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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.” 

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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.

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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.

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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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Photo: Dave Shafer.
Rodeo clown and “barrelman” Brandon Dunn.

When my husband worked in Minnesota, the colleague who ran manufacturing was in his free time a bull rider. He seemed impervious to danger and injury, but he was young. Eventually, he was obliged to retire.

As dangerous as bull riding is, those in the know might tell you that the role of rodeo clown is more so.

W.K. Stratton says at Texas Highways, “This was one of the rodeo axioms my mother taught me as I was growing up. … Always respect rodeo clowns: They’re the best athletes in the arena, and they save lives.

“[That] perplexed me when I was young. Clowns were the guys who strutted around dusty small-town rodeos in ragged outfits while carrying out groanworthy banter with the event announcer. Sometimes they performed tricks with dancing burros or hoop-jumping dogs. Other times, they might drive around in a tricked-up old car with an exploding muffler and a radiator that could spew water like Old Faithful.

“The athleticism of rodeo clowns was lost on me until I got older and realized their work is just as dangerous and exciting as the bull riders they’re employed to protect. Working in teams, their job is to distract an enraged bull from attacking the rider who’s just been catapulted to the dirt. The clowns working on foot — as opposed to manning a barrel — have come to be known as bullfighters. …

” ‘A human’s instinct is to run away,’ says Weston Rutkowski, of Haskell, one of the best bullfighters in the business. ‘That’s the worst thing you can do in this particular sport. A bull’s got four legs. We’ve got two. So they’re going to run you down in a straight line.

‘You have to be ready to move in the moment a rider starts to fall off. If you don’t come in until they hit the ground, you’re four steps late.’

“While their job has little in common with the matadors of Mexico and Spain who share the ‘bullfighter’ name, rodeo bullfighters must also overcome basic safety impulses. …

“Bullfighting runs in the family for Brandon Dunn, a rodeo clown from the North Texas town of Petrolia. Dunn fought bulls until injuries from a car wreck in 2003 robbed him of his speed. Now he entertains audiences as a clown and barrelman, working in tandem with his 17-year-old son, Brendall Dunn, a bullfighter. The father-son team works about 20 rodeos a year.

“ ‘It got to where I was put together by bailing wire and duct tape, and I just couldn’t fight bulls anymore,’ Dunn says. But that didn’t dissuade Brendall, who worked his first rodeo at age 12. Brandon says he has coached his son carefully.

” ‘There’s a mental maturity you have to reach, no matter how athletic you are,’ he says. ‘We would bring him up with some slower and older bulls and transition him to faster bulls. Now he’s fighting anything that comes out of the chute.’ …

“As a hotbed for rodeos, Texas has produced a prominent line of influential clowns. Ralph Fulkerson, a bull rider from Midlothian, 25 miles southwest of Dallas, changed the game when he switched to bullfighting in the 1920s. He developed a cornball humor act that involved his mule, Elko. After numerous injuries, Fulkerson came up with a way to protect himself by introducing the clown’s barrel to bull riding. His first barrels were made of wood reinforced with metal. Fulkerson would draw the bulls away from the bull riders and toward the barrel. Then he’d hop inside the barrel and allow the bull to bang away at it with its horns. …

“The sport went through a radical change in the early 1990s when [Tuff Hedeman, a four-time world champion bull rider] and other top bull riders broke away from the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) to form the Professional Bull Riders (PBR). The speed as well as the bucking and spinning ability of the bulls increased dramatically.

“Bullfighters have adapted accordingly. At some rodeos, the trappings of the rodeo clown have disappeared. Bullfighters’ work has become so refined that it developed into a sport itself—freestyle bullfighting, in which bullfighters show their stuff while challenging real fighting bulls. The Bullfighters Only (BFO) tour showcases their skills — no bull riders involved. … Judges score fighters on technique and wow factors, including leaps over the bull.

“The jalopy-driving rodeo clowns of my childhood in the 1960s would be dumbfounded by what occurs at BFO events. These bullfighters practice acrobatics reminiscent of the Minoans: They’ve been known to jump completely over a bull and perform flips. Though some of the participants wear clown makeup in homage to the past, freestyle bullfighting has an X Games vibe.”

See some great photos at Texas Highways, here. And if you are interested in the rodeo life, try getting a copy of the wonderful Chloé Zhao movie The Rider.

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Photo: Washed Ashore.
Rosa, the bald eagle, was created by Washed Ashore volunteers collaborating nationwide despite the pandemic. Washed Ashore is a nonprofit that repurposes ocean plastic to make art and raise awareness.

Having read about Washed Ashore at the New York Times before the pandemic, I wondered how these plastic-waste-fighting artists managed to keep going during lockdown. I should have known: nothing can stop them.

Founder Angela Haseltine Pozzi showed her mettle in an early March 2020 interview with Alex V. Cipolle: “Angela Haseltine Pozzi stands shoulder to shoulder with Cosmo, a six-foot-tall tufted puffin, on a cliff overlooking the blustery Oregon coast. It is January and the deadly king tides have come to Coquille Point, making the shoreline look like a churning root-beer float.

“Cosmo endures the weather just fine, as he is composed of plastic that has washed ashore — flip-flops, bottle caps, toy wheels, cigarette lighters — all mounted to a stainless-steel frame and bolted to concrete. The puffin is a sculpture from Ms. Haseltine Pozzi’s art and education nonprofit, Washed Ashore, whose tagline is ‘Art to Save the Sea.’

‘We’ve cleaned up 26 tons off the beaches, Ms. Haseltine Pozzi said, ‘which isn’t a dent in the actual pollution issue, but we’re doing something by raising awareness and waking people up.’ …

“Washed Ashore has taken those 26 tons of garbage, all debris that washed up on the Oregon coast (the majority within 100 miles of Bandon), and built 70 large-scale sculptures and counting, including Octavia the Octopus, Edward the Leatherback Turtle and Daisy the Polar Bear. …

“[The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] estimates that eight million metric tons of plastic end up in the ocean each year. Marine animals become entangled in it or ingest pieces they mistake for food, such as the whale that recently washed ashore in Scotland with 220 pounds of debris in its belly — the same weight in plastic an American throws away annually.”

So having read about Haseltine Pozzi’s efforts to draw attention to this travesty through art, I wondered what happened to Washed Ashore during the pandemic. Surely, there would have been no more of Pozzi’s in-person workshops, workshops where Washed Ashore invites “the Buddhists and the Baptists, and the rednecks and the hippies, and the Republicans and the Democrats, and they all sit around the table and they all work together.”

The nonprofit’s excellent blog has that piece of the story.

“When the Covid-19 pandemic led to a national lockdown of indoor spaces in early 2020, the Washed Ashore gallery and art studios were affected much like everyone else. Volunteer activity ceased, exhibits were closed, and workshops were emptied. Washed Ashore relies heavily on a steady stream of volunteers to collect and sort debris and build parts of sculptures, accompanying our full-time staff of artists and helpers. But overnight, our doors were closed and volunteers sent home.

“Knowing the problems of plastic ocean pollution were too great to ignore, Washed Ashore looked to find a creative way to continue our mission to create ‘Art to Save the Sea’ and finding a way to still work together, but differently. …

“And so we got to work, calling on supporters and putting together a plan to unite us as the pandemic kept us all apart. [We] opened our determined efforts nationwide with a goal to work together and create a new sculpture, a symbol of unity.

“What better symbol of hope and unity for the people of the United States than a giant American Bald Eagle, the symbol of our democracy?

“The project was named ‘Come Soar With Us,’ by our Executive Director Katie Dougherty, and our team got to work putting together detailed plastic debris construction kits and instructions and mailing them out across America to over 1,550 volunteers across seven states. Their tireless participation stretched well over eight months, creating the feathers for what would be become Rosa’s impressive wingspan. …

“During a time when so much was halted, the momentum and collaboration from creating Rosa with all of our staff and volunteers was inspiring and has given our team an enormous sense of pride and accomplishment. … You can see Rosa in person at Norfolk Botanical Garden in Norfolk, Virginia, from August 21 – November 4, 2021.”

More at the Washed Ashore blog, here, and at the New York Times, here.

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Photo: Robert Mckergan.
Robert Mckergan, 66, is a stick-maker from Portstewart, County Londonderry.

When I saw this story on traditional crafts, I thought of the late, great James Hackett of Moate, Ireland, and the handsome shillelagh he made for John. There was something so special about knowing the maker and knowing that his skill had been handed down through generations. Although his day job was harness making, I suppose James might also have been called a “stick-maker,” like the craftsman in this article.

Vanessa Thorpe wrote at the Guardian in March 2020 about organizations that are working to preserve traditional craft skills like those.

“Clay pipe making, wainwrighting, tanning and making spinning wheels – all are skills of the past that can offer us a sustainable future. This is the message behind a drive, launched this spring, to preserve endangered traditional crafts in Britain.

“With a new award of £3,000 available, together with fresh support from outdoor pursuits company Farlows, the Heritage Crafts Association is calling for a renewed effort to save old skills and pass them down to the next generation.

“The association’s list of ‘critically endangered’ ancient techniques has often been regarded as simply concerned with conserving history. But renewed interest in sustainability, together with a growing dislike of throwaway consumer culture, has prompted a new campaign. …

“The new HCA award was set up this month by Prince Charles, the association’s president: craftspeople are invited to submit a proposal to help secure the survival of a craft ranked either endangered or critically endangered on its official list. …

‘We have a rich heritage of craft skills that can be regarded as just as important as historic buildings and treasured objects,’ [Patricia Lovett, chair of HCA] said. ‘However we are in danger of losing a number of these crafts: our research has found that in some cases there are only one or two makers left.’

“The at-risk list is compiled by combining a conservation status ‘red list’ system used by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the Rare Breeds Survival Trust watchlist.

“A heritage craft, usually carried out by an individual in small workshops or at home, is considered viable only if there are sufficient makers to hand down their skills to a younger generation. Last year the traditional paper-making skill of ‘mold and deckle’ was judged extinct, and the vanishing of production in turn endangers paper making. Those deemed merely to be endangered are those crafts which are not financially viable as a sole occupation and those which have no clear system for training or passing on skills. Among these are fan making, watch making and walking stick making – all involving the manufacture of items that are still popular with the public, and even regarded as essential by some.

“Farlows, a company closely associated with fields sports and makers of traditional fishing rods, works directly with many artisan manufacturers, in particular tweed makers, and so its management has decided to formalise that arrangement by backing the heritage association, which they see as a key umbrella body.

“ ‘There is a real knack to making something like a split cane rod. People who fish really value it,’ said [Robin Philpott, chief executive of Farlows].

“The danger, according to Farlows, which began trading 180 years ago and in 1942 switched all its manufacturing to support the war effort, lies in widespread mass production. Although the company now has a Russian owner, its management say it still aims to keep alive the key trades it supported when it was owned and run by family members. …

“Robert Mckergan, 66, is a stick-maker from Portstewart, County Londonderry. ‘For me, it started as a hobby, but I feel we need these crafts to go on. I am a retired engineer and while you can teach yourself as I did, not everyone can do it. You need to be competent with your hands.

“ ‘You couldn’t live on this work, I don’t think. Each stick is about 20 hours’ work. But you get a sense of achievement and of purpose. When I see a tree, I see all the potential carvings. And of course the smell that comes from a piece of wood, say cherry, as you work is lovely.’ ”

More at the Guardian, here. An update is at the Heritage Crafts Association, here.

Photo: Wikimedia.
Shillelaghs. See the one James made for himself, here.

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Photo: Alex Robinson/Unsplash.
A single mom in Nashville offered her hair-braiding skills for free to families that couldn’t afford it. Braids can last for one to two months.

What goes ’round, comes ’round. When a family friend of Brittany Starks spontaneously provided her kids with school supplies and clothes, Starks was moved to use her skills to help other single mothers.

Sydney Page has the story at the Washington Post, “Yulanda Norton was in a bind. Her youngest daughter asked to get her hair braided before the start of school, but Norton couldn’t afford it.

“Norton, who is a nursing assistant in Nashville, lost her job during the coronavirus pandemic, and has been out of work for months. She didn’t have the skills herself to create the hair style, which often costs hundreds of dollars at a salon. But she hoped to have her daughter’s hair braided, as it can last for months and is a huge timesaver in the mornings. …

“Her daughter Janae, 12, who just started sixth grade, yearned for the confidence boost the braids would provide. … Fortunately for Norton, she stumbled upon a Facebook post in a local group from a woman she did not know, offering to braid children’s hair free.

“ ‘Anyone know single parents who can’t afford to get their child’s hair done for school? I will braid it for free! Please DM me,’ Brittany Starks wrote on Aug. 4

“Starks, 29, is familiar with the financial strain of being a single mother. She works three jobs to support her two children, Cayden, 7 and Ceniyah, 9.

“She was compelled to offer her hair braiding services after a family friend spontaneously delivered backpacks full of school supplies, clothing and shoes for Cayden and Ceniyah in early August. …

“The unexpected gift made a big difference to Starks and her children, and it propelled her to pay it forward. Starks, who works two receptionist jobs, also braids hair part-time. Knowing how expensive the service can be — and that it dramatically reduces styling time — she decided to offer her skills to single mothers who were struggling to get their children primed for school. …

“When she wrote the Facebook post, she assumed only a handful of people would reach out, but before she knew it, she had 35 appointments booked. … Her Facebook inbox was suddenly full of messages from single parents, whose stories of hardship and financial challenges mirrored her own.

“ ‘I could really relate to a lot of the women who reached out, and it made me realize that what I was doing was truly important,’ said Starks, who has struggled with homelessness and health challenges.

“Given the overwhelming demand, Starks knew she needed to enlist help.

“Hair braiding takes four to six hours per child, she said, and since there was less than two weeks before the start of school, Starks decided to recruit volunteers to ensure that all 35 children could get their hair done in time for the first day of classes.

“She updated her original Facebook post to ask for helpers. When Donna Garcia, 32, saw Starks’s plea, she immediately offered to assist.

“ ‘She can’t do it alone, she’s only got two hands,’ said Garcia, a mother of four who also braids hair professionally. ‘I let her know I’m willing to help.’ …

‘I like to give back to anyone that needs help,’ Garcia said. When a child gets their hair done, ‘they just feel like a brand-new person, which makes me feel good inside.’ …

“The hair-braiding process involves washing, blow-drying, detangling and finally dividing the hair into small sections and braiding it, Starks explained. The results last one to two months.

“Braiding hair is ‘not an easy task,’ Starks said, adding that it also requires numerous supplies — including combs, brushes, shampoo and conditioner, detangler, mousse, hair jam and additional pieces of hair to weave in — which she paid for out of pocket. …

“When Janae Norton’s hair was finally braided and she looked in the mirror, ‘I felt cute,’ she said. …

“On a recent afternoon, ‘my daughter just yelled out: “Mommy, I’m so proud of you,” ‘ Starks said. ‘The tears were just pouring down. Those words meant everything to me.’ ”

More at the Post, here.

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Image: York Notes.
York Notes, a literature guide, says, “Bob Crachit is Scrooge’s clerk and represents the lower classes. He has to accept poor wages and working conditions because he has a family to support.”

I was thinking about Labor Day and remembering that in many of my favorite novels Dickens wrote with passion about the working conditions of the poor. He had himself worked in a blacking factory as a child when his father was in debt, and few topics were more likely to spark his outrage.

John Broich, an associate professor at Case Western Reserve University, wrote at Time that Dickens decided Scrooge, his hard-working clerk Bob Crachit, and the half-starved Tiny Tim would have more impact on the big issue of the day than the political pamphlet he’d been planning.

“Published 173 years ago this month,” Broich writes, “Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was an instant bestseller, followed by countless print, stage and screen productions. … But A Christmas Carol’s seemingly timeless transcendence hides the fact that it was very much the product of a particular moment in history, its author meaning to weigh in on specific issues of the day.

Dickens first conceived of his project as a pamphlet, which he planned on calling, ‘An Appeal to the People of England on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child.’

“But in less than a week of thinking about it, he decided instead to embody his arguments in a story. … So what might have been a polemic to harangue, instead became a story for which audiences hungered.

“Dickens set out to write his pamphlet-turned-book in spring 1843, having just read a government report on child labor in the United Kingdom. The report took the form of a compilation of interviews with children — compiled by a journalist friend of Dickens — that detailed their crushing labors.

“Dickens read the testimony of girls who sewed dresses for the expanding market of middle class consumers; they regularly worked 16 hours a day, six days a week, rooming — like Martha Cratchit — above the factory floor. He read of 8-year-old children who dragged coal carts through tiny subterranean passages over a standard 11-hour workday. These were not exceptional stories, but ordinary. Dickens wrote to one of the government investigators that the descriptions left him ‘stricken.’

“This new, brutal reality of child labor was the result of revolutionary changes in British society. The population of England had grown 64% between Dickens’ birth in 1812 and the year of the child labor report. Workers were leaving the countryside to crowd into new manufacturing centers and cities. Meanwhile, there was a revolution in the way goods were manufactured: cottage industry was upended by a trend towards workers serving as unskilled cogs laboring in the pre-cursor of the assembly line, hammering the same nail or gluing the same piece — as an 11-year-old Dickens had to do — hour after hour, day after day.

“More and more, employers thought of their workers as tools as interchangeable as any nail or gluepot. Workers were becoming like commodities: not individual humans, but mere resources, their value measured to the ha-penny by how many nails they could hammer in an hour. But in a time of dearth — the 1840s earned the nickname ‘The Hungry ‘40s’ — the poor took what work they could arrange. And who worked for the lowest wages? Children.

“Popular theories about how — or whether — to help the poor often made things worse. The first was the widespread sense that poor people tended to be so because they were lazy and immoral, and that helping them would only encourage their malingering. If they were to be helped, it should be under conditions so awful as to discouraged people from seeking that help. The new workhouses were seen as the perfect solution — where families were split up, food was minimal and work painful. ‘Those who are badly off,’ says the unreformed Scrooge, ‘must go there.’

“Associated with this concept were the ideas of Rev. Thomas Malthus, who cautioned against intervening when people were hungry because it would only lead to an untenable population size. Better that the poor should starve and thus ‘decrease the surplus population.’ …

“Friedrich Engels read the same report on child labor that Dickens did and, with his collaborator Karl Marx, envisioned an eventual revolution. Dickens was very much an anti-revolutionary. In fact, he implied that [revolution] was the fearsome consequence of not solving the problem some other way.

“ ‘This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.’ …

“Dickens wasn’t a ‘systems’ thinker, nor was he proto-socialist. Yet what Dickens did propose in A Christmas Carol … was that employers are responsible for the well-being of their employees. Their workers are not of value only to the extent to which they contribute to a product for the cheapest possible labor cost. They are of value as ‘fellow-passengers to the grave,’ in the words of Scrooge’s nephew, ‘and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.’ Employers owe their employees as human beings — no better, but no worse, than themselves.

“And, yes, that might mean ‘a prize Turkey’ at Christmas … but the real salvation that Scrooge gives to the Cratchit family is a raise.

“As Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Past watch Tim, his father holding his [hand], the miser pleads, ‘say he will be spared.’ The ghost reminds readers of Scrooge’s Malthusian quote. ‘If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.’ ” More at Time.

Today we know that most of the labor benefits we have today, including the Monday holiday in America, were not handed down by benevolent company owners but were wrested from them by workers and unions.

You can read that history at Wikipedia, here. Even so, I do think stories help prepare a population to accept change — to recognize that the way things are is not always the best way.

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