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- 05/21/19--15:07: _A Wisconsin Bar Had...
- 05/21/19--15:20: _Being an Ottoman Ja...
- 05/22/19--07:00: _The Makeshift Mosqu...
- 05/22/19--08:07: _Why Were Medieval E...
- 05/22/19--08:58: _The Neon Motel Sign...
- 05/22/19--11:50: _These Belgian Monks...
- 05/22/19--14:53: _18 of the World's M...
- 05/22/19--16:59: _The Glamorous Austr...
- 05/23/19--10:26: _In Ontario, A Quest...
- 05/23/19--10:56: _Bangladesh’s Tigers...
- 05/23/19--11:15: _How Do You Move a 3...
- 05/23/19--14:29: _How Civil War Plant...
- 05/23/19--14:37: _Walk Through the Ha...
- 05/23/19--14:52: _Can Nigerian Drummi...
- 05/24/19--12:28: _These Are the Most ...
- 05/24/19--12:34: _A Trio of Fluffy De...
- 05/24/19--13:26: _Oh, The Places You'...
- 05/24/19--15:22: _After Decades of Be...
- 05/21/19--15:20: Being an Ottoman Janissary Meant War, Mutiny, and Baklava
- 05/22/19--07:00: The Makeshift Mosques of Athens Are About to Disappear
- 05/22/19--08:07: Why Were Medieval Europeans So Obsessed With Long, Pointy Shoes?
- 05/22/19--08:58: The Neon Motel Signs of Las Vegas Aren't Dead Yet
- 05/22/19--11:50: These Belgian Monks Are Reopening a Medieval Microbrewery
- 05/22/19--14:53: 18 of the World's Most Wondrous Public Transportation Options
- 05/22/19--16:59: The Glamorous Australian Guide to Eating Invasive Species
- 05/23/19--10:56: Bangladesh’s Tigers Bounce Back After a Poaching Crackdown
- 05/23/19--11:15: How Do You Move a 320-Year-Old House Across an Ocean?
- 05/23/19--14:29: How Civil War Plant Remedies Could Improve Modern Medicine
- 05/23/19--14:37: Walk Through the Halls of Scotland's Lords of the Isles (Virtually)
- 05/23/19--14:52: Can Nigerian Drumming Teach You to Pick the Perfect Watermelon?
- 05/24/19--12:28: These Are the Most Realistic Fish Ever Carved From Wood
- 05/24/19--13:26: Oh, The Places You'll Go, When You Love to Climb Volcanoes
It wasn't meant to survive nearly that long.
Durand, Wisconsin, is an old railroad town on the banks of the Chippewa River. In the early 19th century, when traveling circuses were emerging as a popular form of entertainment, trackside towns such as Durand made natural stops for menageries of train cars holding camels, tigers, elephant-riders, and more. But of course, this was all before television and radio (and before concerns about animal welfare penetrated the circus world), so the only way to get the word out about the coming extravaganza was through signs and billboards plastered up in each town. In 2015, Durand resident Ron Berger unearthed one of these giant paper ads behind the wall of his local restaurant and bar, the Corral Bar & Riverside Grill. Recently, after years of work, it was unveiled.
“It’s a lithograph,” Berger says. “They would actually engrave carving wood blocks and make these big, giant stamps [for full sheets of paper] … then they’d stamp each individual color and stamp it again until all the colors were filled.” This 9-foot-high, 55-foot-long, multi-sheet, full-color circus poster (which clearly cites the date of the circus: Monday, August 17, 1885) runs the length of the wall—and all the way up to the Chippewa River. The only part that seems to be missing is a four-foot chunk that detailed a large aquarium with fantastical sea monsters (likely blown away by river winds). The company that printed the poster, Russell, Morgan & Co., was based in Cincinnati, which was, at the time, the lithograph capital of the world. “It was imperative that they made these [wood] blocks so they could duplicate the posters,” Berger says. “These posters were made for more than one show because they put them up all around the train routes.”
Berger’s family has occupied part of this building since 1977, when their restaurant first opened, but the side of the building that held this secret history wasn’t used by the family until 1996. During Labor Day weekend of 2015, Berger embarked on a renovation to make a dining room addition when he saw a blue-brown bison peeking out through the hole. It would be weeks before he revealed the rest of the circus scene, and saw that an important piece of entertainment history had fallen into his lap. He knew he had to preserve it. It took Berger and his team two years to totally remove the wall and restore what was behind it. “We had a very little budget and had to figure out just what to do,” Berger recalls.
The circus that the poster promoted, the “Great Anglo-American Circus,” was world famous. It’s owner, Miles Orton, was known to ride horses bareback, standing up, with his two children standing on his shoulders and head. This whimsical stunt is illustrated on the poster in Durand. His trail of 24 circus train cars traveled all throughout the United States. That the poster from his visit to Durand has lasted, almost fully intact, for over a century, is a marvel.
“It was made to last only like a month or two after the show, so it could just fall apart and disappear. They were designed to not have to have a team come back to take them down,” Berger says. Allegedly, a group of inspired historians is now researching the circus’ train route—particularly through the state of Georgia—to find any more of these hidden advertisements that might have improbably survived. But according to Berger: “There could be one buried somewhere else but they’re made on paper so they’re not built to last. It’d have to be a perfect storm of someone building over it right after the show like this one was.”
Through his research, Berger has developed a working theory for how the poster got stuck behind the wall of his bar, formerly a hardware store. “I think they were in the process of building a saloon, and they were probably working on the foundation of that when the circus saw the river right there and they talked them into [waiting to build] until after the circus was done,” Berger says. “It was the perfect spot to put a billboard,” he says of the riverfront wall.
Today, the colorful circus poster, advertising everything from ostriches to aerialists, is protected behind a sheet of glass, and is visible to everyone who visits the Corral Bar & Riverside Grill. “We had to protect it from UV rays and people touching it,” Berger says. Now, we’ll see if the vintage lithograph has another 134 years in it … or more.
To overthrow the sultan, janissaries first threw over their cooking pots.
In the spring of 1806, Istanbul was in uproar. Sultan Selim III wanted to modernize his military, with new uniforms and European-style fighting techniques. But other sultans had tried before, and failed. Reform required getting rid of the janissaries, a centuries-old class of soldiers. Unfortunately for Selim, the janissaries would soon give their usual sign of rebellion: publicly overturning their giant cooking pots. For the corps, whose traditions revolved around food, this amounted to a declaration of mutiny.
For centuries, the janissaries had been one of the most feared fighting forces in Europe. Trained as infantry from youth, it was the janissaries who breached the walls of Constantinople in 1453 and devastated Hungarian knights at the Battle of Mohacs in 1526. “They were a modern army, long before Europe got its act together,” says Virginia H. Aksan, professor emeritus of history at McMaster University. “Europe was still riding around with great, big, heavy horses and knights.”
Decked out in glorious uniforms and alerting enemies to their presence with thunderous drums, they were “both a cause of terror and a source of admiration for the West,” writes historian Gilles Veinstein. Under a system likely established by Sultan Murad I in the 14th century, Ottoman authorities took boys from Christian families across the Ottoman Empire as a sort of tax. Called a “gathering,” or devşirme, the boys underwent stringent training as archers and later as musketeers, along with conversion to Islam.
Accounts abound of Christian families, especially in the Balkans, doing all they could to keep their sons from being taken away. Yet if they became janissaries, the boys were freed and considered the “sons of the sultan,” Aksan says. The best of the best rose to positions of influence and power in the Ottoman bureaucracy. However, Veinstein notes, janissaries could be “a danger for the Ottoman rulers.” Should a sultan cross them, janissaries would rise in revolt.
Their signal to mutiny was overturning their massive cooking pots, or kazan. Tipping over a huge cauldron might seem like a goofy way to start a rebellion. But for janissaries, both the kazan and food in general were potent symbols. Accepting the sultan’s food was a sign of loyalty and dedication to him, writes Ottoman historian Amy Singer, and eating from the kazan helped “create group solidarity.”
The kazan also had a spiritual meaning. One legend held that Haci Bektas Veli, the founder of Bektashi Sufism, founded the janissaries and “served them soup from the ‘holy cauldron,’” writes Singer. Janissaries were often members of the Bektashi order, and to the Bektashi, “the hearth and home were sacred.” Used for Bektashi ceremonies, the cauldrons took on a similar significance to the janissaries. Contemporary illustrations of janissaries show lavishly dressed soldiers proudly parading along with their kazan.
Every three months, when janissaries got their salaries, they paraded to Topkapi Palace, where they also received soup, pilaf, and saffron pudding. Each year during Ramadan, janissaries marched to the palace kitchens in the "Baklava Procession" to receive a massive amount of sweet treats. Well in advance of cauldron-flipping, any hesitance to receive food from the sultan was a warning that an orta, or regiment, was on the verge of mutiny.
Janissaries adopted cook-like titles as well. Their sergeants, the highest-ranking member of each corps, was the çorbacı, or the “soup cook.” According to Aksan, the janissary corps was referred to as the ocak, which meant the hearth. “That comes from the notion that they were the sultan's sons,” she says. “You have the household, and janissaries are an essential part of that.” Also gathered around the hearth, writes Singer, were “lower-ranking officers” with titles such as aşcis, or cook, and the kara kulluckçus, or scullion.
In the early-16th century, janissaries numbered around 20,000, and that number would steadily increase. But the janissaries slowly lost power as a fighting force. Devşirme was abolished in 1638, and the ban on marriage faded as well. The sons of janissaries were allowed into the ranks, and soon free citizens vied to join. It wasn’t long before janissaries were running businesses while still expecting pay from the sultan. As Aksan notes in the Oxford Companion to Military History, by the end of the 17th century, their numbers had swelled to nearly 80,000, and in 1800, the rolls of the janissaries contained nearly 400,000 names. At that point the title was almost meaningless, and only around 10 percent “could be called upon to defend the empire.”
Yet woe betide the sultans who tried to replace the janissaries, or, Aksan notes, to debase the currency. Janissaries never appreciated either attempt, and the mutinies could be devastating. Despite their vaunted loyalty, janissaries deposed several sultans, starting with the murder of the teenage Osman II in 1622. He planned to dismantle the janissaries and, expecting defiance, he closed the coffee shops where they gathered. Rising up in revolt, janissaries killed him. Selim III was forced off his throne by the janissaries, and later murdered. In the end, janissaries became like the Praetorian Guard of ancient Rome. Mutiny was their privilege, says Aksan, and sultans had to appease them.
Aksan calls the janissaries “the central icons of the Ottoman’s heyday.” But as they lost battles across Europe and became more unruly at home, both the sultan and the public had enough. Sultan Mahmud II, seeking to modernize his military forces, had a brutal solution to disbanding the janissaries in 1826. The janissaries overturned their cauldrons at dawn on June 15, but the sultan had planned ahead. He destroyed their barracks with artillery and had them “mowed them down in the streets of Istanbul,” says Aksan. With survivors exiled and executed, it was an ignominious end for the sons of the sultan.
The Greek capital will soon open an official place of worship for the city's 200,000 Muslims.
Since the Ottomans left Greece over two centuries ago, Athens has been one of the few world capitals, and the last in Europe, without an official mosque. In the meantime, Athenian Muslims have had to find alternative ways to keep their faith.
According to the Muslim Association of Greece, the more than 200,000 Muslims who live in the Greek capital and Attica region that surrounds it have been trying for decades to get a proper place of worship. However, their demands have been thwarted, mostly due to political and religious reasons, as well as Greek bureaucracy. For a very long time, both the Greek Orthodox church and far-right political parties opposed the idea.
Without an official house of worship, individuals within the Muslim community began taking matters into their own hands and creating private worship spaces—at the beginning just for themselves and their families, but later open to everyone.
Athenian Muslims have transformed underground garages, empty basements, and rented apartments all around the city into cozy DIY mosques, each decorated with its owner’s individual taste and paid for exclusively with personal funds. According to MAG, it is estimated that within city limits, there are about 100 makeshift mosques. The majority of them are run by Sunni Muslims, although a few are operated by Shia individuals.
Now, after years of stagnation, Athens will soon have its first official state-owned mosque in the area of Votanikos, close to the city center. The final project was approved by the Greek government in August 2016 and the total cost of almost $994,000 (887,000 euros) was funded entirely by the Greek government. The construction started in November the same year and three years later, after many delays, the mosque is set to open by the end of Ramadan. According to officials, the construction has finished and only the decorations are left before it opens its doors for the first time. It will have space for 350 people, only 50 of which would be for women. An imam was recently chosen by the administrative committee of the mosque: a 50-year-old Moroccan immigrant with Greek citizenship, who moved to the country 25 years ago.
This will mean the end for many of those private mosques. Only very few that follow certain regulations imposed by the Greek Ministry of Education, Research, and Religious Affairs will be authorized and continue to operate. At the time of publication, just six of those makeshift mosques have been granted permission to keep running. In the next few months, following the expected opening of the official mosque early June, the rest will be evaluated by the Ministry, who will decide which ones will stay open and which will be permanently locked down.
These photos offer a glimpse at these unofficial spaces of worship, before the vast majority may be forced to close for good.
Going to foolish lengths for fashion.
In 1463, London outlawed the shoes of its fanciest men. These dapper lords had grown ridiculous in their dapperness, and had taken to ambling streets shod in long, carrot-shaped shoes that tapered to impish tips, some as long as five inches beyond the toe. These shoes were called “crakows” or “poulaines” (a term also used to refer to the tips alone), and the court of King Edward IV eventually found them offensive enough to pass a sumptuary law prohibiting shoe tips that extended over two inches beyond the toe.
Perhaps one of the silliest and most fascinating trends in medieval fashion, these shoes probably first emerged around 1340 in Krakow, Poland—both names refer to this origin—according to Rebecca Shawcross, the author of Shoes: An Illustrated History. Shawcross also serves as the shoe resources officer at Northampton Museum and Art Gallery in England, which claims to have the world’s largest collection of shoes (at 12,000 pairs, but alas, just one intact pair of poulaines).
Europe had flirted with long-toed footwear since the 1200s, but never to this length, or with this saturation. The lords and, to a lesser extent, ladies of 15th-century Europe wore these shoes almost exclusively for over a century. Every person who could afford shoes wore poulaines, though the longer tips were generally reserved for nobility who could afford to wander around in footwear seemingly designed for pratfalls.
For the glitterati of medieval Europe, poulaines were less a fad than a symbol. “If you were a man of status and you had enough wealth, you wanted to show that off,” Shawcross says. “And to do that, you had to take the toe to the extreme.” Shoes with absurdly long toes were expensive and would clearly impair the wearer from efficiently partaking in any kind of physical labor. So they were also an indicator of leisure and luxury, free of extraneous effort or the tyranny of practicality.
Poulaines—like babies or uncorseted bosoms—could not support themselves. In order to keep the tips erect, medieval shoemakers stuffed them with soft organic material, often moss, hair, or wool. “Without a stuffed toe, it gets quite floppy,” Shawcross says. “It doesn’t look like it would have been worn by someone of status at all.” The material also helped prevent the tip of the poulaine from curling up in the rain, according to Jackie Keily, senior curator at the Museum of London, which boasts one of the most impressive collections of poulaines. One shoe in particular, recovered from an archaeological excavation on the waterfront, boasts a modest tip but a delicate leaf pattern.
One surviving example includes an uncomfortable-looking hunk of whalebone used as a stiffener (also a feature of high-end corsetry). Poulaines also had a sort of sex appeal, being cut to show off the colored hose around a lord’s ankle—considered quite sexy at the time. “It’s a time when tunics are getting shorter and young men would have been showing off their legs,” Keily says. “So low-cut shoes would have accentuated and elongated the leg, all down to that long point.”
Most poulaines that survive today were made of leather, but medieval Europeans would have used every possible fabric, Keily says. The upper echelons of society, for example, used embroidered textiles, velvets, and silks. Such shoes might be hand-painted or etched with intricate patterns. Though these opulent poulaines appear in many medieval paintings, no actual examples survive. The Museum of London has some of the fanciest known poulaines in its collection, all remarkably preserved by the saturated mud of the River Thames.
Poulaines stand out even more because medieval fashion was often governed by clean lines and a practical, chaste minimalism, Shawcross says. (Poulaines also marked a rare period in history when men’s fashion outshone women’s in terms of sheer frill, according to Keily.) Perhaps the best explanation for this confounding flamboyance is that the shoes emerged soon after the Black Death killed 30 to 60 percent of the population of Europe. “It may have been a reaction to a type of austerity,” Keily says. “The plague left a landscape with a lot of people who had lost close family members, a generation of mourning. Suddenly there were less people who had more money to spend on clothing.” So poulaines may have been a kind of retail therapy for coping with the surprise disappearance of 25 million people. Keily points to other fashion trends that followed widespread losses of life, such as the conspicuous designs that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s, following World War II.
By today’s standards, poulaines were a long-lived fad. But Shawcross says medieval trends often lasted for a century or more, due to the slow, protracted passage of culture across towns and countries, in the absence of any widely distributed media. Until the 18th century, fashions emerged at the top of society and then slowly trickled down, class by class, often taking years to reach rural areas.
Eventually, the English crown felt the need to intervene, in part because of the lascivious connotations that the increasingly extended toe-tips carried. “People thought the longer the toe, the more masculine the wearer,” Shawcross says. “But some people weren’t keen on that connotation.” Parliament equated wearing the shoes to public indecency, and stepped forward to put limits on a variety of racy fashions: “No person under the estate of lord, including knights, esquires, and gentlemen, to wear any gown, jacket, or coat which does not cover the genitals and buttocks. Also not to wear any shoes or boots with pikes longer than two inches. No tailor to make such a short garment, or stuffed doublet, and no shoemaker to make such pikes,” the 1463 law reads. The only other city known to have taken a stand against the shoes was Paris, which had banned them in 1368.
It was a fashion, and fashions come and go. By 1475, the poulaine had vanished, Shawcross says. Under the reign of King Henry VIII, European footwear made a hard pivot into the wide, box-toed shoes. In response, England later passed sumptuary laws restricting the width of these blocky shoes. “The king had men who would go around trying to catch people, measuring the width of their toes,” Shawcross says.
Pointy men’s shoes had a surprise reprise in England in the 1950s, with the nattily named winklepicker. Though far less extreme than the most dramatic poulaines, winklepicker wearers also stuffed the toes of their shoes with cotton or tissue paper to keep their tips aloft—like medieval lords. The style has had several revivals over the ensuing decades, and luckily for the British music scene, parliament has yet to make an official statement on winklepickers.
A photographer captured their flickers of life.
If you had driven from Los Angeles to Las Vegas in the middle of the 20th century, you would have spent several hours on some very dusty desert roads, past cacti and shaggy yucca trees, maybe a coyote howling beneath a sky pricked with stars.
Along that route, and inside the Vegas city limits, a motel sign had a tough job to do. It had to catch drivers’ eyes during the day, and be equally or even more inviting against an inky sky. In a flat, dry sea of boxy, nondescript buildings, signage was what differentiated one low-slung pitstop from another—and to make a sign pop, many mid-20th-century motels leaned on bright, buzzing neon. Those signs have since become as synonymous with the city as gambling, magic shows, and sin.
In addition to drawing attention, the signs ticked off the creature comforts that visitors should expect inside—from carpet to coffee, warm showers to color TV. They were often modeled on flora and fauna drivers might have streaked past in the desert, or the dueling mythologies of the developing desert town. Cowboys smiled down from some, while others—Jackpot, Bonanza, Roulette—nodded to games and good luck charms that came along with (or prevented) a good night’s sleep in Vegas. A few also celebrated the bets that the whole country was placing at the time, particularly on the space race, making rockets, stars, and moons common roadside sights.
Photographer Fred Sigman has been mesmerized by these neon signs since his first visit to Las Vegas as a teenager in the summer of 1968, when he and his father drove in from Hollywood, crossing the Mojave Desert in a Ford Falcon. On that trip, a young Sigman captured beguiling casino facades and glittering signs with his Polaroid Swinger. By the mid-1990s, he had become a professional artist, and accepted a commission from dealer and gallerist Ivan Karp to go out and focus on the city’s motel signs.
By then, the motel heyday was already over. “In the '90s, [Vegas was] already shifting to mega-resorts on the strip,” Sigman recalls. In contrast to that glitziness, motels were considered “low-life, crappy little places.” Many of them had shuttered and falling into disrepair. Others were gone, bulldozed into oblivion. Sigman’s photos, shot with a large-format film camera, froze the signs within a landscape that was changing, complete with busted bricks and sidewalks, brown-tipped plants, and concrete pools filled with nothing but shadows. Now, more than 20 years later, Sigman has compiled his trove of photos into a book, Motel Vegas.
Sigman, who now lives mostly in Siem Reap, Cambodia, says he doesn’t pine for the “good old days” of Vegas. While the photos are saturated, bright, and graceful, he says they’re stripped of nostalgia. Traffic or trash appears at the edges of the frames, and “There’s nothing romantic about the lighting,” he says. “It’s not like a Turner painting or anything.” Sigman photographed some motels in harsh afternoon light, and others beneath skies smudged with pinks and blues, but not for the scenic qualities. He says he was just seizing opportunities to highlight the specific qualities of a certain sign. “I wasn’t there because, ‘Wow, sunset,’” he says.
Many of the signs blinked out or disappeared since Sigman photographed them, but not all have been lost forever. Some were salvaged, shined up, and installed in areas such as East Fremont, a district once awash with motels and currently undergoing a revitalization project, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported in 2018. There, a few old signs found new life as artworks. “You can see them from your car, the way it used to be,” Sigman says. More are on display at the Neon Museum, where several have been fully restored and relit, with many more heaped outside, in the Neon Boneyard, where visitors are free to wander among the pretty scraps of Vegas’s past.
Meanwhile, the city’s Historic Preservation Commission is taking an inventory of motels past and present—reaching out to owners and sifting through archives of old advertising matchbooks and postcards—that once lined Fremont Street and Las Vegas Boulevard. They’re also trying to drum up enthusiasm for adaptive reuse projects that would freshen up some old motels to appeal to a new wave of travelers. “There’s a whole world of cultural tourists out there who go to museums and stay in boutique motels and they’re not into luxury, resort-style traveling,” says Jack LeVine, a local real estate agent and a member of the commission. There’s a hope that renovated places, like the 53-room Sterling Gardens, will charm the tourists looking for a cool, kitschy place to crash.
A few motels are still open for business, promising the same unfussy accommodations they’ve been offering for decades. And while Sigman, who rides a motorcycle and says he “spends more time in airports than anywhere else,” has an unvarnished view of these sometimes-seedy spots, he appreciates an invitation to stop and rest his bones for a few hours before moving on. When you’re tired enough, it doesn’t take a lot to make a roadside stop feel like home, if only for a night or two.
The operation has been dormant for more than 220 years.
Grimbergen Abbey, a monastery in central Belgium, has burned down three times since it was first built in 1128, hence its phoenix logo. Now, another aspect of the abbey’s history is rising from the ashes: its microbrewery.
The Grimbergen monks had been brewing beer in-house since the 12th century, but had to stop after the monastery burned down in 1798 during the French Revolution. (The area was under French control at the time.) The written recipes were lost, and the local, medieval techniques seemingly consigned to the unreliable realm of lore. It took more than 220 years for the Grimbergen monks to stumble upon the original recipes in the monastery’s archives, but there they were, heroically saved in 1798 by monks who had smuggled them out of the doomed abbey. This week, The Guardian reports, Subprior Karel Stautemas raised a glass of freshly brewed Grimbergen beer to more than 100 onlookers and announced that the brewery is back in business.
Finding the recipes didn’t clear up all of the lingering questions at once. First and foremost, there was a significant language barrier, as all of the recipes were written in unfamiliar strains of old Latin and old Dutch. The abbey had to bring in volunteers to decipher the writings, which ultimately revealed “the hops used, the types of barrels and bottles, and even a list of the actual beers produced centuries ago,” according to Stautemas. Even then, the monks had to consider whether to stay purely faithful to the medieval guidelines, which would have yielded beers rather difficult for our modern palettes to handle. The abbey’s new master brewer, Marc-Antoine Sochon, said that medieval beer “was a bit tasteless,” or comparable to “liquid bread,” so the monks decided to make some modifications. The purists, however, needn’t worry: The medieval monks “kept on innovating” and updated their recipes “every 10 years,” Stautemas said, so the 12 monks who live in the abbey today are well within their traditional rights even as they experiment.
Among the medieval elements remaining in place are the prohibition of artificial additives and the required use of wooden barrels and some specifically local ingredients. Whatever the monks are doing, it’s bound to pack a punch. Their new beer has an alcohol by volume content of 10.8 percent—that’s more than double what you’ll find in a Budweiser, for reference. In The Guardian, Grimbergen’s mayor, Chris Selleslagh, recommended stopping after one or two beverages.
Carlsberg and Heineken’s Alken-Maes brewery have been brewing beer using the Grimbergen name since the 1950s—and while the abbey received some of those profits, it was not actually involved with production. Though the two larger companies will continue to distribute the abbey’s beer and provide professional assistance, the Grimbergen label now refers to more than just a name. As the operation moves back home, NPR reports that Stautemas will receive formal training in the brewing arts so he can do his part. It’s safe to assume that wasn’t covered when he was getting his theology degree.
Atlas Obscura readers recommend their favorite mass transit experiences.
One of the greatest ways to experience a new place is also one of the simplest: take public transportation. Riding a bus or subway is a wonderful way to explore a destination both inexpensively, and like a local. But as terrific as first-rate mass transit can be, all over the world you can also find public transport options that are experiences in and of themselves. We recently asked Atlas Obscura readers in our Community Forums to tell us about their favorite examples of unforgettable public transit, and they recommended everything from giant elevators to bamboo rail cars (plus plenty of funiculars... so many funiculars!).
See some of our favorite responses below, and if there's an incredible mode of public transportation that didn't make it into our list, head over to the Forums and keep the conversation going! If you truly want to travel in style, remember this one simple rule: always ride the funicular.
“Lisbon, Portugal, has its fair share of fun public transport, including an elevator (Elevador de Santa Justa), three funiculars (Ascensor do Lavra, da Bica, and da Glória), and trams, with several lines operated by old small trams, simply because anything bigger wouldn’t fit.” — fotomiep
Docklands Light Railway
“London’s DLR line has driver-free trains, which means you can sit at the very front of the train and pretend to be the driver yourself!” — longdenbethany
“Two places I have been that have funiculars are Dubuque, Iowa, and Old Quebec City in Canada. They are a fun way to get from the lower part of the cities to the top of the bluffs.” — darbyfish50
Morgantown, West Virginia
“I have had the opportunity to travel on a lot of cool systems like the Eurotrain, but the most unique was the Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) installed at West Virginia University in 1975. I used it during my time as a student and then some. It consisted of a small driverless vehicles zooming around on semi-enclosed concrete tracks. A really forward-looking system considering the date. What’s more amazing is that it is still in use to this day.” — thinhtien
Ascensore Castello d'Albertis-Montegalletto
“A multi mode underground lift in which a cart enters the steep hillside horizontally and then comes to a halt deep underground. A jolting chorus of whirring gears and cables heralds the transition to vertical movement and the cart ascends the last leg à la Willy Wonka.” — petenuttall
“On a visit to Trondheim, Norway, we encountered the Trampe Bicycle Lift. Basically it’s a steam-driven (I believe) chain that runs underground on a steep hill. Attached to the chain and sticking up out of the ground are multiple ‘pedals.’ You would ride your bike up to one of these pedals, place your foot on it while remaining seated on your bike, and it would then propel you and your bike up the hill. Ingenious!” — enospork
“When I was a student at Pittsburgh’s Art Institute (1973-1975), I rose on the Monongahela Incline, one of TWO funiculars to get up to the top of Mount Washington. It’s a great place to view Pittsburgh’s wonderful downtown.” — alanrogers250
New York City, New York
“Commuted on it for three years and never got bored.” — diannleesmith
“Several years ago we were visiting Lake Como, and had done the tour boat. Walking away from the lake we saw the funicular, Como to Brunate. A straight up trip to a beautiful little village. As we exited, the small local church organist was practicing for the weekend. The music was beautiful, but the view of the alps was spectacular!” — CAwinediva
Princeton, New Jersey
“It’s 2.7 miles long, with one car on standard gauge track and one stop. Supposedly the shortest rail line in the U.S.A.” — thuds36
“The gondolas of Medellín, Colombia, which enable residents of poor, steep neighborhoods to get downtown lickety-split. Also, they have amazing views.” — davidplotz
St. Charles Streetcar Line
New Orleans, Louisiana
“The New Orleans streetcar! The St. Charles Ave. line is on the National Register of Historic Places. The cars are still the original green, and are utterly lacking in air conditioning, but that’s how it should be. For $1.25, you can ride from Riverbend (where the Mississippi bends to form the bottom of the crescent of New Orleans) all the way to Canal Street right next to the French Quarter, and pass through all the Uptown and Garden District mansions along the way. The newer lines have red cars (and air conditioning).” — telfb
“The funicular in Bergen, Norway, takes you to a fabulous view of the fjord below, ‘Norwegian Woods,’ and a collection of carved trolls that are scattered through the wooded area. I also loved the funicular in Llandudno, Wales, the Great Orme Tramway that takes folks to the top of the Great Orme, a limestone headland in the north of Wales.” — robertasheahan
Lynton and Lynmouth Cliff Railway
“In continuous operation since 1890, and water powered. How environmentally friendly is that?” — rwhiting123
“Glasgow’s subway opened on December 14, 1896 (the third oldest in the world after London and Budapest)—known by Glaswegians as the ‘Clockwork Orange’ due to its dinky scale (4 foot x 1,219 mm gauge) and its single circular route. It is a very different travel experience. As a student in Glasgow, a pub crawl stopping for a drink at each of the 15 stations was a challenge of a Saturday night.” — Kenneth_Wardrop
“Try the transporter bridge between Middlesbrough and Port Clarence in north east England. Is it a bridge, cable car, or ferry?! Cables guided by the bridge above pull a gondola across the River Tees in about three minutes.” — kevanbrianhubbard
Funivia di San Marino
San Marino, Republic of San Marino
“Here’s the funivia, or aerial cable car, in San Marino. It runs between the city of San Marino up at the top of the country down to the lower city of Borgo Maggiore. It’s just a quick little ride, but it’s an easy way to get between the two places.” — SaintUrsula
“The Battambang bamboo railway in Cambodia is a lot of fun. I have been on the old one—lots of fun, especially when the opposing ‘cars’ meet on the single track :)” — fbgcai
An edgy new cookbook has recipes for camel, cane toad, and feral cat.
When my high-school biology teacher rolled in a TV trolley one afternoon, we had no idea that instead of an episode of Bill Nye the Science Guy, we were about to watch Cane Toads: An Unnatural History, a surprisingly well known documentary about invasive cane toads in Australia. Imported from Hawaii to curb a beetle devouring sugar cane in Queensland, the toads procreated furiously, polished off native bugs, and poisoned other animals that tried to eat them. After all, cane toads are toxic.
Nevertheless, a new Tasmanian cookbook contains a recipe for sweet-and-sour cane toad legs. Its name, Eat the Problem, announces its straightforward solution to invasive species, and the cookbook consists of 500-plus pages of essays, art, and recipes whose star ingredient is a plant or animal overtaking ecosystems in Australia and around the world.
The project is a brainchild of Kirsha Kaechele, an American artist and curator. Kaechele was inspired by the enormous nutria rodents laying waste to New Orleans, which locals have tried to hunt and eat into submission. The volume was released in March by Tasmania's edgy Museum of Old and New Art. (The owner, David Walsh, is Kaechele's husband.) On its rainbow-hued pages, chefs apply their talents to invasive plants and animals. Chef Dominique Crenn takes on wakame, a type of invasive seaweed, by applying it to root vegetables, and Philippe Parola of New Orleans contributes a recipe for Asian carp amandine. Along with lustrous photography and recipes, the pages are filled with art and offbeat musings from a host of contributors on food, history, and the natural world.
The point of the book, writes Kaechele in a foreword interview, is to glamorize the devouring of invasive animals and plants—she also describes an earlier attempt to pitch nutria fur to fashion houses. Many recipes are accordingly glam both in ingredients and technique. Not all of the recipes in Eat the Problem, which is as much art book as cookbook, are advisable to make, such as whole roasted camel (Australia has a feral camel problem) and hemlock cocktail. While the recipe for cane toad uses only the legs, which lack toxic glands, it also comes with a note from a chemistry professor warning against eating "any amount." Recipes for feral cat ("Tasmanian-style," and in tamales) push the envelope of social acceptability, although it's undeniable that cats threaten Australian wildlife and have hunted many native species to extinction. Since people cause so much destruction worldwide, a recipe for human, cooked with garlic cloves and bay leaves, is also included.
Human is not on the menu at upcoming Eat the Problem events at MONA, which range from Sunday lunches to smaller tastings. With monochromatic, invasive-species courses served atop the world's largest glockenspiel, the meals do not come cheap. Neither does the book itself, which lists at a luxe $277.77. Proceeds from book sales, though, help fund Kaechele's kitchen-garden program for schools in Tasmania and New Orleans, appropriately called 24 Carrot.
Who is Catharine McGill Crooks, and what happened to her specimen collection?
In the spring of 1860, Catharine McGill Crooks paused on the banks of Mill Creek, in what is now Cambridge, Ontario, Canada. Pulling a narrow tool from her belt, Crooks lifted several stems of watercress (Nasturtium officinale) from the silty creek bed, before slipping them into a vasculum—a slim box outfitted with leather straps like a backpack. Later, she pressed these few, wet strands between sheets of heavy paper, before carefully mounting the dried plants with a solution of gum arabic and water.
Crooks repeated this process hundreds of times, preparing a sizable collection of award-winning specimens which were exhibited at home and abroad. Collecting rare native plants and introduced species alike, Crooks captured a valuable record of southwestern Ontario’s flora before industrialization, large-scale agriculture, and urban sprawl erased much of the region’s wild spaces forever. Yet despite her dedication and skill, these treasures have all but vanished.
Who is Catharine McGill Crooks, and what happened to her collection?
Traveling between the Canadian cities of London, St. Thomas, Hamilton, and Galt (now Cambridge), Crooks prepared roughly 500 sheets of dried botanical specimens, including plants collected in Hamilton by her brother-in-law Alexander Logie. Talented and ambitious, Crooks’s observations were cited in numerous publications, including the Geological Survey of Canada’s Catalogue of Canadian Plants—now considered the “ultimate in historic Canadian floras.” Posthumously described as “a most enthusiastic botanist,” Catharine Crooks—also known as Kate—fell into obscurity in the years following her death, leaving just a few tantalizing traces of her life and work.
Kate Crooks never achieved the reputation of the iconic Canadian author Catharine Parr Traill, whose 1885 book Studies of Plant Life in Canada was once called a triumph of nature writing. Nor is she as celebrated as Mary Delany, Beatrix Potter, and Anna Atkins, 18th- and 19th-century naturalists who skillfully merged their passions for art and science. Nonetheless, in the last years of pre-confederation Canada, Crooks’s work contributed to a burgeoning understanding of the Canadian flora.
Born in February 1833, Crooks was raised in Newark, Upper Canada (now Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario). Part of a large extended family of Scottish immigrants to Canada, Crooks was brought up by her mother and sisters after her father John, a postmaster and church elder, died of scarlet fever in March 1833.
As their mother’s health, too, began to fail, Crooks’s sisters turned the family home into a private school, educating local girls from prominent families. Margaret Crooks was just 16 when she formed the school with her younger sisters Mary and Susan. Having watched their late father teach a lively Sunday school, the girls were primed to follow in his footsteps. Kate and another sister, Augusta, were likely among their first pupils.
Little is known about the years that followed, until 1861, when Kate Crooks, then 28, joined the Botanical Society of Canada. Crooks identified over two dozen plants for her brother-in-law’s flora of Hamilton, including rare species such as Canada lily (Lilium canadense) and smooth false foxglove (Aureolaria flava). In the 1950s, Dr. Leslie Laking, then Director of Canada’s Royal Botanical Gardens at Burlington, Ontario, described the paper as “one of a few standard references for Ontario flora” at the time of its publication.
Crooks’s career reached new heights in 1862, when her collection of dried botanical specimens was displayed at the International Exhibition in London, England. She received an Honorable Mention for her work, which was exhibited alongside samples of Canadian wheat, wine, and forestry products.
Following the International Exhibition, several items from the Canadian display were donated to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, in London, England—but contemporary records indicate that Crooks’s work was not among these gifts.
So where are these specimens today?
I began my search with several databases specializing in biodiversity data—GBIF (Global Biodiversity Information Facility), the Mid-Atlantic Herbaria Consortium, and Canadensys among them—but as a librarian, I know these tools have limits.
Every cataloguer has a to-do pile of items waiting to be catalogued. With this in mind, I also emailed herbarium curators in Canada and abroad, hoping I might uncover a lead. What followed was a litany of responses familiar to anyone working in memory institutions.
“Unfortunately, a very small percentage of the specimens in our collection have been catalogued,” replied one curator.
“None of Crooks’s specimens are in our database—of course, that doesn't mean we don't have any, but does make them very hard to find,” added another.
“Sorry I haven’t replied sooner. Lots going on and not enough people.”
Finally, I received an email from Dr. Frieda Beauregard, curator of the McGill University Herbarium in Montreal, Quebec. Earlier, I had located a promising specimen held at McGill’s herbarium. Collected in 1865 by an M. Crooks, the date and surname matched. But who was M. Crooks? Dr. Beauregard’s email confirmed: The collector was not M. Crooks, but Miss Crooks.
Commonly known as rose pink, Sabatia angularis is an appealing wildflower native to North America. Rising to a height of one-and-a-half to two feet, on subtly angled stems, its star-shaped, pink blossoms carry five yellow stamens apiece. Its overall conservation status is considered secure, but rose pink is now endangered in the state of New York, and is considered locally extinct in Ontario.
In July 1865, a Miss Crooks—likely Kate Crooks—cut a single stem of rose pink in the city of Hamilton, roughly 40 miles west of Toronto. Today, this specimen is still the only documented collection of rose pink from the province of Ontario. Fixed to the page in a spray of pink-rimmed blossoms, it is likely the last botanical specimen Crooks prepared as Miss Crooks. The 32-year-old married William Lynn Smart, a British-born barrister, on July 3, 1865.
Crooks continued to work after her wedding, and in the autumn of 1866, she participated in the Provincial Agricultural Fair at Toronto’s Crystal Palace. As Mrs. Smart, her work was noted in the trade publication The Canada Farmer. “Mrs. Smart, of Yorkville, displayed... a very good collection of dried native plants. It was, of course, impossible to look through the whole of it, but in our brief examination we discovered some rare varieties which would gladden the heart of a botanist.”
Three weeks later, Crooks gave birth to her first child.
Crooks and her husband had three children in all, but like her father before her, she did not live to see them grow. In 1871, eight days after the birth of her son William Catharinus Gregory Smart, Crooks died in Toronto at the age of 38.
Forgotten as a botanist, Crooks left her mark on history in other ways. Shortly after her death, Crooks’s husband and young children were sued by three of her four sisters. All widows, they contested the terms of their sister’s will based on her status as a married woman. Crooks’s cousin Adam—a provincial legislator and Ontario’s Attorney General—leapt into action, drafting the Married Women’s Real Estate Act. Passed into Ontario law two years after his cousin’s death, the Act gave married women the right to open their own bank accounts, apply for life insurance, and dispose of their own property without a husband’s permission.
The Toronto Daily Mail mocked Adam Crooks, writing, “…for these, the first principles of revolution, the ‘strong-minded’ matron of a future day may teach her infants to lisp the name of Crooks.” While the historian Dr. Lori Chambers has observed that the Act was “a remedial measure intended for women’s protection, not their emancipation,” it is Kate Crooks, not Adam, who can be given full credit for these “first principles of revolution”.
There is one known photograph of Catharine McGill Crooks. Shot in Hamilton by the daguerreotypist Robert Milne, Crooks stands tall against a brightly-lit backdrop. Her dress is voluminous—dark and bustled—while her hair tumbles in tight, shiny curls. Serene and self-possessed, she resembles a Victorian Mona Lisa.
Had she survived the birth of her third child, it’s not hard to imagine Crooks continuing her work once her children had grown. Inspired by Catharine Parr Traill, she might have written memoirs of life in the field. She might have explored photography or botanical illustration. Or she might have returned to the woods and meadows of her youth, building a new body of work in the process. While Crooks’s botanical observations offer a glimpse of the landscape around her, finding any more of her lost specimens would offer new opportunities for scientific and historical research. As Dr. Beauregard told me, plant specimens provide much stronger evidence than records based on observation alone. For now, a dormant legacy rests like seeds in the earth, waiting for the first days of spring.
This mangrove forest holds one of the world’s largest remaining wild populations of tigers.
Deep in the Sundarbans in southwestern Bangladesh, one of the world’s largest mangrove forests saw its tigers disappear at an alarming rate. The population of big cats had begun to disappear at the turn of the 21st century, snatched by poachers and pirates who snuck their way into the wildlife sanctuary in search of tiger skin. But a recent effort to double down on illegal poaching has allowed the population of Bengal tigers in the Sundarbans to increase for the first time in 15 years, according to a new tiger census released on May 21, 2019, the Dhaka Tribune reports.
Split between Bangladesh and India, the Sundarbans mangroves spread their roots throughout 4,000 square miles in the Bay of Bengal, according to National Geographic. It is the largest mangrove forest in the world, and the only one occupied by tigers. In its prime, the forest was a labyrinthine, waterlogged jungle, almost impenetrable to humans—in other words, the perfect place to be an endangered animal. The forest’s entwined roots, brackish water channels, and mosaicked chain of islands protected the endangered Bengal tiger and other rare species, such as the Irrawaddy dolphin, until poachers found a way in and reduced the wild population of big cats to a fraction of what it once was. In 2015, only 106 bengal tigers remained in the Sundarbans—less than a quarter of the 440 counted in 2004.
But the most recent census, taken in 2018, counted 114 tigers in the Bangladeshi Sundarban forest, according to the Dhaka Tribune. This averages out to 2.55 tigers per 100 square kilometers, as opposed to 2015’s average of 2.17. Bangladesh’s minister of forestry, Shahab Uddin, considers this eight percent increase a “great success,” according to Phys.com.
Counting tigers in a remote, relatively untouched wildlife sanctuary is no easy feat. Researchers relied on camera traps, strategically deployed at 536 locations in the Sundarbans over 640 square miles of land. The cameras documented 63 adult tigers, four juveniles, and five cubs over the course of 249 days. Researchers extrapolated from this number to arrive at the 114 tiger estimate.
This resurgence didn’t happen out of nowhere. Since the alarming report in 2015, Bangladeshi authorities have adopted a conservation program for the big cats, including doubling the size of the wildlife sanctuary in the forest and also commissioning a security force. One strategy in the program offered a gun buyback scheme, which resulted in 200 pirates trading in their weapons and ammunition to the police for legal aid, mobile phones, and cash. The program also launched a patrolling program to catch future poachers in the act.
But still, Bangladesh’s Bengal tigers face an even greater threat in the form of climate change, according to a story in The New York Times. Around 70 percent of Sundarban land lies just a few feet above sea level, and a new report predicts tigers will have entirely vanished from the Sundarban by 2070.
A historic structure in Japan is making its way to California.
In the Japanese city of Marugame, the home of a former village administrator still stands where it did more than 300 years ago. The wooden structure survived the firebombing campaigns of Japanese cities during World War II and will soon be leaving its longtime home to become part of the famed Japanese Garden at California’s Huntington Library. But how exactly do you move a centuries-old home from Japan to the Golden State?
Between 1603 and 1867, Japan existed in a state of harmony and economic growth. Prior to this stretch, the country was marred by centuries of civil war known as the Sengoku Period. At the turn of the 17th century, the three unifiers—Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu—were able to restore order to the country. The country was now under a single government and feudal system that would last for two centuries. This turn of events ushered in the Tokugawa or Edo Period.
Under this new united way of life, Japan became a much more urban environment, with the city of Edo—now known as Tokyo—boasting around a million residents. Samurai began relocating to cities including Edo and Osaka, leaving villages behind. Responsibilities for governing over village life were now in the hands of shōya, or village headman, chosen by feudal lords or the shogunate government to act as village administrator.
The shōya documented life in their town. They were required to keep logs and diaries to ensure the village maintained continuity when it came to farming. The types of crops grown, seasonal yields, and the amount of fertilizer used were all recorded. Village headmen also chronicled local history, which involved keeping track of a wide range of events, from archiving official letters to recording pregnancies and births. These records were often kept inside the home of the shōya, which acted as an archive of sorts and was a crucial centerpiece to village life.
The 3,000-square-foot wooden residence on its way to the Huntington once belonged to a line of shōyas. The home is intricately crafted through a series of interlocking beams, posts, and sliding wood panels. Over the last three centuries, it has remained relatively the same outside of its ceramic roofing, which may once have been thatched with straw. Family records relating to the home indicate that it was built by a seventh-generation head of the Yokoi family, who died at the site in 1713. The structure has remained in this one family's possession ever since. The home is said to have more than 13,000 records associated with its time as a shōya residence, all of which are now on display at the Kagawa Prefectural Archives.
The residence was donated to the Huntington in 2016 by Yohko and Akira Yokoi, whose lineage can be traced back to their samurai ancestors who battled through the Sengoku Period. It is believed they fought under Hideyoshi, although it is unclear to what clan they belonged, says Robert Hori, Gardens Cultural Curator and Program Director at the Huntington. It’s likely that the Yokoi family came out on the wrong side of the Sengoku. This would have resulted in the family losing or abandoning their samurai status, according to David Howell, professor of Japanese history at Harvard University. Howell adds that this act would have relegated the status of the family to that of commoner. However, because of their previous classification as samurai, they existed in a liminal category, above other commoners but below the samurai class.
Being former samurai also meant the Yokois were better educated than most other people, who struggled to read and write. Research focused on the end of 17th-century Japan found that out of 30 million people, around 0.1 percent had a strong understanding of numbers and literacy. This made the Yokoi ancestors ideal for a role that required diligent record keeping. Their home became the legislative hub of the village and will now become a portal for Huntington visitors to see what life was like centuries ago in Japan.
As you might imagine, it’s not terribly easy to move a house with this much history attached to it across an ocean. Before anything could be finalized, the Huntington had to be certain that a project of this nature and magnitude was even possible, both logistically and politically. As a first step, the institution enlisted the aid of architectural firms in both Japan and the United States to assess whether the house was in any shape to leave Marugame.
“One of the things that we wanted to verify is, can the house be moved? Is it in good enough physical condition?” says Hori. The house is made entirely from wood and issues such as dry rot and termite damage could’ve halted the project.
Besides concerns with the physical condition of the structure, the move also had bureaucratic obstacles. The Huntington had to receive approval from relevant local and prefectural officials as well as the national government of Japan. Additionally, Hori says the Huntington had to determine if the house, once transported to California, could be rebuilt in accordance with U.S. building codes. This entire process took two continuous years of negotiating and study.
As of early 2019, the process of moving the house is already underway. The first step? Tear the entire building down.
Every beam, post, and wooden structure had to be carefully disassembled and labeled, explains Hori. The team in Japan responsible for the deconstruction then inspected the pieces for structural soundness, marking any damages for repair. Large-scale drawings were also created to make sure the house could be put back together properly.
According to Hori, the assortment of posts and beams are now in a workshop in Matsuyama, the capital of Ehime Prefecture on Japan’s Shikoku Island. There, all the parts are being cleaned by hand and repaired. If a piece of the structure is unsalvageable, Hori says, a replica will be created using similar materials. The cleaning process, as he explains, is very similar to how a classic painting would be cleaned and treated. Careful attention is paid to preserving its antique quality. “You want the patina of age,” says Hori. The entire restoration process is expected to be completed by the end of 2019.
Once this process is complete, Hori says the house will be rebuilt once more in Japan to ensure the wooden joints are properly fitted. Then it will be meticulously torn down again.
At that point, the various wooden slabs, posts, and beams will be packed and shipped by boat to the Huntington. Hori likened it to receiving a model plane kit, where all the necessary parts and materials will be there for the team to rebuild in California.
Along with the house, the Huntington will also receive the home’s kura, a storehouse for the village’s rice and grain. The kura will undergo a similar process of deconstruction and restoration. The library will also be reconstructing the historical garden that surrounded the original shōya residence. The original gatehouse, which could have been used as living quarters for servants, is no longer standing, so the Huntington will build a replica.
The Huntington plans to open the structure to the public sometime around the fall of 2020, or early 2021.
The Huntington is of the most well-known independent research libraries in the United States, filled with rare books, ancient manuscripts, artwork from across the Americas and Europe, and the 120-acre botanical garden. Henry Huntington, a railroad tycoon, collected books and had them stored in a library he had built in San Marino. Huntington’s decision to create a Japanese garden to complement his collection was a response to a growing fascination in the United States with Asian culture. Some believe it was also created to impress his future wife, Arabella.
The garden is teeming with examples of traditional Japanese horticulture and even has a few other Japanese buildings. A ceremonial teahouse known as Seifu-an (the Arbor of Pure Breeze) was donated to the library by a Pasadena Buddhist temple in 2010 and a five-room Japanese house was acquired by Huntington himself in 1911. However, the house was created as a model for another garden and wasn’t designed to be livable. Now, a true historic Japanese residence will grace the garden.
When the house eventually makes its way to its new California home, visitors will be able to walk across the same floor panels as the shōyas who called the residence home for more than 100 years.
An old medical botanical guide offers new avenues for research.
An 1863 text called Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests by Francis Porcher, a botanist and surgeon from South Carolina, was a compendium of plants known to have medicinal properties, and a guide to how they should be applied. Much of Porcher’s research was culled from longstanding healing traditions used by Native American and enslaved African communities, so it is perhaps ironic that his book was commissioned by the Confederacy and used to treat wounds during the Civil War. Recently, scientists at Emory University have studied three of the species—widely found across the South— described in the book to assess whether they would have been successful in the treatment of wounded soldiers, and how they might be incorporated in modern medicine.
During the Civil War, soldiers suffered from fever, blood poisoning, and “mortification of the flesh,” a poetic way of describing infected, necrotic wounds. At the time, amputation was the obvious (and most advanced) solution to prevent death from a battle wound. Samuel Moore, the Confederate Surgeon General, created a document called "Standard supply table of the indigenous remedies for field service and the sick in general hospitals” to cut down on the rate of amputations and draw upon the natural healing properties of plants. Moore's 10-page document drew heavily upon Porcher’s more exhaustive work.
“They would use these plants to create tinctures and syrups that would be taken orally or used as topical therapies,” says Cassandra Quave, senior author of the paper, from Emory's Center for the Study of Human Health. The most compelling part of Porcher’s compendium, she says, is that “it provided a great case study [for what] people do when they’re cut off from other sources of medicine … how do we move forward when we don’t have access to medicine or [it] no longer functions?” Quave is an ethnobotanist who studies the ways people use plants—particularly historical use as remedies. “We rely on historical texts and we also look at traditions of people practicing herbal medicine,” she says. For this study, Quave’s lab focused on three plants—white oak, the tulip poplar, and the devil's walking stick, all found growing in Lullwater Preserve on the Emory campus in Atlanta. Turns out there was something to the traditional wisdom, after all.
“The first thing that we did after creating these extracts and turning them into tonics was we tested them to see if they inhibited the growth of these wound-associated bacteria,” Quave explains, and in particular, multi-drug-resistant strains of the bacteria Acinetobacter baumannii, Staphylococcus aureus, and Klebsiella pneumoniae. Researchers discovered that these three plant varieties prevented the process that allows the bacteria to stick to wound tissue, and disrupted the chemical signaling that results in the release of toxins. Though the three species have different chemical makeups and are not botanically related, they all had the same effect on wound-hungry bacteria.
Though white oak, tulip poplar, and devil's walking stick are all found in abundance in Southern forests, they can be found up and down the East Coast, from Florida to Maine and even into Canada. “This idea that plants can serve as a resource for the discovery of drugs really isn’t a new concept,” Quave says. “It’s something that’s led to the development of many of our modern medicines.” The team is now thinking about how these natural remedies might become part of a modern medical arsenal: hydragels, ointments, rinses, or medicated bandages, maybe. Says Quave, “We’re taking another look at nature and at human traditions of using plants as medicine in our search for novel compounds.”
A digital reconstruction revives a medieval seat of power.
Some historical sites have been fully restored and renovated, while others are little more than foundations, sparks for the imagination. But it can be a challenge to picture a grand structure when all you see is a somewhat organized pile of stones that used to be a home or a shop or a castle. Now visitors to Finlaggan, the former seat of power for the Lords of the Isles, rulers of Hebrides and parts of mainland Scotland from the 13th to 15th centuries, will have more to see. Modern tech has given the historical imagination a boost.
Today the site of Finlaggan includes a few standing walls and a scatter of what were once building materials. Archaeological discoveries at the site made by the Finlaggan Archaeological Project have provided enough information for the University of St. Andrews's Open Virtual Worlds Team and Smarthistory to digitally recreate medieval Finlaggan. Visitors can now enter the virtual model and travel through the great hall, where the council held inaugurations and feasts, and other structures. Can’t make it to the islands of Eilean Mor and Eilean na Comhairle, or the surrounding loch, where the Lords of the Isles once ruled? No worries, the entire experience can be viewed through a virtual reality app or online videos.
“Finlaggan was an amazing place to recreate digitally,” says Bess Rhodes, a researcher from the University of St. Andrews, via press release. “Even today the islands of Eilean Mor and Eilean na Comhairle are beautiful places, and in the Middle Ages they were the site of a remarkable complex of buildings which blended local traditions with wider European trends.”
The Lords of the Isles were said to be descendants of Somerled, a 12th-century prince. The lordship there traditionally belonged to members of Clan Donald. Despite the remote location, 126 miles from Scotland, the lords wielded tremendous influence. When a new lord was chosen, the Bishop of Argyle and several other priests would attend the ceremony, along with the heads of various clans. After the coronation, a giant feast went on for seven days.
When the Stewarts rose to power in 1371, they sought to curtail this influence—James IV, in particular, who in 1490 ordered a good sacking of Finlaggan. The Lords of the Isles were so confident in their power and natural defenses that Finlaggan lacked any other fortifications. James’s army destroyed just about everything, reducing the settlement to rubble and ruins, and left it almost entirely out of historical memory.
Archaeological excavations have brought some of that memory back. The hope of those involved with the virtual walkthrough is that it will help viewers understand the importance of Finlaggan and the Lords of the Isles for Scottish heritage and culture. Says Ray Lafferty, secretary of the Finlaggan Trust, in a statement: “With this virtual reality reconstruction, we hope to give some sense of the site at the zenith of its power.”
Acoustics is here to help you find ripe produce.
For Ogbodo Nkiruka, the slap of a hand hitting a watermelon is a welcome melody. A fruit vendor who’s been selling watermelons from a roadside stand in the Nigerian city of Enugu for 15 years, she identifies the ripeness of her wares by ear. Each melon has its own music, a deep, hollow thump—ba ba, ba, ba— indicating a fruit that’s perfectly ripe.
When Stephen Gbakobachukwu Onwubiko, an independent acoustics researcher based in Nigeria, first stumbled across Nkiruka’s stand, the thwack of hand on watermelon struck him like a drum—literally. “Those pitches can be correlated with the Nigerian drum,” Onwubiko says. The sounds were so similar, in fact, he wondered whether Nigerian fruit sellers might be uniquely equipped to detect watermelon ripeness due to their familiarity with traditional drumming.
Onwubiko is specifically referring to the igba, a cylindrical drum played across Nigeria and particularly among Igbo people. Igbas are played at occasions ranging from festivals to funerals, and they come in many varieties. “There’s the male drum, the female drum,” says Onwubiko. “There are drums played for spirits, there are drums played for kings.” But the drums share a special attribute: They “talk.”
Skilled players can make the drum beats mimic the tones of spoken words, and before telecommunication, drum patterns were used to send messages across long distances. Today, many urban Nigerians, who didn’t grow up using drums this way, may not have as developed an ability to interpret the rhythms as their rural counterparts, says Onwubiko. Still, igba drumming remains a ubiquitous cultural form. So Onwubiko wondered: Could familiarity with igba drumming train fruit sellers’ ears to more easily detect the sound of a ripe watermelon?
To test the hypothesis, Onwubiko conducted a study with collaborators Traci Neilsen, associate professor of physics at Brigham Young University, and Andrea Calilhanna, a music researcher from the University of Sydney in Australia. Onwubiko interviewed fruit sellers in Nigeria, then recorded both the sound of an igba drum and the slap of a ripe watermelon. Neilsen translated that audio into a spectrogram, a visualization of the frequencies of the sound waves over time. By comparing the spectrograms of the ripe watermelon and the igba drum, the researchers found that the two sounds had a similar duration and initial frequencies, giving them a similar timbre or tone quality. The researchers theorize that the similarity between the drum sound and the watermelon slap may prime fruit sellers to more easily detect watermelon ripeness. “They have subconsciously or subliminally received ear training that makes it easier,” Neilsen says.
Of course, Nkiruka, the Enugu watermelon seller, didn’t have to conduct a formal acoustical study to understand the similarity between Igba drumming and the hollow echo of a ripe watermelon. Instead, watermelon vendors’ knowledge is a form of “internalized, embodied acoustics,” Onwubiko says. This more subtle influence of sound on everything from our mood to our decision-making falls under the field of psychoacoustics, Onwubiko’s research specialty.
The technical definition of psychoacoustics labels it the study of the interplay between the physics of sound—the movement of sound waves through space—and its psychology, or how we perceive and understand it. For Onwubiko, however, the best definition of psychoacoustics is visceral. “There is a drum slapping that will give me goosebumps,” he says, whereas it may not affect a listener unaccustomed to Nigerian music. This difference in reactions is the domain of psychoacoustics, and it’s this deeper, more subliminal relationship between culture, psychology, and sound that may make Nigerian fruit sellers experts at detecting ripe watermelons.
Neilsen, who presented the preliminary findings at a recent meeting of the Acoustical Society of America, says the group needs to conduct more research before they can precisely quantify the perfect ripe watermelon sound. Even at a preliminary stage, however, the group’s research suggests one answer to the age-old question facing anyone who taps on a watermelon at a supermarket or roadside stand.
“Everybody’s thumped a watermelon and wondered what they’re supposed to be listening for,” says Neilsen. It turns out we’ve been listening for the sweet beat of an igba drum all along.
The National Fish Decoy Association contest celebrates the best of the best.
Rod Osvold carved his first fish decoy when he was a just a "knee-high" child spearfishing for pike in the frozen waters of the Minnesota winter. These decoys—first employed by Native Americans—serve as a crafty means to lure real fish. With his decoy dangling in the water, young Osvold attracted meandering pike toward his spear.
For certain types of fishing, these decoys can be even more effective than live bait: Not only can they be brighter, but they can be tailored to mimic the fish most appetizing to pike. But Osvold and others spend more time carving and painting than strictly necessary. “It becomes fun, and you kinda get addicted,” he says.
Osvold knew that he was far from the only one obsessing over decoys, which have long been sold to people looking for a mantelpiece item rather than a fishing tool. So about 20 years ago, he started the National Fish Decoy Association (NFDA). His goal? To help this community of heritage artists find its footing on the Internet, or at least find each other. Now, each April, the NFDA’s carving contest showcases the creative spirit that drives these artists to keep working at a much higher level than hungry pike require.
According to the NFDA’s website, the contest—held annually in Perham, Minnesota—typically receives about 400 entries. An elite few take home prizes across a variety of categories, which have expanded over the years to include birds and some other animals. (Duck decoys have long been popular with hunters hoping to draw ducks to seemingly safe areas.)
The award-winning works are so painstaking in their details, says Osvold, that this class of carvers can only realistically produce between 10 and 20 pieces per year. First, of course, there’s the actual carving—usually from cedar, tupelo, or white pine—that requires attention to every last scale, to the curves in each gill. Next comes the painting, which requires a small airbrush to tickle each of those tiny speckles and which takes, according to Osvold, 10 times as long as the carving. These high-end works are so refined that contest judging often comes down to the most minute considerations: The difference between first and second place, says Osvold, can be “just a little more dent in the cheek of a trout.”
Such hard work is, of course, a hard sell to the uninitiated, and Osvold concedes that the craft is losing traction with younger generations. He worries about the NFDA’s long-term prospects, but not about the current state of the art. Troy Helget’s Siamese fighting fish, pictured in this article, demonstrates the precision of these carvings. Helget’s fish won a first-place prize this year, and Osvold calls it the most impressive piece he’s ever seen.
Australia's best insect trackers are very, very good boys.
Early this spring, three highly trained detectives trekked out to the Victorian Alps in southeastern Australia in pursuit of elusive quarry. Bayar, Sasha, and Judd were hot on the trail of a bug—the endangered alpine stonefly, which lives along the streams that cut across the Bogong High Plains. Armed with an incredible sense of smell and agile feet to navigate the rocky bushland, the trio were the perfect agents for the mission—as long as they didn’t accidentally step on or eat their targets.
Bayar, Sasha, and Judd are the first canine graduates of a unique pilot program. In traditional conservation work, detection dogs like these three are used to sniff out the traces of animals, such as nests or scat, but are rarely trusted to seek the animals themselves (especially small ones that are easily squished). And dogs that are trained to find live bugs generally do so for the eventual purpose of extermination, as in the case of bed bugs or termites. So the stonefly trial is one of the first of its kind, according to Julia Mynott, a researcher from LaTrobe University in Melbourne, who leads the project.
Researchers know a few things about the alpine stonefly. It cannot fly, despite its wings and name. It is the largest stonefly in Australia. The larvae hatch in the streams of the Bogong High Plains, and adults live just two years and only emerge between January and April to reproduce. Those adults are one of the primary predators in alpine aquatic streams, and are much more colorful than most stoneflies, with an enormous orange spot on the back. But researchers have no idea about the species’ population size, which makes it near-impossible to draft a conservation plan, Mynott says.
Mynott has studied the alpine stonefly for several years, usually by wandering the brushland and hoping to spot some. “They’re quite hard to detect or find, and they have cryptic behavior,” she says. “They don’t fly. They burrow.” They’re big for bugs—an inch or so long—but that doesn’t make them much easier to spot, especially once they’ve dug in under debris or stones. The human eye is so inadequate for this task that Mynott realized she needed to rely on another sense and, for that matter, another species entirely.
There’s a delicacy to this work, so it’s not for every dog. Mynott knows flies better than dogs, so she deferred to the university’s Anthrozoology Research Group Dog Lab for training and selection. The lab works with around 20 canines and their owners, who volunteer themselves and their companions to help carry out conservation work. The dogs spend most of their days as pets. In the past, the labs’ dogs have been trained to find turtle nests, as well as the scat of koalas, quolls, and greater gliders. For the pilot insect program, the lab chose five dogs with gentle dispositions and, after a few training exercises, winnowed it down to three.
Bayar (a samoyed), Sasha (a border collie), and Judd (a labrador) were all selected for their calmness, since stoneflies have a scare response, Mynott says. The bugs often spend their days clinging to vegetation, but drop to the ground when startled, so Mynott needed dogs so imperturbable that their presence, even up close, wouldn’t harm a fly.
The trio went into a seven-week training program. It started in a controlled setting, where researchers presented each with a scent board with multiple different scent containers attached to it, including one for the bugs. Each time the dogs correctly identified it, they were rewarded with food and ball games. Their practice then moved to nearby bushland, where trainers offered them more games and treats for detecting the scent in the wild. One of the biggest precautions, the researchers realized, was training the dogs to point at the insects with their snouts, not their paws—to avoid a fatal accident. “They make a motion with their nose and then look at their handlers,” Mynott says. “They eventually should lie down, but they weren’t always doing that.”
The first trial run at Falls Creek, one of the stonefly’s natural habitats, was a success. “Initially we didn’t even know if they had a scent,” she admits. “So to have the dogs find them was amazing.” Bayar, Sasha, and Judd all located clusters of wild alpine stoneflies—and no one got squished. Though each dog could detect capably enough, they all had distinct personalities and approaches to their designated patches of land. “Some are more strategic and orderly than others,” Mynott says. “But the main thing is that they do cover the area, however long it takes.” After a pup found a bug, Mynott would note the insect's size and sex, and then add it to the population count. She also collected several specimens for DNA.
Following the first trial, Mynott took the trio out again to see if they could identify a close relative of the alpine stonefly, the stirling stonefly, which lives on a separate mountain. To her surprise, the doggy detectives identified these close cousins without hesitation. Mynott hopes this success will justify expanding the program to train many other dogs to target all of Australia’s stoneflies.
There are four of those species in Australia, all of which are considered threatened, Mynott says. The alpine and stirling are the best understood, which isn’t saying much considering how little scientists know about their range and population size. “The other two species haven’t been recorded since the 1970s and don’t have common names,” Mynott says. “People think they’ve seen them, or one of them at least. But no one’s actively looking.”
Australia’s alpine ranges are quite small and diminishing with climate change. Reduced rainfall and warming temperatures will reduce the alpine stonefly’s preferred habitat of cool mountain streams, Mynott says. That’s just one of the threats they’re facing. Alpine stoneflies often live in areas so hilly and picturesque that they attract development from ski resorts. People also introduced trout to their streams, a fish that’s much more voracious than Victoria’s native fish, Mynott says. The insects are also both flightless and quite big and colorful, which make them easy targets for predators.
The stoneflies won’t emerge again until next January, which gives Mynott and the trainers at the lab plenty of time to vet additional pups for the program. So it seems Australia’s top-tier canine-arthropod detective squad is actively looking for new recruits, and all chill, good dogs in the area are encouraged to apply.
A photographer who can't get enough of them set out to summit the tallest one on each continent.
The best day in elementary school was the one when we made volcanoes. We mounded clay into the shape of a conical mountain and carved out a little hole on top. In it, we nestled a little cup, where we mingled baking soda and dish soap plus a couple drops of red and yellow food coloring. Then we added some vinegar, and stood back with grins on our faces. The little mountain hissed, and the bubbly liquid streamed down the sides.
It was fun, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the real thing. Volcanoes can snuff out entire towns with rivers of lava, or blanket landscapes with ash. But that experiment shows why bigger active volcanoes are mesmerizing—awful and awesome in equal measure. When they loom over towns, volcanoes are existential threats, often quite beautiful before they become lethal; reminders that a placid surface can conceal churning and gurgling with the potential to literally change the face of the Earth.
Adrian Rohnfelder knows this fascination well. A photographer based in Germany, he has a virulent, incurable strain of a disease he calls the “firework virus.” Symptoms include a mix of wanderlust and keen curiosity that compels him to visit the tallest, farthest, most spectacular dormant or active volcanic peaks around the world—sometimes in the hope that he will be there when they spew.
Rohnfelder has spent several years photographing these giants and chronicling the bumpy, chilly journeys to the top. His images are compiled in the new book Volcanic 7 Summits, published by teNeues.
Volcanoes do a lot more than blast plumes of gas into the sky or gush fountains of lava onto the landscape. Part monograph, part travelogue, Rohnfelder’s book takes readers to the icy swaths of Mount Sidley in Antarctica, and among the baobabs, deserts, and rainforests surrounding Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. From the salt lakes speckling the landscape around Ojos del Salado, in the Andes, to the snowy slopes of Mount Elbrus, in Russia’s Caucasus Mountains, to Mount Damavand in Iran, this book has a fair chance of infecting you with the “firework virus,” too.
Before you can photograph volcanoes, you have to climb them. All of Rohnfelder’s ascents were arduous, but some were particularly tough. “I really can't stand cold and snow at all,” Rohnfelder says. “I prefer to be on the road where it is hot and dusty, and that will always remain my comfort zone.” While he used various modes of transit—cycling up Mount Kilimanjaro on an e-bike, for instance—he found that slow, steady steps were often best. Walking, he says, gives “the most time and peace for experiencing and photography.”
It’s not possible to visit every volcano on Earth—many are deep in the ocean—and depending on your appetite for frozen fingers and scorched lungs, you probably don’t want to visit all the ones on land, either. But Rohnfelder’s book taps into that elementary school fascination, and transports readers to stunning vantage points around the world where we can all appreciate the power below.
Aboriginal groups once traveled long distances to celebrate its harvest.
Aboriginal artist Leeton Lee grew up honing his survival skills in the Australian bush, crafting shelters from the bark of fallen logs, carving spears out of tree branches, and snacking on the tart berries of lilly pilly bushes. But it wasn't until he spent time, as an adult, with one of the elders of Cherbourg, an Aboriginal community in Queensland, that he had his first bunya nut.
“I couldn't believe it's something I sort of missed along the way,” he says, “and that a lot of other people had missed, too.”
Bunya trees are the stuff of legend. Roaming dinosaurs likely snacked on their flowering pines, and their harvest has been an Aboriginal food source for centuries. Native to Queensland—where they thrive in the state's wet, tropical soils—the bunya pine can grow to more than 150 feet with a trunk more than four feet in diameter. The tree's immense dome-shaped crown is decidedly impressive, and every three to four years, this towering evergreen produces pine cones the shape of an egg and the size of a football that can weigh as much as 22 pounds. When a bunya pine barrels off a tree, it typically drops intact: a spiky pod filled with anywhere from 30 to 100 husk-covered nuts.
Before Europeans arrived, Aboriginal Australians met every three years for a massive celebration when bunya nuts were at their ripest. “Once bunya cones would start to show, Aboriginals in the Bunya Mountains would send out word that this was the year of the festival,” says Lee. “Then Indigenous peoples from all different tribes would travel from as far as western Queensland and Victoria to come.” For centuries, during these festivals, tribes put aside differences to trade, arrange marriages, and feast on the bunya nut: raw, roasted, boiled, and sometimes ground into flour and baked. “Bunya pines are a food source that people can carry with them,” Lee says, noting that people could simply gather and eat from these massive natural “lunch-boxes” while traveling to and from the event.
Southern Queensland's Bunya Mountains—an isolated section of Australia's Great Dividing Range, about 124 miles northwest of Brisbane—are still home to the country’s largest stand of ancient bunya trees, and rogue bunyas tower beside residences and along former Aboriginal trading routes statewide. But a Bonye Bonye Festival has not been held since the early-20th century, when the relocation of Aboriginals to government settlements, coupled with Europeans' logging of bunya pine timber, brought these events to an abrupt end.
This colonization curtailed bunya-nut food culture, and resulted in widespread ignorance of their potential as a food source. “A lot of people have them on their property and don't realize it,” says Lee. “They just chuck the fallen pines in their trailer and take them to the dump. They don't know that they've got food there.”
In 2018, Lee decided to hold a free bunya workshop introducing the tree and its benefits. “One of the big things for me,” he says, “is that we've got a lot of kids that are going to school hungry, and they're walking past these food sources on the way to and from class. I also thought this would be a good opportunity to share a bit about our Aboriginal history and the stories that go with it.” A quick Facebook post gauging local interest told him all he needed to know. “I was only expecting a few people to respond,” he says, “but instead I heard from more than 100.” The majority were non-Aboriginal Australians.
Several participants drove hours for Lee’s May 2018 event. Here, at his own “bunya gathering,” Lee cooked up nuts for guests, offered culinary tips on incorporating them into everything from stir-frys, which bring out their chestnut-like flavor, to sweets such as chocolate, which gain added texture and earthiness, and gave out gift bags of nuts.
“One of the good things with bunya nuts,” says Lee, “is that while traditionally they'd be stored or buried for preservation or fermenting, nowadays we can freeze them.” He taught his audience, too, the importance of sustainability—not just in looking after the trees, but in not overharvesting them. When collecting bunya pines, he advises, leave some behind for other people to enjoy—and some for the wallabies too.
Lee’s evangelizing of bunya nuts fits into a larger Indigenous food movement gaining culinary traction countrywide. Top restaurants such as the French-inspired Vue de Monde, on the 55th floor of Melbourne's iconic Rialto Towers, and Adelaide's native-food restaurant Orana are incorporating Indigenous ingredients from bunya nuts to crocodile, sprinkling them on sea urchin and serving them up as soup. While Lee appreciates seeing Aboriginal foods in restaurants, he also sees this culinary trend as a prime opportunity to involve and highlight Australia's Indigenous population.
“Think about things like boomerangs and artwork,” he says, “intellectual property that's been reappropriated and mass produced in places like China and Indonesia. This is a chance for Aboriginal people to showcase our own culture.”
One such example is Something Wild, an Indigenous foods purveyor housed in South Australia's Adelaide Central Market. As both an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (two distinct Indigenous peoples), owner and manager Daniel Motlop grew up munching on kakadu plums and green ants in the country's Northern Territory. With Something Wild, he aimed to bring these lesser-known foods to the masses.
“From a sustainability point of view, there's so much of this native food, or 'bush tucker' as we call it,” he says. “Why not showcase what Australia has to offer?” Motlop sells bunya nuts alongside marine veggies such as samphire and sea blight, and meats such as emu, kangaroo, and crocodile. “This stuff has been a part of Indigenous communities for years—in our songs and our Dreamtime and in everything we do in life,” he says, referring to a spiritual concept at the heart of Aboriginal religion and culture.
Both Moltop and Lee hope that Australia’s growing interest in Aboriginal foods can bring a better understanding of Aboriginal history as well. “It's a great thing to have the stories that accompany a plum, berry, or green once it's been harvested,” says Motlop. “I think it showcases Australia's Aboriginal culture, and in a good light that really hasn't been documented well in the past.” A Queensland horticulturalist named Bruce Thompson has even pushed to make Bunya Mountains National Park a UNESCO World Heritage site, in part because of its sacredness to Aboriginal communities and the ancient stand of bunya pines the park contains. Lee is also considering ways to re-establish the Bonye Bonye Festival, as a way for Aboriginal people to reconnect and introduce their beloved bunya nut to a much wider audience.
“We are Australia’s minority population now,” Lee says. “So it’s really important that others who live here understand what they have and how best to care for it.”