Photo: Wikimedia.
Cleveland in 1922, when the city was more walkable. Note the trolleys, which eventually succumbed to Americans’ love affair with the automobile.

For decades, cities were planned around cars and the convenience of people driving in from the suburbs. Now planners are giving more thought to urban quality of life and the “15-minute city” — even looking back to the Old Days for ideas. How lovely to live in a city and be able to do most of your daily errands within 15 minutes of your home!

Adele Peters writes at Fast Company, “When Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo touted the idea of becoming a 15-minute city — a place where it’s easy to reach work, school, stores, and other destinations on a short walk or bike ride — it didn’t have as far to go as many other cities. Hidalgo has pushed for multiple changes to help cut air pollution and improve quality of life, from making a highway car-free to adding so many bike lanes that the streets now look more like Copenhagen. But Paris was already compact, densely populated, and relatively easy to walk. …

“The goal is a bigger challenge in Cleveland, which currently has a Walk Score of 57 (Paris has a perfect score, 100 out of 100). Cleveland’s 35-year-old mayor [Justin Bibb], who took office earlier this year, still wants to move in the same direction.

“ ‘We’re working toward being the first city in North America to implement a 15-minute city planning framework, where people — not developers, but people — are at the center of urban revitalization, because regardless of where you live, you have access to a good grocery store, vibrant parks, and a job you can get to,’ Bibb said in his first State of the City speech in April. …

“The city was more walkable in the past, and more people lived a short distance from their jobs. ‘We had an industrial heritage, and we had housing very proximate to these plants and factories where people worked,’ says Jeff Epstein, the city’s chief development officer. Corner stores and other neighborhood retail shops were also within walking distance from homes. But as factories closed, and highways helped spawn the growth of suburbs, city neighborhoods became much less dense, and people had to travel farther. …

“Says Jason Kuhn, communications manager at the bike advocacy group Bike Cleveland, [‘You] ended up with this network of roads that are really built for car movement efficiency, and really not for people on bikes. There’s a potential, absolutely, to turn back to the other direction and really make the city work for the people who live there.’

“New protected bike lanes that run through the middle of the city and from east to west are already planned, though the overall bike network needs to improve. ‘You might have a road where there’s a bike lane for a mile, and then maybe it’s gone for two, so it’s kind of broken,’ he says. ‘So it’s still difficult to move around the city by bicycle just because the network is incomplete.’ A new ‘complete streets’ ordinance will help improve planning and deal with challenges like wide streets that are difficult for pedestrians to cross, he says.

The city is also starting to map out assets like parks and stores and identify which neighborhoods have the most potential now to be 15-minute neighborhoods. …

“Planners are also looking at where there are clusters of amenities near transit, and looking for ways to increase the number of people living in those areas. A neighborhood called Detroit Shoreway has the basic assets of a 15-minute city, but needs around 18,000 more housing units strategically located near public transit. There’s plenty of space, they say, to build new housing, from former industrial sites to closed fast-food restaurants, underused parking lots, and land owned by the city itself.

“On the riverfront — where the water was once so polluted that it famously caught on fire, but is now much cleaner — a new 35-acre development plans to add new park space, 2,000 housing units, and new office and retail space, all designed to encourage people to live downtown and easily walk where they need to go.

“ ‘We came in with that as a fundamental objective — planning to create 15-minute neighborhoods, and also to be an essential component of getting downtown Cleveland to be part of an 18-hour city, which in essence means that folks can come downtown and find something to do for at least 18 hours of the day,’ says Kofi Bonner, CEO of Bedrock, the real estate firm developing the site. The firm just completed a master plan for the area; the first steps for construction could begin in 2024, depending on the city permitting process, but the full project will take 15 to 20 years. The development will help connect the riverfront to the rest of downtown.”

My friend Mary Ann bikes Cleveland with her family. I love seeing her photos of nighttime group rides.

More at Fast Company, here.

Dancers Go Goofy

Photo: Holger Rudolph.
A performance of “La Grande Phrase” by French company Campagnie Didier Théron. The idea is to share the fun of dance and draw in new audiences.

I love reading about serious artists reaching out through humor. But what is going on in the picture above? One kid is watching the playful performance and wearing a big smile. Everyone else is looking in another direction with solemnity. Bad choice of illustration?

Celina Lei reports at Australia’s ArtsHub that the “French dance company Campagnie Didier Théron will soon land in Adelaide to upend expectations of dancers’ bodies with a dash of humor.

” ‘Dance!’ Usually when kids hear this cue,” she writes, “they immediately start wiggling their bottoms and shuffling their feet – circling, hopping and swinging their arms.

“But often as we grow, we grow more hesitant, our movements become more restricted and choreographed in fear of embarrassing ourselves. So what if to dance is to be silly?

“Wearing colorful inflated suits and roaming across streets, parks and city centers, La Grande Phrase (The Big Phrase) is a dance-work series by Montpellier-based Campagnie Didier Théron that explores ways to upend stereotypes of what a dancer should look like or do.

“The self-taught dancer and choreographer Didier Théron tells ArtsHub that the work was born from a journey of experimentation and collaboration with international artists and dance companies, allowing dancers the freedom of movement while wearing suits inflated with air. …

“Théron points to the German artist and choreographer Oskar Schlemmer (1888-1943), as well as Venus figurines of the European Paleolithic period, as inspirations for these dramatic bodily forms. The movement of dance and the flow of air within the suits further activate these forms.

“After touring in cities around Europe and taking out the 2013 Grand Prize of Setouchi Triennale in Japan, the company will bring three dancers to WOMADelaide (SA) this March where ‘any space shared with the audience becomes a performance space.’

“In the same way that contemporary visual artists are continually challenging the notion of a hushed, white-cube gallery, dance with a splash of humor can provide multiple access points for different audiences.

“From the time of Charlie Chaplin, who pulled off every sequence with full comic relief, to more recent contemporary experimentations such as the UK’s New Art Club combining dance with stand-up comedy, there are plenty of examples where humor can support choreographic expression.

“Théron says: ‘This project always surprises me in the reactions of the people and how they receive it. The first time we performed it outside was in a suburb of Montpellier. It was not easy to have a cultural artistic project in this area, but we crossed this line with these characters and everybody was laughing or smiling.’

“Taking this performance [onto] the streets also offers the dancers greater freedom, and the audiences more opportunities to interact, adds Théron. …

“Roving performances were also something that had a great impact on Théron as a child, from the very first time he encountered a ritualistic dance parade in his grandparents’ village in the centre of France.

“He says: ‘That was the first dance I saw and members of my family were also dancing (only men at the time), but it was very powerful and filled with a deep joy. This performance allowed me to reconnect with this memory.’ …

“What the company hopes to bring to the audience is an invitation to think about dance and dancers’ bodies ‘beyond the norm,’ and perhaps at some point share the joy of movement.

‘There is something in being this character that [gives] us permission to do many things. I think it’s a real positive body and filled with possibilities that we can experiment with all the time,’ concludes Théron.”

More at ArtsHub, here. No firewall. Funny pictures.

Talking to Houseplants

Photo: John and Suzanne’s Mom.
My anthurium is growing on me.

Every week, I look forward to Friday, when I can give six ice cubes to the plant my niece and nephew sent when my sister died. An anthurium.

I mean, I really look forward to it!

I know. Sounds like I don’t have much of a life. But I have become quite attached to this plant. I haven’t been able to get the red leaves to grow, but I do love watching the little green shoots unfurl and reach toward the sun. Now, after reading today’s article, I’m thinking maybe I should start talking to this baby.

Stacey Colino of the Washington Post explains. “Plants don’t interrupt when you’re speaking. They don’t argue or ask difficult questions. And regardless of whether they’re actually listening, research has shown them to be a calming presence. It’s no wonder, then, that so many of us talk to ours.

“In a 2022 survey by trees.com, 50 percent of the 1,250 respondents reported talking to their plants and/or trees. When asked why, 65 percent said they believe it helps them grow. The research, however, isn’t definitive about this point. While studies have found that vibrations caused by sound do affect plants, the jury’s still out on whether the human voice offers any specific benefit.

“For many plant owners, though, the science is beside the point. Marquis Matson, co-founder of the blog the Indoor Nursery, says she talks to her plants every day because ‘it feels nice. … I think plants get a sense of community from my talking to them and that keeps them going.’ …

“A study in a 2003 issue of the journal Ultrasonics investigated the effects of classical music and the sounds of birds, insects and water on the growth of Chinese cabbage and cucumber. The conclusion? Both forms of sound exposure increased the vegetables’ growth.

“In a 2015 study published in the International Journal of Integrative Sciences, Innovation and Technology, researchers exposed marigold and chickpea plants to light Indian music as well as to traffic noise: They found that both types of plants grew and developed better — gaining increased height, a greater number of leaves, and a healthier look — after being exposed to the music for four hours per day, but not to the traffic sounds.

“ ‘Plants definitely respond to vibrations in their environment — which can cause plants to grow differently and become more resistant to falling over,’ says Heidi Appel, a professor of environmental sciences at the University of Toledo in Ohio. ‘Those vibrations can come from airborne sounds or insects moving on the plants themselves. And plants will respond differently to tones and music than to silence [but] we don’t know if talking to them makes them grow differently.’”’

“Despite the lack of studies and evidence about the benefits of talking to your plants, there is at least one theoretical perk: ‘If we identify with a living organism that we’re tasked with taking care of, we’re going to take better care of it,’ Appel says. …

“Regardless of whether talking to the plants helps them, does it help us, as human beings? In that same 2022 trees.com survey, 62 percent of the participants who reported chatting up their greenery said they did so because it helped their own mental health. …

“One study in a 2018 issue of the journal HortScience found that transplanting plants reduced mental stress and anxiety in young adults. And regularly spending an hour gardening has been found to improve mood and reduce stress among healthy women, according to a study in a 2022 issue of PLoS One. …

“While there isn’t published research on whether talking to plants is therapeutic for people, there are plausible reasons it might be, experts say. For one thing, it may come to us naturally. ‘As humans, we often speak to what we’re caring for — it’s built in,’ says Patricia Hasbach, a psychotherapist with Northwest EcoTherapy in Eugene, Ore., and author of Grounded: A Guided Journal to Help You Reconnect With the Power of Nature — and Yourself. 

“For another thing, it can be a way of expressing thoughts and feelings out loud, in an effort to make sense of them. ‘I think of talking to plants as a way of talking to ourselves,’ says Kenneth R. Yeager, a social worker and director of the Stress Trauma and Resilience Program at Ohio State University. ‘As we’re talking to our plants, we’re talking to ourselves — and formalizing our thought process.’

“Talking to your plants is also a relatively low-risk proposition. ‘You might not want to do it in front of someone else,’ says Elizabeth Diehl, director of therapeutic horticulture at the Wilmot Botanical Gardens College of Medicine at the University of Florida. However, when you talk to your plants, they are, quite literally, a captive audience. ‘Plants don’t judge,’ Diehl says.”

I like that plants don’t judge or interrupt — and, presumably, never say, “Keep in mind.” But that could also be said of teapots and hubcaps. There is so much more personality to a plant. Check out the Post article, here.

Do you talk to your plants?

Photo: Manitou Productions via Wikipedia.
Bessie Mae Kelley, an early animator and director.

The New York Times has been making an effort to give credit to those who have made important contributions to our culture but have been overlooked. They tend to be women and people of color. If you read the Times, you may have noticed new obits, for example, highlighting the lives of people who died decades ago. Better late than never, I guess.

So after animation scholar Mindy Johnson shared her research on early female cartoonist Bessie Mae Kelly, Brooks Barnes of the Times wrote about it.

“The pioneers of hand-drawn animation were all men,” wrote Barnes last December 13, “or at least that is what historians (men, almost exclusively) have long told us.

“Winsor McCay made the influential short ‘Gertie the Dinosaur’ in 1914. Paul Terry (Farmer Al Falfa), Max and Dave Fleischer (Koko the Clown, Betty Boop) and Walter Lantz (Woody Woodpecker) each made well-documented early contributions. Walt Disney hired a team that became mythologized as the Nine Old Men.

“Earlier this year, however, the animation scholar Mindy Johnson came across an illustration — an old class photo, of a sort, depicting the usual male animators from the early 1920s. In a corner was an unidentified woman with dark hair. Who was she? The owner of the image, another animation historian, ‘presumed she was a cleaning lady or possibly a secretary,’ Johnson said.

“ ‘I said to him, “Did it ever cross your mind that she might also be an animator?” ‘ Johnson recalled. ‘And he said, “No. Not at all.” ‘

“But Johnson wondered if it could be Bessie Mae Kelley, whose name she had discovered years earlier in an obscure article about vaudevillians who became animators.

“As part of an investigation that found Johnson cold-calling people in Minnesota, digging through archives at the University of Iowa and salvaging corroded cans of nitrate film from a San Diego garage, Johnson confirmed her hunch. The woman was Kelley, and she animated and directed alongside many of the men who would later become titans of the art form. According to Johnson’s research, Kelley started her career in 1917 and began to direct and animate shorts that now rank as the earliest-known hand-drawn animated films by a woman.

“So much for that cleaning lady theory.

“ ‘History is recorded, preserved, written about and archived from a male perspective, and so nobody had really examined the level of what women did — their contribution was often just passed off as a single sentence, if at all,’ Johnson said. ‘Finally, we have proof that women have been helming animation from the very beginning.’ …

“Johnson will present her findings on Monday at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles. The evening event will include the first public screening of two restored, previously unknown short films by Kelley. One is called ‘Flower Fairies’ and was completed in 1921, Johnson said. It involves composite animation (live footage with hand-drawn animation on top). Sweet-natured, human-looking creatures with wings awaken flowers and dance among them. …

“ ‘Her forms are glorious, especially when you compare it to something like Walt Disney’s “Goddess of Spring,” which was about 15 years later,’ Johnson said. She was referring to a Silly Symphonies short that Disney based on the Greek myth of Persephone. ‘Goddess of Spring’ is viewed as a critical steppingstone for Disney because it was used to develop techniques for the rendering of human forms, with the groundbreaking ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937) as a result.

“Kelley’s second film had a Christmas theme and was made in 1922. It includes stop-motion animation and finds a girl reading a book beside a crackling fire, a stocking dangling from the mantel. Santa climbs out of the book and sets about his duties.

“ ‘Mindy has made a significant breakthrough, filling in an important gap in our understanding about the beginnings of this industry and art form,’ said Bernardo Rondeau, the Academy Museum’s senior director of film programs. Johnson’s presentation at the museum is part of a series of screenings and talks dedicated to newly preserved and restored films from the Academy Film Archive.

“The stash of materials that Johnson located in San Diego — in the possession of Kelley’s great-nephew — also included original rice paper drawings used in the creation of the short films; copper prints; a journal and scrapbooks; and photos with notations by Kelley. One of the cans of film included a badly damaged animated short that Kelley directed with characters from ‘Gasoline Alley,’ the comic strip that debuted in 1918.

“Johnson also discovered that Kelley helped design and animate a mouse couple from Paul Terry’s influential ‘Aesop’s Fables’ series (1921 to 1933). Johnson noted that Walt Disney spoke about being inspired by the series. (‘My ambition was to make cartoons as good as “Aesop’s Fables.” ‘) …

“ ‘I want to help Bess reclaim her legacy,’ Johnson said.”

More at the Times, here.

Photo: Abelardo Morell.
“2016–Flowers for Lisa #30” (2016) at Edwynn Houk Gallery.

Lauren Moya Ford at Hyperallergic asks, “Can photographers capture the vitality of flowers compellingly, innovatively, and beautifully?” She reviews a new book that answers the question in the affirmative.

“In the late 1830s,” writes Ford, “the Welsh botanist John Dillwyn Llewelyn began making photographs of orchids he’d grown at his home near Swansea. Llewelyn’s pictures are thought to be among the first to use the photographic process to identify plant specimens, though he himself found them lacking. ‘I have amused myself with making Daguerreotype [sic] portraits [of several flowers], and from their exact accuracy they are interesting,’ he wrote in an 1842 letter to the director of London’s Kew Gardens, ‘though the want of color prevents them from being beautiful as pictures.’ …

Flora Photographica: The Flower in Contemporary Photography by William A. Ewing and Danaé Panchaud (Thames & Hudson, 2022), features 200 photos taken over the past 30 years. The lavishly illustrated book follows its 1991 predecessor, which covered the period from 1835 to 1990. The newest edition features more than 120 artists from 30 countries working with digital and analog photography in a variety of modes, including performance, collage, and textiles. 

“Some of the most provocative images come from artists who use flowers to take on today’s pressing political and social issues.

In the book’s first photo, taken at the 2020 Belarus protests by the Polish photojournalist Jędrzej Nowicki, we see the hand of a demonstrator gripping a small bouquet of white flowers tied with white ribbon, the color of the opposition.

“ ‘The Pansy Project’ by Paul Harfleet documents single pansies that the artist plants at the site of homophobic abuse. And Thirza Schaap’s brightly-colored, modern-day vanitas ‘Plastic Ocean Series’ features floral still lifes made of discarded waste. …

“Other photos are personal, documentary, and playful. Some of Ewing and Panchaud’s selections riff on the way flowers have been depicted in the past, while others push in new directions. Flowers are a well-worn subject matter in the history of art, appearing in human production well before Llewelyn’s snaps in the 19th century. This book shows that they remain a powerful springboard for visual experimentation and meaning.”

I have chosen to illustrate this post with Abelardo Morell‘s photo both because I like it and because Abe and his wife were friends of my late sister. Nell knew them decades ago at Columbia University, when as a relatively recent immigrant from Cuba, Abe was doing menial jobs and thinking he might like to take up photography. The rest is history. Now his photographs are collected in museums.

More at Hyperallergic, here. Read about Abe here. He’s an interesting guy.

Photo: Nick Roll via CSM.
Washing in polluted water. Under new laws, “firms wishing to mine or establish industrial agriculture operations must henceforth strike deals with the ordinary Sierra Leoneans who depend on the land for their survival,” says the Monitor.

I don’t know about you, but I always feel hopeful when ordinary people stick up for themselves. The powerful and selfish don’t always have to win. Capitalism has gotten out of hand and now resembles nothing so much as the monarchies of old.

Meanwhile, in Sierra Leone, folks suffering from the excesses of mining giants and agribusiness are not going to take it anymore.

Nick Roll has the story at the Christian Science Monitor.

“Solomon K. Russell walks down a narrow dirt path, surrounded by teak trees that block out the sunlight and cool the afternoon air. He leaps over a column of fat black ants running across the trail, and the forest suddenly, unnaturally, ends. A denuded strip of beige earth stretches over an area the size of several football fields, pockmarked by pits full of wastewater. 

“Machinery belonging to the Afro-Asia Mining Corp., a Chinese firm, rumbles in the distance. The remnant of a stream, polluted and diverted by the industrial operations, idles underneath a small wooden bridge. 

“ ‘This river really sustained the life of the people,’ says Mr. Russell, who remembers, as a boy, jumping off the bridge into the water just a few feet below. Now, it’s barely ankle-deep. …

“Mr. Russell and his fellow villagers had no say in Afro-Asia’s arrival, nor in its operations. The company signed its lease with the local ‘paramount chief’ who was empowered by a century-old colonial law.

“But a sweeping package of land-rights bills, which went into effect in September, is set to change all that, giving local people who own and live off the land the authority to decide how it is used.

“ ‘Those laws will help,’ says Mary Tommy, a farmer living in this 500-strong farming community made up of brightly painted concrete houses and mud brick homes with traditional high-pitched thatch roofs. ‘For us, the destruction has already been caused, but for other areas that have not witnessed this kind of destruction, I think it will be good.’

“Many parts of Sierra Leone have been ravaged by foreign mining firms seeking gold, diamonds, and bauxite, among other minerals, and by palm oil plantations. Such natural resources accounted for over 75% of Sierra Leone’s exports in 2020, reaping around $400 million in income, according to official figures.

“Yet the wealth has been slow to trickle down. The latest figures on poverty in the country, from 2018, showed that 60% of the rural population was living on less than $1.90 a day.

“People say ‘our land is our bank, our land is our future,’ ” says Eleanor Thompson, deputy director of programs at the Freetown office of Namati, a legal advocacy and land-rights organization. …

“Until last month, only local chiefs and the national government could strike land use and leasing deals with foreign investors. The people whose land was taken could do little about it, and often had to accept rents amounting to only $5 an acre.

“Mr. Russell, for example, says his rent is ‘too meager’ to be able to buy from the market the fish he can no longer catch in the village stream.

“But under the new laws, firms wishing to mine or establish industrial agriculture operations must henceforth strike deals with the ordinary Sierra Leoneans who depend on the land for their survival – and who, for the first time, will have the right to negotiate, or reject, their proposals.

“September’s Customary Land Rights Act and the National Land Commission Act transfer the power to make decisions about land to those actually owning or using it. Companies seeking a lease must win the consent of 60% of a family’s male and female adults.

“Where land is communally held, firms must persuade 60% of the adults in the community to agree to a lease. In the newly created land committees that are supposed to help negotiate those leases, made of local community members, 30% of members are to be women.

“The new laws are not popular with foreign investors, many of whom are especially wary of a provision setting aside shares in international projects for Sierra Leoneans.

‘Nobody will invest in Sierra Leone anymore,’ says Gerben Haringsma, country director for the Luxembourg-based palm oil company Socfin. …

“Ms. Thompson, the land rights activist, says the laws might, however, help investors more than they realize. ‘It’s in the investors’ interest to have the consent of people,’ she says. …

“Acts of sabotage and deadly protests against agribusiness and mining companies have erupted in the past.

“ ‘If people had a say in negotiations they would sell their land for a … value that will enrich them and change their lives, maybe,’ says Emmanuel Saffa Abdulai, executive director of the Freetown-based Society for Democratic Initiatives.

“In Largo, villagers say that Afro-Asia promised to build them a health clinic, a school, and paved roads. Four years after mining operations started, none of that has come to pass, and the locals who have found jobs at the mine earn little more than $50 a month.

“Afro-Asia did not respond to a request for comment. But the company’s lease in Largo is in its final year. To keep operating, it will have to renegotiate – this time with the local community under the new laws.”

More at the Monitor, here. No firewall.

Photo: Mrs.
Luke O’Halloran‘s “Eeeeeeeeeee” (2022).

Are you a cat person or a dog person? Both? I’m not sure that I have a preference, but over the years, I’ve cohabited with more cats than dogs mainly because they are so independent and relatively easy to care for.

I know from YouTube that there’s a large segment of the population that can’t get enough of videos featuring cats, and as the gallery in today’s post notes, cats have been subjects of awe throughout history.

“Since ancient Egypt,” the Mrs. gallery’s website notes, “cats have maintained a ubiquitous presence in art. Originally symbolic of an Egyptian idol and guide in the afterlife, during the Middle Ages cats became synonymous with superstition, witchcraft, and paganism — associations that linger to this day. It wasn’t until the 1600s that they became the domestic companions they are known as today. Featuring artists from multiple generations, this exhibition depicts cats in all of their glory, as loving companions, fierce protectors, stubborn rebels, shadows in the dark, mythical shapeshifters, and as vehicles of unabashed comic relief.” 

Today I must apologize to readers who might have been able to get to the Mrs. art gallery in Queens, New York: the cat-art show has ended. Fortunately, you can still enjoy it online at Hyperallergic.

Elaine Velie wrote about it there: “Cats have descended upon Maspeth, Queens, where Mrs. gallery is featuring the work of 39 artists focused on a single theme: furry felines. Cats have been an art historical focus for thousands of years, and the gallery’s latest exhibition, titled ‘Even a Cat Can Look at the Queen,’ suggests they are here to stay.

“From Cait Porter’s loving rendering of a fuzzy tabby’s paw to a Philip Hinge chair sculpture made out of scratching posts, the exhibition includes works by longtime artists of Mrs.’s program as well as some who have never before shown with the gallery.

“Almost all of the works are by living artists, with a few exceptions, including an Andy Warhol print that presents perhaps the exhibition’s most straightforward depiction of a cat. A painting by Renate Druks — movie star, director, and avid painter of cats — titled ‘Male Cat Club’ (1980) evokes the visual language of the Hollywood Golden Age she lived through. … The setting looks like a movie or stage set and the outdoor views visible in the background evoke the dreary exteriors of film noir.

“Other works in the show are decidedly more modern, such as Sophie Vallance’s ‘Tiger Diner’ (2022), which features the checkerboard pattern and rounded aesthetic that has become popularized on social media over the last few years. But like Druks, Vallance places cats in a surprising setting; namely, sitting in a diner.

“In both paintings — and in almost every work in the exhibition — cats display the utmost confidence, a holier-than-thou attitude that any cat parent will likely recognize in their own beloved pet. The animals take up space with dignity, suggesting that the oddity is not their presence but that of a human being.

“Other highlights include Katharine Kuharic’s ‘Long Wait’ (1990), an oil painting with such fine lines it looks like a tapestry. … Elbert Joseph Perez’s ‘Pierrot Greatest Performance’ (2022) is a highly detailed portrayal of a cat presenting an ominous paw toward his toy likeness as an audience of creepy, obscured cats watches the animal from the dark. …

“Johanna Strobel’s sculpture commemorates feline hero Félicette, the first cat in space, and Abby Lloyd’s ‘Enchanted Cat Girl’ (2019), a pink anthropomorphic foam figure, assumes different facial expressions depending on where the viewer stands. Lloyd has impressively managed to keep the sculpture upright despite the figure’s enormous head.

“The show’s title, Even a Cat Can Look at the Queen, comes from an old English proverb implying that even people of the lowest status — as low as a cat — have rights. After gazing at the works in the exhibition, however, the proverb seems too on-the-nose. With their distinguished attitudes and regal postures, it’s quite evident cats can ‘look at the queen.’ As Anna Stothart notes in her essay for the show, perhaps the ancient Egyptians were right: Dogs may be man’s best friends, but cats are humans’ idols, and although they may bless us with companionship, we exist only to serve them.’ “

Do you have a favorite piece of art from the show? For me, it was hard to pick. Click at Hyperallergic, here, to choose from some great pictures. The gallery’s site is here.

A Bejeweled Abbess

Photo: Museum of London Archaeology via Hyperallergic.
A necklace found in a UK burial site probably belonged to an “elite woman who wanted to highlight her Christian identity, says Hyperallergic.

Archaeology reminds us that there will always be surprises to uncover no matter how much we think we know. A necklace found in a medieval burial site and considered a “once-in-a-lifetime” discovery is one recent surprise. Michael Levenson wrote about it for the New York Times.

“A 1,300-year-old gold-and-gemstone necklace that was recently discovered in an ancient grave site in England may have belonged to a woman who was an early Christian leader, according to experts involved in the discovery.

“The ancient jewelry was unearthed in Northamptonshire in April [2022] during excavations that took place ahead of a planned housing development. … The 30 pendants and beads that once formed the elaborate necklace were made from Roman coins, gold, garnets, glass and semiprecious stones. The centerpiece of the necklace, a rectangular pendant with a cross motif, was also among the artifacts that were discovered.

“ ‘When the first glints of gold started to emerge from the soil we knew this was something significant,’ Levente-Bence Balázs, a site supervisor at the Museum of London Archaeology, [said in a statement announcing the find]. …

“X-rays of soil blocks lifted from the grave also revealed an elaborately decorated cross featuring unusual depictions of human faces cast in silver, the statement said.

“While the soil is being investigated more closely, ‘this large and ornate piece suggests the woman may have been an early Christian leader,’ the statement said, adding that she might have been an abbess, royalty or both. The site also contained two decorated pots and a shallow copper dish.

“The skeleton itself has decomposed, with only tiny fragments of tooth enamel remaining. But the Museum of London Archaeology said it was almost certain that a woman was buried there because similar necklaces and lavish burial sites were almost exclusively found in female graves in the period.

Scholars said the discovery pointed to the important but often overlooked role of women in the development of early Christianity.

“ ‘The evidence does seem to point to an early female Saxon church leader, perhaps one of the first in this region,’ Helen Bond, a professor of Christian origins and head of the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland, wrote in an email. ‘We know from the gospels that women played an important role in the earliest Christian movement, acting as disciples, apostles, teachers and missionaries,’ Professor Bond wrote. ‘While their role was diminished later on at the highest levels, there were always places where women leaders continued (even sometimes as bishops).’

“Amy Brown Hughes, a historical theologian at Gordon College, who studies early Christianity, called the necklace, which has been traced to the years 630 to 670, an ‘absolutely stunning’ artifact from a volatile period when Christianity was becoming established in Anglo-Saxon England.

“Noting that women have often been left out of narratives about Christianity, Professor Hughes said the necklace provides material evidence that ‘helps to reorient our assumptions about who actually had influence and authority.’ …

“Joan E. Taylor, a professor of Christian origins and Second Temple Judaism at King’s College London, said the fact that the woman was apparently buried in a village far from a main population center ‘testifies to the troubled times in this region of Britain in the 7th century.’

“ ‘Perhaps she was on a journey, or fleeing,’ Professor Taylor wrote in an email. ‘It was a tough “Game of Thrones” world with competing royal rulers aiming for supremacy. It was also a time where Christianity was spreading, and abbesses and other high-status women could play an important role in this.’ …

“The artifacts [will] be featured in an installment of the BBC series ‘Digging for Britain.’ “

More at the Times, here. See also Hyperallergic. More photos, no firewall.

Photo: Dezeen magazine.
The translucent walls are made of Pentelic marble. So lovely!

You may recall reading about the Greek Orthodox church near the World Trade Center in New York City that was ruined on September 11, 2001. Fortunately, 9/11 was not the end of the story for that church. Tom Ravenscroft reports at Dezeen about Santiago Calatrava’s new illuminated wonder.

“The St Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, which replaces a church destroyed in the 9/11 attack, has officially opened at the World Trade Center site in New York.

“Designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, the building replaces a 19th-century church that was destroyed on 11 September 2001. … The church is located alongside the 9/11 memorial that stands on the site of the former twin towers.

“It was designed by Calatrava to be a ‘sanctuary for worship’ but also a reminder of the impact of the terrorist attacks. …

“Said Calatrava, ‘I hope to see this structure serve its purpose as a sanctuary for worship but also as a place for reflection on what the city endured and how it is moving forward. [Architecture] can have an intrinsic symbolic value, which is not written or expressed in a specific way but in an abstract and synthetic manner, sending a message and thus leaving a lasting legacy.’

“Built on top of the World Trade Center Vehicle Security Center, the church is raised around 25 feet above (seven metres) above street level and was designed to be a beacon.

“Informed by Byzantine architecture and the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul in particular, the church is arranged around a central drum-shaped form that is topped by a dome.

“The walls of this central section were made from thin sheets of Pentelic marble so that the building can be illuminated at night.

” ‘This Shrine will be a place for everyone who comes to the sacred ground at the World Trade Center, a place for them to imagine and envision a world where mercy is inevitable, reconciliation is desirable, and forgiveness is possible,’ said Ioannis Lambriniadis archbishop elpidophoros of America.

” ‘We will stand here for the centuries to come, as a light on the hill, a shining beacon to the world of what is possible in the human spirit, if we will only allow our light to shine before all people, as the light of this Shrine for the nation will illuminate every night sky to come in our magnificent city.’

“Surrounding the central domed spaces are four stone-clad towers that give the building an overall square shape.

“The entrance to the church, which faces a large open plaza, was placed between two of these towers and leads directly to the main series of liturgical spaces.

“The altar directly faces the entrance, while the two side niches were completed with translucent arched windows. Above the main space, the domed is surrounded by 40 translucent windows divided by 40 stone ribs, reminiscent of the Hagia Sofia.

“Alongside the main liturgical spaces, several community rooms and offices were placed on the upper floors of the towers.

“To mark the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks last year, Dezeen explored how the site was rebuilt and the numerous buildings created on the site including the World Trade Center Transportation Hub, which was also designed by Calatrava.”

More at Dezeen, here. Lots of beautiful photos by Alan Karchmer. No firewall.

The New York Times and many other publications reported on the reopening of the church, now a national landmark. From the article by Jane Margolies: “Olga Pavlakos grew up going to St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Lower Manhattan. She was baptized there. Her parents were married there. She has memories of her father, who worked in restaurants, volunteering there on Sundays, and of celebrating Epiphany every January, when parishioners would walk to the Hudson River, toss a gold cross into the frigid water and watch divers plunge in to retrieve it. …

“Her connection to St. Nicholas can be traced to her grandparents, who left Greece in the early 1900s and settled in Lower Manhattan, then a bustling immigrant community. Residents there scraped together money and bought a tavern on Cedar Street that they converted to a place of worship, eventually adding a bell at the top.

“These original parishioners, who had arrived by boat, named their church after the patron saint of seafarers — a saint who fed the hungry and clothed the needy and inspired the character of Santa Claus. … The tiny church was obliterated during the terrorist attacks.

“Twenty-one long and difficult years later, St. Nicholas has reopened. But it is no longer a humble church, exclusively for its parishioners. Its mission is larger, as is its splendor.

“St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church & National Shrine, as it’s now called, has become a destination for all. It offers a bereavement center that will serve as a place for meditation and prayer for people of any faith. … The new church is a prominent expression of Orthodox Christianity in the city, and it is a source of great pride for the Greek American community.

“For the few remaining longtime parishioners of St. Nicholas, there is relief that their beloved church has finally reopened. But now, their intimate community hub is a global destination, and some wonder about the future of their once tight-knit parish.” More at the Times here.

Migrating Critters

Photo: Jesse Granger, Duke University.
North American monarch butterflies migrate each winter to just a few mountaintops in central Mexico, with help from an internal compass,” say Duke University. “New computer modeling research offers clues to how migrating animals get to where they need to go, even when their magnetic compass leads them astray.” But as populations decline, so do the mutual-support possibilities.

Continuing the subject of friends (see the post from a few days ago), it seems that associating with others can be beneficial for many life forms. Robin Smith reports on the latest research from Duke University.

“Animals can find their way across vast distances with amazing accuracy,” Smith writes. “Take monarch butterflies, for example. Millions of them fly up to 2,500 miles across the eastern half of North America to the same overwintering grounds each year, using the Earth’s magnetic field to help them reach a small region in central Mexico that’s about the size of Disney World.

“Or sockeye salmon: starting out in the open ocean, they head home each year to spawn. Using geomagnetic cues they manage to identify their home stream from among thousands of possibilities, often returning to within feet of their birthplace.

“Now new research offers clues to how migrating animals get to where they need to go, even when they lose the signal or their inner compass leads them astray. The key, said Duke Ph.D. student Jesse Granger: ‘they can get there faster and more efficiently if they travel with a friend’ [Collective Movement as a Solution to Noisy Navigation and its Vulnerability to Population Loss, Jesse Granger and Sönke Johnsen].

“Many animals can sense the Earth’s magnetic field and use it as a compass. What has puzzled scientists, Granger said, is the magnetic sense is not fail-safe. These signals coming from the planet’s molten core are subtle at the surface. Phenomena such as solar storms and man-made electromagnetic noise can disrupt them or drown them out. … How do some animals manage to chart a course with such a noisy sensory system and still get it right?

“ ‘This is the question that keeps me up at night,’ said Granger, who did the work with her adviser, Duke Biology Professor Sönke Johnsen.

“Multiple hypotheses have been put forward to explain how they do it. Perhaps, some scientists say, migrating animals average multiple measurements taken over time to get more accurate information. Or maybe they switch from consulting their magnetic compass to using other ways of navigating as they near the end of their journey — such as smell, or landmarks — to narrow in on their goal.

“In a paper published Nov. 16 in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the Duke team wanted to pit these ideas against a third possibility: That some animals still manage to find their way, even when their compass readings are unreliable, simply by sticking together.

“To test the idea, they created a computer model to simulate virtual groups of migrating animals, and analyzed how different navigation tactics affected their performance.

“The animals in the model begin their journey spread out over a wide area, encountering others along the route. The direction an animal takes at each step along the way is a balance between two competing impulses: to band together and stay with the group, or to head towards a specific destination, but with some degree of error in finding their bearings.

“The scientists found that, even when the simulated animals started to make more mistakes in reading their magnetic map, the ones that stuck with their neighbors still reached their destination, whereas those that didn’t care about staying together didn’t make it.

‘We showed that animals are better at navigating in a group than they are at navigating alone,’ Granger said.

“Even when their magnetic compass veered them off course, more than 70% of animals in the model still made it home, simply by joining with others and following their lead. Other ways of compensating didn’t measure up, or would need to guide them perfectly for most of the journey to accomplish the same feat.

“But the strategy breaks down when species decline in number, the researchers found. The team showed that animals who need friends to find their way are more likely to get lost when their population shrinks below a certain density.

“ ‘If the population density starts dropping, it takes them longer and longer along their migratory route before they find anyone else,’ Granger said.

“Previous studies have made similar predictions, but the Duke team’s model could help future researchers quantify the effect for different species. In some runs of the model, for example, they found that if a hypothetical population dropped by 50% — akin to what monarchs have experienced in the last decade, and some salmon in the last century — 37% fewer of the remaining individuals would make it to their destination.”

More at Duke, here. No firewall.

Art: Georges de La Tour, 17th century.
I’m not suggesting that 17th century female investors were pickpockets, but they knew what they were doing.

Do you get the feeling these days that history is in constant flux? It all has to do with how past historians emphasized the role of people with whom they identified, omitting the perspective of women, say, or indigenous people and people of color.

The Guardian is good at finding research with a new historical angle, as in today’s article about 17th century female arts investors. Who knew?

Dalya Alberge reported recently on research into the women who bankrolled a rival to the Globe theatre, which we know was famous for Shakespeare’s productions.

“Male performers may have dominated the early modern stage,” Alberge writes, “but female investors were a driving force behind one of the foremost playhouses of the 17th century, according to new research.

“Academics have discovered that women made up a large part of the financial force behind the Fortune theatre, the great rival to the Globe, partly built by the actor for whom Christopher Marlowe wrote plays, and where Thomas Middleton’s dramas were first staged.

“While a few women investors in the Fortune were previously known, it has now been revealed that they made up a third of the playhouse’s financial backers between the mid-1620s and late 1640s. Of 71 investors, including the carpenter who had worked on the playhouse, 24 were women and, from time to time, owned the majority of shares. While some inherited theirs, others purchased them for themselves, despite having no previous connection with the theatre.

“Lucy Munro, professor of Shakespeare and early modern literature at King’s College London, told the Observer that, in researching the playhouse, she never expected to discover that women had such a huge financial stake in it. …

“ ‘We know that the people who performed in plays at the Fortune were men and boys, but I find it really exciting that these women thought that the theatre was for them, and that it wasn’t just for men.’

“The Fortune theatre was built in 1600 by Edward Alleyn, one of the foremost actors of his day, and his stepfather-in-law, Philip Henslowe, the most important English theatre owner and manager of the Elizabethan age. …

“Its initial resident company was the Admiral’s Men, on whom James I bestowed the patronage of his son, Prince Henry. Audiences flocked to see plays such as Doctor Faustus by Marlowe and The Roaring Girl by Thomas Dekker and Middleton. The playhouse was named after the Roman goddess of fortune but it was destroyed by a fire in 1621, almost a decade after the Globe burned down.

“The research has been conducted by Munro and Clare McManus, professor of early modern literature and theatre at the University of Roehampton.

“In [an] online post, they write: ‘In order to finance rebuilding the playhouse – this time in brick – Alleyn created a 12-part lease, issuing full and half shares in the second Fortune to investors who paid £83 6s 8d for a full share and £41 13s 4d for a half share. This would be around £11,000 [$13,000] and £5,500 [$6,600] today, so leaseholders had to be relatively well-off.’

“But they add: ‘Most of these women came from what historians have termed the “middling sort” – those who were neither very rich nor very poor. They were the daughters, wives and widows of London tradesmen, officials and actors. Many of them had enough literacy to leave signatures or complex marks on legal documents such as wills and depositions.’ Munro said: ‘These playhouses were vulnerable but, when it was going well, they could make a lot of money.’ …

“The Fortune’s female investors included Margaret Wayte Wigpitt, widow of its bricklayer Thomas, and Elizabeth Pierpoint, a servant whose appreciative mistress had left her two half shares.

“While documentation for early modern playhouse investment rarely survives, original lease documents issued by Alleyn are within the archive of his papers at Dulwich College, the charity he founded in 1619.

“The academics write … ‘These fascinating documents detail the payment – or nonpayment – of rent by the Fortune leaseholders, quarter by quarter, between 1626 and 1649, when the college evicted the leaseholders for nonpayment of rent during the civil war. …

“Asked why the Fortune’s female investment had been overlooked until now, Munro said documents had been ‘almost hiding in plain sight’ in the archives: ‘They are catalogued, but only in an outlined sort of way. I’d actually come across a reference from a scholar saying that the Fortune’s accounts don’t survive. Well, they do.’

“Noting that they also studied wills and other documents at the National Archives at Kew, she believes historians have often stopped researching after reaching 1616, the year of Shakespeare’s death, because they were more interested in him than anything else: ‘But interesting things happened after that.’ ”

Can’t help wondering what else these women were investing in. After all, it was really not entirely new in the 1600s for women to invest. Remember my post of a couple years ago about a female investor back in 1870 BC? Read that here. More at the Guardian, here.

Plastic and Plankton

Photo: Brian Yurasits/Unsplash.

Oh, what have we done? We are on our way to ruining Planet Earth with our activities. Let’s see if understanding the extent of the problem can help us rectify it.

At Slate, the online magazine, Niranjana Rajalakshmi writes about plastic in the ocean.

“Richard Kirby, a marine biologist based in Plymouth, England, was looking at zooplankton wriggling under a microscope when he spotted something else: shreds of plastic pieces interlaced with the tiny creatures.

“This wasn’t unusual to Kirby. He’d collected the sample off the sea of Plymouth for the purpose of raising awareness about microplastic pollution in oceans. Examining plankton is routine for Kirby, and so is observing microplastics in his samples.

“Plastic pollution in oceans has been increasing at an alarming rate over the years. According to the World Wildlife Fund, 88 percent of marine species have been affected by plastic contamination.

“People are familiar with seabirds dying from eating cigarette lighters, or turtles suffocating as a result of mistaking plastic bags for jellyfish, but there is very little awareness about plastics that harm creatures at a smaller level, Kirby explains.

Ingesting microplastic can even kill plankton that are crucial sources of food to other marine life, including fish.

“This is because plankton cannot get a sufficient amount of food into their guts if they’re already occupied by little shreds of plastic. …

“Says Kirby. ‘You can even find plastics in plankton samples collected in Antarctica, for example.’ Plastic shreds from clothing are a significant polluter at the micro level. Microplastic can also come from tires, road markings, and personal care products.

“Plankton aren’t mistaking microplastics for food, exactly, says Bill Perry, an associate professor of biology at Illinois State University. They are filter-feeding, during which they extract small pieces of food and particles from the water. In doing so, they gather up microplastics, too.

“The damage that microplastics cause is not just confined to microscopic marine organisms like plankton. In fact, it is more pronounced in species that are located higher in the food chain, explains Perry, and which eat smaller creatures that have themselves consumed microplastics. …

“Eating microplastics, as you might imagine, is not very good for marine animals. Fishes can face problems with growth and reproduction, says Grace Saba, an associate professor who also researches organismal ecology at Rutgers University. Their guts start to have more and more plastic and less food, and they don’t have enough energy to put toward growth and reproduction like they would if they weren’t eating microplastics.

“The microplastic problem is only going to get worse: A report by the International Atomic Energy Agency projects that the amount of microplastics in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean will rise by 3.9 times in 2030 as compared to the microplastics level in 2008 in the region.

“Once microplastics enter the ocean’s food chain, it’s hard for them to leave. Individual animals may excrete microplastics, but ‘the thing about poop in the ocean is that it serves as a food source for marine animals, including plankton and filter feeders,’ Saba explains. In this way, microplastics get continuously recycled. Marine scientists in the future will probably be spotting microplastics in their samples, too.”

Sigh. I do small things to cut down on plastic use, but then suddenly I need plastic bins or some other big plastic thing. What do you do to cut back? A couple of my friends have been studying the issue (one who volunteers with the Sierra Club, another who is with a progressive political group in Massachusetts) and are concluding that recycling doesn’t work.

More at Slate, here. Follow Dr. Kirby @PlanktonPundit on Twitter.

Photo: Suzanne and John’s Mom.
Suzanne and Kate on Cape Cod. They laugh a lot.

When I saw today’s article by Teddy Amenabar at the Washington Post, I knew it would be blog material. That’s not just because friends have been important to me since childhood (Hello, Hannah!), but because I’ve been learning about the particular virtues that conversation with friends has for older people. There’s the value of relaxing, having fun. But there are also cognitive benefits from focusing on what friends are saying and responding thoughtfully.

Amenabar writes, “One of the more surprising findings in the science of relationships is that both romance and friendship often start the same way — with a spark. … A growing body of research shows friends are essential to a healthy life — and they are just as important for our well-being as healthy eating habits or a good night’s sleep.

“ ‘We’ve always had this hierarchy of love with romantic love at the top and friendship seen as second class,’ said Marisa G. Franco, a professor at the University of Maryland and author of Platonic: How The Science of Attachment Can Help You Make — and Keep — Friends. …

“Platonic love trumps romantic love in a number of ways. People with strong friendships tend to have better mental health and studies suggest they’re in better physical health, as well. Researchers have found large social networks lower our risk of premature death more than exercise or dieting alone.

A six-year study of 736 middle-aged Swedish men found having a life partner didn’t affect the risk of heart attack or fatal coronary heart disease — but having friends did.

“A 10-year Australian study found that older people with a lot of friends were 22 percent less likely to die during the study period than those with few friends. Notably, having a social network of children and relatives did not affect survival rates. …

“There are multiple theories about the association between friendship and better health. Part of the effect may be due to the fact that it’s easier for healthy people to make friends. A strong social network could be an indicator that someone has more access to medical care. And, someone with more friends may just have a better support system to get a ride to the doctor’s office.

“But there is also a psychological effect of friendship that likely plays a role. Friends help us cope with stress. In one study at the University of Virginia, many people were intimidated at the prospect of climbing a steep hill. But researchers found that when people were standing next to a friend, they rated the hill less challenging than those who were alone.

Brain imaging studies suggest that friendship affects brain systems associated with reward, stress and negative emotions, offering an explanation for why social connection benefits mental health and well-being. Friendship even seems to affect our immune response. In one remarkable study, 276 healthy volunteers were given nose drops containing a cold virus. Those with diverse social ties were less likely to develop cold symptoms. …

“Friends don’t just appear out of thin air, Franco said. Here’s her advice for making new connections and maintaining the old ones.

Take the initiative. Trust your gut when you’re meeting new people. We’re particularly good at knowing when someone is a potential new friend (remember that spark). And, you should assume people like you. We often underestimate how positively others think of us, Franco said. …

Start with a text. Start small by scrolling through your phone and shooting a text message to an old friend you’ve been meaning to reconnect with.

Show your gratitude. If a potential friend reaches out to you to grab coffee or pizza, tell them how happy you are they reached out, and that you appreciate the effort, Franco said. In a University of Utah study, researchers asked 70 college freshman to keep a check list of certain interactions — like going to see a movie together or calling just to say hello — they did with new friends. After three months, the researchers found that close friendships were more likely to form when the pairs expressed affection to each other. …

Invite friends to things you’ve already planned. If it’s hard to find time for friends, think of the tasks you already have to accomplish and tag on a friend, Franco said. The next time you workout at the gym, for example, you could invite someone to join. ‘Ask yourself: Are there parts of your day right now that you’re doing anyway that you can just do in community with other people?’ Franco said.

Join a book club, take a class or play a sport. Regular interaction with people who share the same interests as you could lead to friendship. Another University of Maryland study that found cadets who sat next to each other in police academy were more likely to become close friends. …

“While having friends is good for your health, not having them can be detrimental.According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, loneliness has been associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide. For older women, loneliness and social isolation can increase the risk of heart disease by as much as 27 percent.

“Loneliness is essentially the perceived gap between the relationships you have and the relationships you want in your life, said Adam Smiley Poswolsky, the author of Friendship in the Age of Loneliness.

“A 2018 study found that loneliness is common across age groups. … Social media can exacerbate our perception of loneliness by bombarding us with photos and videos of friends and acquaintances seemingly spending their time without us, said Poswolsky.

“[Said] Poswolsky, ‘No one feels like they can talk about it because there’s a lot of shame associated with loneliness.’

Billy Baker, the author of We Need to Hang Out, a memoir of his personal journey to find new friends as a middle-aged man, said he realized he needed to build beyond the lifelong friendships he made in high school or college.

“Baker said he didn’t have very many people he could call in the middle of the night if there was an emergency. To remedy this, he started a fraternity for neighborhood dads to meet every Wednesday night, and the group now gets together on other days and on the weekends.

“Baker said he’s spent years ‘checking off so many other boxes,’ to be a good father and husband, but he’s never had ‘hanging out with my buddies’ on the list.

“ ‘We all know how to do this,’ he said. ‘What very often happens in those moments is you feel that spark with someone and you say: “Hey, we should grab a beer some time!” But, how often do you go grab that beer?’ ”

As Suzanne and her fellow Girl Scouts used to sing,

“Make new friends
“But keep the old.
“One is silver
“And the other gold.”

More at the Post, here.

Photo: Alex Bakley via Washington Post and Italy 24.
Herman Cruse is a school bus driver who is a regular volunteer in classes at Middle Township Elementary No. 1 in Cape May Court House, N.J.

I like that every week the Washington Post sends subscribers a collection of upbeat stories it calls “The Optimist.” It’s good to be reminded that there are people doing kind and generous things every day. We just don’t hear about them often.

Today’s story, by Cathy Free. is about a school bus driver who was concerned when a child on his bus was discouraged about reading. It’s about how his decision to help out led to a whole new avocation.

“New Jersey school bus driver Herman Cruse noticed that a kindergartner seemed a little sad and out of sorts during one morning ride to Middle Township Elementary #1.

“ ‘Bus drivers are the eyes and ears of students when they’re away from home,’ said Cruse, 55, who drives students of all ages for Middle Township Public Schools in Cape May Court House, N.J.

“ ‘We have an uncanny gift to discern what kids are feeling,’ he said.

“When Cruse asked the kindergartner what was wrong, he said the boy explained that he wasn’t able to complete his reading assignment because his parents were busy with his four siblings at home. It was hard to find one-on-one time to practice reading with his mom or dad, he told Cruse.

“Cruse said an idea popped into his mind.

‘I told him, “Listen, I have some free time, and if you don’t mind, I’d like to come to the school and read with you,” ‘ he said.

“Cruse received permission from the 6-year-old’s teacher, Alex Bakley, to show up at her kindergarten classroom the following week. When he walked in, he said the boy shouted, ‘Hey, that’s my bus driver!’

“ ‘We went into a quiet corner and began reading together,’ Cruse said. … ‘So he read to me, I read to him and we read together, and from there, it took on a life of its own. … A second student wanted to read to me, then a third. All these kids were going to the teacher asking, “Can I read with Mr. Herman?” ‘

“Almost two years later, Cruse now volunteers to help Bakley’s 18 kindergarten students and another kindergarten class with reading two days a week, and on a third day, he tutors the school’s first- and second-graders. After dropping the kids off at school, of course. …

“Middle Township Elementary Principal Christian Paskalides said every child at the school looks up to Cruse, both on and off the school bus. … ‘Positive adult interactions can sometimes dictate a child’s day, and a bus driver is the first and last adult interaction for most students other than family,’ Paskalides added. ‘This is more than just a job to Herman — he’s a great role model and mentor.’

“Cruse said he’s never wanted to be anything other than a bus driver. … Because he lives in Egg Harbor City, N.J., about 40 miles away, it didn’t make sense for him to drive home after delivering students to high school, middle school and elementary school, he said. … ‘Instead, I’d hang out at the gym, go the library or sit in my car and go to sleep to fill up the time,’ Cruse said.

“It wasn’t until he offered to help the kindergartner on his bus last year that he realized there was something more rewarding he could be doing, he said. Cruse had spent a lot of time reading to his own five children when they were growing up.

“ ‘They’d say, “Dad, how come you read so much?” and I’d say, “Come on over and find out,” ‘ he said. ‘I’d tell them, “The book is always better than the movie.” There’s nothing better than time spent with a good book.’ …

“When Bakley showed him the round table where children would read to him in her classroom, he pulled up a small chair and made himself at home, he said. … He spends about 20 minutes reading books with each child on a rotating basis, and he also challenges them to word games like alphabet bingo.

“LaCotia Ruiz said her son Kingsly, 5, is more excited about books since he started reading with Cruse.

“ ‘Kingsly had a rough time with reading at the beginning of the school year, but he’s doing much better because of this fun one-on-one time,’ Ruiz said. ‘In the morning he wakes up excited and says, “I’m going to read with Mr. Herman!” ‘ she said. …

“ ‘There’s now another bus driver who wants to help me out between his routes,’ [Cruse] said. “What started out as a way to kill time has now blossomed into a way to make a difference in the heart of a child.’ ”

Props to him and props to that first kindergartner, too. I’m going out on a limb here and opine that the little boy sensed he could reveal his problem to this adult and maybe have something good happen. More at the Post, here.

Nature as Healer

Nature has messages for those who want to hear.

Wildfires have have shown Californians the dark side of Nature, especially how it fights back when it has reached the limits of its tolerance for human destructiveness. Today’s article shows the residents of the obliterated town of Paradise gaining strength from the healing side of Nature.

Sarah Kaplan reported at the Washington Post, “Laura Nelson was dreading this drive. It’s bad enough seeing the mailboxes for houses that no longer exist, the dusty roads lined with the blackened skeletons of trees. But the day is also bone-dry and scorching, the smoke from a distant fire casting a too-familiar pallor over the landscape. Her car bumps over rough patches of pavement — places where the asphalt was melted by vehicles engulfed in flames.

“It has been four years since Nelson navigated these roads while fleeing the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California’s history. And still, every return to Paradise is a reminder that she can never truly go home.

“When the Camp Fire incinerated Nelson’s Northern California town, it plunged the community into a mental health crisis. Butte County already had one of the highest rates of childhood trauma in the stateand the sudden loss of home and kinship left residents at high risk of depression. The author of one study on the fire’s aftermath said survivors experienced PTSD at rates on par with veterans of war.

“They are not alone: Research increasingly shows that victims of climate change disasters are left with deep psychological wounds — from anxiety after hurricanes to surges in suicide during heat waves — that the nation’s disaster response agencies are ill-prepared to treat.

“But in the burned and battered forests near Paradise, a small program run by California State University at Chico is using nature therapy walks to help fire survivors recover.

“Drawing on the Japanese practice of ‘forest bathing,’ the community-led walks test a fraught premise: That the site of survivors’ worst memories can become a source of solace. That landscapes still threatened by ever-rising temperatures may hold a remedy to the anguish that climate change will bring. …

“After the dual ordeals of fleeing from fire and navigating an overburdened disaster bureaucracy, participants say the program has helped relieve some of their pain.

“ ‘The forest is the therapist,’ Nelson says. ‘Nature knows how to heal.’ …

“As she approaches the shaded entrance to Paradise Lake park — a rare patch of the forest left mostly untouched by fire — she feels her pulse ease ever so slightly. There is something reassuring about the sweet scent of fir needles, the cool breeze of the lake, the chatter of sparrows and squirrels.

“Suddenly, Nelson is glad she came. She needs this morning in nature, she realizes, to restore some of what she lost when Paradise burned. She yearns to feel at home again in this wounded, warming world.

“In the woods beside Paradise Lake, Blake Ellis stands amid a circle of survivors, breathing deep. As program manager of the Chico State ecotherapy program, she has guided scores of forest therapy walks. But this one feels especially freighted with meaning. …

“Ellis doesn’t know what memories they have brought to this moment. But she knows her job is to create a ‘safe container’ for their pain.

“The fire started around dawn on Nov. 8, 2018, when a faulty piece of electrical equipment sent a spark into the parched vegetation of the northern Sierra foothills. …

“The streets in Paradise weren’t designed to carry tens of thousands of evacuees at a moment’s notice. LeeAnn Schlaf saw families crammed into sedans, boats pulled by trailers, trucks carrying dogs and cats and chickens. Some people had abandoned their vehicles and started to walk. She couldn’t understand why. Then Schlaf turned onto the Skyway and was confronted by a ‘tunnel of fire. …

“After introductions, Ellis leads the forest therapy group along the lakeside trail to a flat, open stretch of ground. The water is so still it looks like a mirror, perfectly doubling the trees, the clouds, the smoke-streaked sky.

“ ‘Find a nice, cozy, comfortable spot,’ Ellis says. … ‘Begin by simply bringing your awareness to your breath. Simply noticing what it’s like to breathe.’ …

“Ellis’s goal in this moment is to help the participants feel grounded. To anchor them in a safe and peaceful present, even as they are buffeted by the traumas of their past.

Studies have found that as many as 40 percent of people will develop post-traumatic stress disorder after a disaster, said psychologist Karla Vermeulen, deputy director of the Institute for Disaster Mental Health at the State University of New York at New Paltz.

“Survivors often remain hypervigilant, their bodies pulsing with stress hormones long after the threat has subsided. Vivid memories of the disaster can disrupt their sleep and haunt their days. Untreated, their suffering may begin to calcify into something more deep-seated and persistent. …

“In the moment when they are most in need of stability and compassion, Vermeulen said, survivors too often find themselves at the mercy of a convoluted bureaucracy that climate change has stretched increasingly thin. …

“Accessing the few resources that are available requires survivors to complete reams of paperwork, adding to their stress levels. It may take months or even years to get approved for government assistance, exacerbating peoples’ sense that they will never be safe again. …

“Years later, Schlaf still worries something will happen to her house every time she goes on vacation. She compulsively checks that the knobs on her stove are turned off. Though it was her life’s dream to live in the woods, now she is uneasy among too many trees. …

“But sitting in the sunshine beside Paradise Lake, Schlaf notices how calm she feels. She looks at the reflection of tall, dark pines quivering on the lake surface. For what feels like the first time in a long time, the forest doesn’t make her fearful.”

More at the Post, here. Hat tip: Earle.

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