Channel: Atlas Obscura: Articles

The Singaporean Baker Inventing a Pie for Every American State


Her creations go way beyond apple pie.

Pies can be finicky. Overwork the dough, and the crust won’t flake. Too-liquid filling can hesitate to set, or ooze out of the tin. Most people, as a result, stick to the pies they know how to make, or simply buy them from the store.

But Stacey Mei Yan Fong, a Brooklyn-based baker, has invented nearly 50 drastically different pies over the last four years. Fong, who was born in Singapore and moved to the United States for college, is the creator of 50 Pies / 50 States, a project where she attempts to capture the identity of each American state in a pie.

Baking, for Fong, is more than a hobby. It’s a quest for belonging. “Where's my home?” Fong says she recalls thinking, long before she came up with 50 Pies / 50 States. “Is it Singapore where I was born? Is it here, now, in America?” She began ruminating on these questions while baking her way through a pie cookbook in 2016. Familiarizing herself with the art of the classic American pie, she says, made her feel at home in the United States, more than anything had before. Inspired, she decided to launch a project to “learn more about the country that I've chosen to call home, and do it in a fun, delicious way.”


It takes thoughtful research to trap a state’s unique qualities in a pie crust. Fong spends anywhere from two weeks to a month per pie, researching classic flavors from each state while also considering how to express more intangible, nuanced concepts via pastry. Working her way alphabetically through the states, Fong doesn’t usually limit herself to standard flavors or pie designs. As a result, her creations are savory as often as they are sweet, and as different from each other as the states themselves.

For her pastry tribute to Nevada, Fong took inspiration from Las Vegas’s all-you-can-eat buffets. The end result was a pie made up of four savory and four sweet slices, with flavors like Caesar salad, Alaskan King Crab with herbed butter, a fig jam-glazed custard fruit tart, and chocolate mousse. As she does with all her pies, Fong breaks down the baking process in pictures on her site, while sharing what she learned throughout her research process. Fong notes that she wanted this particular pie to symbolize Nevada’s culture of optimism and excess.

To date, Fong has completed 44 pies out of her planned 50. While Fong hasn’t visited every state she’s studied so far, one pie took her straight to the source. “The South Dakota pie ended up being something so beyond what I thought it was going to be,” Fong says. A friend introduced her to a South Dakota-based historian, and she ended up flying to South Dakota as part of her research. In turn, the historian introduced her to Sean Sherman, the famed Sioux Chef. Inspired by the state’s Indigenous culture, Fong created a wild rice pudding pie with berry compote and pumpkin seed crunch.


Fong also strives to give each completed pie to a resident of the state it honors. Up until COVID-19 swept across the United States, Fong personally hand-delivered many of her pies to friends and loved ones around the country and looks forward to the day when she can safely resume her project. “For me to be able to bring them a slice of pie, to show how much I appreciate and how much I love them, it's very special to me,” she says.

With six pies left to go, Fong is considering how to compile her years of work. “I feel like my pipe dream for this project is definitely putting a cookbook together,” she says, with all her recipes and research included. Currently working in Brooklyn as a baker, she’s still working on new pie concepts, including her own take on the American hard-time classic of desperation pie.

But even as Fong plans new projects, she keeps coming back to the themes of 50 Pies / 50 States to reflect on the nuances of life in the United States. Fong hopes that her work can remind people of the good things about each and every state. “Food is the great connector,” she says. “I feel like at the end of the day, all I have is hope for this country.”

At This Banana Farm, the Bunches Grow in 430 Shapes and Sizes


India's "plantain man" has traveled widely to build a collection of unusual varieties.

In his backyard in Kerala, India, Vinod Sahadevan Nair, 60, grows bananas and plantains and rears chickens and ducks. Situated as it is in an agrarian region, abutting the biodiverse Western Ghats, his farm may seem typical. But a walk through his four acres reveals bananas growing in every conceivable shape, size, and hue: from deep red to turquoise blue. An avid farmer since the age of 12, Vinod has conscientiously collected some 430 varieties of banana over the past 30 years.

Vinod’s farming practices were not always so quixotic. As a youngster, he pitched in and spent weekends helping his father tend their coconuts and the 10 to 11 banana varieties that they grew. This was typical for the area—unlike in banana-importing countries, where people know only the Cavendish banana, Indian markets generally sell at least a dozen different types. A bright student, Vinod graduated college with a degree in physics and picked up a web-designer job in Kochi, 150 miles north of his village, Parassala. Still, on weekends, he returned to visit his family and help on the farm.


In 2012, Vinod approached one of the agricultural institutes in his home state to procure a few native suckers (shoots arising from a banana tree’s roots, which are used for replanting). But a staff member turned him away and refused to answer his questions. This spurred Vinod to seek banana knowledge on his own. He skimmed the internet, wrote letters and emails to other agricultural institutes in India, and traveled great lengths of the country to procure exotic varieties. A banana empire was born.

It was his mother's death in late 2015, though, that forced him to permanently move to Parassala to take care of his father. He also decided to plunge full-time into farming, and acquired a few acres for banana cultivation.

India produces close to 29 million tonnes of bananas every year, of which it exports a mere 1 percent. Blessed with abundant rainfall, sunshine, and fertile, loamy soil, the southern pockets of India, as well as its northeastern region, have long been a crucible for banana cultivation. After Southeast Asia, the country is considered a source of the fruit's origins and biodiversity.


Vinod says bananas are one of the most profitable crops in Kerala, and one of the easiest to grow, requiring minimal maintenance. He uses one grove for commercial cultivation of the nendran banana, which is used extensively in Kerala cuisine and often fetches a good price. “But I wanted to do something quirky with the rest of the banana plantation,” he says.

Over the last five years, Vinod has traversed almost every state in India, bringing back new banana suckers and taking notes in a journal. From Assam and Meghalaya in the northeast he collected the native malbhog and seeded varieties such as the bhimkal. Agricultural institutes provided him with suckers of the blue java and pisang jari buaya (native to Southeast Asia), as well as other international varieties.

Apart from helping Vinod reap profits, the groves have become a treasure trove (the fruit and the tree are revered in India, often used in religious ceremonies) and a one-of-a-kind pitstop for children and amateur banana farmers to learn about native, exotic, as well as endangered bananas—as there are always 15 to 18 varieties in bloom.


Although bananas are ubiquitous throughout India, a soaring banana tree with 12-foot clusters of hanging fruits is quite rare. Which is why Vinod considers the 1,000-finger banana from Malay, which is also known as pisang seribu, or ayiram poovan locally, and purportedly bears up to 1,000 small, 1.5-2 inch fruits, one of his prized possessions. “It enchants anyone who visits,” says Vinod of the family members, fellow farmers, and even curious travelers who regularly toured the grove before the pandemic. Yet, he confesses that his love for the nendran—used in Kerala to make everything from baby food to chips—is unparalleled.

Vinod now sells the local varieties in the nearest market and gifts the exotic ones to friends and relatives. He doesn’t accept donations for the suckers, nor does he charge. He believes he is sharing green heritage when bartering (he often asks for a new variety in exchange), and that not everything is about money and accolades.


Nevertheless, this quirky quest has facilitated his entry into the Limca Book of Records, recognition of being a “progressive farmer” from the National Research Centre for Banana, and invitations to banana exhibitions and fairs. He has also inspired his son, Abaneesh, and village children to take up farming. They fondly call him vazhachettan, or the plantain man.

“I've had just one unpleasant experience that triggered this innate passion,” says Vinod. “Otherwise, the people I have met, the institutes I visited, and the interactions we have had over the years have always been educative and pleasant, enriching my banana quest.”

The Archaeologists Recreating the Sounds of the Stone Age


Researchers are working to uncover whether ancient objects in South Africa were once used to make noise or music.

This story was originally published on SAPIENS and appears here under a CC BY-ND 4.0 license.

On South Africa’s southern coast, above the mouth of the Matjes River, a natural rock shelter nestles under a cliff face. The cave is only about three meters deep, and humans have used it for more than 10,000 years.

The place has a unique soundscape: The ocean’s shushing voice winds up a narrow gap in the rocks, and the shelter’s walls throb with the exhalation of water 45 meters below. When an easterly wind blows, it transforms the cave into a pair of rasping lungs.

It is possible that some 8,000 years ago, in this acoustically resonant haven, people not only hid from passing coastal thunderstorms, but may have used this place to commune with their dead—using music. That’s a possibility hinted at in the work of archaeologist Joshua Kumbani, of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, and his colleagues.

Kumbani, with his adviser, archaeologist Sarah Wurz, believes they have identified an instrument that humans once used to make sound buried within a layer rich with human remains and bone, shell, and eggshell ornaments dating from between 9,600 and 5,400 years ago. This discovery is significant on many levels. “There could be a possibility that people used it for musical purposes or these artifacts were used during funerals when they buried their dead,” Kumbani hypothesizes.


The work offers the first scientific evidence of sound-producing artifacts in South Africa from the Stone Age, a period ending some 2,000 years ago with the introduction of metalworking. That “first” is somewhat surprising. Southern Africa has afforded archaeology a wealth of findings that speak to early human creativity. There is evidence, for example, that humans living 100,000 years ago in the region created little “paint factories” of ochre, bone, and grindstones that may have supplied artistic endeavors. Engraved objects found in the same site, dating back more than 70,000 years, hint at their creator’s symbolic thinking. Yet when it comes to music, the archaeological record has been mysteriously silent. “Music’s so common to all of us,” says Wurz, also at the University of the Witwatersrand. “It is fundamental.” It would be peculiar, then, if humans of bygone millennia had no music.

Instead, it’s possible that the musical instruments of South Africa have simply gone unnoticed. Part of the trouble is in identification. Determining whether something makes noise—and was deemed “musical” to its creators—is no small feat.

In addition, early archaeologists in this region used rudimentary techniques in numerous locations. Many archaeologists, Wurz argues, did their best with the approaches available at the time but simply did not consider the evidence for music in sites once inhabited by ancient humans. In short, they did not realize there could be a chorus of sound information trapped underground.

The oldest recognized musical instruments in the world are reminiscent of whistles or flutes. In Slovenia, for example, the “Neanderthal flute” may be at least 60,000 years old. Discovered in 1995 by Slovenian archaeologists, the item could have been created by Neanderthals, researchers believe. In Germany, scholars have unearthed bird bone flutes that a Homo sapiens’ hands could have crafted some 42,000 years ago.

Although some scientists have challenged the classification of these artifacts, many Westerners would readily recognize these objects as flute-like. They look very much like fragments from European woodwind instruments used today, complete with neatly punched finger holes.

In South Africa, archaeologists have discovered a number of bone tubes at Stone Age sites, but, as these objects lack finger holes, researchers have labeled the artifacts as beads or pendants. Kumbani thinks that these items could have produced sound—but identifying a possible instrument is difficult. Modern music scholars, after all, will point out that various cultures have widely different concepts of what sounds harmonic, melodious, or musical.

Music itself “is a modern, Western term,” argues Rupert Till, a professor of music at the University of Huddersfield in the United Kingdom. “There are some traditional communities and languages that really don’t have a separate concept of music. … It is mixed up with dance, meaning, ceremony.”

How, then, can anyone know whether any given object was intended as an instrument, or even used to produce sound?

In the 1970s, Cajsa Lund, a trained musician and an ethnomusicologist, pioneered efforts to remedy this problem. “Archaeology for a very, very long time was primarily devoted to the artifacts,” says Lund, today a doyenne of music archaeology. “They couldn’t dig up and excavate music.”

She began scouring Swedish storerooms and collections for overlooked objects that might have once made sound. As soon as she started looking, Lund began to find “sound tools,” a term she applied intentionally because it is hard to say whether an item created music or, more simply, made noise.

Lund developed a classification system to determine how probable it was that a particular object was intentionally used to produce sound. An open-ended cylinder with holes seems likely to have been a flute, with no other purpose being obvious. But a circlet of shells could have been a bracelet, a rattle, or both. Lund’s experimental efforts illuminated new possible histories for otherwise familiar-seeming artifacts.

Among her favorite sound tools are “buzz bones.” This curious object is crafted from a small, rectangular piece of pig’s bone with a hole in its center. A person threads a string tied in a loop through the bone such that she can hold the ends and suspend the bone in the air. Twist the strings and then tug them taut and the bone spins, causing the air to vibrate and generate a low, growling bzzzz.


“This is a fantastic instrument,” Lund says of the buzz bone. “There are still people living in the Nordic countries, the oldest generation, who can tell you about when their grandparents told them how to make ‘buzz bones.’” Yet before Lund’s work, archaeologists had often assumed they were simply buttons.

Lund’s pioneering efforts set a template for others in the field. By creating meticulous replicas of historic objects, music archaeologists can experiment with creating sound from these items and then classify the likelihood that a given item was used to produce that noise.

New technological developments can also bolster a music archaeologist’s case as to whether an object produced sound: Repeated use leaves tell-tale signs on the objects, microscopic friction marks that hum their history.

In 2017, Kumbani and Wurz decided to embark on a project similar to Lund’s, using artifacts from Stone Age sites in the southern Cape. Like Lund more than 40 years earlier, they wondered whether there were sound tools in the region’s rich archaeological record that had been overlooked by other archaeologists.

To conduct this work, Wurz asserts, “you need a background in musical or sound-producing instruments.” She initially trained as a music teacher, and her past research has focused on human physical adaptations that gave rise to singing and dancing.

Kumbani, too, has a love for music, he says with a wide and somewhat sheepish grin. He previously investigated the cultural importance of an instrument called an mbira, or thumb piano, among communities in his home country of Zimbabwe for his master’s degree. In his slow, sonorous voice, Kumbani explains that, in fact, it was research for that project—as he sought out depictions of musicians in Wits University’s substantial rock art image archive—that eventually led him to Wurz.

Wurz and Kumbani decided to start their search by considering what is known about how peoples in Southern Africa have made sound tools, whether for music or communication more broadly. They turned to the work of the late Percival Kirby, an ethnomusicologist whose writings from the 1930s offered the archaeologists clues as to what traditional instruments might have looked like.

Then Kumbani set to work searching for mention of these sound tools in the archaeological record and looking for artifacts that physically resembled the ones Kirby detailed. Among the items he gathered were a suite of objects from the Matjes River site, including a spinning disk and four pendants.

Kumbani found another spinning disk, the only other one mentioned in the literature, from another important archaeological site near South Africa’s Klasies River. This site, fewer than 100 kilometers away from the Matjes site as the crow flies, features a group of caves and shelters. Its treasured artifacts, first identified in the shelter’s walls in 1960, are interspersed with ancient human remains dating to about 110,000 years old and evidence of some early culinary innovation by H. sapiens. An earlier researcher had noted that the disk from the Klasies site, which happens to be about 4,800 years old, could, in fact, be a sound tool—but no one had investigated that possibility rigorously.

Once Kumbani had identified several promising candidates from both the Klasies and Matjes collections, his colleague Neil Rusch, a University of the Witwatersrand archaeologist, created meticulous replicas of each one out of bone. The next challenge: figuring out if a person had “played” these objects.

The only way to do so was to try themselves.

Every weekday evening in April 2018, after everyone else had gone home, Kumbani would stand in a teaching laboratory within the Witwatersrand campus’s Origins Centre, a museum dedicated to the study of humankind. By that time, the usually bustling building was silent.

Resting on a long wooden table, under the glow of bright fluorescent bulbs, were the two spinning disks from the Klasies and Matjes River sites. The narrow, pointed ovals fit in the palm of his hand: flat pieces of bone with two holes in the center. Kumbani threaded these “spinning disks” to test their sound-producing qualities.

Kumbani already knew the objects could make noise. He had previously tried to play them in his student accommodation in Johannesburg’s buzzing city center. The threaded spinning disks, he found, could rev like an engine. But not only did the throbbing sound disturb his fellow students, he quickly learned that the artifacts could be dangerous. A snapped string transformed the disks from sound tools into whizzing projectiles. He ultimately decided it was safer to perform his experiments far from possible casualties. (Watch him give it a try below.)

In the otherwise silent room of the university, Kumbani could experiment in earnest. Knowing the disks could make a sound was just his first question. He also needed to see how “playing” the disk would wear upon the bone material so he and Wurz could then check whether the original artifacts bore similar signs of use. Kumbani threaded each with different kinds of string, such as plant fiber or hide, to see how it might change the friction patterns.

Putting on gloves to protect his fingers from blisters, Kumbani played the spinning disks in 15-minute intervals and could only manage an hour a night. “You can’t spin for 30 minutes [straight]. It’s painful, your arms get tired,” he explains. “It was horrible, but I had to do it for the experiment.”

While the disks require a person to spin them, the pendants offered a reprieve. The four objects, all from the Matjes River, are small, elongated, oval- or pear-shaped pieces of bone with a single hole that might easily have been jewelry pendants.

In Cape Town, Rusch, who had made the replicas, created an apparatus to spin pendants for a total of up to 60 hours. His device looks like an old movie projector: a spoked wheel attached to a motor, with the pendant’s string tied to the edge. (Like Kumbani, he had learned that a broken string could turn the pendant into a wayward missile.) He created a tent out of black fabric in his home workshop to catch flying pieces of bone, and then he took them to a recording studio in Cape Town to document their sound.

All of the six artifacts from the Klasies and Matjes River sites made a noise, but the pendants were the real surprise. These items had been on display at a museum for decades before being stored in a box and forgotten about. Yet all four produce a low thrum when they are spun.


When Kumbani examined the originals and compared them to the well-played replicas, one pendant, in particular, had scuff marks that suggested it might indeed have been used to produce sound. When a pendant hangs from a person’s neck, the string rubs continuously at the top of the hole through which the string is threaded. But using a strung pendant to produce sound wears along the sides of the hole—as was the case for the one Matjes River pendant.

That one was “bigger and heavier,” Kumbani says. When played, it had a distinctive timbre: a rasping breath whose low frequencies sounded like inhales and exhales. But, he acknowledges, it could still have been jewelry—a sound-producing adornment.

In February 2019, Kumbani and his colleagues published their discoveries in the Journal of Archaeological Science. “The sound is not musical,” Kumbani says ruefully of the artifacts, “but it goes back to the question: ‘What is music?’—because people perceive music in different ways.”

Seeking sound tools among the Klasies and Matjes River site artifacts brings an entirely new perspective to these items, many of which have been poorly understood. At the Matjes River Rock Shelter, researchers have recovered more than 30,000 artifacts to date. But the excavation and categorization work—much of which was done in the 1950s—has drawn significant criticism from other scholars as being amateurish.

Physical anthropologist Ronald Singer, writing in 1961, described the excavation’s published summary as “a most despairing example of misguided enthusiasm, lack of experience in handling skeletal material, and inability to assess data.”

This carelessness, some have argued, had tragic consequences. The Matjes River Rock Shelter was a burial ground between 9,700 and 2,200 years ago. Yet today researchers do not know how many people were buried there, in part because the remains were poorly stored and labeled.

The Klasies River site did not fare any better. Even though the caves have yielded a wealth of archaeological artifacts, past scholars had only identified one possible sound-producing item (the spinning disk that Kumbani and Rusch replicated). There may have been others, and the context in which they were originally found could have offered further clues to their histories.

Identifying sound tools from these sites brings a special attention to these objects. Colonial-era archaeologists and, later, 20th-century physical anthropologists—often fixated on the science of race—carried preconceived ideas about non-European peoples that could have led them to dismiss signs of culture and innovation that suffused the lives of ancient people.

University of Cape Town biological anthropologist Rebecca Ackermann points out that many factors could have contributed to this failing. “It’s hard to say exactly what things they overlooked,” she notes, “[with] ancient cultural innovation, specifically in African contexts, racism would have played a role.” Ackermann adds that it’s hard to disentangle, however, whether these scholars were driven by race science or had simply absorbed values from a racist society.

By contrast, the quest to identify a long-lost community’s sound tools recognizes the complex culture, lifestyle, and humanity of the instruments’ creators. As Matthias Stöckli, an ethnomusicologist and a music archaeologist at the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala, explains, “The sound or the sound processes and structures we’re interested in, they are produced by people who have a motive, they have a purpose, an attitude.”

“They give meaning to what they do, even if it is a signal or to terrify [in battle], if it is for dancing, for calming a baby,” Stöckli adds.

In South Africa, where there are remnants of many of humanity’s very first innovations, there could be hundreds of unrecognized sound-producing artifacts.

In October 2019, Kumbani presented some of his work to rock art specialists at Witwatersrand’s Origins Centre, the same building where he had spun the spinning disks for hours. He offered a new hypothesis: Clues to Southern Africa’s ancient soundscape could also be, literally, painted on the wall.

More specifically, he referred to Southern Africa’s extraordinary rock art. Painted in red-brown ochre, black manganese, and white from calcite, clay, or gypsum, the artworks are thought by archaeologists to have been created over millennia by hunter-gatherer communities. The descendants of these groups include the San people, who still live in the region today.

There is no firm age for the majority of these paintings, but one 2017 study managed to date a painting for the first time, suggesting its pigments were about 5,700 years old. That age would make the artists contemporaries of the people burying their dead in the Matjes River’s susurrating rock shelter.

Many of these paintings depict an important spiritual rite of the San people: the trance dance. They depict half-animal, half-human shapes and dancing people, offering glimpses into a ritual at the boundary between the spirit world and the physical world.

One particular example, hundreds of kilometers northeast of the Matjes and Klasies River sites, in the foothills of the Drakensberg Mountains, features an ochre-brown figure that, to Kumbani’s eyes, appears to be playing an instrument. The object—which Kumbani calls a “musical bow”—includes a bowl at the bottom and a long stem, not unlike a banjo, and the figure is hunched over, drawing a white stick, like a cello bow, over the stem. Other painted figures sit and watch while some stand and raise their feet, caught in a frozen dance.

Though some of Kumbani’s colleagues are skeptical of his interpretation—he recalls one saying “you see music everywhere”—others acknowledge the idea is worth exploring. David Pearce, an associate professor of archaeology at the Rock Art Research Institute at Witwatersrand, notes that studies of the San people suggest “trance dances [are] accompanied by singing and clapping, and that dancers [wear] rattles on their lower legs.” He adds that “the songs are said to have activated supernatural energy in the dancers, helping them to enter the spirit world.”

Though to date, Kumbani and Wurz have not found the remnants of musical bows in South Africa’s Stone Age archaeological record, their search continues. Now that these archaeologists have begun to hear the sounds of distant human societies, it’s impossible to dismiss them, like an ancient earworm echoing across time. The first step is to find the now-silent sources of sound that could be sitting forgotten in a box in a museum.

Witch Kitsch and Dark History in Germany's Harz Mountains


From fairy tale towns to torture devices to absurd attractions.

This story is excerpted and adapted from Kristen J. Sollée’s Witch Hunt: A Traveler's Guide to the Power and Persecution of the Witch, published in October 2020 by Red Wheel Weiser.

To German witches—hexen—the Harz highlands of northern Germany is home, a mountain range steeped in pagan lore. Here, Quedlinburg, a dazzling medieval town untouched by World War II, is a place of whimsical winding streets and more than a thousand fully preserved half-timbered homes. The town has a rather feminist bent to its history, as women wielded great political influence here for over 800 years. In 936, the widow of the Saxon king Heinrich I, named Matilde, founded a convent, and the abbess of that convent would continue to hold considerable power in the town and surrounding regions until Napoleon invaded in 1802.

Most descriptions of Quedlinburg in travel literature include the phrase “fairy tale,” and true to the Grimms’ classic German fairy tales—not their softened American versions—this UNESCO World Heritage Site has a dark side.

During a walk through, I didn’t see a single piece of trash, but I did notice apotropaic symbols, such as hexagrams and crosses, carved into the beams of the aged buildings to ward off sickness and keep demons and witches at bay. Like many German towns, Quedlinburg had its own early modern witch hunts. But they didn’t have nearly the impact as the propaganda that later sprang from them would, for Quedlinburg is also the birthplace of one of the most misinformed assertions about the early modern witch hunts.


Between scholars, feminists, and practicing witches, there have been divergent views on how many people were accused of and executed for witchcraft in early modern times. American historian Anne Barstow estimates 200,000 people accused and 100,000 put to death, but she admits to the difficulty of coming up with such numbers. In Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts, Barstow writes: “Working with the statistics of witchcraft is like working with quicksand.”

Australian historian Lyndal Roper estimates half of Barstow’s number in Witch Craze: Terror and Fantasy in Baroque Germany. “Over the course of the witch hunt, upwards of perhaps 50,000 people died,” she writes. “We will never know the exact figure because in many places the records of their interrogations have simply been destroyed, with allusions made only to ‘hundreds’ of witches killed.”

German historian Wolfgang Behringer concurs with Roper in Witches and Witch-Hunts: “For witchcraft and sorcery between 1400 and 1800, all in all, we estimate something like 50,000 legal death penalties,” he writes, adding that there were likely twice as many people who were punished with “banishment, fines, or church penance.”


But others—including feminist writers beginning with Matilda Joslyn Gage in the late 19th century and continuing with Margaret Murray and Mary Daly in the 20th—have bandied about the absurdly large number of nine million. Wonder where that came from? Look no further than the quaint old town of Quedlinburg.

Ronald Hutton explains in Witches, Druids, and King Arthur that the 18th-century German historian Gottfried Christian Voigt supposed that more than nine million witches were killed in Europe based on the witch hunt death toll in his hometown. Voigt “had arrived at this simply by discovering records of the burning of thirty witches at Quedlinburg itself between 1569 and 1583 and assuming that these were normative for every equivalent period of time as long as the laws against witchcraft were in operation,” Hutton writes. From there, “he simply kept on multiplying the figure in relation to the presumed population of other Christian countries.”

There is a method to the madness of this astronomical figure, even though it is completely off base. Now that historians have roundly disproved Voigt’s number, focusing too much on the exact death toll can divert attention away from unpacking the lasting legacy of witch hunts in the West.

As I took in the thousand-year-old streets of Quedlinburg, I wandered without a map. Elderly people sat outside their brown-and-white abodes, sunning themselves. A small black cat emerged from the bushes to meow sweetly as I passed. But try as I might to get lost in Quedlinburg, I’ve found that medieval European towns always seem to deposit you right back in the town square.

There, the city hall or Rathaus has sat since the early 1300s, its stone face now masked with a thick veil of vines and flowers. Restaurants and shops line all sides of the square, and it was surprisingly quiet despite people sitting outside, drinking beer, deep in conversation. Refreshed by a tranquil ramble through Quedlinburg’s medieval paradise, I was ready to continue my search for the history of early modern witches in Thale, a 10-minute train ride from the charming past to the kitschy, witchy present.

Thale is an ergot trip of a town. A witch theme park, museums rife with torture devices and psychosexual drama, and a notorious plateau make it a fascinating and absurd place.


Fresh off the train, I was overpowered by commercial offerings in the small station. Crystals, candles, witch-themed liquor, pins and postcards, and neon shirts printed with witches flying on broomsticks were everywhere I turned. I tore myself away from the mesmerizing call of merch only to discover the Obscurum Thale right next door. The outside looks straight out of a Party City on Halloween, but upon closer inspection, it revealed itself to be much more enticing. A skeleton in a black shroud pointed up the Obscurum entrance stairs, and on the wall hung a print of John William Waterhouse’s The Magic Circle. My interest was piqued.

Inside this oddities museum, an ahistorical bricolage of fact and fiction rubs elbows in every room. A panel about the 15th-century witchcraft treatise Malleus Maleficarum, a befragungsstuhl (spiked interrogation chair), herbs associated with witchcraft, and logs assembled in a witch-burning pyre were near displays featuring vampires, werewolves, and zombies. There were so many rooms chock-full of occult paraphernalia I could barely see everything. It was an apt harbinger of what was to come.

A sunny walk through a wooded area across from the Obscurum led me to the Funpark, where my doppelgänger—a smiling blonde witch statue in a fuchsia hat and dress—welcomed me. I passed a smattering of children’s rides before joining families in line for the gondola that would lift us up to the Hexentanzplatz, the Witches’ Dance Floor. Hundreds of feet in the air alone in my own glass car I had a panoramic view of the dense wilderness of the Harz Mountains. Sinister rock formations poked up like witches’ fingers summoning me from the forest below.


Nestled high above the Bode Gorge, the Hexentanzplatz is a rocky plateau with strong Saxon roots. The clearing was supposedly where the Saxons once held rituals and sacrifices to their mountain gods and goddesses, and it thus retains a heathen tenor, drawing countless revelers every year for Walpurgis Night.

“We know that all over Germany a grand annual excursion of witches is placed on the first night in May (Walpurgis), i.e., on the date of a sacrificial feast and the old May-gathering of the people,” writes folklorist Jacob Grimm in his 1835 exploration of Germanic myths, Deutsche Mythologie. “The witches invariably resort to places where formerly justice was administered, or sacrifices were offered,” he continues. “Almost all the witch-mountains were once hills of sacrifice, boundary-hills, or salt-hills.”

The Upper Harz region was once described as “wilder, its rock scenery more grotesque” than the Lower Harz, in an 1880 travel guide published in London Society. Long before the area’s commercialization, long before a theme park was built, Thale had “the best, but also the dearest, inns in the Harz.” The 19th-century English travel writer goes on to describe the Hexentanzplatz as “a perpendicular cliff … which affords a yet finer view of the whole mountain chain.”


Once at the top, I was overwhelmed by German signs pointing in all directions to different attractions. The Hexentanzplatz is now part–nature preserve, part–witch theme park, with an open-air theater, a zoo, a multipart museum, and many witch-themed refreshment stands and gift shops. My first instinct was to follow the crowds, which led me to a central area with statues of a naked Devil and witch that children were treating like jungle gyms.

One young girl straddled a hunched witch figure whose protruding backside was home to a large spider. She steadied her baby sibling in front of her as the two giggled. Another young boy studied an animal demon at the witch’s side, while other children posed with the Devil manspreading (demonspreading?) on a large rock. The Dark Lord’s genitals are carved in great bronze detail, rubbed to a bright sheen, presumably by visitors pawing at them for good luck.

Nearby was the Hexenbufett (Witch Buffet), where folks were gorging on fast food, right near the edge of a rock overhang above a thousand-foot drop. Shutting out the noise, I focused on the alluring and foreboding mountain terrain. (I heard only German in Thale, and no one even tried to speak English to me when I fumbled awkwardly.) Moving away from the crush of screaming children and their parents, I entered the Walpurgisgrotte section of the Harzeum. It was eerily empty and offered an even stranger mix of material than the Obscurum. In every dim, musty corner, witch stereotypes came to life through creepy mannequins set against elaborate tableaux.


A solitary sorceress posed in a room full of potions and bundles of dried herbs. A witch mom and devil dad watched their hellspawn lie on the living room floor, playing with a pentagram board game covered in snails. A woman in lingerie beckoned from a house covered in hearts and beaming red light. A wrinkled hag with long gray hair grinned in front of a cottage while a black cat perched on her shoulder and a demon peeked out from the window behind her. All the most vilified forms of femininity associated with witches—childless women, monstrous mothers, old women, promiscuous women—were represented.

Amid more witch torture devices I saw contemporary witchcraft ephemera—tarot, runes, and spirit boards—surrounded by cobwebbed candelabras and skulls. I spied what appeared to be death masks on the wall, in addition to a small child wearing a turtle shell as a hat. Right before I left, I walked by a scene with a woman in a wedding dress fanning out her credit cards and holding the leash of a man on all fours, because every woman is a witch in the eyes of her husband, I guess?


Darkly humorous and extraordinarily weird the Walpurgisgrotte left me a bit wobbly as I transitioned back to a beautiful sunny day on a mountaintop. The epitome of the mythical German forest lay below, and around me, families with young children seemed not to give a second thought to the surplus of witches and devils lurking about—it was all in good fun.

The early modern witch—particularly in Germany—was entrancing but equally, if not more so, repulsing. If she had beauty, it only concealed rotting hag flesh beneath. I felt this unsettling juxtaposition viscerally in the Harz when confronted with bald commercialism offset by breathtaking natural beauty and the real horrors of witch-hunting history masked by the ghoulish glee of kitschy witch attractions.

I was constantly shocked, mouth agape, with no one to share my surprise. Horrified one moment, awestruck the next, and overtaken by demonic cackles at the absurdity of it all.

The Messy Business of Scrubbing 2,000 Years of Bird Poop From an Egyptian Temple


The crap covered up cartouches and constellations.

The sands of time ravage all, stripping structures from the Parthenon in Athens to monuments in Persepolis of their color. But in rare cases, the past prevails, and structures retain hints of their once-vivid polychromy. The sandstone vestibule (or pronaos) of the temple of Esna, abutting the Nile about a half hour south of Luxor, is one such example, keeping its color with remarkable success. According to an Egyptian-German team restoring the temple, that preservation is a product of soot and bird poop.

Built during the reign of Claudius, between the years 41 and 54, the temple at Esna is younger than many other Egyptian temples you may think of. It was once one of three in the city, but the other two were deconstructed during the Napoleonic era for their limestone. (The surviving temple should consider itself lucky that it is sandstone, which has fewer secondary uses.) The temple was likely in use for religious purposes until about the third century.


The temple has accumulated the detritus of nearly two millennia: Over the years, people came and squatted, making tea and burning fires; craftsmen temporarily set up shop below its high ceilings. By the 19th century, the temple had become a storage room. In the structure’s early days, the exterior was “proper and clean,” says Christian Leitz, an Egyptologist at the University of Tübingen and project lead on the ongoing restoration work at Esna. “There were a lot of rules on how to keep your temple clean, but after it was abandoned, it was just a building,” Leitz says. “Nothing more.”

Birds roosted atop its columns and defecated on its walls, and a buildup of their excrement and soot accreted on the temple’s vivid descriptions of ancient Egyptian constellations and history, shrouding them. Those unintentional accoutrements didn’t harm the artwork beneath, but Leitz’s team has now cleaned the mess off, revealing the original colors of the temple’s paint job, which include cartouches naming the Emperors Hadrian and Trajan. The research team, which also included Hisham El-Leithy of the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquites, found the never-before-reported names of several Ancient Egyptian constellations alongside known ones including the Big Dipper (then known as Mesekhtiu) and Orion, or Sah.


The poop and soot are carefully removed with a solution of alcohol and distilled water applied to the temple walls with Q-tips and paper, which remove defacements without damaging the intentional paint underneath. When the paintings come to the surface, the deep forest greens of ferns, the mustard yellow bands on columns, and the cerulean skin of the local god Khnum are extremely vivid.

Details of the ceiling suggest that the temple was unfinished, Leitz says. “If you are decorating a temple, you have three working steps,” he says. “You start with the preliminary design, which is inked, and somebody with a chisel makes the relief. The last step is the painting. Sometimes they stopped after step one, for whatever reason.” The ceiling of the Esna temple still includes some ink.


The careful cleaning takes time, even when the research team isn’t slowed by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Before progress slowed, 15 conservators spent four months restoring just one of the temple’s seven ceilings, Leitz says—and there are 24 columns to freshen up, too. The work will continue, and the team also plans to set up nettings to protect the walls and spikes to keep the pigeons at bay, in the hope that future conservators will have less of a mess to contend with. “If there are small parts of the wall that are broken down, we are closing them [so] that the birds have no chance to get in,” Leitz says. “Not even a sparrow.”

The Microphotographic Wonders of Vermont’s 'Snowflake Man'


Wilson Bentley was the first to claim that each snowflake is unique—and provided evidence.

Wilson Bentley called snowflakes “nature’s wonder gems,” possessing “an infinity of beauty,” and wrote that when they fell, “the mysteries of the upper air are about to reveal themselves.” The self-educated meteorologist was the first person to make a successful picture—“photomicrograph”—of a snowflake in 1885, and the first to claim that no two are alike.

He provided strong evidence for this assertion by photographing more than 5,000 “snow crystals” (as he called them), and saw that each was fascinatingly distinct: some flawless in ornate and icy symmetry, others more charming for their subtle, delicate imperfections.

Bentley’s love of snowflakes started when he was given a microscope for his 15th birthday. Working on his family farm in Jericho, Vermont, where he lived his entire life (and where 95 inches of snow falls each year), he was a keen observer of the natural world. He initially sketched the snowflakes he saw through his microscope, but eventually he figured out a way to combine a camera with a compound microscope to magnify and capture every detail of the fragile structures. It was cold and difficult work. Wearing mittens during long hours in freezing New England winter, with only minutes before his subjects would melt, Bentley devised a painstaking method: He caught and transported the tiny wonders on a blackboard, placed them on microscope slides using a piece of straw plucked from a broom and a chicken feather, illuminated them with daylight to expose light-sensitive glass plates, and increased the images' contrast by scratching out emulsion.


By photographing through every Vermont winter for the rest of his life, Bentley honed his observational skills: “The best time to study snowflakes is during a cold snowfall, when the temperature ranges from 20 degrees F above to zero or below, when the barometer is rising, and after the wind has shifted from easterly or southerly points to westerly or northerly ones,” he wrote. Bentley also explained technically why these winter phenomena are each so distinct, because they form as they fall from various heights in the atmosphere, constantly modified by changing conditions such as temperature and humidity. Though he was nicknamed the "Snowflake Man,” ice crystals were not his only obsession. Bentley was also bewitched by raindrops, dew, and clouds, and had published his thorough investigations on atmospheric marvels in such magazines as National Geographic and Popular Mechanics. Before Bentley died in 1931—from catching pneumonia in a blizzard—he published a book, Snow Crystals, with physicist and atmospheric researcher William J. Humphreys. Naturally, the book was illustrated with more than 2,400 of Bentley’s photographs—no two jewel-like images the same.

Decades later, and following countless advances in microphotography, his laborious images still enchant.


For Sale: Papers From the Planning of the 1963 March on Washington


They tell a ground-level story of how peaceful movements lead to social change, and how much remains to be done.

The study and sweep of history tends to turn real life into myth. In hindsight we imagine it unfolding in grainy footage, or in black and white, set to a sweeping cinematic score. It’s less like it physically happened, and more like it has always just been.

Throughout 2020 and into 2021, we’ve been reminded frequently and painfully that this is not the case—that history happens in real time, made and experienced by real people. The January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol was an ultimate example of a historical moment that will someday be stills in a textbook, except we saw it in motion, with terrifying immediacy. It’s nice to be reminded, amid the chaos and loss and fear, of moments and people worth celebrating. Take the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom—iconic for Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream" speech, and attended by hundreds of thousands of ordinary people.

Documents and memos from organizers of that unforgettable day show just how much planning and attention to detail went into ensuring the success of the peaceful March. An RSVP form issued by the Medical Committee for Civil Rights asks respondents to indicate whether they require financial assistance to attend the March, whether they’ll attend the group luncheon, and whether they’ll travel to D.C. via train or plane. A box allows participants to indicate how many $3 lunches they’ll be ordering, another asks if they’d like to receive additional forms to share with other potential volunteers. It’s a surprisingly prosaic reminder of the local, personal level at which world history is made. These documents and many others are available in the "Activists and Social Leaders" sale at RR Auction. At press time, the bid on these March documents was $220.


The papers instruct marchers, for example, to “[w]ear comfortable shoes, a head covering, and, if the weather forecast suggests rain, a plastic rain coat.” They are reminded to “[e]at a good breakfast before leaving,” and to bring “a thermos of ice cubes if traveling by bus or train.” A note, typed entirely in capital letters, urges marchers to remember that “THIS WILL BE A LONG, HARD, HECTIC DAY, AND THE OBJECTIVES OF THE MARCH ON WASHINGTON FOR JOBS AND FREEDOM SHOULD BE KEPT IN MIND SO AS TO PREVENT LOSS OF TEMPER, ETC…” The sense of difficulty and commotion and concern is not necessarily captured in bird’s-eye-view photographs, or a recording of Dr. King’s speech. But these documents, in their way, say as much about the event as that speech does. They reveal the work of the individuals who were essentially organizing field trips on the scale of a quarter-million people for a cause greater than them all.

Norman Hill worked as staff coordinator for the March, frequently traveling from his home in New York City to states throughout the Midwest to rally civil rights groups and other activists to join the March. Their participation was not a forgone conclusion, he says, with “internal rivalries” threatening to keep some people on the sidelines. He stresses that the March would have never happened if not for the organizational genius of A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin—both icons of the civil rights movement.


These documents stand out among the auction’s offerings—which includes pieces signed by luminaries such as Dr. King, Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela, Helen Keller, and Anne Frank’s father, Otto, in addition to several presidents—precisely because of their everyday utility. They're evidence of the unsung individuals who turn movements into social change.

Nearly 60 years after the March on Washington, Hill, 87, is still thinking about the work he and his colleagues did to “expand democracy”—especially now, when there is an “effort to undercut” it and “thwart the will of the majority of the American people,” an effort that has been unfolding in the very same place.

Trapped in Museums for Centuries, Maori Ancestors Are Coming Home


New Zealand’s repatriation program brings human remains back and lays them to rest.

On a cloudy day in October, Hinemoana Baker walked into a white room at the Ethnological Museum in southwestern Berlin, dressed in all black. A New Zealand poet and musician, Baker is a descendant of both the island nation’s indigenous Maori people and Europeans. As she entered the room, she began to utter a Karanga, a traditional Maori call, in a poignant, almost weeping sound. Following her were two museum staff, each carrying a paper box. Inside the boxes were what Baker regarded as her ancestors—two mummified and tattooed Maori heads, also called toi moko.

As the boxes were laid onto a table covered with a black cloth, Baker turned to address them directly: “We are here to mourn for you and for what’s happened to you,” she sang. “Very soon you will be going home to your mountains, your rivers, your people, and your homeland.”


The ceremony marked the handover of the toi moko from the Ethnological Museum to Te Papa, the national museum of New Zealand. The museum’s Karanga Aotearoa Repatriation Program, established in 2003, has returned over 600 ancestors including toi moko and the remains of Maori and Moriori people, an indigenous group that lived on New Zealand’s Chatham Islands.

To the Maori people, the practice of preserving one’s head after death was an act of love and respect. Many of the deceased people’s faces had moko, a highly individualized tattoo chiseled into the skin, a sacred sign of status for chiefs, warriors and family elders. “[The tattoos] refer to tribal connections, particular deeds or roles they play in life,” says Te Arikirangi Mamaku, the repatriation program’s project coordinator since 2009. After a person's death, the head would be removed and dried over a fire. The family would then keep the preserved head out of sight. Only the toi moko of fallen enemies were displayed on stakes for mockery and humiliation.


The ways in which toi moko fell into European hands were intertwined with New Zealand’s dark colonial past. In 1770, Joseph Banks, an English botanist on Captain James Cook’s voyage to New Zealand, exchanged the toi moko of a teenage boy with a pair of old white linen underpants. The Musket Wars, a series of 3,000 battles between Maori tribes in the early 19th century, inflamed the trade. “Once one group had guns every group had to have guns,” Baker says. “That made any conflict far more deadly.” Many Maori tribes, desperate to obtain weapons and ammunition to avoid annihilation, offered their enemy’s heads to visiting European and American ships. Slaves and prisoners were also killed so their heads could be turned into toi moko, according to the studies of Amber Aranui, a researcher at Te Papa’s repatriation program.

In 1831, the governor of the Australian state of New South Wales banned the sale of toi moko in Sydney, the major hub through which they were trafficked to Europe. Still, the trade continued to flourish in New Zealand until the 1850s, Aranui writes in an email. European and American museums fervently amassed toi moko as curiosities of a “savage” culture, and scientific institutions collected them for pseudo-scientific experiments aiming to prove white supremacy. The insatiable demand prompted European explorers and settlers to raid Maori graves, sending the remains to Europe without the descendants’ knowledge.


The Maori and Moriori believe their connections to the remains of their ancestors are long-lasting. When the body is parted with its community and land, the soul can become restless. “I may not know who they are, where they come from, or their iwi [tribes], but I think of them as my ancestors, as my elders,” Mamaku says. “Nobody's ancestors deserve to be taken and to be held away from the communities and from their families.”

For Te Papa, the repatriations of all ancestors are treated the same, “whether they are a toi moko or a single finger bone,” and regardless of how they left New Zealand, Aranui says. Today, many Maori, who are descendants of both the victors and the defeated in the intertribal wars, still find this past painful. They hope the repatriation of their ancestors will restore their dignity and help reconciliation efforts between one another. For Baker, rather than fixating on Maori’s own involvement in toi moko trade as a reason to refuse repatriation, the trade’s global context needs to be considered. “It was a worldwide imperialist impulse to acquire and own even the most gruesome things in the name of winning and triumph,” she says.

In 2008, the British Museum returned nine Maori human bone fragments from its collection while denying the requests of seven toi moko. One of the arguments: The toi moko’s importance to their own communities does not outweigh their significance in educating the public on human history. When reached for comment, a British Museum spokesperson referred to a page on its website that documents the repatriation negotiation. It shows that at one point during the negotiation, the British Museum offered to return the remains as a loan, which Te Papa rejected.


The New Zealand government mandates repatriation with good will and mutual agreements. This results in a prolonged process, with claims often dragging on for years, if not decades. Mamaku says that there was a time when European and American museums were simply not prepared to have conversations about repatriation, worried about the precedent it would set for other mortal remains and artifacts in their collections, many of which are entangled with colonial history. Often, multiple stars need to align for a claim to move forward, which includes the country’s political climate in dealing with its colonial legacy, the directorship of the museum, and whether the institution has policies in place on the issue. “We're very patient,” Mamaku says. “We make multiple claims and requests throughout the year [in case] particular institutions or bodies of government need a little more time.”

But there are signs of change. “Over the last 10 years there has been a very deliberate, introspective look that museums have made towards decolonizing the collections,” Mamaku says. On the forefront are museums in Germany, where social activism in recent years has pushed the country’s much-ignored colonial past into public debates. According to Mamaku, the return of more than 90 percent of the Maori and Moriori ancestors held in German museums happened within the last three to four years. That’s thanks to a guideline published by the German Museum Associations on the care of human remains in 2013 and another one in 2015 by the Prussian Culture Heritage Foundation (SPK), which still holds thousands of human remains in its collection. Many of the remains were collected from former German colonies for research to prove the racial superiority of white Europeans.

The two toi moko repatriations this year from the Ethnological Museum Berlin-Dahlem, which is overseen by the SPK, were realized quickly despite the COVID-19 pandemic. “It is my hope that by returning these ancestors to New Zealand we have established a basis for future projects and a deeper understanding of our common past,” says Dorothea Deterts, a curator at the Berlin museum in charge of the repatriation collaboration with Te Papa. While in the German collection, the two Maori ancestors were known only by their identification numbers: VI 2559 and VI 23649. From the 1970s to 1980s, VI 2559 sat in a display case showing the culture of New Zealand in a permanent exhibition about Oceania. VI 23659 escaped the humiliation.


In 2019, Te Papa repatriated 109 Maori and Moriori remains from the Berlin Museum of Medical History at the Charité, the oldest hospital in Berlin. When the museum received the request from New Zealand to provide details of their ancestors, the staff was surprised by how few records Charité had, according to Thomas Schnalke, the museum’s director. To find out more about the remains, the museum embarked on a years-long journey. Historians searched the lines of letters and diaries of collectors. Little useful information was uncovered. But then, anthropological exams revealed something damning—the Maori men and women in its collection did not seem to have died from execution and had signs of being buried in the earth for a long time. “It's highly, highly likely that grave robberies took place in the situation,” Schnalke says.

While some opponents of repatriation believe that returning remains from scientific institutions will hinder scientific development, Schnalke says the collections will not suffer by losing the colonial pieces. “There are so many archaeological human remains from our very own origin that are not disputed,” he says.

Once the ancestors are returned to Te Papa, the museum will only serve as a temporary sanctuary before further research identifies their descendants or place of origin for return. According to them, museums have no right to categorize and keep human beings. “Museums are in the business of objects and telling stories of objects that originate from communities,” says Mamaku, who is confident that it’s only a matter of time before the attitude of all museums shifts. This year, the program was surprised by a European institution’s acceptance of a claim, filed 20 years ago. “We never thought it would ever be approved,” he says. “There’ll be a point in time when particular institutions are left being the lone voices among the chorus of singing songs, rejoicing, and unity. Eventually, those dissenting voices will see that there isn't anything wrong with [acknowledging] these ancestors not as objects, but as people.”

Saving the Songs of South Korea's Female Divers


Three elderly women are teaching the music of these famed fisherwomen.

Kang Kyung-ja opens the door of her home on the island province of Jeju, South Korea, with a smile on her face. After offering me a cup of barley tea, she unfolds a piece of paper to sing me a song she’s written.

Ieodo sana, ieodo sana, ieodo sana

Where to go, where to row

All aboard to the depths of the sea

Where my mother gave birth to me

Did she know to dive would be my destiny?

Her husband, in the next room practicing calligraphy, joins along for the parts she cannot sing on her own. Let’s buy a house with a field, baked in the sun. Let’s enjoy life and have some fun, he sings.

They laugh, show me family photos, and bring out plates of watermelon and tomatoes they’ve grown in their garden. Kang, a 73-year-old former haenyeo, admits straightaway she has not lived the typical haenyeo life. “I’m not like other haenyeo. I’m very happy,” she says.

Nonetheless, for several years she has been training to preserve haenyeo songs. Someday, she may become one of the official guardians of this art form.

Haenyeo is Korean for “sea women.” On clear mornings off Jeju’s coast, you can still see them emerging from the lucid waters in their black rubber suits. Nearly 90 percent of haenyeo are over the age of 60, and many are well into their eighties. Equipped with nothing other than an ancient breathing technique called sumbisori, the women travel as deep as 32 feet into the depths for the best of what the sea has to offer: octopus, abalone, conch, sea urchins, clams and edible seaweeds.

Dating back to the 17th century, the existence of the haenyeo is largely due to Jeju Island’s volcanic soil, which made farming unsustainable. Although it’s uncertain how women stepped into this role, many historians believe it was due to the deaths of numerous island men at war or at sea. But even as Jeju’s women dove to support themselves and their families, becoming a haenyeo was considered dishonorable. Traditional Confucianism dictated that it was a woman’s duty to stay at home and produce sons, not to work.

As recently as the 1990s, haenyeo discouraged their daughters from following in their footsteps—sometimes even keeping their children from playing in the water—to spare them from physical toil and shame. In addition to the obvious dangers of plunging into the water without any breathing gear, the trade can also inflict haenyeo with respiratory and bone density diseases. (One 1989 study, for example, revealed that more than 75 percent of haenyeo at the time suffered from joint disease.) Today’s haenyeo are often elderly, with few young women willing to take on the risks of the trade.

However, attitudes towards haenyeo changed as rigid gender norms in South Korea became more flexible. When UNESCO included haenyeo on their Representative List of the Intangible Culture Heritage of Humanity in 2016, the women became the pride of the island. Today, haenyeo play an important role in Jeju tourism, and dozens of restaurants on the island claim a haenyeo affiliation to attract tourists.


These restaurants commonly serve shellfish noodles and raw seasonal catch alongside soy sauce or chojang, a sweet and spicy combination of red pepper paste and vinegar. But jeonbok (abalone) is the star ingredient at such ventures. Once reserved only for royalty, jeonbok can be grilled, fermented, or sliced into jeonbok-juk (abalone rice porridge). Unlike typical rice porridge, the Jeju jeonbok-juk recipe leaves the guts of the mollusk in for a greenish hue. The result isn’t attractive, but it remains both a comfort food and a tourist draw.

Most stories of haenyeo end with their 2016 triumph. Sometimes, there is an epilogue speaking to the renewed effort to preserve haenyeo culture, but the painful parts of their history are often glossed over. Choa Hye-kyung, a historian and the former director of the Haenyeo Museum, says talking to the women about their own history is complex.

“Haenyeo had always been a people with nothing. They needed their catch to sell to make money, so they didn’t eat what they took from the ocean. They sold it,” she explains. “Things like the abalone they caught were for the upper crust of society. Some kings, like Jeongjo of Joseon, even refused to eat abalone because he came to understand what suffering haenyeo had to go through to get it.”


Many have turned to music as well as food to explain haenyeo history. A dining experience called Haenyeo Kitchen in Gujwa-eup combines traditional Jeju dishes with haenyeo songs and story demonstrations. Another restaurant, Haenyeo’s House, gives two performances of haenyeo songs a day, in the hope that visitors will stick around after their meals of raw fish and jeonbok-juk to learn more.

But beyond shows for tourists, there is also academic interest in preserving haenyeo music. Choa, who has written extensively about haenyeo for decades, says that writing the biography of Ahn Do-in, the first guardian of haenyeo songs, was one of the most memorable experiences of her career. “The first time I heard her sing, I remember the sobs in her voice and before I knew it, I was crying too,” she says.

Haenyeo songs served a practical purpose. Starting in the mid-19th century, haenyeo rowed their boats to work far from Jeju Island, to distant locales such as Busan, Gangwon province, and even Japan. To pass the time as they rowed, the women sang simple melodies, in 6/8 time, to the rhythm of the sea waves. The song lyrics varied, but often women sang lamenting the day they were born, complaining about their incompetent husbands, and in protest of the government.

Bang bang, dove into the sea

Skipped a day’s three meals

And learned diving as a way to be

Slowly saved up, one coin at a time

To take a stab at my husband’s bar tab.

There is no sheet music for haenyeo songs, and few of the nearly 10,000 known tunes have titles. Sometimes, the songs are called ieodo sana, because those two words appear often within the lyrics of haenyeo music. But no one is really sure what the term means. Some say ieodo sana refers to a mythical island—a fantasy haven where problems cease to exist, or even a heavenly afterlife. Others say the words have no meaning at all.

Ieodo sana, ieodo sana

Past this island, are there pearls awaiting?

Past this island, are there gems for me?

Where is the man that I’ve wed?

Is he alive or dead?

From him, I haven’t heard a single word.

The songs are poems, filled with irony and tragedy. But a closer look reveals that they are a testament to these women's will to survive.

Take, for instance, the first guardian of haenyeo songs. Although Ahn underwent an arranged marriage like most women of her time, she genuinely fell in love with her husband. When he was accused of sympathizing with North Korea in 1949, she went into debt helping him escape to Japan. One month later, she received word that he arrived safely. Despite silence on his part for 20 years, she devoted herself to their children and his parents. When he finally returned to Korea, he came with his new wife to ask Ahn for a divorce. This was especially painful since, according to Korean custom, the divorce removed Ahn from the family’s genealogical record, severing her official tie to her children.

If you don’t love me, leave me.

Leave me when I am a flower, young and lovely.

Only leave me when I have yet to blossom fully.

Who knows when I will go--

Ascension happens sly, secret and slow.

Ahn’s story is not unique. Many songs from this time period refer to lost husbands. Thousands of island men died protesting Japanese colonization in the early 20th century. Then, from 1947 to 1954, the South Korean government systematically killed or silenced all Jeju islanders opposed to the division of the Koreas, in an event called the Jeju Massacre. At least 10 percent of Jeju’s population died during this 5-year period.


However, many women survived war, massacres, and development, because there was always a need for fresh-caught seafood. In the 1960s technological advancements supplanted rowboats just as the newly-minted Korean tourism board began to set its sights on Jeju and the unique haenyeo. The provincial government designated haenyeo songs as the region’s first Intangible Cultural Asset in 1971. The government also selected Ahn as the official guardian of the songs in 1998, just six years before she passed.

Today, the official responsibility of guarding the haenyeo songs belongs to two women, Kang Deung-ja and Kim Young-ja. Selected by the provincial government for their ability to sing the songs in their original rhythmic form and for capturing the emotional intent of each song, Kang and Kim, both 83 years old, represent the last generation of haenyeo who lived through the massacres. Kim, who was a young teen at the time, watched her grandmother die as her village burned down in a raid. With only her mother to help, she buried her grandmother and held a small funeral. “Until the day I die, I’ll never get it out of my mind,” says Kim.

Before the COVID-19 outbreak shut down most Jeju institutions, Kang Kyung-ja, Kang Deung-ja, and Kim Young-ja spent several days a week at schools and at the Haenyeo Museum performing and teaching traditional versions of the songs. But due to the steadily increasing interest in haenyeo, the songs are now performed by different groups in a variety of styles.

For private functions and more festive events, there’s Haenyeo’s Generation, a choir in the Hado-ri region of Jeju. With singers skewing younger than the average haenyeo and a name that references the popular K-pop group Girls' Generation, their performances are decidedly upbeat. Much of their music is written by a Seoul musician, Bang Sil-chang, who also acts as the choir’s conductor. “I do my best to absorb all of their stories, but sometimes I’ll change a few words so it doesn’t sound that dark,” he says. Under his leadership, Haenyeo’s Generation was invited to the 2019 Korean Culture Festival in Sweden, marking a major international breakthrough for this little-known genre of music.

Today, there is an unspoken divide between the women who sing the songs traditionally and those reinventing them to reach wider audiences. Traditionalists argue that the best way to honor haenyeo history is to perform the songs with their original lyrics and rhythm, while others say modernizing the music to better suit today’s tastes can help bring awareness to an art that could otherwise be overlooked.

Kang Kyung-ja, who quit haenyeo work after her marriage, believes she’s had a relatively easy life, compared to many of her predecessors. Nevertheless, she believes in singing the songs as they are, despite their desperate sadness. “When you sing haenyeo songs, you have to sing the original. We can’t just sing about whatever we want to sing about,” she says. “It’s hard, but if there is no one talented enough to sing the songs to form, haenyeo songs will disappear.”

Brooklyn's Putrid, Beloved Gowanus Canal Has Been a Horror for Centuries


A new $1.5 billion cleanup effort is underway, targeting its "black mayonnaise" of pollutants.

In the late 19th century, life along the shore of Brooklyn’s fetid Gowanus Canal was the stuff of nightmares. The stench emanating from the 1.8-mile-long slash of stagnant water was awful enough to penetrate people’s dreams. Take Stephen Mooney. In 1889, the unwelcome smell shook him from sleep, and compelled him to shut his window and air his grievances.

Mooney—a secretary of a local railroad—was one of several people eager to complain about life next to the muck. The Gowanus Canal Commission, convened by the local health commissioner and an assemblyman, had to listen to a lot of grumbling. The water “can hardly be called water, as it always has a dirty, thick appearance,” one provision seller argued, according to a recap of the meeting in The Brooklyn Times. Another resident reminisced about catching shrimp in the water years before, when it ran clear; now, he said, “the water is dirty and filthy.” Anyone who fell in, he continued, “would stick in the mud,” no matter how skilled they were at swimming. Another resident groused that southeasterly winds battered his house with “some pretty foul doses.”

Some things haven’t changed. When the wind is right, the water still announces itself from several blocks away. Residents continue to remark on its shifting hues (the dour gray of dirty dishwater, a queasy green, a purply, oil-slick swirl) and its putrid bouquet (acrid, sulphuric). The canal deserves the sarcasm of its contemporary nicknames, which include “Perfume Creek” and “Lavender Lake.” More than 120 years after Mooney and others complained about the malodorous Gowanus, locals are still moaning about it, and work is finally underway to remedy it.


When the canal was engineered from a marsh in the mid-19th century, its architects weren’t particularly worried about the placid water going gnarly. “Water from the Upper New York Bay flowed in, but then just … stayed there,” wrote Dan Nosowitz in Popular Science in 2013. “There was no need for flowing water, the planners thought, because the canal would only be used to access inner Brooklyn from the ocean.” But it quickly took a turn. Tanneries, chemical plants, and other industrial outfits set up shop near the shore. The city dumped sewage into the canal beginning in the 1850s, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Storm water rushed in, too, bringing industrial runoff with it.

The water still harbors all sorts of unsavory things, including lead, mercury, and copper, as well as polychlorinated biphenyls, chemical contaminants linked to cancers and issues with the endocrine and nervous systems. The deposits blanketing the canal bed have come to be known as “black mayonnaise”—oily and fluffy on account of the chemicals, and blackened by tar and rotting carcasses, an EPA spokesperson recently explained to The New York Times.

In the waning weeks of 2020, a long-awaited $1.5 billion remediation effort kicked off along the canal. But even in Mooney’s day, the need for something to be done about it was already old news. “The lives of those compelled to live near the canal have been made miserable by the stagnation of the water,” grumbled the New-York Tribune in June 1905, in a dispatch that shared the front page with blurbs about run-ins between automobiles and carriages, Edith Roosevelt cooking breakfast for herself and Teddy over an oil stove, and a peace agreement between Russia and Japan. By 1910, the canal had become infamous: The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that the passage “has long been known as one of the most polluted bodies of water in the world.”


In centuries past, European and American journalists and reformers elevated complaining about disgusting scents into an art—partly because offensive odors were often thought to be matters of life and death. Before scientists came to understand that microorganisms make us sick, they blamed foul air. Miasma theory held that people “got sick from breathing a cloud of particles arising from some source of contamination, like rotting garbage,” says Jeffrey C. Womack, a public historian whose research includes infections and the history of radiation therapy. “The idea was that you could find the source of the sickness by looking for bad smells.”

In the late 19th century, a period of breakneck industrialization, the vocabulary we now use to describe contamination didn’t yet exist. (The word “pollution” conveyed moral corruption, instead of, say, a chemical spill, explains Virginia Tech historian Melanie Kiechle, who studies environmental history and urban environments.) Still, there was widespread concern over how human industry was mangling the environment. In America’s urban centers such as New York, “there was a shared concept of what a river would look like—clear stream, babbling brook—and descriptions of foul odors and black waters run counter to those expectations and signaled that something was wrong,” Kiechle says.

Because miasma theory equated foul smells with dangerous environments, people who were able to avoid stinky areas usually did. When they couldn’t stay away, they tried to mask the stench: New Yorkers routinely pinched their noses while hurrying past slaughterhouses, and armed themselves against odors with nosegays, sachets, smelling salts, cigars, and more, writes Kiechle in the book Smell Detectives: An Olfactory History of Nineteenth-Century Urban America.

By the late 1800s, residents of various cities “grumbled so loudly because now they expected reformers to step in and do something about the odors,” says Carolyn Purnell, author of The Sensational Past: How the Enlightenment Changed the Way We Use Our Senses. “Before, the smells had been a bother,” Purnell says. “Increasingly, they became an issue to be dealt with.”


The sight of noxious water may have been stomach-churning, but many people could avoid it by giving the canal a wide berth. Not so with a foul stench. “Smells travel,” Kiechle points out—and the nasty tendrils drifted to the homes of middle- and upper-class people outside of the immediate vicinity.

Nineteenth-century writing was notoriously florid, Kiechle says, but the over-the-top descriptions were useful. To rally support for changes, it helped to capitalize on grossness. “Disgust is such a visceral, impulsive, almost instinctive reaction, so a disgust response is designed to elicit action,” Purnell adds. “Maybe by using such vivid descriptions, public health advocates and reformers [were] trying to appeal to people's innate sense of disgust. Perhaps triggering that response would be more likely to drive people to action than a rational appeal.”


And there was no shortage of gross descriptions of stinky rivers. Sometimes, action followed. When the hot summer of 1858 baked the sewage stewing in London’s filthy Thames, city officials began overhauling the struggling sewer system. (That mess was a long time coming: One 1820s caricature shows a woman so scandalized by the mutant creatures she glimpses in a magnified view of a droplet of Thames water, captioned “Monster Soup,” that her teacup clatters to the floor.) Paris’s Bièvre River—described by writer and painter Georges Cain in the early 1900s as “oily,” “streaked with tannery acids, reddened by skins of sheep recently flayed that steep in it,” and flowing “miserably and sordidly” in a manner that “infected” the community it passed through—was eventually rerouted underground, to course through the sewers. Nineteenth-century engineers intervened to reverse the flow of the Chicago River, which was flanked by slaughterhouses. Odors wafting off of Newtown Creek, at the north edge of Brooklyn, were upsetting enough to help inspire the creation of a new public health body, Kiechle says.

Smelly bodies of water are often contaminated ones—in that sense, the miasma theorists were on to something. Through smell, “people were identifying real environmental problems,” Kiechle adds. And some still haven’t been solved.


For decades, the Gowanus seemed just on the cusp of some kind of restoration. A journalist for the New York Daily News thought progress was imminent in 1970, with the announcement of a $110 million incinerator and sewage plant set to intercept the reported millions of gallons of untreated waste that poured into the canal each day. “Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal will never be a glimmering mountain stream, but in a year or a half to two years those who live or have business near it will no longer have to hold their noses,” the paper predicted, forecasting that “the waters will lose their nostril-stinging effluvium.”

They didn’t, and the canal was designated a federal Superfund site in 2010. This initial dredging effort is expected to wrap in mid-2023.

Meanwhile, even as locals shun the stench, some embrace the squalid stretch of water as their own. The dirtiness and the lore surrounding it (such as the imagined menagerie likely littering the bottom, like a synthetic whalefall) “has imbued the canal with an almost fantastical aura,” The New York Times reported. The savvy Gowanus Souvenir Shop hawks a jar-shaped enamel pin labeled “Black Mayonnaise.” It glows in the dark, a cheerfully toxic talisman and an homage to a river that’s been gross for longer than anyone can remember and might—maybe, finally—be on the way to something resembling clean for the first time in ages.

Why Longtime Alaska Residents Are Called 'Sourdoughs'


It's not just bread; it's a way of life.

When Trisha Costello bought the Talkeetna Roadhouse 25 years ago, she was given three things: the deed, a set of keys, and a sourdough starter that the previous owner said dated back to 1902.

The year-round population of Talkeetna, Alaska, hovers around 900 people, but in a normal year, Costello’s crew churns out hundreds of pounds of dense sourdough hotcakes per day, each dappled with a cosmos of mixed berries or chocolate chips and hanging over the side of the plate. They’re enormous, and enormously popular, with tourists, with locals, and especially with climbers, who often stop by for a meal before starting their summit attempts of Denali, the highest mountain peak in North America.

Last spring’s pandemic lockdowns, paired with yeast shortages, produced a sourdough-baking craze around the United States, but in Alaska, the tangy bread has been an important cultural touchpoint for roughly as long as Costello’s starter has been bubbling. Alaskans so identify with sourdough that long-time residents are often called “sourdoughs” and numerous businesses in Alaska use the word to emphasize their experience or longevity, from Sourdough Fuel (heating specialists) to Sourdough Sue’s (yurt purveyors).


“It’s [part of] Alaska history,” Costello says of the sourdough that fed early-20th century newcomers. “It’s the history of all those who came to try their luck at the wilds of Alaska, just surviving off their bag of flour. It’s part of us.”

Historians believe that sourdough is the oldest form of leavened bread, explains Alaska historian Sue Deyoe, and dates back to at least ancient Egypt. While the development of commercially produced yeast and baking soda in the 1800s ate away at sourdough’s popularity in cities, Americans heading west, especially to the gold-rich areas of San Francisco and Alaska, relied on it as a consistent source of food.

“The Canadian Mounted Police refused to let any of the goldseekers over the boundary at Chilkoot Pass [and into Alaska] without a year’s supply of provisions,” writes Ruth Allman, author of Alaska Sourdough (1976). “A 50-pound sack of flour—and a sourdough pot—would guarantee more satisfactory meals than canned food many times its weight.”


Baking other types of bread would call for eggs, milk, and yeast, which were either hard to acquire or unnecessarily weighty for miners hauling all their supplies over mountain passes. With sourdough, though, prospectors only needed to carry flour and gather water to bake bread, biscuits, pancakes, cookies, and more. And a starter that was maintained and fed with fresh flour could remain viable for lifetimes.

“It’s a survival food in a way,” Costello says. “It’s something you had to take care of so it could take care of you.”

While sourdough was adaptable, it wasn’t without its challenges. Sourdough doesn’t like cold weather—Allman wrote of her husband, Jack, who had depended on sourdough in a mining camp, that when he built their cabin in 1949, he first made a shelf near the stove pipe to keep the starter happy, before making a bed or furniture. It’s said that prospectors cuddled their sourdough at night to keep it from freezing. Jack put sourdough in an old Prince Albert tobacco can, Allman wrote, and tucked it inside the pocket of his wool shirt as he went from camp to camp by dogsled.


Over time, sourdough became a sobriquet for those who frequently used it (and often had it on their person, like Jack Allman, in case of emergency), be it the early prospectors or the homesteaders who came to farm as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s. In Jack London’s novel White Fang, the author describes a group of men living in Fort Yukon, Alaska, who “called themselves Sour-doughs, and took great pride in so classifying themselves.” The newcomers, he wrote, were obvious, since they had not yet mastered cooking without baking powder.

Being called a “sourdough” remains an honorific in Alaska. “The character-building experience of surviving Northern winters was a mark of pride among sourdoughs,” writes Susannah Dowds in Alaska Sourdough: Bread, Beards and Yeast. The feat remained challenging through even the 1970s in some remote regions, due to the lack of grocery stores, running water, and electricity. Earning the title “sourdough” today reflects the state’s extraordinarily transient nature: An estimated 50,000 people move to and from Alaska each year, while the total population is around 700,000. Over time it has become shorthand for an experienced Northerner, someone with tenacity, grit, and know-how who has survived untold battles with fickle Jack Frost.


While sourdough fed those in numerous frontier states or regions, Alaska’s lasting relationship is unique. “A perfect duo. The sourdough and his sourdough pot,” Allman wrote. “They have become an important part of Alaska and the historic legends of the North.”

It’s worth lingering on that choice of words: “legend.” Because while sourdough has become part of legends of rugged pioneers braving Alaskan wilderness, it overlooks Alaska Natives who were at home in its far-north landscapes for millenniums before miners and settlers arrived in search of land and gold, and who survived (and thrived) on wild game and harvested vegetables rather than sourdough.

But Rob Kinneen, a well-known Alaska Native chef, says that in the 100 years since, sourdough has become a staple in many Alaskan kitchens.

“I certainly grew up eating it and have cooked with it,” Kinneen says. “It’s definitely become embedded in Indigenous culture, too. It’s kind of like Sailor Boy Pilot Bread: not a traditional food, but something that has been adopted by Alaska Natives.”


Numerous dining establishments throughout Alaska publish the age of their sourdough on the menu. It’s a common belief that the older the sourdough, the better it is. It’s why Costello advertises the age of her supercentenarian sourdough—although verifying its age is difficult or impossible.

Due to the coronavirus, and the fact that Talkeetna Roadhouse serves family-style meals at banquet tables, Costello opted to close the restaurant until the majority of the country is vaccinated. But it remains open to overnight lodgers, and if you ask, Costello will give you a to-go cup of the historic starter to use at home, provided you make her one promise: You’ll do everything you can to keep it and its history alive.

The Careful Work of Breathing Life Into the Corpse Flower


In botanic gardens, the lineage of a famously smelly plant is threatened. What can save it?

This story was originally published on Undark and appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

The alien-like blooms and putrid stench of Amorphophallus titanum, better known as the corpse flower, draw big crowds and media coverage to botanical gardens each year. In 2015, for instance, around 75,000 people visited the Chicago Botanic Garden to see one of their corpse flowers bloom. More than 300,000 people viewed it online.

But despite the corpse flower’s fame, its future is uncertain. The roughly 500 specimens that were living in botanical gardens and some university and private collections as of 2019 are deeply related—a lack of genetic diversity that can make them more vulnerable to a host of problems, such as disease or a changing climate.

Corpse flowers aren’t doing much better in their native home of Sumatra, where they are dwindling because of deforestation for lumber and crops. In 2018, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) listed the plant as endangered. There are fewer than 1,000 individuals still in the wild.


To combat the lack of genetic diversity in the corpse flower and six other species with shallow gene pools, the Chicago Botanic Garden spearheaded the Tools and Resources for Endangered and Exceptional Plant Species (TREES) program in 2019. The program will see widespread genetic testing across partnering botanic gardens, as The New York Times reported in December. This allows participants to create a database of the plants’ family trees, so to speak, to make more informed breeding choices and increase genetic diversity.

TREES could pave the way for future plant reintroductions into the wild, should any of the seven species continue to dwindle or come too close to extinction, says Jeremie Fant, a conservation scientist with the Chicago Botanic Garden, which leads the efforts for the corpse flower. However, some experts express concern about bringing genetics from foreign-grown plants into their native habitats.

The corpse flower is a tricky plant to preserve outside its native habitat. It blooms rarely and it has specific heat and humidity requirements to mimic its native habitat. Like many of the plants in the TREES program, the finicky flower also produces recalcitrant seeds, which can’t be easily stored because drying and freezing—the main way seeds are preserved—will kill them. Other plants in the program simply produce too few seeds to make seed banking a viable option.

While the Chicago Botanic Garden is taking charge of the corpse flower, the National Tropical Botanic Garden in Hawai’i is heading the collecting and testing of two species: Hibiscus waimeae and the critically endangered Phyllostegia electra. There are two other botanic gardens heading up other species to tackle this widespread issue.

“We at botanic gardens have to work together to save some species,” Fant says. “Because we can’t do it on our own.”

Currently, most plant conservation happens in seed banks, such as the International Potato Center in Peru and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Nigeria. These banks of genetic information regularly freeze seeds for long-term research and use. In Arctic Norway, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault holds a backup collection of seeds from around the world in case local stores are compromised. But this doesn’t work for plants with recalcitrant seeds.

Usually, it is warm-climate plants—including the corpse flower—that produce these seeds, but there are exceptions, including oak. According to research out of Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in the United Kingdom, 36 percent of critically endangered plants have recalcitrant seeds. Many well-known crops also produce recalcitrant seeds, such as coconuts.

If a plant is socioeconomically important and produces recalcitrant seeds — like coconuts — conservationists will often create what are called “field gene banks,” according to Nigel Maxted, a professor of plant genetic conservation at the University of Birmingham, who isn’t part of the TREES program. These field gene banks have many of the same plants growing in the same area. They take up a lot of space, and the proximity of the plants to each other opens them up to other threats as well. “Disease could very easily go through the whole lot,” Maxted says.

As such, preserving plant species by spreading individual plants across many botanic gardens, or other collections, can be a useful bulwark against extinction, because it greatly decreases the likelihood that every single plant will die at once, says Susan Pell, deputy executive director of the United States Botanic Garden, a TREES participant.

But fostering genetic diversity in the botanic gardens can be difficult, especially with finicky and rare plants. Like many plants, corpse flowers can reproduce in different ways. Sometimes, they reproduce asexually: a tuber-like bulge at the base of their stem, called a corm, grows large and eventually splits, producing multiple genetically identical plants. While this has effectively grown the raw number of corpse flowers in botanic gardens, it has done little for the population’s genetic diversity.

Corpse flowers can also reproduce sexually, which requires pollination by insects—or, in botanic gardens, by humans wielding paint brushes. There’s no set schedule for a corpse flower to bloom; each plant takes a variable number of years and blooms unpredictably based on conditions such as heat, light, humidity, and other factors.

To help breed on this unpredictable schedule, the Chicago Botanic Garden is creating a store of corpse flower pollen, which can be sent across the country when another specimen that isn’t closely related blooms. These targeted cross-pollination efforts could lead to more genetically robust offspring. While TREES has yet to lead to a crossing of corpse flowers, the Chicago Botanic Garden has used the methodology to strategically cross another plant called Brighamia insignis, also known as a cabbage-on-a-stick plant, which is critically endangered.


The TREES program is starting from a place of low genetic diversity for the corpse flower and its peers. Over the last 100 years, there have only been 20 documented collections of the plants from the wild for botanic gardens.

Sometimes, botanic gardens will get rare plant genetics from nurseries and private collections. For example, three of the U.S. Botanic Garden’s corpse flowers were acquired as seeds from a plant grower in Hawai’i. But, as collecting plants from the wild can be difficult and expensive, the botanic gardens will usually propagate the specimens and share the offspring with other collections. In the case of plants with low genetic diversity, this means an increase in raw numbers, but does little for genetic health.

“In terms of genetic diversity, it’s hopeless,” Maxted says.

TREES may help, he adds. The program’s approach has been successfully deployed in the animal kingdom for a long time. For example, many zoos and conservation efforts create studbooks, or documents used to track the family trees of specific species. This tactic has been used to follow the lineages of myriad threatened species around the world, including the red panda.

“In general, all you’re looking for is to maximize variation,” Maxted says.

While TREES could increase genetic diversity for domestic corpse flowers, some researchers aren’t sure the flower—and plants more generally—should necessarily be reintroduced into the wild. This is particularly true for plants in botanic gardens that are located far away from their native range.

There are two competing trains of thought, Pell says. The first is that only nearby plants should be reintroduced into an area. For the corpse flower, this could mean pulling from the Bogor Botanical Garden in Indonesia, which has a few specimens. The other supports the idea of putting foreign-grown plants back into nature and letting natural selection play out, even if it means that the foreign plants may thrive or outcompete their wild counterparts. (While TREES aims to make it possible to reintroduce the corpse flower into the wild, should conservationists decide it is necessary, so far there have not been any efforts to do so.)

Reintroduction can also take a lot of time, money, and effort, says Joyce Maschinski, director of plant conservation at San Diego Zoo Global and president and CEO of the Center for Plant Conservation. So can the long-term monitoring and care that the plants would need to thrive in the wild. Similarly, moving plants across borders can be difficult, and the laws surrounding it vary from country to country, although, she adds, moving pollen or seeds from botanic garden plants is likely easier.


Despite the challenges, conservation organizations and botanic gardens have gotten good at reintroducing plants, Maschinski says. The groups provide more monitoring, record-keeping, and caring for the plants after they are placed in the wild, including fencing off newly-planted areas and watering them.

For some plants, the approach may be the only hope. While there are concerns about reintroducing foreign-grown plants back into the wild, Maschinski adds, particularly rare species may otherwise go extinct.

If a future comes when reintroduction becomes a necessity, efforts like TREES could ensure a healthy and diverse population of corpse flowers and other endangered plants, Fant says. The researchers involved in TREES also say they hope that the methods could be rolled out to other species that could benefit, as the need arises. The program is already growing, and asking for samples from botanic gardens—including groups outside of the U.S. like the Bogor Botanic Garden.

According to Maschinski, plants are primary producers in their natural habitats, and, as such, preserving some plant species can have a “cascade effect” on the environment—they feed bugs, which feed birds which feed animals, for instance. But according to Pell, the corpse flower’s role in its native habitat is relatively unknown. Whether or not it’s a keystone species, the corpse flower could still be a valuable ambassador, one that raises awareness of the plight faced by many other species, she says.

“I sort of think of the corpse flower as the panda of the plant world in a lot of ways,” she says. “It is just so fascinating and people are so taken in by it that it can be the kind of spokesperson for the importance of conserving all of our biodiversity, and certainly in the plant world.”

Even if the TREES program doesn’t lead to reintroduction in the wild, there’s value in protecting the corpse flower in botanic gardens, says Cyrille Claudel, a biologist at the University of Hamburg. It also might be easier to simply leave the plants alone in the wild, he says, rather than attempting to bring them back. Safeguarding captive corpse flowers would allow the curious to continue their research on the plants—or allow people to simply marvel at them.

The plant is also worth saving just for its own sake, Claudel adds: “It’s probably just the coolest species on Earth, so I would very much like it to be preserved in nature, and cultivation.”

Secrets From Tel Aviv’s ‘Eclectic’ Era Are Hiding All Over the City


Briefly popular in the 1920s, these beautifully patterned tiles have made a comeback.

Some time during the 1920s, poet Hayim Nahman Bialik took an unauthorized shortcut through the grounds of Jacob Gluska’s construction factory. Gluska’s brother caught Bialik on the property and rebuked him. Bialik, an arrogant Tel-Avivian who was also Israel’s national poet, did not appreciate the remark, and they came to blows.

In 2009, almost a hundred years after the slap that stopped Bialik from taking any more factory shortcuts, Bialik’s home was restored to its former grandeur and opened to visitors as a museum and cultural center. Gluska’s son was the one who recreating its original patterned tiles.


In the early 20th century, Tel Aviv had a distinguished industry of beautiful decorated tiles, which can still be seen in some private homes, apartments, stairwells, and public buildings. After peaking in the 1920s, the tiles have become more and more scarce over the decades. Now, there’s a renewed appreciation for them.

German Christians of the Temple Society sect, who immigrated to Palestine late in the 19th century, were the first to bring the painted tiles to Tel Aviv. But “[d]uring World War II, the British army deported the Templar families to Australia, and that was the end of their involvement in the local tile industry,” says Avi Levi, a landscape architect and hunter of derelict buildings and decorated tiles.


Between 1921 and 1925, Tel Aviv’s population went from 2,000 to 34,000. The new city’s architects were European Jews who trained in art schools in Eastern and Western Europe. Their building style came to be known as Eclectic. Architect Professor Nitza Szmuk, the guru of historical building conservation in Israel, says Eclectic architecture represented “the attempt to create a synthesis between East and West, thereby generating a local notional style.” The architects’ perception of Palestine and the Near East remained Orientalist, even when walking in the Tel Aviv sunshine or buying a tomato at the local grocer. The tiles in their buildings were part of this European Oriental fantasy. In the words of Architect Yossi Klein in a Domus magazine article, “the contrast between ‘the Oriental style’ and the European building technique allowed Zionists to return to a ‘sterile Orient,’ while maintaining European modes of living.”


The European tile workshops developed a wide variety of patterns with floral and geometric motifs, influenced by renaissance, art nouveau and art deco styles, ancient Egyptian art and ancient Greek pottery. The Tel Aviv tile industry mimicked these motifs, but not all of them. Jews and Muslims in Palestine skipped the Christian motifs that were common in the European industry, such as the cross or the lily. Some of the local tile factories, mostly those owned by Muslims, were also influenced by the Moroccan tile industry, characterized by its vivid colors.

“This was the golden age of the painted tile,” says Avi Levi, a landscape architect and hunter of derelict buildings and decorated tiles. “They became a local fixture and the connection to the European origins was forgotten.” The decorated tiles prevailed during the early 20th century in houses in Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. They were found in luxurious villas and humble apartments. However, “after three decades, people started to think of the tiles as old-fashioned, expensive and excessive.” Ultimately, “this style flourished only for a short time,” Klein writes, “and as the conflict with the Arab community escalated, Modernist tendencies prevailed.” The romantic, Eclectic style gave way to the clean, modernist Bauhaus. Decorated tiles were abandoned in favor of simple, cheap, industrial tiles. As a result, most of the factories have closed. But at the end of Herzl Street, a street of woodworkers and craftsmen in southern Tel Aviv, the small tile factory of the Gluska family is operating to this day.


Avner Gluska, 82, started working in his family’s Tel Aviv tile factory as a child, with his father Jacob Gluska. Today, he toils there with two workers, using materials and equipment developed 150 years ago. The tiles are handmade, and each worker at the small factory is capable of producing up to three square meters (30 square feet) of tiles a day.

“My grandfather had two wives back in Yemen,” recounts Avner Gluska. “When one of them died, he embarked for Israel with his second wife and his eight children. The family settled in the Yemenite Neve Tzedek neighborhood in Tel Aviv. My father Jacob, who was eight years old, went to work in construction, carrying buckets of clay.” Jacob Gluska worked odd jobs until he opened a factory. In 1936, he teamed up with Abu Khalil Shindy, a Palestinian Arab living in Jaffa, and the pair specialized in tiles. “The Jewish and Arab workers didn’t get along,” Gluska recalls, “so they divided the factory and worked in two locations. My father and his Arab partner were as close as brothers, and we, their children, grew up as one family.”


Some Palestinians were expelled by force in 1948. Many others believed that the Arab armies would retake their towns and villages. They abandoned their homes and left for other countries to wait for victory. The wait became permanent. “Abu Shindy made the biggest mistake of his life: He left everything and fled to Amman,” says Gluska. “This was the moment that destroyed the camaraderie between him and my father. One was furious that the other was leaving him to the mercy of the Arab armies, and the other never forgave the Israeli armies. After the Six-Day War they met again once, for the last time, in Gaza.”

Avner Gluska replaced Abu Shindy at his father’s side, while also studying art. During that time, the factory was manufacturing terrazzo tiles, which became the most common tiles in Israel up until the early 1990s. The demand for painted tiles declined. “The large orders I get today are from house conservation projects,” says Gluska. Over the last two decades, Tel Aviv skyscrapers with doormen in the lobby have lost their popularity in favor of a new status symbol: Historical buildings, restored and renovated at great expense.

Meanwhile, Avi Levi wanders the city, exposing the original tiles. “My love for painted tiles started about 20 years ago,” he says. “My work as a landscape architect brings me to the alleys of Tel Aviv. My love for photography, along with a great fetish for old and deserted buildings, join my love of the first Hebrew city and related nostalgia. So I created a large collection of photographed materials, including tile photos.”


Before Tel Aviv-Jaffa’s 100th year celebrations in 2009, City Hall decided to create a huge carpet of flowers that would represent the city “definitively.” According to Levi, “The brilliant idea came from veteran landscape architect David Skali: Building a huge flower tile, with decorations inspired by tiles and wall paintings from the homes of the founders of Tel Aviv.” Levi, who participated in the project, was sent in 2008 along with his colleagues to a flower carpet laying event in Brussels, to learn how it was done. About a year later, “on the morning of September 16, 2009, trucks unloaded 500,000 begonias, tuberoses and dahlias in Rabin Square, and an hour later, a colorful carpet stretched over 1,250 square meters," says Levi. "After years of hunting old tiles, it was a mystical moment of closure."

Mapmaking Taught Skiing’s ‘Rembrandt of Snow’ the Art of Patience


James Niehues has spent decades painting finicky trails.

Skiers might not know James Niehues’s name, but they have probably studied his maps. Over a decades-long career, the 75-year-old has hand-painted trail maps for over 200 ski resorts across the U.S. as well as a few in farther-flung places including British Columbia, Serbia, and New Zealand.

The so-called “Rembrandt of Snow” stumbled into his mapmaking career in 1987, shortly after moving with his wife and kids to Denver from Grand Junction, Colorado. Desperate for graphic design work, he connected with local artist Bill Brown, who in turn handed him a job making the trail map for the Winter Park resort. Thirty-four years later, Niehues has created enough pieces to sell a coffee table book (The Man Behind the Maps, published in 2019) and he’s still not done: This ski season, he created a new map for Mad River Glen in Vermont, and is already at work on a new collection of sketches of iconic American landscapes.

Given the fastidious nature of his work (and how prolifically he churns it out), Niehues spends a lot of time in quiet contemplation of the world around him—a state of being that might be familiar as the Covid-19 pandemic stretches on. Niehues spoke with Atlas Obscura about his technique for painting ski trails, seeing kangaroos near the slopes in Australia, and why he decided to hang up his skis for good.


What appeals to you about painting ski trail maps?

From the time I was in my teens, I was infatuated with the landscape and all the recreation it offered—at that time it was hiking, biking, fishing and hunting. Growing up in Colorado, I explored mountains, canyonlands, rivers, deserts. I have also enjoyed drawing and painting with as much detail and reality as I can. In college I was hired by Dennis Lowery, who operated a graphic design and ad agency out of his garage as a paste-up artist. One of my projects was putting together a hunting map of Western Colorado. I was hooked. But, it would be 20-plus years before I would meet Bill Brown and put a pencil and brush to a ski map.

What's the most challenging aspect of the work?

Showing all the trails in the most understandable and navigational way. It may not always be in one view, but I strive for the single view because it leaves no doubt about any trail connections or direction. Many mountains have slopes on more than one face, which requires manipulating the features to show the back side with the front on a flat sheet of paper. This has to be done with care since skiers will be referring to the image to choose their way down; all elements have to be relative to what they are experiencing on the mountain.


How did you get into painting ski trail maps in the first place?

I moved from Grand Junction Colorado to Denver to pursue graphic design and illustration. I struggled to make ends meet for some time and I looked up Bill Brown to see if he may have an overflow of illustration work. My timing was perfect since he wanted to pursue other interests—and instead of getting a job I got a career. It fit me perfectly, except I couldn’t ski! Bill didn’t ski either, but referenced aerials for his projects. I felt it would help me interpret the experience if I skied the terrain that I illustrated. Although I never could ski any slopes above intermediate, getting on the mountain added to my ability to illustrate the slopes.

Are you skiing much these days?

I have retired my skis. Several years ago I skied with my son and grandkids and had a pretty tough time getting down the slope. I just don’t get the time away from the drawing board to be in good enough shape at my age to feel safe on the slopes.


Who inspired your style?

I admired Hal Shelton’s and Bill Brown’s technique, and I strove to replicate it. It was the most credible, accurate, and attractive representation of the slopes.

Your work has allowed you to travel the world. Which destinations stand out?

My wife Dora traveled with me to New Zealand and Australia, making those three trips especially memorable. In Australia, the parrots were a treat at Thredbo Village and on the lower slopes and you would get glimpses of kangaroos along the roads. New Zealand had such diverse terrain, but the most unsettling flight I’ve had occurred at a small resort in New Zealand. The helicopter they hired was just a bubble for two [with] what looked like a Volkswagen motor. The helicopter shook to make the altitude I needed to shoot the aerials; I felt like an ant clinging to a leaf.

Dora and I also went on a scenic flight to Milford Sound, and the flight back was below ground level at least 30 percent of the time, meaning we flew in canyons. We saw the second-highest waterfall in the world and skimmed across lakes. She was not too happy with the pilot; as much as I like flying, I had to confess I was a little on edge...but [it was] memorable. There was a time in Wyoming, while photographing Grand Targhee, that the weather was so perfect with no wind that we practically skimmed the slopes of the Grand Teton—just yards off the wing tips.


Has technology changed the way you work?

I used to use a film camera and typically shot 10 rolls to get the detail and angles I wanted for each project. The sketch was drawn at full size, since the only way to transfer the exact approved image was to blue-print the sketch, send it out snail mail for approval, then transfer by tracing the blueprint with changes onto the painting surface. This took weeks. Today the digital camera eliminates processing of film and easier review and storage. Proofs are sent by email and can be returned the next day.


Your work requires a diligent and imaginative eye. Has your process helped you cope with these long stretches of shutdowns and isolation during the pandemic?

When I first began my ski map career in 1987, painting the forest’s multitude of trees seemed overwhelming. I even cut slashes out of my brush to produce three tree trunks instead of one. But I wasn’t happy with the result and resolved to paint each trunk with a single stroke. I thought I was patient but I learned to have more patience. My projects sometimes drag out due to issues like weather. It has proved to be well worth the long hours. This patience has helped me to see that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel: It’s worth the time and effort to be safe to live and paint.

The Museum Treating Home Cooking as Fine Art


Cook your way through the "Reclamation" exhibition of crowd-sourced recipes, remedies, and magic.

Like most things this year, the National Museum of Women in the Arts’ Reclamation exhibition did not go as initially planned. Curator and director of public programs Melani N. Douglass wanted to treat kitchen labor—the often-invisible daily work that disproportionately falls on women and feminine people—as high art. She envisioned an exhibition centered around kitchen-like spaces physically installed at the D.C. museum. When the pandemic struck, however, the museum moved the show online.

The result is a digital exhibition that may be even more potent than the original. Reclamation went live on January 18th, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and will be available for the next year. Its homepage features a vibrant photo grid of hands preparing meals on kitchen tables strewn with pink grapefruit, purple onions, and filetted lamb. Each photo represents the work of one of nine female artists, most of them women of color working in multiple disciplines, including Douglass herself. Douglass gave each artist a series of prompts centered around the kitchen: to record herself at the table; to do a time lapse of meal preparation and eating; to take pictures of ingredients; and to record herself doing something at the kitchen table that had nothing to do with food.


In response, the artists produced a lush spread of images and videos evoking the joy of a dinner party with intimate friends. Video interviews with the artists give way to a crowd-sourced catalogue of family recipes and folk magic; a virtual pantry of food lore; and photo essays of the women creating recipes, remedies, and rituals around the kitchen table. The shots are often intimate. We see artist djassi daCosta johnson stretching in her kitchen dance studio; we see her daughter and partner laughing over a game of Scrabble, clay masks on their faces. “Some of the work is unbelievably vulnerable,” Douglass says. Ultimately, Reclamation portrays the daily, often feminine labor of feeding and cleaning, cooking and healing, as nothing short of magic.

Douglass’s interest in kitchen magic began with an act of rebellion. She was in an MFA program for curation when her professors asked what institution she would partner with for her final exhibition. At the time, Douglass was nursing her daughter, interning, and working. She wondered: Why did she need the validation of a prestigious museum? Weren’t the daily rhythms of her life—motherhood, family, food—art?


So Douglass founded The Family Arts Museum, an interactive series of pop-ups and online installations that focus on the family as fine art. “I gave everything up and I was like, no, motherhood is my studio, my community is my gallery, my home is my curated space, my family is my art,” says Douglass. “It was actually an act of marronage.” Douglass’s work draws on Black struggles for dignity and freedom, especially of American marroons, who escaped slavery to build their own communities on the fringes of plantation society, but whose stories are often erased. For many activists and scholars, they evoke Black self-determination.

Around the 2016 election, against a backdrop of increasingly overt racist violence, Douglass shifted her attention to food. She posted a question to her social media followers: “What are some healing traditions that you have?” Friends from a multitude of cultural backgrounds chimed in with foods and cures for times of sickness and sadness. The submissions shared a common theme: basic, nourishing foods, combinations of lemon, liquor, and honey, and bone broths or other soupy foods. Think hot toddies and pastina in brodo, or lemon tea and rasam.


Amid ongoing debates about white people appropriating and profiting from people of color’s cuisines, Douglass saw the act of sharing family connections to food as an opportunity for groups to reclaim what their ancestors had given up in the process of assimilation—or, in the case of Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, what Europeans and Euro-Americans had stolen from them through colonialism and enslavement. She imagined a project that would offer “space for Black and brown people to reclaim their culture without interruption.”

A few years later, that seed of an idea bore fruit in Reclamation. When you enter the exhibition’s recipe archive, you’ll find crowd-sourced family recipes and remembrances, from an Italian family’s crisp, crimped Christmas pizzelles, to a Syrian grandmothers’ kibbeh hamdah, and the round, golden-brown disks of a New Mexican family’s biscochitos. The recipes range from the whimsical, such as a child’s hand-written menu for a boy scout dinner, to the poignant, including a description of the “miraculous” potatoes that saved a family during World War Two.


When you open artist Sharayna Ashanti Christmas’s page, meanwhile, you may feel as though you’ve just entered an electric dinner party from an artist's memoir. In a grid of photos and videos, Christmas chops a rainbow of tomatoes, sizzles fish and lamb on an outdoor grill, and laughs with a group of fellow creatives in a richly patterned room. “Cooking for me, and cooking ancestrally, is a way of communicating your love for people,” she says. Christmas grew up dancing with the Dance Theatre of Harlem, a historically Black ballet company, and is now a multidisciplinary artist who runs a youth arts nonprofit and a platform that represents, promotes, and sells artists’ of color work. Christmas’s kitchen table and her nonprofits both represent her commitment to creating a future for Black artists and communities “that is centered around what we need,” Christmas says.

Reclamation connects the art of the kitchen table to D.C.-area community organizers working for food justice and health justice, through video interviews with local food activists, wellness practitioners, and herbalists. One interview features Dreaming Out Loud, a nonprofit organizing for food sovereignty for people of color through community-driven neighborhood farms in Black-majority neighborhoods. Samaria King, the group’s farm director, says that working the earth connects her to her ancestors. She was adopted and long felt “disconnected from my ancestral heritage.” “Growing food and working with herbs has been a way to reclaim that knowledge that I was cut off from," she says. This includes a connection to traditional healing systems. King helps run Dreaming Out Loud’s Mutual Aid Apothecary, which distributes free herbal teas and glycerites to community members.


Reclamation, too, features recipes for home remedies and magic, including cannabis-infused peanut butter cups and a set of stream-of-consciousness instructions for cultivating gratitude. The artists I interviewed all understood cooking as culinary, medicinal, and magical—reflecting an age-old relationship between nourishing and healing. While less common today, most English-language cookbooks as recently as the early 1900s included a range of household “receipts,” ranging from plague cures to pickles and Christmas cakes. Across contexts, women have been respected and feared for their practice of kitchen folk magic, such as the use of cacao to empower and enchant in colonial Latin American and modern-day brujeria, a set of traditional herbal and mystical practices drawing from African and Indigenous American traditions, and most often used by feminine people.

Even when home cooks aren’t explicitly making medicinal recipes, says Douglass, there is a simple magic in the foods everyday chefs feed loved ones when they are most in need. “We’ve all been dog sick and someone has gone into the kitchen and made us something that brought us to the other side of ourselves.” This connection to ancestral folk magic is particularly important for Black, Indigenous, and other women of color in the United States, who have long been harmed rather than helped by the conventional medical establishment.


For several of the artists I interviewed, magic lives in motherhood. johnson’s photo set feels like an intimate family dinner. She’s a dancer and a doula, and talks about parenting like it’s a mix of weaving, cooking, and choreography. Sometimes it is: A friend johnson supported as a doula asked johnson to samba in order to distract her from a difficult labor; 10 minutes after the impromptu dance, the baby came. johnson tells me about one of her daughter’s favorite drinks, butterfly pea flower tea, a deep-blue, flower-based brew that changes to a lovely lilac with the addition of acidic lemon. johnson’s daughter sees the color change as magical. “God made this. Mother Nature made this,” says johnson. “Mother nature made us too.” If something as simple as tea can hold magic, johnson teaches her child, then so can she. “If this can change from blue to purple with just one drop of lemon, what else is possible?”


Douglass calls into our interview with her daughter in the background. Her submission to the exhibition is a video of her daughter making her first pound cake from a family recipe. Cooking and childcare are both often invisible work, done by women and feminine people, many of whom are “taught to be quiet or hide themselves,” says Douglass. But in reality, Douglass asserts, the kitchen holds power—not only to heal ourselves, but to nourish movements for liberation. “Every single social movement that I’ve ever seen started at a kitchen table and food was close by,” she says.

By elevating the kitchen to the realm of fine art, Douglass hopes Reclamation will help teach her daughter, and all young people, that, far from keeping quiet, they should celebrate care work as a source of power. “How do I teach her and any other child in my community, regardless of gender, that there’s power there—and never let anyone dismiss your power, your magic, your nurturing, your relaxation, your healing power,” Douglass says. “I want her to understand that the kitchen is the control panel.”


Community Recipe: Lisa Pregram’s Papaya Avocado Salad

During a trip she took to Mexico City, locals “rubbernecked and double-took as I sauntered by,” Lisa Pregram writes on the Reclamation website. “Evidentemente, a six-foot Black girl with dreadlocks down to her waist was not a common sight en esta zona.” But she discovered a connection to the city through the story of Elizabeth Catlett, a Black American artist who lived in Mexico, and whom Pregram’s grandmother had adored.

Pregram says this fruit salad, told in her words, was inspired by a particularly lovely breakfast in Mexico City. It evokes a memory of finding pieces of herself in an unfamiliar setting.

3 cups papaya (cantaloupe or mango will do in the absence of papaya)
1 medium orange (whole, peel & pith removed, sectioned & cut in bite-sized pieces)
2 medium kiwi (peeled and sliced, with each section cut into quarters)
2 cups avocado (hass or a large Caribbean avocado, cut in bite-sized cubes)
1 avocado or papaya wedge per serving (optional, for garnish)
1 medium jalapeño (fresh, sliced, seeded if you want less heat)
1 tbsp cilantro or basil leaves
1/8 cup onion (red, thinly sliced)
1 cup jicama or cucumber (peeled, seeded & julienned)
1/4 cup radishes (thinly sliced)
2-3 tbsp agave nectar (to taste)
2-3 dashes Tajin, chile powder (or fajita seasoning in a pinch)
1 medium lime (juiced)

  1. Add all of the fruit and jicama or cucumber, except the avocado, into a mixing bowl.
  2. Pour/squeeze on the lime juice, drizzle with the agave nectar, and add a dash or two of Tajin, chile powder, or fajita seasoning.
  3. Toss lightly until everything is evenly distributed. Gently fold in the cubed avocado.
  4. Place on whatever dish you want to serve it on. ("I like to use family china or the prettiest thing I have on hand," writes Pregram.)
  5. Sprinkle with another light dash of the Tajin, chile powder, or fajita seasoning.
  6. For extra flair, you can add an extra wedge of sliced avocado or papaya to the plate first, and then pile all the fruit on top.
  7. Garnish with the cilantro or basil, jalapeños, and radishes. ¡Buen Provecho!

The Secrets of the White House Reflect Its History of Constancy and Change


A sturdy desk, an empty pool, and—maybe—secret passages.

For more than two centuries, the White House has stood as a symbol of democracy and resilience in the face of change—a symbolism that carries particular poignance following the turmoil of the 2020 election and its aftermath. The stories embedded in its decor, artwork, hallways, and chambers capture colorful moments and occasional upheavals in American history. Known as the “Executive Mansion” or “President’s House” during its first century, the building has been burned, rebuilt, shored up (after a tinkling chandelier warned of some structural instability), renovated, and expanded into the complex we know today.

John Adams was the first resident of the house in 1800 (George Washington lived in Philadelphia most of his presidency, while staying heavily involved in the design and construction of the new federal home). Thomas Jefferson had his office in what is now part of the State Dining Room. In 1886 Grover Cleveland was married in the Blue Room, the same space where James Monroe had tea and cake with Native American leaders from the Great Plains some six decades earlier.


Under Chester A. Arthur, the White House was a trove of Louis Comfort Tiffany decor (a magnificent colored-glass screen that the famed designer made for the entrance hall is one of many relics lost to history). Then, in 1902, Theodore Roosevelt ordered a complete renovation by McKim, Mead & White that created the West Wing and compound as it mostly stands today. He also officially christened it the “White House.”

Throughout shifting eras and presidents, the essence of the White House and its mission have endured, even if the trappings change. President Biden has placed a portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt above the Oval Office mantel, and brought in other historic portraits and busts that signal his vision for the country. He has, of course, kept the storied Resolute Desk, hewn from the timbers of a 19th-century British exploration ship. Its unique history and other unusual aspects of the White House offer a peek at how the working residence embodies both consistency and change.


Steady as She Goes

Gifted by Queen Victoria in 1880, the Resolute Desk has been used in some capacity by most presidents since Rutherford B. Hayes. The half-ton desk is constructed of oak timbers from HMS Resolute. Specially fitted for Arctic exploration, the ship was part of an expedition sent in 1852 to search for lost explorer Sir John Franklin, who perished along with more than 100 men in an ill-fated quest to find the Northwest Passage. Resolute was abandoned and, three years later, found drifting among ice floes in the Davis Strait by an American whaler. She was refitted and sent back to England with great fanfare. A portion of her timbers returned to America decades later as the Queen’s heavyweight gift to President Hayes. John F. Kennedy was the first to install it in the Oval Office.


It's Not Actually White

Built of locally sourced sandstone, the White House is, in fact, off-gray, says Matthew Costello, senior historian at the White House Historical Association. To protect the porous stone from the elements, stonemasons whitewashed the house in 1798, making it a bit lighter. The bright white of lead-based paint arrived in 1818, four years after the British burned down the original house. Over time, so many layers of paint accumulated that it took 16 years to strip them all off in a major restoration project that concluded in 1996. Each layer requires 570 gallons of paint.


Ten Pin Under the North Portico

Even presidents need to have fun. The White House bowling alley started with Harry Truman, who had two lanes installed in the basement in 1947. And though he wasn’t much of a bowler, he allowed the White House staff to create a bowling league, says Costello. Dwight Eisenhower found more practical purposes for the space when he took office in the 1950s, and converted it into a central filing and communications room, while Truman’s bowling alley was dismantled and reassembled across the street, under the giant structure now called the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.

Then came Richard Nixon. “He liked to bowl late at night, especially to take his mind off things,” says Costello. Eventually it was deemed necessary to construct a private, single bowling lane just for him in the White House itself, under the North Portico, where it remains today.


The Real Press Pool

All good things must come to an end. Just as the space with Truman’s bowling alley evolved into what is today’s Situation Room, so an indoor pool built for polio-afflicted Franklin D. Roosevelt now sits under one of the less glamorous but hugely important spaces in the White House: the Press Briefing Room.

“It will probably never be used as a pool again,” says Costello. But that hasn’t stopped the curious from checking it out. At one point, a trap door with a steel ladder near the presidential podium led to the decommissioned pool; now a separate staircase does the job. “It’s become like a tradition,” he adds. “Members of the White House staff and press corps will sign their names on the pool tiles. Some people say you can still smell the chlorine.”


The Portrait Saved From the British

Very few items survive from the White House before 1814, when British troops set it ablaze, along with the Capitol, following their victory at the Battle of Bladensburg during the War of 1812. One of the sole survivors is Gilbert Stuart’s iconic 1797 portrait of George Washington, which First Lady Dolley Madison famously ordered to be saved before she fled. The group that rescued the portrait—breaking the frame to carry out the canvas—included an enslaved man named Paul Jennings and an Irish gardener, who “put it on a wagon and got it out of the city,” says Costello. The full-length portrait was returned to the rebuilt mansion in 1817 and now hangs in the East Room.


And, Finally, the Secret Passageways

So, are there any? “Yes and no,” Costello replies coyly. “Obviously I can only talk about the ones that are public knowledge.” That includes an underground command center—officially the President’s Emergency Operations Center—that was glimpsed in pictures, released in 2015, of George W. Bush and senior staff on 9/11. Its origins lie in a bomb shelter that was built below the White House following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. As for historic rumors that surfaced about secret tunnels for Abraham Lincoln—those, says Costello, have been debunked.

How Cemetery Birdwatchers Try to Avoid Ruffling Feathers


Avian enthusiasts in Ontario and elsewhere tread carefully to respect somber spaces and the wildlife that thrives there.

When Jackson Hudecki walks through Woodland Cemetery on a cold December morning, the place is almost empty, save for a few people visiting a gravestone, a woman walking her dog, and a small group of birders armed with binoculars and scopes. The century-old cemetery sits atop a bluff overlooking Hamilton Harbour on the west tip of Lake Ontario. Stand on the southwestern edge of the cemetery in winter when the leaves are gone from the trees, and you’ll see a jutting peninsula called Carroll’s Point. It’s an ideal spot for birding.

After a half-hour loop, Hudecki, Bird Study Group Director of the Hamilton Naturalist’s Club, has identified 14 species of birds, including a red-tailed hawk, a brown creeper, and a gaggle of Canada geese. The cemetery is an avian hotspot year-round, Hudecki says. Open water attracts waterfowl from November through March and April. Springtime brings migrating warblers, thrushes, and vireos. “It’s an area the winds are constantly pushing birds towards,” says Hudecki. Birds of prey take advantage of these gusts: “The winds hit off the lake, and just go upwards, and they’re riding it,” says Hudecki. “It’s amazing to watch.”

Sometimes, crowds of birders flock en masse. That happened in 2017, when a red morph Eastern screech-owl attracted crowds eager to snap its photo and hear its trilling whinny. Less common than gray- and brown-patterned Eastern screech-owls, the red morph is described as “a lovely, rufous, foxy colour” by Robert Curry in his book, Birds of Hamilton and Surrounding Areas. Because this relatively unusual owl turned up in the easily accessible cemetery, the burial grounds became a hotspot for birders and photographers. The mingling of birders and mourners revived conversations about how burials and recreation can—or can’t—coexist in cemeteries.


Hudecki and the Hamilton birding community aren’t alone in their fondness for cemetery birdwatching. Danielle Belleny, a wildlife biologist from Springfield, Missouri, has earned the social media moniker ‘the cemetery birder’ thanks to her enthusiasm for the pastime. Belleny is drawn to cemeteries for their atmosphere and accessibility. “I enjoy how tranquil they are, but also how easy it is to get to a cemetery,” she says. “Instead of having to go to a park that might be 30 minutes away, I can just go down the street to the cemetery, and have that same type of feeling of being able to recenter myself.”

Today’s cemetery birdwatchers are partaking in a long North American tradition of using cemeteries as recreation spaces. “The early landscape cemeteries, the rural cemeteries that began to appear in the 1830s in the United States, gave rise to public parks,” says Keith Eggener, head of the department of the History of Art and Architecture at the University of Oregon. People historically visited cemeteries to see examples of fine sculpture, horticulture, and the graves of local worthies, Eggener says. Families spread out picnic lunches near graves. Cemeteries “were very much places of community pride, particularly in a time when American cities generally lacked public parks, botanical gardens, art museums, and things of that sort,” Eggener says.


When the Eastern screech-owl dropped by, some cemetery-goers described birders behaving badly—disrespectfully “traipsing” on headstones, CBC News reported, and baiting the birds. The Hamilton Spectator reported a cemetery visitor complaining to the city after finding a crowd of fifteen assembled near a family plot. Cemetery birding devotees stress that none of these behaviors should fly. Harassing and baiting birds is a no-go with ethical birders, Hudecki says: Humans ought to keep their distance and not disrupt birds’ activities. Belleny says it’s crucial to give other humans a wide berth, too—particularly when they’ve come to grieve. “If there’s an active funeral, or someone mourning, I’ll avoid that area completely,” she says.

Rules and regulations for activities in Ontario cemeteries are set out in by-laws. While there are some oddities or holdovers from bygone eras—for example, the nearby City of Burlington includes horses in the list of pets that are banned from cemetery grounds—there’s nothing against visiting a cemetery for recreation. In fact, Hamilton Municipal Cemeteries, which oversees Woodland Cemetery, provides a cemetery etiquette guide acknowledging that “cemeteries are wonderful park-like settings,” where one can “enjoy the natural beauty of the plants, trees, and landscape.” All visitors are asked to avoid trampling on graves or clambering on monuments (even if doing so would afford a great look at an intriguing bird).


John Perrotta, Superintendent of Cemeteries with the City of Hamilton, says he hasn’t received any complaints about birders in the past several years he’s been on the job. “If there are burials, they definitely do scatter and come back when the service is over,” he says.

As for how cemetery activities will continue to evolve in the future, Eggener says, “I think it’s ultimately a decision that needs to be made by the stakeholders in a given community.” That means people with family buried in a cemetery, as well as the people who own and manage the space. “I think just as different people approach life differently,” he says, “so do they approach death differently.”

Welcome to the Venn Diagram of Cartoon Characters, Geometric Patterns, and Crunchy Rice


Baker Varta Melon treats tahdig as a blank canvas.

What do Star Wars, the Last Airbender, and Super Mario have in common? According to Varta Melon, they all belong on tahdig.

Melon is a Chicago-based baker and blogger. But what started as a food blog to introduce followers to Persian cuisine has transformed into an Instagram account that documents just how innovation and artistic tahdig—a traditional Iranian dish made of slightly burnt rice—can be.

“At the end of the day, it's a fried carb, and fried carbs will always do well,” says Melon. “You take any sort of comfort food and you fry it, it's going to be good.”


Born and raised in Virginia to Persian parents, Melon grew up in a household that revered Persian delicacies such as barbari, an lranian flatbread; gheymeh, an Iranian stew filled with cubed meat and veggies; and ghormeh sabzi, an herb and beef stew. Though tahdig was also omnipresent in her home, she was surprised at how quickly the dish gained popularity in Western culture.

“Growing up, you never saw a big focus on tahdig,” she says of Persian cooks who introduced the cuisine to American culture. “Little did they know that it was the crunchy rice that was going to make people go crazy.”

And crazy people have gone. Tahdig is one of the most recognizable dishes within Persian cuisine. It’s often found in intro listicles about Persian food, and is tagged in nearly 40,000 Instagram posts. According to Melon, the rise of tahdig and its popularity in Western culture can be attributed to the universal nature of rice.

Tahdig is “the perfect intro to Persian food because it's something that everyone's familiar with,” says Melon. “Every culture has a rice dish, or their version of rice. So something like tahdig is instantly recognizable.”


Though tahdig is an Iranian dish (it translates to “bottom of the pot” in Persian), scorched rice dishes are found throughout East and Southeast Asia, some parts of Latin America, and Spain. The ubiquity of rice—and of dishes that make a virtue out of the tendency of rice at the bottom of the pot to burn a bit—makes tahdig especially appealing to a diverse group of food enthusiasts that look to Melon’s page week after week. Melon, who has a steadily growing Instagram following, considers herself one of several Instagram cooks who has found ways to get creative with the dish. Having studied biology in college, the former medical student worked in a clinic to please her parents before finally leaving a career she wasn’t passionate about. She turned to fashion and cooking and what she knew and loved: Persian food.

“It was the comfort, it was what I was most familiar with,” says Melon.

Though Melon found comfort in familiarity, she also found excitement in creativity. Recalling the serious atmosphere that often surrounded dinners or parties where tahdig and other Persian dishes were served during her childhood, Melon opted to cook as a form of stress relief and fun. Rather than obsess over perfect presentations, she looked for ways to make cooking more enjoyable. This led her to combine character art with cooking.

“I was thinking, how do I make one that's different [and] that someone else hasn't done?”

When she began adding pop-culture characters such as Star Wars and Super Mario to her tahdig, she saw increased interest in her work. Although the initial response from longtime followers was a mix of excitement and shock.

“If you put that in front of a Persian dinner party,” Melon says of her cartoon-themed tahdig “they'd be like, ‘What are you doing?’ They wouldn't get it, but it's just fun.”


To make tahdig with character art, Melong first draws her ideas on paper—occasionally a few times until she gets it just right. She then uses the paper as a template to carve the design onto her tahdig. (You can find a video of her making one creative tahdig, using an exacto knife and a tortilla, on her Instagram.)

“Everyone has their own way of doing this, based on how you grew up, or how your mom made it,” says Melon. “I’m making it in the way that makes me happy.”

Melon doesn’t just make tahdig. On her page, she adds her twists to various dishes, such as pop tart versions of baklava and barberry chicken, her one-skillet version of zereshk polo ba morgh. Her range of abilities builds on prior food blogging experience from her collegiate days, and her Instagram page, launched in 2019, has been an important reset for her cooking journey. In addition to sharing images of her culinary endeavors, she sells Persian snacks including fruit leather (known as lavashak), cookies, biscottis, and candies. Her preparation isn’t always the most traditional, but it can be captivating.


“For me, being American doesn't take away from my Persianness and my Persianess doesn't take away from my being American,” says Melon. “I think my food is a pretty good representation of who I am.”

Though Melon considers her work a lighthearted introduction to Persian cuisine, followers often ask how to make their own tahdig and are intrigued by the characters she introduces, such as Darth Vadar, Goomba, and the beautiful Persian women who’ve been influential in her life. Though not a food historian, she often answers questions about Persian cuisine and culture from readers.

“Whenever you can take something that's such a simple staple and have fun with it, people are going to notice,” says Melon. “People are always looking for ways to take the basic stuff in their life and make it into something special.”