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Photo: Denis Dobrovoda.
Justo Gallego Martínez, 2018, in the cathedral he built in Mejorada del Campo, Spain. The self-taught monk even made the crypt he wanted to buried in.

I often wondered about the investment of time and money that went into places people wanted to be buried. In the case of Egyptian Pharaohs and Chinese emperors, it had to do with what they believed would happen after death. But what about European kings and queens? It’s hard to understand.

Today’s story is about a contemporary monk who built a crypt for himself as part of building a cathedral — alone.

Matthew Bremner writes at the Guardian, “One late spring evening in 2018, Justo Gallego Martínez said he would show me his grave. The old man was warming his hands by a stove in the dim back room of his cathedral. A dusty film coated the concrete floor. The shelves and tables were full of relics, screws, chipped wood, crushed glass, half-eaten loaves of bread. A bare hanging bulb cast the room in jaundiced light.

“ ‘I want to be buried here,’ Justo said, signalling around him to the cathedral’s cavernous nave and the 20 trembling towers sprawled across thousands of square feet of his own land on the outskirts of Madrid. … He’d be buried there because it was his cathedral.

He’d designed it entirely in his head, without a single measurement or calculation on paper, without a record of any of the materials he’d used. And he had done it largely by himself. …

“Outside, the uncovered frame of a dome, 35 metres high and 10 metres wide, loomed above us. The nave lurched around 45 metres to our left, covered by a half-barrel vault whose exposed beams curved upwards like a whale’s ribcage.

“The rest of the cathedral was an architectural Frankenstein’s monster propped up on mismatched bricks, tires, wheels, food cans, plastic and excessive quantities of concrete. Large chunks of the building were already in decay, invaded by moss and rising damp. In the aisles dusty cement bags were piled as high as the first-floor gallery. Other rooms erupted with broken tiles, dismantled cement mixers, motorbikes, rotten wood, oxidised saws, festering ropes, chicken carcasses and plastic bags fossilised in pigeon shit. It sprawled over an area the size of a football pitch. …

“Next to the shrine, the floor opened to the darkness of the crypt below. This hole was where it had all begun, Justo said. Here, he had first started to dig, and to formulate his vision. …

“In early 2018, I came across an article in a local paper about an ex-monk building a cathedral in Mejorada del Campo, just outside Madrid. For almost 60 years, with no help or architectural expertise, Justo Gallego Martínez had been constructing a cathedral that was almost the size of the Sagrada Familia, using waste and recycled materials.

“When the monk started his project, the locals had called him a madman. Since then he had fought with family members, made enemies and won an adoring international public. He had never gained formal permission to build the structure, which meant it was illegal. …

“As I got to know Justo better, I realized that he was a mess of incongruities. He could be open-minded and bigoted, forgiving and stubborn, kind and brusque, wise and simple. He was a flawed genius, who never sought to be named as such. …

“Justo’s early life was marked by religious fervor, political upheavals and health problems. As a boy, he was very close to his mother. ‘She was the one that taught me the words of the Bible,’ he said. At an early age, he had to leave school to escape the dangers of the Spanish civil war, which ravaged Madrid and its surroundings. His mother’s teachings were a vital part of the little education that Justo would receive.

“The young man had always dreamed of dedicating his life to God. … At the age of 27, he entered the monastery of Santa María de Huerta in Soria, northern Spain. Many of his fellow monks found him strident and difficult; he would work longer hours than necessary and often pray into the night. Insisting on remaining teetotal, he even refused to drink the wine during communion. ‘They were very suspicious of me,’ he once told local journalists. ‘They said I was breaking the rules.’ …

“Justo told me that after he was rejected from the monastery, he went to Mejorada del Campo and fell into a ‘funk,’ what we might consider depression. … Where would he channel his religious fervor? What could he do with himself that would mean anything? It was in the midst of this self-questioning, he said, that it came to him – the idea to build something for his creator: a cathedral, which would demonstrate his willingness to sacrifice himself for God.

“So, in 1961, he started to dig.

“Justo worked feverishly. Alone, he barrelled mountains of dirt, scaled scaffolding with no harness and soldered with no mask. Sometimes he would have visions. Laying bricks, he would suddenly remember the holy trinity, drop to his knees and weep. …

“Justo came from a relatively well-off family who owned land near Madrid. Over the years, he sold much of it to fund the construction of his church. He also relied heavily on charity. …

“Justo hated sharp angles and straight lines and tried to avoid them at all costs. He preferred curves and circles – vaulted ceilings, domes, arches, rounded chapels, annular altars and spiral staircases. ‘God made all things round. He made the planets round. He made the earth round.’

“To make circles he would bend metal rods around columns and draw around circular water drums or tins of paint. But making curves was more difficult. They were expensive and had little tolerance for error. A millimeter of imprecision in one step could culminate in a spiral staircase that didn’t quite reach its landing.

“The curve Justo loved most was the dome, which was modeled on St Peter’s basilica in Rome. With large blue metal girders curving up to a pressure ring at its centre, it looked like a mechanical spider atop the nave. The dome took him 30 years to imagine and seven years to build. It is the only thing I ever heard him boast about. …

“Justo made up for his technical shortcomings by devising strange solutions. He piled empty paint cans on top of one another and filled them with concrete to make columns. He bent corrugated iron rods and fed them through slinky-like springs to create the structure for arches. When the columns he built were too short, he filled the gaps with clumps of iron, piling them up like mismatched books to the height of the support beams. He’d then solder them together. …

“Soon there was interest from local newspapers. Then the national press came, followed by journalists from abroad. At the end of 2003, photographs of Justo’s cathedral appeared in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. …

“The cathedral became even more famous in 2005 when it appeared in an advertisement for a new soft drink made by the Coca-Cola Company. Justo only agreed to the advert to get funds to continue building. He wasn’t thinking about cash, only more bricks. Indeed, when the commercial was shot, Justo had no idea of the consequences of his decision: ‘I didn’t know it was going to be on TV. I thought they were just going to print something on the side of the can.’

“There was an irony to the advert’s success. While Justo had tried to embody temperance and humility, one of the world’s biggest brands had turned his abnegation of the ego into the exact opposite – a celebration of individual accomplishment. The ad had made his faith synonymous with ambition, his devotion with perseverance, and his sacrifice with self-interest.

“Over the years, tens of thousands of people have come to visit the cathedral. They all want to see Justo – to touch him, to hear him speak, to understand him, his inspiration, his genius and his imagination. I saw old ladies kiss him, pilgrims accost him and fanatics pitch him with all manner of schemes for the future of the cathedral.

“People often talked about him in saintly terms. They marveled that, during almost 60 years of construction, he had suffered no significant injury. Carlos Luis Martin, an architect who helped Justo at the cathedral, recalled witnessing an accident: ‘I was working in the crypt. Justo tripped over a stone and fell and smashed his head on the ground hard … “God has healed me, and now all is fine,” he said. And there was not a scratch on him.’ ”

Read the article at the Guardian, here. No firewall. Justo Gallego Martínez died on 28 November 2021.

Photo: Australian Museum.
The Australian Magpie is a clever songbird that inhabits nearly 90 percent of mainland Australia.

Today’s article by Anthony Ham at the New York Times is reminding me of the children’s book Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, in which a determined mouse helps lab rats escape from scientists using them for experiments.

He writes, “The Australian magpie is one of the cleverest birds on earth. It has a beautiful song of extraordinary complexity. It can recognize and remember up to 30 different human faces.

“But Australians know magpies best for their penchant for mischief. … Magpies’ latest mischief has been to outwit the scientists who would study them. Scientists showed in a study published [in] the journal Australian Field Ornithology just how clever magpies really are and, in the process, revealed a highly unusual example in nature of birds helping one another without any apparent tangible benefit to themselves.

“In 2019, Dominique Potvin, an animal ecologist at University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia, set out to study magpie social behavior. She and her team spent around six months perfecting a harness that would carry miniature tracking devices in a way that was unintrusive for magpies. They believed it would be nearly impossible for magpies to remove the harnesses from their own bodies.

“Dr. Potvin and her team attached the tracking devices and the birds flew off, showing no signs of obvious distress. Then everything began to unravel.

“ ‘The first tracker was off half an hour after we put it on,’ she said. ‘We were literally packing up our gear and watching it happen.’

“In a remarkable act of cooperation, the magpie wearing the tracker remained still while the other magpie worked at the harness with its beak. Within 20 minutes, the helping magpie had found the only weak point — a single clasp, barely a millimeter long — and snipped it with its beak. …

The scientists took six months to reach this point. Within three days, the magpies had removed all five devices.

“ ‘At first it was heartbreaking,’ Dr. Potvin said, ‘but we didn’t realize how special it was. We went back to the literature and asked ourselves, “What did we miss?” But there was nothing because this was actually new behavior.’

“The only similar example of what Dr. Potvin described as ‘altruistic rescue behavior’ — where birds help other birds without receiving tangible benefits in return — was when Seychelles warblers helped other members of their social group escape from sticky seed clusters in which they had become entangled.

“The magpies’ behavior was, Dr. Potvin said, ‘a special combination of helping but also problem solving, of being really social and having this cognitive ability to solve puzzles.’ …

“The Australian magpie is a large black-and-white perching songbird, or passerine, that inhabits nearly 90 percent of mainland Australia. … Remarkably, magpies can recognize the faces of as many as 30 people, which is the average number who live within a magpie’s territory, which is the average number who live within a magpie’s territory. ‘Very rarely do magpies attack more than one or two people,’ said Darryl Jones, a magpie expert at Griffith University. ‘It’s the same individual people that they attack each time.’

“And magpies have long memories: One of Dr. Jones’s research assistants was attacked upon his return after 15 years away from one bird’s territory. …

“If more than 30 people pass through a bird’s territory, ‘they actually start stereotyping people,’ [Sean Dooley, the public affairs manager of Birdlife Australia] said. ‘People who resemble 10-year-old boys are much more likely to be swooped, because those are the kids who are more likely to be throwing sticks and stones, shouting and chasing and running at magpies.’

“Dr. Jones calls the magpies’ ‘gorgeous, glorious caroling song’ another example of their intelligence.

“With more than 300 separate elements, he said, ‘it’s unbelievably complex. In order to remember and repeat a song of that complexity every single morning without error, you have to have a big brain.’

“Dr. Potvin and her team have shelved their original study. But they can’t help but ponder a bigger question: ‘What else are magpies capable of?’ ”

More at the Times, here.

Photo: Erin L. Thompson/ Hyperallergic.
Paubhā painting of Vishnu surrounded by other major Hindu deities, based on various historical paintings from the Malla era.

Around the world, artists are finding unique ways to blend ancient and contemporary, taking the most meaningful aspects of tradition and interpreting it for new generations.

Erin L. Thompson has a story about Nepal artists at Hyperallergic.

“The Vietnamese monks said they wanted a river. So Lok Chitrakar, one of Nepal’s most prominent painters, wrote ‘need river’ amid the folds of a landscape on a preparatory sketch for the gateways of a Buddhist monastery in Vietnam.

“These drawings stretched across the wall of a room in Chitrakar’s studio when I visited Nepal late last year. I was there to see the reinstallation of a 10th-century sculpture of a deity into the shrine it had been stolen from in 1984 … but I couldn’t help being drawn into Nepal’s vibrant contemporary art scene. …

“The Chitrakars have long followed their name’s Sanskrit meaning: ‘image maker.’ But Chitrakar’s father tried to persuade him to follow a different career path, believing that it had become impossible to make a living creating paubhā, the devotional paintings used in Newar Buddhism. …

“But Chitrakar, born in 1961, persevered. His paubhās, painted following the exacting dictates of traditional form and subject matter in hand-ground mineral pigments bound with buffalo-hide glue, are now in collections and Buddhist sites across the globe. Chitrakar also receives commissions, like the one from the Vietnamese monastery. …

“Chitrakar correctly anticipated that the lull during his youth was temporary. Now, the streets around the major Buddhist pilgrimage sites in the Kathmandu Valley are lined with artists’ shops selling deities in paint, limestone, wood, and copper. Ordinary tourists take some home, but the most magnificent examples are commissioned by Tibetan Buddhists eager to establish new sanctuaries outside their homeland.         

“The Valley’s sought-after artists used the pandemic to catch up on these orders, often placed years ahead of time. Chitrakar also finished an enormous painting of the elephant-headed deity Ganesha, who is worshipped in both of Nepal’s major religions, Newar Buddhism and Hinduism. The artist had to climb a ladder to unveil the painting to me. Its intricate details took him 20 years to complete. Ganesha, worshipped as a remover of obstacles, is usually shown as a peaceful deity sampling a bowl of sweets. Chitrakar’s magnum opus depicts his wrathful side. Holding a skull cup and flourishing a variety of weapons, Ganesha dances, symbolizing the strength necessary to protect his devotees.

“Chitrakar was easy to find, but it took me much longer to track down another artist I wanted to meet. … I especially admired a mural with saddhus — Hindu ascetic sages — meditating on heaps of coals, intertwined with bouncy figures wielding spray-paint cans, wittily squirting out the traditional scroll-shaped depictions of clouds.

“I finally spoke to Sadhu X, who created the mural in collaboration with the illustrator Nica Harrison. Today, Sadhu X’s works blend traditional iconography and modern influences into his own distinct style. But when he was growing up, the only street art in Nepal was made by visiting foreign artists. In 2010, as he was completing his undergraduate degree, a teacher suggested he use the stencils he was creating on walls outside those of his art school. He followed the advice, soon met others interested in creating street art, and helped found the art space and community Kaalo.101.

“Helena Aryal, who also joined the video call, is another of Kaalo.101’s founders. She expressed her frustration at the perception, both inside and outside Nepal, that street art is a Western phenomenon. Aryal insisted that although the medium might be foreign, the form is deeply rooted in Nepal’s history. The hand-painted paper illustrations of snakes (nagas), pasted on many homes and buildings in the Valley during the annual rainy season festival, confirm that paste-ups are nothing new in Nepal. And the concept of creating art by modifying the public landscape also fits in well with the interactive, multisensory nature of devotion in Nepal, where worshippers in open street-corner shrines leave fingerprint marks in vermillion powder on deities’ foreheads and offer them marigolds, perfumes, food, and even music, by ringing bells. Some shrines are covered in names written in marker — not casual graffiti, but reminders to the gods about who has prayed for what.

Sadhu X told me that he’s never seen a rigid distinction between the style of traditional paubhās and the work of street artists he admires from other parts of the world. …

“Sometimes he thinks that his work is helping traditional Nepali art to evolve, but more often he’s just mixing together his influences and inspirations because he wants to tell stories using a visual language that he hopes his audience will understand. …

“I also had long discussions about this question with Birat Raj Bajracharya, a scholar of Newar Buddhism and part owner of a gallery selling the works of artists intent on both preserving and transforming paubhā painting. …

“Like Sadhu X, Bajracharya does not see a fundamental distinction between traditional Newar style and classical European models. For example, he pointed out to me that the texts describe paintings as portraying deities with emotionally expressive faces. But such expressions are difficult to render in the linear style of traditional paubhās. Bajracharya thus believes that the more complex shadings of emotion captured by artists who use European Renaissance techniques and the full range of colors of modern pigments may better approximate the ancient texts than the older paubhās. …

“Bajracharya advises the artists associated with his gallery about details like the color, attributes, and hand positions of deities in their paintings, making sure they follow the standards passed down in Buddhist and Hindu texts. He wants art to transform without ‘letting go of its core sense.’ “

More at Hyperallergic, here. No firewall.

Photo: Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff.
Ida Joe tries out her new sink with running water, which the nonprofit DigDeep installed in her home in Smith Lake, New Mexico. About 30% of those living on the Navajo [Diné] reservation do not have indoor plumbing or running water.

In Navajo Country, water is precious, and running water is sometimes nonexistent. Golly. I shouldn’t complain. Renovations at our house have left us without hot water since May 18, but at least we have cold water and friends with showers. Some Navajos [Diné, as they call themselves] trek periodically to the nearest town and rent a hotel room to take a shower!

Henry Gass, a writer at the Christian Science Monitor, reported the story from Smith Lake, New Mexico. “Ida Joe flinches a little as the tap sputters, then spurts water into the sink. Cautiously, tentatively, she pushes her hand under the faucet. She feels the water soak her skin and run through her fingers – first cold, then hot. After a few seconds, she starts to laugh.

“Outside the one-room house she shares with her two daughters and granddaughter, a cold breeze rolls across the dusty, arid plains of the Navajo Nation. A few hundred yards away, wild horses drink from a small, briny lake.

“Ms. Joe has lived on the Navajo Nation for all of her nearly 50 years. This late February day is her first with running water in her home. Until now, her family would drive to Thoreau, 10 minutes away, or Gallup, 45 minutes away, to buy gallon jugs of water.

They would drive to town to do laundry, and rent a hotel room for the day to use the shower. …

“Water is sacred on the Navajo Nation, and scarce. About 30% of the roughly 173,000 population lack running water, according to a report from the U.S. Water Alliance and DigDeep, an international nonprofit with Navajo employees who have been installing running water systems in homes on the reservation since 2014. The size of the reservation, the large distances between homes, scarce natural water sources, jurisdictional issues, and contamination from industries like uranium mines have all contributed to restricting access to running water here for generations.

“But according to those working to improve water access on the reservation, the COVID-19 pandemic has heralded a bittersweet turning point. … The pandemic drew widespread attention to the fact that many Navajo didn’t have enough water to thoroughly wash their hands, which was core advice of health experts at the time. … New coalitions have formed, funding has increased, and innovations from organizations like DigDeep have helped expand water access here more than ever before.

“ ‘This has been a silver lining for us,’ says Crystal Tulley-Cordova, principal hydrologist for the Navajo Nation Department of Water Resources. …

“A pickup truck, a trailer towing a backhoe, and a gleaming white water truck nicknamed ‘Big Ernie’ make up the DigDeep convoy. …

“The region has been in various forms of drought for over 20 years, and is currently experiencing severe and extreme drought. … There are also problems with water quality. Arsenic and uranium, both left over from a century of mining on the reservation. …

“Meanwhile, piping water onto the reservation is challenging because of how spread out the population is. Some areas are a checkerboard of public and private land, presenting right-of-way issues. On top of that, funding has typically been limited, according to Capt. David Harvey, deputy director of the Division of Sanitation Facilities Construction at the federal government’s Indian Health Service. …

“Through the CARES Act – a pandemic relief funding package passed by Congress in March 2020 – the Navajo Nation received over $5 million specifically for increasing water access on the reservation. …

“The [DigDeep] crew were here 18 months ago to install one of their foremost pandemic-era innovations: a ‘suitcase’ – a 4-cubic-foot box filled with a water pump, heater, filter, expansion tank, and battery installed outside homes to provide tap water from a 1,200-gallon underground tank. …

“During the pandemic, 100 of these suitcase systems have been installed by DigDeep crews on Navajo lands, at no cost to residents.

‘People [were being told], “Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water.” But how can they do that if they don’t have running water?’ says Cindy Howe, the project manager for DigDeep’s New Mexico office. …

“Ms. Joe and her family wait in their car while Kenneth Chavez and Brian Johnson assemble the sink and Erving Spencer maneuvers the backhoe. …

“Ms. Joe likes living here, she says. She feels safe, and she wants to raise her kids and grandkids here.

“ ‘It’s one of the most important things that I would probably want to do before I go,’ she says, ‘teaching them the foundation of our culture.’ …

“As they finish their work at Ms. Joe’s house, ‘Big Ernie’ refills the 1,200-gallon tank that now supplies her indoor sink. …

“Lacking water ‘is just normal for a lot of people,’ says Ms. Howe of DigDeep. Her grandparents would melt snow for water. Her parents hauled water throughout her childhood as well – always on Sundays, so she could have a bath before school on Monday.

“ ‘It was really heartbreaking to see,’ she says. ‘Fifty-five years later, it’s still happening. We’re all helping each other [but] there’s still a lot of people that don’t have any water.’ ”

More at the Monitor, here.

Photo: Blanton Museum of Art.
Pie by Christine Williams of Cookies del Mundo, inspired by Honoré Daumier’s “Naiads of the Seine” (1847).

Remember how, at the beginning of the pandemic, shut-in families took funny pictures of themselves imitating famous art? The Getty Museum in California was the first I knew to promote the meme, but people all over the world were soon doing it. I wrote about it here.

Well, something similar is going on at a museum in Texas. This time it’s about art turned into pastry.

Sarah Rose Sharp wrote at Hyperallergic about the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas, and the third annual Great Blanton Bake-Off.

“The contest, conceived in 2020 by Lizabel Stella, the Blanton’s social media and digital content manager, asks art lovers and amateur and professional bakers to recreate a work from the Blanton’s collection in edible treat form. In addition to a regular collection and a host of contemporary exhibitions, the museum is famous for Ellsworth Kelly’s ‘Austin,’ built into the museum’s architecture. …

“Stella told University of Texas student newspaper The Daily Texan, ‘I feel like baking is something that appeals to all ages because it’s so multisensory. You can’t eat or smell art … so this is a completely new way for people to engage with art from our collection.’

“Competition was fierce among the Adult Amateur category, with riffs on everything from Ray Johnson to a red-figure Apulian plate dating back to around 340 BCE. Ultimately, a competitive and humorous field was eclipsed by some expert joconde Imprime work by Blythe Johnson. The technique involves baking a design directly into a sponge cake (rather than simply using the decorative layer of the cake to figure the artwork), and perfectly suited the gentle geometrics of Mac Wells’s ‘Untitled, Meander Paintings, River‘ (1968), in whose likeness it was created. Shout-out to Lois Rodriquez for an iteration of the sculpture ‘The Barefoot Clown‘ (1999) by Tré Arenz (aka Tre Arenz) that offers the disgusting opportunity to eat a foot. …

“The Adult Professional category was a tighter competition, with a series of works on postcards from the Blanton’s collection, converted to cookie form by Hannah Erwin, taking top prize. This beat out a pie by Christine Williams of the Austin bake shop Cookies del Mundo in what is perhaps a miscarriage of justice, as cookie art is a medium with many icing possibilities, but pie offers limited means and requires a sculptural touch. Regardless, the results look all-around delicious, which is hard to say about a pie that has been tinted blue (you made the right choice with blueberry filling there, Christine).

“Finally, the junior bakers came through, a small field that nonetheless proves there is hope for the future. The top prize was taken by Georgia Gross, who meticulously reconstructed a colorful tapestry by Luis Montiel in friendly-looking fondant, but one must frankly tip the hat to the raw ambition of runner-up Jules Beesley, who attempted a functional rendition of the 1987 work of installation art by Cildo Meireles ‘Missão/Missões [Mission/Missions] (How to Build Cathedrals).’ Beesley built a net-covered scaffolding over his cake, the top of which was adorned with golden chips to imitate the 600,000 coins that filled the well of Meireles’s piece. If we haven’t got a baker on our hands, we’ve at least got an arteest.

“But really, everyone is a winner when it comes to competitive baking, because even if you have to eat humble pie, at least you also get to eat regular pie. As Stella emphasized in an interview with Smithsonian Magazine, the point of the event is to feel good.

“ ‘We’re going through a lot of hard things and political stuff right now,’ Stella said. ‘It’s important to remember that it’s okay to take a break — not to ignore the things that are happening, but to make time for the things that move you,’ said Stella.”

I liked this baker cameo at the Smithsonian: “The first time Blythe Johnson, winner of this year’s amateur category, baked a loaf of bread was in elementary school. She eventually started making cookies, cupcakes and pies … but the 40-year-old Austin resident, whose day job consists of medical billing, decided to cut gluten and dairy from her diet a few years ago in order to combat chronic illness. She took a step back from baking, until watching baking competitions, like the Great British Baking Show, rekindled her interest. … Yet, it wasn’t until she heard about the Blanton Bake-Off that she decided to give baking a cake a try. …

“For each Bake-Off, Johnson sets a goal or picks a skill she wants to learn to avoid being overly focused on winning or losing. This year, after seeing that the Great British Baking Show featured the ‘Joconde Imprime,’ a decorative design baked into a light sponge cake, she knew what her next Bake-Off entry would be.

“ ‘I was immediately interested in an Untitled piece by New York artist Mac Wells when I was looking through the museum’s catalog,’ Johnson said. ‘The colors of the painting made me think of blueberry and almond, and the rest just fell into place after that.’

“The cake, which had layers of blueberry almond sponge, lemon curd and whipped cream, was a challenge for Johnson. She made the joconde five or six times to achieve the perfect colors to match the artwork, and worked endless hours, broken up over a two-week period, to finish the cake.”

More at the Smithsonian, here, and at Hyperallergic, here. Wonderful pictures. No firewalls.

There’s a young baker in my neighborhood who could ace this competition. Maybe she’ll try.

Photo: Bihar Museum.
Tens of thousands of schoolchildren have visited the Bihar Museum in Patna, India, thanks to a government initiative.

I like being exposed to parts of the world I know nothing about. That’s why most of the mystery books I read are set in froreign countries.

Today I’m learning about a region just south of Nepal in India’s northeast, Bihar. In the town of Patna, the government-owned Bihar Museum is working to expand the horizons of its large population of children.

Kabir Jhala writes at the Art Newspaper, “At India’s last census, Bihar was the nation’s youngest state, with 58% of its more than 104 million citizens under 25 years old. The museum hopes, through a unique scheme, [to] create a generation of future art lovers.

“Since 2019 Bihar’s Ministry of Education has pledged to provide 20,000 rupees ($260) to every primary school in the state for museum visits, with the money going towards transport, entry tickets and lunches. While the sum might not seem great, multiplied by the state’s 67,000 eligible schools, it amounts to more than $17.4 million, a considerable sum in a country where most public museums have virtually no engagement programs.

“At the museum, children can explore dedicated sections for young visitors, including works that can be touched, labels at child-friendly heights and workstations in which they can mint their own coins and simulate parts of an archaeological excavation.

“So far the scheme has only been rolled out in the nearest districts to Patna, the state’s capital, and Covid-19 has limited its reach. But from April 2019 to March 2020, the only full year in which the scheme was untouched by the pandemic, 33,000 students from 1,000 schools visited the museum. …

“ ‘I want the children to go back to their communities and rave about their time at the museum,’ says the institution’s director, Anjani Kumar Singh. ‘Through word of mouth, I think we can transform not just this generation into museum-goers, but the whole state, too.’ …

“ ‘Many of these children live in rural areas with parents who can’t read or write [Bihar’s literacy rate is one of the lowest in India] and the concept of museums and art are totally alien,’ Singh says. ‘But despite Bihar being one of the country’s poorest states, I am proud that we have pioneered a scheme that is totally unprecedented in terms of scale in India — no other museum comes close to this level of youth engagement.’ …

“Singh says his next plan is to fill a vehicle with photographs, films and replicas from the collection to create a traveling museum to tour the state.”

More at the Art Newspaper, here.

I went to Wikipedia to learn more. Of the Children’s Gallery, it says, “Its collection of artifacts and exhibit items is divided into six domains: the Orientation Room, the Wildlife Sanctuary, the history sections on Chandragupta Maurya and Sher Shah Suri, the Arts and Culture section and the Discovery Room. Among the exhibits are a simulated the Asian paradise flycatcher, the Indian giant flying squirrel, animals, birds, trees and plants native to the state of Bihar. The gallery’s focus is family learning; most exhibits are designed to be interactive, allowing children and families to actively participate.’

A history gallery boasts “artifacts from the Harappan Civilization, also known as Indus Valley Civilization, the second urbanization and Haryanka. The whole collection of this gallery represents the advanced technology and sophisticated lifestyle of the Harappan people. The gallery has objects from the fourth century BCE to the first century BCE. It has objects spanning three major dynasties of India: the Mauryas, the Nandas and the Shishunagas. The gallery also houses fragments of railings from various ancient Stupas that are carved on with episodes from Buddha‘s and Mahavira’s life.”

And I’ll just add a bit about the Diaspora Gallery, which “provides the historic context of how Biharis were relocated to countries like Mauritius, Bangladesh and beyond. Some were recruited as laborers in the early days of the East India Company, and others explored foreign lands on their own initiative. Activate an interactive map to learn about the origins of Bihari culture, trade routes and how the population has relocated in foreign lands. Aside of the past movements, also discover recent stories of the people of Bihar, their accomplishments and their involvements, to understand the influence Bihar has had around the world.”

Photo: H. Prümers / DA.
A 3-D animation put together using data from lidar shows the urban center of Cotoca, a lost city in the Amazon.

Today’s story is about a section of the Amazon that, thanks to new aerial studies, is starting to reveal long-hidden secrets.

Brian Handwerk reports at the Smithsonian that mapping technology has “cut through the canopy to detect sprawling urban structures in Bolivia that suggest sophisticated cultures once existed.

“The Amazon is one of the planet’s last great wildernesses, but legends have circulated for centuries that lost cities existed deep within the forests. A search for El Dorado, a supposed city of gold, lured many Spanish explorers far off the map and some of them never returned. …

“Now the plot has taken a new twist, as scientists have discovered that ancient cities really did exist in the Amazon. And while urban ruins remain extremely difficult to find in thick, remote forests, a key technology has helped change the game.

“Perched in a helicopter some 650 feet up, scientists used light-based remote sensing technology (lidar) to digitally deforest the canopy and identify the ancient ruins of a vast urban settlement around Llanos de Mojos in the Bolivian Amazon that was abandoned some 600 years ago. The new images reveal, in detail, a stronghold of the socially complex Casarabe Culture (500-1400 C.E.) with urban centers boasting monumental platform and pyramid architecture. Raised causeways connected a constellation of suburban-like settlements, which stretched for miles across a landscape that was shaped by a massive water control and distribution system with reservoirs and canals.

“The site, described [last month] in Nature, is the most striking discovery to suggest that the Amazon’s rainforest ‘wilderness’ was actually heavily populated. … Co-author Heiko Prümers, of the German Archaeological Institute, [says that] ‘a lot of people didn’t want to see that there were archaeological sites here that merit exploration.’ …

“Michael Heckenberger, an anthropologist at the University of Florida, wasn’t involved in the research but has been studying urbanism in the pre-Columbian Amazon for nearly two decades. He notes that elements of the settlement at Llanos de Mojos like moats and causeways, and a modified landscape of parklands, working forests and fish farms, have been seen elsewhere in the ancient Amazon.

“But the new research unveils something quite new. Previous examples of urbanism in the Amazon include the Upper Xingu region of the Brazilian Amazon where Heckenberger works with the Kuikuro Nation. Such settlements might be described as groups of villages networked together. They aren’t technically urban, some experts have argued, because they lack clearly defined larger centers, with monumental architecture like platform mounds and U-shaped temples.

“But those urban centers can be found at Llanos de Mojos. ‘This is in my mind the clearest case of a fully urbanized Amazonian landscape,’ Heckenberger notes. ‘It’s a marvelous piece of work.

‘It shows really remarkable range of things that humans did in the past to work with their landscapes and work with larger and larger populations.’

“Previous hands-on archaeological work and other remote-sensing efforts had revealed hundreds of isolated sites across more than 1,700 square miles of the Llano de Mojos region, including settlements inhabited year-round by the Casarabe, who hunted, fished and farmed staple crops like maize. Some 600 miles of causeways and canals had also been identified. But the logistical challenges of mapping them in a remote tropical forest hampered efforts to connect the dots and see if, or how, they were related to one another. …

“From an aircraft, a lidar system fires down a grid of infrared beams, hundreds of thousands per second, and when each beam strikes something on the Earth’s surface it bounces back with a measure of distance. This produces an enormous cloud of data points, which can be fed into computer software that creates high resolution images in which scientists can digitally deforest the Amazon. By scrubbing away trees the maps reveal the Earth’s surface and the archaeological features on it. In this case, the images clearly showed 26 unique sites, including 11 that were previously unknown. …

“Difficult as they can be to locate in the forest, earthworks clearly built by humans, designs known as geoglyphs, have been found in several other Amazon locales. In 2018, scientists using satellite images reported that large areas of Amazon forest in Brazil’s Mato Grosso state, once thought to have been sparsely inhabited at best, were dotted with villages and oddly-shaped earthwork geoglyphs. Even here, away from large rivers, many hundreds of villages could have housed up to a million people between 1250 and 1500 C.E. in an area that represents only about 7 percent of the Amazon basin. However if larger urban centers anchored these populated sites, they haven’t yet been identified. …

“The aerial view with trees stripped away revealed two centers, each anchored by a large network of regional settlements connected by numerous causeways. Those passageways radiate out from the centers like spokes on a wheel, and stretch for several miles. These connect sub-urban settlements, ranging from small settlements closer to the centers to more distant and even smaller sites that may have been used as temporary campsites. Similarly, canals also stretch from the main centers and connect to rivers and Laguna San José, which apparently delivered water to Cotoca.

“ ‘Basically they remolded the landscape in terms of their cosmology, which is mind blowing,’ says Chris Fisher, a Colorado State University Archaeologist not involved in the study who specializes in Mesoamerica. ‘The only problem is that this architecture was made from mud brick. So while at the time it was as fantastic looking as anything in the Maya region, the Maya monuments have endured because they had limestone while these just weren’t as durable.’ …

“Such discoveries of settlements were the result of very hard work. Despite the large and sophisticated populations that once thrived here, lasting evidence of urbanism has proven difficult to find in the remote and thickly forested Amazon. But lidar technology seems set to rapidly boost the pace of future discoveries.

“ ‘Lidar has been transformative for archaeology and this work is a great example of that,’ says Chris Fisher. ‘These researchers were able to see patterning that’s just not visible from the ground, and that pattern clearly showed two very large settlements, embedded within a settlement system, with a level of social complexity that really hasn’t been demonstrated very well in the Amazon,’ he says. ‘It’s absolutely amazing.’

“While it appears that the Amazon once teemed with human activity, many ancient sites have remained almost undisturbed for some 500 years, something Prümers cites as a big advantage. ‘The region has very low population density, and that means that we are finding the relics of pre-Spanish cultures over there almost untouched,’ he says.

“But the Amazon is changing rapidly. Forests are being eliminated to promote farming, ranching, energy production and the roads and dams that support such efforts. Many of those undisturbed areas, with their hidden records of past cultures, won’t remain so for long. Fisher advocates for large scale lidar scanning of the Amazon, and far beyond, through an Earth Archive project aimed at capturing what remains of the past before it’s lost to the future.

“ ‘We’re running out of time because we’re losing the Amazon,’ he says. ‘And we’re going to lose things that we never knew were there. To me that’s a real tragedy.’ ”

More at the Smithsonian, here.

Eelgrass!

Photo: Kendal Blust/KJZZ via Fronteras.
These eelgrass seeds are fresh from the sea.
Mexico’s indigenous Comcáac people have managed to protect 96% of the precious eelgrass that grows in their region.

I have long known about beach grass and how it can hold the dunes and protect the land in a hurricane. I know about how easily the roots die if you walk on beach grass and why, when “Keep Off the Dunes” signs aren’t obeyed, houses wash away.

But I’m learning there’s another fragile grass that helps the environment. This one lives in the sea and captures carbon.

Sam Schramski has the story at Public Radio International’s the World.

“At a two-day festival on the coast of northern Mexico [last] month, scientists, chefs and local residents gathered to celebrate eelgrass — a unique type of seagrass that grows in the Gulf of California. 

“Seagrass is on the decline in the world’s oceans, but the Indigenous Comcáac people who live in the region have managed to protect the eelgrass that grows in their waters. 

” ‘From my parents, I learned about medicinal plants and the songs of plants, as well as about traditional foods,’ said Laura Molina, who is Comcáac.

“She remembers how her mom made tortillas out of flour ground from eelgrass seeds known as xnois in Comcáac language, a mix between wild rice and nori seaweed. 

Seagrass is getting a lot of attention these days because of its capacity to store carbon, estimated to sequester up to half the so-called ‘blue carbon’ in the world’s oceans and coastal ecosystems — putting it on par with global forests.

“Ángel León, a Spanish chef and owner of Aponiente restaurant, has made it his personal mission to protect threatened seagrass beds off the Spanish coast. He’s interested not only in the plant’s environmental benefits but also its culinary potential in the kitchen as a nutrient-rich superfood. …

“Seagrass is down about 30% globally since the late 1800s. Through León’s restaurant and related nongovernmental organizations, he has heavily financed seagrass restoration projects.” More at the World, here. Listen to the audio version there.

Kendal Blust at Fronteras also wrote about the festival: “In the small Comcaac village of Punta Chueca, on the Sonoran coast of the Gulf of California, a group of women gathered around a white sheet piled high with dried zostera marina, or eelgrass.

“One woman sang an ancestral song dedicated to the plant, known as hataam, as others beat the dried eelgrass and rubbed it between their palms to remove its small, green seeds. Xnois, as the seeds are known in the Comcaac language, cmiique iitom, are an ancestral food.

“ ‘The Comcaac are the only people, the only Indigenous group, that consumes the seed,’ said Erika Barnett, a Punta Chueca resident who has been heavily involved in restoration efforts.

“Eelgrass seed has been a part of their culture for millennia, she said. Traditionally, the flour was used to make tortillas and a hot drink combined with honey and sea turtle oil. And because it’s quite filling, it used to be carried by Comcaac during sea journeys. …

“Barnett said her great-grandparents were probably the last members of her family to collect and eat the xnois seeds. Her father, now 76, last tasted it when he was just 7.

” ‘That’s was the last time he ate it,’ she said. ‘It’s very ancient, but it’s no longer eaten like it used to be, and most younger people have never tasted it. So this effort is really rescuing our culture.’ …

“Now, Barnett is part of a team working to bring the tradition back to their community — both because of the plant’s nutritional value and its ecological benefits. Eelgrass creates habitat for sea turtles and fish, protects the coastline and captures carbon.

“ ‘It’s important for us to revive these traditions so they can be passed on to future generations,’ she said. ‘But I think we need to show the community that it can be done, first. That it’s hard, but we can harvest the seeds.’

“So for weeks in April, a group of women and girls harvested eelgrass the way their ancestors would have. They waded into the sea to collect plants floating near the shore, then dried, thrashed and winnowed them. …

“ ‘One of the missions of Aponiente is to look to the sea with hunger,’ said Greg Martinez, a chef and biologist. … Martinez said the restaurant is committed to discovering the gastronomic potential in the ocean, both for our health and for the planet.

“And eelgrass has a lot of potential. For one thing, it captures and holds carbon below the water’s surface. Known as blue carbon, it can help mitigate climate change.

“ ‘But it doesn’t only sequester carbon,’ Martinez said. ‘It also protects coastlines. It serves as a habitat for thousands of different species that come to breed in their protection. It buffers waves so if you have a tsunami or another storm it protects the coastline in that way as well.’

“Despite the swath of ecosystem services seagrasses provide, however, seagrass beds currently are disappearing from the world’s oceans, he said. And that makes it especially important to protect the abundant meadows in the Canal del Infiernillo, a channel between the coast and the massive Tiburon Island that is entirely within Comcaac territory.”

More at Fronteras, here. Nice pictures. Both news sites are free of firewalls.

Not Just Iris

What a great time of year for New England nature photos — really, any photo that benefits from strong sunlight.

The first two iris photos are from the the grounds of the Buttrick Mansion at Minuteman National Park. The next one shows wild irises in a swamp near Walgreen’s.

Finding rare Lady Slippers is always a thrill, especially finding a large stand. The photo after the Lady Slippers shows fragrant lilacs and wisteria. That one is followed by a field of pink Dame’s Rocket near woods. The little bridge with the crab apple canopy is just off a busy parking lot. Even small pockets of nature are important.

The next photo is by Kristina, whose yard has a stream running through it. The painted turtle was not found there, however. It was on a high stone wall by the park. Someone must have rescued it from the middle of the road. It didn’t seem to know what to do about being so high up. Perhaps it was injured. I moved it to a field across the street. Not sure I did right.

A lot of people in town have been holding off on mowing in order to protect our pollinators. See the signs. I love that they are doing that — and not just because of the reprieve from noisy, polluting lawn mowers.

A different kind of sign is in Walden Woods. Author Toni Morrison once noted that there were few markers preserving the history of the enslaved. This one honors former slave Brister Freeman, well known in town during Thoreau’s time.

Next we have spring wreaths, a high school senior dressed as a clown for Pranks Day, glamorous table legs in a bakery, and the dogwood at my house.

Although the Staten Island of actor Pete Davidson and Saturday Night Live is a running joke, there is more to this borough of New York City than people realize.

Liza Weisstuch at the Washington Post decided to visit as a tourist and found a lot of surprises.

“In 1916, a young woman with dreams of making it big on Broadway lit off from her home in Cincinnati, leaving her young children with their grandparents, and arrived in New York City. She never found success as an actress. Instead, she opened an antiques gallery on Madison Avenue in Manhattan and developed a keen fondness for — rather, obsession with — Tibetan art and took up residence on Lighthouse Hill, a leafy enclave of Staten Island.

“While Jacques Marchais never set foot in Asia, she accrued what remains one of the largest collections of Tibetan art outside Tibet. It’s all housed in the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art, which she opened in 1947, next to her home. It took her nine years to build, during which time she collected stones in her pickup truck that were used in the construction of the museum and terraced garden.

“ ‘It’s a wonder there were any stones left on Staten Island after she was done,’ the museum’s executive director, Jeff Gaal, told me, pointing out the flat roof, trapezoidal-trimmed windows and doors with crosscut wood posts, a few of the elements in the style of a Tibetan monastery in the United States. …

“One day last spring, I sat for a while in the garden outside. It was easy to understand why Marchais found it a refuge from Manhattan.

“Staten Island, which sits 5.2 miles south of New York City’s Financial District and measures 58.5 square miles, has been called many things: the greenest borough, the Forgotten Borough, Staten Italy, the Rock, the city’s dump. (It was the site of a noxious 2,000-plus-acre landfill, one of the world’s largest, for more than 50 years. A project to turn it into green space is underway, with some sections now open to the public.) …

“Arguably today’s most famous Staten Islander is SNL prodigy and boyfriend to the stars Pete Davidson, who wrote and starred in Judd Apatow’s The King of Staten Island in 2020. …

“Over the past few months, I’ve made a few trips to the borough to see things I sheepishly and shamefully never knew there were to see. And learning what makes the island so unique has brought my understanding of New York City — and it’s no exaggeration to say other parts of the world, too — into clearer focus.

“Case in point: Tibet. And also, Sri Lanka. A community of Sri Lankans from the South Asian island nation has grown here over the past few decades. Lakruwana [restaurant], which opened its first location in Manhattan in the 1990s and its second here in 2000, is a bedrock of the community. It’s run by Jayantha Wijesinghe and her husband, Lakruwana, who met on the Staten Island Ferry. He oversees the place and decorated it with art, furniture and Buddhist sculptures he shipped over from Sri Lanka. She’s the chef, and her visually arresting dishes emphasize traditional flavor — curries and sambals. Their daughter, Julia, created a Sri Lankan museum, the first outside the country, in the restaurant’s basement in 2017. She was 18. …

“What was fast becoming an Asian-arts-oriented expedition continued a few days later when I returned to visit Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden, an 83-acre campus that encompasses three museums, 14 botanical gardens, two art galleries and a two-acre urban farm where produce is grown for some of New York City’s most famous restaurants. Among the sites is the New York Chinese Scholar’s Garden, an otherworldly … tranquil space, a re-creation of Ming Dynasty Chinese gardens. Sounding like the stuff of fairy tales, the buildings were fabricated in China by 40 artisans, then shipped to New York City and assembled here in the late 1990s in accordance with old-world methods. That’s to say: no nails, screws or glue, just pegs securing the latticework. …

“Snug Harbor is not why people call Staten Island ‘the greenest borough.’ You can chalk that up to the Greenbelt, a 2,800-acre expanse of parks, trails and open spaces that cuts diagonally across the center of the island. (For scale, Central Park is 843 acres.) The park on top of the aforementioned dump nearly doubles the island’s green space. Red foxes, groundhogs, beavers, deer, wild turkeys and great blue herons are just a sampling of the wildlife that roam the woods and wetlands. …

“Going back to the Lenape Indians who lived here when the Dutch arrived, life and commerce revolved around the farmland. And the sea. A visit to the museum at Historic Richmond Town, a collection of 40 structures (including outhouses) on the site of a 17th-century village, offers insight on that, with its display of old local oyster shells, some as large as adult shoes. …

“A visit to the National Lighthouse Museum, located in a former Coast Guard station a few minutes from the ferry terminal, gave me a clearer understanding of the island’s critical role in the evolution of the nation’s lighthouse network.”

More at the Post, here.

Photos: Valaurian Waller.
Ederique Goudia is a chef who came through for her community after Hurricane Ida. She is seen here with a statue commemorating child slaves on the Whitney Plantation — the only museum in Louisiana with an exclusive focus on the lives of enslaved people.

Have you been following the efforts of Chef José Andrés and World Central Kitchen as they serve the displaced people of Ukraine? Inspirational. Today I have a related story. It’s also about chefs who help desperate people by giving what they know best.

Xander Peters has the story at the Christian Science Monitor. “Ederique Goudia isn’t the type who stops moving. From November through February, her life was like a hurricane’s gust, tossing her about the country between the community that raised her and the place she now calls home.

“In early November, Ms. Goudia and an entourage of chefs made their way from Detroit to her childhood hometown of Wallace, Louisiana, a community of nearly 600 about 50 miles outside New Orleans that had been pummeled by Hurricane Ida’s Category 4 strength last summer. Her foodways colleagues Raphael Wright and Jermond Booze, among a host of others from their home in Detroit, rallied around her and organized a day of service for the community, followed by their group’s inaugural diaspora dinner. …

“The day after they arrived back in Detroit, Ms. Goudia and company made a beeline back to the kitchen, where they began working alongside colleagues to prepare 50 family-sized Thanksgiving meals for their food-insecure community members. The meals were prepared through the food security group Make Food Not Waste, of which Ms. Goudia is the lead chef. 

“Food relief is about more than physical sustenance for Ms. Goudia and the many chefs who volunteer alongside her. It is a rung on the ladder to stability. And it can be the glue that holds communities together. ‘It creates a shared song amongst people, of a reset,’ says Detroit chef Kwaku Osei-Bonsu, founder of ​​BlackMetroEats and one of the volunteers who traveled to Wallace with Ms. Goudia. …

“After Ida hit southeast Louisiana, [friends from the nonprofit Taste the Diaspora] were among the first to ask how her family fared, and they were well aware that it wasn’t feasible to get to Louisiana to help right away, as disaster recovery dragged on for weeks after the storm. They then suggested hosting local pop-up fundraisers. Before long, they had gathered a group of 15 or so members of the Detroit food community interested in traveling to Wallace. …

“[Ms. Goudia] knows small towns like hers don’t often receive disaster relief quickly while efforts concentrate on metro areas like New Orleans and Baton Rouge first. Wallace sits in the middle of a petrochemical corridor and has long struggled with environmental justice issues.

“Ida made landfall on Aug. 29. As Ms. Goudia checked on her family, the Detroit food scene leaped into action. … In total they raised $8,500 and they distributed it to Wallace residents through the Descendants Project, an advocacy group for descendants of formerly enslaved people in Louisiana’s river parishes. … 

“By the time Ms. Goudia and her colleagues were ready to head to Wallace themselves, word had spread through the Detroit area. Soon sponsorships began rolling in: The Kresge Foundation, which expands opportunities for low-income individuals nationwide, was the first major group to chip in. Then ProsperUS Detroit, an economic development initiative, pitched in. Turning Tables NOLA caught wind of their efforts soon after and offered to help as well. …

“The Detroit food community’s support for Ms. Goudia and her hometown was, in some ways, as emotionally overwhelming as watching Ida hit her family. At the same time, it wasn’t surprising. It’s what Ms. Goudia has come to know as the heart of Detroit.

“ ‘The hospitality that lives in Detroit, it isn’t a one-off,’ says Ms. Goudia. ‘It isn’t surprising at all, because there is this Southern hospitality that’s here, that’s unmatched.’

“On the day of the Wallace dinner, as always, Ms. Goudia didn’t stop moving. She and her volunteers worked through the afternoon to prepare an evening meal of a beet-based African dish, mirliton dressing, baked spaghetti, cornbread tea cakes, and pralines.

“As he leaned against a picnic table out front, opening cans of corn, Mr. Osei-Bonsu of BlackMetroEats reflected on his and others’ trip down South so far, and what he hoped the meal would mean for the community.

“Healing a community’s emotional wounds through food ‘is definitely something that’s impactful,’ Mr. Osei-Bonsu says. ‘Today will be about so much more than just the consumption of food. It’ll also be a dialogue.’ …

“Ms. Goudia says from her home in Detroit several weeks later [that the point is] to use ‘food in a way that breathes life into people, that gives them what they didn’t think they needed at the time.’ She stops and reflects for a moment. ‘I think we were successful in that. … Everybody that came on the trip is now family. Not only with me, but with the residents of Wallace. I was blessed to be able to provide that for them.’ ”

More at the Monitor, here.

Kwaku Osei-Bonsu, Detroit-based chef and founder of BlackMetroEats, sets the table for a 100-person Taste the Diaspora community dinner in Wallace, Louisiana, Nov. 21, 2021.

Photo: Walt Disney Productions via Wikipedia.
Having trouble finding workers? There are underused categories of potential employees who would love a job and will repay you with enthusiasm and dedication.

No one ever considers the Seven Dwarfs as having a disability or not being able to work. But they are in a category of potential employees that is sometimes overlooked today.

As Katie Johnston points out in this article from the Boston Globe, rather than complain about a labor shortage, companies could be more open-minded. In Massachusetts, the state is making that easier.

“Faced with too many job openings and not enough people to fill them,” writes Johnston, “employers are considering candidates they might not have even looked at in the past, a change that could have lasting implications for the labor market.

“Companies are reaching out to applicants with criminal records and disabilities. They’re dropping drug testing and welcoming those struggling with homelessness. In some cases, college degrees and related job experience are no longer required. …

“Tight labor markets often lead to the temporary loosening of hiring practices, but this time around there’s potential to bring more people into the workforce permanently, economists and employment specialists say. A cascade of baby boomers retiring early and workers abandoning low-wage professions has created a massive need at a time when companies are actively seeking to diversify their ranks. Armed with this mission, along with improved technologies and new-found remote work capabilities, employers are lowering barriers that have long left people on the sidelines.

“Kareem Berry, 33, had struggled to find a steady job for years before he was hired by Brigham and Women’s Hospital in the fall. Berry, who was born and raised in Dorchester, served 32 months in prison for selling drugs. After he got out in 2018, he took a job-readiness course at Strive Boston and bounced around at temporary and seasonal jobs. Often, however, when prospective employers found out about his record, he said, ‘a lot of people didn’t give me a call back.’

“Then Strive connected him with an apprenticeship program at the Brigham aimed at chronically unemployed Bostonians.

Berry started working in materials management, stocking supply rooms with syringes, gloves, and gowns, and is now a full-time employee making well above minimum wage with health insurance and a 401(k) match.

“The program started three years ago, but as the hospital seeks to provide more opportunities — and with nearly 10 percent of its jobs unfilled, double the amount before the pandemic — more workers are being brought in this way, said program founder Bernard Jones. Previously, the hospital had a practice of not hiring people with certain offenses on their records, Jones said, even though no official policy prevented it. Now, all applicants with a nonviolent background are considered.

“ ‘These are people who have gone through challenges and come out the other side,’ said Jones, who hopes to expand the program throughout the Mass General Brigham system. …

“Nationwide, there are more than 27 million ‘hidden workers’ who are unemployed or underemployed because they are routinely screened out during the hiring process, according to a 2021 Harvard Business School study. These are people with mental health or developmental challenges, physical disabilities, or prison records. They are immigrants, caregivers, veterans. They might come from disadvantaged backgrounds or lack a college degree.

” ‘Three-quarters of US employers in the study used some type of automated hiring system that rejects candidates whose resumes raise red flags, leaving “no room for any narrative,” ‘ said study coauthor Joseph Fuller, a Harvard management professor.

“But if employers took a more thoughtful approach to hiring, they’d likely be happy with the results, he said. …

“At a time when corporate awareness of racial inequities is at an all-time high, inviting in more people, especially those involved in the criminal justice system, which disproportionately affects people of color, would go a long way toward diversifying the workforce, Fuller said. …

“In Massachusetts, $1.4 million in grants is being offered to organizations helping formerly incarcerated residents and young people with disabilities find jobs. The US Labor Department recently launched an initiative to dismantle hiring roadblocks based on race, age, gender, sexual orientation, and ability. Congress is also considering legislation that would decriminalize marijuana use and expunge records for marijuana offenses. …

“The Bank Policy Institute, an advocacy group representing the country’s biggest banks, is pushing to loosen federal restrictions on people with criminal records working in banks. The Second Chance Business Coalition, made up of major companies including Walmart and AT&T, promotes expanding opportunities for people with criminal backgrounds.

“Kelly Services, a national staffing agency that works with 165 employers in New England, launched the Equity@Work initiative in the fall to improve access for job seekers, including those on the autism spectrum or without college degrees. In the runup to launching the program, Kelly placed 645 job seekers with criminal records at a Toyota plant in Kentucky and said the effort reduced monthly turnover to an all-time low and increased the diversity rate by 8 percent. …

“The Hampden County Sheriff’s Department in Ludlow, which has a long-running vocational program for inmates, said the number of employers reaching out for staffing assistance has tripled compared to before the pandemic.”

More at the Globe, here. Another option, of course, is for employers to raise pay. But using this period to integrate lots of new and worthy workers is also a good idea.

Photo: Jennifer Croft via the First News.
The translator Jennifer Croft will no longer work with publishers who don’t put her name on the cover.

There’s a book by French-to-English translator Kate Briggs called This Little Art. Briggs and others have been opening my eyes lately to the notion that translators are almost on the level of the author they translate. They write a new version of the book. It’s an art.

Alexandra Alter wrote an interesting story at the New York Times about another translator, Jennifer Croft. She knows her worth.

“When Jennifer Croft talks about translating the Polish novelist Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Flights, she sometimes affectionately refers to the book as ‘our love child.’

“ ‘It’s Olga’s, but also it has all of these elements that are mine, these stylistic elements and these decisions that I made,’ she said in a recent interview.

Flights was a labor of love for Croft, who spent a decade trying to find a publisher for it. It was finally released by Fitzcarraldo Editions in Britain in 2017 and Riverhead in the United States in 2018, and was celebrated as a masterpiece. The novel won the International Booker Prize and became a finalist for the National Book Award for translated literature, helping Tokarczuk, who was later awarded the Nobel Prize, gain a much larger global audience.

“But Croft also felt a twinge of disappointment that after devoting years to the project, her name wasn’t on the book’s cover. Last summer, she decided to make a bold demand:

“ ‘I’m not translating any more books without my name on the cover,’ she wrote on Twitter. ‘Not only is it disrespectful to me, but it is also a disservice to the reader, who should know who chose the words they’re going to read.’

“Her statement drew wide support in the literary world. Croft published an open letter with the novelist Mark Haddon, calling on publishers to credit translators on covers. The letter has drawn nearly 2,600 signatures. … Her campaign prompted some publishers, among them Pan Macmillan in Britain and the independent European press Lolli Editions, to begin naming all translators on book covers.

“Croft’s latest published translation is Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob, a 900-plus page historical novel about an 18th-century Eastern European cult leader named Jacob Frank, whose story unfolds through diary entries, poetry, letters and prophecies. …

“This time, Croft’s name appears on the cover. Riverhead added her after she and Tokarczuk requested it. Croft is also being paid royalties for The Books of Jacob, which she didn’t receive for Flights. (Translators, who typically receive a flat, one-time translation fee, don’t automatically get a share of royalties from most publishers.) …

“ ‘She is incredibly linguistically gifted,’ Tokarczuk said in an email. ‘Jenny does not focus on language at all, but on what is underneath the language and what the language is trying to express. So she explains the author’s intention, not just the words standing in a row one by one.’ …

“For Croft, the campaign to bring greater recognition to translators isn’t just a plea for attention and credit, though it’s partly that. Croft also believes that highlighting translators’ names will bring more transparency to the process and help readers evaluate their work, the same way they might assess an audiobook narration for not just the content but for the performance.

“Translation isn’t just a technical skill, but a creative act, she argues. ‘We should receive credit, but also have to take responsibility for the work we have done,’ she said. …

“That work often entails much more than rendering sentences and syntax from one language to another. Translators also find themselves in the role of literary scout, agent and publicist. Many are constantly reading in the languages they’re fluent in to find new authors and books, then pitch them to publishers. When English-language versions come out, translators are often called upon to facilitate interviews and join authors on book tours and manage their social media accounts in English.

“Translated literature accounts for just a fraction of titles published in the United States. Despite the success of books by international stars like Elena Ferrante, Haruki Murakami and Karl Ove Knausgaard, many publishers still worry that American readers are put off by translations. …

That belief has become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Since 2010, fewer than 9,000 English-language translations of fiction and poetry have been published, and in 2021, just 413 translations were released, according to a database of English-language translations that is compiled and maintained by Chad W. Post, the publisher of Open Letter Books, and is available on Publishers Weekly’s website. …

“An even smaller number of titles feature translators on the cover. Less than half of the English-language translations released in 2021 had translators’ names on the covers, Publishers Weekly reported last fall.”

More at the Times, here.

Photo: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian.
Camryn Stewart, 14, and Naomi Bell (right) open the salmon season on Scotland’s River Dee with the first casts.

So many good people trying to make the world better! Each one has their own area of action. It may be health, sports for kids, peace, housing, justice, the environment, art, teaching school. You name it. Today’s story is on people doing something about the effects of global warming where they live — along Scotland’s rivers.

Severin Carrell reports at the Guardian that “millions of trees are being planted beside Scotland’s remotest rivers and streams to protect wild salmon from the worst effects of climate heating.

“Fisheries scientists have found rivers and burns in the Highlands and uplands are already too warm in summer for wild Atlantic salmon as they head upstream to spawn, increasing the threat to the species’ survival.

“Fisheries on the River Dee in Aberdeenshire, one of the country’s most famous salmon fishing rivers, have planted 250,000 saplings along key tributaries. They plan to plant a million in the Dee’s catchment by 2035. …

“In 2018, the year Scotland recorded the lowest rod catch for salmon since records began, climatic changes meant water temperatures in 70% of salmon rivers were too warm for at least one day that summer. They exceeded 23C [73.4 Fahrenheit], a temperature that induces stress and behavioural change. …

“Marine Scotland scientists found that only 35% of Scotland’s rivers, which stretch for 64,000 miles (103,000km), have adequate tree cover.

“Lorraine Hawkins, the river director for the Dee District Salmon Fishery Board, a statutory body, said: ‘These rivers and burns are the nursery grounds for young fish and it’s the young fish which will be affected by summer temperatures – their feeding and growth rates are affected. If it gets hotter, we will see fish dying.’

“Fishery boards across Scotland have similar tree-planting programs, to provide essential shade to lower water temperatures. Many will be fenced off to prevent the saplings from being eaten by deer. Hawkins said these projects improved the overall health and biodiversity of rivers across the uplands, increasing insect life, leaf fall, managing essential nutrients and flood control.

“Alan Wells, the director of Fisheries Management Scotland, an industry body, said climate forecasts were clear that water temperatures would continue to climb, even if governments succeed in limiting climate heating. …

“He said, ‘This will get worse. We need to grow trees now to create that cooling shade.’

“The dramatic decline in wild salmon numbers is blamed on numerous factors: climate change affecting food availability; weirs and other obstructions in rivers; predation by soaring seal populations; sea lice attracted by fish farms; bycatch by trawlers at sea and poor river quality. Wells said that while Scottish ministers were proposing new conservation strategies, he remained frustrated with the slow pace of change.

“The Dee marked the start of its angling season [in February] by inviting two female anglers who won a fundraising competition last year to make the first cast, an annual ceremony at Banchory. …

“Camryn Stewart, 14, one of the first cast fishers, said she had been brought up fishing by her parents, Deirdre and Jim. The sport is targeting women and children as it strives to expand its participation and appeal. …

“ ‘I have been surrounded by people who fish, and I’ve wanted to fish all my life,’ she said. ‘We need more people fishing. … We gain so much from it. Just being outside and being in the wild. Even if you don’t catch anything, you come back from the day fulfilled.’ ”

More at the Guardian, here. No firewall.

Photo: Omar Adel via Unsplash.
The Al-Rifa’i Mosque in Cairo. The city’s redevelopment highlights every kind of culture, from mosques to belly-dancers.

Members of my extended family were in Egypt recently, and judging from the videos and photos, they had a fantastic time. It made me think of an article I saw back in January about Cairo.

Donna Abu-Nasr at Bloomberg CityLab had a report on how the city’s “revival blends ancient Egypt with modern tastes.”

She wrote, “When Egyptian ballerina Amie Sultan decided to go into belly dancing, she raised eyebrows among her friends and fellow professionals. Why switch from an art form that’s highly respected to one that’s often scorned in her home country and the rest of the Arab world?

“Six years later, Sultan wants to elevate a dance focused on shaking hips and torsos in low-end cabarets to the theater. It’s just one of the ways Egyptians are trying to establish a contemporary cultural identity in Cairo that taps into their heritage.

“The renaissance of traditions spans everything from new museum exhibits to artisans integrating old crafts into modern furniture and designers selling handmade jewelry, bags and shoes online. There’s also the redevelopment of buildings to champion Egyptian identity. For her bit, Sultan says her goal is to preserve, document and revive the performing arts. Egypt is the spiritual home of belly-dancing, which traces its roots back to ancient times. …

“Perhaps the most striking example of the cultural resurrection was when 22 mummies were transported through central Cairo [in April 2021] to their latest resting place at the new National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation. The multi-million dollar spectacle was broadcast live on state television. …

“Some parts of the sprawling metropolis are being refurbished in an attempt to recapture more of the tourism market. … One of those areas is central Cairo, also known as Khedival Cairo in reference to Khedive Ismail, the ruler under whom downtown Cairo was built in the late 19th century. The country’s sovereign wealth fund plans to redevelop the mid-20th century Mogamma building, a hulking government office complex. …

“Private entrepreneurs, like Karim Shafei, 48, have also for years been actively working on restoring that part of town. … The vision that he and his partner, Aladdin Saba, an investment banker, have for downtown is to make it a real city center that reflects Egyptian identity: a meeting point for Cairenes from all walks of life and a platform for innovation and creativity.

“ ‘There’s nowhere in Cairo where tourists can go and experience the contemporary Egyptian lifestyle, unlike many other cities such as Beirut, Istanbul, Paris and New York,’ said Shafei. ‘Today, there’s a big portion of tourism that’s intended to experience a country in its modern form. You want to experience the way cuisine is, the way people live, how they dress.’ 

“One thing that Shafei has noticed is a change in the government’s attitude toward restoration. In the past, authorities would just focus on painting a wall or fixing a sidewalk. In the past year, the discussions have become deeper.

“Sultan, the dancer, has likewise found a sympathetic ear for her project, which she is doing through her company Tarab Collective. When she has approached government officials with her idea, ‘there’s some shock, but then as they listen they actually see that this is a serious project.’ . …

“Belly-dancing has been associated with smoky cabarets where alcohol is served. … It’s also informally performed by people at home, at picnics or celebrations. …

“Last year, Tarab Collective produced a tribute to the golden age of Egyptian cinema and the dance’s divas from 1940 to 1960. It featured 12 performers and premiered at the closing of the Gouna Film Festival in October.

“[Sultan’s] company is also working on setting up an institute to teach the dance, register it with UNESCO as intangible heritage and change its name from one that comes from the French danse du ventre to ‘Egyptian dance.’

“ ‘At the end of the day, this dance represents Egypt,’ she said. ‘It’s how we show ourselves to the world, just like we identify Spain with flamenco.’ “

More at Bloomberg CityLab, here. I know I’ve told you that there was a wonderful belly-dancer at our son’s wedding — with flaming candles in her hair, no less. If I can get into my old computer, I’ll post a picture.

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