March 2016

Posted by Ellen

Sunday marks the 101st anniversary of the Gallipoli Campaign of World War I, when Allied forces tried and failed to gain control of the Dardanelles Straits connecting the Aegean and Mediterranean with the Sea of Marmara and the gateway to Asia, in what was then the Ottoman Empire. But honestly, we're not sure why Sunday is the official anniversary, since the nightmarish campaign actually began in January 1915 and dragged on for eight horrific months.

These bullets and many other similar specimens are on display in Turkey's Gallipoli historic museum. Pictures like this one show up on the internet from time to time as the spectacular consequence of "a mid-air collision." Although the two bullets did, of course, collide, the collision was apparently not in mid-air; no rifling marks are visible on the lighter-colored bullet, which we are told indicates that it was never fired. Perhaps it was in an ammunition clip or even a storage crate when it was struck by the darker-colored bullet.

More than 100,000 combatants died in the campaign, which involved Allied soldiers and sailors from England and France and many French and English colonies, including Newfoundland, New Zealand, India, and Senegal. The Ottoman forces that beat them back were led by Mustafa Ataturk, who went on to found the Republic of Turkey.

Posted by Ellen

Southwest of Tuscaloosa, near the small town of Moundville, Alabama, the meandering Black Warrior River twists and turns through mostly forested countryside. In this rendering based on satellite imagery, there are little white dots scattered everywhere in the trees and the fields; each dot is at the end of a little spur of road.

These are drilling pads for methane wells.

Methane is the gas that sickens canaries in coal mines. It's what all too frequently makes underground mines explode; wherever there's coal, there's methane. Commercial extraction of coalbed methane, to be sold as natural gas, began in the early 1980s, and the Warrior basin of Alabama was scene of the world's first methane boom; to maximize production quickly, wells were drilled every few hundred feet throughout the region.

After a very few years, the boom went bust. Most wells now sit idle, and many have been orphaned, leaving the cleanup and decommissioning expenses to the taxpayers.

But you can still see the little white dots on the landscape, even from space.

Posted by Ellen

A birdseye view of farmland on the volcanic slopes of the Canary Islands.

Posted by Ellen

José Stein, our man in Havana, shares a street scene with us. "Random people," he says, "who've seen a lot of history."

Posted by Ellen

Even in organized tournaments, an ultimate frisbee game generally features no referee or scorekeeper. Teams call fouls on themselves and keep track of the score using a spare frisbee and a jumble of shoes; after each goal, a shoe is moved to one side or the other of the frisbee, depending on which team made the score. When this picture was taken early in a game at the 26th annual Potlatch tournament over the July 4th weekend in Redmond, Washington, the score was tied, one up.

Despite what seems obvious from this picture, ultimate frisbee players don't usually compete barefoot. Out on the field, they wear soccer cleats or running shoes.

And if the goal scoring should happen to outpace the number of available scorekeeping shoes, one shoe can be turned sideways to stand in for five vertical shoes, much as tick marks are slashed sideways in bundles of five.

The Potlatch is among the largest tournaments in the ultimate frisbee world, with teams coming to compete from as far away as Korea, Alaska, and the east coast of North America. In the game being scored above, the Garden Gnomes of Olympia, Washington, eventually fell to a team from San Francisco; the Gnomes have changed their name to O'School and signed up to try again at the 2016 Potlatch.

Posted by Ellen

It has been suggested that here in this Washington, D.C., intersection in 1923, Officer Banks developed the protopye for a kind of traffic signaling that is still with us today.

When you see the shoe: Walk. No shoe: Don't walk.

Posted by Ellen

Mandrake, a plant of biblical, medieval, literary, medical, and comic book significance, blooms in April in New York City, in the garden of the Cloisters at the northern tip of Manhattan.

Mandrake flowers, shown here as buds just beginning to open, are pretty little bell-shaped blossoms, but they are traditionally of little interest. The leaves are heavy and heart-shaped and can grow huge over the course of a summer, but they too are mostly overlooked. With mandrake, a plant native to the Mediterranean region, it's all about the root.

Mandrake root is long and thick and often split into two legs, sometimes arguably resembling the human form. It's also powerfully sleep-inducing when ground and soaked; it was used as an anesthetic in antiquity and into the Middle Ages. In the bible, and perhaps also in the poetry of John Donne, extract of mandrake root cured infertility. In folklore all over Europe, a human-shaped mandrake root in your pocket offered protection even if the church was not on your side; Joan of Arc was charged with "habitually" carrying root of mandrake.

Mandrake was said to spring up in ground drenched with blood or semen from a man being hanged. If you pulled the plant up out of the ground, as Shakespeare warned us, its man-root would scream, and you could die from hearing the scream. There was a report as late as the ninteenth century of a British gardener falling down the stairs and dying after accidentally pulling up a volunteer mandrake.

(In Harry Potter, of course, young witches and wizards wore protection.)

In 1934, "Mandrake the Magician" emerged as the world's first modern costumed superhero, in a newpaper comic strip that ran continuously until 2013. The hero Mandrake's ability to instantly hypnotize bad guys may have been, pardon the expression, rooted in the medicinal tradition of the mandrake plant.

Posted by Ellen

On the afternoon of March 7, 2009,  the ice went out on the White River in South Royalton, Vermont. For hours, the river roared and groaned, as its thick cover of winter ice was ground to bits by rampaging ice chunks from miles upstream. By the next morning, the river ran free, except along the banks, where rocks and logs had snagged some of the frozen slabs and beached them on dry land. Over the next few weeks, the jumble of beached ice melted very slowly, and then it was really spring.

Posted by Ellen

Here in Philadelphia, the sun is smiling on us this week; it feels like spring, and it will look like spring very soon. We'll know it when we see it. Even in South Dakota's appropriately named Badlands, where life is tough and the weather is bad pretty much all seasons of the year, faint green hints of spring can be discerned in the landscape–not in March, however; the photo above was taken in mid-May 2014.

Posted by Ellen

Also taxidermiferous! Displaying life that is no longer with us, at the Muséum national d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris.