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

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

Llegiu aquest article en català

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zero Hour from the series History

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Youth [painting] / (photographed by Peter A. Juley & Son)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Title transcribed from negative.

Joseph Hawthorne (son of artist), 1983.

"Hawthorne Retrospective, June 16 through September 17, 1961," Provincetown, MA: Chrysler Art Museum, 1961, no. 97.

Black-and-white study print (8x10).

Orig. negative: 8x10, Nitrate, BW.

copy 1 negative: 8x10, Safety, BW.

Your Guide to the Most Delicious Drinks for the Holidays

Smithsonian Magazine

Imperial Stout is a high-alcohol rendition of standard English stouts born about 300 years ago through a series of sea voyages between England and Russia. It stands in ably as a Christmas Eve nightcap—and can be squeezed into a stocking. Photo by Andrew Bland.

With Christmas tunes, ugly sweaters and tacky plastic reindeer out in full force, it seems it’s time again to blend up some rum-spiked eggnog—but today, I’m going to stoke up a different sort of holiday spirit: really strong beer. ‘Tis the season, after all. We often see a spike in the number of extra potent beers about now, the common notion being that a touch more alcohol will warm the bones on cold nights. “High-alcohol” beers, by some standards, might include 6 or 7 percent alcohol by volume holiday releases, like Deschutes Brewing’s Jubelale, Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome and Marin Brewing’s Hoppy Holidaze, and if you’re a regular sipper of light lagers, these seasonal beers are festive enough. But it’s the ludicrously potent, double-digit beers that I’m thinking of now—beers with attitude, charisma, strength, flavor, culture and, especially, spirit.

Imperial Stout. Few beers may so strongly evoke the image of dark winters, frozen European landscapes and long ship voyages as Imperial Stout. This pitch-black, super-strong sipper has become a favorite in modern American craft beer circles, but the style has a long and compelling history, too. The story takes us across oceans and continents, to the damp streets of London and even into the dens of emperors. While England made the first Imperial Stout, it was Russia that drank the stuff. Czar Peter the Great is known to historians for his productive time as Russia’s leader from 1682 until 1725. But many beer geeks only know the famed czar’s role in the invention of Imperial Stout. Peter visited England in 1698, when he was in his late 20s. Here he took a liking to the nation’s black and bitter stouts. Before returning to Russia, Peter requested that a shipload be delivered at a later date. England proudly answered the request—but with embarrassing results: the beer casks, deep in the ship’s hold, froze during transport through the frigid Baltic Sea. The water expanded and burst the barrels. The beer was ruined. (Actually, they might have discovered the trick now known as “freeze distillation” had they only the courage to taste the stout. See below.) As legend tells it, the Barclay Brewery of London came forward with a solution: Raise the alcohol level to stave off frost and try again. They custom brewed a new batch, and the effort seems to have worked. The next delivery made it to Peter in shipshape, and the bigger-boned rendition of the standard English stout swept the emperor off his feet. Deliveries became routine, and the beer is now often called Russian Imperial Stout. Though the first batch that Peter tasted may only have been about 7 percent ABV (like Samuel Smith’s Imperial Stout, brewed in North Yorkshire—a classic representative of the original), modern brewers have upped the numbers. North Coast Brewing Company‘s rendition runs 9 percent, Lagunitas Brewing‘s is 10, Three Floyds‘ 15 and Dogfish Head‘s a smashing 18. These are the big guys that sit well in a brandy snifter—and they fit nicely in a Christmas stocking.

Other Holiday Spirit Boosters

Samichlaus Classic Malt Liquor. Billed as “The World’s Most Extraordinary Beer,” Samichlaus Classic measures 14 percent ABV and back in the 1990s was recognized as the world’s strongest lager. The beer is brewed once per year, on December 6, and after months of aging, released about a year later. Trust me: It’s not going to be a favorite of just everyone. It barely tastes like beer, in fact. It is sweet, sticky, syrupy and raisiny, with hardly a hint of hops. Colored like brandy, it drinks about like one, too. In other words, go slow. The beer, for a piece of trivia, means Santa Claus in Zurich, the Swiss-German dialect of the Alps.

Samichlaus Classic is a Christmastime lager from the Castle Brewery Eggenberg in Austria. At 14 percent alcohol, the beer drinks like brandy. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Bernt Rostad.

Ice Beers: No—don’t go plunking any ice cubes in your stout. Ice beers, in fact, are made through quite the opposite process: Beer is placed in a freezer, where water in the beer turns to ice, while the alcohol remains in liquid form. As clear ice floats to the surface of the beer, a stronger, condensed version of the original brew is left behind. It’s basic chemistry—and a trick brewers call freeze distillation. It’s illegal, in fact, in the United States—mostly. That is, the law’s fine print says it’s OK to use freeze distillation to add trace amounts of alcohol—a loophole that allows big breweries to make such products as Molson Ice and Bud Ice, which are only barely affected by the process. However, we have secret info from industry insiders that the technique occurs in full force at some brewpubs, where the often smooth, velvety beer may be served on tap. Customers thus unwittingly consume great beer, contraband and evidence of the crime all in one glass. The first ice beer is believed to have been made by accident in Kulmbach, Germany, in 1890, when a cask of beer was forgotten and left out on a freezing night. In the morning, the brewers tasted the beer and found the boozy liquid under the cap of ice to be strong and delicious. Sound tasty? You’re in luck, because while making ice beers is illegal in America, importing them from Europe—where freeze distillation is completely lawful—is not. Kulmbacher Eisbock and Aventinus Weizen-Eisbock are two available examples of the style.

He’Brew Jewbelation Sweet 16 from Shmaltz Brewing. What? You don’t believe a fat man in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer delivers billions of presents around the world every December 24? Yeah—it does seem sometimes like a grand parental hoax. But far from being left out in the cold this winter, you just might be enjoying the best specialty drink of all: an extreme Hanukkah ale called Jewbelation, brewed by the Shmaltz Brewing Company in upstate New York. The beer, released this month, commemorates the 16th anniversary of the brewery’s birth. The anniversary series began with Shmaltz’s eighth, when the beer was made with eight kinds of hops, eight malts and to 8 percent ABV. In following years, the numbers pattern was maintained—and now, Jewbelation has morphed into a 16 percent ABV giant. It’s dark brown and easy to love for anyone with a small glass and a taste for brownies, chocolate and coffee. One bottle contains 480 calories, so divvy this one between friends—and if you believe in him, don’t leave it for Santa: There’s a lot of skinny chimneys out there.

Not a beer fan? Then drink glögg. The Swedish rendition of mulled wine, glögg, or gløgg, is a keyboard nightmare—so we’re going to call it glogg. Red wine, orange peel, cloves and cardamom are the essential ingredients of this Christmastime drink, though some versions contain additions like sugar, cinnamon sticks, brandy and Port wine. My own preference is for something heavily spiced but on the drier side. Glogg can be purchased ready-made in bottles, but the drink is so easy—and, at the risk sounding cheesy, fun and festive—to make that not stewing up your own would just be silly. Try this recipe. The wine (it needn’t be expensive) is heated slowly in a cauldron with orange slices, whole cloves and cardamom powder bathing in the drink. These and other ingredients’ flavors leech into the wine, and the warm aromas fill the house. Now, before your company arrives, get the pronunciation down: That funny “o” is, in fact, pronounced like the double “o” in hook, making glogg actually more like “glug.” Which allows you, as host, to look from guest to guest to guest as you take drink orders and suggest, “Glug? Glug? Glug?” Mulled wine just isn’t the same.

A crock of glogg simmers on the stove. Often brewed during the holidays and served warm, glogg is a Scandinavian rendition of mulled wine. It is made with red wine, orange peel, cloves and cardamom. Photo courtesy of Flickr user thebone.

Drinking Down Under? As a northerner, I’ve always been intrigued if not confused by the notion of celebrating Christmas at the peak of summer. But for many in the world, it just might be 95 in the shade this Christmas Day. For you folks, I feel I need to suggest something, but I’ll be honest: I’m clueless. Cold lemonade? Watermelon juice? Fruit smoothies? Ice water? Really: We northerners are fascinated: How do you drink in the holidays?

Read more articles about the holidays in our Smithsonian Holiday Guide here

World's Tallest Disaster

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Woods by Night [painting] / (photographed by Peter A. Juley & Son)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Negative marked: "Woods by Night".

Black-and-white study print (8x10).

Orig. negative: 8x10, Nitrate, BW.

copy 1 negative: 8x10, Safety, BW.

Winter Nocturne [painting] / (photographed by Peter A. Juley & Son)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Title transcribed from negative.

Black-and-white study print (8x10).

Orig. negative: 8x10, Glass, BW.

Winter Night [painting] / (photographed by Peter A. Juley & Son)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Title transcribed from negative.

Black-and-white study print (8x10).

Orig. negative: 8x10, Safety, BW.

Winter Moonlight [painting] / (photographed by Peter A. Juley & Son)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Quick, Michael, "George Inness: a Catalogue Raisonne," New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007, no. 278.

Black-and-white study print (8x10).

Orig. negative: 8x10, Glass, BW.

Winter Moonlight

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Winemakers Are Building Houses for Bats to Make Vineyards Greener

Smithsonian Magazine

As the sun sets in the Alentejo, a wine-producing region about 100 miles southeast of Lisbon, dozens of bats leave their shelters and take flight, their dark bodies in stark contrast to the brilliant pinks and oranges of dusk. It’s dinnertime for the nocturnal creatures, and the winemakers at Herdade do Esporão are banking on the flying mammals to help rid the vineyards of unwanted visitors.

So far, it looks like the partnership is paying off—Esporão has seen a drop in the number of vine-gobbling insects wreaking havoc on its 1,235 acres of wine grapes. As a winery striving to make its operations as sustainable as possible, the bats have become a reliable replacement to the harsh chemicals often used to ward off pests.

Bats have been assets to the wider agricultural community for decades, with many farmers relying on these “wingmen” to kill insects instead of using an overabundance of pesticides and other harmful chemicals. Depending on the species, bug-eating bats can devour between half to two-thirds of their body weight in insects each night—equivalent to about 1,000 bugs an hour.

In the United States alone, bats save the agricultural industry anywhere from $3.7 billion to $53 billion each year in pest-control services, according to a study conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey. However, it’s only been in the last few years that wineries have implemented specific bat-friendly practices within their estates.

At Herdade do Esporão, biologist Mário Carmo is in charge of the bat program, which began in 2011. No bats previously lived on the property, Carmo says, probably due to the lack of shelter in a landscape comprised of rolling plains punctuated by the occasional stand of cork oak trees. Bats prefer habitats that are warm, dark and well protected from predators, according to the nonprofit Organization for Bat Conservation, so it’s not surprising that the creatures had bypassed the vineyard for better accommodations in the form of bridges or attics.

“[The lack] of possible homes for the natural establishment of bats reinforced the importance of this project, which is to help restore the balance of [the estate’s] ecosystems,” Carmo says. “We decided to attract bats to our property and use them as allies in pest control in the vineyards, due to the type of agriculture practiced on the property.”

The estate installed 20 wooden bat boxes amid its rows of Verdelho, Touriga Nacional, Antão Vaz and other indigenous grape varietals. As of this August, the boxes house some 330 bats, including the Kuhl's pipistrelle, a native species common in southern Europe, and the lesser noctule, or Leisler's bat, a species found across the continent.

David Baverstock, chief winemaker at Esporão, was one of the first proponents of the bat program. He says that sustainability plays a big role in all areas of the winery, from grapevine to wine bottle. Although Esporão isn’t 100-percent organic, about one-third of its vineyards are dedicated to organic farming, and pesticides and industrial fertilizers are prohibited in those areas. In addition to bats, the vineyard turns to ladybugs and the great tit, an insect-eating bird, as forms of natural pest-control.

“Bats aren’t the only replacement, but they’re one of the elements that make [sustainable farming] possible,” says Carmo. “In terms of diseases in the vineyards, we more or less have that under control, but insect pests are our main concern, and the use of bats is one of those alternatives.”

Image by Courtesy of Esporão. Rows of wine grapes growing at Herdade do Esporão. (original image)

Image by Credit: Courtesy of Esporão. The vineyard built bat boxes to attract bats with warm, dark and well-protected roosts. (original image)

Image by Credit: Courtesy of the Organization for Bat Conservation. Depending on the species, nocturnal bats can devour between half to two-thirds of their body weight in insects each night. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of the Organization for Bat Conservation. Bats huddle up inside a bat box. The vineyard's boxes have attracted the Kuhl's pipistrelle and the lesser noctule, or Leisler's bat. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of the Organization for Bat Conservation. Bug-eating bats are most likely keeping the European Grapevine Moth under control at Esporão. (original image)

Carmo doesn’t yet have specific percentages for how much the bats have contributed to pest control on the property. Currently, he’s working with the Centre in Biodiversity and Genetic Resources at the University of Porto to study genetic material in guano taken from the bat boxes to discern which insects the bats are eating.

In an email, Carmo surmised that the bats were helping to kill off the European Grapevine Moth (Lobesia botrana), considered a major vineyard pest throughout Europe and, more recently, in California. However, he says he won’t be certain until he receives the analysis.    

“[The results] will most likely indicate that, like everything in life, there will be a balance between the pest species and the auxiliaries or insects that eat the bad insects,” Carmo says. “But because bats don’t eat only the bad [bugs], but also the good ones, it helps keep a balance of insect populations.”

Rob Mies, executive director of the Organization for Bat Conservation, says that even if bats do munch on some of the good insects, they still play a pivotal roll in agriculture, and the benefits of having them around far outweigh the negatives.

“Even if bats ate a particular insect species down to a certain density, they wouldn’t waste their energy to eat the last remaining few,” he says. “Instead, they would switch to a different type of insect.”

Getting involved in winemaking carries benefits for the bats, too. The flying mammals are no strangers to bad publicity, often being cast as the blood-sucking bad guys lurking in the shadows.

“I think the reason people are so fearful of them is because bats are nocturnal, and humans have a natural fear of night, since our vision isn’t the best at that time of the day,” says Mies. “In many stories and movies, nocturnal animals have been portrayed as evil.”

To add injury to insult, in recent years, bats’ numbers have been threatened due to the increase in wind turbines, which bats can accidently fly into, as well as the spread of white-noise syndrome, a lethal disease that manifests as a white fungus on bats’ skin.

Bat programs like the one at Esporão, might help more people see bats as friends rather than foes and improve conservation efforts. Esporão already has plans to double its collection of bat boxes, and although visitors to the estate can’t see the nocturnal creatures in action, they can see the prominent roosts as they walk through the vineyards.

“If we talk to [people] and try to explain that the presence of bats will reduce the usage of pesticides and chemical fertilizers,” Carmo says, “I think it’s enough to convince them that this is the right thing to do.” 

Windy Winter Night [drawing] / (photographed by Peter A. Juley & Son)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Title transcribed from negative.

Black-and-white study print (8x10).

Orig. negative: 8x10, Safety, BW.

Windmill Well at Night

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Why We Need To Start Listening To Insects

Smithsonian Magazine

It’s a warm summer afternoon in the Tanzanian village of Lupiro, and Mikkel Brydegaard is crouching in a brick hut, trying to fix a broken laser. Next to him, on a tall tripod, three telescopes point through a window at a tree in the distance. A laptop rests on an upturned box, waiting to receive a signal.

With a working laser, this system is known as lidar – like radar, Brydegaard tells me, but using a laser instead of radio waves. The setup is supposed to gather precise data about the movement of malaria mosquitoes. But as the sun starts to set outside, Brydegaard is getting nervous. He and his colleagues have spent a week in Tanzania, and their device still hasn’t started collecting data. They’re almost out of time.

Tomorrow, a solar eclipse will blot out the sun over Tanzania – an event that occurs only once every few decades here, and that Brydegaard and his team from Lund University in Sweden have travelled thousands of miles to see. Their immediate aim is to see if the eclipse affects the behaviour of disease-carrying insects. Their larger mission, however, is to demonstrate that lasers can revolutionise how insects are studied.

Lidar involves shooting a laser beam between two points – in this case, between the hut and the tree. When insects fly through the beam, they’ll scatter and reflect light back to the telescopes, generating data from which the scientists hope to identify different species. At a time when pests destroy enough food to sustain entire countries – and when insect-borne diseases kill hundreds of thousands of people every year – this arrangement of beams and lenses could, just maybe, improve millions of lives.

But without a working laser, the trip to Tanzania will count for nothing.

Already, the team have come close to giving up. A few days ago, their two high-powered lasers failed to work. “My first thought was, OK – pack everything, we head back,” Brydegaard tells me. “There’s nowhere in Tanzania we can find a spare part.” He thought bitterly about the tens of thousands of dollars they had spent on equipment and travel. But then he walked into town with Samuel Jansson, his graduate student, and over bottles of beer they scrolled through the contacts on their phones. Perhaps, they started to think, it was possible to salvage the trip after all.

*

Lasers may be a cutting-edge tool for identifying insects, but at the heart of the lidar method is an elegant and centuries-old principle of entomology. Almost every species of flying insect, from moth to midge to mosquito, has a unique wingbeat frequency. A female Culex stigmatosoma mosquito, for instance, might beat its wings at a frequency of 350 hertz, while a male Culex tarsalis might at 550 hertz. Because of these differences, an insect’s wingbeat is like a fingerprint. And in recent years, the study of wingbeat has undergone a renaissance, especially in the field of human health.

Long before lasers or computers, wingbeat was thought of in auditory – even musical – terms. A careful listener could match the buzz of a fly to a key on the piano. That is exactly what Robert Hooke, a natural philosopher, did in the 17th century: “He is able to tell how many strokes a fly makes with her wings (those flies that hum in their flying) by the note that it answers to in musique during their flying,” wrote Samuel Pepys, a British civil servant and friend of Hooke’s.

But the fact that Hooke relied on his ears must have made his findings difficult to communicate. Knowledge was traditionally shared through scientific papers, letters and specimen drawings, and so entomologists tended to rely on vision rather than hearing. “The field has had a very, very narrow focus for a long time,” says Laura Harrington, an entomologist and epidemiologist based at Cornell University, New York State.

In the 20th century, however, researchers began to break the mould. The main wingbeat detection method was visual: the chronophotographic method, which involved taking photographs in rapid succession. This had its limitations, and a few keen-eared researchers felt there was an advantage to Robert Hooke’s auditory approach – especially Olavi Sotavalta, an entomologist from Finland who had the rare gift of absolute pitch. Just as a composer with absolute pitch might transcribe a musical passage by ear, Sotavalta could identify the precise tone of a mosquito’s wings without the aid of a piano.

(© Matthew the Horse)

“The acoustic method makes it possible to observe insects in free flight,” Sotavalta wrote in a 1952 paper in Nature. In other words, because he had absolute pitch, Sotavalta was able to make wingbeat observations not only with cameras in the laboratory, but also in nature, with his ears. Scientists are informed and constrained by the senses they choose to use.

Sotavalta’s peculiar approach to research suggests that certain scientific insights emerge when separate disciplines collide: he used his canny ear not only to identify species during his research, but also for music. “He had a beautiful singing voice,” says Petter Portin, an emeritus professor of genetics who was once a student of Sotavalta’s. Portin remembers him as a tall, slender man who always wore a blue laboratory coat.

Sotavalta’s papers in the National Library of Finland are a curious combination of letters, monographs on insect behaviour, and stacks of sheet music. Some of his compositions are named after birds and insects.

One of the strangest of Sotavalta’s papers, published in the Annals of the Finnish Zoological Society, documents in astonishing detail the songs of two particular nightingales. Sotavalta heard them during successive summers while staying at his summer house in Lempäälä. The paper itself seems dry, until it becomes clear that he’s trying to apply music theory to birdsong.

“The song of the two Sprosser nightingales (Luscinia luscinia L.) occurring in two successive years was recorded acoustically and presented with conventional stave notation,” he wrote.

Following on from this are nearly 30 pages of notes, graphs and analysis of the rhythm and tonality of the birds. After highlighting the similarity between the two songs, he declares: “Because of the short distance between the places where they were singing, it was concluded that they were perhaps father and son.” It is as though his work is a search for some kind of pattern, some musical idea, shared by members of the same species.

However, his paper in Nature was rather more consequential. There, Sotavalta describes the uses of his “acoustic method” of identifying insects using his absolute pitch, and theorises about the subtleties of insect wingbeat: how much energy it consumes, and how it varies according to air pressure and body size. Even so, only decades later did scientists such as Brydegaard reaffirm the relevance of wingbeat in the study of insects – for example, malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

*

In Tanzania, Brydegaard, Jansson and engineer Flemming Rasmussen do not have absolute pitch – and, even if they did, it wouldn’t help much. There are millions of insects in and around the village, and they drone on in a symphony that never ends.

What these scientists have, in place of a keen ear, is a high-tech gadget and two broken lasers. And their phones.

When the lasers failed, it took a few false starts to find a solution. A researcher in Côte d’Ivoire had a working laser, but he was away in the USA. Brydegaard considered sending for a replacement by mail, but knew that – thanks to customs and the day-long drive from the airport in Dar es Salaam – it probably wouldn’t arrive in time for the eclipse.

Finally, they sent a text message to Frederik Taarnhøj, CEO of FaunaPhotonics, their commercial partner, and asked if he would consider sending a scientist from Sweden with some spare lasers. Taarnhøj said yes.

So the trio made a few frantic calls and ultimately convinced another graduate student, Elin Malmqvist, to board a plane the very next day. When she did, she was carrying three small metal boxes in her suitcase.

The saga was not over yet, however. Even after the huge expense of the last-minute flight, the first replacement failed: Brydegaard, in his hurry, confused the anode with the cathode, which short-circuited the laser diode. The second laser yielded a beam, but, inexplicably, it was so faint as to be unusable.

It’s the last laser that Brydegaard now unpacks, hoping that at least this one will work as expected. By the time he screws it onto the tripod, it is almost sunset, and his agitation is palpable. Within the hour, it will be too dark to calibrate even a working laser. Everything rides on this piece of equipment.

*

Laura Harrington’s laboratory at Cornell looks a little like a restaurant kitchen. What resembles the door to a walk-in freezer actually leads to an incubation room. It’s humid and lit by fluorescent lights. The shelves are covered in carefully labelled boxes. Harrington shows me mosquito eggs inside the kinds of disposable containers you’d carry soup in. Over the top of the containers, to prevent mosquitoes from escaping, there’s some kind of net – bridal veil, she tells me. The method is not quite foolproof. A few mosquitoes have escaped, and they buzz around our ears and ankles while we chat.

When we talk about Sotavalta’s approach, Harrington says that he was “definitely ahead of his time”. Even in recent years, researchers who thought to listen to mosquitoes didn’t realise how many insects are capable of listening, too. “For a long time, scientists thought that female mosquitoes were deaf – that they didn’t pay attention to sound at all,” Harrington says.

But in 2009, Harrington put that long-standing assumption to the test. In an unusual and intricate experiment, she and her colleagues tethered a female Aedes aegypti mosquito to a hair, installed a microphone nearby, and placed both inside an upside-down fish tank. Then they released male mosquitoes inside the tank and recorded the results.

The team’s findings astonished Harrington, and led to a breakthrough in the study of sound and entomology. Aedes aegypti conducted a sort of mid-air mating dance that had everything to do with sound. Not only did female mosquitoes respond to the sounds of males, they also seemed to communicate with sounds of their own. “We discovered that males and females actually sing to each other,” Harrington says. “They harmonise just prior to mating.”

This ‘mating song’ isn’t produced by vocal cords. It is produced by flapping wings. During normal flight, male and female mosquitoes have slightly different wingbeats. But Harrington found that during the mating process, males aligned their wingbeat frequency with that of females.

“We think the female is testing the male,” Harrington explains. “How quickly he can converge harmonically.” If so, mosquito songs may function like auditory peacock features. They seem to help females identify the fittest mates.

(© Matthew the Horse)

With these results in mind, and with a recent grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Harrington’s lab has begun development of a novel mosquito trap for field research. Similar projects have been undertaken by teams at James Cook University in Australia and Columbia University in New York City, among others.

For a researcher, there are drawbacks to the mosquito traps that currently exist. Chemical traps have to be refilled, while electric traps tend to kill mosquitoes; Harrington wants her new trap to harness the power of sound to capture living specimens for monitoring and study. It would combine established methods for attracting mosquitoes, like chemicals and blood, with recorded mosquito sounds to mimic the mating song. Importantly, it could be used to capture mosquitoes of either sex.

Historically, scientists have focused on catching female mosquitoes, which twice each day go hunting for mammals to bite – and which may carry the malaria parasite (males do not). But scientists have recently started to consider male mosquitoes an important part of malaria control too. For instance, one current proposal for curbing the disease involves releasing genetically modified males that produce infertile offspring, to reduce the population of disease-carrying mosquitoes in a given area.

Harrington’s hope is that an acoustic trap – using the mating song that attracts males – would help make new strategies such as this possible. “What we’re trying to do is really think outside the box, and identify new and novel ways to control these mosquitoes,” she says.

*

With the last laser finally in place, Brydegaard flips a switch. Suddenly, on the laptop screen next to the tripod, a small white dot appears. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief: the laser works.

The team – made up of Brydegaard, Jansson, Malmqvist and Rasmussen – spend the last 15 minutes of daylight bringing the beam into focus. Other than a few local children, who shout “mzungu” – Swahili for light-skinned foreigner – no one seems especially bothered by the Europeans tinkering with telescopes.

Sunset throws a beautiful, soft light across the marshy landscape around Lupiro, but it also marks the start of malaria transmission. As darkness starts to fall on the hut where the lidar system is set up, villagers walk in from the fields; pillars of smoke rise from cooking fires. Locals here rely on rice for their livelihood: the staple is served with two meals a day, and along the dusty main road, rice chaff piles up like leaves in autumn. But rice fields require standing water, and standing water fosters malaria mosquitoes. Insects have already begun to buzz around our legs.

Now that evening has settled around us, the lidar system has finally begun to record a torrent of data. The team sit around the hut in the dark; a gasoline generator hums outside, powering the laser and computer. On the laptop screen, a jagged red line shows peaks and valleys. Each one, Brydegaard tells me, represents an echo from the beam. Around dusk, dozens or hundreds of insects may cross the beam each minute. We are watching the period that entomologists refer to as “rush hour” – the wave of activity that begins when female mosquitoes swarm into the village and start their search for food.

Nicodemus Govella, a medical entomologist at Tanzania’s prestigious Ifakara Health Institute – a local partner of FaunaPhotonics – has seen the evening mosquito rush hundreds, even thousands of times. He knows how it feels to shiver and vomit as the malaria parasite takes hold; he has experienced the symptoms time and again. “During my childhood, I can’t count how many times,” he tells me.

If Tanzanian epidemiologists are waging a war on malaria, the Ifakara Health Institute works like a ministry of intelligence – it tracks the density, distribution and timing of bites by malaria mosquitoes. Traditionally, Govella says, the “gold standard” of mosquito surveillance was a method called human-landing catch. It’s low-tech but reliable: a volunteer is given medication to prevent malaria transmission and then sits outside with legs bare, letting mosquitoes land and bite.

The problem is that protection against malaria is no longer enough. Too many other diseases, from dengue fever to Zika, are also spread by mosquitoes. As a result, human-landing catch is now widely considered unethical. “It gives you information, but it is very risky,” Govella says. “Other countries have already banned it.” As health officials retire old strategies for malaria surveillance and control, the work on experimental techniques takes on new urgency – which is where the lasers will come in.

In parts of Tanzania, thanks in part to bednets and pesticides, malaria has “gone down tremendously,” Govella tells me. But eradication of the disease has proved elusive. Some mosquitoes have developed resistance to pesticides. Likewise, bednets helped bring night-time transmission under control – but mosquitoes have adapted their behaviour, starting to bite at dusk and dawn, when people aren’t protected.

In 2008, Govella’s daughter contracted malaria. Thinking back, Govella’s manner changes; his precise medical language gives way to a quiet passion. “I don’t even want to remember,” he says. “When I get to that memory, it really brings a lot of pain to me.”

In its early stages, malaria may look like a common cold – which is why it’s so important that scientists have the tools to track the spread of the parasite and the mosquitoes that carry it: to avoid misdiagnosis. In his daughter’s case, the lack of information proved tragic. “Because it was not detected soon, it proceeded up to the level of convulsions,” Govella says. His daughter ultimately died from complications of malaria. Almost every day since then, he has thought about eradication.

“I hate this disease,” Govella says.

*

The persistence of malaria has frustrated generations of scientists. More than a century after the discovery of the parasite, it still afflicts hundreds of millions of people each year, of whom half a million die. Harrington has her own memories of the havoc wreaked by the disease: in 1998, she travelled to Thailand for a series of experiments and contracted malaria herself. “I was the only foreigner for miles and miles around,” she says. As the fever set in, Harrington started to understand the real burden of the disease she studied.

“I could imagine myself as a Thai villager with those illnesses,” she tells me. She was far from the nearest hospital and felt alone. “I felt like, if I died, maybe people wouldn’t find out.” Eventually, someone found her and put her in the back of a pickup truck. She remembers sinking into delirium, staring up at a fan that spun endlessly on the ceiling. “I saw a nurse with a syringe full of purple liquid,” she recalls. It reminded her of when she worked, years before, in a veterinary clinic that used purple injections to euthanise sick animals. “I thought that was the end.”

Finally, the fever broke, and Harrington knew that she was going to survive. “I felt incredibly grateful for my life,” she says. The experience made her even more committed to her research. “I felt that I had the ability to try and dedicate my career to something that could eventually help other people.”

Malaria provides a vivid example of how insects threaten human health – but there are many other ways that they can cause harm. Insects also spread other microbial diseases. Then there’s the effect they have on agriculture. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, insect pests destroy one-fifth of global crop yields. In other words, if the world’s farmers had better ways to control species like locusts and beetles, they could feed millions more people.

Pesticides reduce the damage that insects cause, but when used indiscriminately, they can also harm people or kill the insects that we rely on. We remain deeply dependent on pollinators like bees, moths and butterflies, but a 2016 report showed that 40 per cent of invertebrate pollinator species are under threat of extinction. It’s because of this love–hate relationship with insects that we urgently need better ways of tracking different species – better ways to differentiate between the bugs that help us and the bugs that hurt us.

(© Matthew the Horse)

*

On the day of the eclipse, at just before noon, in the blue skies above Lupiro the black disc of the moon passes in front of the sun. A group of children have gathered round; they hold in their hands small plates of welding glass that the Scandinavian scientists brought with them. By peering through the green-tinted glass, the children can see the narrowing crescent of the sun.

The village around us has gone dim; our shadows have grown less distinct. Judging by the light, it feels as if a sudden storm has set in, or someone has turned a dimmer that has made the sun go faint. The scientists from Sweden, along with their partners at the Ifakara Health Institute and FaunaPhotonics, want to know if in the dim light of an eclipse insects become more active, just as they do at dusk.

On the screen, we watch the red peaks, which have picked up again – not as many as we saw at sunset and sunrise, but more than usual. There’s a simple reason this data matters: if the mosquitoes are more active during an eclipse, that suggests that they use light as a cue, knowing when to swarm each morning and evening by the dimness of the rising and setting sun.

As the data pours in, the scientists talk me through what we’re looking at. Lidar was originally developed to study much larger-scale phenomena, like changes in atmospheric chemistry. This system has been simplified to a bare minimum.

Each of the three telescopes on the tripod has a separate function. The first directs the outgoing laser at a tree about half a kilometre away. Nailed to the tree trunk is a black board, where the beam terminates. (To clear a path for the laser, Jansson, the PhD student, had to cut a path through the underbrush with a machete.)

When insects fly through the laser beam, reflections bounce back at the device from their beating wings, and they’re picked up by the second telescope. The third telescope allows the team to aim and calibrate the system; the whole apparatus is connected to a laptop computer that aggregates the data. The red peaks dancing across the screen represent insects crossing the laser beam.

To record the reflections, which Brydegaard calls the “atmospheric echo”, the lidar system captures 4,000 snapshots per second. Later, the team will use an algorithm to comb through the snapshots for wingbeat frequency – the fingerprint of each species.

This device, in other words, achieves with optics what Olavi Sotavalta achieved with his ears, and what Harrington has achieved with the help of a microphone.

But there are some details in the lidar data that the human ear could never discern. For example, an insect’s wingbeat frequency is accompanied by higher-pitched harmonics. (Harmonics are what lend richness to the sound of a violin; they’re responsible for the resonant ring produced by a muted guitar string.) The lidar system can capture harmonic frequencies that are too high for the human ear to hear. In addition, laser beams are polarised, and when they reflect off different surfaces, their polarisation changes. The amount of change can tell Brydegaard and his colleagues whether an insect’s wing is glossy or matte, which is also useful when trying to distinguish different species.

As the dark disc of the sun starts to brighten again, the scientists snap pictures and try, without much success, to explain how the lasers work to local children. Now that the data is flowing, the tension that accompanied the set-up of the lidar system has simply melted away.

It finally seems clear that the high price tag of the experiment won’t be in vain. The team spent about $12,000 on the lidar system, not including the equally hefty costs of transport and labour. “That sounds like a lot, standing in an African village,” Brydegaard admits. On the other hand, older forms of lidar, used to study the atmosphere, can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. The burden of malaria, meanwhile, would be calculated in the billions of dollars – if it could be calculated at all.

Within a couple of hours, the bright round circle of the sun is again burning brightly. A couple of hours after that, it has started to set.

We re-apply bug spray to ward off the mosquitoes that, once again, will come flying in from the marshy fields around Lupiro. Then we walk into town for dinner, which, as usual, includes rice.

*

Three months after the experiment, I called FaunaPhotonics to learn how their analysis was progressing. After so many lasers had failed, I wanted to know whether the final one had given them the results they needed.

The data was messy, they said. “Around cooking time, there’s lots of smoke and dust in the air,” said Jord Prangsma, an engineer responsible for analysing the data that the team brought back. He added that the data did seem to show distinct wingbeats. But it’s one thing to spot those beats on a graph. “To tell a computer, ‘Please find me the correct frequency,’ is another thing,” he said. Unlike Sotavalta, who had studied individuals, the team in Tanzania had gathered data from many thousands of insects. They were trying to analyse all of those beating wings at once.

But the obstacles were not insurmountable. “We see a higher activity just around noon,” said Samuel Jansson, speaking about the data from the eclipse. This suggests that mosquitoes were, indeed, using light as a cue to begin searching for food during rush hour. Prangsma added that an algorithm he had developed was starting to separate out the crucial data. “From a scientific point of view, this is a very rich dataset,” he said.

Over the months that followed, FaunaPhotonics continued to make progress. “Despite initial laser problems,” Brydegaard wrote in a recent email, “the systems performed to the satisfaction of all our expectations.”

Each day that the system was in operation, he said, they had recorded a staggering 100,000 insect observations. “Indications are that we can discriminate several species and gender classes of insects,” Brydegaard went on.

Along with his Lund University colleagues, Brydegaard will publish the results; FaunaPhotonics, as his commercial partner, will offer their lidar device, along with their analytic expertise, to companies and research organisations looking to track insects in the field. “If we have a customer that’s interested in a certain species, then we’ll tailor the algorithm a bit to target the species,” Prangsma explained. “Each dataset is unique, and has to be tackled in its own way.” Recently, FaunaPhotonics began a three-year collaboration with Bayer to continue developing its technology.

The study of wingbeat has come an incredibly long way since Olavi Sotavalta used his absolute pitch to identify insects – and yet in some ways, the Scandinavian scientists’ work differs very little from the Finnish entomologist’s. Just like Sotavalta, they are bringing separate disciplines together – in this case physics and biology, lidar and entomology – to uncover patterns in nature. But they have plenty of work left to do. FaunaPhotonics and its partners will start, in a forthcoming paper, by trying to connect the dots between light, lasers and mosquitoes. Then they’ll try to demonstrate that the study of wingbeat frequency could help humans control diseases other than malaria, as well as insects that destroy crops.

“This is a journey that is not a few months,” said Rasmussen, the engineer. “This is a journey that will go for years ahead.”

This article was first published by Wellcome on Mosaic and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Why Does This Indonesian Volcano Burn Bright Blue?

Smithsonian Magazine

Over the past month, the web has come alive with French photographer Olivier Grunewald's spectacular photos of Indonesia's Kawah Ijen volcano. Snapped during shooting of a new documentary he's releasing with the president of Geneva's Society for Volcanology, Régis Etienne, the photos—taken without the aid of any filter or digital enhancement—showcase the volcano's amazing electric blue glow.

Little of the web coverage, though, has enlightened readers on the scientific principles at work. "This blue glow, unusual for a volcano, isn't the lava itself, as unfortunately can be read on many websites," Grunewald says. "It is due to the combustion of sulfuric gases in contact with air at temperatures above 360°C."

In other words, the lava—molten rock that emerges from the Earth at ultra-high temperatures—isn't colored significantly differently than the lava at other volcanoes, which all differ slightly based on their mineral composition but appear a bright red or orange color in their molten state. But at Kawah Ijen, extremely high quantities of sulfuric gases emerge at high pressures and temperatures (sometimes in excess of 600°C) along with the lava. 

Exposed to the oxygen present in air and sparked by lava, the sulfur burns readily, and its flames are bright blue. There's so much sulfur, Grunewald says, that at times it flows down the rock face as it burns, making it seem as though blue lava is spilling down the mountainside. But because only the flames are blue, rather than the lava itself, the effect is only visible at night—during daytime, the volcano looks like roughly any other.

"The vision of these flames at night is strange and extraordinary," Grunewald says. "After several nights in the crater, we felt really living on another planet."

Grunewald first heard about the phenomenon from Etienne, who visited the volcano in 2008 with an Indonesian guide. After being shown Etienne's photo featuring a child miner's silhouette surrounded by the blue glow, he was struck by the idea of photographing the mountain's sulfur miners working at night.

These miners extract sulfuric rock—formed after the blue flames have gone out and the sulfur gas has cooled and combined with the lava to form solidified rock—for use in the food and chemical industries. "To double their meager income, the hardiest of these men work nights, by the electric blue light of the sulfuric acid exhaled by the volcano," Grunewald says. Some of the workers are children, seeking to support their families by any means possible.

They carry rock-filled baskets by hand down the mountain, selling it for about 680 Indonesian rupiahs per kilogram, the equivalent of about six cents. In a country where the median daily income is about $13, many work overnight to supplement their income. Grunewald estimates that these nighttime miners can mine and carry between 80 to 100 kilos over the course of twelve hours of work—about $5 to $6.

Grunewald and Etienne produced the documentary partly to bring attention to these harsh working conditions. Most of the miners do not have gas masks (which the photographers wore throughout shooting and distributed to miners afterward), and suffer from health problems due to prolonged exposure to sulfur dioxide and other toxic gases.

Shooting these striking photos—some taken just a few feet away from the flames—was far more physically demanding than most of Grunewald's previous projects of landscapes and wildlife. "The main problem was the acidic gases that whirled constantly in the crater," he says. "The night seriously increased the difficulty as well, because it became almost impossible to see when dense gases arrived—at times, we were stuck in gas plumes for over an hour without being able to see our hands."

Just 30 nights in the crater, distributed over six trips, were enough to show Grunewald how destructive the environment of these mines can be. "During my first trip, I lost a camera and two lenses that had been corroded by acid," he says. "After we got back home, it took up to three weeks for our skin to lose the smell of sulfur."

His photos make the blue flames appear dramatically beautiful, even surreal. But for the miners that spend months or years at the volcano, the sulfur dioxide is quite real, and the health effects of chronic exposure—throat and lung irritation, difficulty breathing and a propensity for lung disease—can be devastating.

Who Goes to Norway in February?

Smithsonian Magazine

I'm seated in the back of a horse-drawn wagon that's meandering along a path in Nordmarka, the heavily wooded region encompassing much of Oslo. Beside me are a woman from Vancouver, Canada, another from Liverpool, and a Norwegian mother and her young son Aleister, whose round glasses and tousled hair make him look like Harry Potter.

We joke as the wagon lurches forward, our new group of friends pouring sips from a bottle of Jägermeister that had been conveniently hidden behind the trunk of a spruce tree along the route. Though the sky is heavy with moisture, we're content, enchanted by the surrounding forest and already dressed in waterproof wear.

The horse whinnies and our wagon comes to a halt, directly in front of a folding cart table laden with treats. In one corner sits a pile of oranges, while in another are rows of brightly wrapped Lunsji, chocolate-covered wafers (often compared to Kit Kat bars) that are a Norwegian energy staple (the name translates to “quick lunch”). At the center stand more than a dozen cans of Ringnes beer and Pepsi, along with plastic containers of ketchup and mustard, thermoses filled with mulled wine and a coveted bottle of Aquavit, the country's signature spiced spirit.

Our guide Frodo (not kidding) soon appears carrying a backpack filled with hot dogs, buns and dough for roasting on sticks. We head toward the warming fire, taking our seats on benches softened with reindeer pelts. It's the ultimate Norwegian picnic. Then as if on cue, it begins to snow.

“You're going where this February?” friends asked when I mentioned my upcoming trip to greater Oslo, Norway's colorful capital city positioned on the shores of Oslofjord inlet. Known for its wealth of museums and galleries—as well as its steep prices—Oslo also has an unwarranted reputation in the U.S. for being dark and uninviting, specifically in the dead of winter. “You're going to freeze,” people said. “Not only is it cold, but there's hardly any daylight.”

The truth is, I didn't know what to expect when my plane touched down in Norway. I'd been to Scandinavia on a whirlwind tour of Copenhagen, Oslo and Stockholm years before, but that was during the relatively warm month of April and most of my time was spent on tour buses. On this visit, my goal was to experience southern Norway's wondrous bounty any way I saw fit, despite the frigid temperatures.

I arrived at Oslo's Gardermoen Airport on a Monday morning, a dusting of snow covering much of the runway's surrounds. I collected luggage and boarded a Wi-Fi-equipped train for the two-hour train ride to Lillehammer, a small ski hamlet filled with 19th-century wooden structures and—rumor has it—the largest concentration of sporting good stores and outdoor shops in all of Norway. While not as well known as Oslo, Lillehammer skated its way into public consciousness as host of the 1994 Winter Olympics (the games featuring Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding).

Since then, much of the area's added infrastructure has remained intact, attracting tourists who come to watch athletes tackle the Lysgårdsbakkene Ski Jump, browse the displays at the all-encompassing Norwegian Olympic Museum and dine amongst giant trolls at Trollsalen Restaurant in Hunderfossen Winter Park (the eatery claims that the trolls are made of “troll-flesh and troll-bones”). After arriving, I caught a shuttle to nearby Hafjell ski resort for a turn on the bobraft, a slightly tamer and more padded version of bobsledding aimed at tourists.

Joining three (relative) strangers and a driver provided by the resort, I set off at 60 miles per hour down a 16-turn, 5,610-foot-long Olympic bobsledding track, feeling much like a bobblehead doll as I tried to keep my head from falling forward or back. Securing my elbows and arms against the inside of the raft, I worked to keep myself as straight as possible as we hugged each curve. The driver's skills maneuvering around the track amazed me. The experience definitely earned me my next stop: a Fjellbekk cocktail made with vodka, soda and aqauvit at King Valemon's snow and ice-built Ice Bar, inside Hunderfossen's Snow Hotel.

Image by Tim Graham/Getty Images. A couple walks past traditional wooden buildings along Storgata in the quaint area of Tromso, located in the Arctic Circle in northern Norway (original image)

Image by Tim Graham/Getty Images. Arctic sky and landscape at Ersfjordbotn on Klavoya Island near Tromso in northern Norway (original image)

Image by Tim Graham/Getty Images. Stockfish and cod dry in a fisherman's hut in the Arctic Circle on the island of Ringvassoya, located in northern Norway's region of Tromso (original image)

Image by Atlantide Phototravel/Corbis. The harbor of the Norwegian city of Moskenesoy (original image)

In a country where temperatures can plummet to -40 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter and daylight sometimes never appears, Norwegians have to find innovative ways to amuse themselves during the long winter months. As I quickly learned, it doesn't mean staying indoors. The Norwegian philosophy of Friluftsliv, or “open outdoor living,” is one that permeates Norwegian's lives year-round. Throughout winter you'll see locals dressed in boots and parkas with faux fur-lined hoods wandering the streets of Oslo as if it were sunny and 70 degrees.

Kids may spend their weekdays mornings studying in school, but their evenings are devoted to Vinterpark Tryvann, Oslo's largest ski resort, where they work on perfecting their downhill runs. And in the outskirts of the capital city you'll find people cross-country skiing, ice-fishing, and yes, even picnicking, morning, noon and night.

After leaving Lillehammer I made my way up to Norefjell, another alpine ski resort approximately a 1.5-hour drive north of Oslo. It's home to the ski-in/ski-out Quality Spa & Resort where I booked a room, as well as one of Scandinavia's greatest vertical drops. The slopes were overrun with Danes on winter holiday, visiting their northern neighbor for both its proximity and elevated terrain.

Still, the declaration among locals that Norwegians are “born with skis on their feet” has little to do with downhill (or alpine) skiing, a sport that didn't really gain traction in the area until the 1970s. “Alpine skiing first became popular [with Norwegians] because of the great Swedish champion Ingemar Stenmark, whom they watched on television,” says Jean-Francois Gehin, former marketing manager at Hafjell, as we sit sipping coffee in the resort's cafe. “Then as Norway's standard of living increased—and with the building of ski facilities for the '94 Olympics—alpine skiing has gotten a real push.”

Today, says Gehin, about 15 percent of Norwegians engage in alpine skiing, while approximately 75 percent ski cross-country at least once per year. But despite the sport's mainstream infancy in Norway, the country's alpine skiers remain some of the world's best. Norway's alpine skiers won four medals at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, with the ski team's rock-star athlete Aksel Lund Svindal even beating out U.S. favorite Bode Miller for gold in the Men's Super-G.

Norefjell's beginner runs were ideal for my novice skills, and I spent much of the day on the bunny slope (they also call it this in Norway) just outside the resort, using pull lifts to carry me to the top of the hill and then slowly snow plowing down as toddlers whizzed past me, raising their arms in victory as they went. Maybe it was that I was sporting multiple layers or thinking about the promise of an evening shot of aquavit to warm my throat, but I hardly noticed the cold.

In fact, the energy required to partake in friluftsliv during frigid months leads to one of the season's added bonuses: Norway's nurturing, hearty cuisine. That afternoon as I sat enjoying a bowl of Jerusalem artichoke and potato soup at the resort's Swiss-chalet-style Norefjellhytta Restaurant, which overlooks stunning Lake Noresund, I found myself thinking: winter may indeed be the best time to visit southern Norway.

Still, it wasn't until arriving in Oslo that I sampled one of the country's finest food offerings: torsketunger, or fried cod's tongue, an oyster-like delicacy that's only available during skrei season—roughly January through March. Though actually a small muscle from inside the fish's throat, these “tongues” were larger than I expected and surprisingly pleasing, their crispy breaded exteriors contrasting well with the briny, gelatinous substance inside.

I spent my final few days in Norway exploring its capital city, dining on open-faced sandwiches and slurping up bowls of milky fiskesuppe, or fish soup; perusing exhibits inside the Nobel Peace Center and the National Gallery (home to one of the two painted versions of Edvard Munch's The Scream) and spending even more time outdoors. I walked among Gustav Vigeland's snow-draped human sculptures in Oslo's Vigelandsparken as locals glided by on skis; took a death-defying toboggan ride down Korketrekkeren, a corkscrewing and tenacious track riddled with moguls and serviced by public transport that will carry intrepid souls right back up to the top; and sat around a mid-afternoon campfire beneath snow flurries in the woods, drinking mulled wine, frying hot dogs on sticks, and feeling as content as I'd been if it were bright skies and 80 degrees.

There's no doubt that winters in southern Norway are cold, but with centuries of biting temperatures beneath their belts, Norwegians have figured out how to not only cope with the weather, but also how to embrace it. In fact, it's an art they seem to have perfected.

Where to Go when Greece Says No: Turkey

Smithsonian Magazine

The great Selimiye Mosque of Edirne.

The Greeks wouldn’t have me. The two men at the border checkpoint just west of Zlatograd took one look at my passport and pointed me right back into Bulgaria. The problem, near as I could understand, was that the Zlatograd customs office had run out of ink for stamping visas. This was ridiculous, but they insisted that only E.U. citizens could currently use this port between Greece and Bulgaria; I would need to go northeastward to Svilengrad, where Bulgaria touches both Greece and Turkey. Here, the men promised, I would be welcomed with state-of-the-art visa-stamping gear.

“How far to Svilengrad?” I asked. The one who answered winced as he did: “Two-hundred kilometers.”

I went northeast across a landscape that transformed quickly from the green and abundant Rhodope Mountains into a sad, dusty plain with lonely villages where men sipped espresso from disposable cups and watched plastic bags bound past like tumbleweeds. There were no thriving plazas or vast heaps of watermelons, no hotels, no beautiful forests, no icy fountains, no tourists. Flies harried me every time I stopped, and the only relief came by continuously moving. I blasted through the drab desert city of Kardzhali and past Perperikon and Monek fortresses and finally slept in an almond grove on a hilltop.

The agents at the Svilengrad border booth had first-rate, no-nonsense stamping equipment and plenty of ink.

“Hey, your colleagues in Zlatograd could use a liter of that black stuff,” I might have joked if I’d known how.

A 90-day, multiple-entry tourist visa for Turkey runs $20—about 35 Turkish Lira—and with a quick passport inspection and a thump of the stamp, you’re in. From Bulgaria into Turkey, the brown, weary landscape continues unabated—but lo! What’s this ahead? Gilded Oz-like spires spear the sky above the clutter and activity of a large city emerging in the dusty haze. Edirne!

In this beautiful old town, the huge Selimiye Mosque is the premiere sight to stare at, with its great central dome cornered by four sky-high spires. It’s behind the Old Mosque, however—humble, worn, faded, outperformed in almost every way—that I find a huge fig tree in the garden adjacent to the plaza. The large black fruits are exceptional, and just a quick tussle with the branches can produce enough for dinner.

Melons come in heaps in Turkey.

But nothing brings refreshment when one is thirsty, famished and sweltering like a watermelon. In the heat of the next afternoon, I collapsed half dead under a tree, pulled out knife and spoon and put away a ten-pounder, clean down to the white rind. I lay inert and immobilized for 25 minutes as my body absorbed the sugar and juices. It worked like gummi bear juice: I bounced back onto the asphalt and devoured 30 more miles of highway before meeting a pair of westbound South Korean cyclists sitting under the only tree for a mile around. I pulled over and joined them. One, a journalist named Moon, told me he’s been working his way around the globe by bike for five years. He sleeps for free any way he can and sends home travel stories from his laptop to pay his meager bills, though he has had some substantial monetary setbacks; in Latin America he was robbed five times, and he is now on his third bicycle.

That evening as I ate a fruit salad with white cheese, a man walked into my bush camp with a gun, marched straight at me as I gaped in shock and sprawled out beside me on my tarp. He set the shotgun between us and said, “Don’t mind me,” like some absurd character in a sitcom. He waved the back of his hand as he looked over my possessions. “Eat your dinner. Read your book.” He seemed to be missing a few screws, and there was something unnervingly absent-minded about him: He grabbed my water bottle and shook it, flipped through my journal, tried to read my postcards, wrote me his address so I could send him one (“Sure, thing, pal”), squeezed the front tire of my bike. Then, he pulled a huge slug from his pocket and loaded his gun. I bolted upright in alarm—but without a word or a glance, the man stood and walked into the darkness. Gunshots echoed all night in the hills until a distant prayer call announced it was morning.

I moved promptly. Next stop: Istanbul, 110 miles away.

When the Painting Is Also Poetry

Smithsonian Magazine

Two enormous hanging scrolls of Chinese calligraphy are unrolled dramatically at the entrance of the new exhibition “Painting with Words: Gentleman Artists of the Ming Dynasty,” on view at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. In the gallery next door is a third one.

These three floor-to-ceiling showstoppers are as striking and contemporary looking as a grease crayon work by Richard Serra. But they are poems.

One, in agitated brushstrokes, is a melancholic reflection, At Leisure in My Studio at Year’s End, from ca. 1540. More than 10 feet high and nearly 5 feet wide, it reads (in partial translation):

 “The lane at my gate is desolate and drear, few are those who come to call. . . . My friends are scattered few and far apart and the rain just drizzles on.”

Stephen D. Allee, the museum’s associate curator for Chinese painting and calligraphy, who organized the show, notes: “We know of only five scrolls of this heroic size by the artist Wen Zhengming [1470-1559] and this is the only known example with a personal poem.”

A hanging scroll entitled,At Leisure in My Studio at Year's End, by Wen Zhengming (1470-1559), China Ming dynasty, ca. 1540 (Freer Gallery of Art) At Leisure in My Studio at Year's End (detail) by Wen Zhengming (1470-1559), ca. 1540 (Freer Gallery of Art)

Wen left a prestigious job in the Ming Imperial Court after only eight years because he was unhappy with the ruthless politics of the day. For the next 32 years, he lived the life of a gentleman scholar in retirement—reading, painting and composing poetry. Wen composed the poem “At Leisure” when he was 30, in 1500, but the artwork on imposing view was created when he was 70. By then he was a famous calligrapher, presumably commissioned by a private client to make a copy of his poem (he probably needed the money, Allee says).

The artwork At Leisure is among 45 scrolls and album leaves in the show that were created between 1464 and 1622 by Wu School artists based in the canal-studded city of Suzhou (still called “the Venice of the East”).

The Wu School takes its name from the thriving kingdom that once ruled the region. Wu School artists excelled at music and drama but were particularly admired for their mastery of poetry, painting and calligraphy.

A handscroll entitled, A Spring Gathering, by Shen Zhou (1427-1509), Ming dynasty, ca. 1480 (Freer Gallery of Art)

“These complementary art forms, known collectively in China as the ‘Three Perfections,’ were considered the ultimate modes of literati expression,” explains Allee.

The Three Perfections come together in each landscape.

“The paintings all have inscribed poems on them,” Allee says. “The inscription is fundamental to understanding what the work of art is about.”

If, for example, four artists went on a trip together, one might paint a landscape and the others respond to it with poems. “There is an interrelationship between the image and the poem,” Allee says. “The inscription tells you the history of the trip.”

He continues: “Poetry was the primary vehicle of polite social exchange then. The poems inspire, accompany and respond to the paintings and calligraphy.”

Many of the Wu School painters and calligraphers knew one another. One, the painter, poet and calligrapher Shen Zhou, for example, was a close friend of another painter, Liu Jue, who married Shen’s older sister. The two artists went on sightseeing trips together.

“The more you understand the personal, professional and stylistic relationships among these artists, the more you understand the individual pieces,” Allee says. “Most of these paintings were done by friends for friends (or family members), so the responses are quite personal.”

The poems would make the landscapes come alive, at least to any Chinese viewer.

“Poetry is a much better vehicle for the expression of emotion than painting or calligraphy, both of which draw on ideas,” Allee says.

Sometimes, poems were added much, much later by outsiders.

A handscroll entitled, A Spring Gathering, (detail) by Shen Zhou (1427-1509), Ming dynasty, ca. 1480 (Freer Gallery of Art)

One landscape by Shen Zhou, Expecting Visitors, depicts a robed gentleman standing in the doorway of a modest lakeside studio, his servant by his side holding a scroll, waiting to greet guests. One visitor has just moored his boat and is walking across a footbridge. Another is arriving by boat, carrying a box of food. The peach trees are in bloom, to signify spring. They are set to spend a nice afternoon together admiring the scroll.

Shen Zhou dedicated the painting to Hua Fang (1407 -1477), a contemporary from a prominent, wealthy clan who rescued some land north of Suzhou after a devastating flood and eased the tax burden on the local population. The man in the studio probably represents Hua as a scholar gentleman, awaiting friends in his secluded garden, which refers to his refined taste and noble character.

The inscriptions were added by no less a personage than the emperor—300 years later. Allee tells us the Qianlong emperor (1735-1796) so admired this landscape that he added a calligraphic frontispiece and four poetic inscriptions. Presumably the emperor identified with the philanthropist.

Calligraphy scrolls were often created at social gatherings. Allee points to a long hand scroll in a horizontal case. The calligraphy gets looser as you read it from right to left (this is how the Chinese write). He says friends would get together for long evenings of art—and drinking. Inevitably, the calligraphy loosens up as the night wears on.

Allee explains how calligraphers worked: A servant or “writing boy” would stand at one end of a long table, a second at the other end. As the calligrapher worked, one servant would roll up the calligraphy-covered paper as the other, on the far end, unrolled the blank paper. The calligrapher never had to move.

“The timing was very important between the master and his helpers,” Allee says. “The calligrapher is focusing on the ink and brushes. His motions come from the elbow and shoulder, not the wrist. There is a kind of physical dimension to it, so he would not lose the fluidity. The writing boys watched the master, so when he leaned over to reload the brush, they could scroll the paper.”

An ink on paper artwork entitled, Bamboo After Rain on the Xiao and Xiang Rivers, by Xia Chang (detail) (1388-1470), Ming dynasty, 1464 (Freer Gallery of Art)

In the exhibition, 30 landscapes artists are represented. Allee displays the works in a digestible way, by artist, recipient and the occasion for making the work of art. The poems are translated above in red lettering. The wall labels describe what is happening in the scene, its symbolism and the specific art techniques and styles employed (many of them conscious references to masters of the earlier Tang and Song dynasties).

One vignette of “Xiao-Xiang River After Rain” by Xia Chang (1388-1470) particularly stands out: A low-lying branch of bamboo on a riverbank dips into the water, but only for a few inches, before it re-emerges on the surface. Submerged leaves are pale gray; the others coal black.

Not only is it brilliantly painted but it is also true to life. I saw the same thing last week while hiking in the valley of Bryce Canyon in Utah. 

A handscroll entitled, The Beauties of Shu River, attributed to Qiu Ying (ca. 1494-1552), Ming dynasty, 16th-17th century (Freer Gallery of Art)

When Rock Bands Flocked to Howard Finster’s Remote, Bizarre Artist Compound

Smithsonian Magazine

Most art critics never took Howard Finster seriously. If they wrote about him at all, they shunted him off into the category of “self-taught folk artist” or “outsider artist,” a quaint curiosity but nothing to take seriously.  Even when his paintings were shown at the Library of Congress or the Venice Biennale, they were presented as novelty items.

But rock musicians, including the legendary ’80s band R.E.M., recognized Finster as one of their own: an unschooled genius who shrugged off the establishment's condescension to enjoy the last laugh.

After R.E.M. filmed its first music video at the fellow Georgian’s home studio in 1983, Finster and lead singer Michael Stipe then collaborated on the cover for the group’s 1984 album, Reckoning. The New York band the Talking Heads commissioned Finster to paint the cover for their 1985 album, Little Creatures; it was named “Album Cover of the Year” by Rolling Stone. Another Georgia musician, the Vigilantes of Love's Bill Mallonnee, wrote a song about Finster: “The Glory and the Dream.”

Finster’s studio, known as “Paradise Garden,” is still standing on the land he bought in 1961, located at the end of a narrow street in the unincorporated town of Pennville, Georgia. The bicycle repair shop that provided his main income for years lives on, as do many of the buildings Finster built as parts of his “sacred art” project: the Mirror House, Bottle House, Mosaic Garden, Rolling Chair Gallery, Hubcap Tower and the five-story World's Folk Art Chapel.

During the 1980s and ‘90s, it was not unusual to a big tour bus to pull up at Paradise Garden and for a rock band to climb out and marvel at Finster’s exuberant, unruly visions. The exteriors and interiors of his buildings were covered with Biblical verses, floating angels, Satanic flames and celestial clouds, all part of the painter's mission to spread God's word

Image by Geoffrey Himes. Finster's hand-painted Cadillac (original image)

Image by Geoffrey Himes. Depictions of Elvis Presley in the Rolling Chair Gallery (original image)

Image by Geoffrey Himes. Finster's manifesto (original image)

Image by Geoffrey Himes. American icons: Coke, Santa and wagon wheels (original image)

Image by Geoffrey Himes. Memory jars embedded in cement wall (original image)

Image by Geoffrey Himes. Finster's studio (original image)

Image by Geoffrey Himes. An R.A. Miller rooster inside the Rolling Chair Gallery (original image)

Image by Geoffrey Himes. Colored bottles cemented into a small chapel (original image)

Image by Geoffrey Himes. The Hubcap Tree (original image)

Image by Geoffrey Himes. The World's Folk Art Chapel (original image)

Image by Geoffrey Himes. A Purvis Young painting (original image)

But as the painter aged, he moved away in 1994 and finally died in 2001. In his absence, the compound declined dramatically: the detachable art works were removed by family members and looters; the buildings leaked, tilted and sank into accumulating mud. It wasn’t until 2012 when Chattooga County bought the property and turned it over to the non-profit Paradise Garden Foundation that the property began to turn around. Heading up the foundation is 32-year-old Jordan Poole, who grew up in the area before earning a master's degree in historic preservation from Savannah College.

“My grandparents had a grocery store two blocks away,” Poole remembers. “My mother went to grade school at the top of the hill, and my family's buried a block away. I first visited here when I was five years old, and to me it was magical, enchanting. But my dad would say, ‘There’s that crazy Finster place.’ That was the common attitude. He was that crazy Baptist preacher who did what you shouldn’t do.”

When I visited in May, Poole provided a personal tour. He pulled out a mini-album of snapshots to show how bad the property had become by 2010. Water is always the biggest enemy of abandoned buildings, and rain had streaked the walls and ceilings, rotted the beams and carried the mud into every low-lying area. When I glanced from the photos to the landscape in front of me, the transformation was remarkable.

Finster’s former studio, a clapboard bungalow painted with images of George Washington, an orange panther and willowy saints, now serves as a gift shop and visitors’ center, where you can buy a ticket for the low price of $5 (even cheaper if you’re a senior, student or child). As you walk out the back door, you’re confronted by the World's Folk Art Chapel, which resembles nothing so much as a five-layer wedding cake, featuring a 12-sided white-wood balcony, a cylindrical tower and an inverted-funnel spire.

Covering one of the chapel's windows is a painting that serves as the most succinct summary of Finster’s artistic purpose: “Visions of Other Worlds,” it reads across a landscape of exploding volcanoes and swirling stars. “I took the pieces you threw away—put them together by night & day—washed by rain and dried by sun—a million pieces all in one.”

Indeed recycled materials are to be seen everywhere: rusted farm implements, teapots, broken dishes, light fixtures, empty pop bottles, plastic toys, sea shells, shattered mirrors, bicycle rims and much more, all juxtaposed with wire and cement into new arrangements—always startling and often beautiful. A workshop is still filled with such bits and pieces waiting to be assembled into new art works.

Finster dug serpentine paths for the creek that crossed his property so the water snaked between his structures large and small. It was his own, personal “Garden of Eden,” as he put it. The creek had been silted up, but it was one of the first things restored by the new foundation.

One shed is raised on stilts and covered inside and out with mirrors. When you walk into this “Mirror House,” you find your reflection fractured and multiplied many times over. A 20-foot-tall tower of hubcaps is entangled in vines. His hand-painted Cadillac is parked in another shed. Three adjacent trees that he braided into one are still standing. The Rolling Chair Ramp Gallery, designed for wheelchairs, is a long, L-shaped building lined with news reports and testimonials as well as art works by Finster and his colleagues, all annotated by Finster’s black Sharpie.

Outsider folk artists have a reputation for being isolated loners, but Paradise Garden deflates that stereotype. Even as a septuagenarian Baptist minister, Finster loved to have scruffy rock'n'rollers and camera-clicking tourists visit, and their greetings are hung in the gallery. He especially like to meet his fellow outsider artists, and such famous names as Purvis Young, Keith Haring and R.A. Miller all left art works behind in gratitude for Finster’s trail-blazing example.

Finster’s legacy is complicated by the fact that he was more interested in getting his message out to as many people as possible than in creating the best possible art. Later in his career, he started churning out what he called “souvenir art,” multiple variations on a few simple themes to feed the demand. These were inevitably lacking in inspiration and diminished his reputation, but his best work stands up as great American art. He had a strong sense of line and color and a genius for combining text and imagery. But the greatest of his works may be Paradise Garden itself.

The Paradise Garden Foundation has accomplished much in a few years, but there is still much to do. The buildings were originally covered with paintings on plywood, and the foundation wants to restore those—not with originals that will be damaged by the elements but by weatherproof replicas. The most expensive challenge is stabilizing and weatherproofing the World's Folk Art Chapel. Paradise Garden deserved its notoriety in the ‘00s as a dilapidated ruin of its former self, but it deserves that reputation no longer.

The site is worth an out-of-the-way trip not only for art lovers but also for music fans—not just because Finster painted a few album covers but more so because he seemed to embody the unschooled, non-corporate, non-academic spirit of the earliest, strangest and best rock 'n' roll.

When Republicans Were Blue and Democrats Were Red

Smithsonian Magazine

Television’s first dynamic, color-coded presidential map, standing two stories high in the studio best known as the home to “Saturday Night Live,” was melting.

It was early October, 1976, the month before the map was to debut—live—on election night. At the urging of anchor John Chancellor, NBC had constructed the behemoth map to illustrate, in vivid blue and red, which states supported Republican incumbent Gerald Ford and which backed Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter.

The test run didn’t go well. Although the map was buttressed by a sturdy wood frame, the front of each state was plastic.

 “There were thousands of bulbs,” recalled Roy Wetzel, then the newly minted general manager of NBC’s election unit. “The thing started to melt when we turned all the lights on. We then had to bring in gigantic interior air conditioning and fans to put behind the thing to cool it.”

That solved the problem. And when election results flowed in Tuesday night, Nov. 2, Studio 8-H at 30 Rockefeller Center lit up. Light bulbs on each state changed from undecided white to Republican blue and Democratic red. NBC declared Carter the winner at 3:30 a.m. EST, when Mississippi turned red.

That’s right: In the beginning, blue was red and red was blue and they changed back and forth from election to election and network to network in what appears, in hindsight, to be a flight of whimsy. The notion that there were “red states” and “blue states”—and that the former were Republican and the latter Democratic—wasn’t cemented on the national psyche until the year 2000.

Chalk up another one to Bush v. Gore. Not only did it give us “hanging chads” and a crash course in the Electoral College, not only did it lead to a controversial Supreme Court ruling and a heightened level of polarization that has intensified ever since, the Election That Wouldn’t End gave us a new political shorthand.

Twelve years later, in the final days of a presidential race deemed too close to call, we know this much about election night Nov. 6: The West Coast, the Northeast and much of the upper Midwest will be bathed in blue. With some notable exceptions, the geographic center of the country will be awash in red. So will the South. And ultimately, it is a handful of states—which will start the evening in shades of neutral and shift, one by one, to red or blue—that will determine who wins.

If enough of those swing states turn blue, President Barack Obama remains in the White House four more years. If enough become red, Gov. Mitt Romney moves in January 20, 2013. For now, they are considered “purple.”

Here’s something else we know: All the maps—on TV stations and Web sites election night and in newspapers the next morning—will look alike. We won’t have to switch our thinking as we switch channels, wondering which candidate is blue and which is red. Before the epic election of 2000, there was no uniformity in the maps that television stations, newspapers or magazines used to illustrate presidential elections. Pretty much everyone embraced red and blue, but which color represented which party varied, sometimes by organization, sometimes by election cycle.

There are theories, some likely, some just plain weird, to explain the shifting palette.

“For years, both parties would do red and blue maps, but they always made the other guys red,” said Chuck Todd, political director and chief White House correspondent for NBC News. “During the Cold War, who wanted to be red?”

Indeed, prior to the breakup of the Soviet Union little more than two decades ago, “red was a term of derision,” noted Mitchell Stephens, a New York University professor of journalism and author of A History of News.

“There’s a movie named Reds, ” he said. “You’d see red in tabloid headlines, particularly in right wing tabloids like the Daily Mirror in New York and the New York Daily News.”

Image by YouTube. In 1972, CBS News split the country into regions and used a color-coded map, with blue for Republicans and red for Democrats. (original image)

Image by YouTube. In 1976, ABC News used this color-scheme for the presidential election. (original image)

Image by YouTube. This 1980 map from NBC News shows states for Ronald Reagan in blue, Jimmy Carter in red, and uncalled in yellow. (original image)

Image by YouTube. For years, NBC News used blue to indicate Republican states and red to indicate Democratic states. Shown here is a screen grab from the 1984 election (original image)

Image by YouTube. A still from CBS News' coverage of the 1988 presidential election. White indicated states where ballots had closed, but had not been declared for one candidate or another. (original image)

Image by YouTube. By 2000, NBC News had joined their colleagues in using the current red/blue scheme. At this point in the evening, Vice President Gore had been declared the winner in Florida. This, of course, would not be the case by the following morning. (original image)

Perhaps the stigma of red in those days explains why some networks changed colors— in what appeared to be random fashion—over the years. Kevin Drum of the Washington Monthly wrote in 2004 that the networks alternated colors based on the party of the White House incumbent, but YouTube reveals that to be a myth.

Still, there were reversals and deviations. In 1976, when NBC debuted its mammoth electronic map, ABC News employed a small, rudimentary version that used yellow for Ford, blue for Carter and red for states in which votes had yet to be tallied. In 1980, NBC once again used red for Carter and blue for the Republican challenger, Ronald Reagan, and CBS followed suit. But ABC flipped the colors and promised to use orange for states won by John Anderson, the third-party candidate who received 6.6% of the popular vote. (Anderson carried no states, and orange seems to have gone by the wayside.) Four years later, ABC and CBS used red for Republicans and blue for Democrats, but the combination wouldn’t stick for another 16 years. During the four presidential elections Wetzel oversaw for NBC, from 1976 through 1988, the network never switched colors. Republicans were cool blue, Democrats hot red.

The reasoning was simple, he said: Great Britain.

“Without giving it a second thought, we said blue for conservatives, because that’s what the parliamentary system in London is, red for the more liberal party. And that settled it. We just did it,” said Wetzel, now retired.

Forget all that communist red stuff, he said. “It didn’t occur to us. When I first heard it, I thought, ‘Oh, that’s really silly.’ ”

When ABC produced its first large electronic map in 1980, it used red for Republicans and blue for Democrats, while CBS did the reverse, according to Wetzel. NBC stuck with its original color scheme, prompting anchor David Brinkley to say that Reagan’s victory looked like “a suburban swimming pool.”

Newspapers, in those days, were largely black and white. But two days after voters went to the polls in 2000, both the New York Times and USA Today published their first color-coded, county-by-county maps detailing the showdown between Al Gore and George W. Bush. Both papers used red for the Republican Bush, blue for the Democrat Gore.

Why?

“I just decided red begins with ‘r,’ Republican begins with ‘r.’ It was a more natural association,” said Archie Tse, senior graphics editor for the Times. “There wasn’t much discussion about it.”

Paul Overberg, a database editor who designed the map for USA Today, said he was following a trend: “The reason I did it was because everybody was already doing it that way at that point.”

And everybody had to continue doing it for a long time. The 2000 election dragged on until mid-December, until the Supreme Court declared Bush the victor. For weeks, the maps were ubiquitous.

Perhaps that’s why the 2000 colors stuck. Along with images of Florida elections officials eyeballing tiny ballot chads, the maps were there constantly, reminding us of the vast, nearly even divide between, well, red and blue voters.

From an aesthetic standpoint, Overberg said, the current color scheme fits with the political landscape. Republicans typically dominate in larger, less populated states in the Plains and Mountain West, meaning the center of the United States is very red. “If it had been flipped, the map would have been too dark,” he said. “The blue would have been swamping the red. Red is a lighter color.”

But not everyone liked the shift. Republican operative Clark Bensen wrote an analysis in 2004 titled “RED STATE BLUES: Did I Miss That Memo?”

“There are two general reasons why blue for Republican and Red for Democrat make the most sense: connotation and practice,” Bensen wrote. “First, there has been a generally understood meaning to the two colors inasmuch as they relate to politics. That is, the cooler color blue more closely represented the rational thinker and cold-hearted and the hotter red more closely represented the passionate and hot-blooded. This would translate into blue for Republicans and red for Democrats. Put another way, red was also the color most associated with socialism and the party of the Democrats was clearly the more socialistic of the two major parties.

“The second reason why blue for Republicans makes sense is that traditional political mapmakers have used blue for the modern-day Republicans, and the Federalists before that, throughout the 20th century. Perhaps this was a holdover from the days of the Civil War when the predominantly Republican North was ‘Blue’.”

At this point—three presidential elections after Bush v. Gore—the color arrangement seems unlikely to reverse any time soon. Not only have “red states” and “blue states” entered the lexicon, partisans on both sides have taken ownership of them. For instance, RedState is a conservative blog; Blue State Digital, which grew out of Democrat Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign, helps candidates and organizations use technology to raise money, advocate their positions and connect with constituents. In 2008, a Republican and a Democrat even joined forces to create Purple Strategies, a bipartisan public affairs firm.

Sara Quinn, a visual journalist now at the Poynter Institute in Florida, said she sees no particular advantage to either color.

“Red is usually very warm and it comes forward to the eye. Blue tends to be a recessive color, but a calming color,” she said.

Not that anyone thought of those things when assigning colors in 2000. Not that they think about it at all today.

“After that election the colors became part of the national discourse,” said Tse. “You couldn’t do it any other way.”

When Casanova Met Mozart

Smithsonian Magazine

One of the vital epicenters of European culture, Prague has survived the wars of the last two centuries almost entirely intact. Today, the most atmospheric part of the city’s historic Old Town is the Malá Strana, or “Little Quarter” on the west bank of the river Vlatava: its quiet back alleys, which wind up past mansions and churches to Prague Castle, still have the haunted, Brothers Grimm appearance they had in the late 18th century. Here, it’s easy for visitors to still picture the likes of Giacamo Casanova, albeit in his twilight years, navigating Prague’s cobbled paths in his breeches and powdered wig, on one of his visits from nearby Castle Duchcov. At first, the somber medieval style of the Czech capital might seem an odd retirement choice for the ebullient Venetian who fled his beloved home city in 1783 after he offended powerful figures there. But look a little closer and Casanova’s spirit is everywhere. “Prague is a Gothic city that was baroquized by Italian artists,” explains Milos Curik, a Czech cultural guide. “This was where the Italian Renaissance first reached northern Europe.”

Today, Malá Strana’s ancient buildings still conceal flamboyant interiors. Peer through shuttered windows and one is likely to see designer bars that would not be out of place in Barcelona or New York. On my recent visit, I woke up inside a 14th century monastery adorned with Eastern art: urban conservationists have overseen its renovation by Mandarin Oriental, using an exotic blend of Czech and Asian influences. Even the hotel spa was built on the foundations of a medieval chapel, which can still be admired through the glass floor. And Casanova himself would have been gratified to learn that the staff offer a booklet on “The Ten Best Places to Kiss in Prague” – the Charles Bridge at dawn is particularly auspicious – and a Venetian-style Carnival is now a highlight of Prague’s winter season, complete with masked balls, street theater and parades.

But of all the arts, music has always been central to the city’s reputation. One of the most beguiling stories about Casanova’s sojourn in Bohemia – now part of the Czech Republic – is that he met Mozart in Prague in 1787, and that he worked on the libretto of Don Giovanni, the great opera about a compulsive Lothario not at all unlike Casanova himself. Today, tracing the little-known saga provides a marvelous key to the city.

To follow the Casanova trail, my first stop was the Italian Cultural Institute, which was founded as a Jesuit-run hospital in the early 1600s, complete with a serene cloister and a frescoed church. Thanks to its extensive library, the edifice soon developed into a gathering point for expatriate Italians, who began to live along the same street, Vlašská Ulice. “It’s 99.9 percent certain that Casanova came to this building the moment he arrived in Prague,” said the director, Dr. Paolo Sabatini. “It was the heart of the Italian community in the city. Bohemia was a great refuge for Italians. There were Italian artists, writers, technicians, engineers, many of them escaping charges of the [Roman] Inquisition.”

According to biographer Ian Kelly, author of Casanova: Actor Love Priest Spy, Casanova first met an old friend from Venice Lorenzo da Ponte, a fellow libertine who was now Mozart’s librettist, having written both The Magic Flute and The Marriage of Figaro. Italian opera was little short of a craze in Prague at the time, and Casanova had long been enraptured by the art form. (One of his most memorable episodes in his memoir, The Story of My Life, is his youthful affair with a female opera singer who was masquerading as a castrato). Casanova and da Ponte regularly attended concerts at the rural retreat of local arts patrons Josefina and Fratišek Dušek. Called the Betranka, this villa on the outskirts of Prague was where they mingled with other artistic celebrities – including, it is believed, the 31-year-old Mozart.

Image by Francesco Lastrucci. Of all the arts, music has always been central to the Prague's reputation (original image)

Image by Francesco Lastrucci. Casanova's spirit is everywhere in the Czech capital city of Prague. (original image)

Image by Francesco Lastrucci. Mozart first came to Prague with his wife Constance in January, 1787, for a performance of The Marriage of Figaro. (original image)

Image by Francesco Lastrucci. Prague's quiet back alleys, which wind up past mansions and churches to Prague Castle, still have the haunted, Brothers Grimm appearance they had in the late 18th century. (original image)

Image by Francesco Lastrucci. Casanova himself would have been gratified to learn that the staff offer a booklet on “The Ten Best Places to Kiss in Prague” – the Charles Bridge at dawn is particularly auspicious (original image)

Image by Francesco Lastrucci. In the later years of his life, Casanova wrote his memoirs in Castle Duchcov, near Prague. (original image)

Image by Francesco Lastrucci. One of the most beguiling stories about Casanova’s sojourn in Bohemia – now part of the Czech Republic – is that he met Mozart in Prague in 1787, and that he worked on the libretto of Don Giovanni, the great opera about a compulsive Lothario not at all unlike Casanova himself. (original image)

Image by Francesco Lastrucci. The Estates Theater in Prague is where Mozart premiered Don Giovanni in 1787. (original image)

Mozart first came to Prague with his wife Constance in January, 1787, for a performance of The Marriage of Figaro. He was delighted to discover that his opera was given a euphoric reception in the city, whereas in Vienna he had fallen out of fashion. “Here they talk about nothing but Figaro,” Mozart recorded in his diary. “Nothing is played, sung or whistled but Figaro. Nothing, nothing but Figaro. Certainly a great honor for me!” As a result, he decided to premiere his new work, Don Giovanni, in the city. He returned to Prague in October with da Ponte’s unfinished libretto in hand, and moved into the Bertramka, at the invitation of the Dušeks, to furiously complete it.

Today, the Bertramka is open to the public as a small Mozart Museum, so I took a tram to the suburbs of Prague. The estate is now surrounded by roaring highways, although once inside the gates, it remains an enclave of serenity, with gardens that still host summer concerts. The exhibits are sparse – in 2009, most of the furnishings and instruments were moved to the Czech Music Museum in Malá Strana, including two pianos played by Mozart himself – but the villa itself still exudes an elegant, artistic ambiance. The sole employee sells a series of engravings of famous visitors, who included a virtual Who’s Who of the 18th century cultural elite: Along with Mozart, da Ponte and Casanova, the Dušeks hosted the young Beethoven and German poet Goethe.

The claim that Casanova worked on Don Giovanni was made back in 1876 by Alfred Meissner in his book Rococo Bilder, based on notes made by his grandfather, who was a professor and historian in Prague and was the confidant of musicians at the opera’s 1787 premiere at the Estates Theater. According to the musicians, Casanova visited the theater during rehearsals in October, when Mozart was doling out the last pieces of the music in disjointed fragments. The cast members became so frustrated that they locked Mozart in a room and told him he would not be freed until he finished the opera. Casanova apparently persuaded the staff to release the composer, who completed the overture that night, while Casanova fine-tuned the libretto in several key scenes.

There is strong circumstantial evidence to support Meissner’s report: We know that da Ponte was not in Prague in October, when the last-minute changes were made to the libretto, but Casanova was. However, the account took a more substantial form in the early 1900s, when researchers discovered notes amongst Casanova’s papers from Castle Duchcov that appeared to show him working on a key scene in Don Giovanni.

While the manuscript of Casanova’s memoir now resides in Paris, his personal papers have ended up in the Czech state archive, a hulking edifice in a bleak, Communist-era landscape far from Prague’s charming Old Town. My taxi-driver got lost several times before we located it. Once inside, a security guard directed me to a shabby antechamber, where I had to call the archivists on an antique black telephone. An unshaven clerk in a hooded jacket first helped me fill out the endless application forms in Czech, before finally I was taken to a windowless, neon-lit research room to meet the head archivist, Marie Tarantová.

Despite the Cold War protocol, everyone was very helpful. Tarantová explained that when the Communists nationalized Czech aristocratic property in 1948, the state inherited a vast cache of Casanova’s writings that had been kept by the Waldstein family, who once owned Castle Duchcov. “We have Casanova’s letters, poems, philosophical works, geometry works, plans for a tobacco factory, even treatises on the manufacture of soap,” she said, of the wildly prolific author. “There are 19 cases. It’s impossible to know everything that’s in there. I’ve never counted the number of pages!”

Soon Tarantová laid before me the two pages of notes covered in Casanova’s elegant, distinctive script; in them, he has reworked the lines of Act II, scene X, of Don Giovanni, where the Don and his servant Leporello have been discovered in a ruse that involved swapping clothes and identities. “Nobody knows if he was really involved in writing the libretto or was just toying with it for his own amusement,” said Tarantova. According to biographer Ian Kelly, “the close interest and precise knowledge of the newly performed text argues in favor of (Casanova) having been involved in its creation.” With da Ponte away, it is quite feasible that Mozart would have called on the 62-year-old Italian writer, whose reputation as a seducer was known throughout the courts of Europe, to help with the text. Casanova was also in the audience when the opera premiered on October 29. “Although there is no definitive proof that he worked on the libretto,” sums up the American Casanovist Tom Vitelli, “I think Meissner’s account is likely true, at least to some extent.”

On my final evening, I attended a performance at the majestic Estates Theater, where Don Giovanni still plays in repertory. The gilded edifice is one of the last intact 18th century opera houses in Europe, and was used as a set for Amadeus and the Beethoven biopic Immortal Beloved. A small bronze plaque in the orchestra pit marks the spot where Mozart stood to conduct that night in 1787. (Its interior has changed in only one respect: the red-and-gold color scheme was changed to blue-and-gold after the Velvet Revolution of 1989 – red was associated with the hated Communist regime.)

At this historic performance – which was a huge success, prompting a standing ovation – Casanova sat in a box seat in the wings. When later asked by a friend whether he had seen the opera, Casanova allegedly laughed, “Seen it? I practically lived it!” The very next year, he began to write his own romantic memoirs in Castle Duchcov.

A contributing writer to the magazine, Tony Perrottet is the author of Napoleon’s Privates and The Sinner’s Grand Tour: A Journey through the Underbelly of Europewww.sinnersgrandtour.com

What to Do in Capri

Smithsonian Magazine

Capri can be a bewildering place for first-time visitors. In summer, throngs of day-trippers arrive by ferry at the Marina Grande and flood Capri town, getting lost in the maze of crooked lanes that were once designed to confound marauding pirates.

The most famous lookouts over the Fariglioni, the trio of giant rock spires jutting out of the Mediterranean, can feel as crowded as Shanghai train station. If at all possible, stay overnight on the island. Even better, remain several days. The extra time allows you to explore the remoter recesses of the island, revealing why Capri has bewitched writers throughout history, from the ancient Roman poet Statius to the Chilean Pablo Neruda.

THE CELEBRITY HUB
After 5 p.m., when the crowds leave, even Capri town becomes blissfully quiet, and you can wander the cobbled lanes flanked by elaborate iron fences and glazed tiles, feeling as if you’re in a glamorous Italian film shoot, circa 1950. Head for the Piazzetta, or small plaza, settle into the Bar Tiberio for a glass of prosecco and watch the evening unfold. The Piazzetta is possibly Italy’s most beloved public stage, where silver-haired waiters in cream tuxedos serve suntanned celebrities on hiatus from their modeling jobs or TV series. Afterward, repair for dinner to Da Gemma, a historic restaurant once frequented by the British novelist Graham Greene, a resident for long stretches of the 1950s and ’60s (according to Shirley Hazard in Greene in Capri, he favored the corner table). The arched entrance, carved into an ancient rampart, is covered with faded photographs of Shirley MacLaine, Sophia Loren and a mysterious blonde woman from the postwar era nicknamed “Million-lira,” because, a maitre d’ once told me imperiously, “she was the first to charge a million lira a night!”

Greene’s novels, as well as rare reprint editions of the works of the many writers, artists and photographers who have made Capri their home over the centuries, can be found at the bookstore La Conchiglia Libri e Arte, at 12 via le Botteghe. Owned by Ausilia and Riccardo Esposito, it’s also the best place to find out about the latest cultural events on the island.

THE HEIGHTS OF PLEASURE
From the main town, take one of the white Mercedes convertible taxis ($20) up vertiginous hairpin bends to the revered Hotel Caesar Augustus in the village of Anacapri (“Upper Capri”). For the past six decades, this has been the most sought-after place to stay on the island, partly because of it is perched on the knife edge of a 1,000-foot cliff. Today, the terrace still offers one of the best views in the Mediterranean—a jaw-dropping panorama across the Bay of Naples to Vesuvius, the volcano that buried Pompeii and Herculaneum in A.D. 79. A gleaming statue of Augustus, the first Roman Emperor, gestures grandly toward the vista. If you can’t stay, be sure to have an aperitivo at dusk; the sun sinking into the sparkling sea bathes the whole Neapolitan coast in a dream-like, golden glow.

As it hovers aloof above the rest of the island, Anacapri still proceeds at a 19th-century pace. Schoolchildren in white uniforms play soccer in the cobbled streets, while elderly residents tend their backyard lemon groves. On the piazza, the Church of Santa Sofia has a magnificent ceramic floor depicting the Garden of Eden, and you can peer through a grille at Graham Greene’s former home, the villa Il Rosaio, now a private residence whose entrance is framed by peach-colored roses.

The Villa San Michele, an art-filled refuge created by Swedish physician, author and amateur archaeologist Axel Munthe, is Anacapri’s most popular attraction. Few visitors realize that the villa’s current owner, the Swedish Culture Institute, hosts tours every Thursday afternoon to a unique nature preserve. Visitors climb a steep trail to the spectacular ruins of Castle Barbarossa, a 10th-century fortress on Monte Solaro that now operates as the Capri Bird Observatory. Muthe was an outspoken animal lover, and he bought the mountain above his home to protect its birdlife. Ornithologists today using a system of nets capture and study birds migrating from Africa to Europe – a simple technique that was pioneered by peasants centuries ago so that Caprese quails could end up on European dinner tables. Today, up in the windswept belfry of the castle, local naturalists in pince-nez glasses tag golden orioles, then cast them back to the wind.

INTO THE WILD 
Thanks to Capri’s tortuous topography, three-quarters of the island is virtual wilderness, some of it so precarious that a few hikers disappear off the cliffs every year. But those with the leisure and energy to follow solitary backcountry trails can discover a landscape that has barely evolved since the ancient Romans holidayed here.

Many paths begin in town, right under everybody’s noses. The Belvedere de Tragara is the most popular lookout over Capri’s natural phenomenon, the Faraglioni. (“Those famous Gothic cathedrals,” said the irrepressible Italian futurist poet Marinetti of the stone fingers, “with their spires and their ramparts rising fiercely out of the sea.”) In one corner of the lookout, overlooked by most visitors, there is a narrow path called the Via Pizzolungo, which was carved in pagan times. Ten minutes into the pine forest, a stairway plunges down to sea level, where a café – Da Luigi – sits at the very base of the stone pillars, like the Clashing Rocks in Jason and the Argonauts. While the water laps at your feet, the owners will show off photographs of the winter storm of 1986, when Poseidon-size waves tried to pull their little café into the sea.

In the northwest of the island, a steep path from the Villa Lysis provides the back route to the emperor Tiberius’ palace, the Villa Jovis (Villa of Jupiter). Ascending the mountainside covered in wildflowers of purple and gold, one can easily imagine this to be the same path a young islander once climbed, according to the ancient author Seutonius, to offer Tiberius a mullet. The reclusive emperor was so enraged that an intruder had penetrated his lair that he ordered his guards to rub the fish in the peasant’s face. Apparently, when the enterprising youth joked (rather wittily) that it was lucky he had not brought Tiberius a lobster, the humorless emperor had his face torn to shreds with crustaceans. At the summit lie the ruins of the notorious palace, including the sheer Salto Tiberio from which the emperor is said to have thrown unlucky senators to their deaths. The excavations give only a hint of the precinct’s former glory, but the view is unsurpassed. Say what you like about Tiberius, he had a fine eye for real estate.

For me, the ultimate Capri hike is the Sentiero dei Fortini, the Trail of the Forts, on the forgotten west coast of the island. It starts amongst garden terraces but soon leads to a series of wild headlands crowned by a string of medieval towers. On this remote, cactus-strewn shoreline, the sea is a dazzling shade of green. Lizards are poised motionlessly along the trail like nature’s gargoyles. At irregular intervals, carved stone steps lead down to the water. There are no sand beaches on the route, just dark rocks from which you can leap into the crystalline water. Gazing up at the brooding cliff faces, you can imagine history’s many visitors to Capri—the parade of ancient aristocrats, rebellious Victorians and troubled writers—swimming in the same spot. As the Roman poet Statius wrote of Capri in the second century A.D., “Peace untroubled reigns there, and life is leisurely and calm, with quiet undisturbed and sleep unbroken.”

Tony Perrottet’s forthcoming book, The Sinner’s Grand Tour: A Journey Through the Historical Underbelly of Europe, recounts a trip from London to Capri.

What the Obsolete Art of Mapping the Skies on Glass Plates Can Still Teach Us

Smithsonian Magazine

Three stories beneath the telescope dome at the Hale Solar Laboratory in Pasadena, California, a rusty spiral staircase marks the top of a nearly 80-foot-deep pit, concealed by a wooden trapdoor in the basement floor. At the bottom lies a grating meant to split light into a rainbow to allow scientists to study the makeup of the sun. The building’s current owners dare not descend, deterred by the lack of oxygen and impenetrable darkness below.

When architects Liz Moule and Stefanos Polyzoides bought the observatory in 2006, they knew they were purchasing a piece of history. The original owner, astronomer George Ellery Hale, established the world’s most powerful telescopes in the first half of the 20th century, including at Mount Wilson Observatory, high above Pasadena. Moule, who runs a local architecture firm with Polyzoides, regards Hale as “a model citizen” for his influence on Pasadena’s cultural landscape and civic architecture. The Hale Solar Laboratory, with its Egyptian-style relief of the sun beaming down over the front door, grand library on the first floor, telescope dome on the roof and ominous pit in the basement, was Hale’s private refuge just a few blocks south of the university he helped found, the California Institute of Technology.

The trapdoor to the grating instrument at the Hale Solar Laboratory. (Elizabeth Landau)

Moule and Polyzoides had no idea the building, constructed in 1924, came with hidden astronomical treasures. The whole basement was a cluttered mess of furniture, papers and boxes of junk when they purchased the historic facility (along with the more modern stucco home in front of it). “We thought we were left with stuff we were just going to get rid of,” Moule says.

In the observatory basement, Moule and volunteers from Mount Wilson—Don Nicholson and Larry Webster—discovered hundreds of glass photographic plates from the 1880s to 1930s stacked in boxes in a large wooden cabinet. The collection includes images of sunspots and solar prominences—tendrils of plasma that snake out from the sun—and solar spectra, or series of lines that represent components of light, revealing the sun’s chemical composition. Larger plates depict the cratered moon, edged with ripples from basement water damage. Some of the plates are from Hale’s telescopes, while others were clearly gifts from far-flung astronomers.

An image of the moon on a glass plate from the collection of George Ellery Hale, found in the Hale Solar Laboratory. It was taken at Lick Observatory and dated July 19, 1891. The white markings are from water damage. (Image courtesy Carnegie Institution for Science / Dan Kohne)

All told, there were more than 1,100 plates and other artifacts from Hale’s private collection hidden in the Solar Laboratory’s basement, says Dan Kohne, who volunteered with the nearby Carnegie Observatories’ Pasadena office to inventory the find. Polyzoides and Moule donated the historic plates to the Carnegie archives.

These photographic plates represent the painstaking way astronomers used to work, hand-positioning a telescope on an object for long enough to capture it on a glass plate coated with emulsion, then developing the plate like film in a darkroom. The first daguerreotype photograph of a star other than the sun was taken in 1850 by William Cranch Bond, the first director of Harvard College Observatory, who made a 90-second exposure of Vega. For the next 150 years or so, scientists catalogued the universe on these glass plates, about as thick as a window pane.

While technological advances in photography, telescope guidance and computing have largely made plate-based skywatching obsolete, studying glass plates was how astronomers reached historic revelations, such as the existence of galaxies beyond the Milky Way and the fact that the very fabric of the universe is expanding in all directions.

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Historic plates aren’t just relics. They represent a record of the sky at particular moments in the past that can never be revisited—not even with the most powerful space observatories. Today, humanity’s most advanced telescopes can reveal distant objects that periodically brighten, dim and pop in and out of view. The European Space Agency’s (ESA) Gaia space telescope, for example, is compiling the most complete star maps yet. Some of the objects going through changes right now could have also varied in the late 19th and early-to-mid 20th centuries, and they may have been captured on glass telescope plates.

As astronomers seek to tell more complete stories of how celestial objects evolve over time, these dusty old plates may prove all the more relevant.

“We’re not time travelers, are we?” says Michael Castelaz, associate professor of physics at Brevard College in North Carolina. “So how do you ever go back in time to investigate the night sky except with the data we have already?”

Annie J. Cannon was the curator of photographs at the Harvard College Observatory, charged with the care of some 300,000 photographic plates of stars made by Harvard astronomers. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

By some estimates there are more than 2 million glass plates made by professional astronomers in the U.S. alone. Worldwide there are likely more than 10 million, says Rene Hudec of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic in Ondrejov, including many that may still be hiding in unexpected places. While there is an online database of over 2.5 million plates from more than 570 archives, there is no truly comprehensive list. Having visited more than 70 plate archives himself, Hudec reports some repositories are well kept and cataloged, but others are a “sad experience” with little funding and no one to manage them.

Harvard, thought to house the biggest collection in the world, has some 550,000 plates, including images once analyzed by such luminaries as Henrietta Swann Leavitt and Annie Jump Cannon. As Dava Sobel chronicles in The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars, women “computers” like Leavitt and Cannon not only classified and catalogued thousands of stars from the telescope plates but also made breakthrough discoveries that inform our view of the cosmos today. Edward Pickering, director of the observatory who hired these women, wrote in 1890: “For many purposes the photographs take the place of the stars themselves, and discoveries are verified and errors corrected by daylight with a magnifying glass instead of at night with a telescope.”

Hale’s collection from the Solar Laboratory basement joined more than 200,000 plates housed by Carnegie Observatories, including the 1923 “VAR!” plate, which convinced Edwin Hubble that Andromeda is a separate galaxy from the Milky Way. The Yerkes 40-inch telescope, the Mount Wilson 60-inch, the Mount Wilson 100-inch and the Palomar 200-inch, all Hale’s projects, have each taken turns enjoying the title of “world’s largest telescope.” Their results are stored in drawers behind a short black vault door in the basement of Carnegie Observatories’ main office building in Pasadena.

On the night of October 5-6, 1923, Carnegie astronomer Edwin Hubble took a plate of the Andromeda galaxy (Messier 31) with the Hooker 100-inch telescope of Mount Wilson Observatory. The "N" on the plate that was crossed out and replaced with "VAR!" indicates that Hubble originally thought an object was a nova, but then realized that it was in fact a Cepheid variable star. Hubble was able to use the variable star to calculate the distance to Andromeda, revealing without a doubt that it was in fact a separate galaxy from our own. (Courtesy Carnegie Observatories, Carnegie Institution for Science)

Farther afield, North Carolina’s Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute (PARI) has about 350,000 items including plates, as well as film and other data. These telescope plates largely come from the United States and Canada, from universities and other institutions that didn’t have room for their collections, as well as those uncovered by accident in “14 lawn-and-leaf bags” in someone’s garage, says Castelaz, who was formerly the science director of PARI. “I could live in that plate vault. It’s so exciting.”

In 2015, Holger Peterson stumbled upon boxes containing about 300 plates when he went to the basement to make tea at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen. Some of the artifacts were clearly identifiable: a 1950 exposure from the Palomar Samuel Oschin Telescope showing a large number of galaxies, and a copy-plate from the 1919 solar eclipse expedition to Sobral, Brazil, that helped confirm Einstein’s theory of general relativity. (Einstein predicted that the sun’s gravity should bend the fabric of space around it, so the positions of background stars would shift from our perspective when the moon blocks the sun during a total solar eclipse. Measurements on glass plates were used to confirm this.) But for many plates in this collection, now located at Copenhagen University, the details of the exposures have been lost, Peterson says in an e-mail.

Also in Europe, the Archives of Photographic Plates for Astronomical USE (APPLAUSE) currently comprises about 85,000 plates from five institutes in Germany and Estonia. Highlights include plates from Ejnar Hertzsprung, who helped show the relationship between stellar temperature and intrinsic brightness, and Karl Schwarzschild, who was instrumental in developing mathematical descriptions of black holes.

A glass photographic plate of the Andromeda galaxy, taken at the Karl Schwarzschild Observatory in 1965. (Jay Bennett)

In Argentina, the plate archive at Cordoba Observatory houses some of the first photographs of stars in the Southern Hemisphere with about 20,000 photographs and spectra on plates dating from 1893 to 1983. The plate situations in Asia and Africa have not been as thoroughly researched. Hudec has visited various locations in China with plates and estimates some 40,000 have been both collected and digitized. Bosscha Observatory in Indonesia additionally has about 20,000 plates, he says. About 19,000 plates taken at the UK Schmidt telescope in Australia are stored in Edinburgh, Scotland, says David Malin, a photographic scientist at the Anglo-Australian Observatory. The Anglo-Australian Telescope in Siding Spring retains under 3,000 plates that were taken there, while other plates likely remain with observers who never handed them over to the observatory collections.

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As of the early 1990s, professional astronomers abandoned the practice of capturing celestial images on glass in favor of using digital methods that are both quicker and allow for more sophisticated computational analysis. The invention of charged coupling devices (CCD), which also enable smart phone cameras, has revolutionized astronomical observations. Techniques as simple as “zooming in” digitally and heightening contrast on a computer are powerful tools for studying distant, faint objects.

But historical records of the sky have multiple layers of value. As a matter of cultural preservation, telescope plates encapsulate the process by which knowledge was once acquired and represent the state of science when they were used. For roughly 150 years but no longer, astronomy data was recorded on glass.

“Knowing about the precursors is in many ways something which even informs how we do astronomy now, so we shouldn’t forget,” says Harry Ecke of the Leibniz Institute for Astrophysics Potsdam in Germany, one of the leaders of the APPLAUSE collaboration.

A bromide photographic print of workers during the construction of the Hooker 100-inch reflecting telescope at Mount Wilson, California. The observatory was founded in 1904 by the astronomer George Ellery Hale, and the 100-inch telescope was installed at the observatory in 1917. The Hooker telescope was the largest telescope in the world when it was built and remained so until 1948. (Science & Society Picture Library / Getty Images)

Astronomers can even use historical records to make discoveries today. While many cosmic processes take billions of years to evolve, “transient” objects in the sky, such as exploding stars called supernovae, change markedly over periods of weeks to years. Variable stars brighten and dim periodically, and plates can be used to determine if that period is constant or not. In 2016, one astronomer even used the Carnegie archive to point out evidence for exoplanets in a 1917 stellar spectrum, a plate made some 75 years before anyone would discover planets beyond our solar system.

“Our sky is moving very slowly for our human feelings of time,” Enke says. “Modern astronomy and the modern instruments with CCDs and so on, this is barely 40 years old. If you can add another hundred years to that, that’s great.”

The study of black holes is one reason Jonathan Grindlay at Harvard got interested in digitizing old plates. He is the principal investigator of a massive plate-digitizing effort called DASCH, the Digital Access to a Sky Century @ Harvard.

Astronomer Walter Sydney Adams at the entrance to the Hale Solar Laboratory in 1946. (Photo by Edison Hoge / Courtesy of the Carnegie Institution for Science Collection at the Huntington Library, San Marino, California)

When a sun-like star and a “stellar mass” black hole—typically seven times the mass of the sun—orbit a common center of gravity, the star provides a steady stream of matter ripped away by the black hole. But instead of falling directly into the black hole, the material piles up in an accretion disk around the black hole first. After about 30 to 60 years, the disk becomes unstable and the black hole devours some of the accumulated material, resulting in a very bright outburst in optical and X-ray light. DASCH provides the first full-sky record of more than a century of these rare outbursts, allowing scientist to measure how long they are visible and how many flashes occur across the sky.

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Many more telescope plates exist in the world than there are digital versions of them, and financial support for digitization and detailed cataloging is limited. A group of Czech astronomers led by Hudec visited Carnegie, PARI, Yerkes, Lick, Mount Palomar and nine other major U.S. locations from 2008 to 2012 to scope out the historical plate offerings. They found that some archives had not properly stored or had even damaged plates. They tested out a transportable scanning device and recommend that institutions scan and catalog their treasures. So far, Hudec’s group has created about 50,000 plate scans across the world.

A collection of glass plates from 1909 to 1922 capture the moon in different phases. (Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen)

DASCH has been able to digitize about 350,000 of Harvard’s plates, which are all searchable online, and plans to get to the total of 450,000 photographs by October 2020. The last 100,000 plates are stellar spectra which, while also interesting, are not being scanned because only the direct images can show visual changes in brightness over time. The whole process of cleaning and scanning is “like a choreographed ballet,” Grindlay says. In Europe, APPLAUSE is also digitizing its plates, taking inspiration from DASCH in some of its methods but using commercial scanners instead of custom-made devices.

The digitization enterprise stirred up controversy when some historians balked at the idea that original markings on the plates would be cleaned off in the scanning process, Grindlay says. From one perspective, if an astronomer of the past drew a circle around an object of interest, cleaning the plate could reveal more stars hiding behind the curve. But the markings are also a record of the scientific process. A 2016 study prompted by DASCH found that many astronomers and historians alike value the annotations on plates and their covers but also believe that photographing or scanning those markings before cleaning them off is sufficient for preservation, unless the plate is particularly important in the history of astronomy. DASCH follows this protocol, photographing all original markings, including on the plate’s “jacket” cover, before cleaning. The original annotations are saved on the most valuable plates, such as those made by Henrietta Swan Leavitt, “in deference to historians,” Grindlay says.

Even passionate archivists like Grindlay agree that once a plate is properly scanned and cataloged, there’s nothing more one can learn from the physical object that can’t be obtained from a high-resolution digital copy and a photograph of the annotations. Nonetheless, Grindlay says, “the original plates are the ultimate record and must be fully preserved, as they have been at the Harvard College Observatory.”

The telescope dome is installed on the Hale Solar Laboratory in this photo dated November 18, 1924. (Image courtesy of the Observatories of the Carnegie Institution for Science Collection at the Huntington Library, San Marino, California)

For Kohne, the plates are akin to works of art. Much of the archives at Pasadena’s Carnegie Observatories office, including the loot from the architect couple’s basement, represent Hale’s “studios,” the way a painting done in Raphael’s workshop by a different artist would be credited to the studio of the famous painter. In addition to being scientists, 20th telescope operators were skilled craftspeople.

“They’re capturing the light rays that have been traveling for thousands and millions of light-years, and getting it on the negative exposed exactly right,” Kohne says. “In the history of photography, it should be in there somehow.”

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Hale’s iconic Solar Laboratory telescope in Pasadena will not remain dormant. A Mount Wilson volunteer crew is working to aluminize the mirrors so the telescope can clearly project the sun onto a viewing area in the basement. They plan to have local students learn to use the telescope for solar observing, too. Eventually, Moule hopes the team can install a mirror at the bottom of the pit to get the diffraction grating working again, allowing a new generation to examine the sun’s composition as Hale did.

On a perfectly sunny Southern California day in March, Mount Wilson volunteer Ken Evans opened the dome to work on its restoration. Evans, Kohne and Moule excitedly talked of viewing sunsets through the telescope and perhaps having a summer solstice party, if the mirrors are ready in time. When Evans, a retired engineer, rotated the dome’s slit to face Mount Wilson, the group lamented that a tree blocked the view of Hale’s other temples of astronomy in the distance.

The library at the Hale Solar Laboratory. (Liz Moule / Stefanos Polyzoides)

Moule and Polyzoides have donated Hale’s journals, also discovered in the basement, to Caltech. Hale’s typewriter and desk remain on the first floor in the sunny, elegant library, a booklover’s dream, with an Egyptian-style bas-relief of a figure holding a bow on a chariot. The ancient Egyptians likely interested Hale because they worshipped the sun, Moule says. There’s even a crate in the basement addressed to him with another bas-relief inside—the next Hale mystery Moule plans to tackle. She describes her role at Hale’s Solar Laboratory as “lighthouse keeper.”

“Sadly solar astronomy has moved on past the technology of that building, so it’s not something of regular use, in the way that a lot of lighthouses are not used for what they were originally intended for either,” Moule says. “But it’s an important monument, and I’m a caretaker.”

This particular lighthouse guards a telescope that once used an instrument plunged almost 80 feet in the darkness to split sunlight from 93 million miles away. And thanks to Mount Wilson volunteers, the sun may soon stream through the cosmic lighthouse once again.

Liz Moule and Dan Kohne in the telescope dome at the Hale Solar Laboratory on March 27, 2019. (Elizabeth Landau)

What You Need to Know About the Manson Family Murders

Smithsonian Magazine

In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the new film from director Quentin Tarantino, an actor and stuntman (played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, respectively) find themselves living next door to beautiful actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). It’s the summer of 1969, and what none of the characters know is that Tate and five others will soon be brutally murdered by members of the Manson Family, the cult led by Charles Manson that would become, for many, the ultimate symbol of the dark side of the 1960s.

In Tarantino’s film, Manson and members of the Family loom in the background, an ominous presence haunting the painstakingly recreated Los Angeles landscape. As the 50th anniversary of the Manson Family’s crimes approaches, here’s a primer that attempts to untangle the who, what, where, and why of the case.

Who was Charles Manson?

Born in 1934 to a teenaged mother, Charles Manson’s early childhood and young life was spent bouncing around between relatives and, later, in and out of institutions in the Midwest. In his early 20s, he married twice and fathered a son. Manson was considered so thoroughly institutionalized by authorities that upon his 1967 release from a California prison, he asked the warden if he could stay.

Instead, Manson migrated to Berkeley and then San Francisco, cities that became flooded with young people looking to embark on a new way of life. An older figure among the crowd, he amassed a small group of followers (almost entirely women) and, in 1968, headed along with several female followers to Los Angeles to pursue a music career, having learned to play the guitar in prison. Manson’s tools of persuasion were the lax social codes of the late 1960s, in which runaway hippies mingled freely with Hollywood royalty, and his ability to tell others what they wanted to hear, both of which he parlayed into a friendship with Dennis Wilson, the drummer for the Beach Boys.

Through Wilson, Manson met other music-industry players and grew increasingly fixated on stardom, all the while exercising greater and greater control over the group that came to be known as the Manson Family. He was, as investigative journalist Jeff Guinn put it in Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson, “the wrong man in the right place at the right time.”

After the Family members behind the August 1969 murders were apprehended, Manson was put on trial for murder along with them. He didn’t do any of the actual killing, but prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi argued that the Family did everything Manson ordered them to do—including murder. One of California’s longest-standing prison inmates, Manson died in November 2017.

Who were the followers known as the Manson Family?

In the public’s imagination, the “Manson girls,” as they came to be known, loomed almost as large as Manson himself. Mostly young women in their late teens and early 20s, Manson Family members were, in the late 1960s, not especially unusual. White, middle-class women all over the country were heading for cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles, inspired by other hippies to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.” Manson used his female followers to lure other men to both join the group and to support it—it was several of the women that initially met Dennis Wilson and brought Manson to his home.

Manson and the Family bounced around Los Angeles, eventually settling at Spahn Ranch, an old film-and-television set in the western San Fernando Valley. At Spahn, Manson exercised total domination over the group—members were reportedly forbidden from wearing eyeglasses or carrying money, and in Member of the Family: My Story of Charles Manson, Life Inside His Cult, and the Darkness That Ended the Sixties, Manson follower Dianne Lake (just 14 when she met Manson) detailed long nights of lectures, in which Manson instructed others at the ranch to take LSD and listen to him preach about the past, present and future of humanity. Some of the Family remained loyal to Manson even after he was sentenced to death (later converted to life in prison when the state of California overturned the use of the death penalty)—in 1975, one of Manson’s earliest followers, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, attempted to assassinate president Gerald Ford (her gun jammed and she was quickly felled by the Secret Service).

How did Manson fit into the Hollywood scene?

Manson had connections to a number of wealthy and influential people in Los Angeles. Through Dennis Wilson, he became acquainted with record producer Terry Melcher, son of actress Doris Day and boyfriend of model and actress Candice Bergen. At one point, the daughter of actress Angela Lansbury was a Family hanger-on, and though she wasn’t an official member, she used her mother’s credit cards to buy the Family’s food and clothing.

Melcher and Bergen lived at the house (10050 Cielo Drive) that Tate would eventually rent with her husband, director Roman Polanski, and Guinn posits that the house represented Manson’s rejection by the musical establishment—he’d courted Melcher as a patron, and even hosted the producer at Spahn Ranch, where Melcher politely listened to Manson and the Family perform. Manson pinned a great deal of hope on his connections with Wilson and Melcher, and it’s widely believed that once it became clear the two men weren’t going to significantly advance his music career (though Wilson did convince the Beach Boys to re-work and record a version of Manson’s song “Cease to Exist,” which they renamed “Never Learn Not to Love,” it was considered a flop), Manson became increasingly focused on violence.

Actress Sharon Tate takes a leap in the film Don't Make Waves (Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images) Terry Melcher and Candice Bergen, who were formerly acquainted with Manson and lived in the house where Tate was murdered before Tate and Polanski moved in. (Dove / Express / Getty Images)

What was ‘Helter Skelter’?

Prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, in his exhaustive attempt to put together a motive for the Family’s killings, landed on Manson’s obsession with what he called ‘Helter Skelter.’ Taken from the Beatles song of the same name (Manson told his followers the White Album was further evidence his theories about the end of the world were correct), ‘Helter Skelter,’ in Manson’s verbiage, was the pending race war that would see thousands dieand force the Family disappear to underground caves. There, they would wait until it was time for them to emerge and rule what was left of the world.

While Manson initially foretold that the first crimes would be committed by African-Americans against whites, the desperate state of his affairs in the summer of 1969—his musical aspirations had largely come to nothing and his Hollywood connections had died up—led him to shift focus and tell the Family they might have to begin Helter Skelter themselves, committing savage crimes in upscale neighborhoods in an attempt to demonstrate to African-Americans how the violence should be carried out. In 1974, Bugliosi published Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders, the first major work examining the Manson Family and the best-selling true crime book of all time.

Overview of Spahn Ranch, a former Hollywood filming location where the Manson Family later took up residence. 1970. (Ralph Crane / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty Images)

Who were the Manson Family’s victims?

On the night of August 8, 1969, Manson Family members Tex Watson, Patricia Krenwinkel, Susan Atkins, and Linda Kasabian (who would later turn state’s witness against the others) drove to Tate and Polanski’s home (the director was out of town working on a film). The eight-months pregnant Tate, who appeared in 1967’s Valley of the Dolls and was considered one of Hollywood’s most promising up-and-comers, was relaxing at home with her friends: celebrity hairstylist Jay Sebring, coffee heiress Abigail Folger, and Folger’s boyfriend Voytek Frykowski. None of them had any tangible connection to Manson or the Family other than being physically in the house previously occupied by someone Manson knew (Terry Melcher).

In Helter Skelter, Bugliosi writes that a witness for the prosecution described a March 1969 day on which Manson came to the house looking for Melcher and found Tate on the porch instead—“There could be no question that Charles Manson saw Sharon Tate, and she him,” writes Bugliosi.

Tate and her friends all died at the hands of Watson, Krenwinkel, and Atkins, as did Steven Parent, a teenaged friend of the house’s caretaker who happened to be pulling out of the driveway as the killers arrived.

The very next night, the same group of Family members, plus Leslie van Houten and Manson himself, set out to commit more murders. They drove to the house of grocery business executive Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary, in the Los Feliz area of Los Angeles. LaBianca was totally unknown to the Manson Family—some of its members had reportedly been to a party in the neighborhood. According to Bugliosi, the LaBiancas were chosen at random after several hours of driving around upscale Los Angeles neighborhoods.

Leslie Van Houten, Susan Atkins, and Patricia Krenwinkel (left to right) walk from the jail section to the courtroom during the trial for their role in the Manson Family murders. (Bettmann / Contributor)

Why does Manson still loom so large?

The brutal nature of the murders committed by the Manson Family, in addition to the fact that some of the victims were celebrities, touched upon some of the deepest fears of the American psyche—the idea that you might not be safe at home, for one, and the idea that even ‘good girls’ are a few moves away from committing unspeakable crimes. They also cemented the idea in popular culture that the Free Love movement of the 1960s wasn’t free at all. It’s a sentiment further explored in Jeffrey Melnick’s Creepy Crawling: Charles Manson and the Many Lives of America's Most Infamous Family , in which Melnick, professor of American studies at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, examines the long-term cultural impact of the Manson Family. In “The White Album,” an essay appearing in her eponymous collection named after the Beatles album, Joan Didion uses the murders to argue that the ’60s had effectively ended—“the paranoia,” she wrote, was fulfilled.

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