Quantcast
Channel: Atlas Obscura: Articles
Mark channel Not-Safe-For-Work? cancel confirm NSFW Votes: (0 votes)
Are you the publisher? Claim or contact us about this channel.
0

How to Make Smoked Foods From Around the World on Your Stove

0
0

With advice and recipes from a renowned expert.

Steven Raichlen doesn’t know exactly how the first humans began smoking their food, but he has an idea. “We were probably sitting around a fire with strips of meat posted on sticks downwind of it, because we’d realized flies don’t like smoke,” he says. “And when we tasted that meat, not only were there no flies on it, but it had this amazing flavor, too.” He admits it’s pure conjecture, but having written the book on smoked foods, Raichlen is qualified to conject.

It was in the late 1990s, after earning a degree in French literature, winning a Watson Fellowship to study medieval cooking in Europe, and publishing several cookbooks that Raichlen had an epiphany. As he puts it, “Grilling is the world’s most universal cooking method, the most ancient cooking method, but everywhere it’s done differently.” He estimates he’s been around the world four times ever since, documenting the ways in which different cultures cook food over fire. He’s written more than two-dozen cookbooks, done Italian- and French-language cooking shows, and gone head-to-head with Tokyo’s Iron Chef—and won.

After all he’s learned about the timeless interplay between food and flame, smoking holds a special place in his repertoire. “Grilling is hot, fast, and theatrical, and barbecue is slow and iconic,” he says, “but smoking is really soulful, it’s flavorful.” Having visited a world of smokehouses, from the røgeri of the Danish Baltic Islands, to the smokehouses of Tokyo, to the jerk shacks of Kingston, Jamaica, he’s here to tell you that many of the recipes he collected in the making of his 2016 book and television show Project Smoke can be made at home with a stovetop wok-smoking method, using kitchen equipment you may already have. Here’s how.

article-image

Raichlen’s method takes place entirely within a lidded wok. The food rests on a round rack within the wok while the smoke from heated chips on the bottom of the pan circulates throughout the sealed chamber. Being himself an expert, Raichlen doesn’t see the need to drill a hole in the wok lid to make room for a temperature gauge, but other instructors of this at-home method advise doing so.

You’ll only need a few items.

  • Lidded wok
  • Round rack (that fits inside the wok)
  • Tin foil
  • Paper towels
  • Woodchips
  • Extra: drill and temperature gauge.

Start by folding a sheet of tinfoil into a 4” by 4” square. Place the tinfoil in the bottom of your wok, then place a handful of woodchips onto the square. Next, place the rack in the wok and your food on the rack, making sure to leave enough room between the food and the wok lid for the smoke to circulate. If you’re a beginner, drill a hole in the lid that is slightly larger than your temperature gauge. Insert the gauge and seal the hole with wet paper towels.

Once you have your food ready in the wok, place the lid on top and line the seal with damp paper towels, then again with tin foil. At this point, a ring of tin foil should encircle your wok, covering the area where the wok lid sits on the wok. Start your burner on high heat, then after 10 minutes, reduce to medium heat. The lid must be hermetically sealed; where there is smoke, there is leakage. Revisit with a wet paper towel and more tin foil.

When the wok is sealed and your stovetop burner is on, your food is smoking and you are underway. If you’re using a gauge, adjust the flame up or down to meet your recipe’s temperature needs.

Once you’re comfortable with this Raichlen-approved stovetop smoker, you can use Raichlen’s recipes to explore a whole world of smoked foods.

article-image

To get a taste of how our Mesolithic forebears ate, you can smoke oysters on the half-shell, mimicking how they cooked (and opened) shellfish by placing them on fire embers. You can put a smoky twist on deviled eggs—a dish whose history traces back to Ancient Rome. Or, you can experience the plank-smoking traditions developed by Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest, and apply it, in this case, to French cheese by smoking a wheel of camembert and serving it with jalapeños and pepper jelly. (These links all lead to recipes that can be made in your wok-based smoker.)

When you’ve mastered the basics, feel free to move on to more involved recipes. Asian ingredients such as dark sesame oil and dry-roasted peanuts meet the beloved chicken wing in this Pac-Rim smoked wings recipe. Add “smoky” to the sour, sweet, and spicy German-style potato salad you bring to your next cookout. Summertime also means tomato season, ideal for making a smokey Spanish gazpacho.

Ambitious indoor smokers can take on even more challenging dishes such as tea-smoked duck, smoked not only with wood chips but also loose black tea, white rice, orange peels, and spices in traditional Chinese fashion. Scandinavian salmon candy is an impeccable mashup of sweet, savory, and smoky that Raichlen recommends pairing with Norwegian aquavit. Raichlen’s take on smoked jerk chicken simulates traditional Jamaican jerk pits from the comfort of your own home, as long as your definition of “comfort” leaves room for a few thousand Scovilles.

Leave room for dessert: This tangerine smoked flan proves even your favorite sweets can be smoky too.

Welcome to Atlas Obscura's 50 States of Wonder

0
0

Curiosity from coast to coast.

America is home to 328 million people connected by four million miles of roads, and it’s full of surprises. The states are packed with fantastically fascinating things to see, do, and taste, from coast to coast and beyond. In many parts of America, it’s not yet time to savor them again. As the COVID-19 crisis continues, summer 2020 might be best spent close to home, dreaming of ribbons of asphalt and wide-open landscapes. So, to appreciate the wonders this country holds, we’re taking a virtual road trip across each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Welcome to 50 States of Wonder, Atlas Obscura’s guide to some of America’s most curious sights. Each week we'll be presenting new roundups—state by state, with fun themes to explore—highlighting wondrous places in the Atlas.

article-image

Some are shaped by nature, from a four-acre lake shimmering at the bottom of a Tennessee cave to a petrified redwood forest in California that was razed and covered by an ancient volcano. Others are the work of people, from riotously colorful botanic gardens in Alaska to an installation of brightly painted, half-buried Cadillacs in Texas. America is ancient and new, constantly remade and reimagined, and there are unsung, overlooked treasures everywhere you look.

We hope that these 51 virtual excursions—kicking off with Alaska, D.C., Maine, and Nevada—will help your mind roam. Let’s imagine that we’re all piled in a car together, relishing the sights and remembering that when this pandemic passes, wonders will await. And if you do venture out this summer, be sure to be safe and respectful. Follow all applicable local, state, and federal guidelines. Remember that outdoor spaces are safer than indoor ones. Maintain social distance and wear a mask.

For the next several months, we’ll be taking new digital journeys two or three times a week and highlighting them in our newsletters. We’re looking forward to riding along with you.

The Master Baker Giving San Francisco Sourdough a New Shape

0
0

For 40 years, Fernando Padilla has sculpted with dough.

Fernando Padilla has lived, breathed, and shaped sourdough for the last 40 years. But he didn’t prove immune to the recent pandemic baking trend.

The master baker at San Francisco’s Boudin Bakery found himself in his garage covered in flour, baking continuously over a handful of days he had off earlier this year. “I was lucky to have a sack of flour in the house that I use for tests and stuff,” he laughs. “It was hard to buy flour, even at the supermarket!”

Padilla is back at work and cheerful when I call him early one weekday. Even in the midst of the pandemic, he hasn’t slowed down. His usual duties include training bakers, serving as the company’s public face, and overseeing the baking at Boudin’s various outposts. But it was the midst of graduation season. Padilla was busy launching a new loaf for new grads: four baguettes of sourdough looped around each other and baked to spell out "2020."

article-image

It was Padilla who first came up with the idea of forming the bakery chain’s famous sourdough into decorative shapes. As a child, he loved to draw, and he was still a teenager when he started at Boudin. Since then, he has baked bread saxophones for former President Bill Clinton and bread trophies for racecar drivers. In better years, crowds of tourists come to gawp at the glossy bread menagerie on display at the bakery’s shelves at Fisherman’s Wharf. Each one was designed by Padilla.

Padilla compares unbaked sourdough to Play-Doh, and what he makes with it is equally fun. Only a few months into his baking career, which he embarked on in 1980, he created Dungeness crab-shaped loaves for a local seafood festival. They’ve stayed a standard on Fisherman’s Wharf, along with loaves shaped like sea turtles and teddy bears. He’s designed breads for every holiday, including hearts for Valentine’s Day and bulbous Thanksgiving turkeys fashioned out of dinner rolls. Designed last year, the turkey emerged from iterations of variously shaped and sized birds, until Padilla found the perfect ugly-cute combination. “It became so popular that, my God, we couldn’t make enough,” he says.

article-image

Shaped bread was a big change for the 171-year-old company, which for most of its existence sold standard round, baguette, and long loaves. But those simple loaves were still a success for the Boudin family, whose patriarch, Isidore Boudin, supposedly picked up a sourdough starter from a gold miner and parlayed it into what is now the city’s oldest company.

Padilla still remembers his first taste of San Francisco sourdough. After his first day at Boudin, 40 years ago, his boss packed him a bag full of loaves. Hungry, he tried eating some on the way home.

“Oh my God,” he remembers thinking. “Something’s wrong with this bread.” The next day, another baker showed him where they kept the 55-gallon drum of mother dough. The bakers also explained that they used no commercial yeast, and that it was the bacteria and wild yeasts in the mother dough that gave the bread its rise and flavor.

article-image

While he found San Francisco’s signature bread pretty puckery, Padilla was already familiar with sourdough. He was born in Mexico, just outside Guadalajara, and he notes that many people in the region make a type of sourdough as well, often baked in the form of smallish birote loaves.

As a child, his family moved to the Bay Area. Padilla started work as a teenager to help support his parents and eight siblings. Most of his family worked for local scavenger companies. As for Padilla, he took a job as a gardener. But that didn’t last long. His boss soon took him along when he got a job as a night-production manager at Boudin.

It was hard to adjust, at first. “I was a little boy!” Padilla exclaims. He remembers how dark his workspace was, at the century-old Boudin plant at 10th and Geary, and how he worked long hours surrounded by bakers from all over the world. But soon, he started to bond with his co-workers, who told him stories and challenged him to work faster.

article-image

Padilla was hooked, and he received a lot of encouragement. “Papa Steve, he took me by the hand,” Padilla says softly. Stefano Giraudo, better known as “Papa Steve,” had bought the business from the Boudin family in 1945. Padilla still remembers when Giruado took him aside and told him, “‘You take care of the bread, and the bread will take care of you.’” Before he passed away in 1997, says Padilla, Giruado passed on the baton of master baker to him.

Over the years, Padilla has found many ways to take care of the bread. He pushed for a longer, colder proofing of the dough, for a better flavor. He’s experimented with ingredients, looking for “flour the mother dough likes to eat.” He also tinkered with flavors, so these days you can even order chocolate-raisin sourdough, or the aptly named, cheese-covered Garlic Volcano.

article-image

Even as COVID-19 spread, Boudin’s bakeries kept churning out bread. In contrast, many of their cafes “pretty much shut it down,” Padilla says. Like many people in the restaurant industry, he thinks some of the changes induced by a public sheltering in place may prove long-term. He isn’t all that discouraged, though. Even the current delivery-heavy culinary climate isn’t totally foreign to Boudin, as the bakery used to send horse-drawn wagons to homes around San Francisco and pin baguettes to special nails attached to customer’s houses.

A few weeks ago, Boudin’s marketing department asked Padilla to develop a bread for graduating students, resulting in his 2020-shaped loaves. Recently, he took some of the looped loaves to his nieces, who had just graduated from college, and had them pose with the bread for pictures. “Oh my God, they’re adorable,” he gushes. (It’s unclear whether he’s referring to the bread or his nieces.) But then, he sobers a little. “We can’t have the celebration that we wanted,” he sighs. “But we at least wanted to make it a little bit better.”

The Mississippi Town Where Elvis Tribute Artists Are Made

0
0

Tupelo, birthplace of The King, is the global hub for aspiring Jailhouse Rockers.

In 1946, an 11-year-old boy and his mother walked into Tupelo Hardware Company, on the corner of Main and Front streets in Tupelo, Mississippi. They were looking for a gift for the boy’s birthday. He really wanted a shotgun, but his mother refused. A store employee, at the front counter noticed the youngster's disappointment and handed him a guitar to try. After strumming it several times, the boy acquiesced. Mother and son soon departed with his very first guitar in hand. Today, a black “X” marks the spot where that iconic purchase took place. According to current Tupelo Hardware Company employee Connie Tullos, or Ms. Connie as she's better known, this is where Elvis the musician was born.

For nearly nine years, Tullos, 73, has worked the counter at Tupelo Hardware Company. It's a dream job for Tullos, who is also the vice president of the Tupelo Elvis Fan Club and has been listening to his music since she was a teen. “I remember the first time that I heard his music thinking, Oh my goodness what is this?” she says.

article-image

While much more associated with Memphis, Tennessee—a less than two-hour drive northeast of the city—Elvis Aron Presley was born and spent the first 13 years of his life in Tupelo, Mississippi. Today, the city is home to the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Competition: one of more than a dozen tribute artist contests taking place around the globe. These competitions act as pre-qualifiers for August's Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest at Graceland. Run by Elvis Presley Enterprises every year since 2007, it's the cream of the crop for Elvis tribute artists (ETAs).

Remnants of Elvis’ childhood are everywhere in Tupelo. There's Johnnie's Drive-In, a small mid-century diner where Elvis and his parents would eat burgers and sip RC Colas. You can still catch a show at the Lyric Theatre, a former movie house where Elvis would often come to watch Westerns, and enter the Assembly of God church where Presley's parents, Gladys and Vernon Presley, first met. Today the church is part of the larger Elvis Presley Birthplace, a historic site with an Elvis museum and the two-room, shotgun-style house in which the King himself was born. Tupelo's Fairpark District, a former fairground where Elvis performed his 1956 homecoming concert, is the location for the Tribute Artist Competition.

“There's a difference between tribute artists and impersonators,” says Debbie Brangenberg, executive director of Downtown Tupelo Main Street, the association that puts on the larger Tupelo Elvis Festival, of which the competition is a part. “Impersonators choose to think they are Elvis, while a tribute artist does his very best to show a tribute to Elvis's work, but when they are not on stage don't pretend to be anybody but themselves.”

Each June in Tupelo, an average of 15-20 ETAs work their best snarled lips, swiveled hips, and wide range of vocals to channel Mr. Presley, from his early years rocking high-collared jackets and black-and-white striped shirts to the Peacock, Blue Swirl, and American Eagle jumpsuits of the 1970s. While the usual line-up is all-male, women are welcome to compete. The winner is guaranteed advancement to the Ultimate ETA Contest in Memphis, and gets an additional perk: enrollment in Elvis Boot Camp, an intensive two-day training, run by Downtown Tupelo Main Street, that's specially designed for Tupelo winners. Not only does it prepare them for competing at Graceland but assures that, when they do, these representatives of Elvis' birthplace shine.

COVID-19 forced organizers to hold the 2020 festival online, but Tupelo plans to welcome back competitors in 2021.

article-image

“As far we know, Tupelo is the only pre-qualifier that offers such a service,” Brangenberg says. “Nine of our 12 winners have either gone on to win the Ultimate in Memphis that same year, or a year or two after repping us. We like to think our boot camp helped.”

Elvis Boot Camp is held primarily at Downtown Tupelo Main Street's office, with excursions to the community theatre and local church choir rooms to test stage makeup and vocals. “It's not a scenario in which we try and change them at all,” says Brangenberg. “Rather, it's to give them the best tools available for winning Memphis.” This includes working on things like posture, choosing the top songs for their vocal range (since their song selections must be submitted ahead of time), and how to handle the media. There's a professional vocal coach on hand to help the ETA reach a particular note and perfect their pitch, as well as a makeup artist who can assist with their on-stage appearance. Many ETAs get their costumes from professional outfitters such as B&K Enterprises, which tailors authentic recreations of the King's own wardrobe. Boot camp officials make sure the tailoring's up to snuff and that each suit properly aligns with the ETA's song selections. “Because if these things don't match,” says Brangenberg, “Elvis fans know.”

article-image

Then, of course, comes the hair. “We realize hair is a pretty private thing,” Brangenberg says, “and we don't want to mess with what they already have going. However, depending on their need we do have two stylists in town who are trained to cut hair like Elvis wore his in different eras.” Some Tupelo winners prefer to leave their hair as is, while others wear wigs (which Tupelo's stylists can trim, cut, and shape accordingly, she says) on stage. Dance moves are another thing Boot Camp officials tend to avoid. “It's the kind of thing you can either do or you can't,” says Brangenberg.

At the end of two days Tupelo's Elvis-memorabilia-filled Silver Moon Club hosts a fan reception, at which the ETA performs for dozens of local guests. Sometimes he tries out a new vocal technique that he's been practicing, or debuts a new costume or style. Then, he's on his way to Memphis.

“Representing the birthplace of Elvis in Memphis is a big deal,” says Cote Deonath, Tupelo's 2017 Ultimate ETA winner. “Not only is Elvis from Tupelo,” Deonath says, “but the city's judges are some of the best around. These are people who knew Elvis and have a deep connection to him, so they're really well-versed in what to look for.” Deonath also represented Tampa, Florida, in 2016; Branson, Missouri, in 2018; and Tweed, Ontario, in 2019—entrants can compete in any city and may travel to a location where they are more likely to win. He believes Tupelo is the most difficult pre-qualifying competition around. “In many ways,” he says, “winning in Tupelo was an even bigger honor than performing in Memphis.” Although Deonath's long-standing relationship with the city may have something to do with this.

article-image

By age four, the 23-year-old Florida native was already practicing his signature moves on stage at his local Christian academy, wearing a little gold lamé outfit and garnering support from his grandmother, a die-hard Elvis fan and “my biggest cheerleader,” says Deonath. But it wasn't until age 10 that he got to realize one of his childhood Elvis dreams. “It was always a goal for my parents to take me to Tupelo and Memphis, to see the house where he was born, Graceland...stuff like that,” he says. “So when Tupelo did an Elvis youth contest in 2007 they signed me up, and things just snowballed from there.”

Deonath won the role of “little Elvis” in the Tupelo Hardware Company's living history reenactment, highlighting the day Elvis got his first guitar, and for several years performed in front of the Lyric Theatre as part of the larger Tupelo Elvis Festival. In 2016 he won second place at the city's Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Competition, but it was a year later that he scored Tupelo's grand prize. “It was between me and Matt King from England,” Deonath says, “and I just assumed I'd gotten second place again. But then, you know that feeling of when you're going down a roller coaster and your stomach pops into your throat? That's what I felt when they called my name as the winner. I just dropped to my knees, and then I thought, 'Now I get to go to boot camp!'”.

For Deonath, the experience was nothing short of amazing. “You've got this entire team of people who've already worked with some of the best Elvis tribute artists in the world,” he says, “and they're completely there for you, building your confidence and offering moral support, and basically saying, 'You've made it. You're just here for the ride now.'”

Why Doesn't Iceland Have a Museum of Napkins?

0
0

An investigation.

It’s already there in the language: the way safn is both a collection and a museum, and part of the Icelandic word for library, and a term one might use to describe a group of sheep. It’s there, too, in how sets of things in the parlor have a way of moving outside the home—to sloping mountainside yards, to lakeside sheds, to downtown storefronts. It’s the Icelandic predilection for museums, for turning private collections into public displays—evident in places such as Petra’s Stone Collection, Sigurgeir’s Bird Museum, the Icelandic Phallological Museum, and the toy museums in Akureyri, Borgarnes, and Grudafjörđur, or the transportation collections, which can be found in the north and west and south. Iceland is a land of museums. It has a genius for them, in all sorts and forms.

As I researched my book, The Museum of Whales You Will Never See, I sat down with many collectors, curators, and directors to ask about the origins of their museums. I heard the same progression so often that I came to recognize its stages. Someone, almost accidentally, has a collection. The neighbors drop by to see. Then a community group makes an appointment. The newspaper writes something up, maybe the television news, too. And then more people come. Strangers. Tourists. Until you have to do something with all that interest, all those people dropping by. Indeed, the pattern happened often enough—private collections becoming public by degrees—that I began to think that the next one could be predicted.

article-image

So I started asking every Icelander I met: Where is there a collection big enough, known enough, visited enough, that it is in one of those stages, maybe getting close, about to tip into being a museum of its own?

To count museums in Iceland, to collect them in a way, is astonishingly complicated. There is a minimum of 45 officially accredited institutions, but the annual Iceland Museum Guide lists 173. Understood broadly enough to include not just the museums, but also what might come into English as public collections, exhibitions, galleries, or centers, the running tally from University of Iceland museum studies professor Sigurjón Baldur Hafsteinsson is more like 300. Nowhere in the world do private collections become public museums with such ease. It is a phenomenon all the more stunning for having happened, almost entirely, in the last 25 years.


The Icelandic town of Flateyri has a population of 201 people and five museums. Six if you count the one on the outskirts. Seven if you count its first museum, founded in 1992, now buried with a third of town by an avalanche in 1995. It is wildly disproportionate, even in a country that has nearly one museum per thousand people. Flateyri, on a northwest fjord just a couple hundred miles from Greenland, has a museum for every 40 residents.

article-image

The museums of Flateyri include a tribute to dolls of the world in the middle of a restaurant, a fleet of model ships in a garage, historical displays in a well-worn shed, and a 1915 general store and living quarters (not lived in anymore, but still selling used books, by the kilogram, weighed out on a blue vintage balance). And there is also, in a sprawling second-floor space overlooking the street, the Nonsense Museum.

I had been watching and studying this particularly Icelandic hyper-evolution, the way collections suddenly become museums, when I first came across the listing for the Nonsense Museum in a 2015 Museum Guide. It felt like a thing preordained, like finding the species to fill a gap in the fossil record. It felt like a thing you could have predicted: a museum about collecting itself, a museum about an idea, about its own patent absurdity.

Yet the Nonsense Museum, while spectacularly named, is more random than absurd. It offers whole rooms devoted to the collections of local residents: pens, toy planes, wine bottle labels, tobacco packaging, matchboxes, teaspoons, sugar cubes, playing cards, Pez dispensers, salt and pepper shakers, lighters in novelty shapes, police uniforms on faceless dummies, monkey tchotchkes. Seen together they comprise a museum that is almost fractal: Within this island that collects so many museums, there is a town of so many museums, including a museum of so many collections, collections of so many things.

article-image

And in the shadow of all this, I was still asking for the moment before, still looking for a collection on the brink of becoming a museum.

There were surprisingly few leads. Almost nothing. Then in Heimaey, an island off an island, after a few calls, I was taking off my shoes to walk into a private home. In the living room: drawers and drawers of paper napkins. On the loveseat and the sofa, piles of binders overflowing with yet more napkins. The collection began in 1955. Napkins with dates printed on them went back at least to 1962. A confirmation in 1979. The end of school in 1993. A wedding in 2001. Among the napkins were a scallop-edged floral from when the collector was five years old, another in a duck pattern that matched her sister-in-law’s tablecloth years ago, others from Lykil Hotel or Pizza Hut or the Military Air Transport Service of the U.S. Air Force. Flowers and fruits and angels and farms and Disney characters and Santa Claus: maybe 14,000 of them in all.

Eygló Ingólfsdottir collects napkins “because when I was growing up there was nothing to do.” No television. No phone. But there were so many girls with the same idea back then, she says, six or seven might show up in a snowstorm after Christmas or Easter to ask if you had any napkins. They collected them in duplicate to have some to trade with their friends. This collection survived the volcanic eruption that evacuated the island when Ingólfsdottir was 24 and kept her family away for three years. The collecting peaked in her mid-30s. Everywhere she went, she asked, “Do you have some napkins?” For a while in her 40s she focused on napkins printed with good landscapes to serve as references for painting. Over the last 10 or 15 years, more come in from friends than she collects herself. She’s swapped a few napkins with collectors she’s met online—one in Germany and two from Norway. With her mother about to turn 100, she says maybe they’ll print some napkins for that.

article-image

I had never seen a napkin collection. Now that I know to look for them, know the thing to ask, I’ve found a few more tucked away in private homes. In this place that excels at the narrow niche museum, or else the kind of local history museum that Icelanders call the “same things from 50 different farms,” the napkin collections still seem a kind of secret.

This is the case even though a generation of children made a point to collect them from every local wedding and baptism, received napkins as souvenirs from family who brought back airline cocktail napkins or paper goods from abroad. There are middle-aged and older women, throughout the island, who still have thousands, sorted into bags and boxes by theme or era, but never enough time to count them all—and no one is thinking there's a museum just waiting to spring from this personal history, this alternative primer on mass production and graphic design, this artifact of a nation opening up to the world and finally having enough money for disposable things.

Perhaps the napkins have yet to see public display because they’ve been overlooked, lost in the shuffle. Too trivial, too ubiquitous, though that hasn’t prevented collections of toys or birds or rocks or automobiles from becoming museums. Maybe we’re a hair too soon in the process—precocious—and we need to lose more of these collections before Icelanders see fit to save any. Maybe the issue is that we still think this is about napkins and not about the stories they tell. There is a way in which it still seems inevitable to me, though. One of these napkin collections will take.

Ingólfsdottir’s friends still come over to see the napkins. She’s even thought of sending some to a museum, though it would break her heart to give the collection away or break it up. What she likes best is when women her age look through the collection in the living room and it brings back good memories. But then, she says, “It’s a small house. I may have to stop.”

The Lost Art of Growing Blueberries With Fire

0
0

Using all four elements to grow the perfect berry.

By the time Europeans first made contact with the Passamaquoddy tribe along the rugged coastline of what is now Maine, fire had been an agricultural tool there for centuries. Between summertime harvests, tribes burned the unforgiving, rocky terrain from which blueberries sprung forth, a custom that encouraged the new growth of what was, to many Indigenous people, a sacred fruit. Colonizers carried on the stark tradition, and burning blueberry fields by hand, with help from family, friends, and neighbors, became as much a fixture of the coastal Maine lifestyle as blueberries became of a new American diet.

In the frenzy of 19th-century industrialization, though, the ancient custom largely fell by the wayside. The communal task of burning uneven, rocky fields by hand was exchanged for mechanized burns of leveled, de-rocked, and chemically treated fields. Today, only a handful of Maine’s growers use fire to produce world-class, wild blueberries, but it doesn’t exactly bother them.

article-image

“I do a lot of things by choice that people don’t do anymore,” says blueberry grower Nicolas Lindholm of Blue Hill Berry Company, “and I’m only finding more and more reasons to keep doing them.”

Lindholm is a stubborn survivor of a local tradition with ancient roots. Defying decades of industrialization, the degreed philosopher and wild blueberry grower gathers a small crew of family and friends each spring to scorch every inch of his organic blueberry fields, by hand. For the farmer in him, it is about quality control; but for the philosopher in him, it is a rite.

“I do it for the human culture as well as for the agriculture, to bring together food production work with social gathering, ritualized or repeated activity, memory construct, and a plain old good time with friends,” says Lindholm. “And some of it’s for the adrenaline junkie in me.” But he didn’t set out to become a torchbearer for a historic agricultural practice; in fact, he never intended to become a blueberry farmer in the first place.

In 1987, fresh out of Bates College with a degree in Anthropology and Religion, Lindholm started an apprenticeship on a Penobscot organic farm growing mixed vegetables. So in 1995, when he was looking to buy a farm with his wife, the fact that an otherwise ideal property had 15 acres of blueberry fields on it gave him pause. “You can apprentice on a farm or study sustainable ag, but none of that covers wild blueberries,” says Lindholm. “There’s no textbook, no courses. It’s kind of a small world unto itself—you just have to be doing it firsthand.”

article-image

To make matters worse, as an out-of-towner who didn’t come from a blueberry family, local growers were tight-lipped when it came to giving Lindholm advice. “It’s part of the culture up here. You never give a lot of information about how good you’re doing, or what tricks you might have employed, what new tools you’ve invented,” says Lindholm of the competitive ticks he ascribes to the industry being ravaged by industrialization over the last half century. From his front porch, he can look out onto an abandoned blueberry farm on an abutting property. “In the past 20 years or so, many people who had blueberry land passed down through their family are giving up on it,” he says. “Younger generations are moving on.”

By joining the local volunteer fire department, Lindholm met local families and other blueberry growers. One of them, who is still a close friend, agreed to help Lindholm with his first burn in 1997. “We had a local guy who just volunteered, and he and my wife and a couple of guys just touched it off,” says Lindholm. “That’s how I started learning, and I haven’t stopped learning since.”

The past 23 years has been a process of learning by burning: Lindholm develops best practices and protocol based on firsthand experience. It’s been, quite literally, trial by fire, and with a drip-torch at his side, Lindholm’s purview of local wild blueberry fields has only expanded: To date, he owns two fields and leases six more, comprising 50 acres of blueberries across six towns.

article-image

As Lindholm explains, the 12-14 inch tall blueberry bush we see above ground is only about one-third of the actual plant. Underground is a network of rhizomes—storage houses of energy and food—which work alongside certain strains of fungus to extract what few nutrients subside in the gravelly, acidic Maine soil. “There’s this whole underground world we can’t see, and burning everything aboveground helps enrich the whole thing.” In Lindholm’s case, burning also precludes the use of pesticides and herbicides he’d otherwise need to control pests and competing plant life.

Both hand- and mechanized burning preserve energy within the rhizomes of wild blueberry plants and produce higher yields the following year, but the ease of mechanized burners—often affixed to the back of a tractor—comes at a cost. “The oil that industrial growers use burns at a higher temperature that destroys a lot more of the duff layer,” says Lindholm, referring to the top layer of soil made of decomposed leaves and other organic material. A vast majority of growers today (Lindholm estimates more than 90 percent), including the Passamaquoddy themselves, burn in this fashion. Lindholm, on the other hand, spreads locally sourced straw over his fields to burn. By burning at a lower temperature, the straw protects a crucial soil layer while minimizing Lindholm’s ecological footprint.

If setting fire to straw sounds simple enough, Lindholm says it’s actually the complexity—and danger—of the process that drove most growers to industrialize years ago.

The burning process starts months before any fire is lit. In the fall, he spreads straw throughout his berry-less fields; wintertime snow packs it into the ground for a more complete burn months later. He does so with a straw-spreading rig, an antiquated machine that’s easier to operate than procure. “You can’t go to the John Deere dealer and say ‘I want one of those straw-spreading rigs for my wild blueberry field’—they don’t make them anymore,” says Lindholm. “You gotta make one yourself, or piece something together.” He found parts on Craigslist to assemble what he calls a “Dr. Seuss machine.”

article-image

Come springtime, with a neatly straw-laced field, Lindholm must be picky with his burns. The day’s humidity must be below 50 percent to curry the flame’s spread, but the wind must be below 10 miles per hour, to keep it from spreading too fast. It has to be bone-dry, as well—morning dew tends not to burn.

On the right day, the burn unfolds methodically. His helpers—typically a core group of friends and family, including his two adult sons—carry five-gallon plastic containers worn like backpacks and filled with water. Lindholm carries a drip-torch. The team works in tandem to burn a perimeter around the outside edge of the field. Lindholm ignites the straw, and his helpers shepherd the flame inward up to about 20 to 30 feet. The task takes hours, as they circle the perimeter until they’ve created a “firebreak,” a broad ring around the center of the field, over which no flames can jump. While the firebreak is a small percentage of the total acreage, it’s crucial: The final step of the burn is simply igniting the entire center of the field and stepping back.

“That’s the most dramatic and fun moment—you just sit back and let it go,” says Lindholm. This year was as successful a burn as he’s seen. “It’s like an extra holiday now every year in my calendar, getting the crew back together.”

Some years, however, he’s learned important lessons the hard way. “I thought I was pretty comfortable by 2010,” says Lindholm, “but that’s the year we had to call the fire department.” He and his crew were burning a new field for the first time on an exposed hillside. “I had too small a crew, with a water source that was too far away, and we all ran out of water,” he says. “The dryness just took off with it.” Flames leapt into a neighboring blueberry field and burned a small patch of bushes before the fire department could wrest control. Oddly enough, the hairy situation produced a silver lining. When Lindholm called the owner of the damaged property to apologize, he found himself explaining his process to a curious audience. “I explained how I lease blueberry fields and manage them organically,” says Lindholm, “and he actually turned into a client.” Lindholm has leased that field ever since, burning it every year, by hand, intentionally.

article-image

Lindholm’s process makes him an outlier in more ways than one. Off the top of his head, he can only think of three other farmers throughout the region who burn like him. Plus, while more than 90 percent of Maine’s wild blueberries are flash frozen within hours of their harvest, Blue Hill relies on direct-to-consumer sales throughout Maine’s farmers markets every August. Last summer, they sold 1,500 pounds of fresh, fire-bred blueberries in a single day. Still, he is humbled by the tiny, mysterious berries.

“We’re dealing with a perennial crop in its native homeland,” he says, “and there’s so many things that are out of your control.” He cites ill-timed visits from hailstorms, turkeys, and bears as contributors to the fickle nature of growing wild blueberries in Maine. “You gotta have a strong heart and be somewhat of a gambler. You’re always skating on thin ice.”

Lindholm has no regrets about his process. “I won’t get 10,000 pounds out of every acre like they do in monoculture fields,” he says, “but I’ll also never get total crop failures.” Perhaps, in fact, it’s Lindholm’s perpetual dance with destruction that keeps his vision for an honest approach to wild blueberries alive.

“We’re harnessing that destructive force—the fire, the heat that destroys—to actually recreate new life, to reinvigorate, to bring forth better, healthier life,” he says. With drip-torch in hand, Lindholm will continue to summon hundreds of thousands of tiny Phoenixes, in blueberry form, from this unforgiving landscape—exactly as its original stewards intended.

article-image

The Strangely Quiet Afterlife of a Brazilian Prison Town

0
0

The tropical beauty of Dois Rios comes with an ugly history.

The village of Dois Rios is home to one church, two restaurants, zero grocery stores, and about 90 residents living among dozens of buildings that are being swallowed by the tropical forest. It sits 100 miles west of Rio de Janeiro on the southern coast of a rugged, largely untouched island called Ilha Grande, where a small plain breaks the mountainous landscape.

Despite the lush, encroaching canopy, the buildings are not hard to find. They are scattered among the eerily empty streets—cars are banned in Ilha Grande, and Dois Rios can be so quiet you can hear your footsteps—that stretch between the foothills and the white sandy beach, where two rivers flow into the Atlantic Ocean, giving the village its name (Dois Rios means “Two Rivers” in Portuguese). Tropical vegetation has grown inside many abandoned houses, making the paint flake and the ceilings crumble. The forest has reclaimed the old soccer pitch, now an impenetrable grove. The old main square has turned into a meadow, and the old obelisk in its center sticks out of the tall grass.

Locals go about tranquil lives at this edge of the world. “It’s a very quiet place,” says Moises, a middle-aged street vendor who asked to be identified with his first name. “It’s good for the second part of your life.” Moises makes a living selling food and drinks to the tourists who visit Dois Rios’s beach. They usually arrive from Abraão—the only sizable village in Ilha Grande, on the north coast—taking a two-hour hike on a dirt road that serves as Dois Rios’s only land connection.

article-image

As he holds a metal cup from which he sips chimarrão—a hot, bitter infusion that is southern Brazil’s answer to Argentinian yerba mate—Moises concedes that young people wouldn’t find Dois Rios exciting. “There are no jobs, there is nothing to do,” he says. There is also no phone signal, and he uses a yellow two-way radio to reach his supplier.

The reason why Dois Rios feels like a ghost town, but one that hasn’t quite died yet, lies in an imposing white building at the end of town, opposite the start of the dirt road to Abrãao. This place, which now houses a small museum, is what remains of one of Brazil’s most significant prisons, most recently known as the Instituto Penal Candido Mendes. Its walls keep Dois Rios’s darkest secrets.

Before 1884, most of present-day Dois Rios was covered by coffee and sugarcane fields where enslaved African slaves were forced to work. More than four million enslaved people were taken to Brazil as part of the slave trade, and thousands were landed in Dois Rios and the rest of Ilha Grande. At one point, 5,000 enslaved people worked on one farm on the island, and slavery was widespread even among small landowners. In Dois Rios, many enslaved workers were diagnosed with fractures and illnesses connected to the brutal conditions.

article-image

It was against this backdrop, as Brazil prepared to abolish slavery in 1888, that authorities bought the land, and 10 years later decided it would be an ideal place for a prison.

“At the time, the concept of the prison island was very strong in the West,” says Gelsom Rozentino, an associate professor at Rio de Janeiro State University who runs the Dois Rios museum. Some of the world’s most famous prison islands were set up in the second half of the 19th century, including Alcatraz (which became a military prison in 1868), Devil’s Island (1852), and Pianosa (1858). Governments liked islands because they promised remoteness. (ven today, getting from Dois Rios to Rio de Janeiro means embarking on a two-hour steep and muddy hike to Abraão, a one-hour ferry ride, and several hours on a bus. “It meant perfect isolation for the individuals that were considered dangerous for society,” Rozentino says.

Authorities built Dois Rios as a “prison town” where virtually every activity revolved around the prison and its hierarchy. Houses were assigned according to the officials’ pecking order, with the largest ones closer to the beach reserved for high-ranking officials. An austere order still governs the village today, and the streets follow a gridiron pattern. Even the palm trees and mangroves form meticulously straight lines.

Initially, the prison was planned as a “correctional colony”—a place where people with criminal convictions and political prisoners would be “scientifically” reformed through labor. In reality, it soon became a place of unspeakable suffering, especially in its early decades. Behind the 20-foot-high wall and the watchtowers, the incarcerated were treated as “subhuman,” says Rozentino. On one occasion, in 1955, a guard allegedly got away with hitting a prisoner with a machete, then shooting him in the foot three times as he ran for help.

article-image

“People don’t come here to correct themselves,” wrote Graciliano Ramos, an acclaimed author and leftist politician who was kept here in 1936. “They come here to die.”

Prisoners were often fed poorly, while forced labor, torture, and violence were rife. When word of prisoners’ conditions reached the continent, newspapers referred to the place as “a Ilha da Maldição”—the Isle of Damnation.

Over time, much of the life of the community outside the prison walls came to depend on prison labor. Incarcerated workers baked fresh bread for the whole island. They swept the streets, cleaned houses, grew vegetables, and collected the trash.

This is perhaps one of the reasons why Dois Rios became a village of paradox. Conditions in the prison could be hellish, but civilians remember the place as pleasant and well-run. “It was a great place to live,” says Shirleno Olivera, a private security supervisor in Rio de Janeiro who grew up in Dois Rios, where his father worked as a prison guard. “Everything was clean and looked after. Things worked.” To civilians, much of the suffering would have been invisible.

article-image

During World War Two, Dois Rios housed political prisoners whom Brazil perceived as dangerous. The conditions gradually improved, especially after the 1950s and 1960s. Some incarcerated people were even allowed to live outside the jail with their families, and built shacks at the edge of town. The children of prisoners “spent time with us, went to the local school, we played ball together,” Olivera says.

Over the years, many well-known prisoners did time in Dois Rios. Graciliano Ramos was jailed without a trial and wrote about his suffering in Memories From Incarceration. João Francisco dos Santos, the son of formerly enslaved parents who became a hustler, legendary capoeira street fighter, and flamboyant drag performer—hence his nickname, Madame Satã (Madam Satan)—remains an icon for the marginalized. After Dois Rios became a maximum-security prison in the 1960s and 1970s, Willians “the Professor” da Silva Lima, Paulo César Chaves, and Eucanã de Azevedo associated here in 1979. They set up what would become Brazil’s most notorious armed gang, the Comando Vermelho, which still controls large parts of Rio de Janeiro.

But eventually the deterioration of the building and the rise of prisoner’s organizations—which planned hunger strikes, protests, and riots—led the authorities to progressively abandon the prison. In 1994, much of the complex was demolished through a series of blasts. One former resident of the town described the detonations as a huge blow, as though “an atomic bomb exploded in my heart.”

article-image

For the community, conditions worsened. The bread supply, which depended on prison labor, was cut off. The school was discontinued. The cinema, workshops, and prisoners’ homes fell into disrepair. Because much of the island had become a state park, people could not use cars to move around. Life became tough. “Residents had to walk 10 kilometers [to Abraão] to buy groceries, and children did the same to go to school,” says Ede Quézia, a current resident and the daughter of the prison’s former head of security.

About half of Dois Rios’s population is thought to have left in the mid-1990s. The forest crept into town. A few years later, Rio de Janeiro State University threw the community a lifeline. It set up a research center on the island and turned what remained of the prison into a museum, providing the community with jobs. (Quézia also works here.) It looks after the streets and runs a twice-daily shuttle to the nearest school in Abraão.

The university’s intervention, together with the state park restrictions, seems to have frozen time there, creating a new kind of paradox. It has stopped the deterioration of the town, and allows its residents to carry on with the quiet lives they like. It also staves off development. Tourism is growing across Ilha Grande: Abraão has seen a boom in visitors and has become a pricey, coveted holiday resort. But the windfall hasn’t reached Dois Rios. Original businesses are allowed to stay open, but new restaurants, hostels, or pousadas—family-run inns that are typical in Brazil and Portugal—are not allowed. “There is nothing that can be bought or sold,” says Rozentino, the university professor. Almost all of the locals are either museum and university workers or retired prison officials who enjoy the quiet. Quézia says there is little community to speak of. “People are not really for getting together,” she says. “It only happens when we’re invited to some museum or university event, and even then only a few people go.”

article-image

She says she likes life among the dazzling beaches and the pristine waterfalls, but it can be difficult. For example, the university employs a nurse, but if someone falls sick, they must make their way to Abrãao or to the closest hospital in Angra dos Reis, on the continent.

Shirleno Olivera, the Rio de Janeiro security supervisor who grew up here, says he feels a deep sadness whenever he visits. “It’s very sad to arrive and see it in this state,” he says. He believes that people who see it today, lured by the surrounding nature, can understand little of what Dois Rios was—“what it really was,” he says.

They only see a sleepy, eerie village that the forest is starting to reclaim—a place that is no longer heaven, and no longer hell.

Turning On the Lights in the Ocean's Twilight Zone

0
0

The surprising colors of Australia's Coral Sea Marine Park.

Many fathoms below the surface of the sea, mysteries still abound—mostly invisible to human eyes. Sunlight disappears and water pressure mounts, making the deep sea one of the least explored and understood environments on the planet. Even today.

Still, humans have found ways to sate their curiosity, from diving bells (first envisioned by Aristotle) to scuba gear to remotely operated vehicles, and the 4K video cameras they now carry. The latter technology has enabled a group of Australian scientists to share their exploration of the continent’s largest marine sanctuary, the Coral Sea Marine Park, via livestream with colleagues sheltered in place around the world during the global pandemic.

The deep did not disappoint. Coral reefs were plentiful even where light was faint or entirely absent; colorful sponges and a species of fish native to Hawaiʻi put in appearances. A fanciful octopus with ear-like fins resembling Dumbo the elephant cruised by at 3,300 feet, and chambered nautiluses—particularly ancient creatures—bobbed about somewhere around 2,000 feet.

article-image
article-image

For six weeks the Australian scientists, led by marine geologist Robin Beaman of James Cook University in Cairns, worked from home with the crew of Falkor, a research ship provided by the Schmidt Ocean Institute, a philanthropic nonprofit cofounded by Eric Schmidt, former Google CEO, and his wife Wendy. The expedition mapped more than 13,000 square miles of the ocean floor east of Australia (an area about the size of the island of Taiwan), in addition to capturing captivating glimpses of life brimming up to 5,300 feet below.

Although these dives were look-only (“It’s a bit like a kid going into a toy shop but being told you can’t touch anything,” says coral specialist Tom Bridge, a co–principal investigator), another expedition is planned—and collecting specimens is part of the mission. Bridge’s wish list includes samples of the corals he can currently only gaze at from afar. By firmly identifying each species and learning how they compare genetically to others in the Pacific, he says, we might have a better window on life’s evolution in the sea.

article-image
article-image
article-image
article-image

The 90-Year-Old Virtuoso Keeping Naxi Music Alive in China

0
0

An underground musical tradition is under threat again.

Every night at 8 p.m., around 20 elderly musicians in formal purple gowns take the stage in Naxi Concert Hall, a 400-seat theater in Old Town Lijiang, China. Painted white cranes drift across the indigo walls. A young woman introduces the band in Chinese, then English, as the “Dayan Naxi Orchestra, reformed in 1981 by our master Mr. Xuan Ke!” Then come the thumping beats of the da gu, a drum as big as a person.

The centuries-old instruments on stage were once hidden underground during the Cultural Revolution. Now, they breathe life into ancient songs of longing, rebellion, and celebration that the musicians play without sheet music—majestic melodies that have been passed down orally, generation after generation. A small bell rings over and over, as if calling forth the band. Then come the shrill notes of the dizi bamboo flute, followed by voices slowly rising in a minor key. Various Chinese fiddles, a nasal bobo flute, and a set of yunluo “cloud gongs” join in, as do three kinds of plucked lutes that include the qu xiang pipa, a pear-shaped instrument that is considered native to the Naxi people. The band members play reverently and fervently, and when several elderly men stand up to sing solos, their voices vibrate throughout the wooden space.

All too often, however, this vast music hall is almost empty. This period in the band’s life is a far cry from its roaring popularity in the 1990s, when it was led into the global spotlight by its band leader, Xuan Ke. On an evening in January, just five audience members are in attendance to give a standing ovation.

article-image

Naxi culture has turned Lijiang, a city in the southwestern province of Yunnan, into one of China’s top tourist destinations. You can ride horses along the ancient tea route, dance with Naxi elders in traditional flower-adorned clothing, and eat, shop, and sleep in Old Town Lijiang, with its ancient trickling canals and pagoda-roofed guesthouses. It’s easy to think of China as a homogenous nation, but the country is home to 110 million members of minority ethnic groups. In Lijiang, around 20 percent of the population is Naxi, an ethnic group with its own distinctive language and a religion called Dongba, a form of shamanism influenced by Tibetan Buddhism.

On Sifang Street, between stores selling traditional, indigo-dyed clothing and rose pastries, a bright teal sign proclaims “NAXI CONCERT HALL” in gold letters. In the rickety back room of the music hall, where gowns and instruments hang on the wall, 90-year-old Xuan Ke sits next to a space heater and speaks slowly, in perfect English. Regarded as the defender of Naxi culture and the father of Naxi music, he is now in a wheelchair; he isn’t able to get on stage for every concert to offer lively commentary like he used to. “I learned classical Western music first,” Xuan says. “Piano and organ at age six.”

article-image

In a palm-sized booklet that doubles as a concert ticket, a 1931 photo shows plump baby Xuan in a wooden washbasin. The son of a Tibetan singer and the first Naxi man to speak fluent English, Xuan grew up with German nannies and Western missionaries in Lijiang. His father, Xuan Ming De, guided Western expeditions to the Yunnan-Burma border, including one with Theodore Roosevelt’s two sons. (They supposedly tipped him so well that the family was able to add a second story to their home, according to the travel writer Gretel Ehrlich.)

But during the Cultural Revolution, which started in 1966 and lasted a decade, the Chinese government persecuted Xuan Ke for his Western associations. He doesn’t talk much about the many years he spent in a labor camp, but says that his interest in traditional Naxi music came after his release. “When I was released, I came back to my home here and learned this traditional Naxi music,” he says. “Before, every village had this kind of orchestra band, but during the Cultural Revolution they had to bury their instruments. I reorganized them.” Xuan managed to convince a group of 40—a mix of teachers, artisans, and farmers—to come together and play again.

Starting in 1988, the orchestra had “spectacular success at home and abroad,” and helped draw visitors to Lijiang, according to Helen Rees, professor of ethnomusicology at the University of California, Los Angeles. Their concerts proved extremely popular to overseas and mainland Chinese tourists who wanted an experience of Naxi culture. In 1995, the orchestra undertook their first international tour in England, where they played to packed audiences in the Purcell Room, the Royal Northern College of Music, and hosted demonstrations at Oxford and SOAS. Given his charismatic personality and flawless English, Xuan was the perfect figure to introduce Naxi music to Western audiences.

article-image

Both Western and Chinese sources covered the tour enthusiastically, Rees writes in her article “Naxi Ancient Music Rocks London.” A Chinese government official, in awe of the Oxford visit, wrote, "That Naxi Ancient Music and Naxi scholars could reach the performance and lecture hall of a world-famous university like Oxford is not only unprecedented in Naxi history, it is also a rare occurrence even in Chinese history." Invitations to festivals in Norway, France, the U.S., and 12 other countries followed.

The foreign acclaim brought pride and a bigger spotlight back home in China, legitimizing this otherwise marginalized ethnicity. After Old Town Lijiang was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, the government quickly created an agency to oversee the physical reconstruction of Old Town, preserving some parts of Naxi architecture but also commercializing the area. In 1999, Jiang Zemin, the President of China, visited the concert hall and announced, “We should spread this music to the entire world!” At the same time, rising prices and incoming Han residents soon pushed the Naxi out of their homes, and now about 70 percent of the stores in the Old Town cater solely to tourists.

article-image

Lijiang’s newfound popularity had some benefits. In the 1980s, the Yunnan government funded a conservation project for the Naxi script, Dongba, which is the only pictographic writing system in use today. Ni Qian Yu, a cheerful 22-year-old, now sells Dongba-Chinese-English dictionaries and paper goods made from a local shrub, Wikstroemia canescens, at one of the popular Dongba Paper Goods stores in Old Town. Fewer than 300 people, Ni included, can read and write the script today, and he hopes the script will endure.

According to one of Xuan Ke’s ticket sellers, the Naxi orchestra’s attendance started declining in 2014, when “Lijiang Eternal Love,” a show with 4,700 moving seats and IMAX screens, opened a few kilometers away. Housed in the “Dongba Culture Theme Theater,” the nightly show is a main attraction of the Lijiang Songcheng Tourist Area, a new government-launched cultural theme park. In the show, laser beams stream across the stage while Naxi warriors save their damsels in distress; Tibetans and Indians dance happily in technicolor verdant fields.

article-image

In government-produced media, “minorities get exoticized, somewhat like the 'noble savage,'” explains China specialist Dru Gladney to the BBC. “On the one hand they are seen as backward and on the other hand they are romanticised and seen as pure.” This show is no different, and unlike the Naxi orchestra, it’s backed up by millions of dollars from tourism companies and the government. “That new stuff … it is nothing,” says Xuan. “They do it for money, not for art. This here is real Naxi music from real Naxi people. But it is hard to appreciate.”

Xuan pays his musical collaborators 1700 Chinese yuan, or about $240, each month. Only two members are below the age of 50, and there are four performers who are at least 80 years old. “The government has not ever given one single coin,” he says.

When asked whether he’s hopeful about the future of Naxi music, Xuan says bluntly that he is not. “No one knows how to appreciate it,” he says. “Except you.” He laughs. After 20 minutes of conversation, his eyes are starting to shut. Next door, five men with wispy white beards sit and wait for the start of the show, silent except for the clacking of jade hand massage balls. One looks asleep. A qu xiang pipa sits upright in the corner. In 10 minutes they will don their purple gowns and become the bearers of ancient Naxi music—for the few who are willing to listen and remember.

Meet the College Student With 6,000 Takeout Menus

0
0

He's not quite sure what to do with them.

When Noah Sheidlower was 12 years old, his father handed him a menu from an empanada restaurant in Queens, New York, and told him to keep it in a safe place.

Sheidlower, now a rising sophomore at Columbia University, still has that menu, and approximately 5,999 more along with it. Over Zoom, he waves a hand to show me menus heaped into plastic crates and piles in his parents’ house in Long Island, where he has lived since early March due to COVID-19. Before that, he had spent much of his free time ducking into restaurants around the Northeast to collect their takeout menus.

His unusual collection fits in among his family's taste for the antique and the ephemeral. His grandmother has a passion for antiques, while his father owns a "ridiculously large" collection of baseball schedules. “I really didn't know what I was getting myself into,” Sheidlower says.

But that one menu turned out to be momentous. Sheidlower became aware of what he calls “the food landscape,” and growing up near Queens gave him access to the borough’s vibrant culinary scene. A diet of Yelp reviews, takeout food, and Gordon Ramsay shows fed Sheidlower’s interest in menus.

article-image

“I was a very early Yelper,” Sheidlower says. There’s the old joke along the lines of “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” No one knew Sheildlower was a young teenager either. "I was invited to all these 18+ events as a 14 year old behind my computer,” he recalls. “And my parents are like, ‘Don't go to that.’”

Fascinated by food trends and the sheer variety of restaurants around him, he would pick a neighborhood and canvas its eateries. Nearly every weekend during his high-school years, Sheidlower searched out menus. “Queens has at least 80 to 90 different countries represented in its food,” he explains. He even published a food guide to Queens, and he continues to collect menus as a college student, albeit at a more sedate pace. On family trips across the Northeast and into Canada, he collects menus to spy out local specialties and compare similar dishes across different regions.

Some regions and cuisines in his collection are more prominent than others. Rest stops are a great source for takeout menus, since local businesses stock them to lure tourists. “And that’s why I have every menu in Cape Cod, I think,” Sheidlower says. He has a handful of menus, all from Vermont, that are made of newsprint and even folded like newspapers. Some restaurants print their menus in tiny booklets, with print so miniscule that you need a magnifying glass to read them. Sheidlower shows me two: one from Bombay Mahal in Brunswick, Maine, and another from Jade Tree in Providence, Rhode Island, with a teeny dim sum menu printed on the back. “And I love them,” Sheidlower sighs. “They're very small.”

article-image

Sometimes, acquiring a new menu can be as simple as ducking into a restaurant, grabbing one, and leaving. But “a lot of the time the owners like to chat with me, or the food's so good that I get something while I'm there,” Sheidlower says. “Sometimes I have four or five different lunches.” He’s never had a bad experience, save one time that he was shouted out of a restaurant in French. “I have a good enough knowledge of French to know that they were really getting mad at me for something,” he says. He thinks they mistook him for a tax collector.

Sheidlower’s hoard helps him recall spectacular meals and how he felt while eating them. At Accra Girls, a Ghanian restaurant in central Massachusetts, he remembers happily waiting an hour while the fufu was pounded for his meal. “That was an experience beyond just getting a takeout menu,” he says. Another good memory was visiting the Washboard Donut Shop & Laundromat in Tupper Lake, New York, where people get breakfast, a load of laundry done, and, in his case, a menu.

His hobby has always garnered attention. “In middle school, when I first got into it, my friends were super excited about it,” he says, and gave him menus from their own fridges. After Sheidlower wrote an article about his collection for the Columbia Daily Spectator, classmates and co-workers got in touch about their own menu collections, offering to chat with him about Mongolian food and donate menus from Montana. He prefers to collect menus himself though.

article-image

Sheidlower does use some of his menus for their intended purpose of ordering takeout, and they’ve taken on a new importance to him since the start of the pandemic. “They're basically a restaurant's lifeline,” he says. Other than social media, paper takeout menus are often a restaurant’s calling card. Even with the rise of the internet, Sheidlower says he only remembers a handful of times that a restaurant he’s visited has had no menu to give him.

He’s still unsure what he’ll do with all his menus. He keeps collecting, he says, as “a record of my travels and a record of my growth.” He thinks that they might one day have value as antiques, seeing as “right now, nobody is really collecting takeout menus.” They could provide an invaluable picture of the increasing diversity of Queens and New York, he notes. And as a snapshot of Northeastern cuisine in the early 21st century, his menus wouldn’t be out of place at a university, like Harley Spiller’s 10,000 Chinese takeout menus at the University of Toronto, or in a library’s holdings, like Miss Frank E. Buttolph’s 25,000 menus at the New York Public Library. It wouldn’t be a bad fate for 6,000 pieces of paper destined to be pinned to fridges, then forgotten.

400 Years After Its First Apple Farm, Boston Remains an Urban Orchard

0
0

Urban canners and tree-planting groups are maintaining an heirloom tradition.

John Bunker normally searches for heirloom apple trees in the fields and forests of rural Maine, but on a trip to Boston, he stumbled upon one in an unexpected place: an ice-cream-parlor parking lot. An expert on American heirloom apples, particularly those of Maine, Bunker has been investigating, preserving, and growing nearly forgotten apple cultivars since he graduated college and immediately bought a parcel of Maine farmland in the 1970s.

“I could spend the rest of my life studying, tracking down, learning to identify, and preserving historic apples from Maine, and I’d never run out of something to do,” says Bunker, who grows the rare apple trees at his family-run Super Chilly Farm, and sells them through Fedco Seed Cooperative.

The parking-lot apple tree was a rare find for Bunker, who mostly searches the woods and fields of sleepy New England towns. Apple trees can stand watch in quiet forest hollows for two centuries, remembered only by neighborhood elders. But these days, Bunker says, old urban apple trees “are mostly gone.” So Bunker got into the habit of visiting the ice-cream-parlor tree. “One year, when I stopped by—oops, it had been cut down,” he says.

The parable of the parking-lot apple tree, which survived decades of urban development before finally succumbing to the saw, embodies the trajectory of New England’s heirloom fruits as a whole.

article-image

Boston’s reputation as an epicenter for heirloom fruit dates back to 1623. That was the year European settlers planted their first apple orchard on the land of the Massachusett tribe, in what is now Boston’s posh Beacon Hill neighborhood. There were apple relatives in the New World before European colonization, but the ancestors of the fruits we eat today originated in Central Asia, entered Europe through the Silk Road, and were brought to North America by Europeans. Settlers developed dozens of new fruit cultivars, but apples were the most important, offering colonists cider and sustenance through the brutal New England winters. Settlers in Boston developed several unique apple varieties, from the sandpaper-skinned, acid-fleshed Roxbury Russet (the first American colonial apple, developed in the mid-1600s) to the bluish-maroon, melon-musky Blue Pearmain (developed in the late 1700s).

The legacy of these orchards remains inscribed in Boston’s landscape, in place markers like the giant bronze pear statue in Dorchester’s Everett Square, and in residential names, like Roxbury’s Orchard Park. By the mid 1900s, however, the heirlooms had been mostly decimated by the encroaching city, and by the rise of industrial monoculture, which focused on intensive farming of fewer, supermarket-optimized varieties, which displayed qualities like shiny red skin, virtual indestructibility, and often-bland taste. This near-erasure of centuries of agricultural history inspired Bunker, who came of age during the budding environmental and anti-capitalist movements of the 1970s, to begin his campaign to save New England heirlooms.

In the past decade, Boston community groups, such as the Boston Tree Party and the League of Urban Canners, have found creative ways to bring the city's history of heirloom orchards alive. Inspired by activists like Bunker, the community-garden movement, and the rising popularity of urban foraging, they’ve planted new urban fruit trees, mapped hundreds of old ones, and created community by re-imagining one of colonial Boston’s first food traditions: picking and processing fruit.

article-image

One such re-imagining began in 2011, when Lisa Gross was a Masters of Fine Arts candidate in search of a food- and community-themed thesis project at The School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University. Gross, who has previously worked as a consultant for Gastro Obscura, had been involved in neighborhood homesteading projects in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for several years, sharing skills like canning and raised-bed backyard gardening at community meetups.

Gross turned to homesteading “out of this desire to reconnect to the earth, to our bodies, to how things are made, to what products are grown,” she says. For her thesis project, she wanted to turn these workshops into a more concrete and lasting community intervention. She also wanted to challenge the whiteness of some urban homesteading spaces by connecting with diverse community groups across the city, in recognition of the people-of-color-led community-garden movement that had set a precedent for neighborhood agriculture. Research into Boston’s agricultural history led her to a moment of revelation: Why not grow a public apple orchard?

Gross conceptualized a neighborhood-based project that would encourage collaboration and diversity by providing community groups with pairs of cross-pollinating apple trees. They would plant these pairs in community spaces across the city, in the hopes that the trees would become gathering spots and sources of education, celebration, and sustenance. “I thought that was this incredible metaphor about difference or cross pollination to create social fruits or civic fruits,” Gross says. At the time, the Tea Party was using both Revolutionary War imagery and, often, racist stereotypes to further a conservative agenda. Gross’s name for the project playfully riffed on the Tea Party's historical reference to honor a more diverse and inclusive vision: The Boston Tree Party.

article-image

From 2011 to 2013, 47 participating groups, including public schools, youth programs, and community centers, received a kit that contained a pair of heirloom apple saplings, such as Baldwin and Roxbury Russet cultivars; compost and mulch; and a guide from Bunker, dubbed the project’s “Official Pomologist.” The project kicked off with tree-planting parties and barbecues, and it connected tree-planting “delegations” with continued resources for orchard care. For Gross, fruit trees were a way for communities to inject “beauty and pleasure and abundance” into collective spaces.

Other Boston residents have opted not to plant new fruit trees, but to seek them out in expected places. For about five years now, Matthew Schreiner, a programmer who lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has spent early summer scouring his neighborhood for juicy, shiny sour cherries, which are largely unavailable at grocery stores due to their delicacy and fleeting season. Schreiner is part of the League of Urban Canners, a loose collective of urban fruit harvesters based in the Greater Boston area. The group formed in 2011, when members of the Somerville Yogurt Making Coop began asking neighbors for permission to collect and can produce from their fruit trees.

Since then, the collective has compiled a database of around 300 fruit trees hidden in plain sight in public spaces, or tucked away in neighbors’ backyards. They’ve obtained owners’ permission to harvest fruits from up to 100 of these trees, including peaches, pears, cherries, berries, and, of course, apples. Schreiner estimates many of the trees are 50 to 70 years old, planted by less-elite Cambridge and Somerville residents who practiced Victory Garden-style thrift but, for the most part, no longer live in those homes. Many of the fruit trees were neglected by their owners until League members began knocking on doors. In exchange for letting the League harvest their trees, owners could receive a cut of the canned harvest. “At a certain point as the organization became more known,” says Schreiner, “people would call us looking for their tree to be harvested.”

article-image

In the earlier days, the collective met for harvest festivals, canned produce together in a local church kitchen, and collectively pressed apples on a local farm’s cider press. Homesteading had its hijinks: During one cider-making session at a neighbor's house, Schreiner and friends dumped the leftover apple scraps in their host’s hen pen. The birds enjoyed the apples for a while, says Schreiner, “But then they started getting drunk.”

These days, members of the cooperative operate more autonomously, collecting and preserving fruits from local trees with which they have established a relationship. That’s what Schreiner and his friends do during sour cherry, peach, plum, and mulberry season, as they drag a homemade wagon, bearing the 10-foot ladder Schreiner is known for, to collect their favorite fruits. The mulberries ripen purple, staining the sidewalk in early June; the sour cherries peek maroon from high branches in early July, promising a sweet-sour pucker; and the peaches blush into melty, taut-skinned sweetness toward midsummer. Schreiner cans and dries his haul, collecting enough to last him until midwinter.

article-image

Meanwhile, Schreiner says, some community members continue to spread a DIY spirit through “guerilla projects” meant to make the urban space greener and more amenable to food production: planting vegetable gardens in neglected medians, or grafting edible fruit branches onto ornamental, non-fruit-bearing trees.

Today, as the coronavirus pandemic inspires Americans to increasingly adopt gardening and community-based food distribution, these “guerilla” attempts to democratize food production—even at the level of the city block—are imaginative expressions of an aspiration for more public-spirited cities. For Gross, community fruit trees are inherently democratic. “It just feels so magical that there’s an abundance of free fruit just ready to be picked,” she says. Orchards also remind us of what we have learned from the past, adds Bunker, and what we owe to the future. “This was a gift given to me by people who never knew me, who never knew that I would be. They left these legacies.”

Archaeology Dogs Can Help Scholars Sniff Out the Past

0
0

With proper training, dogs can follow their noses to human and animal remains from bygone centuries.

This piece was originally published in SAPIENS.

On a sunny, cloudless afternoon in Croatia, a fierce wind known as a bora can whip over the Velebit mountain range and across the Adriatic Sea. When it reaches hurricane force, this cold, dry wind can render the steep, arid terrain freezing at midday.

This coastal region is dominated by karst, a porous rock topography. Despite the area’s challenging conditions, humans eked out an existence here thousands of years ago.

Archaeologist Vedrana Glavaš, at the University of Zadar in Croatia, grew up in this landscape. “That was where I played as a child and became interested in history and prehistory,” she reflects.

In 2014, she and a team were working on Velebit mountain when they uncovered parts of a 3,000-year-old hill fort and necropolis. To explore further, she needed more help. In 2015, Glavaš hit upon a surprising and inexpensive innovation: She teamed up with dog trainer Andrea Pintar, whose company Canine Caffe offers specialized “cadaver” dogs that have helped sniff out cold cases for police and mass graves for local officials.

Some of the police cases Andrea has worked on are 30 years old,” explains Glavaš. “We both wondered how far back in time her dogs could smell.” What they did not expect was that the dogs would lead them to remains buried in the eighth century B.C.

Glavaš, who with Pintar published her research in 2018, says the dogs ultimately turned up more than six unique graves, one around 160 feet away from the rest. Glavaš excavated them, yielding stone burial chests, artifacts, and human finger and toe bones.

The dogs proved invaluable, Glavaš says, uniquely enhancing the capability of typical methods for finding graves, such as field survey, aerial photography, infrared satellite imaging, ground-penetrating radar, and other technologies. And Glavaš isn’t the only archaeologist turning to canine detectives.

article-image

Dogs have long been humans’ best friends—fearless protectors, loyal companions, fabulous Frisbee players—and now it seems they may be archaeologists’ ideal companions too. Like Glavaš and Pintar, researchers are building on a properly trained canine’s well-established ability to uncover remains, demonstrating that this skill can be honed to hunt much older quarry.

New research demonstrates that a well-trained pup can pick up the so-called scents of death from remains that are centuries old. Precisely what compounds they’re sniffing out remains a mystery, but the dogs’ efforts could help illuminate bygone millennia.


A dog’s nose performs at least 10,000 times better than ours. Specifically, dogs pick up on low-molecular-weight compounds that easily evaporate at room temperature and often carry an odor—what scientists call volatile organic compounds. Canines can detect one such part in every trillion.

As a result, dogs have demonstrated uncanny olfactory abilities. They have sniffed out melanoma skin cancer in humans and detected pregnancy in cows just by picking up scents in their bodily fluids.

So, what exactly are canines detecting at archaeological digs? “Our dogs are not actually searching for bones,” Glavaš emphasizes. “They are searching for the molecules of human decomposition.”

In the case of human remains, dogs could be sniffing for one of several specific molecules. One possibility is that dogs detect the fatty acids in adipocere, a material scientists have noticed for centuries and referred to as “corpse wax” or “the fat of graveyards.”

This fat is a natural byproduct of decomposition. Human fat is converted into free fatty acids by bacteria, which then harden into the soap-like adipocere that can effectively mummify the dead.

This material can help scientists date corpses. Adipocere has persisted on frozen remains estimated to be more than 300 years old, such as those found in glacier melt in northwestern British Columbia, Canada. In 2009, scientists reported on adipocere found on the remains of a 1,600-year-old child in Germany.

Dogs could also be picking up on compounds called esters, present in animal fat. A 2015 study found five esters that were unique to humans. Moisture, sunlight, temperature, soil quality, and composition all influence how much scent bones will give off.

Scent compounds that leach into rock and soil may be trapped for thousands of years. Glavaš suspects that karst’s porous surface, for example, might preserve these molecules especially well.

How far back in time dogs’ olfactory superpowers go is still an open question. Archaeologist Matthew Collins, jointly at the University of Copenhagen and University of Cambridge, studies the persistence of ancient proteins in remains, some of which endure more than a million years.

Collins doubts that canines can detect these truly aged specimens. The molecules that dogs sniff out are created as a consequence of decomposition, and the proteins Collins is interested in only exist in remains that are well-preserved, free of decay.

Nonetheless, Collins sees dogs as archaeological allies. “Dogs’ noses are incredibly sensitive,” he says, pointing to tales of explorers in northwest Canada who used canine companions to find mammoth ivory.


"Thunder Dust’s Quento” is the official name of a 7-year-old, pedigreed, black German shepherd. Known as “Fabel” to his friends, in many ways he’s a typical boisterous canine who loves his humans—and has a penchant for popcorn, his favorite treat.

He’s also a trained archaeology dog. Bright-eyed and alert, he waits for his owner, Swedish archaeologist Sophie Vallulv, to put on his harness and collar (it actually says “archaeology dog”), and then he’s off to work.

As soon as he begins, Vallulv says, his personality changes. “He goes from our goofy and playful Fabel to totally focused and not at all social,” she says. “He doesn’t like me being too close to him when he’s working.”

article-image

Fabel’s treat for a successful session is his favorite green ball. “He loves his green ball, and I simply throw it to him when he’s done,” Vallulv adds.

She notes that German shepherds are an ideal breed for this task. “They like to work, that’s why they are a common service dog,” she says. “Fabel and I are a dream team. … He’s an absolute workaholic, with a massive amount of energy.” She is now training her younger German shepherd, Cassidy, as well.

Vallulv began training Fabel in 2013, when he was only 5 months old. She published her master’s thesis on experiments with Fabel in an indoor sterile laboratory environment. “I wanted to see if he could distinguish between animal and human bones,” she says. “This was very important, since it was the human skeletal remains that we wanted to find.”

Vallulv designed searches in which Fabel had to identify either human or nonhuman animal skeletal remains. Together, the team conducted 120 searches, each one with four options of skeletal remains in which only one sample was of human origin. “I as a handler had no idea which of the jars contained the right odor,” she says, “so that I wouldn’t send him clues without even knowing it myself.” Vallulv found that Fabel could tell the difference between human and animal remains with more than 94.2 percent accuracy.

Their best work, Vallulv notes, has been in Sandby borg, a fortified settlement on the island of Öland, off the east coast of Sweden, that dates back more than a millennium. There, Fabel found 1,600-year-old human remains buried five feet deep.

This is the site [where] we’ve done most of our work,” Vallulv says. “It’s also where we test a lot of new ideas.” For instance, she tracks Fabel’s movements with GPS to record locations he’s checked. The measure helps because the ever-curious dog moves so quickly she cannot possibly keep up with him.


Meanwhile, in North America, another project is pushing archaeology dog detection even further into the past. In 2018, anthropologist Lauri Travis, at Carroll College at the time, teamed up with student Hannah Decker to see if Dax, a then 12-week-old border collie and Australian shepherd mix, could be trained to detect the bones of mammals that humans hunted and consumed in the past.

I want to find out what Native peoples [in Montana] ate during two important droughts, one 8,000 years ago and one 2,000 years ago,” Travis explains. Dax could help.

article-image

Decker spent much of her senior year of college training Dax (named after an intrepid Star Trek character). “Dogs have always been a passion of mine, and I would not be who I am today without working with them,” she says.

First indoors, then outside, Decker used real bones from nonhuman mammals, properly dated, in training exercises. In some cases, she used gloves to handle the samples to avoid any direct contact that might contaminate them. “I started by grinding bones into powdered dust, since that allows more surface area and more odor,” she explains.

Decker paired bone dust with a toy and left it on the ground for Dax to discover. Later, she simply hid bone dust, and finally, she began to bury whole bones a few inches underground. Dax learned to signal that she had found something with a series of barks.

By the time training ended, Dax could find bones buried 10 months earlier as deep as six inches. In one such experiment, she found animal bones that were more than 3,500 years old. By August 2019, the dog was finding complete mammal bones in the ground, and Travis reports that more recently, Dax found a 5,000-year-old bone that was buried 12 inches deep.

Travis now cares for Dax full time. She works with the dog to identify archaeological sites of interest that could contain ancient mammal bones—from animals such as bison, deer, elk, or rabbit that may have been part of the diets of Indigenous peoples at the time. “We’re always looking for new tools to help us in our jobs, and I think scent dogs may prove really useful in the future,” Travis says.

Picture it—a hardy, happy archaeology dog skidding across Montana’s snow and ice to sniff out the shards of an ancient ungulate from unimaginable eons ago.

Found: A Letter From Frederick Douglass, About the Need for Better Monuments

0
0

It was discovered "forensically," thanks to Douglass's distinctive usage of an unusual word.

The debate over historical monuments currently roiling the United States is, in fact, nothing new. Back in 1876, none other than Frederick Douglass himself took issue with a Washington, D.C., statue of Abraham Lincoln, which activists are now lobbying to have taken down. Only now, however, do historians have proof of what Douglass thought of it when it went up.

The statue in Lincoln Park, known as the Emancipation Memorial, depicts the 16th president beside a Black man who, depending on how you see the piece, is either kneeling or rising. It’s supposed to commemorate the end of slavery—but in any interpretation, the Black man is physically lower than Lincoln himself, leading critics to see the statue as a paean to Lincoln’s generosity, and not a testament to Black Americans’ own roles in their liberation. “Statues teach history,” says Glenn Foster, an activist with the Freedom Neighborhood, who wants to see the statue removed. The Black man in this statue “is in a very submissive position,” he says, adding that that’s not “respectful to our community, or to anyone in general.”

As The Wall Street Journal reported, two historians, Scott Sandage of Carnegie Mellon University and Jonathan White of Christopher Newport University, were recently debating what ought to be done with the statue, and they wanted to know whether the social reformer and statesman Douglass had, in fact, criticized it directly. Douglass died in 1895, but posthumous reports of his comments on the subject have been circulating since 1916, when a book stated that he had been critical of the statue at its unveiling. In his prepared speech for the event, Douglass challenged the nascent Lincoln mythology, calling him “preeminently the white man’s president …,” but it wasn’t clear whether, in an alleged aside, he also criticized the new statue itself. The two scholars disagreed over the account’s reliability, so Sandage set out to more firmly establish the abolitionist’s position.

article-image

Sandage searched a digital newspaper archive for reports on Douglass from 1876, when the statue was dedicated. He turned up a wide variety of results, but even the most helpful ones seemed incomplete. They were essentially a series of headlines repeating, “Frederick Douglass Says,” followed by short blurbs that relayed Douglass’s words on the subject out of context, focused on this provocative sentence: “What I hope to see before I die,” wrote Douglass, “is a monument representing the negro, not couchant on his knees like a four-footed animal, but erect on his feet like a man.”

To Sandage, this choice of excerpt spoke volumes about the newspapers’ intentions. Out of context, the sentence could, at the time, have characterized Douglass as a whining agitator. Contemporary readers may have laughed, “Ha ha ha, isn’t that funny? He’s still not satisfied. He still wants another statue,” Sandage explains. Worse, he adds, by isolating Douglass’s description of the Black man on his knees, the papers printed the blurbs as “race-baiting comedy,” and as a kind of “little minstrel show.” So it seemed that Douglass had indeed criticized the statue, but Sandage sensed the full story was deeper.

Sandage’s “forensic strategy” was to zero in on the most striking, unusual word in Douglass’s quote: “couchant,” meaning “lying down especially with the head up,” according to Merriam-Webster. “If you were to give a guess,” says Sandage, “of how many times, in the last 500 years of typographical human history, the words ‘Lincoln’ and ‘couchant’ were used in proximity to one another, a good guess might be: ‘One.’ So that provides a really good hook for searching.” Isolating single words or word combinations like that has helped to unlock other historical literary mysteries, adds Sandage. For example, researchers discovered that Lincoln’s “Letter to Mrs. Bixby” was ghostwritten by John Hay because it contains the word “beguile,” a word that doesn’t appear in the 16th president’s other writings.

article-image

Using “couchant” as the keyword in his search—and experimenting with a few combinations of other words—Sandage identified three newspapers that ran the entirety of a letter Douglass wrote about the statue, a few days after speaking at its dedication. “Admirable as is the monument by Mr. Ball in Lincoln park [sic],” writes Douglass, “it does not, as it seems to me, tell the whole truth …” He credits Lincoln for following through on emancipation, but adds that “the negro was made a citizen” by “President U.S. Grant,” under whose administration the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified. (In theory, the Amendment enfranchised Black men with the right to vote. Of course, enforcement of that right has been a long-standing issue.) He concludes by suggesting that “[t]here is room in Lincoln park for another monument,” and that that space ought to be filled out with works that could help complete the historical picture.

In fact, Lincoln Park received a second monument in 1974, of Black American educator Mary McLeod Bethune. In a recent essay for Smithsonian magazine, Sandage and White proposed that the park could be filled out with an “Emancipation Group” of statues commemorating figures such as Douglass, Archer Alexander (the model for the emancipated person in the existing memorial), and Charlotte Scott, the formerly enslaved person who raised funds for the Emancipation Memorial and contributed its first five dollars. (A plaque by the statue explains that it was funded entirely by formerly enslaved people.) As Douglass wrote, the Lincoln statue does not have to come down for these to go up, but if it ultimately does, Sandage says, it “would be no loss whatsoever to the memory or reputation of Abraham Lincoln.” He’s got another, way bigger memorial after all.

article-image

Glenn Foster, meanwhile, says he’d like the monument to be replaced outright, ideally with a statue honoring a Black female historical leader from the Washington, D.C., area. He appreciates the legacy of Frederick Douglass, but adds that societal understanding of race “changes over time,” and that in the 19th century, it would have been hard for Douglass “to speak out against Lincoln.” In 2020, he adds, “we don’t have to accept having Lincoln as the savior of all Black people,” while Douglass “really didn’t have other options.” (Recently, Boston announced that its replica of the Emancipation Memorial will be removed.)

Ultimately, it may never be clear if Douglass actually criticized the statue at its dedication, or if his critique first emerged days later, in the follow-up letter. Either way, the search for more undiscovered Douglass writings goes on. Keep an eye out for unusual words in his (or anyone else’s) writings, because, as Sandage says, “these databases need to be used ‘forensically,’” not to solve crimes exactly, but to get at historical unknowns. To anyone wondering whether there are “other letters written by Frederick Douglass that we don’t know about,” he says, the answer “is almost certainly ‘Yes.’”

Europe's New Mars Yard Is Like a Playground for Planetary Engineers

0
0

Thanks, in part, to 150 tons of soil belched out by Mount Vesuvius nearly 2,000 years ago.

Probably never before in the history of the industry has a maker of bridge cranes—the kind that are mounted on a gantry—been asked to slow one of its machines down. There's a practical reason for that: The machines are usually used in factories and warehouses to move heavy things around and, after all, time is money. But the world of science doesn't cling to the same view of time. "We contacted the company in charge of the bridge crane to ask for a slower system," says engineer Diego Bussi from ALTEC, a joint venture between the Italian Space Agency and company Thales Alenia Space. "All the other companies are trying to get it faster, while we needed the opposite."

Bussi coordinates a team of 20 who are working to build, test, and tweak Europe's new Mars Yard—a 3,400-square-foot installation on the outskirts of Turin in northwest Italy. There, every detail has been meticulously crafted to simulate a small patch of the surface of the Red Planet. Officially, it is called the Rover Operational Control Centre, or ROCC.

The bridge crane plays a vital role in the testing activities at ROCC, leading up to a Mars mission currently scheduled for October 2022 that will search for evidence of life on our nearest neighbor. Rosalind Franklin—the rover is named for the chemist whose work on uncovering the structure of DNA was unacknowledged until after her death in 1958—will drill deeper than ever for long-lost Martian secrets. Now, on Earth, two mockups, known as Bryan and Bruno, stand in for Rosalind, and that’s where the bridge crane comes in. The mockup rovers are attached to it by an umbilical that gently lifts each robot as well to simulate Martian gravity, which is about 38 percent lower than Earth's. And here’s where the slow speed matters. The rover is intended to move at between three inches and six feet per minute. Few factories would want or need such a sluggish pace from a gantry crane.

article-image

Rosalind Franklin and the ROCC facility are part of an ongoing cooperative mission called ExoMars, developed by two space agencies, European (ESA) and Russian (Roscosmos). ESA owns the ROCC and the rover, while Roscosmos provides the launch and the landing platform. ExoMars has been active on Mars since 2016, with the Trace Gas Orbiter satellite studying the Martian atmosphere. Rosalind Franklin was expected to depart, for at least seven months working on the Martian surface, in 2020, but the COVID-19 crisis slowed things down. While policies have been implemented to continue work there, the launch will now have to wait until the next window when the two planets are close together.

To set Rosalind Franklin up for maximum success, the ROCC’s Mars Yard (officially the Mars Terrain Simulator, or MTS) has been turned into an ultimate playground for engineers, with features not found in similar facilities in Europe and the United States. Filling the 65-by-52-foot area is 150 tons of reddish soil that was excavated from near Naples: volcanic material spat out ages ago from Mount Vesuvius. This powdery dirt is named pozzolana after the city Pozzuoli, in the hellish Phlegraean Fields, one of the most seismically active volcanic landscapes on Earth.

article-image

Romans extracted these fine-grained sands to manufacture a superior cement for their temples and monuments. Twenty-first-century engineers have found it just as useful as a base for simulating Martian terrain. But the Red Planet doesn’t have a consistently smooth surface, and rocky places can send a wheeled robot to an early grave by getting it stuck or overturned. But that’s just where the most interesting research targets are. "It's where scientists want to go because water flowed there in the past," says Lorenzo Bramante, the technician responsible for the Mars Yard. So a whitish soil called rain quartz was brought from Germany to help reproduce the ancient seabeds that Rosalind Franklin will target. Boulders of various sizes are spread around, alongside with ramps, hills, slopes, and crevices to simulate a few more dangers to the rover, and help train operators on how to overcome them.

The yard is surrounded by dozens of cameras, which make it resemble the set of some strange interplanetary reality show. The cameras provide another feature distinctive to ROCC: The ability to create a digital version of anything inside the arena—or the whole landscape—in a matter of minutes. "This is important because we can change the configuration depending on what we will face on Mars,” Bramante says, “then really quickly our digital elevation model gets updated to current scenarios."

article-image

For the mission to be a success, the ESA needs to be confident that it can handle a rover on the surface—to date the only successful Mars rover missions have been American. "This mission is a challenge for us since we have no past experience," says Thales Alenia Space engineer Paola Franceschetti, who is leading a team to plan everything the rover will do after leaving Earth. With so much at stake, everything has to follow a script, and Franceschetti is in charge of defining this very strict set of actions, also known as the activity plan. "I was very bad in the requirements," she acknowledges.

Even the lighting on the yard was conceived to mimic the conditions on Mars. Twenty-eight special adjustable lamps can reproduce Martian luminosity from sunrise to sunset. There is a drilling platform to simulate the levels that the rover might drill through—it will be able to go six feet or more deep to collect samples, deeper than any rover before. "Surface soil tends to be not very good to search for life because of the influences from the atmosphere," says Franceschetti.

article-image

The facility also has a tilting platform filled with pozzolana that can create up to 30 degrees of inclination. According to Bramante, everyone was concerned that the full tilt, designed to simulate what would happen if the rover landed on an incline, would create a reddish avalanche. So the team performed the test on a Friday evening, when nobody was around. Thankfully, nothing collapsed.

There will eventually be a lot of scientists wanting input on where Rosalind Franklin will go once it touches down, and the operators and engineers need to be ready for that. "If, let's say, a scientist wants to climb a rock bigger than 20 centimeters, the engineering expert has to say, 'No, we can't, because this jeopardizes the mission," says Franceschetti.

article-image

If something goes wrong on Mars, the Mars Yard will spring into action again—simulating the problem to test ways to overcome it. "We have from eight to 10 hours to collect the data, understand the problem, reconfigure the MTS to reproduce it, put the [mockups] in that condition, and react to find a possible solution," Franceschetti says. "Our timeline is tight."

Bramante doesn't hide his pride in the facility he helped build. "There are plenty of Mars yards out there, but this platform, all this equipment, and also the digital capabilities, put this facility as unique among others," he says. NASA personnel seemed to agree, after a visit. (NASA’s yard at Caltech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena is smaller, but back then the rovers were smaller, too.) Yet another difference between this facility and others—including NASA’s and locations in Iceland NASA is currently using to test its next Mars rover, Perseverance—is that it is indoors. Conditions are going to be much more hostile on Mars, but Rosalind Franklin ought to be ready for them—or whatever obstacles come up—from its training on ground formed by Vesuvius nearly 2,000 years ago.

The Protector of Mexico's Hidden Hives of Stingless Bees

0
0

Construction worker Efrain Cab comes from a long line of beekeepers.

Efrain Cab, a 34-year-old beekeeper who runs a hotline for stingless bees in need, stood in front of the wall of a hotel in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, with a hammer in his hand.

He had responded to an emergency text from 11-year-old Eugenia, who had secretly contacted Cab from her mother's phone. She wanted to save the bees her parents intended to fumigate.

Eugenia now pointed at a small hole in a brick wall.

"Put pieces of tissue inside your ear, and do not squash them when they get entangled in your hair. They're just defending themselves," Cab said with a stern look.

With precise movements, he started hammering the wall. As he cautiously pulled out the debris, a swarm of stingless bees poured out, flying into his beard, hair, and ears. Undeterred, Cab surgically removed the alien-looking hive and placed it inside a wooden box he had brought along. Cab's face soon took on a sheen of sweat, as he strove not to hurt the swarm. Before closing the lid of the box, he added in the dazed bees who had not left the shelter, one by one, and made sure the queen was in the hive.

article-image

"Now they have to rest," Cab said, visibly exhausted.

There are around 500 species of Meliponini stingless bees in tropical and subtropical areas around the world. 47 live in Mexico, and the most famous bee in the Yucatán peninsula is Melipona beecheii, known by the Mayans as Xunan Kab, or the Regal Lady Bee.

Meliponini honey is rare and expensive. In the United States, 250 grams of Meliponini honey costs around $50. Stingless bees live in small colonies and produce just over three pounds of honey per year, while their stinging counterparts produce almost 20 times more. They store their liquid honey in small waxy pots built into their hives. Its flavor is an explosion of acidity and sweetness, paired with an intense flowery fragrance.

But Cab doesn’t aim to profit off the bees for their honey. Loading the hive into his car, he drove it back to his home in the Playa del Carmen suburbs, where he runs Trigonario Urbano Cab, a hospital for rescued stingless bees. The rescued hive would rest and recuperate amongst 60 other colonies, before Cab would take them to their final home: a sanctuary he has built in the middle of the Mayan jungle.

article-image

"Cab means bee," Cab tells me, adding that he learned about bees from his father and grandfather, both beekeepers themselves. In fact, he claims that all his ancestors were Meliponini beekeepers. But it wasn't until 2001 that he started taking care of his own hives. A friend working in construction asked him to pick up a colony that otherwise would have been destroyed. Then he saved a second hive, and then a third. News of his bee operation started spreading. Since then, Cab the beekeeper has saved more than 100 hives.

Jorge Gonzalez Acereto is a bee expert and former professor at the Autonomous University of Yucatán. A beekeeper himself with 40 colonies, Acereto notes that Meliponini bees were central to the Mayan cosmogony, or their vision of how the universe came to be.

"The Mayans believed that the bees were a gift from the gods," Acereto says. Ancient Mayans thought that nectar was a concentration of the sun's power, which bees transferred into their honey. Mayans cared for bees religiously, and the bees, in turn, gave them wax, honey, and pollinated crops.

Maria Luisa Dorantes, Cab’s mother, explains that Mayan descendants use Meliponini honey primarily as a medicine. "If you get a bad cut which doesn't heal, you wrap the honey around it and it’s gone in three days," Dorantes says. Daughter of a herbadera, a Mayan herbalist, Dorantes notes that the honey is also used to treat a variety of diseases, including cataracts, ulcers, and diabetes. Her claim is supported by bacteriologists, who have studied how Meliponini honey’s acidity and high levels of bacillus effectively inhibit pathogenic bacterial growth.

Acereto explains that beekeepers provided a central social service for the ancient Mayan community, by providing honey for free when the sick needed it. Beekeeping was a charitable activity, for which they could not ask for anything in return.

article-image

"This is the inheritance that I have, and I have to protect it," Cab says. He makes his living as a construction worker, but spends all his free time with the bees. Cab doesn’t often sell his honey, and usually harvests it for his family and to help others in need.

With the colonization of the peninsula in the 17th century, the Spaniards introduced Apis mellifera, the common stinging bee, which aggressively invaded Meliponini territory. Many beekeepers began rearing the new bees for their higher honey production. Just a few domestic hives of Meliponini, kept in the remotest Mayan villages, survived the change.

Cab’s untiring efforts to rescue hives is essential work. Ricardo Ayala Barajas, a bee taxonomist at the Biology Institute of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, said that although there is a cultural push to protect stingless bees, they are still endangered. Barajas names pesticides, deforestation, and careless beekeeping practices as causes of the decline.

"We'll reach a point of no return soon," Barajas says.

Efrain Cab is not the only stingless beekeeper. Meliponini honey is highly lucrative. Acereto explains that as demand for the precious honey went up, foreigners and greedy beekeepers began venturing into the jungle to cut down trees to get to Meliponini hives. New beekeepers do not seem to understand the ancestral techniques used to harvest the colonies, which is key to keeping bees healthy. Many end up killing the fragile hives, Acereto adds.

article-image

Valerio, Cab's father, says that not everybody is suited for the task of keeping stingless bees. Tradition requires a certain purity on the part of the beekeeper. "You cannot take care of the bee without being ready,” he says. “You cannot drink alcohol and you need harmony within the family. If bees feel the tension, they go away or die.”

After a period of rest and rebuilding, Cab took Eugenia’s hive back into the forest. A wooden canopy, constructed by Cab, shelters the harmless stingless bees. It is hidden deep within the jungle, where, legend has it, spirits and forgotten gods still roam.

Cab is now teaching his four-year-old son to care for the bees. His hope is that there will be someone to safeguard the bees, when he is gone. "This is what I will leave to my children,” Cab says. “Because I don't believe in money.”

You can join the conversation about this and other stories in the Atlas Obscura Community Forums.

Museums Once Coated Native Cultural Objects in Toxic Pesticides

0
0

Before you can decolonize a museum collection, you may need to decontaminate it.

In 1995, elders from the Hopi Tribe traveled to the Harvard Peabody Museum to retrieve three Hopi “Friends,” or ceremonial masks. It should have been a moment for celebration: After decades of being stored in stacks or displayed for the public, many of the items would finally be going home. But during the visit, the Hopi representatives were also given gloves and respirators, and cautioned against direct contact with the objects. The museum curators couldn’t be sure, but they thought the items might be contaminated with dangerous pesticides.

In museums across the country and the world, important and often sacred cultural items were blanketed in dangerous chemicals for the purpose of preservation. Tribes first encountered the extent of this contamination in the late 1990s. The Seneca Nation retrieved medicine masks that had been fumigated, and several tested positive for arsenic. The Hoopa Valley Tribe repatriated baskets, headbands and other ceremonial items, only to learn that nearly all the items were contaminated with mercury, DDT, and other dangerous chemicals.

The museums had not acted with malicious intent, but rather to preserve the materials from damage by pests. “We didn’t expect it to be like that,” says Lee Wayne Lomayestewa, the repatriation coordinator at the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office. Lomayestewa wasn’t present at the visit to Harvard, but he went on a similar trip to the American Museum of Natural History, and recalls the overpowering smell of the contaminated objects. “We were all happy to receive these items,” he says, but he later had to get himself tested for such elements as mercury and arsenic. (He ended up being fine, though his coworkers still tease him about glowing in the dark.)

article-image

Under the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, known as NAGPRA, museums were required to inventory their collections and mark out which artifacts and ancestral remains belonged to which tribes. After the law took effect, the Hopi were contacted by 330 museums, some with collections that included more than 10,000 Hopi items. The problem was that poisonous objects were being sent back to tribal communities, and many would go back into rituals, coming in close proximity to a person’s skin, eyes, nose, and mouth. It seemed like a disaster waiting to happen—and one that demanded an immediate response.

Although many museums didn’t keep records of when they started using chemicals or what kind they used, the practice is thought to go back at least to the 18th century. According to the U.S. Department of the Interior, the National Park Service previously published a list at one point of the more than 55 pesticides known to have been used on collections. (It is no longer available online.) “The best course of action,” advises the DOI, “is to consult an industrial hygienist who can evaluate the potential for exposure and the degree of toxicity.”

Most conservators stopped using chemicals to preserve artifacts around the 1970s, but it wasn’t until the early 1980s that museums began investigating pesticide residue in collections. Back then, conservators were mostly concerned about the damaging effect of chemicals on the color or texture of the various objects, says Nancy Odegaard, a conservator at the Arizona State Museum and professor of anthropology and materials science at the University of Arizona.

When NAGPRA passed, Odegaard and her colleagues were already involved in cataloguing museum collections—no easy task before the Internet came along. In 1999 and 2000, after Odegaard learned about the Hopi Tribe’s experience with repatriation, she decided to investigate the full history of chemical use on museum artifacts, and held workshops with Arizona tribes to alert them of the potential dangers.

One problem was the lack of records. “It’s a bit like, how many times did you wash the dishes or vacuum the floor?” Odegaard says. “It was housekeeping to put pesticides on.” She consulted an old curator’s diary, which gave a list of which chemicals were applied at the time, and worked with other museums, ultimately putting together a list of 99 pesticides that had been recorded.

The revelations about pesticide use were like “the straw that broke the camel’s back” for many indigenous communities, says Alyce Sadongei, one of Odegaard’s museum colleagues and a member of the Kiowa and Tohono O’odham peoples. “A lot of people were angry and upset because these aren’t just typical utilitarian objects, they were very, very significant objects. It was like, 'I can’t believe there’s one more thing to do.'”

article-image

As museums and tribal communities realized the scope of the problem, workshops materialized around the country. Although only a few tribes chose to speak publicly about their experiences—the Hoopa of California, the Seneca Nation of New York, and the Hopi—chemical contamination may have affected items belonging to hundreds of communities.

The standard method for identifying pesticides was X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy, or XRF, which could calculate levels of mercury, lead, arsenic, and other heavy metals, but not pesticides such as DDT or Roundup, which were used on archaeological sites to clear off plant life before digging. But even if an object tested positive for lead or mercury, that didn’t necessarily mean it had been treated with pesticides. Glass beads nearly always have arsenic, Odegaard says, because their color comes in part from metals. (They aren’t dangerous to humans unless swallowed, she adds.)

Odegaard and Sadongei used their early research to argue for an update to the law. When it passed in 1996, it required museums to provide documentation about whether or not objects had dangerous chemicals on them—but of course, not every museum had the records that definitively proved whether an object had ever been chemically treated.

The Field Museum of Natural History, in Chicago, has one of the largest collections of Hopi material in the world—more than 11,000 entries in their catalog. “A large portion is considered sacred by the Hopi, and there is a strong belief that these, as well as the archaeological collections, were acquired without the approval of the appropriate village and clan leaders,” explains a paper co-authored by Helen Robbins, the museum’s repatriation director, and Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, the former director of the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office. Robbins says the Hopi Tribe helped change the conversation around repatriation and pesticides, and the museum has received numerous grants to pay for extensive chemical testing.

article-image

Bringing objects back to Hopi villages has been a complicated process, even if the vast majority of them aren’t contaminated, says Lomayestewa. “A lot of these museums have items that we already asked for, but they’re holding on to them for us until we get a museum or holding facility,” Lomayestewa says. The Hopi Tribe has designated a 10-acre lot for construction and created a Museum Learning Center committee to help raise funds for the project, but Lomayestewa predicts it might be a few years before everything comes together.

Today, established museums use non-destructive, non-poisonous methods of pest control. Objects are either sealed in airless bags or frozen for a set period of time, to kill off any pests. After 20 years of trial and error, there’s a lot more experience and wisdom to guide the work with different tribal communities.

“A lot of times, there was distrust in terms of the relationship between the United States and Indian people like myself,” says Terry Snowball, who is Prairie Band Potawatomi/Wisconsin Ho-Chunk and works as the repatriation coordinator at the National Museum of the American Indian. But, he adds, when museums include indigenous people in their process, it helps to show that the problems and solutions are being taken seriously.

Sadongei, who played a similar role at Arizona State Museum, wants to pass on the knowledge needed to guide tribal communities in the future. “I’m hoping that our work has given a process, and a beam of light,” she says. “So they don’t feel that it’s totally impossible.”

The Lingering Legacy of America's First Cookie-Cutter Suburb

0
0

Inequality was built-in.

From the air, the homes fan out like intricate beadwork. For decades, America's suburbs have been a popular setting for television shows, from I Love Lucy to Desperate Housewives, chronicling entertaining trivialities against the backdrop of meticulously shorn lawns, the drifting smoke of barbecues, the infrastructure of cars and roads: a pleasantly domestic—but fraught—version of the American dream.

The idyllic ideal of modern suburbia in the United States was born in 1947 with the creation of Levittown, a large housing development in Long Island, New York. Businessman Abraham Levitt and his sons, William and Alfred, turned some potato fields into a neighborhood bearing their name, with more than 17,000 uniform, boxy, detached homes spaced equally along carefully meandering and manicured streets. The project, which reduced the building of each home to an assembly-line system of 26 steps for speed, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness, catered in particular to returning World War II veterans looking for safe and stable homes during a national housing shortage. The affordable cost allowed thousands of families to become homeowners, but only certain families.

article-image

While the Levitts successfully turned their business plan into a quintessential symbol of family values, Levittown also was a symbol of exclusion. William Levitt, in charge of the housing development’s marketing and sales, did not sell houses to families of color. A clause in the standard lease for the first Levitt houses baldly stated that the homes could not “be used or occupied by any person other than members of the Caucasian race.” Government policies at the time, such as those of the Federal Housing Administration, supported such racist practices, blocking Black Americans and other people of color from the new suburbs and homeownership. An opposing group, the Committee to End Discrimination in Levittown, formed to fight the racism with protests and leaflets. The Supreme Court ruled in 1948 that house covenants with racial restrictions were “unenforceable” and unconstitutional, six years before the ruling on racial integration in Brown v. Board of Education.

Levittown provided a suburban template that is visible in aerial and satellite photos across the country—the now-familiar looping streets, studded with undistinguishable roofs, abruptly ending at other roads and arteries. Levittown, on the other hand, has evolved in its own way. The homes there have been so modified and expanded over the years that it's almost impossible to see from street level the architectural uniformity that once reigned. However, though racial integration of the town started in the 1950s, its initial legacy is not gone. According to the 2019 census, though the town has a notable Latinx population, just 1.2 percent of Levittown’s residents are Black.

article-image

How Mexico City Crowdsourced a Map of Its Riotous Informal Bus System

0
0

The fourth episode of TED’s Pindrop podcast looks at the power of collective creativity.

Each day, at least under normal circumstances, residents of Mexico City take 17 million rides in peseros—a fleet of green-and-white vans or microbuses that are part of the city’s informal transportation system. The peseros—30,000 strong—are a world of their own. They can be crowded. Some blast music. They serve areas of the city underserved by other forms of public transportation. They serve more riders than all the city’s forms of public transportation. But there’s one major problem. There was no map whatsoever.

“The only way of actually figuring out how to get from one point to another might be asking five people and then averaging out the answers,” says journalist, visual artist, and documentary filmmaker Gabriella Gomez-Mont. Unlike most pesero-riders, Gomez-Mont actually had an opportunity to do something about it. In 2013, she became Chief Creative Officer of the Laboratory for the City—a creative think tank within the government tasked with finding creative solutions to the city’s problems. (There are a lot of those; it is, after all one of the biggest cities in the world.) Her team of 20 came from many disciplines. Urban geographers, political scientists, social scientists, data experts, and more, working hand in hand with artists, designers, filmmakers, historians, philosophers, writers, and activists. To Gomez-Mont, this cross-disciplinary approach would be the key to unlocking the innovative solutions to a host of problems—including the unmapped bus routes.

article-image

To create a centralized microbus map and timetable by traditional means would have taken years and a lot of money, and would never have stayed current as the unregulated pesero world continued to evolve to meet people’s needs (and make money). So the lab had an idea. “The superpower of Mexico City is its community,” says Gomex-Mont. “We put out a call to Mexico City citizens and said, ‘Help us map this.’” The lab came up with an app, Mapatón, and turned it into a citywide, real-world game. Every time riders mapped a route from point A to point B they earned points. The longer the route, the more points, which could be exchanged for rewards, such as cash and electronics. In just a few weeks, 4,000 public transport users—the tiniest fraction of the overall ridership—covered 30,000 miles, and gave the government valuable information on the bus routes, length of journeys, passage frequency, duration, and fares.

Alas, the Laboratory for the City and Mapatón didn’t survive the most recent change in local government, but it did leave a legacy. Mexico City’s big new crowdsourced project—ongoing, but developed by the Laboratory before it was dissolved—is the creation of a new city constitution that identifies and addresses the biggest needs in the community, from protecting the rights of members of the LGBTQIA community, to guaranteeing a minimum amount of green space per resident. For Gomez-Mont, these projects share a common thread of uniting citizens and government. “You actually have to be able to paint a vision that people want to be part of,” she says.

To learn more about the power of collective creativity in Mexico city—and meet one citizen who protects his fellow citizens from traffic by donning a mask and cape—listen to Pindrop, a podcast produced by TED and hosted by Saleem Reshamwala that travels around the world in search of surprising and imaginative ideas. You can find it on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts.