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For five decades, Art Wolfe has traveled the globe, camera in hand, documenting everything from bull elephants in Botswana to blue icebergs in Antarctica. In Earth Is My Witness: The Photography of Art Wolfe, his life's work is laid out across more than 400 glossy pages, offering readers a chance to immerse themselves in the threatened places, animals and cultures that he has dedicated his career to capturing. The book is both a testament to a prodigious career and a celebration of a man who has devoted his life to conservation photography.
Wolfe is no stranger to publishing: Since 1989, he has released at least one book a year, but he looks at Earth Is My Witness through a different lens. "I've done 80 books," Wolfe told Smithsonian.com, "and if anyone has entertained the idea of owning one of my books, I think this is the book that covers all the bases. I'm very proud of it." Wolfe travels nearly nine months out of the year, but recently spoke with us from his Seattle office about his lengthy career, avoiding "writer's block" and the places he most wants to see to next.
Smithsonian: How did you come to photography?
Wolfe: I was an art major at the University of Washington, but also during those college years I got into climbing. I was always a young naturalist—I always loved the natural world, and as I got older, I got more and more into hiking up into mountains and onto glaciers. During the week I’d go to school and learn about composition, and on the weekends, I got a little camera to document the climbs. My allegiances shifted during those college years. I absorbed everything I was learning in art school and applied it to my photos. By the time that I graduated, I saw myself as a photographer rather than a painter.
What did photography offer that was different from fine art?
It was much easier to create original compositions through the photographic process than to try to sit and stare at a blank piece of canvas or watercolor paper and create a meaningful composition. And I started seeing, fairly fast, that the camera could be a ticket to travel. I've always wanted to see what was beyond the ocean. Living on the West Coast you look out across the ocean toward Asia, and the camera became a passport into the unknown: to cultures, to countries that I wanted to see.
The book is a massive 400-page collection of photographs from your entire career thus far. How has your approach to photography and to capturing what you see changed or evolved? Can we see that in the book?
I think the greatest thing that art gave me was the insatiable curiosity to look at what I was doing but not to be completely satisfied and lulled into a sense of complacency. With people, there are classic portraits, there are candid moments, but there's also a subset of photos where I've completely created an abstract composition, where I've arranged up to 60 monks in a rosette below me in a monastery on the outskirts of Katmandu. A lot of people would condemn that and say that I'm altering reality, but wearing the hat of an artist ... I've given myself permission to do that.
The thing I was trying to avoid was something analogous to writer's block, where you run out of ideas. Fine art training and studying art taught me and encouraged me to evolve my work and never to get in a rut and shoot the same thing forty years later, and that has kept me excited and moving forward in a positive direction.
What do you find that inspires you most?
Capturing an image that may be a very private moment between you and a subject, but if it's successful, it can be seen and witnessed by millions of people around the globe. I think that's the undercurrent of almost everything I've done over the last 40 years. It's why sculptors sculpt and writers write and painters paint ... communicating a thought and idea that, if successful, reaches a broad audience. I wear the hat of a communicator. I photograph for my own enjoyment, but that in and of itself wouldn't do it. It's communicating, inspiring and encouraging people through the photographic medium that really puts the fire in my belly.
There's this idea, among people who study memory, that in order to feel as though you've lived a long life, it's not necessarily about living a lot of years but doing a lot of things, and having a lot of memories to fill those years. I look at your book, and I see all of the places you've been and all the memories you must have—is there one, or a few, in particular, that stands out to you?
I totally agree with that. My father passed away when he was 94 a couple of years ago. I would come home from yet another trip and he was living in an assisted care facility very close to where I lived, and I would naturally stop by before I even went home. And he was looking at me under the covers kind of worried, and I said "Are you worrying about me?" And he would nod, and I would say, "Listen, I’ve lived the life of 500 people. I've seen all of the charismatic animals I've ever wanted to see, from snow leopards to giant pandas to mountain gorillas to great white sharks. I've been all over the Earth, I've lived the life of 500 people; do not worry about me. Take care of yourself."
When I first looked at that book as a published book, with all the photos in it, it was humbling. I felt humbled by having been to the Karakoram Range and looking at K2, or being involved in the first Western expedition to Tibet, or being in the heart of the Amazon and witnessing tribes that hadn’t been exposed to the outside world. All of those—almost any one of those photos that I focus on in that book will have an etched memory in my brain. I cannot remember the names of people I taught two days ago, but show me an image and I can tell you a story about it with clarity.
Having done so much—having lived those 500 lives—what's next? Are there places you haven't been that you want to go?
I've got like five or six books in my mind, many of which I've been working on. The fear is running out of ideas, writer's block. Creative energy courses through my body. I'll always be working on something, I'll never be retired.
There are a lot of places I've never been: Egypt, Spain, places that people would maybe think would be the first places I would go. I'm holding those off until I get a little older. I want to go through the Middle East.
Archaeologists have found a pouch in a burial site at the Cueva del Chilano rock shelter in Bolivia that contains traces of five psychoactive substances.
The 1,000-year-old pouch was originally unearthed in 2008 and found to be stitched together from the snouts of three foxes. It was made by the pre-Hispanic Tiwanuku culture and has been almost perfectly preserved thanks to the site’s dry mountain conditions. The contents of the pouch include ancient drug paraphernalia, bone spatulas for crushing seeds, a gem-inlaid crushing pad and a decorated bone snuffer.
When researchers looked at the debris inside the bag using modern drug detecting techniques, they found traces of five chemicals including cocaine, benzoylecgonine, bufotenine as well as harmine, and dimethyltryptamine, psychoactive botanical substances found today in the trendy South American hallucinogenic drink ayahuasca.
The find suggests that the same key ingredients in ayahuasca today were in use centuries ago, though they may have been snorted instead of brewed into a beverage. “Our findings support the idea that people have been using these powerful plants for at least 1,000 years, combining them to go on a psychedelic journey, and that ayahuasca use may have roots in antiquity,” Melanie Miller of UC Berkeley and the University of Otago in New Zealand, lead author of the study in the journal PNAS, says in a press release.
While the site where it was found appeared to be a grave, researchers did not uncover any human remains, though they suspect it may have been previously looted. Miller says it’s likely the owner of the bag was a shaman or someone else skilled in preparing and using the hallucinogens, since administering them improperly could have fatal consequences.
Most of the plants that contain the substances found in the bag come from areas much lower and distant from the ecosystem where they were uncovered. “Whoever had this bag of amazing goodies … would have had to travel great distances to acquire those plants,” Miller tells Michael Price at Science. “[Either that], or they had really extensive exchange networks.”
Kristina Killgrove at Forbes reports that while coca leaves are routinely found in archaeological sites in the area, this exact combination of drugs hasn’t been seen before. “This direct archaeological evidence of the plant recipes and associated paraphernalia—not just trace evidence of consumption from human hair—is unique,” says archaeologist Di Hu of the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, not involved in the study.
The find adds a little more data to what researchers know about modern ayahuasca. While traditional shamans in the Amazon, where the beverage originates, say it is an ancient substance, until now there was not much archaeological evidence of its history. “People have been arguing that [ayahuasca] was mostly a recent thing,” archaeologist Scott Fitzpatrick of the University of Oregon, not involved in the study, tells Erin Blakemore at National Geographic. “The ayahuasca ritual has a deep time perspective now.”
The Tiwanuku and later South American cultures are not the only ones to dabble in psychedelic drugs. Cultures including the ancient Greeks, ancient Hindus and early Native Americans in North America all had rituals associated with hallucinatory substances.
The natural world is filled with visual variety, and the reasons for an animal's appearance can differ even with a single genus. Leaf beetles of the genus Chrysochus, for instance, can be found across a broad geographic range, and they come in a shimmering rainbow of hues.
Found from Laos in the north to Australia in the south, a few Chrysochus species "are virtually the same beetle, and it is the locality largely that determines their color," says Oregon-based artist Chistopher Marley. Temperature, humidity, diet and adaptation to predators are all factors that can affect the shade of some beetles' exoskeletons. As larvae pupate, for instance, the chemical processes that control pigments happen at a faster or slower rate depending on temperature, resulting in different colors.
For Marley, this visual complexity can sometimes feel overwhelming. Messy even, he says. That's why he is driven to organize beetles, butterflies, sea urchins and other creatures into beautiful mosaics. He collects the materials for his art from far-flung places around the world or reclaims specimens from scientists and institutions. His latest book, Biophilia, published by Abrams, features exquisite photographs of more than 200 of his three-dimensional artworks.
Marley started with beetles. He gathered specimens of similarly sized species and tucked their legs underneath them, so that they were basically all the same shape, with oval, almost cigar-like bodies. This way he could focus on the brilliant spectrum of colors and textures in the insect group, arranging them like jewels in a pendant.
While his work is motivated by aesthetics, many of the artist's mosaics tell scientific stories, particularly those that include organisms that are genetically related but live in different parts of the world. The leaf beetles feature in a piece he calls Chrysomelid Arrayal No. 3 (above), which he painstakingly arranged according to color to highlight their striking visual relationships.
"My philosophy is to try and isolate one or two variables in a mosaic, so that the general populace is able to comprehend this amazing variety without it being a mess," says Marley. "As much as I can isolate the variables, it makes it more approachable and comprehensible, and a cleaner presentation."
To awaken your travel bug, here are 10 incredible trips that are sure to expand your horizons in 2015. Smithsonian Journeys brings the same sense of wonder to their enrichment travel programs that the Smithsonian Institution has been bringing to their museum visitors for more than 160 years. Smithsonian Journeys tours feature world-class subject matter experts, behind-the-scenes insights into the world's most treasured locations, off-the-beaten-path excursions and authentic experiences with local communities. We offer more than 150 itineraries to all seven continents, ranging from unique cruises to small group specialty tours. Explore the fortresses of Sri Lanka, stroll the pristine beaches of Costa Rica, cruise through the Amazon, or feel an adrenaline high in Australia and New Zealand. Make 2015 a year of travel!
In the attempt to hit a home run, there are many, many foul balls. Just consider the inventions that came out of Victorian England. For every telephone and sewing machine, there was a “ventilating top hat,” “reversible trowsers” and a “corset with expansible busts.”
Julie Halls, a records specialist at the National Archives in London, is quite familiar with the harebrained schemes of 19th century British inventors. Many tinkerers hoping to make a buck off of gizmos meant to ease all sorts of tasks—from picking fruit to pulling off boots—filed detailed sketches to the United Kingdom's Designs Registry, an arm of the Board of Trade. For 10 pounds, the designer could obtain a copyright that lasted three years—a process that proved more surmountable than securing a patent. The Registry kept copies of the designs in leather-bound books, now part of the National Archives' collection.
Nosing through these tomes, Halls found the inventions, most never seen by the public, to be an interesting window into the era. She features more than 200 of the beautifully drawn products in her new book, Inventions That Didn't Change the World. Patent and registration agents, many engineers by training, often produced the drawings to the inventors' specifications or hired draftsmen to do so, according to Halls.
"Some seemingly inexplicable inventions make sense within their historical context," she writes. "One example is the 'Design for a Flying or Aerial Machine for the Artic Regions', which was registered at a time when exploration of the Arctic, and in particular attempts to find a trade route through the Northwest Passage, was the subject of sensational news stories. There are several designs registered around the time of the gold rushes, and the 'Anti-Garotting Cravat' coincided with a national scare about incidents of robbery."
While no single gadget in the book changed life as we know it, collectively they shaped an outlook on innovation that exists even today.
"The 19th century really invented invention itself, not just the production of occasional new devices but the unremitting, self-reinforcing stream of novelties that generated our present expectation of innovation as the normal state of affairs," writes Peter Pesic in the Wall Street Journal.
Despite their size and stubbly snout, manatees seem cute and cuddly to many ocean visitors. These large, slow-moving marine mammals hang out in coastal areas and rivers where Florida spring-breakers can easily see them and think that it is a good idea to hop on for a ride. Not only is this and other forms of harassment such as hugging the sea creatures illegal (the West Indian manatee is listed as endangered in the United States), but it can also impact manatees’ natural behavior, changing the way they interact with humans.
All three species of manatee—the Amazonian manatee, West Indian manatee, and West African manatee—and the related dugong are considered vulnerable (defined as facing a high risk of extinction in the wild) by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. This is due to a variety of threats including boat collisions, hunting, habitat destruction, and toxic red tides.
It's unclear if the manatees’ sweet looks can save them. In their favor is the fact that we’re no longer deliberately chasing them down, unlike how humans hunted to extinction their long-lost relative, the Steller’s sea cow, in the 18th century. But even slight disturbances to their lifestyles can do irreparable harm.
If you see a manatee this spring break, look but don’t touch.
1. Manatees are typically found in shallow coastal areas and rivers where they feed on sea grass, mangrove leaves, and algae. These herbivores munch on food for almost half the day, eating ten percent of their body weight in plant mass every day. With weights of up to 1,200 pounds, that is a whole lot of greenery!
2. West Indian (Trichechus manatus) and West African (T. senegalensis) manatees spend their lives on the cusp between salty and fresh water. They are able to maintain the correct balance in their bodies through an internal regulation system that works with the kidney to make sure salt concentrations never get too high. It is believed that West Indian manatees require some access to freshwater (PDF) in order to stay hydrated, but they are able to easily move between the two ecosystems.A West Indian manatee, always curious, investigates a kayak in Florida. (Mwanner via Wikimedia Commons)
3. Warm water is a must for the West Indian and West African manatee species. With low metabolic rates and minimal fat protection from cold water, they stick to water that is 60 degrees or warmer. They may look fat and insulated, but the large body of the manatee is mostly made up of their stomach and intestines! In colder months, they find their way to warm river tributaries or warm water outputs from power plants. In 2010 at least 246 manatees died in Florida due to cold stress from the colder-than-normal winter.
4. Manatees go to the surface of the water every three to five minutes to breathe although they can remain underwater longer, holding their breath for up to 20 minutes. When they do take a breath, 90 percent of the air in their lungs is replaced (whereas humans tend to replace about 10 percent).
5. The Amazonian manatee (Trichechus inunguis) lives entirely in freshwater rivers throughout South America in the Amazon Basin. It is hard to estimate their numbers due to their secretive nature and the murky water where they often live. A fourth dwarf manatee species was described in the mid-2000s, but this claim was called into question and it is believed to actually be a juvenile Amazonian manatee. The main threat to this species is illegal harpoon hunting for subsistence.
6. Dugongs (Dugong dugon), in the same order (Sirenia) as manatees, spend all of their time in coastal ocean waters of the Indian Ocean and western Pacific and they don’t ever venture into freshwater. Although they look similar to manatees, dugongs have a more whale-like fluke compared to the round, paddle-like tail that you see on manatees.The dugong, in the same order as manatees, has a distinctive snout and a fluked tail. (Julien Willem via Wikimedia Commons)
7. The closest living relatives of sirenians are elephants. Manatees evolved from the same land animals as elephants over 50 million years ago and the fossil record shows a much more diverse group of sirenians than we have today, with dugongs and manatees living together throughout their range.
8. Humans have one round of baby teeth and then if we lose or hurt an adult tooth, a trip to the dentist is in order. Manatees, like their elephant relatives, continuously replace their teeth throughout their lives with the older teeth at the front falling out and new teeth growing in at the back of their mouth.
9. Researchers believe that the now-extinct Steller’s sea cow (the largest member of the order Sirenia) was at one point found throughout the Pacific, in waters off Japan and the U.S. west coast. In 1741, Georg Wilhelm Steller first described the sea cow from islands off the coast of Russia (in what would later be called the Bering Sea) as subsisting off of kelp and not being able to submerge underwater. Within 27 years of first being described, the species was driven to extinction by hunting and competition for their kelp food source with an exploding urchin population.An 1846 illustration of the extinct Steller’s sea cow, which was much larger than manatees or dugongs. (J.F. Brandt via Wikimedia Commons)
10. Christopher Columbus and other early explorers claimed to have seen female figures swimming in the ocean—the mermaids in the writings and drawings of this era. Whether they had been at sea for too long or it was a trick of the light, we now know that many of these encounters were with manatees.
11. Manatee brains are smooth (compared to our own that have the familiar ins and outs of cortical folds) and the ratio of their brain to their body size is the lowest of any mammal. They may not be as clever as dolphins, but manatees can learn basic tasks, are extremely sensitive to touch and can differentiate colors.
12. Female manatees usually have one calf every two to five years and the calf then stays and nurses for two years. Calves nurse from their mother’s teats, which are found right where the forward limbs meet the body. The calves also can start nibbling on plants at only a few weeks old.
13. If you are a mammal—whether that’s a human, giraffe, whale or rat—then you typically have seven neck vertebrae. Only tree sloths and manatees have an irregular number of vertebrae—just six for the manatee. Scientists think this may have to do with their slow metabolism.
14. Manatees have no natural predators in the wild but humans have played a large part in making all three species at risk of extinction. About half of West Indian manatee deaths are caused by humans, and most are due to boat collisions. Manatees are quite buoyant and use their horizontally placed diaphragm and breathing to control their buoyancy. This and their average speed of 3 to 5 miles per hour means that manatees are way too slow to escape from the path of a speeding boat.
Learn more about the ocean from Smithsonian’s Ocean Portal.
After dogs, cats and fish, birds are America’s fourth favorite pet. An estimated 14 million birds live in captivity across the United States, a great many of them parrots. And no wonder: With their captivating colors, acrobatic antics and often silly personalities, these avian characters are hard to resist.
Pet parrots can be incredible if demanding friends, but for people more accustomed to fluffy mammalian companions, they can present some unexpected challenges. The long-lived, intelligent and highly social birds need especially high amounts of attention and enrichment, or else they can pick up bad habits and find themselves bored and stressed to the point where they pluck out their own feathers.
While some pet parrots come from breeders, trade in exotic parrots is big business around the globe, and it contributes significantly to their decline in the wild. Thankfully trafficking in wild birds has been less of a problem in the U.S. since the passage of the 1992 Wild Bird Conservation Act and CITES restrictions on importing exotic species.
Now, in honor of the 14th annual National Bird Day, get a little bird-brained with these 14 facts about parrots:
1. Some Parrots Grind Their Own Calcium Supplements
As a famous research subject, the African grey parrot Alex was said to have the intelligence of a human 5-year-old. Now the psittacine tribe can claim another brainy feat: tool use. Researchers at the University of York and the University of St. Andrews observed captive greater vasa parrots (Coracopsis vasa) using date pits and pebbles to pulverize cockle shells. Male vasas ate the powder and then offered a regurgitated calcium-rich snack to females before mating. Be thankful you get chocolates.
2. Parrot Toes Are Zygodactyl
Like most other birds, parrots have four toes per foot. But instead of the usual three-in-front-one-behind arrangement, parrot toes are configured for maximum grip: two in front and two behind, like two pairs of opposable thumbs. Combined with beaks that can crack even the world’s toughest nuts, their unique feet make them formidable eaters, not to mention dexterous climbers.
3. Polly Wants Mutton, Too
Many parrots are omnivores and will eat pretty much anything—fruit, seeds, nuts, insects and even meat. Some species, like the rainbow-colored lories and lorikeets of the South Pacific, feed almost exclusively on nectar with brush-tipped tongues, though recently even these birds were seen eating meat at feeding stations in Australia. In New Zealand, native kea (Nestor species) were first observed attacking and killing sheep in 1868 and were persecuted as sheep-killers until 1986, when they were granted protected status.
4. Not All Parrots Are Tropical
Of the roughly 350 known species of parrots, most live in the tropical and subtropical regions of Australia, Asia, Central and South America and Africa. But some parrots break that geographic mold. Keas live in alpine regions of New Zealand and nest in ground burrows, while the endangered maroon-fronted parrot (Rhynchopsitta terrisi) dwells at 6,000 feet in the Sierra Madre Oriental Mountains of Mexico.A popular pet, the African grey parrot is at risk in the wild. (Dodge65/iStock)
5. A Third of the World's Parrots Face Extinction
Due to a combination of habitat destruction and persistent poaching for the pet trade, more species regularly land on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. A November study, for instance, found that logging has decimated 99 percent of the African grey (Psittacus erithacus) population in Ghana, threatening wild numbers of one of the most iconic parrot species.
6. Parrots Usually Match Their Mates
With a couple of notable exceptions, males and females of most parrot species look virtually identical. It takes a keen eye—and usually a lab test—to tell a boy bird from a girl bird. But some species, like the Solomon Island eclectus (Eclectus roratus), are so different that for many years people thought they were distinct species of birds. Males are bright emerald green with flame-colored beaks, while females top off their crimson and royal blue ensembles with black beaks and a bright scarlet head.
7. Parrots Taste With the Tops of Their Beaks
Though parrots do have some taste glands at the backs of their throats, most of their 300 or so taste buds are located on the roofs of their mouths. Compared with the 10,000 taste buds in a human mouth, the birds' palate may not seem like much, but parrots do show definite preferences for certain foods.
8. The Heftiest Parrot Weighs as Much as a Cat
Parrots cover an incredible range of shapes and sizes. The tiny buff-faced pygmy (Micropsitta pusio) weighs a mere ounce and is about the size of an adult human’s finger. The world’s longest parrot is the brilliant hyacinth macaw (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus), checking in at nearly 3.5 feet from tip to tail. But New Zealand’s flightless, nocturnal kakapo (Strigops habroptilus) wins for weight: A fully grown male can register as much as nine pounds—the average weight of an adult housecat.
9. Your Pet Parrot May Outlive You
Many parrots have near-human lifespans, a consideration many people don’t truly grasp when seeking a parrot as a companion. Larger species like macaws and cockatoos are known to live for between 35 and 50 years. Tarbu, an African grey in England, lived to the ripe old age of 55. The current oldest parrot is 82-year-old Cookie, a Major Mitchell’s cockatoo (Lophochroa leadbeateri) that resides at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago.Feathers from the scarlet macaw must be full of psittacofulvins. (Roberto A Sanchez/iStock)
10. Parrot Feathers Contain Antibacterial Pigments
A parrot’s brilliant plumage has a special defense against damage: Psittacofulvins, a bacteria-resistant pigment that only parrots are known to produce, give the birds' feathers their red, yellow and green coloration. In a 2011 study in Biology Letters, researchers exposed different colors of feathers to a feather-damaging bacteria strain and found that the pigments helped protect the glorious plumage from degradation.
11. Some Parrots Migrate
Though most species occupy a home range throughout the year, the swift parrot (Lathamus discolor) and the orange-bellied parrot (Neophema chrysogaster) are known to migrate each year across the Bass Strait between Australia and Tasmania. Both species are critically endangered.
12. The World Record Holder Knew More Than 1,700 Words
Though parrots are generally famous for being chatty, Puck, a cheery blue parakeet, landed in the 1995 Guinness Book of World Records for his vocabulary skills, with a recognized set of 1,728 words. In addition to speaking, Amazon parrots are renowned singers, including Groucho, who entertained TV audiences with a rendition of “How Much is that Doggie in the Window” in 2010.
13. The Black Palm Is the Panda of Parrots
Native to rainforests in the South Pacific, the black palm cockatoo is one of the most difficult birds to breed and raise in captivity. Chicks often die around one year of age—even wild pairs have difficulty successfully rearing chicks. The causes for their reproductive troubles are still unknown but may be related to their photosensitive skin, which reacts to natural sunlight.
14. A Parrot-Proof Tracker Is on the Horizon
Little is known about wild parrot behavior, in part because the canopy-dwelling birds are hard to see and follow. Also, GPS-tracking studies of parrots are extremely uncommon, since the birds are adept at removing foreign objects from their bodies. But a 2015 study published in The Auk might help scientists better track these elusive animals. By encasing GPS trackers in bite-proof plastic, the researchers were able to track a group of keas in New Zealand without any obvious ill effects on the birds.
Biting has played an unusually dominant role in this year’s World Cup conversations. But Luis Suarez is hardly the most feared biter in South America. The continent is home to the ultimate biters: piranhas.
Piranhas have never had the most darling of reputations. Just look at the 1978 cult film Piranha, in which a pack of piranhas escape a military experiment gone wrong and feast on unsuspecting lake-swimmers. Or the 2010 remake, where prehistoric piranhas devour humans in 3D detail.
Then or now, Hollywood certainly hasn’t done the piranha any favors. But are these freshwater fish the vicious river monsters they’re made out to be? Not exactly.
Piranhas do indeed have sharp teeth, and many are carnivorous. But there’s a lot of diet variation among species—that’s one reason piranhas have proved hard to taxonomically classify. Piranhas are also hard to tell apart in terms of species, diet, coloration, teeth, and even geographic range. This lack of knowledge adds a bit of dark mystery to the creatures.
Sure, they're not cute and cuddly. But they may be misunderstood, and scientists are rewriting the piranha’s fearsome stereotype. Here are 14 fun facts about the freshwater fish:
1. Piranhas’ bad reputation is at least partially Teddy Roosevelt’s fault
When Theodore Roosevelt journeyed to South America in 1913, he encountered, among other exotic creatures, several different species of piranha. Here’s what he had to say about them in his bestseller, Through the Brazilian Wilderness:
“They are the most ferocious fish in the world. Even the most formidable fish, the sharks or the barracudas, usually attack things smaller than themselves. But the piranhas habitually attack things much larger than themselves. They will snap a finger off a hand incautiously trailed in the water; they mutilate swimmers—in every river town in Paraguay there are men who have been thus mutilated; they will rend and devour alive any wounded man or beast; for blood in the water excites them to madness. They will tear wounded wild fowl to pieces; and bite off the tails of big fish as they grow exhausted when fighting after being hooked.”
Roosevelt went on to recount a tale of a pack of piranhas devouring an entire cow. According to Mental Floss, locals put on a bit of a show for Roosevelt, extending a net across the river to catch piranhas before he arrived. After storing the fish in a tank without food, they tossed a dead cow into the river and released the fish, which naturally devoured the carcass.
A fish that can eat a cow makes for a great story. Given that Roosevelt was widely read, it’s easy to see how the piranha’s supervillain image spread.Scientists and explorers had knowledge of piranhas dating back to the 16th century, but Roosevelt’s tale is largely credited with dispersing the myth. Dated 1856, this sketch by French explorer Francis de Castelnau depicts a red-bellied piranha. (Wikimedia Commons/Francis de Castelnau)
2. Piranhas have lived in South America for millions of years
Today, piranhas inhabit the freshwaters of South America from the Orinoco River Basin in Venezuela up to the Paraná River in Argentina. Though estimates vary, around 30 species inhabit the lakes and rivers of South America today. Fossil evidence puts piranha ancestors in the continent’s rivers 25 million years ago, but modern piranha genera may have only been around for 1.8 million years.
A 2007 study suggests that modern species diverged from a common ancestor around 9 million years ago. Also, the Atlantic Ocean rose around 5 million years ago, expanding into the flood plains of the Amazon and other South American rivers. The high salt environment would have been inhospitable to freshwater fish, like piranhas, but some likely escaped upriver to higher altitudes. Genetic analysis suggests that piranhas living above 100 meters in the Amazon have only been around for 3 million years.
3. Piranhas found outside South America are usually pets on the lam
Piranhas attract a certain type of pet lover, and sometimes when the fish gets too large for its aquarium said pet lover decides its much better off in the local lake. In this manner, piranhas have shown up in waterways around the globe from Great Britain to China to Texas. It’s legal to own a piranha in some areas, but obviously never a good idea to release them into the wild, as the species could become invasive.
4. Piranha teeth are pretty intense but replaceable
Piranhas are known for their razor-sharp teeth and relentless bite. (The word piranha literally translates to “tooth fish” in the Brazilian language Tupí.) Adults have a single row of interlocking teeth lining the jaw. True piranhas have tricuspid teeth, with a more pronounced middle cuspid or crown, about 4 millimeters tall.
The shape of a piranha’s tooth is frequently compared to that of a blade and is clearly adapted to suit their meat-eating diet. The actual tooth enamel structure is similar to that of sharks.
It’s not uncommon for piranhas to lose teeth throughout their lifetime. But, while sharks replace their teeth individually, piranhas replace teeth in quarters multiple times throughout their lifespan, which reaches up to eight years in captivity. A piranha with half of its lower jaw chompers missing isn’t out of the ordinary.The jaw bone of a red-bellied piranha (Pygocentrus nattereri) specimen. (Wikimedia Commons/Sarefo)
5. A strong bite runs in the family
Though they are hardly as menacing as fiction suggests, piranhas do bite with quite a bit of force. In a 2012 study in Scientific Reports, researchers found that black (or redeye) piranhas (Serrasalmus rhombeus)—the largest of modern species—bite with a maximum force of 72 pounds (that’s three times their own body weight).
Using a tooth fossil model, they found that piranhas' 10-million-year-old extinct ancestor, Megapiranha paranensis, had a jaw-tip bite force—the force that jaw muscles can exert through the very tip of its jaw—of as high as 1,068 pounds. For reference, the M. paranensis when alive weighed only 10 kilograms (about 22 pounds), so that’s roughly 50 times the animal’s body weight.
Science notes that T. rex’s estimated bite force is three times higher than that of this ancient piranha—but the king of the reptiles also weight a lot more. M. paranensis also had two rows of teeth, while modern piranhas have just the one. It’s not clear exactly what this ancient fish ate, but whatever it was, it must have required some serious chomps.
6. Humans and capybaras are only part of the piranha diet if these prey already dead or dying
The idea that a piranha could rip a human to shreds is probably more legend than fact, too. For the curious, Popular Science spoke to some experts who estimate that stripping the flesh from a 180-pound human in 5 minutes would require approximately 300 to 500 piranhas. Cases of heart attack and epilepsy that ended with the afflicted drowning in a South American river do show evidence of piranha nibbles, but in those instances, the victim was already deceased when piranhas got involved.
While the myth of the man-eating piranha belongs to movie theaters, the Internet has a wealth of mysterious footage of piranha packs taking down capybaras. Some piranhas do occasionally eat small mammals, but as with humans, it’s usually when the unfortunate animal is already dead or gravely injured.This would pretty much never happen in real live. (Video: Piranha 3D/Dimension Films)
7. Some piranhas are cannibals
A typical piranha diet consists of insects, fish, crustaceans, worms, carrion, seeds and other plant material. A red-bellied piranha (Pygocentrus nattereri), for example, eats about 2.46 grams per day—about one-eighth of its average body mass. Crustaceans, bugs, and scavenged scraps make up the largest chunk of their meals, but the balance of this diet can shift depending on the fish’s age and the food sources available.
So occasionally when resources are low and competition for food is high, piranhas have been known to take a chunk out of a fellow piranha, living or dead. Even weirder, wimple piranhas (Catoprion mento) feed on fish scales, which contain a protein mucus layer that’s surprisingly nutritious.
8. And some are vegetarians
Despite their flesh-eating reputation, some piranhas are omnivorous, eating more seeds than meat, and some even subsist on plants alone. For example, in the Amazonian rapids of the Trombetas basin in Pará, Brazil, scientists discovered that Tometes camunani lives solely off of riverweeds.A Tometes camunani specimen. (© WWF/Tommaso Giarrizzo)
Piranhas' closest relative, the pacu or tambaqui fish (Colossoma macropomum), also lives on a mostly meat-free diet. Pacus closely resemble some piranha species in size and coloration, and thus, are often sold at fish markets as, “vegetarian piranhas,” as well as other less flattering nicknames.
9. When hunting prey, piranhas go for the tail and eyes
A 1972 study in red-bellied piranhas found that the fish most frequently attacked goldfish in a lab setting beginning with their prey’s tail and/or eyes. The researchers concluded that such an attack strategy would effectively immobilize piranhas’ opponents and prove useful for survival.
10. Piranhas bark
From anecdotes and observational research, scientists have known for a while that red-bellied piranhas make bark-like noises when caught by fishermen. Upon further examination, a team of Belgian scientists found that they make three distinctive types of vocalization in different situations.
In a visual staring contest with another fish, they start making quick calls that sound similar to barks, meant as a warning along the lines of, “Don’t mess with me, buddy.” In the act of actually circling or fighting another fish, piranhas emit low grunts or thud sounds, which researchers believe communicates more of a direct threat to the other fish.
The fish makes these two sounds using its swimbladder, a gas-containing organ that keeps fish afloat. Piranhas contract and relax muscles around the swimbladder to make noises of different frequencies.
The third vocalization? Should the opposing fish not back down, the piranha will gnash its teeth together and chase its rival.
Here are all three sounds back to back:
11. Piranhas run in packs for safety, not strength
Part of piranhas’ fierce reputation stems from the fact that they often swim in packs or shoals. Red-bellied piranhas are particularly known as pack hunters. Though it might seem an advantageous hunting technique—more fish could theoretically take down a larger foe—the behavior actually stems from fear.A shoal of piranhas (Serrasalmus sp.). Scary, right? (© Science Photo Library/Corbis)
Piranhas aren’t apex predators—they’re prey to caimans, birds, river dolphins, and other large pescatarian fish. So traveling in shoals has the effect of protecting the inner fish from attack. Further, shoals tend to have a hierarchy of larger, older fish towards the center and younger fish on the outer edges, suggesting that safety might be the true motivation.
In 2005, researchers looked at shoal formation in captive red-bellied piranhas and found that the fish both breathed easier in larger shoals and responded more calmly to simulated predator attacks. The researchers also observed wild piranhas forming larger shoals in shallow waters where they might be more vulnerable.A spectacled caiman (Caiman crocodilus eating fresh piranha in Venezuela. (© W. Perry Conway/CORBIS)
12. They’ll only attack you if you mess with them (or their eggs)
Though piranhas have a reputation for attacking, there’s not much evidence to support the legend. Like grizzly bears, wolves, sharks, and pretty much any large scary thing with teeth, piranhas will leave you alone if you leave them alone.
Black piranhas and red-bellied piranhas are considered the most dangerous and aggressive toward humans. Nonetheless, South American swimmers typically emerge from piranha-infested waters without loss of flesh. For swimmers, the danger comes when the water level is low, prey is scarce, or you disturb its spawn buried in the riverbed—basically situations where the fish either feel really threatened or really hungry, and thus become more aggressive.
13. Piranhas seem to be attracted to noise, splashing, and blood
A 2007 study linked noise, splashing, and spilling food, fish, or blood into the river with three instances of piranha attacks on humans in Suriname. Piranhas might be naturally attuned to pick up on the sound of fruits and nuts falling from trees and hitting the water and, thus, mistake splashing children for the noise associated with food.
As for blood, it likely does not render a piranha senseless as the movies would suggest, but piranhas can smell a drop of blood in 200 liters of water. So, if you are a bleeding, rambunctious child, a dip in the Amazon might not be the best idea.
14. They’re great grilled or in soup
In some parts of the Amazon, eating piranha is considered taboo—a common cultural perception for predatory fish—while others are convinced it’s an aphrodisiac. Piranha soup is popular in the Pantanal region of Brazil, but many choose to serve the fish grilled on a banana leaf with tomatoes and limes for garnish.
Perhaps it’s time to put the myth of evil piranhas to bed, and instead enjoy a nice bowl of piranha soup.
Unlike most Revolutionary War currency, this note was printed on only one side. And the paper for its printing left something to be desired. It looks as if this note were forcibly torn in two. But whether it was torn deliberately or by accident, someone pinned it back together-crudely but effectively.
The denomination is given as "fifteen Spanish milled dollars." Those coins were the famous "pieces of eight," now minted by machinery ("milled") in Mexico City and elsewhere. They were the monies of choice when coins were available, and Americans liked them so much that they eventually based their own United States dollar on the Spanish-American prototype.
A fine hotel lobby always has that mysterious cinematic charm, cast in the theatrical glow of ornate lighting, high ceilings and opulent furnishings. Washington, D.C.'s Sofitel Hotel on 15th Street promotes its luxurious accommodations with no adjective spared—incomparable, presidential, chic, elegant, superb. And indeed, wandering in under the watchful and discerning eye of the concierge, the average visitor naturally assumes the air of propriety before stepping up to the bar to order a martini, shaken but not stirred.
We are not in a museum here, but the works on the walls at the Sofitel have been curated by none other than Olivier Widmaier Picasso, the great artist's grandson and author of the book Picasso: Portrait In Time, in an exhibition entitled, "Revealed." The show opened last week and will remain on view through October 31 before traveling on to Chicago, Montreal and Los Angeles. The 30 photographs were selected by Picasso from the archives of the French weekly magazine Paris Match and offer a unique and rare opportunity to see some of the last century's most revered and most talked about artists at work in their studios or at their easel. The magazine's photographers have somehow captured some of the most intimate moments of these artists engaging with their muse.
"An artist's studio is a reflection of his soul," writes Olivier Widmaier Picasso in the show's accompanying booklet. "A sacred, secret place where his talent is expressed and genius revealed. This is where a painter keeps not only his tubes, brushes and canvases, but also his thoughts, memories, doubts, worries and certainties."
The works include Salvadore Dalí painting a rhino at a French Zoo, René Magritte donning his characteristic black bowler, Pablo Picasso with three of his many lovers, models and wives, and Henri Matisse just months before his death painting the walls of his room from his bed.
At a recent gathering, Susan Behrends Frank, a curator from DC's Phillips Collection was on hand, admiring the images. The show, she says, "emphasizes the hand of the artist and the mind of the artist." And like everyone in the crowd, Frank was enjoying the behind-the-scenes peek into the artists' lives. "Picasso needed everything around him. His studio is filled with his work. It is all around him. On the floor even. But Joan Miró's studio is nearly empty, elegant, sparse—his brushes meticulously lined up," pointing to Tony Saulnier's 1962 image. All of the artist's brushes on the elegant were neatly aligned with his colored-filled cups.
"I'm looking at this ensemble of images as a curator familiar with the works of these artists, so many of them are held in the Phillips' permanent collections," she added, before marvelling at the unique collaboration that the Paris Match photographers employed. "It's a dynamic conversation between the photographer and the artist." Here is Salvador Dalí at the Vincennes Zoo near Paris in 1955 painting a rhinocerous who is gazing longingly at a full-size reproduction of Vermeer's La Dentelliére. "Dalí is so dramatic."
Other artists include Marc Chagall by the photographer Izis from 1964 painting Mozart's Angel, René Magritte holding a candle to a painting of his wife, Kees Van Dongen in his atelier with actress Brigitte Bardot, as well as Fernando Botero, Jean Cocteau, Francis Bacon, Jeff Koons, Keith Haring, David Hockney, Balthus, Robert Combas, Liu Bolin and Pierre Soulages.
"Revealed" is on view at the Sofitel Hotel in Washington, D.C., at Lafayette Square through October 31 and will travel to the Sofitel Hotels in Chicago (November 2014 to January 2015), Montreal (February to March 2015) and Beverly Hills (April to June 2015).
Kevin Kelly's title at Wired magazine is "senior maverick." While he co-founded the publication in 1993, he has been thinking about the future in an outside-the-box way his whole career. A former editor of the countercultural technology magazine Whole Earth Review, Kelly has championed the Quantified Self movement whereby humans use technology to track their daily lives, co-sponsored the first Hackers Conference back in the mid-1980s and been involved in The Long Now Foundation, a project to look at our long-range future as humans. He's also written several books, including the bestselling What Technology Wants, which looks at technology as its own biological system.
In his new book, The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future, Kelly sorts what he sees as the biggest coming trends into 12 categories—things like "screening" (turning more surfaces into screens) and "tracking" (using surveillance technologies more and more). We talked with Kelly about his predictions for the world to come, and how we can help shape technology for the better.
The title of your book is The Inevitable. What does that mean, and why did you choose it?
It’s sort of slightly controversial because many people don’t believe that anything is inevitable. I use the term to indicate that there’s a general drift or leaning in technology such that the large forms are headed in a certain direction and we should embrace it. I like to think of it as gravity in a valley. Raindrops are falling in a valley. The drop of water as it flows down the valley is not predictable in its specifics, but the general direction is downward.
My take is that the specific aspects [of technologies] are not predictable, but the general direction is inevitable. I want people to embrace the general direction while deciding and choosing the specifics. The specifics matter to us a lot. And we have a lot of choice about that. Telephones were inevitable, but the iPhone was not. The internet was inevitable, but Twitter was not. It’s only by embracing the large scale trend that we can steer the general direction.
You talk about "sharing" in your book, and say we will share much more information in the future than we do now. What are some examples?
There’s a small movement, but I think it needs to be much bigger, which is about sharing our medical and health information. There’s so much to be gained for the benefit of us all by sharing what our bodies do and how we react and adjust to each day, any kind of perturbations during that day, anything we’re taking in terms of medications or medical interventions. If we can share all of that, that’s immensely powerful in terms of making better medications, making better knowledge about who we are and tailoring that to use specifically so we personally could benefit.
One thing I’ve long been an advocate of was the idea of the “quantified self,” where the sensors that can monitor things in our bodies become smaller and cheaper and easier to use, so we kind of wear them in clothes or where we sit, maybe we wear them on our wrists or different parts of our bodies, and they’re collecting information noninvasively. [In the future] we’re getting this info all the time, and then we can share it in different manners, whether it’s with our name on it, or anonymized, randomized or with encryption. That information is going into the cloud, and it’s being combined using artificial intelligence to extract out some meaning.
You also write how the future will be about “accessing” instead of owning. Can you talk more about this?
The general drift is that we as a society are moving away from owning things to accessing things. Access means that we can get the thing or the experience or the service any time we want from anywhere in the world. If you can kind of reach for something and get it, then that’s in many ways better than owning it and having to find it, take care of it, maintain it and upgrade it.
This movement was first evident in the digital realm. Most people aren’t really buying movies anymore in terms of owning them. You just buy a subscription to them that you have access to with Netflix or Amazon Prime or Hulu. Getting that movie any time you wanted was much better than having to purchase it on VHS, store it and upgrade it. And so now we’re seeing that same kind of shift away from ownership for even things like cars. The most visible thing was Uber. If you could summon a car any time, wherever you were, and it would appear within minutes and take you wherever you needed to go and then disappear, in many ways that’s a better arrangement than having to own a car, fix it and park it. Maybe in the future the Ubers will be self-driven, so we won’t even have to drive them.
Are there any examples of other countries being ahead of the United States in terms of specific uses of technology?
China is in many ways leading the charge in living on your phone. We look around and think, “Oh my gosh, these young millennials are just living on their phones.” Well, the millennials in China are two steps ahead of us. Some of their platforms, like WeChat, are Facebook plus Twitter plus PayPal plus Snapchat. They’ve got all the things wrapped into one, and the young there are completely living online. They order everything from their daily meals to rides, and organize events and their social lives to an extent we don’t see in the West. One of the innovations is they are very heavy users of voicemail. This is old school voicemail, but they use it and instant message with voice instead of pictures or text. This works really well and they’re now doing more and more video clips as a means of communication. So they’re ahead in the adoption of that aspect of social interaction.
[America will make the same shift] maybe within three years. We’re seeing that shift already, moving to pictures and emoticons instead of text. More and more or our lives are moving from text-based communication to visual-based communication. We’re moving from being “People of the Book” to “People of the Screen.” In the screen, the center of culture is no longer text but visuals, moving images that we flicker across the screen.
How will becoming “People of the Screen” change our culture?
There are a lot of other cultural changes that come about when you depend on flickering images instead of text. Books were fixed and didn’t change once written. Books had authors, which is the same root as “authority.” On the screen everything is ephemeral and flowing and unfinished, incomplete, relativistic, subjective. It’s moving very fast, and we have to sort of assemble it ourselves.
You consider yourself optimistic about the future. Why are so many portrayals of the future in movies and literature so dystopian?
Conflict, disaster, things unraveling are much more cinematic and make a better story than things working smoothly, which is basically boring. It makes a much better story if things collapse, and there’s nothing as mesmerizing as watching something blow up or smashing glass. There’s a bias that we’re hard-wired to want to tell a story in which things get worse, and that makes it really hard for us as a society to go forward because we don’t have as clear a vision of how the future might be friendly to us.
We live in an America with a very pessimistic view of the future that’s really unwarranted by the evidence. The evidence is very clear that progress is real and things are much better today than they were 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 200 years ago. If we were honest about that, we’d have to admit that things are getting better. And that because of history, we are most likely to continue making things better year after year. The things that are coming—artificial intelligence, virtual reality—we can imagine how things might go wrong, but it’s much more likely that things will go well.
Fifty years ago, our culture seemed more optimistic about the future, at least in terms of pop culture—all the techno-utopian sci-fi and TV shows from the 1950s and 1960s, for example. What changed to make us more negative?
We came to understand that every single technology will bite back. There’s a cost for every innovation. Every single new technology that’s been invented to solve a problem will invent almost as many new problems as it solves. Now we know. We’re pretty clear on that. It doesn’t matter how angelic the technology seems, it’s going to have major costs. And those major costs will have to be accounted for. I’m not a utopian. I don’t believe we’re going to have less problems in the future. We’re going to have more problems. But I’m a techno-solutionist. I’m a Silicon Valley guy. I believe that the solutions to those new problems are additional technologies.
You write about the impulse to shy away from new technologies out of fear, and why that instinct is harmful. So how can we as a society react better to the coming technologies of the future?
Some of the things that are coming are very scary. Artificial intelligence can look scary because it will certainly disrupt many of the jobs we can have. Virtual reality can be very scary, and total tracking can be very scary. There’s often an initial impulse to try to prohibit things like AI. Just recently, there was the first fatal crash in an automatically driven car. There’ll be calls for people to outlaw AI from driving cars because one person has died, forgetting the fact that as humans we kill a million people a year in autos. There will be reactions to downgrade, block and in some way turn back some of these technologies. I’m suggesting that, first of all, that doesn’t work, but that it’s only by engaging these technologies that we can steer them. It’s only by embracing them that we can decide the specifics and have control over it.
So while the internet was inevitable, the kind of internet we’re going to get is not at all. Will it be open or closed, neutral or not? These are decisions we have a lot of room to make, and we must make, and [they] will make a huge difference. But we can only make these changes by using this technology, not prohibiting it.
“My pals say there is no Santa but I just have to believe in him,” writes 12-year-old Wilson Castile Jr., writing to the jolly fellow in 1939. Twelve might seem a bit old to believe in the portly resident of the North Pole. But Wilson, writing from his home in Annapolis, Missouri, seems worthy of extra sympathy. His explains in the letter that his father, a deputy sheriff, was shot and killed by gangsters and his new stepdad “is so mean he never buys me anything.”
Such sad or funny stories are not unusual when reading through Santa letters, going back to the 19th century. Notes sent to Santa are an unlikely lens through which to understand the past, offering a peek into the worries, desires and quirks of the times in which they were written. But as interesting as the children’s notes themselves are the changing ways adults have sought to answer them and their motivations for doing so.
Three new books shine a spotlight on mail addressed for Mr. Claus this season, telling the history of Santa letters from different angles: Letters to Santa , a selection of notes from 1930 to the present, selected from the thousands sent to the Santa Claus Museum in Santa Claus, Indiana (the city where Wilson Castile sent his letter); Dear Santa, which gathers earlier letters dated from 1870–1920; and The Santa Claus Man, my own book, which tells a true-crime tale of a Jazz Age huckster who abused a Santa letter–answering scheme to fill his own stockings with cash.
Together, the books illustrate how children’s requests and perceptions of Santa Claus changed over more than a century and a half. But they also reflect the durability and timelessness of the ritual, and how even when so much else about the world changes, children’s imaginations (and desire for toys) remain a constant.
This might seem surprising considering how the practice of Santa letters began. Early versions of Santa Claus tended to depict him as a disciplinarian. The first image of St. Nicholas in the United States, commissioned by the New-York Historical Society in 1810, showed him in ecclesiastical garb with a switch in hand next to a crying child, while the earliest known Santa picture-book shows him leaving a birch rod in a naughty child’s stocking, which he “Directs a Parent’s hand to use / When virtue’s path his sons refuse.”
The earliest Santa letters are similarly didactic, usually coming from St. Nicholas, rather than written to him. The minister Theodore Ledyard Cuyler recalled receiving “an autograph letter from Santa Claus, full of good counsels” during his childhood in 1820s western New York. In the 1850s, Fanny Longfellow (wife of the poet Henry Wadsworth) wrote her three children letters each Christmas that commented on their behavior over the previous year and how they could improve it.
“[Y]ou have picked up some naughty words which I hope you will throw away as you would sour or bitter fruit,” Santa explained in an 1853 letter. “Try to stop to think before you use any, and remember if no one else hears you God is always near.” In an era before childhood was celebrated as a distinct period of a person’s life, gratifying kids’ imaginations was less important than teaching them manners that would speed them toward adulthood.
Longfellow’s letter bore a return address of “Chimney Corner,” likely because she left it on the family hearth. During these early decades of Santa’s evolution in the U.S., not only did the saint travel in and out of homes via the chimney, so did his mail. Parents left their notes to children by the fireplace, or in one of the nearby stockings, and soon children put their replies to him there.
As postal workers began hand-delivering mail to urban centers during the Civil War, Americans began to view the mail as a pleasant surprise arriving at one’s door, rather than a burdensome errand. The Chicago Tribune captured this shift in the experience of receiving mail in an 1864 story, commenting that the addition of 35 deliverymen had changed the city’s whole understanding of postage. Instead of “the annoyance of having to carry letters to the office,” now, as each postman brought mail directly to residents’ doors, it transformed the mail carrier into “a genuine Santa Claus [visiting] households on his beat.” As the postal system became more formalized and efficient, partly in response to the explosion of mail during the Civil War, the cost of postage began dropping in the mid-1860s. Parents grew more comfortable with paying for stamps, and children began to view the postman as an actual conduit to the Christmas figure.
Pictures, poems, and illustrations of St. Nick— particularly Thomas Nast’s 1871 depiction in the widely read Harper’s Weekly magazine —sorting letters from “Good Children’s Parents” and “Naughty Children’s Parents”— helped spread the idea of sending Santa mail. Nast is also credited with popularizing the idea that Santa lived and worked in the North Pole — for example, with an 1866 illustration that named “Santaclausville, N.P.” as his address — giving kids a destination to send Santa’s mail. The use of the post office to contact St. Nick began as a particularly American phenomenon. Scottish children would shout their wishes up the chimney, while Europeans simply left out stockings or shoes for the gift bringer.
Soon newspapers across the country were reporting the arrival of Santa letters to local postal departments, and then to their own offices (recognizing the emotional power of the letters, many papers published the children’s scrawls and even offered prizes for the “best” letters). “The little folks are getting interested about Christmas,” wrote a reporter for Columbia, South Carolina’s Daily Phoenix in December 1873. A correspondent for the Stark County Democrat, in Canton, Ohio, noted the following year: “One day last week two bright little children entered the Democrat office and wanted us to print letters to Santa Claus, from them.”
The gifts that kids requested in this period tended to be simple and practical. Dear Santa includes letters written during the 1870s that ask for gifts such as writing desks, prayer books, and “a stick of pomade” for “papa.” As society changed, the children started to ask for more fun items, such as candy, dolls, and roller skates.
But as the letters piled up, so did tensions about who should answer them. While some newspapers published letters sent to them and invited readers to respond, most missives sent to the post office ended up in the Dead Letter Office where they were destroyed, along with other mail sent to unreachable addresses. By the turn of the 20th century, the public and press began complaining that children’s wishes were treated with such neglect. Institutions ranging from charitable societies to the New York Times asked if an alternative could not be found.
After a few stopgap attempts, the Post Office Department (as the United States Postal Service was known until 1971), saw little other option but to permanently change the policy in 1913, allowing local charity groups to answer the letters, as long as they got the approval of the local postmaster. In Winchester, Kentucky, an organization began delivering Christmas goodies like nuts, fruits, candy—as well as firecrackers and roman candles—to letter writers. In the city of Santa Claus, Indiana, the city’s postmaster, James Martin, started answering the city’s large pile of Santa letters himself, then tapped local volunteers as the city’s name brought in ever-more mail for the man in the red suit.
But New York City had the most prominent letter-answering program. In 1913, customs broker John Gluck launched the Santa Claus Association, which coordinated the answering of tens of thousands of letters each year, matching children’s requests with individual New Yorkers who often hand-delivered the gifts to the letter writers. The effort earned accolades from the press, public and celebrities including John Barrymore and Mary Pickford. But each year, the group requested funds to cover ever-more gifts and postage costs, and even $300,000 to pay for a vast Santa Claus Building in Midtown Manhattan. Fifteen years after its initial launch, it was found that much of the money was unaccounted for and — as The Santa Claus Man tells in greater detail — Gluck was exposed as having pocketed much of the money (as much as several hundred thousand dollars in donations) for himself.
As a result, the Post Office Department revoked the Association’s right to receive Santa’s mail, and changed its policy nationally, restricting which groups could receive the letters. This led to the department’s establishment of Operation Santa Claus, at first an informal group of postal employees who pooled their own donations to send gifts in response to children’s pleas. The program evolved after being spotlighted in the climactic courtroom scene in Miracle on 34th Street in 1947, then enjoyed a significant boost when Johnny Carson made a practice of reading several letters each December on “The Tonight Show,” urging viewers to take part in the program.
“The range is incredible, from the very basic where they can’t afford to buy anything but a token, to the opposite end where they will invest in a school and redo a playground,” says Pete Fontana, the “Chief Elf Officer” in New York City, who has overseen the Operation Santa Program the past 17 years (though he will be retiring after this season). This program avoids fundraising by simply facilitating donations of willing donors. Individuals can volunteer to answer a Santa letter (or several), then it is up to that donor to buy the requested gift and bring it to the post office to send to the child. While the postal employees shuttle the gifts to children, it is the donors who pay for them. “It’s amazing how it can vary from almost nothing to the extreme,” says Fontana.
While post offices throughout the country managed most of these answering campaigns, the city of Santa Claus has taken its own approach. In 1976, a number of the local volunteers established Santa’s Elves, Inc., separate from the post office. In 2006, the Santa Claus Museum & Village opened, merging with the Elves. It is this organization that is behind the book Letters to Santa Claus, drawing on its archives of missives going back to the 1930s.
“It goes from very simple letters to far more expensive wish lists—you watch the progression from ‘I’d like some blocks’ to ‘I’d like a VCR’ and ‘I’d like an iPad,’” says Emily Weisner Thompson, the executive director of the museum who compiled Letters to Santa.
The letters reflect the changing wants of children, from spurs and a cowboy hat so the writer can “play Roy Rogers” to an Xbox with Assassins Creed 3, from a Shirley Temple doll to an American Girl doll. There are also some more unusual requests, such as a child in 1913 who asks Santa for a glass eye. One letter in Letters to Santa comes from an adult woman asking Santa to bring her a “tall, stately, well-bred…man of wealth with a steady income,” while in another, a boy negotiates with Santa to “trade you my sister when she comes from the stork for an elf.” A number of poorer children writing at the start of the 20th century even ask for coal—seeking warmth rather than viewing it as a punishment for naughtiness.
The letters tell a larger history as well. From World War I (a mother wrote to Gluck’s Santa Claus Association “We had to break up our home last winter, for my husband who is a longshoreman could not get work since the war began”) to the Great Depression; from 9/11 to Superstorm Sandy (a child writing in 2012 promises to “ask for much less this year so you can focus on the kids that are less fortunate than me”).
“I love the idea that we can see history through these letters,” says Thompson.
In more recent years, the process of answering Santa’s letters has been more regulated. In 2006, the Postmaster General formalized Operation Santa Claus nationally, putting in place a set of guidelines for all post offices taking part in the program. These include requiring donors to present a photo ID when they pick up Santa letters, and redacting the children’s full names and addresses—assigning each letter a number and storing the delivery info in a database that only the postal employees who actually deliver the gifts can access.
“It was different in every place it was done—some only had a letter-response campaign where they would send form letters out to the kids, there was no gift giving,” says Fontana. “In New York, we send only the gifts.”
It’s a much more modern approach to playing Santa than Fanny Longfellow or John Gluck could have imagined. Fontana hopes to see the program evolve further, scanning the letters and uploading them where people can fulfill children’s wishes from their laptop or smartphone. Programs such as EmailSanta.com and PackagefromSanta.com are already giving Santa the powerful tool of the Internet to help him accomplish his annual duties.
But what seems unlikely to change is kids’ continued eagerness to correspond with the jolly fellow, and adults’ continued enjoyment in playing him.
Alex Palmer will be discussing the history of Santa letters and signing copies of The Santa Claus Man at the National Postal Museum, on Saturday, December 12, from 3–5 p.m., as part of the annual holiday card workshop.
Image by Santa Claus Museum and Village. A letter to Santa from the 1950s (original image)
Image by Santa Claus Museum and Village. A letter to Santa from the 1930s (original image)
Image by Santa Claus Museum and Village. A letter to Santa from the 1970s. (original image)
Image by Santa Claus Museum and Village. A letter to Santa from the 1980s (original image)
Image by Santa Claus Museum and Village. A letter to Santa from 2008 (original image)
In George Orwell’s dystopian classic 1984, the protagonist Winston Smith undergoes months of brutal torture for resisting the totalitarian regime led by a shadowy figure known as Big Brother. Adaptations of Orwell’s novel often tone down these violent scenes, but a new Broadway production has opted to render them in graphic detail—so graphic, in fact, that audience members have been vomiting and fainting, as Ashley Lee reports for The Hollywood Reporter.
Directed by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, Broadway’s “1984” is a grating assault on the senses, complete with flashing strobe lights, a thundering jackhammer and a whole lot of blood.
“The torture scenes are visceral, ghastly, and hair-raisingly vivid,” Christopher Bonanos writes in Vulture. “Blood is spattered and spit out; at least one beating about the face, occasioned by one awful command, ‘teeth,’ had a large part of the audience flinching.” At one point, a blood-soaked Tom Sturridge, who plays Smith, stares into the eyes of individual audience members and screams that they are “complicit” in his character’s suffering.
The New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley felt compelled to issue a trigger warning for the show in his review. “The interrogations that Winston undergoes in the play’s second half are graphic enough to verge on torture porn,” he writes.
Some ticketholders had extreme reactions to this intense theater-going experience. During previews, members of the audience passed out, threw up and screamed at the actors to stop the violence. Not even the play’s lead actors have emerged unscathed. According to Travis M. Andrews of the Washington Post, Sturridge broke his nose during one performance. Olive Wilde, who plays Smith’s love interest, Julia, dislocated her rib, split her lip and broke her tailbone.
The play had its opening night on Thursday at the Hudson Theater. Yet another audience member reportedly fainted.
To make sure things don’t get too chaotic during performances, security guards have been posted throughout the theater. Just before opening night, the production decided to enforce an age restriction, barring children under 13 from the theater. Those measures aside, the directors have no intention of taming the show’s content.
“We’re not trying to be willfully assaultive or exploitatively shock people,” Macmillan told Lee, “but there’s nothing here or in the disturbing novel that isn’t happening right now, somewhere around the world: People are being detained without trial, tortured and executed. We can sanitize that and make people feel comforted, or we can simply present it without commentary and allow it to speak for itself.”
The play will run through October 8, and its debut comes at a time of renewed interest in 1984. In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, the book climbed to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list, nearly 70 years after it was first published. But those who prefer a Broadway experience that’s a little less torture porn, a little more show tunes and dance numbers might be better off trying to score “Hamilton” tickets.
More than 15,000 years ago, humans began crossing a land bridge called Beringia that connected their native home in Eurasia to modern-day Alaska. Who knows what the journey entailed or what motivated them to leave, but once they arrived, they spread southward across the Americas.
The prevailing theory is that the first Americans arrived in a single wave, and all Native American populations today descend from this one group of adventurous founders. But now there’s a kink in that theory. The latest genetic analyses back up skeletal studies suggesting that some groups in the Amazon share a common ancestor with indigenous Australians and New Guineans. The find hints at the possibility that not one but two groups migrated across these continents to give rise to the first Americans.
“Our results suggest this working model that we had is not correct. There’s another early population that founded modern Native American populations,” says study coauthor David Reich, a geneticist at Harvard University.
The origin of the first Americans has been hotly debated for decades, and the questions of how many migratory groups crossed the land bridge, as well as how people dispersed after the crossing, continue to spark controversy. In 2008, a team studying DNA from 10,800-year-old poop concluded that a group of ancient humans in Oregon has ancestral ties to modern Native Americans. And in 2014, genetic analysis linked a 12,000-year-old skeleton found in an underwater cave in Mexico to modern Native Americans.
Genetic studies have since connected both these ancient and modern humans to ancestral populations in Eurasia, adding to the case that a single migratory surge produced the first human settlers in the Americas. Aleutian Islanders are a notable exception. They descend from a smaller second influx of Eurasians 6,000 years ago that bear a stronger resemblance to modern populations, and some Canadian tribes have been linked to a third wave.
Reich’s group had also previously found genetic evidence for a single founding migration. But while sifting through genomes from cultures in Central and South America, Pontus Skoglund, a researcher in Reich’s lab, noticed that the Suruí and Karitiana people of the Amazon had stronger ties to indigenous groups in Australasia—Australians, New Guineans and Andaman Islanders—than to Eurasians.
Other analyses haven’t looked at Amazonian populations in depth, and genetic samples are hard to come by. So the Harvard lab teamed up with researchers in Brazil to collect more samples from Amazonian groups to investigate the matter. Together they scrutinized the genomes of 30 Native American groups in Central and South America. Using four statistical strategies, they compared the genomes to each other and to those of 197 populations from around the world. The signal persisted. Three Amazonian groups—Suruí, Karitiana and Xavante—all had more in common with Australasians than any group in Siberia.Researchers mapped similarities in genes, mutations and random pieces of DNA of Central and South American tribes with other groups. Warmer colors indicate the strongest affinities. (Pontus Skoglund, Harvard Medical School)
The DNA that links these groups had to come from somewhere. Because the groups have about as much in common with Australians as they do with New Guineans, the researchers think that they all share a common ancestor that lived tens of thousands of years ago in Asia but that doesn’t otherwise persist today. One branch of this family tree moved north to Siberia, while the other spread south to New Guinea and Australia. The northern branch likely migrated across the land bridge in a separate surge from the Eurasian founders. The researchers have dubbed this hypothetical second group “Population y” for ypykuéra, or “ancestor” in Tupi, a language spoken by the Suruí and Karitiana.
When exactly Population y arrived in the Americans remains unclear—before, after or simultaneously with the first wave of Eurasians are all possibilities. Reich and his colleagues suspect the line is fairly old, and at some point along the way, Population y probably mixed with the lineage of Eurasian settlers. Amazonian tribes remain isolated from many other South American groups, so that’s probably why the signal remains strong in their DNA.
The results line up with studies of ancient skulls unearthed in Brazil and Colombia that bear stronger resemblance to those of Australasians than the skulls of other Native Americans. Based on the skeletal remains, some anthropologists had previously pointed to more than one founding group, but others had brushed off the similarities as a byproduct of these groups living and working in similar environments. Bones can only be measured and interpreted so many ways, while genes usually make a more concrete case.
“The problem so far was that there has never been strong genetic evidence to support this notion,” says Mark Hubbe, an anthropologist at Ohio State University who was not affiliated with the latest study.
But even genetic evidence is subject to skepticism and scrutiny. Cecil Lewis Jr., an anthropological geneticist at the University of Oklahoma, cautions that Amazonian groups are low on genetic diversity and are more susceptible to genetic drift. “This raises very serious questions about the role of chance … in creating this Australasian affinity,” he says.
Another group led by Eske Willerslev and Maanasa Raghavan at the University if Copenhagen reports in Science today that Native Americans descend from just one line that crossed the land bridge no earlier than 23,000 years ago. While they didn’t look at Amazonian groups in-depth, the team did find a weak link between Australasians and some South American populations, which they chalk up to gene flow from Eskimos.
There’s just one problem: Evidence of Population y doesn’t persist in modern Eurasian groups, nor does it seem to show up in other Native Americans. If Aleutian Islanders or their ancestors had somehow mixed with an Australasian group up north or made their way south to the Amazon, they'd leave genetic clues along the way. “It’s not a clear alternative,” argues Reich.
Both studies therefore suggest that the ancestry of the first Americans is a lot more complicated than scientists had envisioned. “There is a greater diversity of Native American founding populations than previously thought,” says Skoglund. “And these founding populations connect indigenous groups in far apart places of the world.”
In 1942, Marie Jalowicz, a Jewish girl hiding in Berlin, watched as a barkeep sold her for 15 marks to a man mysteriously nicknamed "the rubber director." As Marie recounts in the recently published Underground in Berlin, a riveting chronicle of her story told in her words, she was desperate for a place to sleep. The barkeep pulled Marie aside before she left with the man. Her fabricated backstory was simple; she just couldn't bear to live with her in-laws anymore. But, the barkeep added, her new patron was also "a Nazi whose fanaticism bordered on derangement."
Marie had reasons to be alarmed beyond the man’s avowed Nazism. The "rubber director" earned his nickname from his wobbly gait, and Marie once heard that people in the late stages of syphilis "walked as if their legs were made of rubber, and they could no longer articulate properly." The man walking her to his house was stumbling over his words. And she was to sleep with this man, just to have a place to hide.
They arrived at his apartment, and the man showed off his wall-to-wall collection of aquarium tanks. He recalled the time when he was in a sanatorium and made a matchstick model of Marienburg, dedicating it to the Führer. He showed her an empty picture frame. Marie recalls:
"Any idea what that is?" he asked me, pointing at it.
"No idea at all."
Even if I'd guessed, I would never have said so. Finally, he revealed the secret: he had acquired this item by complicated means and at some expense, as he told me, closing his eyes. It was a hair from the Führer's German shepherd.
They sat together and Marie listened to his Nazi rants, growing increasingly uncomfortable until she changed the subject back to the fish. And then she got extraordinarily lucky: "With bowed head and tears in his eyes, he said he was afraid he must disappoint me: he was no longer capable of any kind of sexual relationship. I tried to react in a neutral, friendly manner, but I was overcome by such relief and jubilation that I couldn't sit still, and fled to the toilet."
Underground in Berlin is filled with similar stories that illustrate the sexual politics of being a young Jewish girl in need of protection during World War II. For 50 years, Marie kept quiet about her experience, but just before her death in 1998, she recorded her memories on 77 cassette tapes. In the 15 years since her death, Marie's son, Hermann, has been transcribing and fact-checking the tapes, and found that his mother remembered with near-perfect clarity the wealth of names and details of her life in Berlin.
For eight years Marie and her family had witnessed Hitler's rise to power: Jews, wearing the legally mandated yellow stars on their coats, were first excluded from many professions and public places, and then many were sent to do forced labor. Marie’s mother, who had been sick with cancer for a long time, died in 1938; her weary, lonely father in early 1941. Before her father’s death, Marie worked with 200 other Jewish women at Siemens, bent over lathes, making tools and weapon parts for the German army. She befriended some of the girls, and they rebelled when they could: singing and dancing in the restroom, sabotaging screw and nut manufacturing. When her father died, she convinced her supervisor to fire her, since Jews weren’t allowed to quit. She lived off the small sum she received from her father’s pension.The temporary passport Marie used to reenter Germany from Bulgaria, in Johanna Koch's name. The German embassy in Sofia made this passport, and added a comment on another page: "The holder of this passport has not proved her citizenship of the Reich. It is valid only for her return to Germany by the Danube route." (Courtesy of Hermann Simon)
In the fall of 1941, about a year before her incident with the “rubber director,” Marie watched her remaining family and friends receive deportation orders to concentration camps for certain death. Her Aunt Grete, one of the first to be sent, begged Marie to come with her. "Sooner or later everyone will have to go," Grete reasoned. With much difficulty, Marie said no. "You can't save yourself. But I am going to do everything imaginable to survive," she told her aunt.
And so she went to great lengths to protect herself. Marie removed her yellow star and assumed the identity of a close friend, Johanna Koch, 17 years older than Marie. Marie doctored Koch’s papers with ink-erasing fluid and forged an approval stamp by hand, exchanged the photo on the ID card, and called herself Aryan. Sometimes, her deception also led her to take lovers and boyfriends as a means of survival.
On the eve of World War II in 1938, Marie and her father were living with friends, the Waldmanns. Marie's father and Frau Waldmann had a fling, and 16-year-old Marie took it upon herself to sleep with Herr Waldmann, to lessen the chance that he would turn Marie and her father out on the street in anger.
Later, hoping to emigrate to Shanghai, she found a Chinese man living in Berlin who agreed to marry her: "Privately I thought: if I can get a Chinese passport through him, that would be excellent, but this isn't a relationship that will come to anything." But even after applying for marriage, and making up a story about being pregnant, she couldn’t get permission from the mayor’s office to marry him.
While hiding in the apartment of a friend's cleaning lady, Marie met a Bulgarian named Mitko, a neighbor who came by to paint the place. The two instantly became fond of each other and planned to marry. Marie makes it to Bulgaria with Mitko, and he finds a corrupt lawyer who might be able to make her stay in the country legal.
"You are here with this enchanting lady from Germany?" [the lawyer] asked my lover.
"I could use her as a governess for my little boy! The papers wouldn't cost anything, if you take my meaning?," he winked in a vulgar manner.
Mitko, a naive but decent character, was indignant at this improper suggestion. "We can do without your services," he said brusquely, and he stood up and left.
"As you like," the lawyer called after him. "We'll see what comes of this."
The lawyer turned them in to the Bulgarian police, and Marie was sent back to Berlin alone. Mitko stayed behind with family, weary from weeks of going to great lengths to protect Marie and himself. Upon her return, she was asked to wait for the Gestapo to approve her “unusual passport.” She narrowly escaped the Gestapo by pretending to run after a thief. That night, with nowhere to stay and in need of a bathroom "for the full works," she relieves herself on the doormat of a family with a "Nazi ring" to its name.Marie and her husband Heinrich Simon in 1948, soon after their wedding (Courtesy of Hermann Simon)
Marie's gripping, suspenseful story captures the gloom and anxiety of being alone in wartime Berlin and the struggle to survive on her own. Her will and wit echo the determination and optimism of other accounts of the Holocaust, like those of diarists Viktor Frankl and Anne Frank. But the scenes of sexual commerce and gender politics illuminate an untold reality of surviving as a Jewish woman in the Berlin underground. Marie relays these stories, in which sex is a means of staying alive, a transaction, with evenhandedness, with a sense that it was all worth it.
It's not just bedfellows who help her. Marie finds refuge with non-Jewish friends committed to protecting her, with people her father knew, and with other Jews struggling to live in Berlin. One friend introduces her to Gerritt Burgers, a "crazy Dutchman" who brought Marie to his apartment and tells his landlady, a Nazi supporter named Frau Blase, that
"he had found a woman who was coming to live with him at once. I would keep house for him, and he said I was also ready to lend Frau Blase a hand at any time. Since I was not racially impeccable, it would be better not to register me with the police, he added casually. That didn't seem to both the old woman, but she immediately began haggling over the rent with Burgers."
So begins another situation in which Marie is treated as a good to barter. When the landlord gets mad at Burgers for making a mess, she threatens to call the Gestapo on Marie. When Burgers sees Marie reading, he hits her with his shoe, and tells her, "You're not to read when I'm at home. You're supposed to be here just for me." She's angry, but she sticks it out; she must. They get used to each other.
For as long as Marie lived in the apartment, the supposed wife of a near-stranger, her life is semi-normal, and she benefits from the exchange of her work and pretend love for the company and safety. Frau Blase and Marie share food, and Marie runs errands. Blase shares her life story, talks about her difficult marriage, the death of her son. Marie develops an ambivalent attachment: "I hated Frau Blase as a repellent, criminal blackmailer with Nazi opinions, yet I loved her as a mother figure. Life is complicated."
Hermann, Marie’s son, shares his mother’s post-war story in an afterword. After a long journey of extreme luck, happening upon sympathetic, generous strangers, including a Communist gynecologist and a circus performer, Marie survives the war, poor and with nowhere to go. She went on to teach at the Humboldt University of Berlin and raise a family. She made good on her promise to her aunt Grete, to survive. She knew all along that "other days would come" and she "ought to tell posterity what was happening."
“I’m a talker. I have a hard time shutting up,” admits artist Kay WalkingStick as she leads a reporter through a retrospective of her works at the National Museum of the American Indian. But standing in front of a wall of charcoal and graphite sketches on paper, the 80-year-old Easton, Pennsylvania-based painter and Cherokee Nation member talks about doing the exact opposite—preserving the mystery in her art.
“What the heck is going on? Why on earth would she put a cross in the middle of all that mess?” she says people must ask about her art.
“I like the idea of people coming to it and not fully understanding it—maybe taking that home and thinking about what on earth was happening there,” she says.
Her five-decade career is honored in this first major retrospective, “Kay WalkingStick: An American Artist,” on view through Sept. 18, 2016, and includes more than 65 rarely exhibited works. Upon first seeing the installation, WalkingStick was overwhelmed. “I feel disconnected from the work somewhat, because I’ve always seen it in the studio or in a small gallery,” she says. “Much of it I haven’t seen for years.”
As retrospectives are wont to do, the exhibition demonstrates significant changes in WalkingStick’s repertoire. The show opens with the 2011 New Mexico Desert, a large painting from the Museum’s permanent collections that includes traditional patterns superimposed upon a desert landscape, and the exhibition traces her career from her minimalist works of the 1970s, many which depict sensual bodies—mostly nude self-portraits—to her more recent monumental landscape work.
The blue skies and clouds in her 1971 Who Stole My Sky, a series of stacked canvases inside a wood frame that resembles a box-within-a-box construction, is evocative of René Magritte’s 1928 The False Mirror. Writing in the show’s catalog, Kate Morris, associate art history professor at Santa Clara University, notes that WalkingStick’s sky paintings were a response to the burgeoning environmental movement of the early 1970s. “The closest she ever came to making overt political proclamations in her early work,” Morris writes.
Heavily layered canvases from the 1980s with thickly applied acrylic paint and saponified wax, that embed slashes and crosses—what WalkingStick describes as “all that mess”—are followed in subsequent galleries with her diptych works that juxtapose abstraction and representational forms. Next, is a series of mappings of the body across landscapes; and finally works that combine traditional Native patterns and landscapes.
Growing up, art was the “family business” for WalkingStick. Two of WalkingStick’s uncles were professional artists; and her brother, Charles WalkingStick, 93, who lives in Oklahoma, was a commercial artist, and a sister is a ceramicist.
“Indians all think they’re artists. All Indians are artists. It’s part of the DNA,” WalkingStick says. “I grew up thinking this was a viable thing to do. I’ve always drawn.”
WalkingStick likes to tell people that she learned to draw going to the Presbyterian church. Her mother would hand her pencil and paper during the long sermons. WalkingStick remembers sitting near a rose window.Kay WalkingStick's five-decade career is honored in a major retrospective, “Kay WalkingStick: An American Artist,” at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. (Julia Maloof Verderosa)
Her 1983-1985 Cardinal Points from the collection of Phoenix’s Heard Museum is in the exhibition and blends the four-directional cross, the compass directions, and the coloration of the male cardinal (the bird) and of Catholic cardinals. “There’s this double meaning to the title,” WalkingStick says.
She used her hands to spread the acrylic paint and saponified wax on the canvas, and glued a second layer of canvas upon the first. (She gouged the cross out with a woodcutter’s tool after the paint dried, “so that you get a nice sharp line. If you did it while it was wet, you’d get a smooshy line.”) The work, she estimates, has about 30 coats of paint. The wax—composed the way soap is made—“takes away the plastic look of the paint itself,” he says. “It gives it a more natural look. It also happens to make the studio smell divine. It’s made with beeswax; it smells like honey.”
All of those layers make the canvases—whose size she selected based on her arm span so that she could lift them—quite heavy. WalkingStick typically lays the canvas flat on a table while she works, but she still had to move them when they were done.
“I’m a big strong girl,” the octogenarian says. “I think back, how the heck did I do that? I can still carry them, but I can’t sling them around like I used to.”
The exhibition of WalkingStick’s works is part of a broader goal of the museum’s to expand the public’s understanding of what contemporary Native art looks like, according to co-curators Kathleen Ash-Milby and David Penney.
“Many of our visitors have a difficult time reconciling the fact that people of Native ancestry have very complicated, full, rich, often cosmopolitan lives in the later 20th, early 21st century. They’re really expecting American Indian people to be one way. It’s less than an identity and more of a cultural stereotype,” Penney says.
There are Native artists who create traditional works, and that’s a great thing, but other Native artists work in new media, performance and a variety of other areas. “And they’re still Native,” says Ash-Milby. “Some of our best artists do have Native content in their work, but it’s more sophisticated.”
Penney notes that WalkingStick’s recent landscapes draw upon American landscape traditions, such as those of 19th-century Hudson River School artist Albert Bierstadt.
“The message of those big Bierstadts was really: here is a wilderness continent ready for conquest. In a sense these pictures are an attempt to reclaim that landscape,” Penney says of WalkingStick’s work. “Geology is witness to cultural memory. And then these designs are a way of reasserting the fact that these are Native places that can’t be separated from Native experience, history, and the history of this country.”
Asked what she hopes viewers will take away from the show, WalkingStick echoes similar goals. “I would like people to understand on a very profound level that Native people are part and parcel of our functioning world, our whole world, our nation. That we are here. That we are productive. And that we are speaking to others,” she says. “We are part of the mainstream culture.”
"Kay WalkingStick: An American Artist" is on view through Sept. 18, 2016 at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. The American Federation of the Arts will tour the exhibition to the Dayton Art Institute in Dayton, Ohio (Feb. 9, 2017–May 7, 2017), Montclair Art Museum in Montclair, N.J. (Feb. 3, 2018–June 17, 2018) and two additional venues in 2017.
The ten-page manuscript is typewritten, on yellowed legal paper, and folded in thirds. But the words, an eyewitness account of the May 31, 1921, racial massacre that destroyed what was known as Tulsa, Oklahoma’s “Black Wall Street,” are searing.
“I could see planes circling in mid-air. They grew in number and hummed, darted and dipped low. I could hear something like hail falling upon the top of my office building. Down East Archer, I saw the old Mid-Way hotel on fire, burning from its top, and then another and another and another building began to burn from their top,” wrote Buck Colbert Franklin (1879-1960).
The Oklahoma lawyer, father of famed African-American historian John Hope Franklin (1915-2009), was describing the attack by hundreds of whites on the thriving black neighborhood known as Greenwood in the booming oil town. “Lurid flames roared and belched and licked their forked tongues into the air. Smoke ascended the sky in thick, black volumes and amid it all, the planes—now a dozen or more in number—still hummed and darted here and there with the agility of natural birds of the air.”
Franklin writes that he left his law office, locked the door, and descended to the foot of the steps.
“The side-walks were literally covered with burning turpentine balls. I knew all too well where they came from, and I knew all too well why every burning building first caught from the top,” he continues. “I paused and waited for an opportune time to escape. ‘Where oh where is our splendid fire department with its half dozen stations?’ I asked myself. ‘Is the city in conspiracy with the mob?’”
Franklin’s harrowing manuscript now resides among the collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. The previously unknown document was found last year, purchased from a private seller by a group of Tulsans and donated to the museum with the support of the Franklin family.
In the manuscript, Franklin tells of his encounters with an African-American veteran, named Mr. Ross. It begins in 1917, when Franklin meets Ross while recruiting young black men to fight in World War I. It picks up in 1921 with his own eyewitness account of the Tulsa race riots, and ends ten years later with the story of how Mr. Ross’s life has been destroyed by the riots. Two original photographs of Franklin were part of the donation. One depicts him operating with his associates out of a Red Cross tent five days after the riots.
John W. Franklin, a senior program manager with the museum, is the grandson of manuscript’s author and remembers the first time he read the found document.
“I wept. I just wept. It’s so beautifully written and so powerful, and he just takes you there,” Franklin marvels. “You wonder what happened to the other people. What was the emotional impact of having your community destroyed and having to flee for your lives?”B.C. Franklin and his associates pose before his law offices in Ardmore, Oklahoma, 1910 (NMAAHC, Gift from Tulsa Friends and John W. and Karen R. Franklin)
The younger Franklin says Tulsa has been in denial over the fact that people were cruel enough to bomb the black community from the air, in private planes, and that black people were machine-gunned down in the streets. The issue was economics. Franklin explains that Native Americans and African-Americans became wealthy thanks to the discovery of oil in the early 1900s on what had previously been seen as worthless land.
“That’s what leads to Greenwood being called the Black Wall Street. It had restaurants and furriers and jewelry stores and hotels,” John W. Franklin explains, “and the white mobs looted the homes and businesses before they set fire to the community. For years black women would see white women walking down the street in their jewelry and snatch it off.”
Museum curator Paul Gardullo, who has spent five years along with Franklin collecting artifacts from the riot and the aftermath, says: “It was the frustration of poor whites not knowing what to do with a successful black community, and in coalition with the city government were given permission to do what they did.”
Image by NMAAHC, Gift of Eddie Faye Gates. Also in the museum's collections is a protest sign from 2000 calling for reparations for the Tulsa massacre. (original image)
Image by NMAAHC, Gift of Scott Ellsworth. Charred from the fires, five pennies collected by George Monroe as a boy following the conflagration. Monroe saved the pennies and as an elderly man gave them to historian Scott Ellsworth, who donated them to the museum. (original image)
“It’s a scenario that you see happen from place to place around our country . . . from Wilmington, Delaware, to Washington, D.C., to Chicago, and these are in some ways mass lynchings,” he says
As in other places, the Tulsa race riot started with newspaper reports that a black man had assaulted a white elevator operator. He was arrested, and Franklin says black World War I vets rushed to the courthouse to prevent a lynching.
“Then whites were deputized and handed weapons, the shooting starts and then it gets out of hand,” Franklin says. “It went on for two days until the entire black community is burned down.”
More than 35 blocks were destroyed, along with more than 1,200 homes, and some 300 people died, mostly blacks. The National Guard was called out after the governor declared martial law, and imprisoned all blacks that were not already in jail. More than 6,000 people were held, according to the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum, some for as long as eight days.Practicing law in a Red Cross tent are B.C. Franklin (right) and his partner I.H. Spears with their secretary Effie Thompson on June 6, 1921, five days after the massacre. (NMAAHC, Gift from Tulsa Friends and John W. and Karen R. Franklin)
“(Survivors) talk about how the city was shut down in the riot,” Gardullo says. “They shut down the phone systems, the railway. . . . They wouldn’t let the Red Cross in. There was complicity between the city government and the mob. It was mob rule for two days, and the result was the complete devastation of the community.”
Gardullo adds that the formulaic stereotype about young black men raping young white women was used with great success from the end of slavery forward to the middle of the 20th century.
“It was a formula that resulted in untold numbers of lynchings across the nation,” Gardullo says. “The truth of the matter has to do with the threat that black power, black economic power, black cultural power, black success, posed to individuals and . . . the whole system of white supremacy. That’s embedded within our nation’s history.”
Franklin says he has issues with the words often used to describe the attack that decimated the black community.
“The term riot is contentious, because it assumes that black people started the violence, as they were accused of doing by whites,” Franklin says. “We increasingly use the term massacre, or I use the European term, pogrom.”
Image by NMAAHC. June 1, 1921, Tulsa, Oklahoma (original image)
Image by NMAAHC. June 1, 1921, Tulsa, Oklahoma (original image)
Image by NMAAHC. June 1, 1921, Tulsa, Oklahoma (original image)
Among the artifacts Gardullo and John W. Franklin have obtained, are a handful of pennies collected off the ground from a young boy’s home burned to the ground during the riot, items with labels saying this was looted from a black church during the riot, and postcards with photos from the race riots, some showing burning corpses.
“Riot postcards were often distributed . . . crassly and cruelly . . . as a way to sell white supremacy,” Gardullo says. “At the time they were shown as documents that were shared between white community members to demonstrate their power. Later . . . they became part of the body of evidence that was used during the commission for reparation.”
In 2001, the Tulsa Race Riot Commission issued a report detailing the damage from the riots, but legislative and legal attempts to gain reparations for the survivors have failed.
The Tulsa race riots aren’t mentioned in most American history textbooks, and many people don’t know that they happened.
Curator Paul Gardullo says the crucial question is why not?
“Throughout American history there’s been a vast silence about the atrocities that were performed in the service of white history. . . . There are a lot of silences in relation to this story, and a lot of guilt and shame,” Gardullo explains. That’s one reason why the events of May 31 and June 1, 1921, will be featured in an exhibition at the new museum called “The Power of Place.” Gardullo says the title is about more than geography.
“(It’s) the power of certain places, about displacement, movement, about what place means for people,” he says. “This is about emotion and culture and memory. . . . How do you tell a story about destruction? How do you balance the fortitude and resilience of people in response to that devastation? How do you fill the silences? How do you address the silences about a story that this community has held in silence for so long and in denial for so long?”
Despite the devastation, the black community in Tulsa was able to rebuild on the ashes of its neighborhood, partly because Buck Colbert Franklin battled all the way to the Oklahoma Supreme Court to defeat a law that would have effectively prevented African-Americans from doing so. By 1925, there was again a thriving black business district. John W. Franklin says his grandfather’s manuscript is important for people to see because it deals with “suppressed history.”
“This is an eyewitness account from a reputable source about what he saw happen,” he grandson John W. Franklin says. “It is definitely relevant to today, because I think our notions of justice are based partially on our own history and our knowledge of history. But we are an a-historical society, in that we don’t know our past.”
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture opens on September 24 of this year on the National Mall.
In 1922, Howard Carter had spent the last thirty years digging around Egypt for ancient tombs. As one of the world's leading experts in the field, he often operated at the behest of the fabulously wealthy collector of antiquities, Lord Carnarvon, who had hired him to supervise his excavations in the Valley of the Kings along the Nile River.
Carter lived there in a modest mud-brick house as he roamed the area in search of an elusive tomb which he believed might still hold the remains of Tutankhamun, a mysterious Egyptian pharaoh of the 18th dynasty, who had ruled between 1332 and 1323 B.C. "King Tut" had taken the throne at the age of nine or ten and died at about age 18, making his story all the more intriguing.
In 1922, however, Lord Carnarvon informed Carter that he would fund that quest for only one more year unless they struck pay dirt. That time was running out when, on November 4, Carter's water boy stumbled across steps in the sand that led to an important burial site. An ebullient Carter immediately wired his employer and the excited Lord Carnarvon soon arrived with his entourage to visit the site.
Carter's hands were trembling when he exposed the tomb in Carnarvon's presence. "At first I could see nothing, the hot air escaping from the chamber causing the candle flame to flicker," Carter later wrote, "but presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold—everywhere the glint of gold." Carter was dumbstruck with amazement, prompting the impatient Lord Carnarvon to ask, "Can you see anything?" The gaping archaeologist eventually composed himself enough to reply, "Yes, wonderful things!"Today, historians take a more critical view of the looting of Egypt's antiquities by colonialist collectors such as Carter and Carnarvon. (Mike Nelson/epa/Corbis)
Together they had uncovered the best-preserved and most intact pharaoh's tomb in the Valley of Kings. A year and a half later, Carter's team entered the burial chamber to find gold-covered shrines and jewel-studded chests. Raising the lid of Tutankhamun's sarcophagus revealed a coffin of pure gold that held the mummified remains of the boy, King Tut. Word of the discovery flashed across the globe, igniting the world's latest craze and turning Carter into a major celebrity.
Lord Carnarvon was not so lucky. While in Egypt he suffered a mosquito bite that became infected and he died three weeks later—an event that journalists famously ascribed to the "Mummy's Curse." The tale became a staple for Hollywood moviemakers. Carter's journal and subsequent public writings, photographs, and documentary film related details about the 20th century's most exciting archaeological discovery.
This article is excerpted from Scott Christianson's "100 Documents That Changed The World," available November 10.
Don’t get him wrong: Dean Burnett loves the brain as much as the next neuroscientist. But if he’s being honest, it’s “really quite rubbish in a lot of ways,” he says. In his new book, Idiot Brain, Burnett aims to take our most prized organ down a peg or two.
Burnett is most fascinated by the brain’s tendency to trip us up when it’s just trying to help. His book explores many of these quirks: How we edit our own memories to make ourselves look better without knowing it; how anger persuades us we can take on a bully twice our size; and what may cause us to feel like we’re falling and jerk awake just as we’re falling asleep. (It could have something to do with our ancestors sleeping in trees.)
We caught up with Burnett, who is also a science blogger for The Guardian and a stand-up comic, to ask him some of our everyday questions and frustrations with neuroscience.
Why is it that we get motion sickness when we’re traveling in a plane or a car?
We haven’t evolved, obviously, to ride in vehicles; that’s a very new thing in evolutionary terms. So the main theory as to why we get motion sickness is that it’s essentially a conflict in the senses that are being relayed to the subcortical part of the brain where the senses are integrated together. The body and the muscles are saying we are still. Your eyes are saying the environment is still. The balance sense in the ears are detecting movement. The brain is getting conflicting messages from the fundamental senses, and in evolutionary terms there’s only one thing that can cause that, which is a neurotoxin. And as a result the brain thinks it’s been poisoned and what do you do when you’ve been poisoned? Throw up.
Why is it so hard to remember the name of someone you’ve just met, even when you recognize their face?
The problem is, when you meet someone, they don’t just tell you their name. They tell you who they are, why they’re there—it’s a conversation. So there’s a lot of information that needs to be learned in one go, and a lot of time we don’t have the capacity for it. You’d have to repeat it— “Tom, Tom, Tom, Tom, Tom”—so it goes into your long-term memory. But if you do that to someone, they’ll never speak to you again, so remembering their name is pointless.
The brain has a dedicated region for faces. And the brain is very visual. That is by far the most dominant sense. Anything visual has got a much better chance of being lodged in the brain and staying there. A lot more work is required by the conscious part of the brain to take in and remember a name.
In the book, you talk about a phenomenon you call “confident clowns and insecure intellectuals,” pointing to research showing that in Western societies at least, less intelligent people tend to be more confident about their abilities than more intelligent people. Why is that?
The theory is that the more intelligent person is a lot more aware of what there is to know and what they don’t know. The brain can appraise itself, but that’s a skill that requires intelligence. If you’re very much unintelligent, then you struggle to recognize how intelligent you are compared to others. As a result, you say things with supreme confidence because you can’t quite grasp the fact that you might be wrong.
The research into this area is called the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Can you tell me what inspired it?
The two scientists who named the phenomenon were inspired to look into it by a report in America of a criminal who was arrested when he tried to rob a bank with no disguise. It turned out he had rubbed lemon juice on his face because he’d read that lemon juice is used to make invisible ink, so he thought by rubbing it on his face he would be invisible to security cameras. The fact that he was so confident in his deduction that he actually went and committed a felony in broad daylight in front of security cameras … led to an interesting area of science.
Research seems to show that more intelligent people use less brain power. Why?
[Researchers were] putting people into fMRI machines and giving them intelligence tests—deductions and puzzles. It turns out the people who are better at doing the tests, who can solve them faster and more efficiently, were showing less activity in the intelligence part of the brain. Which is obviously puzzling—if that’s the intelligence part of the brain, why are people who are more intelligent not using it? The main theory now is that it means this area is more efficient. It doesn’t need to work as hard to do the same effort as one who is less intelligent because it’s better connected, it’s more integrated.
So we think that more intelligent people have better connected brains?
That seems to be the general consensus in a lot of fields now, that intelligence isn’t just a mark of a few particular areas being big or small. It’s the number of connections between them.
You write that acetaminophen, the active ingredient in painkillers like Tylenol, can even be effective for the heartache one experiences after a breakup. How can that be?
Yeah, that’s a weird one, isn’t it? When people say heartbreak hurts, they’re normally speaking metaphorically. But in terms of the brain, it does use the same region to process the discomfort and unpleasant sensations of a relationship breakup as it does with physical pain. So a medication like acetaminophen which works on those areas of the brain would technically have the same effect on both physical pain perception and emotional pain.
What makes you so fascinated by the ways in which our brains trip us up?
It’s sort of a subconscious protest against the way the brain is held in such reverence and awe. I mean, it is amazing, it is fantastic. But it’s got this mystique around it, in which people seem very reluctant to contemplate that it’s in any way flawed or imperfect. And it is. When you have a weird compulsion to do something, or a weird reaction, or an illogical response, you’re not an idiot. You’re not flawed in some way. That’s just a consequence of how the brain works. Don’t feel bad about it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.