually became commander of his own F-14 squadron.

Now the 20-year Navy man adds author to his credentials, with his recent book, TOPGUN Days: Dogfighting, Cheating Death, and Hollywood Glory as One of America’s Best Fighter Jocks.

The book details stints at TOPGUN, his deployments, and the part that he played in the film Top Gun. “I wanted to go back to that time and talk about the things I worried about and not do it from hindsight,” Baranek said.

Illustrations were easy to come by, since "Bio" always carried a camera with him on his flights. As a result, he was able to capture images of some of the Navy’s finest 1980s airpower from an intimate perspective. Check out a gallery of some of his shots here.

“Bio” will be at the National Air and Space Museum this Saturday, April 23, signing copies of his book, from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m.. I spoke to him about his time at TOPGUN, how he might have gotten the finger from Tom Cruise, and if he, as Maverick and Goose did , still feels the need–the need for speed.

You were an F-14 radar intercept officer (RIO), like Goose was in the film. What were your primary flight responsibilities–and were you capable of piloting an F-14, if necessary?

The primary flight responsibilities are spelled out in the F-14 operating manual. Those are navigation, communication and operating the weapons system. When the F-14 was designed, because of parts of its mission and state of automation, they still needed one guy to make the radar be most effective. In addition, the RIO shared responsibility for the safety of the airplane. And if we were in a dogfight, I shared responsibility . He’d keep track of the people he could, and he’d hand people off to me. In terms of piloting the plane, that’s easy. One, the Navy did not train RIOs to fly. And two, the F-14 had no flight controls in the back seat. That was not an option.

Calm, cool and in control, that's the stereotype of the fighter pilot, right? What was the tightest spot you’ve been in?

I thought you were going to say the stereotypical image was obnoxious, arrogant and loud ! The biggest adventure I had was when I ejected from an F-14 landing on an aircraft carrier. But the situation lasted one second, so there was no time to get nervous…

As a former graduate and a former instructor, what kinds of things were done to really push the buttons of  pilots selected for TOPGUN?

You get all kinds . Most pilots and RIOs are good. They respect the instructors and know that they have things to learn. Of course they bring confidence, but they’re mature enough not to be offensive. But every once in awhile you get a student and he’s ready to take on his TOPGUN instructors, too . I have to tell you, TOPGUN instructors can handle that stuff! You’re coming into their arena, and although they appreciate a good enthusiastic fighter pilot, you’ve got to know your limits! They can put people in their place. If you don’t get the message the first time, they’ll do it again.

During your time as air-to-air combat instructor, what was the most important advice you passed on to your students?

For me, one of the things I tried to emphasize was that you’re not supposed to just sit in the back seat and play with the radar and talk to the pilot. There are times when you need to be directing things on the radios. You need to be assertive.

As an RIO, regarding the type of pilot you’d rather fly with, are you a Maverick guy or an Iceman guy?

I flew with a lot of talented pilots, and I have to say that I’m a little bit selfish. I liked flying with a good pilot who does his job. A lot of flying, especially back then, is pretty boring, so you want to fly with a pilot who’s funny and entertaining, so you can tell stories . So kind of like with a personality of Maverick, but a flying style of Iceman.

So is that why you started taking pictures, because you had time to kill during flights? (view image gallery here).

I just got that from my father. I started taking pictures in grade school, and it’s something I picked up. It was a few years after I started loving airplanes and wanting to fly. We all flew the same mission and had a lot of time in the plane, but some guys just never carried a camera. It just didn’t interest them.

You were on board for some of the aerial stunts in Top Gun–so was that you onscreen behind one of the black helmets in one of the enemy fighters?

The close-ups were of pilots . In terms of flying the black jets, I’m pretty sure that it’s me in the scene where Maverick is flying inverted above the MiG . I went out there and flew that mission. But we filmed that, and later I found out that one other RIO did that, also.

And how did you help Paramount with the dialogue?

A pilot and I went up to Paramount for two days. We looked at the film clips over and over again, and we helped one of the film editors to stitch clips into logical sequences for dogfights. And the main purpose was to tell Paramount what they would be saying in situations. We just sat there and looked at the film and the pilot and I started talking to each other…And a lot of that was dialogue for the flying scenes of the movie. But then they threw in a bunch of Hollywood stuff, too… “You hook ‘em, I’ll fry ‘em?” Come on! That’s Hollywood writer stuff!

Now with the increase of unmanned drones, do you think dogfighting is dead?

It’s hard to say. People have been predicting that for decades now. Nowadays there seems to be less dogfighting... I think it’s going to be awhile before we can turn everything over to unmanned vehicles. They’re great for some missions, but they can’t do everything. As long as you’ve got humans in tactical airplanes, they better be prepared to meet enemy airplanes. We’ve got to be ready to face a lot of countries around the world, and as long as they have fighters with people in them, we’ve got to be ready to duel with them and defeat them. I think dogfighting is going to be around for at least, certainly 20 more years–probably 50 more years.

It appears that most of your experience was in the F-14. Is there another particular airplane in which you’re still craving some quality flight time?

The planes that I want are gone. I always loved the F-8 Crusader, but you have to be a pilot to fly that. I loved the Air Force F-106. Just a huge, powerful, beautiful plane. But you have to be a pilot for that, and those are retired, too. One of these days I’ll get up in a biplane and that’ll be fun!

Q&A - Ed Begley, Jr.

Smithsonian Magazine

The first Earth Day, 1970, inspired then-struggling actor Ed Begley, Jr. to dedicate his life to lessening his impact on Earth. Even as he earned six Emmy nominations for his portrayal of Dr. Victor Ehrlich on St. Elsewhere and appeared in such movies as A Mighty Wind and Batman Forever, he became known for his environmentalism as much as his acting. People laughed when he rode his bicycle to the Oscars. But as gas prices approach $4 a gallon, they're not laughing any more.

Begley and his wife Rachelle Carson (pictured above) matched wits in their domestic reality show Living with Ed, which ran for two seasons on HGTV.

"He has a genuine concern for the planet, then on top of that he wants to see [how little] energy we can consume," says Carson, an actress named after Rachel Carson, the late biologist whose landmark book Silent Spring (1962) warned about the indiscriminate use of pesticides. "He re-insulated the house and got our energy down even more. He blames me because I use a blow drier, God forbid."

With his book, Living Like Ed (Clarkson Potter, $18, printed on recycled paper) Begley, 58, has been sharing a secret he learned long ago: you can save money by going green.

How did you become an environmentalist?
After 20 years of living in smoggy LA in the ‘50s and ‘60s, on the first Earth Day, I decided to do something. I bought an electric car, I started recycling. I started composting. I started buying biodegradable soaps and detergents. I changed my diet. Not only did it feel good, but much to my surprise I was saving money. I did it to save the environment but when I realized I was saving money, I went, wow, I've got to stick with this.

What keeps you going?
Since I started this in 1970, we have four times the amount of cars in LA and yet we have half the smog. That's a big deal. We had another success with ozone depletion. In the ‘70s, we banned CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) from spray cans. Then we got really serious about it after the Montreal accord in 1987. Now the ozone hole is smaller. The Hudson River was so polluted for years you couldn't fish there. Now it's a productive fishery because of the Hudson River Keeper and the Clean Water Act. I believe we can do it on every front. We just have to get cracking.

How do you minimize your impact on the environment?
I urge people to pick the low hanging fruit. Do the stuff that's cheapest and easiest first. I couldn't afford solar panels in 1970. I was a struggling actor. I started recycling and composting. I bought an electric car for $950. But I found quickly it was cheaper to charge it than it was to buy gasoline. There was no tune up, oil change, or smog check. I made my house very energy efficient with good insulation. Compact florescent bulbs, an energy saving thermostat, good insulation, double pane windows. I did that first. That was much cheaper than solar panels. So you do that and then you move up the ladder. I get by on solar power and I buy renewable energy out in the marketplace.

My favorite form of transportation is walking. I live in a neighborhood where you can walk to restaurants, banks, and shops. Number two is my bicycle. Number three is public transportation. My electric car [a Toyota Rav-4 with an 80-mile range] is a distant fourth. My wife's hybrid is fifth. Then sixth, if I have to be in LA on Monday and DC on Tuesday, I get in a plane like anybody else but I avoid it at all costs.

Are you off the grid?
No, it was an elusive goal I've never quite achieved. When I was single, I was down to $100 of power a year. Now there are three of us [wife Rachelle and daughter Hayden, 8] so there's $300 a year worth of green power I buy from the LA Department of Water & Power Green Power Program. I owned a wind turbine in the California desert as an investment, part of a wind farm. So I've put out many homes' worth of power since 1985. I buy a Terra Pass [carbon offsets] for my air travel or for my wife's tailpipe emissions on her Toyota Prius and for my home energy use.

I do as much as possible with solar on my roof, buying alternative energy as an investment and carbon offsets. I live in a little house, which is part of the good news. But there's just not enough roof space to produce enough electricity. One day, if I can build a second story and get my panels up in the clear I'll be off the grid.

Image by Brentwood Communications International, Inc.. The first Earth Day, 1970, inspired then-struggling actor Ed Begley, Jr. to dedicate his life to lessening his impact on Earth. (original image)

Image by Brentwood Communications International, Inc.. Ed Begley, Jr. and his wife, Rachel Carson (original image)

Image by Brentwood Communications International, Inc.. The actor has become known as much for his environmentalism as for his acting. (original image)

Image by Brentwood Communications International, Inc.. With his book, Living Like Ed, Begley, 58, has been sharing a secret he learned long ago: you can save money by going green. (original image)

Image by Brentwood Communications International, Inc.. People laughed when he rode his bicycle to the Oscars, but they’re not laughing any more. (original image)

People know they should use compact fluorescent light bulbs and insulate their homes, but how do they overcome their inertia?
Just start. Do something. People are overwhelmed looking up at the Mount Everest of environmental challenges that we face. But you put one foot in front of the other and you recognize that not everyone is Sir Edmund Hillary. You get to the base camp and get acclimated and see how high you can climb. That's what I recommend, that people take the first step.

What is the first step?
Getting out of your car would be the best single thing that anybody could do. It could mean walking in your neighborhood, taking public transportation., or riding a bike if weather and fitness permit.

Are enough people making these changes?
I think enough people are doing it for today. Now we need more people to do it tomorrow.

People in Hollywood once called you a fanatic. How did that feel?
I didn't mind so much. The dog barks but the caravan moves on. Let people say what they want. I knew what I was doing made sense. Not only did I feel I was doing something for the environment but I was saving money. I'm not a wealthy person because I was never a star. I was a working actor and a supporting actor. But I have something that's as good as having a lot of money. My bills are very low because of all these investments I've made in my future.

Did that hurt your career?
According to my manager and my agent in the ‘90s, people were hesitant to hire me because they thought I'd make trouble on the set. I never did make trouble on the set but people were fearful of that. People on the set would come up and say, "Please, Ed, don't be angry. We're going to take care of it. Just bear with us until lunch."

"What are you talking about?" I'd ask.

"We'll have the recycling bins."

"Okay, get the recycling bins."

You were 40 years ahead of Leo DiCaprio and even Al Gore. How does it feel to be a green celebrity?
It feels good that people are doing the right things to clean up the air in cities like LA and Houston and Bakersfield to lessen our dependence on Mideast oil and to put money in all our pockets. Whatever reason people are doing it, I'm just happy it's happened.

Is your TV show (Living With Ed) going for a third season?
We're talking to other cable venues. It won't be on HGTV. I'm doing lots of speaking engagements. I'm lobbying the halls of Congress. I'm doing a Woody Allen movie. I've got an HBO movie called Recount out in May and a Seth Rogen movie called Pineapple Express out in August. I'm not sure I have time for a reality show.

What's the most unusual response you've gotten to your book or show?
The most unusual response to the book is "$18?!" and to the TV show it's, "That woman's too good for you."

One of the show's themes is that your wife, Rachelle, finds your environmentalism annoying. Does that reflect reality?
It does. She thinks what I do is kind of wacky. At the end of the day she cares about the environment, she's just not quite as zealous as I am. There is friction. It's not put on. But we mostly laugh about it. That's the most important thing. You've got to laugh.

We hear such dire reports about global warming and ice shelves collapsing and predictions of doom. Can we avert disaster?
Yes, if we do something now. People said we couldn't do something about the smog in LA and we did. People said it would be many decades before we turned around the ozone depletion. They said we'd never be able to clean up the Hudson River. Lake Erie was dead. The Cuyahoga River was just going to catch fire. People said the [Berlin] wall was never going to come down, apartheid was never going to end. I don't buy it. I think we can turn this one around too. It's a big one, and I think we can do it.

The Trouble with Bottled Water

Smithsonian Magazine

In the spring of 2007, the quietly simmering backlash against bottled water began to boil. Responding to well-organized pressure groups, first one, and then a dozen cities across the nation canceled their contracts for bottled-water delivery. Upscale restaurants struck fancy waters from their menus, and college students conducted taste tests intended to prove, once and for all, that most people can't tell the difference between bottled water and tap.

Suddenly bottled water was big news. Every time I opened a newspaper, magazine or Web browser, there was another story announcing that this harmless indulgence is anything but. On the lookout for this sort of material, I nearly drowned in the tidal wave of eco-criticism. With a mounting sense of anticipation—how far will the attacks go?—I watched as reporters, using statistics from academics and environmental groups, blasted away at the bottled-water industry. But curiously, their focus wasn't water, at first. It was oil.

Specifically, the 17 million barrels it takes each year to make water bottles for the U.S. market. (Plastic-making also generates emissions of nickel, ethylbenzene, ethylene oxide, and benzene, but because we're in the thick of the global-warming movement, not the environmental-carcinogen movement, this doesn't get much play.) That's enough oil to fuel 1.3 million cars for a year.

Is 17 million barrels a lot? Yes and no. Total U.S. oil consumption is 20 million barrels a day. But the oil that goes into water bottles themselves doesn't include the energy needed to fill them or to move them to consumers. Every week, a billion bottles snake through the country on tens of thousands of trucks, trains and ships. (In 2007, Poland Spring alone burned 928,226 gallons of diesel fuel.) And then there's the energy it takes to chill water in fridges and to haul the empties off to landfills. It adds up.

Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, estimates that the total energy required for every bottle's production, transport and disposal is equivalent, on average, to filling that bottle a quarter of the way with oil. His finding, undisputed by the water-bottling industry, shocks me. Oil, as we know, is a nonrenewable resource, mostly imported. The hunt for more oil is politically dangerous and expensive, and can be environmentally ruinous.

And then there's the water itself—increasingly important as we enter what's been called the post-Peak Water era. Manufacturing and filling plastic water bottles consumes twice as much water as the bottle will ultimately contain, in part because bottle-making machines are cooled by water. Plants that use reverse osmosis to purify tap water lose between three and nine gallons of water—depending on how new the filters are and what they remove—for every filtered gallon that ends up on the shelf. Cleaning a bottling plant also requires a great deal of municipal water, especially if the end product is flavored. On average, only 60 to 70 percent of the water used by bottling plants ends up on supermarket shelves: the rest is waste.

These costs—water, energy, oil—aren't unique to bottled water. It takes 48 gallons of water to make a gallon of beer, four gallons of water to make one of soda. Even a cow has a water footprint, drinking four gallons of water to produce one gallon of milk. But those other beverages aren't redundant to the calorie-free (and caffeine- and coloring-free) liquid that comes out of the tap, and that's an important distinction.

As 2007 wound down, bottled water sales slowed a bit, but it's hard to say if it was due to activist pressure, cool weather, high prices (oil costs more) or, as Nestlé Waters North America CEO Kim Jeffery says, a lack of natural disasters, which always spur demand. In any event, billions of cases of water continued to march out of supermarkets, and millions of bottles dribbled from everyplace else.

"People don't go backwards," says Arthur Von Wiesenberger, author of The Pocket Guide to Bottled Water and a consultant to the beverage industry. "Once they've developed a taste for bottled water, they won't give it up." Indeed, new bottling plants opened this past year in the United States, Europe, India and Canada; and entrepreneurs announced plans to bottle water in the Amazon, among other fragile landscapes, while Nestlé—the Swiss conglomerate that owns Poland Spring, Calistoga and many other U.S. brands of spring water, not to mention the French Perrier—continues to buy and explore new spring sites.

Overall, Americans drank 29.3 gallons of bottled water per capita in 2007, up from 27.6 gallons in 2006, with the 2007 wholesale revenue for bottled water in the U.S. exceeding $11.7 billion.

Still, among a certain psychographic, bottled water, not so long ago a chic accessory, is now the mark of the devil, the moral equivalent of driving a Hummer. No longer socially useful, it's shunned in many restaurants, where ordering tap is all the rage. Writing in Slate, Daniel Gross calls this new snob appeal entirely predictable. "So long as only a few people were drinking Evian, Perrier, and San Pellegrino, bottled water wasn't perceived as a societal ill. Now that everybody is toting bottles of Poland Spring, Aquafina, and Dasani, it's a big problem."

But is it fashion or is it rising awareness of the bottle's environmental toll that's driving the backlash? I'm starting to think they're the same thing. Fashion drove a certain segment of society to embrace bottled water in the first place, and fashion (green chic, that is) may drive that same segment to reject it. But the imperative to stop global warming—the biggest reason for the backlash—reaches only so far. For some, the imperative to protect oneself from tap water that either tastes bad or is bad, or the simple allure of convenience, may trump planetary concerns.

Bottles ready to be recycled (iStockphoto/Martin Bowker)

The International Bottled Water Association (IBWA), which represents 162 bottlers in the United States, is counting on it. Now in panic mode, the group is deflecting critics left and right. Bottled water uses only 0.02 percent of the world's groundwater, Joseph Doss, the group's president, argues in advertisements and interviews. (Yes, but it takes all those gallons from just a few places.) Other beverages move around the country, and the world, too: it's unfair to single out bottled water for opprobrium. (True: only about 10 percent of bottled water, by volume, is imported in the United States, compared with 25 to 30 percent of wine. But we don't drink 28 gallons of wine per person per year, and wine doesn't, alas, flow from our taps.)

Another industry argument is that bottled water is a healthy alternative to high-calorie drinks. The IBWA says it competes with soda, not tap water. But this appears to be a change in stance. In 2000, Robert S. Morrison, then CEO of Quaker Oats, soon to merge with PepsiCo, distributors of Aquafina, told a reporter, "The biggest enemy is tap water." And Susan D. Wellington, vice president of marketing for Gatorade, also owned by PepsiCo, said to a group of New York analysts, "When we're done, tap water will be relegated to showers and washing dishes." In 2006, Fiji Water took that dig at Cleveland, with its "The Label Says Fiji Because It's Not Bottled in Cleveland" ad.

Since Americans still drink almost twice as much soda as bottled water, it's not surprising that Coca- Cola, owner of vitaminwater and Dasani, and PepsiCo. are covering all their bases. The companies now offer vitamin-fortified sodas, extending what Michael Pollan calls "the Wonder bread strategy of supplementation to junk food in its purest form."

The bottling industry also plays the emergency card: consumers should consider bottled water when tap isn't an option. When the pipes break and pumps fail, of course, but also when you are, well, thirsty. "It's not so easy, walking down Third Avenue on a hot day, to get a glass of tap water," John D. Sicher Jr., editor and publisher of Beverage Digest, a trade publication, says. And, yes, all those plastic bottles, which use about 40 percent less resin now than they did five years ago, really should be recycled, the bottlers all cry. "Our vision is to no longer have our packaging viewed as waste but as a resource for future use," says Scott Vitters, Coke's director of sustainable packaging, says. At the same time, bottlers tend to oppose container-deposit laws, which are funded by the beverage industry, in favor of curbside or drop- off recycling programs, which have, so far, been funded by taxpayers.

Are environmental activists making too much of bottled water's externalities? Surely other redundant, status-oriented consumer products—the latest iteration of an iPod, for example—are worse for the environment, and for those affected by their manufacture (though nobody buys an iPod a day). Michael Mascha, who publishes a bottled-water newsletter, is adamant on the topic: "All I want is to have a choice about what I drink. I want five or six waters to match a dining experience. Fine waters are a treat." Mascha can't help marginalizing the opposition. "The backlash is the green movement," he says, "and it's antiglobalization. They say water shouldn't be a commodity, but why should water be free? Why is it different from food, which we also need to live, or shelter?"

The antiglobalization argument comes from pressure groups such as Food and Water Watch, which runs a "take back the tap" pledge campaign, and Corporate Accountability International (CAI). They have ideological roots in single-issue social and environmental campaigns (curbing sweatshop abuses and old-growth logging, for example). In recent years, such campaigns have converged to challenge the political power of large multinational corporations that, often by exercising free-trade agreements, are presumed to harm the environment and infringe upon human rights, local democracies and cultural diversity.

In the United States, CAI's anti-bottled water campaign—which taps both the environmental and the antiprivatization movements—has a multi-tiered agenda. First, it wants to demonstrate that most people can't discern between bottled and tap water. Second, it informs the public that most bottled water is "just tap" (which isn't, strictly speaking, true). Volunteers also make their points about bottled water's carbon footprint and its expense compared to tap, and then they ask individuals, and local governments, to quit buying it. Depending on the city, CAI may also ask local officials to forswear selling public water to private bottlers.

The group also pushes for water bottlers in the United States to quit undermining local control of water sources with their pumping and bottling. This last bit—opposing the privatization of a public resource—may be too outré for most mainstream news outlets to pick up on, perhaps because it raises sticky questions of ownership and control, and it offends many Americans' ideas about the primacy of capitalism. But while Corporate Accountability's mission to halt corporate control of a common resource might be abstract to most bottled-water drinkers, it isn't the least bit abstract to Californians resisting Nestlé's efforts to build a bottling plant in McCloud, near Mount Shasta, or to Floridians who swam in Crystal Springs until Nestlé began bottling it, or to those residents of Fryeburg, Maine, raging against Nestlé's boreholes and the big silver Poland Spring trucks that haul local water to markets throughout the northeast.

The fate of a spring-fed pond in Maine might not interest the average person slapping down two bucks for a bottle of Poland Spring at a concession stand, but the issue of who controls water may in the long run be even more important than how many barrels of oil are burned to quench the nation's thirst. We can do without oil, but we can't live without water.

Adapted from Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It. Copyright Elizabeth Royte. Published by Bloomsbury.

Roman Splendor in Pompeii

Smithsonian Magazine

If you’ve been to the Italian coast south of Rome you probably want to return. Picturesque scenery, mild weather, fertile soil and the teeming sea provide a banquet for the senses, and the easy pace of life leaves plenty of time for reverie and romance. The ancient Greeks founded the colony of Neapolis (Naples) along this stretch of Mediterranean coast around 600 B.C.; half a millennium later, the colony was absorbed by the Roman Empire. By the first century B.C., the Bay of Naples, a single day’s sail from the hustling imperial capital, had become the favorite vacation spot of the Roman elite. The entire region from Puteoli (modern Pozzuoli) in the north to Surrentum (Sorrento) in the south, embracing towns such as Pompeii and Herculaneum, was dotted with richly adorned villas of extraordinary splendor. The great Roman orator and statesman Cicero dubbed the Bay “the crater of all delights.”

The lifestyles that wealthy Romans enjoyed in their second homes is the subject of “Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture Around the Bay of Naples,” an exhibition on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. through March 22. The show, which will also travel to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (May 3-October 4), includes 150 objects, mainly from the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, but also on loan from site museums at Pompeii, Boscoreale, Torre Annunziata and Baia, as well as from museums and private collections in the United States and Europe. A number of items, including recently discovered murals and artifacts, have never been exhibited in the United States before.

Strolling among the marble busts, bronze statues, mosaics, silver tableware and colorful wall paintings, one cannot help but feel awed by the sophisticated taste and sumptuous décor that the imperial family and members of the aristocracy brought to the creation of their country houses. It’s almost enough to make one forget that it all came to an end with the devastating eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79.

We do not know how many of the estimated 20,000 residents of Pompeii and more than 4,000 inhabitants of Herculaneum perished, but we do know a great deal about how they lived.

In their maritime pleasure palaces the elite partook of opulence and relaxation as a respite from the business in which they engaged in the city. These retreats had everything one could desire to exercise the body, mind and spirit: gymnasia and swimming pools; columned courtyards with gardens watered by an aqueduct built by the emperor Augustus; baths warmed by fire or cooled with snow from the peak of Vesuvius; libraries in which to read and write; picture galleries and extravagantly painted dining rooms in which to entertain; loggias and terraces with sweeping vistas of the lush countryside and the resplendent sea.

High-ranking Romans followed the lead of Julius Caesar and the emperors Caligula, Claudius and Nero, all of whom owned houses in Baiae (modern Baia). Augustus vacationed in Surrentum and Pausilypon (Posillipo), and bought the island of Capreae (Capri); his son Tiberius built a dozen villas on the island and ruled the empire from there for the last decade of his life. Cicero had several homes around the bay (he retreated there to write), and the poet Virgil and the naturalist Pliny also had residences in the area.

The show begins with images of the owners of the villas—marble or bronze busts of emperors, members of their families and private individuals such as Gaius Cornelius Rufus, whose sculpted likeness was found in the atrium of his family’s house at Pompeii. A fresco of a seated woman lost in thought is believed to portray the matron of Villa Arianna at Stabiae, about three miles east of Pompeii. Another woman is shown admiring herself in a hand mirror that resembles one on view in an adjacent case. The back of the mirror on display is adorned with a relief of cupids fishing (perhaps to remind its user of love as she applied her makeup and donned gold jewelry similar to the bracelets and earrings that are also on view). Nearby are furnishings and accouterments such as silver wine cups embellished with hunting and mythological scenes; elaborate bronze oil lamps; figurines of muscular male deities; frescoes of opulent seaside villas; and representations of delicacies harvested from the sea—all reflecting the owners’ taste for luxury.

The next section of the exhibition is devoted to the Roman villas’ colonnaded courtyards and gardens. Frescoes depict lushly planted scenes populated by peacocks, doves, golden orioles and other birds and punctuated with stone statuary, birdbaths and fountains, examples of which are also on display. Many of these frescoes and carvings reference the fecundity of nature through depictions of wild animals (a life-size bronze boar attacked by two dogs, for instance) and of Dionysus, the god of wine, accompanied by his lascivious companions, the satyrs and maenads. Other garden decorations allude to more cerebral pursuits, such as a mosaic of Plato’s Academy convening in a sacred grove.

Image by Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Photography ⓒ Luciano Pedicini. Pompeii, Two seaside villas, probably 1st century AD. (original image)

Image by Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei, Ufficio Scavi, Pompei, Photography ⓒ Luciano Pedicini. Pompeii, House of the Golden Bracelet, Garden Scene, 1st century BC - 1st century AD. (original image)

Image by Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei, Ufficio Scavi, Pompei, Fotografica Foglia, Alfredo and Pio Foglia. Moregine, Triclinium A, central wall, Apollo with muses Clio and Euterpe, 1st century AD. (original image)

Image by Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei, Ufficio Scavi, Pompei, Photography ⓒ Luciano Pedicini. Pompeii, House of the Gilded Cupids, Mask of Silenos, 1st century BC - 1st century AD. (original image)

Image by Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Photography ⓒ Luciano Pedicini. Pompeii, Villa of T. Siminius Stephanus, Plato's Academy, 1st century BC - 1st century AD. (original image)

Image by Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Photography ⓒ Luciano Pedicini. Herculaneum, Villa dei Papiri, Bust of kouros (youth) or Apollo, 1st century BC. (original image)

Image by Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Photography ⓒ Luciano Pedicini. Vesuvian region/Herculaneum, Dionysos with kantharos and maenad, 1st century AD. (original image)

Image by Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Photography ⓒ Luciano Pedicini. Rione Terra at Puteoli (Pozzuoli), Gaius (Caligula), 1st century AD. (original image)

Image by Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire. Gift of Arthur M. Loew, Class of 1921A. Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (British, 1836 - 1912), A Sculpture Gallery, 1874. (original image)

Image by Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Photography ⓒ Luciano Pedicini. Pompeii, House of the Silversmith, or from Herculaneum, Skyphos entwined with ivy leaves 1st century BC - 1st century AD. (original image)

Image by Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Photography ⓒ Luciano Pedicini. Rione Terra at Puteoli (Pozzuoli), Head of the Athena Lemnia, probably early 1st century AD. (original image)

Image by Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Photography ⓒ Luciano Pedicini. Pompeii, House of Pansa, Lampstand, 1st half of 1st century AD. (original image)

One of the highlights of the show is the frescoed walls of a dining room (triclinium) from Moregine, south of Pompeii. The frescoes were removed from the site in 1999–2001 to save them from damage due to flooding. In a coup de théâtre, three walls form a U-shaped reconstruction that allows visitors to be surrounded by murals showing Apollo, the Greek god of the arts, prophecy and medicine, and the Muses. The depiction of Apollo is an example of the most crucial theme of the exhibition: the Romans’ abiding taste for Greek culture. “They were lovers of what was to them—as it is to us—‘ancient’ Greece,” explains Carol Mattusch, an art history professor at George Mason University and guest curator of the exhibition. “They read Homeric poetry, they loved the comedies of Menander, they were followers of the philosopher Epicurus, and they collected art in the Greek style,” she says. Sometimes they even spoke and wrote Greek rather than Latin.

Cultivated Romans commissioned replicas of “old master” Greek statues, portraits of Greek poets, playwrights and philosophers, and frescoes picturing scenes from Greek literature and mythology. One of the frescoes in the exhibition depicts the classic group of Greek goddesses known as the Three Graces, and a beautifully rendered painting on marble shows a Greek battling a centaur. Also on view are a life-size marble statue of Aphrodite that emulates Greek art of the fifth century B.C. and a head of Athena that is a copy of a work by Phidias, the sculptor of the Parthenon. These expressions of Hellenic aesthetics and thought help explain why some say that the Romans conquered Greece, but Greek culture conquered Rome.

And alas, a volcano and the passage of time nearly conquered all. The cataclysmic eruption of Vesuvius entombed Herculaneum in a flow of lava and mud and spewed forth a mushroom-like cloud of debris that buried Pompeii in pumice stones and volcanic ash. Pliny the Younger wrote an eyewitness account of the eruption from across the bay in Misenum: “buildings were now shaking with violent shocks….darkness, blacker and denser than any night” and the sea “receded from the shore so that quantities of sea creatures were left stranded on dry sand” as flames burst from the volcanic cloud. His uncle Pliny the Elder, admiral of the imperial fleet based at Misenum and a naturalist, took a boat to get a closer look and died on the beach at Stabiae, reportedly asphyxiated by toxic fumes.

The final section of the exhibition is devoted to the volcano, its subsequent eruptions throughout the 17th century, and to the impact of the rediscovery and excavation of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The Bourbon kings that ruled Naples in the 18th century enlisted treasure hunters to tunnel into the ruins in search of statuary, ceramics, frescoes and metalwork. Their success led to later archaeological excavations that revealed nearly the entire town of Pompeii and the remains of Herculaneum and of country villas in the surrounding area.

The discoveries drew sightseers to the region and spawned an industry for reproductions of antiquities along with a Pompeiian revival style in the arts. An 1856 watercolor by the Italian artist Constantino Brumidi shows his design for the Pompeiian-style frescoes that grace a conference room in the United States Capitol, and an imaginary scene, painted in 1874 by the British artist Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, depicting a sculpture gallery from antiquity, pictures actual objects found in the excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum, some of which are on view in the exhibition, including the spectacular carved marble table supports from Pompeii that served as models for desks in the National Post Office in Washington, D.C. Such objects epitomize the artistic excellence and fine craftsmanship the Romans demanded in the furnishing and adornment of their villas around the Bay of Naples. Leaving the exhibition, one’s thoughts turn inevitably to planning a trip to visit the archaeological sites near the Bay and experience first-hand the Mediterranean coast that has beckoned for millennia.

Jason Edward Kaufman is the Chief U.S. Correspondent for The Art Newspaper.

In Iraq, a Monastery Rediscovered

Smithsonian Magazine

Editors' note, January 21, 2016: According to news reports this week, satellite images have confirmed that militants from the Islamic State destroyed Dair Mar Elia, Iraq's oldest Christian monastery. “Nothing can compensate the loss of such heritage,” Yonadam Kanna, a Christian member of Parliament tells the New York Times.

A soldier scaled the fragile wall of the monastery and struck a pose. His buddies kept shouting up to him to move over some.

He shifted to the left and stood the stadia rod straight to register his position for the survey laser on the tripod below.

The 94th Corps of Engineers of Fort Leonard Wood, whose members normally sprint to their data points in full body armor and Kevlar helmets, are making a topographical map of the ancient Assyrian monastery that until recently had been occupied by the Iraqi Republican Guard and then by the 101st Airborne Division in the once verdant river valley near Mosul.

The Dair Mar Elia Monastery is finally getting some of the expert attention that the 1,400-year-old sacred structure deserves. These days it is fenced in and a chaplain regularly guides soldiers at Forward Operating Base Marez on tours of the ruins. The topographical mapping is part of a long-term effort to help Iraqis become more aware of the site and their own cultural preservation.

"We hope to make heritage accessible to people again," explains Suzanne Bott, cultural heritage adviser for the provincial reconstruction team in Mosul. "It seems pretty clear from other postwar reconstruction efforts, people need some semblance of order and identity" returned to them.

The provincial reconstruction team coordinated a trip for the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage to visit and appraise the key archaeological sites in Ninewa Province, such as Hatra, with its distinctive Hellenic arches, and Nimrud, home of the famous statues of winged bulls.

This past May, Iraqi archaeologists were able to visit the areas for the first time since the start of the war. While sites like the carved walls of Nineveh were in drastic need of protection from the sun and wind, the fact that many areas were largely unexcavated probably protected them from looters, according to Diane Siebrandt, cultural heritage officer for the U.S. State Department in Baghdad. Treasures like the famed gold jewelry of the tombs in Nimrud were transferred from the Mosul museum to a bank vault in Baghdad before the invasion.

The Dair Mar Elia Monastery (or the Monastery of St. Elijah) was not so protected. It was slammed by the impact of a Russian tank turret that had been fired upon by a U.S. missile as the 101st Airborne charged across the valley against the Republican Guard during the initial invasion in 2003. Then it was used as a garrison by the 101st engineers. Shortly after, a chaplain recognized its importance, and Gen. David Petraeus, then the 101st commander, ordered the monastery to be cleared and for the Screaming Eagle emblem to be wiped off the inner wall of the courtyard.

The eastern wall has concaved where the tank turret lifted into the brick and mortar. Inside the plain walls of the chapel, one shell-shaped niche is decorated with intricate carvings and an Aramaic inscription asks for prayers of the soul of the person interred beneath the walls. Shades of a cobalt blue fresco can be found above the stepped altar. Graffiti penned by U.S. and Iraqi soldiers is scrawled in hard-to-reach places throughout. Shards of pottery of an undetermined age litter what might have been a kiln area. Only the stone and mud mortar of the walls themselves seem to remain as strong as the surrounding earth mounds, which may contain unexcavated monk cells or granaries, Bott says.

Image by James Foley. Sergeant First Class Ronald Corella, Salinas CA, guides his soliders of 3/3rd ACR "Killer Troop" in the aftermath of a July 9th suicide attack on an Iraqi military convoy in the Faisailya neighborhood of Mosul (original image)

Image by James Foley. The monastery from inside the ramparts at twilight. (original image)

Image by James Foley. An Assyrian Christian Church in Ras al Koor neighborhood (original image)

Image by James Foley. A 3/3rd ACR soldier sets a cordon in Ras al Koor neighborhood of Mosul while an interested local peers out at him (original image)

Image by James Foley. A 3/3rd ACR soldier stands in front of the curved Al Hadba minaret of the Nurridine Mosque (original image)

Image by James Foley. 3/3rd ACR riding into Mosul for a foot patrol in the hear of old Mosul (original image)

Image by James Foley. An Iraqi soldier fumes after the attack on his convoy that targeted a senior commander and killed at least eight Iraqi civilians and soldiers (original image)

Image by James Foley. On foot patrol with 3/3rd ACR in Ras al Koor to speak with locals about the local Iraqi police presence there (original image)

Image by James Foley. Years of contemporary Iraqi and U.S. soldier graffiti from previous occupations and uses as a battalion post mar the monastery walls (original image)

Image by James Foley. The inner sanctuary and chapel of the 6th century Dar Elia Monastery in the early morning light (original image)

Image by James Foley. Looking down on what was once the monk cells at twilight (original image)

Image by James Foley. The final shot of the sun set over the monastery located inside the U.S Forward Operating Base Marez. (original image)

The topographical mapping will enable Iraqi archaeologists to peel back the layers of decay on the fortress-like house of worship with the early initials of Christ—the symbols of chi and rho—still carved into its doorway. It was constructed by the Assyrian monks in the late sixth century and later claimed by the Chaldean order. In 1743 the monks were given an ultimatum by Persian invaders and up to 150 were massacred when they refused to abandon their cells.

After World War I, the monastery became a refugee center, according to chaplain and resident historian Geoff Bailey, a captain with the 86th Combat Support hospital. Christians supposedly still came once a year in November to celebrate the feast of St. Elijah (also the name of the monastery's founding monk).

Because it became incorporated into the Iraqi Republic Guard base during the 1970s, professors from the school of archaeology at the University of Mosul had a limited awareness of its existence, but the monks of nearby Al Qosh have an oral and written memory of Dair Mar Elia, says Bott, who recently visited the monks.

Excavation and radio carbon dating would help transform the monastery into a truly understood historical site, but to do that the provincial reconstruction team needs both support from outside archaeological institutions like the renowned University of Mosul, the University of Chicago, which has experience in Ninewa, and more importantly the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage. International nongovernmental organizations like UNESCO have also expressed interest in Ninewa since Hatra is listed as a World Heritage Site.

Security is a stumbling block in all cases. The archaeology students from the University of Mosul were invited inside the secure U.S. base to work on the monastery excavation, says Diane Crow, a public diplomacy officer in Mosul. Then, in June, a dean in the College of Agriculture was assassinated. Crow says she's hopeful she can persuade students and professors to come in the fall.

"It's not that people don't want to preserve the sites, it's that right now they're scared. I don't know if someone who's not here right now can understand that or not," Crow says.

In the sense of its ecumenical and tumultuous passage, the St. Elijah Monastery is emblematic of Ninewa Province, still caught in the deadly struggle between insurgents and Iraqi security forces backed by the U.S. 3rd Artillery Regiment, which currently patrol the ancient city.

The first day on patrol with the 3/3rd ACR we passed churches and mosques along the Tigris. The second day we witnessed a car bombing that killed and wounded Iraqis in an attempt to target a senior Iraqi Army commander. Mosul is still as violent as it is beautiful, although attacks against U.S. soldiers have decreased significantly in recent months since the Iraqi-led Operation Lion's Roar.

"There's always the perception that Mosul is falling," says Capt. Justin Harper of Sherman, Texas, who leads a company of soldiers on regular patrols to support the Iraqi Police. "Mosul is not falling. The enemy is trying all the actions it can, but if anything, the government is legitimized in how it can respond."

For the soldiers back on base who get to tour the Dair Mar Elia, it puts a human face on Iraq, Bailey explains. "They see not just a place of enemies. They also see cultural traditions and a place to respect."

"This is how progress is actually measured when it is considered against the backdrop of millennia," Bott says. By the end of the week, the ancient monastery will be transformed into a three-dimensional CAD model for future generations of Iraqis who will hopefully soon have the security to appreciate it.

The Great Uprising: How a Powder Revolutionized Baking

Smithsonian Magazine

Today, if you need to make a last-minute birthday cake, you can grab a box of Betty Crocker cake mix, whisk it with some oil and eggs, and pop it in the oven. In early America, making a cake was an ordeal. "The flour should be dried before the fire, sifted and weighed; currants washed and dried; raisins stoned; sugar pounded, and rolled fine and sifted; and all spices, after being well dried at the fire, pounded and sifted," reads a common cake recipe in the 1841 cookbook Early American Cookery.

Besides this grueling work, you had to plan ahead. If you wanted your cake to be fluffy and airy, rather than dense and flat, you would need to do some serious work make it rise. For most of human history, the main rising agent has been yeast. As these finicky little fungi grow and divide, they breathe in oxygen and release carbon dioxide like we do. Mix them into dough and they’ll eventually fill it with the familiar bubbles of carbon dioxide that make baked goods rise—a process known as leavening.

In the 18th century and earlier, most baking was dictated by the delicate whims of respiring yeast. And we aren’t talking about dry or refrigerated yeast; this was way before fridges and commercial packaging. First you had to make the yeast, by letting fruit or vegetables or grains ferment. Once you’d done that, your hard-earned rising agent could still be killed or weakened by temperatures that were too hot or too cold, or contamination from bacteria. (Many early recipes recommend obtaining the help of a manservant.)

Even when it did work, leavening was a tedious process. "You're talking upwards of 12 hours of rising, usually more like 24 hours," says Jessica Carbone, a scholar in the National Museum of American History's Food History Project. Basically, forget about the joy of waking up and deciding to make pancakes.

So what changed? In a phrase, baking powder. Without this miraculous white substance, "We literally would not have cake as we know it now," says Linda Civitello, a food historian and author of the new book Baking Powder Wars. Today, baking powder "is like air, water,” Civitello says. “It's the one ingredient everyone has on their shelf." This cheap chemical factors into countless baked goods we buy and make every day, from donuts to hamburger buns. But how did this revolution-in-a-can come about?

Image by Courtesy of Boston Public Library. In the late 19th century, baking powder companies competed fiercely through colorful advertising, state bribes and even lawsuits. Meanwhile, yeast companies also tried to elbow each other off the market. (original image)

Image by Boston Public Library. (original image)

Image by Boston Public Library. (original image)

Image by Boston Public Library. (original image)

Image by Boston Public Library. (original image)

Image by Boston Public Library. (original image)

Image by Boston Public Library. (original image)

Image by Boston Public Library. (original image)

Image by Boston Public Library. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Boston Public Library. (original image)

In the 18th century, American bakers were already experimenting with less labor-intensive ways to make things rise. In addition to beating air into their eggs, they often used a kitchen staple called pearlash, or potash, which shows up in the first American cookbook, American Cookery, in 1796. Made from lye and wood ashes, or baker's ammonia, pearlash consisted mainly of potassium carbonate, which also produces carbon dioxide quickly and reliably. But this agent was difficult to make, caustic and often smelly.

In 1846, the introduction of baking soda, a salt that can react with an acid to create carbon dioxide, made things easier. But baking soda still needed to be mixed with an acid. Since it was cheap and widely available, bakers often used sour milk. This process was unpredictable, since it was hard to control how acidic the sour milk actually was, meaning it was difficult to know how much baking soda to use or how long to bake for.

The first product resembling baking powder was created by English chemist Alfred Bird in the late 1840s. Bird combined cream of tartar (an acidic powder composed of potassium bitartrate) and baking soda, keeping the two apart until they were to be used so they wouldn't react too early. Unfortunately, cream of tartar was an expensive byproduct of winemaking that had to be imported from Europe, meaning that it was out of reach for many poorer Americans.

In 1856, this need for a viable alternative drove a young chemist Eben Norton Horsford to create and patent the first modern baking powder. Horsford worked at a time when chemistry was only just beginning to be considered a respected field, and ended up creating the first modern chemistry lab in the United States at Harvard University. By boiling down animal bones to extract monocalcium phosphate, Horsford developed an acid compound that could react with baking soda to create those desirable CO2 bubbles.

"It's really the first chemical that opens the floodgates for chemicals in food," Civitello says.

Horsford later had the idea to put the two together in one container. Water activates them, so he mixed them with cornstarch to soak up any excess moisture and prevent them from reacting prematurely. Now, instead of purchasing two separate ingredients at the pharmacy (where chemicals were sold at the time), and having to precisely measure out each one, would-be bakers could grab one container off the grocery store shelf and be ready to go.

In the 1880s, Horsford’s company switched to mining the monocalcium phosphate as opposed to extracting it from boiled down bones, because it was cheaper. Marketed under the name "Rumford" (named for Count Rumford, who was Horsford's benefactor while he was a professor at Harvard), the baking powder is still sold today in much the same formulation.

Rumford wasn't alone for long in the baking powder industry. The company Royal Baking Powder quickly capitalized on the traditional cream of tartar that had been used ad hoc by housewives, while Calumet and Clabber Girl aimed to be more modern by using the acid sodium aluminum phosphate (alum), which was cheaper and much stronger than other baking powder acids. Hundreds of smaller manufacturers sprang up across the country, and by the end of the 19th century, the baking powder industry was worth millions of dollars.

Baking didn't immediately adapt to this new revolution, however, Carbone notes, since most recipes that women and existing cookbooks had were built around the old way of combining an acid with a salt. Baking powder companies worked to change this by releasing their own cookbooks, which served as both marketing and instruction manuals for their products. Some of these cookbooks are held today in the collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

In that same collection are remnants of the ugly wars fought within the growing baking powder industry around the turn of the 20th century. As alum baking powder companies like Calumet's and Clabber Girl's captured more and more of the baking powder market, Royal Baking Powder in particular fought to discredit them. In advertisements, Royal touted the "purity" of its more expensive product, while claiming that other baking powders were "injurious" to one’s health.

The fight culminated in 1899, when Royal managed to bribe the Missouri legislature to pass a law banning the sale of all alum baking powders in the state, according to Baking Powder Wars. Over six years of fighting, millions of dollars in bribes were paid, dozens were sent to jail for simply selling baking powder, and the muckraking press forced the resignation of the state's lieutenant governor. Even after the ban's repeal, baking powder manufacturers battled for decades into the 20th century through advertising battles and intense price wars, as Civitello chronicles in her book.

Eventually, the alum baking powder companies won out, and Royal and Rumford were acquired by Clabber Girl, leaving it and Calumet as the reigning American companies on the market. You don't have to look far to see baking powder's continued hegemony today: cooks around the world use it in everything from cupcakes to crepes, muffins to madeleines, danishes to doughnuts. "The fact that you can find it in every major supermarket tells you something about how it's been embraced," Carbone says.

So thank chemistry and modern science that you're not one of those early American bakers, pounding and sifting for all eternity.

The Site of the Salem Witch Trial Hangings Finally Has a Memorial

Smithsonian Magazine

Eight years ago, when they bought their house overlooking a wooded ledge in Salem, Massachusetts, Erin O’Connor and her husband, Darren Benedict, had no idea why that parcel stood empty. The scrubby lot lay tucked between houses on Pope Street, within sight of a large Walgreen’s—nothing much to look at. So when people began to stop by and take pictures of the empty site last winter, they wondered why.

If they’d been there in 1692, they would have known. That’s when the rocky ledge on the parcel next door turned into a site of mass execution—and when the bodies of people hanged as witches were dumped into a low spot beneath the ledge known as “the crevice.” In the night, when the hangings were over, locals heard the sounds of grieving families who snuck over to gather up their dead and secretly bury them elsewhere.

But for much of history, the site sat quietly obscured by woods and buildings. A leather tannery and railroad operated nearby, and in recent years, houses surrounded it. And for O’Connor, Benedict and much of Salem, that history has faded despite the town’s outsized reputation.

Now, it will finally be commemorated when Salem mayor Kimberley Driscoll dedicates a memorial below Proctor’s Ledge on July 19. The date coincides with the first of three mass executions there. On the same day in 1692, five women—Sarah Good, Elizabeth Howe, Susannah Martin, Rebecca Nurse, and Sarah Wildes—were hanged from a tree on the ledge, and their bodies fell into a “crevice,” where the memorial now marks their names.

Later victims included wealthy landowner John Proctor, killed in August. He had publicly condemned the witch trials and had punished his female servants for claiming to be possessed by witches’ spirits in the hysteria of the day. Proctor’s Ledge is named for his grandson, who bought the land knowing its history.

The Salem witch trials were “the largest and most lethal witch hunt in American history,” wrote historian Emerson “Tad” Baker, a professor at Salem State University in his 2015 book A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience. In a June symposium about the trials, Baker spoke about the volatile political and social climate in Salem in the 1790s.

At the time, an interim colonial government was in charge and Sir William Phips, the new governor, was considered weak. In response, says Baker, people felt a spiritual decline. “Puritans thought God was telling them something,” he says. Add to this the extreme weather of the “Little Ice Age”—hot dry summers and lethally cold winters—famine, economic failures and frontier wars with the French and Native Americans, and it became a scenario ripe for disaster.

Finger-pointing and mass hysteria ensued. During a series of trials, young women accused “witches” of making them contort, writhe and shriek. The accusations were “neighbor on neighbor,” says University of Connecticut geographer Ken Foote. It was an anxious time.

In the 325 years since 19 of the falsely accused were hanged as witches in Salem, the coastal town has never forgotten what happened. (Most of the trial activity took place in Salem. Some of the young accusers lived in Salem Village, later renamed Danvers.) Somehow, the site of the hangings had until now faded from memory, replaced by an obsession with the “witches” themselves that borders on kitsch.

Witch tourism gave Salem the moniker “Witch City,” a major economic driver that local officials have long said they value. (Even the police department’s logo includes a witch.) Every Halloween, as many as 250,000 visit for the event called Haunted Happenings. Revelers dress as zombies and witches. Families take “ghost tours,” and wander around a psychic fair, costume balls, and film festivals—all run by a public-private partnership called Destination Salem.

The kinder, gentler form of witch interest dates to the television situation comedy “Bewitched,” which filmed several episodes in town in the 1970s. A statue of the actress Elizabeth Montgomery (who played the witch Samantha Stevens) stands downtown. Other popular sites include the Witch House, the home of trials judge Jonathan Corwin, and the Old Burying Point Cemetery, where tourists visit the grave of the other judge, John Hathorne (ancestor of author Nathaniel Hawthorne).

Adding to its rich history, Salem has become a center for thousands of practitioners of the Wiccan faith, which has no relation to the satanic imaginations of 1692. It’s hard to know where the dark history fades and the spiritual or lighthearted steps in.

Though tourists often ask where the hangings took place, they were directed to the wrong place for years. Taxi drivers and, famously, John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s limousine driver, would take them to the top of the place named Gallows Hill because for years townspeople thought that was the hanging site. Only last year did a group of historians, including Baker, verify that the hangings took place below Gallows Hill, on Proctor’s Ledge, underscoring the earlier conclusion of historian Sidney Perley, who identified the ledge in the early 1900s.

Location of the memorial, pre-construction in December 2016 (Martha Lyon)

The new memorial, the first of its kind to be built at the execution site, was funded by a community grant and donations from some of the descendants of Salem’s “witches.” (Many descendants belong to a group called the Associated Daughters of Early American Witches.) It incorporates a granite wall and memorial stones with the 19 killed innocents’ names set in a semicircle around a single oak tree, a dominant tree in the colonial landscape (the hangings above were probably from an oak).  In 1992, the Salem Award Foundation erected the Salem Witch Trials Memorial adjacent to the Old Burying Ground, a cemetery in town where one of the judges and some other notables are interred. Visitors leave notes and flowers on commemorative benches, “and I think some of them must think it is just a park,” Baker, the historian, says.

Mayor Driscoll said in a release that the new memorial site “presents an opportunity for us to come together as a community, recognize the injustice and tragedy perpetrated against those innocents in 1692, and recommit ourselves to the values of inclusivity and justice.”

Baker believes that the memorial could turn Americans toward greater understanding of what a witch hunt truly means in today’s world full of fear of terrorism. “Americans today gaze back at the people of 1692 as a foolish, superstitious, and intolerant lot,” Baker wrote in A Storm of Witchcraft. “Yet that is to dismiss the figure in the mirror.”

But not everyone feels unbridled relief at this new awareness. Neighbors of Proctor’s Ledge didn’t know they lived near the exact site of the hangings until last winter, when the city held public hearings to discuss the memorial site. They understood that the site (owned by the city since 1936) “would never be built on because the city owns it,” says O’Connor. “We were a little bummed because they cut down all our trees.” And the Halloween reveling “can be a little crazy,” she says. “My neighbor last year was working at home and people started having a loud séance in her back yard.”

Centuries ago, the site of the hangings had been out of the way, if not quiet. The once marshy area lay on the outskirts of town and could be seen from a distance, says Marilynne Roach, a Watertown, Massachusetts, researcher and author of the book Six Women of Salem. In 1692, she says, the ledge overlooked the North River, which at the time made an L-shaped bend heading from the town of Peabody and toward the Atlantic Ocean. By the 19th century, the neighborhood surrounded tanneries (known as “blubber hill”) and other industry. Today, one can drive from there to the Salem town center in about five minutes.

The choice of that particular spot for the hangings likely served a strategic purpose 325 years ago that sounds pretty ghoulish today: It was public enough so people could watch the executions, Roach says, “but you don’t want it in someone’s backyard. It is a bit out of the way and it is public land. I get the impression that everybody in town who could get away from work would come out and watch these.” Roach credits documented accounts of nearby residents who once stood near the ledge as providing the historic proof that this was the place.

Now, the site will once again attract the public—not gawkers this time, but visitors commemorating the witch trials’ innocent victims.

Robin Eddy, whose backyard abuts the hanging site, said a neighbor told her as she moved in 21 years ago, "You know, you're living on the site where they threw the witches' bodies after they hung them." She added, "And I'm like, 'Ha ha ha.'"

Eddy said that unlike some of her neighbors, "I think it's pretty cool. I think it's amazing. To me, the memorial is…like a hallowed ground. It represents kind of where the human race was at a certain point in history. It makes me think about that and how we never want to go that way again. We need to practice tolerance."

The mayor will stand respectfully as she dedicates the memorial below Proctor’s Ledge on the 325th anniversary of five of the hangings. And in a few months, Halloween will come again to Salem. “That’s fun,” Roach says, “but mixing up strolling zombies with the memorial in the middle of town and the burial ground, it confuses the public and it leads to crowds that can damage the real thing. And [it’s] a pain in the neck for people who live in Salem. I kind of avoid Salem in October for the most part."

When Girls Studied Planets and the Skies Had No Limits

Smithsonian Magazine

In 19th-century America, you might expect that most women were shut out of the sciences—including astronomy. But it wasn’t quite that simple. By many accounts, some educated girls in the early 1800s were actually encouraged to watch the stars and planets, an observation process known as "sweeping the sky." In those days, you might say, astronomy didn’t yet have a gender.

These were the attitudes that nurtured Maria Mitchell (pronounced Ma-rye-a), one of the first professional women astronomers, whose father taught her as a child to "sweep the skies" and chart the stars. In the 19th century, Mitchell won a medal and fought for women's rights—even as the door to science closed in her female students' faces. Her story is a potent reminder that social progress for women has never been steady and linear.

Some historians argue that astronomy at the time was not only open to women, but was in some ways more of a feminine activity than a masculine one. "In the early 19th century America science was really for girls, not for boys. Yet now it’s unimaginable,” says Renée Bergland, an English professor at Simmons College and author of Maria Mitchell and the Sexing of Science. Bergland writes in her book that science was considered "a ladylike avocation" rather than a job.

Deborah Warner, curator in the division of medicine and science at the Museum of American History, agrees that astronomy was easier for girls to enter before the field became professionalized.

"When she was a child there were essentially no jobs for scientists," Warner says. "So if you were a girl or woman, and you were interested in the subject and you had some male relative who was happy to share with you and let you participate, you could do it.” But, Warner adds, that only held if you were already among the educated elite; not all girls had astronomers for fathers.

Photograph of the Old Observatory during the day of Maria Mitchell, in 1879. (Photographer G.W. Pach / Vassar College)

Mitchell was born on Nantucket in 1818. Her family was Quaker, which meant that they believed both girls and boys should go to school. Her father, a teacher and an astronomer, taught her about the skies when she was very young. In terms of equipment, at-home astronomers weren't at a disadvantage; Harvard's telescope was roughly the same size and power as the Mitchells'. When she was 12, she and her father observed a solar eclipse. 

From there, Mitchell’s ascent as an astronomer was swift. In 1847, the prince of Denmark awarded the 29-year-old Mitchell a medal for reporting a comet that was too far away to be seen without a telescope (the comet became known as “Miss Mitchell’s Comet”). The next year, she became the first woman elected into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1850, it was the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Mitchell traveled to Italy in 1856, and was barred from the Vatican's observatory; women weren't allowed, because it was also a monastery. She petitioned. "If I had before been mildly desirous of visiting the observatory, I was now intensely anxious to do so," she wrote in her journal.

After two weeks, officials allowed her in, making her the first woman to step inside. She was not overly impressed by the room itself, but "Jupiter was beautiful, and in broad daylight the belts were plainly seen,” she wrote. “With low powers the moon was charming."

Here's another entry from Mitchell's journal around that time: "March 2, 1854. I 'swept' last night two hours, by three periods. It was a grand night—not a breath of air, not a fringe of cloud, all clear, all beautiful. I really enjoy that kind of work, but my back soon becomes tired, long before the cold chills me. I saw two nebulae in Leo with which I was not familiar, and that repaid me for the time."

Mitchell worked as a librarian at the Nantucket Atheneum during the day, and looked toward the stars at night. She "never thought she was doing anything radical at all by doing astronomy. It was widely accepted as a typical feminine activity," says Bergland. "She just happened to be great at it."

This telescope was installed in the new observatory at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1865, and used by Maria Mitchell, her students and successors. The telescope has a clear aperture of 4 inches, and a focal length of 5 feet. The circles at either end of the axis measure 30 inches in diameter. One is finely graduated to 3" of arc, and read by vernier; the other is used simply as a finder. Vassar College donated it to the Smithsonian in 1980, along with the observer's couch and the apparatus used to reverse the telescope. (Smithsonian National Museum of American History)

She was so great at it that, in 1865, the brand-new Vassar College hired Mitchell as its first astronomy professor and director of its observatory. She took her father with her, and arrived in time for the fall semester. "In the early 19th century," says Bergland, "there were no professional scientists. They're not teaching science in college, so the women like Mitchell who did science did it unprofessionally at the start. So she becomes one of the first professional scientists of either gender, but she's the only woman who is among those early professional astronomers."

Her students studied the skies from their newly built observatory; one student who later went on succeed Mitchell remembered her teacher's favorite planets were Saturn and Jupiter. The telescope that Mitchell used at Vassar is now in the Smithsonian's American History Museum's collection, although it is not currently on display. (The museum does have a photograph of Mitchell and one of her students sitting in front of the telescope on display.)

Starting in the 1870s, opportunities for women astronomers began closing up. “What tightens up is once there start being jobs and people paid, there's less room for women to get in," says Warner. When the doors began closing for science-minded women, Mitchell did not stand idly by. In 1872 she helped found the American Association for the Advancement of Women. She was the president for two years, and served in other capacities until the year before she died, in 1889.

"For women there are, undoubtedly, great difficulties in the path, but so much the more to overcome," Mitchell said in an 1874 lecture. "First, no woman should say, 'I am but a woman!' But a woman! What more can you ask to be? Born a woman—born with the average brain of humanity—born with more than the average heart—if you are mortal, what higher destiny could you have?"

Mitchell even used the rhetoric of the time to argue for more women in the sciences. "The training of a girl fits her for delicate work," Mitchell wrote in 1878. "The touch of her fingers upon the delicate screws of an astronomical instrument might become wonderfully accurate in results; a woman's eyes are trained to nicety of color. The eye that directs a needle in the delicate meshes of embroidery will equally well bisect a star with the spider web of the micrometer."

Mitchell wanted her students to succeed, and earn the attention and acclaim that she had in her career. She was "a role model, big time," says Warner. But times had changed. Science was becoming a profession, which meant women were no longer as welcome. "When she retired," says Bergland, "one of those students from the first year was her first student to get an astronomy job. And that was the student who replaced Mitchell."

Maria Mitchell (Wikimedia Commons)

An asteroid was named for Mitchell in 1937. A Google Doodle honored her in 2013. Nantucket's science center is the Maria Mitchell Association. Yet today just 26 percent of those who receive astronomy PhDs are women, according to the National Science Foundation; a quarter of astronomy professors in the U.S. are women, according to a national 2010 survey; and analyses show that women astronomers are cited far less frequently than their male counterparts. This entrenched gender imbalance has inspired efforts within the science community to encourage women and girls to become professional scientists.

Given this backslide, Mitchell's legacy has been confusing for historians, says Bergland. "We just don't like stories where things move backwards," she says. "And things got worse for a time than the 1830s. That's not how you expect it to go. I do want to acknowledge that it's a sad story, and sometimes I do that by talking about Venus, which has retrograde motion. That seems kind of appropriate.”

When Mitchell was young, women were seen as scientists. But science wasn't yet a job. “It is really challenging to us still today to think there was a time that it was totally normal for girls to be doing science,” says Bergland. “There was a time when science was completely not gendered as male. It just wasn't."

The Lady Anatomist Who Brought Dead Bodies to Light

Smithsonian Magazine

Anna Morandi stands in the middle of her home laboratory, wielding a curved knife. Dressed in a long cowl to fend off the stench of putrefying flesh, the 18th century teacher and anatomist scrapes clean the bones of the human corpse before her; she will soon animate its likeness in soft wax. She works swiftly and skillfully, surrounded by both the surgical instruments of an anatomist and the tools of an artist. 

In Morandi’s 18th-century Bologna, it would have been unusual, to say the least, to watch a woman so unflinchingly peel back the skin of a human body. Yet Morandi did just that, even drawing the praise of the Bolognese Pope’s for her efforts to reveal the secrets of vitality and sensation concealed beneath the skin. Working at the delicate intersection of empirical science and the artistic rendering of the human body, Morandi helped elevate her city as a hub of science and culture.

As an anatomist, Morandi went where no woman had gone before, helping to usher in a new understanding of the male body and developing new techniques for examining organs. She also served as the public face of an unusual scientific partnership with her husband, a sculptor and anatomist. Yet in one way, she was no exception to what has become a common narrative of historical women in science: Despite her achievement and acclaim during her lifetime, her role was ultimately written out of history.

Image by Museo di Palazzo Poggi. Self-portrait in wax, by Morandi. (original image)

Image by Museo di Palazzo Poggi. Wax eyes by Morandi. (original image)

Image by Museo di Palazzo Poggi. A wax figure showing the surface muscles by Eroli Lelli, a contemporary modeler to Morandi. (original image)

Image by Museo di Palazzo Poggi. Wax figure showing muscles and skeleton by Lelli. (original image)

A husband-wife partnership

When the 26-year-old Morandi married artist and wax sculptor Giovanni Manzolini in 1740, Bologna was undergoing a resurgence of intellectual ascendancy. Bolognese politicians and nobleman—namely Pope Benedict XIV—worked to restore the city to its former glory. With the gradual decline of the city’s university and intellectual culture, it had fallen into disrepute in the eyes of the Western world. 

The way to reverse the decline of the city, Pope Benedict believed, was to invest in medical science, particularly the then-“new” empirical science of anatomy. Before the Renaissance, anatomy largely meant philosophizing and relying on ancient texts like those of Roman physician Galen—rather than the measurable and observable evidence of hands-on human dissection. By the 18th century, there was still much to discover of the human body. 

Morandi and Manzolini helped lead this resurgence in Bologna. Together, the two dissected hundreds of corpses and created hundreds more anatomical wax sculptures. They also pioneered a novel method: Instead of approaching the whole body for dissection and study as other anatomists did, the pair systematically extracted organ systems for further bisection and isolated study. This meticulous method allowed them to create detailed wax models of individual organ systems ideal for teaching students of anatomy. 

The couple’s home served both as a dissection lab and public classroom. Morandi taught hundreds of students of anatomy with her wax models and from her own Anatomical Notebook, which contained 250 handwritten pages of instruction, notes and descriptions of corresponding wax models. Because of her extensive collection of wax models, she could teach anatomy lessons year round without worrying about the decay of dissected corpses in the heat of an Italian summer. 

Unlike other husband-wife scientific partnerships, Morandi was the public face of their operation. As a woman who effortlessly handled dead bodies and skillfully re-created life with wax, she was an object of great intrigue in Bologna and abroad. Morandi attracted international tourists visiting her studio to see and hear the Lady Anatomist, and she even caught the attention of Empress Catherine the Great, who asked Morandi to be part of her court (a request Morandi declined, for reasons unknown).

Morandi also received praise and recognition from her Bolognese Pope. The Pope was likely interested in matters besides anatomical science and medicine: By creating the public and artistic display of the exposed inner workings of a body’s muscles and tissue, organs and arteries, anatomists and sculptors like the Morandi-Manzolini team brought prestige to the city and lifted up its international reputation.

This work required scientific expertise, but it also required something else: artistic imagination, the ability to recreate bodies and bring them to life.

Where no woman had gone 

Morandi had a special interest in the mechanisms of sensory experience: She sought to understand and capture how the eyes, ears and nose each experienced its particular sense. In her series on the eye, she deconstructs the visual organ completely and then systematically reimagines it in wax in five separate panels. Starting from the surface, she shows an isolated eye of a nameless face looking in six different directions, and each panel gradually reveals a new component layer behind the skin. 

This meticulous method of deconstructing and reconstructing sensory experience led her to discover that the oblique eye muscle attaches to the lachrymal sac as well as the maxillary bone, which ran against what other anatomical experts said at the time. Her observations were correct, a triumph that spoke to her meticulous methodology. “This was discovered by me in my observations and I have found it always to be constant,” she wrote in her notebook. 

Morandi’s other special interest was the male reproductive system, to which she devotes a full 45 pages in her notebook. This was unusual because, at the time, most anatomists were more interested in the female anatomy. In Secrets of Women: Gender Generation, and the Origins of Human Dissection, writer Katherine Park shows that the womb was of particular fascination to anatomists as it became a “privileged object of dissection in medical images and texts … the uterus acquired a special, symbolic weight as the organ that only dissection could truly reveal.” 

But while most anatomists, predominantly men, extensively studied the female reproductive system as a mysterious cauldron of life, Morandi turned her gaze to the male role in reproduction. Though her wax models of the male reproductive system have been lost, historian and Morandi biographer Rebecca Messbarger says that Morandi’s notebook shows the depth and detail of her study—even down to the microscopic substances of the reproductive system. 

Unsurprisingly, some objected to a woman gazing so unabashedly at the mysteries of life that had previously been reserved for men. Messbarger specifically calls out anatomist Petronio Ignazio Zecchini, who believed Morandi and other women intellectuals to an interloper in his profession and who sought to undermine their authority through gendered attacks. In his book Genial Days: On the Dialectic of Women Reduced to Its True Principle, he claims that women are ruled by their uterus, not their brains and intellect like men, and tells women to “[w]illingly subject yourselves to men, who, by their counsel, can curb your instability and concupiscence.”

Despite the international recognition and the notoriety in Bologna, Morandi was not exempt from the gender realities of the time. Like other women scientists in her era, she made significantly less money than male scientists for the same work. She struggled financially, even to the point of giving up her eldest son to an orphanage. Although she continued to sell her wax models and received a small stipend from the city Senate, she was unable to sustain financial independence. 

Written out of history

Despite Morandi’s publicity and celebrity, she has been lost to history. Messbarger has a theory as to why. 

Contemporary writer Francesco Maria Zanotti described Morandi in gendered terms to underscore her femininity: “A very beautiful and very ingenious woman deals in a novel manner with cadavers and already decaying limbs … this woman embellished the house of the human body … And most eloquently does she explain them to those who flock to her…” Other contemporary writers like Luigi Crespi explain Morandi’s scientific skills, however, as result of devotion to her husband, describing her as "his wise and pious wife."

Messbarger says that these contemporary descriptions of Morandi as first a woman assistant and devoted wife “have influenced her place in history to her detriment. She was essentially erased from history,” Messbarger says, “Morandi had an international reputation. But even later biographical sketches represent [Manzolini] as the brains, and she was the gifted hand. In her lifetime, that wasn’t true.”

In her book on Morandi, The Lady Anatomist, Messbarger looks to Morandi’s Anatomical Notebook and letters where she finds that Morandi was not merely the assistant or eloquent teacher of Manzolini’s genius; she believes that they were genuine partners. The work that Morandi continued to produce after Manzolini’s death in 1755 shows that Morandi’s scientific knowledge and artistic skill with wax even surpassed that of her late husband and partner.

Morandi’s response to such attacks on her is best encompassed in her own wax self-portrait. Messbarger identifies three 18th century trends in anatomized images of women: a seductive, intimate Venus, a shamed downward-looking Eve or a dead female cadaver. In her self-portrait, Morandi sees herself as none of these. Instead she looks straight and steady, wearing feminine aristocratic dress, as she wields a scalpel over a human brain: the manifestation of male intellect.

Alongside her self-portrait, Morandi memorialized her late husband in wax, who she cast in a more feminine posture, looking down to the side, with his hand on a human heart—the symbol of female emotion. Messbarger says that Morandi’s subversion of gender norms in her and her husband’s wax portraits was consciously executed.

“That a woman would be dissecting a human brain in her self-portrait, there is no way that would not be a provocation,” she says. “And then to show her husband dissecting the seat of sentiment.” Morandi was pushing back against the gender biases that associated women with sentiment and men with intelligence—showing once and for all that she was both the brains and the skilled hand in this unusual wife-husband endeavor. 

How One Bad Science Headline Can Echo Across the Internet

Smithsonian Magazine

The headline sounded like something out of a Margaret Atwood dystopian novel: “Fish becoming transgender from contraceptive pill chemicals being flushed down household drains.” Actually, it was a news article that appeared in The Telegraph, a well-known British newspaper, earlier this month. Its alarmist sentiment quickly spread.

Outlets ranging from the International Business Times to National Geographic Australia to The New York Post picked up on the story and ran with it, also declaring that the estrogen in birth control was resulting in “transgender” fish. These news stories all cited a University of Exeter environmental biology professor named Charles Tyler as the source of this information. Yet the way the sites presented the information was extremely misleading—and not just because Tyler never said these fish were “transgender.”

Yes, endocrine-disrupting chemicals like those found in birth control can cause male fish to produce female proteins and develop eggs in their testes. In 2009, Tyler and co-authors reported that exposing wild roach fish (Rutilus rutilus) to a synthetic estrogen can result in intersex fish. And yes, this is worrisome. These genetic changes have the potential to disrupt fish reproduction, which could in turn can have negative effects on the aquatic ecosystem. 

But two things about all those headlines were very wrong. First, terminology. “Intersex,” the term Tyler and other reproductive scientists use, refers to having a mix of biological sex characteristics, and can apply to humans and other animals. “Transgender,” by contrast, is really only a word that applies to humans and our specific social constructions of gender.

Second, and more importantly: Ladies, your birth control isn’t necessarily what’s driving the problem.

Tyler’s experiments looked at one type of synthetic estrogen: ethinyl estradiol, or EE2, which is found in oral contraceptives like TriNessa and Seasonique. These kinds of one-chemical experiments “are important to make sure you're studying the chemical of interest,” writes Amber Wise, a co-author of a 2011 Environmental Science & Technology paper about this topic, in an email. “But it obviously leaves out consideration of other chemicals.”

“Very few compounds have been studied as closely as EE2,” she points out. In other words, we know that EE2 can cause reproductive imbalances, but we don’t know the effects of other similar chemicals, many of which occur in the environment at exponentially higher levels. “It's common knowledge in the environmental health community that there are tens of thousands of chemicals in consumer products and industrial use that have zero [or essentially no] toxicological data available,” she writes.

So theoretically, any of those chemicals could be having a far greater impact than EE2.

Wise’s paper found that birth control’s contribution to the different types of chemicals that have estrogenic and antiandrogenic—aka testosterone-blocking—effects in our environment is minimal compared to that of other agricultural, industrial and municipal sources. In an email, Tyler agreed that “No one can say that any one chemical or source is exclusively responsible for intersex induction in wild fish.”

Removing the Pill “from the market will have a negligible effect on the environment, aquatic life and human health,” Wise and her co-authors concluded in 2011. However, it “would be detrimental to women’s health and their ability to decide the timing and spacing of their children and would have societal and global implications.”

Screenshot of The Telegraph's original article on Charles Tyler's research.

This is by no means the first time that news sites or non-scientific organizations have accused birth control of being a harmful pollutant without strong scientific evidence. In 2009, the Vatican’s official daily newspaper L’Osservatore Romano claimed that the Pill harms the environment, according to Reuters. The Vatican article claimed its information was based on a paper written by a Swiss doctor, but provides no quotes nor information about where the paper can be accessed. 

Not long after, the American Life League, an anti-abortion and anti-euthanasia advocacy group, started promoting the idea that chemicals in the Pill harm fish and the environment using the slogan "The Pill Kills." The League cited, among other things, a Scientific American article about one study in which scientists were “unclear exactly what estrogen-mimicking chemicals were actually present in the fish.”

“This sort of thing has come out from very conservative sources over many years, and it is not supported by science,” says Rivka Gordon, a physician assistant who serves as the policy chair of the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals (ARHP). In 2011, Gordon co-authored an editorial in ARHP’s journal, Contraception, about birth control hormones in water. It argued that, “contrary to what has been stated or implied by media reports and anti-contraception advocates, synthetic estrogen from birth control pills is not the sole or primary source of endocrine-disrupting chemicals in water [emphasis theirs].” 

The editorial drew heavily from paper Wise co-authored with researchers at the Reproductive Health and the Environment program at the University of California at San Francisco. That study, conducted in response to claims by the Vatican and others that birth control was a pollutant, concluded that “the contribution of [oral contraceptives] to overall estrogenicity in water is relatively small compared to other natural and synthetic estrogens.”

To be fair, the recent articles blaming birth control for water pollution do acknowledge that other factors contribute to the amount of estrogens or estrogen-like compounds in water. Even the conservative-leaning The Blaze, which also ran a story that placed most of the burden on birth control, stated at the bottom of the article that many chemicals in the water can have estrogenic effects on fish.

Still, Kimberly Inez McGuire, a reproductive justice advocate and communications strategist who co-authored Contraception’s 2011 editorial with Gordon, calls these kinds of stories “irresponsible.” Headlines like The Telegraph’s, she says, are a good example of how news reports on scientific research can be misleading, even when it reports factual information. By omitting other factors, such articles can be used as ammunition in a fraught political landscape, as feminist news site Jezebel recently pointed out in a satirical article titled: “Stupid Ideas: Your Whore Pills Are Polluting Our Pristine Waters and You Should Pay for It.”

“We’re polluting our environment with tons and tons of chemicals every day,” says Wise, a who has a Ph.D. in chemistry and is currently the scientific director at Avitas Agriculture, a cannabis producer and processor and in Washington State. As an example, Wise points out that “we treat our livestock with huge amounts of synthetic hormones to to regulate their reproductive hormones.” Unfortunately, because that information is proprietary, it’s almost impossible to know what’s in these hormones and at what dosage they’re administered.

All people, including men, already naturally excrete different types of estrogens in urine and feces. For pre-menopausal women it’s 16.3 micrograms per day, and for pregnant women it’s 6,859 micrograms, according to Wise’s paper. The Pill can roughly double the level of estrogens a non-pregnant woman excretes per day. But compare that to fertile adult cows, who excrete 299 micrograms per day when they’re not pregnant and 576 to 111,620 when they are.

This data suggests that overall, cows are bigger producers of natural estrogens than humans. In addition, a 1995 study found that in the U.S., “the use of veterinary estrogens was more than five times the use of” human oral contraceptives per year, according to Wise’s paper. Add onto that the fact that human waste flushed down the toilet get treated in wastewater facilities, removing some of these estrogenic compounds, while livestock waste enters the environment untreated.

Still, Wise advises that livestock isn’t the only problem.

“There’re lots and lots of other chemicals, plant estrogens, industrial chemicals, pesticides—all kinds of things that have estrogenic effects and antiandrogenic effects, which are both reproductive modifiers,” she says. Even non-estrogens like BPAs, “found in hard plastics, the lining of tin and beverage cans, and paper receipts,” and brominated flame retardants, “found in all kinds of foam furniture and cushions, plastics, and other consumer materials,” can have detrimental reproductive effects on fish and other animals.

These kinds of headlines also add to the bevy of contradicting information facing women. Misinformation about birth control’s medical side effects is common, and McGuire says that stories erroneously labeling birth control as a major pollutant make it even more difficult for women to get all the facts and make an informed decision about whether to use birth control. These kinds of arguments, she adds, unfairly place the burden on women’s actions, rather than looking at all the factors involved and the different systemic solutions, such as better wastewater treatment, that could address the problem. 

“Oftentimes, an inflammatory headline can not only spread misinformation but it can distract us from the bigger issue,” McGuire says. “Even if we all agree that there is a problem of estrogenic compounds either potentially or actually being in our water, the solution to that should not be putting the responsibility and the onus of this societal problem onto a woman and her personal decisions.”

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