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1930s in Shanghai

Photo: Library of Congress.
Shanghai in the 1930s.

Something worth remembering as the need for asylum in our world grows every year, is that Shanghai accepted many Jewish refugees in the 1930s, where they joined an already thriving community of Jewish immigrants from Baghdad.

And as most immigrants do, these transplants made valuable contributions to their new country. Today’s story is about one such contribution in Shanghai: an unusual ballet.

Susan Blumberg-Kason writes at the Los Angeles Review of Books, “Jews in Shanghai have been the subject of many memoirs and novels. … Kirsty Manning’s The Song of Jade Lily (2018) and Rachel DeWoskin’s Someday We Will Fly (2019) are two recent novels that tell stories of Jewish refugees who fled to the Chinese city, one of the only places in the world that didn’t require papers back then.

“Other books have told of a Jewish community in Shanghai before the refugees arrived. Taras Grescoe’s Shanghai Grand (2016) and Jonathan Kaufman’s The Last Kings of Shanghai (2020) center around Baghdadi Jewish families like the Sassoons and Kadoories, families that arrived in Shanghai a century before the onset of World War II. …

“Judaism is not a monolithic culture, as the different communities in Shanghai before and during the war show. Besides the refugees and the Baghdadi businesspeople, Shanghai was also home to Jews in the performing arts. Very little has been written about their contributions to Shanghai before the Japanese took over most of the city in 1937.

“These contributions centered around two people: Russian Jewish composer Aaron Avshalomov and American Jewish theater producer Bernardine Szold Fritz. …

“Avshalomov left Russia to study medicine in Zürich before the Bolshevik Revolution. … But by the end of the 1910s, he had decided to leave medicine and the US, and pursue a career in music. He moved to Shanghai.

“At the time, customs in this port city were not administered by Chinese officials, nor was it managed by French, British, or American authorities, all of which held local concessions. Because of these loose arrangements, Shanghai became a refuge for anyone seeking a new home. It attracted Russians fleeing the Bolshevik Revolution and Jews escaping pogroms. In Shanghai, Avshalomov worked with other Jewish musicians.

“Bernardine Szold Fritz was a Jewish actress-turned-journalist who fled three husbands before the age of 30, arriving in Shanghai in 1929 to marry her fourth husband, an American silver broker. Born in Peoria, Illinois, she had acted at Chicago’s Little Theatre before moving to New York and then Paris. …

“In Shanghai, Bernardine started a salon, bringing together Chinese and foreign writers, artists, musicians, and actors. In early 1933, she invited Avshalomov and learned that he had written a ballet, The Soul of the Ch’in, while living in Peking in 1925–’26. The ballet had been performed in Portland, Oregon, in the late ’20s, but had yet to be produced in China.

“Suddenly Bernardine envisioned a new project that inspired her to think beyond her living room. She convinced Avshalomov that the two of them together could produce his ballet right there in Shanghai. Not unfamiliar with the dance world, she was friendly with Ruth Page, the American ballerina, and her partner, Harald Kreutzberg, a German pioneer in modern dance.

“Avshalomov’s experience in China — he had already lived there for almost 15 years — and Bernardine’s theatrical background allowed the duo to bring a ballet to Shanghai that would appeal to all arts enthusiasts, both Chinese and expat. Bernardine also tapped into her connections in Shanghai’s financial, political, and artistic communities. She and Avshalomov knew members of the influential Soong family, including Madame Chiang Kai-shek (or Soong Mei-ling) and Madame Sun Yat-sen (or Soong Ching-ling), both avid patrons of the arts. The performance ran on May 21, 1933, at 9:15 p.m. at the new Grand Theatre. …

The Soul of the Ch’in was possibly the first Chinese ballet performed on a grand scale in China. … The event was even more remarkable because the cast of dancers was all Chinese, as were the set designers, dramaturge, and stage manager. In fact, the only foreigners on the crew were the costume designer and the person managing the lights.”

More at the Los Angeles Review of Books, here. There’s a full description of the ballet’s rather wild plot.

Outdoor Concerts Shine

Photo: Toronto Star.
The San Diego Symphony’s waterfront venue, the Rady Shell.

The pandemic made us take a close look at the possibilities of moving the performing arts outdoors. Maybe outdoor performance is a good idea even without a pandemic.

William Littler writes at the Toronto Star, “Yes, San Diego is an outdoors city, blessed with an enviable oceanside location and a climate worthy of a snowbird’s dreams. No wonder the local symphony orchestra wants to come out and play.

“It has an even better reason now, thanks to last month’s opening of Rady Shell in Jacobs Park, a downtown al fresco setting for up to 10,000 people, picturesquely surrounded on three sides by water.

“The setting is nature’s gift, slightly reminiscent of the days when the Toronto Symphony Orchestra had a popular series at Ontario Place. And I say slightly because Ontario Place offered the orchestra a shared residence in a multi-purpose facility, whereas Rady Shell was developed specifically as a home for the San Diego Symphony.

“Described as the only permanent waterfront performance space on the West Coast, the handsome shell stretches forward as if to embrace the audience, with a series of speakers lined up on each side of the upward sweeping, (imitation) grass-covered audience area.

“At an afternoon rehearsal I took the opportunity to walk around and sample the sound from different standpoints and was not surprised to find the best sound — which was surprisingly good — closer to the front, where most of it came directly from the stage. …

“The arrival of COVID-19 has led orchestras to seek ways to enhance their outdoor profiles.

“The Montreal Symphony Orchestra has taken to its city’s parks. The Boston Symphony Orchestra heads for Western Massachusetts and Tanglewood. The Los Angeles Philharmonic has Hollywood Bowl.

“Though never an ideal solution, Ontario Place gave the Toronto Symphony an opportunity to broaden its audience and lengthen its season.

“Rady Shell demonstrates what more can be achieved through years of careful planning. A community effort, because it is part of a park, 85 per cent open to the public, people have routine access to the site.

“According to CEO Martha Gilmer, the orchestra plans to present about 110 events there per year, including the first part of its fall season, thanks to San Diego’s friendly climate. …

“The Southwest is clearly America’s fastest growth area; witness the fact that Phoenix, Arizona, recently passed Philadelphia to become the country’s fifth largest city. A can-do attitude helps explain how the new facility was built almost entirely without government support.

“The architects clearly wanted to design a people place, even providing a 12-foot-wide walkaround with benches just outside the porous perimeter fence for those who would like to hear, if not actually see the concert, without buying tickets. During the opening concert I even saw passing sailboats pause to share the experience.

“Of course I am describing a special place, not the kind of home most orchestras could hope to build in their neighbourhood. But the need is the same, to reach out to more people in a friendly environment.

“The San Diego Symphony has obviously understood this: the opening event at Rady Shell was a full-scale symphony concert, conducted by its popular music director, Rafael Payare, who will add the Montreal Symphony Orchestra to his schedule in 2022, but the second event was a Broadway program presided over by a different maestro, and the third was a concert by Gladys Knight.

“Three substantially different audiences attended these concerts, testimony to the orchestra’s wish to open its doors wide. It is a strategy for survival for symphony orchestras in Canada as well as the United States.

“In the program handed out for the opening concerts, Payare declared unequivocally: ‘From the moment I first stood on the stage of what would become Rady Shell at Jacobs Park, I knew that it was going to be an incredibly powerful acoustic for the orchestra.’ ” More at the Toronto Star, here.

In related news, there’s an interesting New York Times article about an outdoor theater space that was launched by black-listed artists in the McCarthy era and got a new lease on life during the pandemic.

Refugee Kids with Cameras

Image: Ibrahim, 13.
The photography of Ibrahim, a Syrian refugee in Turkey, is featured with the work of other boys and girls in the book i saw the air fly, by Sirkhane Darkroom (Mack, 2021). Proceeds go to the Her Yerde Sanat-Sirkhane charity.

Today’s story is about trying to provide some fun for children caught in the failures of a grownup world. Adults of good will can’t fix everything for these youngsters, but whatever they manage to do can mean a lot.

Sean O’Hagan reports at the Guardian, “Serbest Salih studied photography at college in Aleppo, before fleeing Syria with his family in 2014 as Islamic State fighters advanced on his home town of Kobani. He is now one of an estimated 100,000 refugees living in the historic city of Mardin in south-eastern Turkey, just a few miles from the Syrian border. Having initially found work as a photographer for a German NGO, Salih’s life changed dramatically in 2017 when, while wandering with a friend through the city, he discovered a sprawling refugee community living in a group of abandoned government buildings in the working-class Kurdish district of Istayson.

“ ‘It was a place where Turkish Kurds and Syrian Kurds lived as neighbours, but did not communicate,’ he says, ‘They were strangers who spoke the same language. It was at that moment that I thought to use analogue photography as a means to integrate the different communities.’

“Working with Sirkhane, a community organisation, and with initial funding from a German aid organisation, Welthungerhilfe, he began hosting photography workshops using donated cheap analogue cameras. ‘Digital is easier and quicker,’ he tells me, ‘but the analogue process teaches children to look more carefully and also to be patient, because they have to take a picture without seeing the result instantly. For them, there is something therapeutic and healing about the whole process.’

“Salih now runs the Sirkhane Darkroom in Mardin and, since 2019, has travelled to neighbouring towns and villages with the Sirkhane Caravan, a mobile version of the same. Children from the age of seven come to his workshops to learn the traditional skills of shooting on film and processing the results in a darkroom. …

The results, as a new book, i saw the air fly, shows, are often surprising. Rather than reflect the traumas of their displacement, the pictures tend towards the innocent and joyous …

“Family portraits, blurred shots of their friends at play, children jumping, hiding, posing with their friends or tending their animals. Throughout, there are more intricately formal compositions that catch the eye: a cluster of hilltop buildings, the irregular geometry of electricity wires crisscrossing the sky. …

“The book has parallels with Wendy Ewald’s Portraits and Dreams: Photographs and Stories by Children of the Appalachians, also published by Mack, in which she taught practical photography to kids from a poor rural community with often startling results. Like that project, i saw the air fly is a testament to the undimmed imagination of the very young, however impoverished their circumstances, but also to Salih’s faith in the transformative power of analogue photography. …

“As the children progress though the workshops, he tells me, they are given specific subjects to photograph. These can range from the everyday (the garden, the home) to the more socially aware – child labour, child marriage and, tentatively, gender issues. ‘Often, when we begin, the girls don’t think they can be as good as the boys,’ he says. ‘Sadly, that is what the adult world has taught them, but soon they are shooting pictures about their lives and experiences. The camera gives them the confidence to do that.’

“On the Sirkhane website, videos and photographs attest to the sense of wonder the children experience in the darkroom as the images they have shot finally appear. …

“Salih’s plans to ‘expand the caravan workshops so we can go to the most affected places’ have been put on hold since the pandemic began and he has had to teach online. ‘It has been difficult,’ he says, ‘because most of the children do not have smartphones or internet access.’ …

“The publication of i saw the air fly is a singular achievement. It is also, in many ways, a humble book – all the images have been selected by the children themselves, their often low-key charm attesting to the essentially democratic nature of the medium, and its ability to surprise. ‘People think that if you give a refugee child a camera, the results will be sad,’ says Salih, ‘but instead most of these photographs are all about joy. They are small moments of private happiness.’

“All proceeds from the sale of i saw the air fly will go to the Her Yerde Sanat-Sirkhane charity, whose aim is to provide ‘a safe, friendly and embracing environment’ for children caught up in conflicts.”

More at the Guardian, here.

A Giant Violin in Venice

Photo: Reuters via the Christian Science Monitor.
The giant violin above was built by Venetian artisans and carries musicians performing a live concert.

How have people around the world found a path to joy and laughter during the pandemic? In Venice, a giant, floating violin is providing fun on the Grand Canal.

As Elisabetta Povoledo reported this month at the New York Times, “In its 1,600-odd years, any number of phantasmagorical vessels have floated down Venice’s Grand Canal, often during regattas or elaborate ceremonies dedicated to the sea. On Saturday morning, a decidedly unusual head-turner took a spin: a gigantic violin, carrying a string quartet playing Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons.’

“The craft, called ‘Noah’s Violin,’ set sail accompanied by an escort of gondolas, and in no time a small flotilla of motorboats, water taxis and traditional flat-bottomed Venetian sandoli joined the violin as it glided from city hall, near the Rialto Bridge, to the ancient Customs House across from Piazza San Marco, about an hour’s ride.

“The vessel is a faithful, large-scale replica of a real violin, made from about a dozen different kinds of wood, with nuts and bolts inside, as well as space for a motor. In addition to the artistry involved, it took a lot of tinkering and nautical expertise to make it seaworthy, its makers say.

‘It was a novelty for us, too,’ said Michele Pitteri, a member of the Consorzio Venezia Sviluppo, which financed the boat and built it along with Livio De Marchi, a Venetian artist, who conceived the idea during last year’s lockdown.

“De Marchi named the work ‘Noah’s Violin,’ because like the ark, it was meant to bring a message of hope after a storm, in this case a message that promoted ‘art, culture and music,’ he said.

“It’s no coincidence that the journey down the Grand Canal was plotted to end beside the church of La Salute, Italian for health, in the Dorsoduro district, which was built as a votive offering to the Virgin Mary for deliverance from a plague that decimated the city in 1630. …

“The boat was steered by a helmsman dressed in a black cape and wearing a black tricorn hat like those popular in the 18th century. ‘I wanted him to channel the spirit of Vivaldi,’ De Marchi said.

“Leone Zannovello, the president of the consortium, said that the project had revived enthusiasm at the shipyard on the island of Giudecca, where it was made, after the darkest days of the coronavirus pandemic. Companies and individuals who weren’t part of the group even offered to help out, he said. ‘It was something that united us even more,’ he said. ‘We worked with our hearts.’

“On Saturday, Zannovello and others followed the violin down the Grand Canal on sundry boats, palpably proud.

“ ‘Bravo Livio!’ a voice cried out in praise of De Marchi.

“ ‘Bravi tutti!’ (‘Well done, everyone!’), De Marchi responded.

“It was mostly smooth sailing, though De Marchi mumbled anxiously whenever the prow (the neck of the violin) veered too sharply to one side or other. But even though the musicians played standing up (barefoot for a better grip), they scarcely missed a note. At one point the score for the viola flew off the music stand and into the water, but it was quickly recovered.

“ ‘Let’s just say that between the wind and the waves, it was challenging,’ said Caterina Camozzi, the viola player, after she was back on dry ground. Tiziana Gasparoni, the cellist, chimed in to say, ‘as a Venetian and a musician, it was the most moving experience of my life.’

“As is often the case in Italy, the real hitches along with way were bureaucratic.

“ ‘We were told we needed a vehicle registration plate, but officials didn’t know how to classify it,’ said Mario Bullo, a carpenter in the consortium. At first, they were issued the same plates given to rafts. ‘But the traffic police objected, saying that’s not a raft, it’s a violin,’ he said with a shrug. In the end, city officials worked it out. …

“ ‘The artisans in the city never stopped during the lockdown. Even if they couldn’t work with their hands, they still used their brains,’ said Aldo Reato, a local lawmaker who arranged for the half-dozen gondolas to accompany the violin. ‘There is no one better than a gondolier to represent the city’s traditions,’ he said.

“It’s not the first time that De Marchi, an artist known for sculpting household objects or clothing in wood, has created large-scale floating works. He began with an origami-style paper hat made of wood, in 1985, and since then he’s put several large-scale wooden objects out to sea, including a woman’s shoe, a pumpkin coach with horses, and a variety of cars, including a 1937 Jaguar, a Volkswagen Beetle and a Ferrari convertible.

“People gathered over the Ponte dell’Accademia and along the paved banks of the Grand Canal to watch the floating concert that included works by Bach and Schubert. …

“A brief ceremony attended by members of the consortium and their families and friends, followed. De Marchi made a speech, and commemorated the relatives of people who had worked on the violin who had died before seeing it finished. The Rev. Florio Tessari blessed the violin and said he hoped it would ‘travel the world as a message of hope.’ There has been interest in the violin from businesses in Italy and a museum in China, De Marchi said.

“The musical entertainment continued there along with toasts and a singalong of sorts.

“Zannovello, the consortium president, said he hoped the violin would serve to showcase Venetian crafts after a slow and difficult period. ‘I am convinced there will be a return,’ he said.”

Do check out the photos at the Times, here, and enjoy the grins of people just having fun.

Photo: Jemal Countess/Getty Images for MoveOn.
Jean Evansmore of West Virginia, a leader of the Poor People’s Campaign, speaking at a rally on July 19, 2021
.

It’s not news that the attitudes of the people who raise you help to make you who you are. Activist Jean Evansmore, brought up by grandparents in West Virginia, never knew she was poor. What she knew was that her family worked hard and had dignity. Their self-esteem has carried her through life.

Courtland Milloy recently wrote about Evansmore at the Washington Post. “When Jean Evansmore was growing up in West Virginia coal country, her grandfather did two things that would have a profound effect on her life. He showed her how to plant a garden and, by his own example, let her see that just because you were poor didn’t mean you were lazy or stupid.

“Her grandfather, Webster Evans, earned between $2.50 and $5 a day in the 1920s if he could blast loose, load and haul at least five tons of coal from the mine where he worked. Today, low-wage workers make about $7.50 an hour.

“According to the Poor People’s Campaign, which focuses attention and resources on poverty, about 40 percent of West Virginia residents are poor or low-income. And as in much of the nation, the gap between rich and poor is widening. Since 1979, income for the top 1 percent in West Virginia grew by about 60 percent, while income for the bottom 99 percent fell by 0.4 percent, the group said. …

“Evansmore, 80, [is] one of the chairpersons for the West Virginia Poor People’s Campaign. That is a branch of a national faith-based activist civic organization founded by the Rev. William J. Barber II. In remaking the Poor People’s Campaign that was started by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, Barber has cited poverty, racism and ecological destruction as culprits in the spiritual bankruptcy of the nation.

“The people of West Virginia know firsthand just how damaging poverty and not having a voice can be. One hundred years ago, in August 1921, thousands of coal miners gathered in Madison in preparation for a trek to Logan and Mingo counties. Several workers had been arrested for attempting to organize a union in both places.

“To reach their incarcerated co-workers, the miners had to cross Blair Mountain. … The miners lost what became known as the Battle of Blair Mountain. But years later during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, reforms were made that eventually would give miners safer working conditions along with better pay and health care.

” ‘What we should have learned from that history is organizing makes a difference,’ Evansmore said.

Just as the miners in the Battle of Blair Mountain were of different races and ethnic groups, Evansmore, who is Black, hopes the same diversity can be achieved in organizing the poor today.

“Her goal now is to teach more people about the fight for justice in the state. She encourages everyone to tune in to city and county council meetings. She writes letters to elected officials and newspaper editors, often expressing her dismay at how out of touch they are with the struggles of everyday residents.

“And she protests, carrying signs in opposition to proposed cuts to programs that help the poor — even if only a handful of people join in.

“ ‘Because people are told that poverty is caused by some character flaw, a lot of people won’t even admit they are poor,’ she said. … “Sometimes, she tells them about how little she knew about economics as a child.

‘I didn’t even know we were poor,’ said Evansmore. … ‘We were used to eating pinto beans six days a week and chicken on Sunday. The only time we knew something was wrong was when we had to eat beans on Sunday, too.’

“But after graduating from high school in 1958, she left the state to stay with relatives in New Jersey. It was a different world — one with well-insulated homes and indoor plumbing, not outhouses. She eventually enrolled at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut. Then she got a job with Raytheon, first as a secretary and later working her way up to a buyer in the submarine signaling division. … In 2012, she returned home for good.

“ ‘I vowed that nothing would run me out of West Virginia,’ she said. ‘If I didn’t like something, I’d just stay and fight it.’ ”

More at the Post, here.

Photo: Taylor Luck.
Saudi university graduates tour the rock inscription at Jabal Ikma, one of several sites dated to the ancient Arab kingdoms of Dadan and Lihyan that are spread out across Al Ula, northwest Saudi Arabia, March 7, 2020.

Residents of Saudi Arabia have been learning recently about two previously unknown, ancient civilizations on their peninsula — making them proud to be recognized for something beyond oil.

Taylor Luck reported at the Christian Science Monitor, “Tarek never knew his daily commute was in the footsteps of ancient Arab kings. The 30-year-old Al Ula resident runs his hands over the exposed brick and rock inscriptions he has known since a child as ‘the ruins,’ listening as a tour guide lists the achievements of the tribes that built a kingdom on these sands 3,000 years ago.

“Squinting at the rock-carved tombs in front of him, he sees something greater than a civilization: a connection.

‘They prayed, they grew dates, they performed pilgrimages and welcomed visitors to the oasis like we do today,’ Tarek says as he stops to pose for a selfie in front of a rock engraving. ‘They lived just like us.’

“Today Saudi authorities and archaeologists are unearthing and promoting Dadan and Lihyan, two Arab kingdoms whose traces have lain under sand and obscurity for centuries. Cited in the Old Testament and ancient Greek texts, the ancient kingdoms once ruled vital trade routes.

“Saudi citizens are pointing to the kingdoms as proof not only that this arid region was home to civilizations centuries before the modern oil boom, but that the people of Saudi Arabia are the latest in a proud lineage stretching back millennia – that there is more to being a Saudi than oil and religion. …

“While most of the Middle East and Mediterranean were rich in legendary city-states, the vast Arabian deserts were, for generations of archeologists and academics, flyover country of little note or historical value. A blank spot on the map of the ancient world. If they were so great, where are the monuments? Where are the cities?

“The cities, it turns out, are still being unearthed. And what has already been uncovered of Dadan and Lihyan in the deserts of northwest Saudi Arabia has turned conventional wisdom on its head.

“Here in Al Ula, the remnants of these sprawling desert kingdoms from the first millennium B.C. are woven into the landscape: Temple columns, 1-meter-thick brick walls, rock-carved tombs, detailed statues, and inscription-scrawled boulders poke out among date farms, houses, and newly-established eco-resorts.

“Most of what scholars know today of these kingdoms is from the hundreds of rock inscriptions scrawled across the area in the Dadanite language, a Semitic offshoot, telling of kings and pilgrims, migrant communities, and daily life and death. And taxes. …

“ ‘This is their library, a collection of their civilization and stories carefully carved into stone,’ says [tour guide] Thuraya, who was trained to interpret rock art. ‘Lihyanites and the Dadanites … were advanced kingdoms that you could put in the same sentence as ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia.’

“The Dadanites controlled the lucrative trade of incense – namely frankincense – which was cultivated in Yemen and carried on camel caravans through Dadan en route to temples in Pharaonic Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Levant, where this fragrant tree resin played an important role in religious ceremonies. …

“ ‘Incense was the petrol of the times, this is why Dadan flourished,’ says Abdulrahman Alsuhaibani, an associate professor at King Saud University in Riyadh who has been leading excavations at Dadan for the past decade.

“What has been excavated speaks to their advancements: one temple features perfectly square tombs and intricate lion statues carved into the rockface. At another, wells and an 8-foot-tall stone basin believed to have been used for ablution by pilgrims coming to give tribute to a pantheon of gods suggest an advanced water management system.

“In the fifth century B.C., another tribe built upon Dadan to create Lihyan, an empire extending west into the Gulf of Aqaba and Sinai and north toward the Levant. What has been uncovered speaks to the Lihyanites’ influence: two imposing larger-than-life statues of Lihyan kings, standing like half-robed pharaohs, were recovered at a Lihyanite temple. … Local residents say they have seen ‘dozens’ of statues and human-shaped stone idols over the years while picnicking in the valleys. 

“This is likely because Lihyan’s economic juggernaut was built not only on incense trade, but on tribute paid at its temples. It also was a hub for dried dates, which have grown in abundance here for nearly 3,000 years and travel well on weekslong desert treks.

“Today, this same oasis accounts for one-third of Saudi Arabia’s date production and is renowned across the country. … Such was Lihyan’s fame, ancient Greek cartographers and Pliny the Elder referred to the Gulf of Aqaba as the Gulf of Lihyan, a name that was in use for three centuries.

“But then, shortly before the first century B.C., the rival Nabataeans from southern Jordan inhabited Lihyan and transformed it into the town of Al Hajr, or Hegra, the second city of their empire. Within years, all mention of Lihyan suddenly stopped.”

Imagine! Three hundred years of fame and then nothing.

Hard to read about archaeology without thinking of Shelley’s poem:

“And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains.” 

More at the Monitor, here.

Photo: Embassy of Switzerland in the United States of America.
The Swiss embassy has created a bird sanctuary in the heart of Washington, DC.

When a Swiss bird lover became the ambassador to the United States, he was horrified that his embassy in Washington was maintained like a golf course. He decided to create grounds more welcoming to birds — and did a big favor to everyone who cares about biodiversity.

Molly McCluskey reports at Audubon magazine, “When Jacques Pitteloud arrived at his new home and office in the fall of 2019, he was dismayed to discover the state of the property. As Switzerland’s new ambassador to the United States, he had a piece of prime real estate in northwest Washington, D.C.,— a historic six-acre stretch of land that once was a farm called Single Oak. Now it hosted the country’s sleek, modern residence, and an embassy under renovation. But the grounds looked and were treated like a golf course.

‘I felt a tremendous amount of guilt and shame when I took over the residence,’ he says. ‘Golf courses are nice to look at, but they’re ecological disasters. … [Now] we have so many fireflies at night, it’s like fireworks.’

Normal diplomatic life was soon upended by the pandemic, and since then he’s been on a mission to rewild the expansive grounds, aiming to create a biodiversity reserve marked by the native plants of the region. He forbid the use of pesticides and allowed the lawn to grow out in spotty patches. Using resources such as Audubon’s native plants database and guide to birds, he worked closely with a local landscape designer, Aldertree Garden, that specializes in native plants. They uprooted all the non-native bushes and trees, such as ornamental burning bush and non-productive grass, and replaced them with meadows, bushes, and native trees, including white oak, scarlet oak, black oak, and others.

“Wildlife was also a part of his rewilding vision. Local beekeepers now manage the embassy’s colony of 50 hives, and he built a home for…

” ‘Within a short time, the results are amazing,’ Pitteloud tells me as he walks through the grounds, bending down from time to time to check on the plants or to take a closer view at the frogs in a newly installed pond. ‘We have so many more birds, butterflies. It’s incredible how quickly they returned. We have so many fireflies at night, it’s like fireworks.’ …

“Soon after his arrival in Washington, with the pandemic in full swing and diplomatic life thrown into disarray, Pitteloud immersed himself in local birding clubs and outings as a way of getting to know his new community and environment. His snapshot of an unusual Painted Bunting sighting on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park — a bird more typically found in Florida than in southern Maryland — was featured in the Washington Post.

“Pitteloud’s efforts to rewild the embassy and residence are a part of a growing movement of local embassies adding more natural elements to their buildings and grounds. The Finnish embassy prides itself on being the first U.S. Green Building Council LEED-certified embassy in Washington. The Irish ambassador’s residence has a low-impact, xeriscaped garden. The Tunisian embassy and residence both have wild, untamed pollinator gardens, in addition to vegetable gardens. The Canadian residence on Pennsylvania Avenue has beehives, and a community-engaged program around beekeeping.

“But the Swiss are perhaps going the furthest on the land they tend. Pitteloud says the efforts are labor- and cost-intensive, but he sees no other option. And staff in D.C. and back in Switzerland at the foreign ministry, he says, have largely applauded the work — especially as the effects of climate change, and the dramatic loss of birdlife around the world, gain more attention. Around the time he took the helm at the embassy, in September 2019, a team of scientists concluded that North America has lost some 3 billion breeding adult birds since 1970, with every biome impacted.

“The news hit Pitteloud hard: ‘We’re five minutes to midnight on biodiversity loss,’ he says. ‘In 30 years, we’ll have empty skies, with no songbirds left. We’ll have to carry bees around because we won’t be able to pollinate our agriculture.’

“Though the Swiss embassy in Washington is only one property, Pitteloud hopes that by fostering favorable habitats for wildlife and inviting in beekeepers and other neighborhood groups, he is engaging in a form of ‘environmental diplomacy.’ Essentially his goal is to set an example for others, whether local neighbors or other embassies (or maybe even the White House, a property whose garden is notably lacking in native plants).

“Because ambassadors and their staff often cycle in and out of their posts every few years, Pitteloud may never see the full effects of the landscaping changes come to fruition, but he hopes the legacy lasts.”

More at Audubon, here.

Photo: Deb Nystrom.
The Minnesota State Fair crowns a “Princess Kay of the Milky Way” every year, and for 50 years, Linda Christensen has been sculpting her head in butter.

OK, no laughing. A regular attraction of the Minnesota State Fair, which I visited when I lived in Minneapolis, is one that celebrates the dairy industry. It includes a pageant to select the year’s Princess Kay of the Milky Way. And for 50 years, Princess Kay and her attendants have had their heads sculpted in butter by Linda Christensen.

Cathy Free writes at the Washington Post, “Photos and paintings can be lovely, but if you really want to impress, get your likeness chiseled into a 90-pound block of butter.

“Every year at the Minnesota State Fair, a dozen young dairy pageant finalists are sculpted live as part of a spectacle, a tradition that dates back to 1965. The butter busts began as a way to bring attention to Minnesota’s dairy industry and have remained a draw since, as thousands of visitors show up every August to watch the painstaking artistry while a winner is named Princess Kay of the Milky Way.

“ ‘It would be hard to find a person in Minnesota who doesn’t know about Princess Kay of the Milky Way,’ said sculptor Linda Christensen, 79, about the contest naming a state dairy ambassador.

“For almost 50 years, Christensen has been the principal artist to create the busts. She uses a kitchen knife she calls ‘Old Faithful’ to carve the faces into salted butter. Each one takes about six hours.

“Now, after churning out more than 500 princess butter heads over nearly five decades, Christensen has decided to retire her knife. She turned her last 90-pound block into a creamy masterpiece at the fairgrounds last month from her glass-enclosed studio.

‘You learn to get used to working in a rotating glass booth with everyone watching you,’ she said. ‘You have to bundle up, because the temperature is set at 39 degrees. There probably aren’t a lot of artists who’d like to work with cold butter, but I really enjoyed it.’ …

“State fairs in Iowa and Illinois are famous for showcasing cows crafted from butter, but Christensen said she doesn’t know other artists who regularly sculpt the likenesses of live dairy models year after year. She said she admires the women she sculpts, most of whom come from dairy farming families.

“ ‘As kids, they knew what it was like to get up at 4:30 to help with the farm chores before catching the bus to school,’ she said. ‘They’re tough.’ …

“The Princess Kay of the Milky Way contest is not based on looks. It is a goodwill ambassador program focused on leadership skills and ‘promoting the goodness of dairy products,’ according to the Minnesota Dairy Princess Handbook. … The princess is selected based on how well judges think she will promote Minnesota’s dairy industry at trade shows and community events. Women who live or work on dairy farms are encouraged to compete in county contests every year, with the finalists advancing to the Minnesota State Fair.

“The top dozen ended up in Christensen’s see-through butter booth as she chiseled their likenesses into edible works of art.

“The princess is selected based on how well judges think she will promote Minnesota’s dairy industry at trade shows and community events. Women who live or work on dairy farms are encouraged to compete in county contests every year, with the finalists advancing to the Minnesota State Fair. …

“Christensen began the niche portraits in 1972 when the American Dairy Association of Minnesota (now known as Midwest Dairy) was looking for a new artist to make giant princess butter heads at the state fairgrounds in Falcon Heights, outside of St. Paul.

“Christensen had recently graduated from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and was recommended by one of her instructors to make sculptures of the pageant’s finalists. Christensen worked as an art teacher at the time, but she thought two weeks of butter sculpting would be a fun way to make extra money, she said. She didn’t imagine she’d remain for nearly 50 years. …

“The Princess Kay of the Milky Way pageant — named in the 1950s by the winner of a public contest — wouldn’t have been the same without Christensen’s sculpting talent, said Molly Pelzer, the CEO of Midwest Dairy.

“ ‘Linda’s butter sculptures have helped solidify [the pageant’s] iconic place in Minnesota culture,’ she said.

“Past winners have included Kristi Pettis Osterlund, who in 1996 was crowned as the 43rd Princess Kay of the Milky Way. She took her butter bust home to Winthrop, Minn., where it was kept frozen in a meat locker until the last month of her reign. She then decided to melt down her likeness and serve it to her community to slather on corn on the cob. …

“She and her mother fired up the largest slow-cooker they could find, cut the butter head into big chunks and melted it one batch at a time, she said.

“ ‘I remember cringing when my mom took a butcher knife to the head,’ she said. ‘That was a little emotional for me. But it was such a fun and memorable party. I’ll bet we easily had six or seven quarts of melted butter.’

“Donna Schmidt Moenning, a Princess Kay finalist in 1980, opted for a different approach. Moenning shared the back half of her butter bust with friends and neighbors in Marietta, Minn., for baking projects. But then she froze the face portion. It’s still sitting in her deep freeze, next to the pork chops, she said.” More at the Post, here.

And at CBS, here, you can see three sisters posing with the butter sculptures they have preserved. Jeni Haler says, “We’re a generation of butter heads. My mom was a butter head. And I have two older sisters that were also butter heads.”

Photo: Andrew Milligan/PA.
The giant head is grafted onto the hull of a boat and made up of a steel framework and cement. Forgotten after a Glasgow festival in the 1980s, it was sought out by sculptor Richard Groom’s family after his death.

Artworks may be forgotten when no one connected to the artist thinks they are worth keeping track of. It wasn’t until mourners at the funeral of UK sculptor Richard Groom told family members how well they remembered the giant floating head he once made that the family decided to find out what happened to it. Libby Brooks has the story at the Guardian.

“Bobbing in the water in the Canting Basin, by the shiny crescent of the Glasgow Science Centre, the Floating Head remains impassive as a seagull lands on its broad forehead. The seven-metre-long, 26-tonne buoyant sculpture could be a refugee from Easter Island, brought to the Clyde by the tide, only to have a bird peck at the moss covering its cheek and chin like a lopsided beard.

“In fact, it was commissioned from the artist Richard Groom as the centrepiece of Glasgow’s 1988 Garden festival, but then lost for decades – forgotten and unclaimed in a boatyard until a dogged relocation and restoration project brought it back to the spot where it started, three decades later.

“It was a conversation at the artist’s funeral in 2019 that inspired his family to seek out the sculpture.

“His brother Andy Groom said: ‘Myself and my family were so touched at Richard’s funeral where so many of his friends and colleagues commented on all of his work, especially the Floating Head. It became apparent very quickly we had to find it, fix it, float it.’

“Working with the Sculpture Placement Group (SPG), an organisation that aims to bring sculpture to different audiences, the family discovered the head had been stored at the Clyde Boat Yard for more than a decade after being rescued from another dock site where it was about to be bulldozed.

‘We had no idea whatsoever where it was,’ said Groom. ‘It was listed as abandoned on the banks of the Clyde, so I started phoning round scrap and storage yards asking: do you happen to know where a 30ft concrete head might be?’

“The head, which is grafted on to the hull of a boat and made up of a steel framework with a concrete render, was then partially restored – some graffiti was removed, but the natural weathering, and the encroaching moss, remains.

“Kate Robertson, the co-director of the SPG, said: ‘People still remember the Garden festival as a big highlight, they were aware of the focus on Glasgow and the visitors, and it also marked a turning point for the city from post-industrial to a cultural destination.’ … The Garden festival site began the redevelopment of the once booming dry docks that had become a symbol of an industry in permanent decline.

“With an official launch later this month, the head will feature at Glasgow Doors Open Days festival, forming part of a sculpture trail through Govan, while Groom’s family and the SPG seek a permanent mooring. …

“ ‘The scale of it is quite intimidating,’ Robertson said. ‘The best way to see the possibilities there are for the sculpture is to bring it out into public view again.’ ” More at the Guardian, here.

Although I don’t know what ideas the artist himself intended to emphasize with the floating head at the festival, it certainly brings home to me that Glasgow is a city on the water. Fort Point Channel features floating art, too (for example, here). It reminds viewers not only that much of Boston was salvaged from the ocean, but that rising seas want it back.

Life Under the Last Tsar

Photo: Maxim Dmitriev.
Men making spoons in the village of Deyanovo, Russia’s Volga region, 1897.

With the extremes of rich and poor we see around the world today, and especially in our own country, I often wonder if we can fix what’s broken before there’s some kind of uprising. Today’s story talks about what life was like in Russia before the revolution of 1917 as seen through the eyes of two photographers — one aristocratic, one not.

Billy Anania has the report at Hyperallergic.

“In the decades leading up to the October Revolution, the Russian Empire was already crumbling. The first 15 years of the 20th century saw two major industrial crises give way to economic collapse as the Romanov Tsar Nicholas II pitched the military into wars with Japan and Germany, slowing production and inflicting food shortages. Two revolutions in 1917 effectively vanquished the monarchy at the climax of World War I, resulting in the dissolution of the empire and the formation of the Soviet Union. 

“Before that upheaval, two Russian photographers, Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky and Maxim Dmitriev, rose to prominence by documenting everyday life under late tsarism. Though they were contemporaries, their work presents very different perspectives on the region. Prokudin-Gorsky’s images are high-definition and undeniably gorgeous, as well as some of the first color photographs in Russia. In contrast, Dmitriev’s pictures of peasant villages lay bare the dismal living conditions for the majority of the empire. The archives of these two men and the disparities in their personal histories exemplify early photography’s use as both imperialist propaganda and documentary journalism.

“Born into a noble family in Murom, Prokudin-Gorsky studied chemistry at the Saint Petersburg State Institute of Technology and art at the Imperial University of Arts. He married the daughter of an industrialist and became director of his father-in-law’s executive board. From there he joined the Imperial Russian Technology Society (IRTS), the preeminent scientific organization of the time, where he gained access to cutting-edge camera technology. Within a few years, he became president of IRTS’s photography section and an editor at Russia’s predominant photo journal, Fotograf-Liubitel (Amateur Photographer).

“These prestigious positions led Prokudin-Gorsky to exhibit his photography for Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich and Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, as well as Nicholas II and his family. The tsar admired his work so much that he commissioned the photographer to document Russia’s vast population and landscapes. From 1909 to 1915, Prokudin-Gorsky created more than 10,000 color photos of the diverse people and places comprising the empire, which at the time covered nearly 23 million square kilometers [8,880,350 square miles] of Europe and Asia.

“Nicholas provided Prokudin-Gorsky with a railroad car darkroom. … Much of his work was intended to educate schoolchildren on Russia’s array of cultures and its burgeoning modernization. The quality of these images, along with their pristine compositions, create a visual leveling effect across class divisions, depicting each walk of life as beautiful in its own way. …

“While Prokudin-Gorsky’s upbringing fast-tracked him to national recognition, Dmitriev’s more humble beginnings led him in a different direction. Born a commoner in Tambov, he worked for his bread from a young age, weaving baskets and reading hymns over the dead. In spite of these time constraints, he excelled in his studies, and at 15 he became an apprentice to acclaimed Russian photographers M.P. Nastyukov and later Andrei Karelin. Working in their studios expanded his knowledge of development techniques like soaking plates, processing, and retouching.

“In 1879, Dmitriev relocated to Nizhny Novgorod and began shooting scenes of everyday life — sea and landscapes, orthodox and Muslim ceremonies, monks on pilgrimage, and workers along the Volga River. After developing a portfolio, he traveled to Paris and participated in a few group exhibitions. His photos of prison construction workers caused a stir among viewers; some were critical of the content, others moved by their honesty. Returning to Russia, he continued to shoot unconventional scenes of suffering. His monograph A Lean Year documented a small village suffering a bad harvest. Starving peasants appear in rags alongside doctors and social workers rationing bread and caring for the sick in rundown houses. 

“The Bolshevik Revolution impacted both photographers’ careers, as the Soviet Union birthed new paradigms around inequality and political art. Dmitriev’s work from the 1890s remains some of the earliest examples of photojournalism in Russia, wherein the visual exposure of inequality shifted public opinion. …

“Dmitriev’s photos predate the Progressive Era in the West, when photography helped usher in robust social reforms necessitated by industrialization. Prokudin-Gorsky avoided these more dismal aspects of peasant life to sell more empire. …

“Today, Prokudin-Gorsky remains a visionary of color photography and checks all the boxes of a Western icon, while Dmitriev has all but faded into obscurity. Incidentally, the US Library of Congress acquired Prokudin-Gorsky’s archives in 1948, and Dmitriev’s work is barely findable online.”

More at Hyperallergic, here.

Recycling Oyster Shells

Photo: Kara Holsopple, The Allegheny Front.
Stephanie Alexander at the Horn Point Lab oyster hatchery. Lawn chemicals pollute Chesapeake Bay. Oysters fight back.

Today I want to expand on my 2019 blog post about New York City’s Billion Oyster Project, which uses restaurants’ discarded oyster shells to fight erosion in the harbor.

According to a July broadcast of Living on Earth [LOE], Pittsburgh restaurants are doing something similar. In this case, it’s to counteract pollution caused by fertilizer that runs into Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay.

LOE’S BOBBY “BASCOMB: The Chesapeake Bay is routinely inundated with fertilizer runoff from the surrounding watershed in parts of Pennsylvania and Maryland. The result is algae blooms that suck up oxygen in the water and create dead zones for most other forms of life in the Bay. Oysters are particularly vulnerable, but as Kara Holsopple of the Allegheny Front reports, some local groups have come up with a novel way to help oysters recover.

“KARA HOLSOPPLE: Jessica Lewis says shucking an oyster is like picking a lock.

“JESSICA LEWIS: You press down and then you just wiggle, pop it open and, the abductor muscle right there. You clean that. …

“HOLSOPPLE: Lewis says they go through about three to four hundred oysters here a week from the East and West coasts. This oyster is from Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay — and its top and bottom shell are going back there… Lewis and her staff toss the spent shells in a 35 gallon barrel with a screw-on lid, located in the trash area on the ground floor of the building. …

“About once a month a truck picks up the old shells from this and six other participating restaurants in Pittsburgh, and drives them more than 250 miles to a staging area just across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in Maryland. From there, the oyster shells from Pittsburgh and ones collected from Maryland, Virginia and the D.C. area are taken to a site at the University of Maryland’s Horn Point Laboratory in Cambridge, for processing.

“KARIS KING: So here you’re looking at about 7,000 tons of clean shell.

“HOLSOPPLE: Karis King is with Oyster Recovery Partnership, a nonprofit which works to increase oyster numbers in the Chesapeake Bay. We’re standing at the base of a mountain of gray shells. They’ve been dumped into a machine that’s like a modified potato hopper, which sorts the shells. … Smaller fragments of broken shell fall away as a conveyor belt deposits the half shells into wire cages or piles where they’re cured for a year. …

“KING: Even with all the shell that we do recycle, and that we also purchase from shucking houses, we still don’t have enough to do large scale restoration, at the rate that we could.

“HOLSOPPLE: That’s because of the scale of the problem. Stephanie Alexander manages the Horn Point Lab oyster hatchery. …

“ALEXANDER: We’ve pretty much wiped the oyster out to less than 1 percent of historic levels. So we started this restoration effort where we’re using a hatchery to produce spat on shell to put back into the bay so we can kind of help jump start Mother Nature.

“HOLSOPPLE: The concept is pretty simple: Scientists here at the lab produce baby oysters from adults harvested from the bay, nurture the microscopic larvae with a custom algae diet, then get them attach to the recycled, treated oyster shells. That’s the ‘spat on shell.’ In practice, it’s a lot harder than it sounds…

“Ben Malmgren is an intern here, a student from St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

“BEN MALMGREN: Right now we’re placing the oysters out on the spawning table where we are going to simulate river conditions that are ideal for spawning.

“HOLSOPPLE: The saltiness and temperature of the water in the shallow black basins has to be just right. Malmgren places the oysters in a grid formation, so it’s easier to separate the males from the females…

“MALMGREN: Because if we just let them spawn out on the table all these eggs are gonna go down to the into the drain. So once we see a female and we’ll we’ll know she’s a female by she’ll clap her top and bottom shell together and we’ll see a plume of eggs come out. …

“HOLSOPPLE: Even in the lab, nature is in charge. Stephanie Alexander says it was a slow summer…a lot of rain meant the adult oysters have lived with lower salinity levels, and they’re stressed. Out in the bay, the water is warmer, meaning the spat on shell might have a harder time growing that second shell, and over the years, forming the clusters that create oyster reefs.

“STEPHANIE ALEXANDER: When one thing gets out of whack everything else is going to kind of follow. So we’re trying to get the oysters back into balance so then hopefully everything else will follow as well. …

“Oysters are the vacuum cleaners or the kidneys of the bay and they just suck the water in, they decide if it’s food or not food. But no matter what it is that will remove it from the water column and that’s how they vacuum the bay up and clean it.

“HOLSOPPLE: Because of this superpower, oyster aquaculture is a best management practice identified by the regional partnership that oversees cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay. Some of the spat raised at the Horn Point Lab will make its way to oyster farmers, and those are the oysters on a half shell that are served in restaurants. But the majority of the spat will help rebuild oyster reefs, creating habitat for fish, and restoring the ecosystem.”

More at Living on Earth, here.

Photos: Chandra McCormick and Keith Calhoun.
“The Sound of Our Resurrection Is Stronger Than the Silence of Death” is what McCormick and Calhoun call their picture of A Chosen Few Brass Band.

A recent article in Smithsonian magazine about the Louisiana photography duo Chandra McCormick and Keith Calhoun got me interested in learning more about them.

Reporter Amy Crawford focused on something new they were doing with old photographs: working with the Hurricane Katrina water damage to elicit the ghostly spirit of an indomitable city.

Crawford writes that in 2005, “Hurricane Katrina was bearing down on New Orleans, so Chandra McCormick and Keith Calhoun packed their photography archive — thousands of slides, negatives and prints the couple had amassed over three decades documenting African American life in Louisiana. …

“Then they drove to Houston with their two children, planning to be gone for maybe two weeks. Ten weeks later, McCormick and Calhoun returned home to…devastation. ‘All there was, was waterlogged,’ Calhoun says. ‘Imagine the smell — all that stuff had been in that mud and mold.’

“They figured they had lost everything, including the archive, but their teenage son urged them not to throw it away. They put the archive into a freezer, to prevent further deterioration. With an electronic scanner they copied and enlarged the images — at first just searching for anything recognizable. The water, heat and mold had blended colors, creating surreal patterns over ghostly scenes of brass band parades, Mardi Gras celebrations and riverside baptisms.

‘Mother Nature went way beyond my imagination as a photographer,’ Calhoun says of the otherworldly images. McCormick says, ‘We no longer consider them damaged.’

“Today McCormick and Calhoun’s altered photographs are viewed as a metaphor for the city’s resilience. Yet they’re also a memento of a community that is no longer the same. By 2019, New Orleans had lost more than a quarter of its African American population. ‘So much is vanishing now,’ Calhoun says. ‘I think this work serves as a record to validate that we once lived in this city. We were its spiritual backbone.’ ” More at the Smithsonian, here.

From the couple’s website: “Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick were born and raised in the lower ninth ward of New Orleans, Louisiana. As husband and wife team, they have been documenting Louisiana and its people for more than 25 years. In New Orleans, they have documented the music culture, which consists of Brass Bands, Jazz Funerals, Social and Pleasure Clubs, Benevolent Societies, and the Black Mardi Gras Indians.

“In addition to documenting New Orleans social and cultural history, Calhoun and McCormick have also covered religious and spiritual ceremonies throughout their community, as well as river baptisms in rural Louisiana. They have created several photographic series, including: Louisiana Laborers; The Dock Worker, Longshoreman, and Freight Handlers on the docks of New Orleans; Sugar Cane Field Scrappers in the river parishes along the Mississippi river; Cotton Gins, and Sweet Potato Workers in East Carrol parish of Lake Providence Louisiana.

“Calhoun and McCormick have documented the soul of New Orleans and a vanishing Louisiana [including] the displacement of African Americans after Katrina … and the cruel conditions of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, a former slave-breeding plantation named for the African nation from which ‘the most profitable’ slaves, according to slave owners, were kidnapped. …

“[Angola] is an 18,000-acre prison farm where inmates are traded like chattel among wardens of neighboring penitentiaries. Although the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution abolished slavery in 1865, its prohibition of forced labor does not apply to convicted inmates. … Calhoun and McCormick’s work restores visibility and humanity to a population often forgotten by the public at large.”

And from the Southbound Project: “The photographic emulsion merging with mold and water sedimentation left interesting patterns and color transformations. … Sometimes the textural quality of the effects even suggests physical markings and scars of trauma. Ida Mae Strickland (1987, ca. 2010), for example, is a portrait of an elderly woman shown from the waist up, seemingly lost in thought with a furrowed brow. She appears contemplative and dignified, as one whose internal strength has carried her through the years. The water damage creates rippling patterns that appear to emanate from her head and evoke wrinkled folds of aged skin. These unintentional effects reinforce qualities of the original image. The photograph, like the original sitter, has quietly weathered the influence of time and nature but still survives.” 

The Ag Fair and More

Once a year, they close off a block on Main Street.

Saturday was quite a joyful day in town. The weather was beautiful (not too humid), the farmers market boasted vegetable car races for kids as well as vegetable stalls for grownups, and the Covid-delayed library book sale made a record haul from book lovers overjoyed to be back.

So today seems like a good day to share pictures from those events and also from late summer in general. The beach plums are in New Shoreham. My neighbor knows the secret places for every kind of berry, and he goes out at dawn to pick them so Sandra can make jams and jellies. This year was a bust for blackberries, but Sandra expects to get several batches out of the beach plums.

Next comes one of the better Painted Rock designs from 2021, followed by a photo of seining for small fish and shrimp in Great Salt Pond.

From those scenes we turn to the lobster pots and breathtaking vistas of Lewis Farm. Then a view of Old Harbor boats and the National Hotel.

The windmills did not get much action this summer, partly because of the cost and partly because of repairs. That’s what I was told, anyway.

The fishing boat is docked in the active port of Galilee, the last stop in Rhode Island today.

Next we return to Massachusetts, where I want to share a bit regarding post-Covid life. First, a delicious Dutch pancake that I learned to make during the pandemic. Then, the story of my hair. My daughter-in-law loved how it grew out during the year and a half I stayed away from scissors, and she made beautiful braids for me. But in the end, I couldn’t manage long hair and resigned myself to easy care.

I was glad to see the Umbrella arts center still has a lot of opportunities to enjoy art outdoors. The Millbrook farm stand offers a different kind of art. Similarly, the colors of autumn sedum and lily-of-the-valley berries make an unstudied picture. The praying mantis is another work of art, busy going after the less welcome bugs in the yard.

Hello and good-bye, Happy Sunflower.

Photo: Lina Malers.
Customers return to Maktaba al-Sham in Mosul’s Old City. Isis kept residents from books, but books won out.

Today’s story honors people who embody the human spirit: rebuilders, booksellers, and book readers. Even in the darkest days of Mosul, Iraq, when Isis believed it could control people’s thoughts, readers hungered for books, and booksellers supplied them. Today one bookseller is rebuilding in the rubble of Mosul’s Old City, on a street once famous for bookshops.

Pesha Magid reports at Atlas Obscura, “Tucked into an alleyway off Najafi Street in Mosul’s Old City is a small red and gold sign advertising a bookstore: Maktaba al-Sham. Not long ago, it was one of countless bookstores along the wide avenue lined with arched windows and doorways. Since the early 1900s the street has been a bustling cultural hub where intellectuals meet to sip tea, debate friends, and buy books.

“But today Najafi Street is in ruins, burned by the ISIS fighters who occupied Mosul and bombed by a United States-led coalition in an effort to liberate the city. The airstrikes destroyed many of the buildings, leaving only pits in the ground. Others are broken, their wire and concrete innards twisted and exposed. The elegant arched building entrances that remain lead to empty, dark spaces. Inside the shell of one former shop, you can still see the outlines of books set aflame by ISIS preserved in ash. Four years after the liberation of Mosul in 2017, Maktaba al-Sham is the first, and so far the only, bookshop to return to the street.

“Daud Salim first opened Maktaba al-Sham around 2001. The now-49-year-old man with silver hair and a hummingbird’s constant energy has loved books since childhood, and he found a natural talent for selling them. He started with used copies of novels by famed authors such as Agatha Christie and Victor Hugo, as well as some history titles.

“Salim kept the store open when ISIS took over in 2014, but on December 5, 2016, as the battle between ISIS fighters and liberation forces began to advance toward the Old City he realized the only way he could survive was by closing the store and sheltering in his home on the other side of the city. During the final battles in 2016 and 2017 ISIS took refuge in the maze-like warren of small streets in the Old City, blowing up the bridges behind them and trapping civilians there as human shields.

“When Salim returned to Najafi Street in March 2018, almost a year after liberation, the Old City was still a dangerous place. The streets were littered with broken pieces of concrete, and ISIS had booby trapped houses with explosives. … Despite the devastation, Salim decided to reopen Maktaba al-Sham. “This bookstore has big memories for me. I spent more than 20 years here. So I remember every place, I remember who went where and who did what, and I longed for it,” he says.

Also, he says the rent was cheaper in the rubble.

“Maktaba al-Sham is a small sliver of a shop, its interior hardly bigger than a closet and its walls fully obscured by books. But this tiny store’s return has outsized meaning to Mosul residents who feel they lost a key part of their city’s heritage in the battle. After the conflict Mosul became like two cities divided by its river. The Left Side of the city, where fighting and airstrikes were less intense, is again full of bustling avenues, restaurants, cafés, and residential neighborhoods, while life has returned more slowly to the Right Side, where the Old City is located. New cafés and markets on the Left Side sell books and attempt to fill the gap that the destruction of Najafi Street left behind, but hundreds of years of history cannot be easily replaced.

“ ‘Any person who loves books in Mosul, if you ask him what street he loves, he will immediately answer Najafi Street,’ says Imad Abdul Azizi, a professor of history at the University of Mosul. … ‘I was so joyful when Maktaba al-Sham came back to Najafi Street.’ …

“ ‘After the fall of [Saddam Hussein’s] regime, people were excited to get to know books,’ [Salim] remembers. ‘It was so open, nothing was forbidden.’ … But when ISIS came to Mosul in 2014, they banned works that did not fit their strict religious guidelines, which Salim says included almost all non-religious books. …

“Books became contraband. Salim hid the majority of his stock in a storage unit near his bookshop and secretly met customers in alleyways.

He would pass [customers] copies of novels in black plastic bags. The most popular works during those years were anti-authoritarian novels like 1984. …

“Bookselling was dangerous. Salim says ISIS kidnapped a bookshop owner named Dhaker Ali for selling law books and they burned his shop on Najafi Street. … ISIS came for Salim’s books as well. In the summer of 2015, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, fighters found the storage unit where he had hidden 5,000 books. … ‘They believed the books I brought from Egypt on society and philosophy were a violation…so they started the fire,’ says Salim. …

“But he continued to acquire books. Because he could not travel to get new titles, he bought used books from people’s home libraries and sold them to loyal customers. …

“Coming back to the Old City [after liberation] was a risk to his business. He says when he initially opened he lost money, but the impact he made on the community encouraged him to keep going. Sometimes, people with memories of Najafi Street come to take pictures of him and his shop on the street of bookstores. ‘People gave me the bravery to stay,’ says Salim.”

More at Atlas Obscura, here.

Photo: Colin Dutton/The Guardian.
Giancarlo Zigante, of Croatia, with a replica of the giant truffle he found in 1999.

Here’s something fun my husband told me the Guardian had started doing: soliciting interesting stories from readers. Truffle hunter Giancarlo Zigante’s story was told to Sophie Haydock.

“It was 2am when I left the house that night in November 1999. I was heading out into the Motovun forest in Istria, in the north-west of Croatia, to hunt for truffles. Serious truffle hunting is done at night – it’s better for the dogs, as the moisture carries the smell of the truffle better, and also it’s harder to be followed.

“It was a freezing night – the temperatures at that time of year dip below zero. Being a truffle hunter is not an easy job: it’s usually wet and muddy in the forest. You often get scratched and dirty, and can return empty-handed. Still, I had a gut feeling that the night would be a good one, so with Diana, my trusty German pointer, I set off.

“A truffle is an edible fungus that grows underground, often in the roots of oak trees. A good hunter might be able to see subtle signs of a truffle beneath the soil, but it’s down to luck – and, of course, a well-trained dog, who can indicate when you’re at the right spot.

“In Istria, it’s possible to find four types of truffle (one white and three black). But it’s Tuber Magnatum Pico, a white truffle with pale yellow skin and a pungent smell, that is the most precious and expensive. …

“I started truffle hunting in the early ’80s, when I was still in my 20s. I was the first person in my family to do anything with truffles. It started as a hobby, to supplement my income, and it grew from there. I really connected with it. I was a tool-maker for the medical industry before, but fell in love with the truffle-hunting lifestyle.

“My spot was the Motovun forest – I’ll never reveal the exact location. Because of the money that can be made from truffles, rivalries have sprung up, sometimes deadly: people in other countries have been shot. …

“When truffle hunting, you lose track of time – it behaves differently. So I don’t know how long it was, perhaps a few hours, before [Diana] indicated a new patch of earth. I got on my knees and started digging, down to about 20cm [~8 inches]. I could see it was a big one, so I was careful not to damage it. It took 15 minutes to dig it out.

“I weighed the truffle straight away and knew I had something special on my hands. It weighed 1,310g [2.8 pounds]. In the morning I spoke with Guinness World Records, who confirmed that it was the biggest truffle ever recorded. I could have sold it for €1m and made my fortune, but I knew instantly that I didn’t want to do that. It’s great to be rich, but I felt the truffle could have more impact if it was shared. The truffle was found in Istria and should be consumed here, not sold to a rich person abroad.

I invited 200 people from Istria to a feast, on me, and we ate it between us. The night was very special; an amazing atmosphere. Even the president of Croatia was there. Every white truffle tastes amazing – but this one was different. …

“I was like a hero in my community. It put Istrian white truffles on the gastronomic map. Three years after finding the truffle, I decided to start my own restaurant. Now there’s a bronze statue of the truffle at my restaurant in Livade, a village in Istria. It’s a great conversation starter – people think it’s a statue of a brain. They can’t imagine a truffle could be that big. …

“My truffle is no longer the largest ever found: the record was broken in the US in 2014. But that one, weighing 1,786g, was sold to the highest bidder.”

More at the Guardian, here.

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