Posted by Ellen

Sail due north from the island of Crete, and you'll get to Athens. If Daedalus and his son Icarus had only had a boat, that is what they might have done. But King Minos was holding them prisoner in Crete--he was enraged because Daedalus had helped Theseus slay the Minotaur and run off with the princess. And King Minos controlled the waters all around Crete, so escape by sea was out of the question.

Daedalus, a native of Athens, had been banished from the city for murdering his apprentice/nephew, a twelve-year-old boy who was so clever that Daedalus was afraid of being overshadowed. He fled to Crete with his son, where he built the labyrinth that Minos eventually used to imprison the two of them. Of course having built the maze, Daedalus knew how to escape it. But escaping the island was a whole nother ball of wax.

He built wings for himself and Icarus from feathers and wax. They flew northeast, toward Troy. We all know what happened next: despite his father's warning, Icarus flew too high, too close to the hot sun, and the wax holding the wings to his arms melted in the heat. He fell to his death in the blue waters now bearing his name, the Ikarian Sea.

His body was retrieved from the sea by Hercules, and he was buried on a hillside overlooking the Ikarian Sea, on the Greek island now known as Ikaria.

This satellite image shows the Ikarian Sea and a hillside on Ikaria, a terraced olive grove. Not much in this scene has obviously changed in the thousands of years since Icarus got too uppity. Although the island is beautiful and the people there are known for their longevity, they have not prospered. Many of the children of Ikaria have fled to far corners of the globe, in a twentieth-century diaspora. They publish a newsletter to keep up with one another, and in the 1960s they held a reunion back home, on the island. There was no place to house all the returnees, so they rented a cruise ship to use as a hotel and parked it just offshore.

Posted by Ellen

The goalkeeper for Toronto FC, an MLS team, plays almost in the shadow of the city's CN Tower.

Posted by Ellen

There's an urban legend about a deer more spectacular than any other, a deer that's pure white, maybe even albino. It is glimpsed from time to time, usually at dusk or dawn or even after dark. It's shy and quick, won't stick around for the camera.

For a hunter to shoot such a deer, a white ghost of a deer, would make the whole forest cry. It would bring a whole lifetime of bad luck to the hunter who felled it. Unless it was actually a good luck charm. Or a trophy like no other--a trophy deer above all others.

One problem with the white deer, urban-legend-wise, is that there's widespread disagreement concerning what it might signify, if it signifies anything. The story is messy, if there is a story to it. But that's okay, urban-legend-wise, because the white deer is real--an estimated 1 deer out of 30,000 is albino, completely white with pink eyes.

Their coloration leaves them especially vulnerable to human hunters and other predators. Do they know that? Is that why they are so shy? Perhaps not, but their light-sensitive eyes may make them avoid daylight even more than other deer.

Nonetheless, Janet Goldwater sort of got a photo of an albino deer that had been eating apples from her tree in Eagles Mere, Pennsylvania. "This photo was taken (in a rush obviously!) through the window of my house," she writes. "My opportunity to take a photo came at dusk, hence the slow shutter speed."

Here, the albino deer looks almost like a unicorn, which seems appropriate enough. If you want clearer pictures, you can find them on the tubes.  But this shot seems to pretty much sum up the whole white-deer thing: whatever is out there is hard to see, impossible to pin down, fleeing fast , but definitely, positively, really something.

Posted by Ellen

The boy in Winslow Homer's "The Hound and the Hunter" never saw the movie "Bambi," of course, so his relationship to forest and fauna was nothing like that of my generation.. This boy didn't grow up with that single gunshot trumping all other cinematic memories: What just happened? The hunters killed Bambi's mother? His mother?

Homer's boy, unburdened with Disney-fication, just went hunting. That's what you could do this time of year if you were a fortunate American boy. His dog hounded the deer into the water, forcing it to swim rather than run. Deer swim slowly enough that the boy was able to pick it off with the gun that is now in the bottom of the boat. He'll soon have the deer tied up, ready to drag home. Problem is: the dog is now swimming straight for the boat, and if it jumps in, they'll capsize. What should the boy do? What happens next?

Homer was particularly proud of this painting; he felt he got all the details just right--for example, the transition between the boy's pale forearms and suntanned wrists. But even back then in the late 19th century, deer hunting was becoming culturally problematic among a portion of the population; when this painting was first displayed, there were complaints that the deer was still alive, that the boy was trying to drown it. This interpretation is obviously wrong--a desperate deer, thrashing in the water, would swamp the boat, if the boy could hold it at all. No, the deer is not struggling, and the boy's attention has shifted to the dog.

To be continued, sort of.

Posted by Ellen

This is Stockholm after midnight last June, during one of the white nights near the summer solstice. The tower in the foreground is part of the Old Town, which dates back to the thirteenth century. The cranes in the background  are building the part of town that will date back to the twenty-first century.

Posted by Ellen

This is the 1905 varsity basketball team from Charlotte Hall Military Academy in St. Mary's County, Maryland. Sylvester Stallone was a Charlotte Hall boy, shortly before the school closed in the 1970s.

In 1905, basketballs had laces like footballs, and dribbling was very tricky.

Posted by Ellen

The Outdoors Club from Deering High School spent Columbus Day weekend camping at Acadia National Park and climbing the cliffs on Mount Desert Island. Here, Hank inches his way up a crack.

Posted by Ellen

Those amongst us who are not artists nonetheless feel we know a thing or two about art and artists. We "know" that artistic vision and style are intensely personal, that "art by committee" is doomed to fail. But see here, "Morning in a Pine Forest," painted in 1886 by Russian artists Ivan Shishkin and Konstantin Savitsky.

Shishkin and Savitsky were both accomplished painters and well-regarded at the time. Shishkin was known for sweeping landscapes that portrayed the Russian countryside in loving detail. Savitsky painted sentimental tableaux, often of historical scenes. They both signed this painting, and for years it was assumed that the forest was by Shishkin and the bears by Savitsky.

But archivists eventually discovered preliminary sketches for the work done by both men, and it became clear that each of them contributed to both the background and the bears. Meanwhile, for unknown reasons, the first owner of the painting ordered that Savitsky's signature be removed from the canvas.

Whatever. It's a nice picture.

Posted by Ellen

This now quiet flooded hole in the ground was once part of the world's largest open pit iron mine, near Bob Dylan's boyhood home in Hibbing, Minnesota. One-fourth of all the steel ever made in the United States used iron ore from this one mine. The ore sat here for two billion years unmolested, waiting for oxygen to appear in the atmosphere, for life to appear on the surface of earth, and for that life to evolve sufficiently to dig all the iron out of the earth. The digging took about 50 years.

They don't make these big iron deposits any more. Now that the air has oxygen in it, iron will rust away instead of piling up like grains of sand. There are natural processes nowadays that manage to accumulate some iron despite the atmosphere, but they operate on a much, much smaller scale.

Minnesota's Iron Range is what's called a Banded Iron Formation, a BIF. There are fewer than a dozen large BIFs around the world, in Minnesota, Africa, Russia, Australia, Venezuela, Brazil, and Labrador. They are all at least a billion years old; the biggest ones are around two billion years old.

Two billion years is also the age of some of the oldest life forms preserved in the fossil record, organisms called cyanobacteria, ancestors of modern algae. Vast "mats" of cyanobacteria fossils have been found near Hibbing and near many of the world's other banded iron formations.


Here's one theory: cyanobacteria, sometimes called blue-green algae, were capable of photosynthesis. Like modern plants, they gave off oxygen, which accumulated in the atmosphere and the ocean. The cyanobacteria lived in the ocean, probably near the surface, and the ocean water contained high concentrations of iron, probably leached from early volcanic rocks. Photosynthesis added oxygen to the ocean, which made the iron precipitate out of solution, sinking to the bottom. The iron sediment piled up, and we got our BIFs.

But there's a catch: cyanobacteria are anoxic organisms, which evolved and apparently thrived in a world without oxygen in the air. Their own behavior--photosynthesis--may have contributed to atmospheric changes that literally poisoned them. In other words, they may have caused their own extinction. It may have been a mass extinction, which could explain the huge mats of fossilized cyanobacteria associated with BIFs.

It's hard to imagine how the cyanobacteria could have avoided their fate; they are single-celled organisms with little more brainpower than some of our contemporary politicians. A few varieties did evolve to survive in anoxic niche environments, such as hot mineral springs, but overall their way of life was unsustainable.

Which raises the obvious question: can we humans do any better? As our way of life leads to changes in the atmosphere, can we evolve to survive on an overheated planet? And/or are we smart enough to control the atmosphere to make it more favorable to survival of our species?

Posted by Ellen

After some of you fussed yesterday about the lack of a story to go with the picture, I've got a story for today--the beginning of a two-part story, in fact. It could be classified as another entry in an irregular series dealing with places I've never been to and probably have no business writing about.

The picture looks down on the harbor of Duluth, Minnesota, in 1905, from a vantage point near the top of the city's new inclined railway. The railway may look like part of the town's extensive industrial infrastructure, but it was actually a people-mover, built by the city in the late ninteenth century at the instigation of real-estate developers who wanted to sell houses high up the hill above downtown. "The Incline" operated for about 50 years, powered by an electric motor at the top and working a little like an elevator, with a dummy-car counterweight on the left track that moved downhill when the passenger car on the right track was pulled uphill.

What I didn't know about Duluth could fill several hard drives. Here's what little I did know: it's Bob Dylan's hometown, and the winters are ridiculously cold. The Dylan factoid is only partly true--yes, he was born in Duluth, but he really grew up a hundred miles north in Hibbing, Minnesota, a mining town that had to relocate itself because the mine got too big. As for the factoid about Duluth winters: yes, of course, they really are brutal, with a spell of forty below or worse most years. But "the Incline" was so steep that snow never piled up too deeply on the tracks, not even during blizzards.

As for the things I  didn't know about Duluth: Number one, around the time of this photo, it was among the wealthiest towns in America, claiming more millionaires per capita than anyplace else. It thrived because of a confluence of geology, geography, and the highest technology of the era.

In the 1870s, northern Minnesota had a gold rush; no commercially significant gold was ever found, but the prospectors did stumble on high-grade iron ore in the hills north of Duluth. They'd discovered Minnesota's Iron Range, one of the largest iron deposits on earth and the subject of tomorrow's part of the story.

By the 1880s, Duluth and the Iron Range were connected by railroad. Ore from the mines was off-loaded from the trains at Duluth onto large ships. The ships would have been stuck forever in Lake Superior, unable to exit, had not construction been completed around that time on the mechanized locks at Sault Ste. Marie, which helped ships to descend the 21 feet between Lake Superior and Lake Huron. The ore ships from Duluth sailed a thousand miles across the Great Lakes to the newly constructed steel mills in Indiana and Pennsylvania and Ohio and New York, where newly invented Hulett machines automatically unloaded the ore from the ships and dumped it into blast furnaces. As soon as the new steel cooled, it was snapped up by new factories assembling cars and tractors and locomotives and wringer washing machines and everything else that used to be made in America.

All cities that boom must implode. (I don't know if that's true, but it sounds about right.) What happened to Duluth was World War II, with its extreme demand for iron ore to build tanks and planes and ships to replace the ones that were being consumed in battle.  The Iron Range couldn't keep up; huge wartime scrap-metal drives were needed to supplement the mines.The track of the inclined railway was itself torn up and sold for scrap. By about 1950, all the good ore in the entire Iron Range had been clawed out of the earth and shipped away through Duluth. The city languished.

Fortunately, scientists at the University of Minnesota had seen this coming and were hard at work on a work-around.  Within a few years they came up with a way of using the Iron Range's low-grade ore, called taconite, Taconite isn't as valuable as the old stuff, and it has to be compete with cheap ore now coming in from places like Brazil, and anyway, most of the old steel mills and factories are no longer operating, but Duluth remains a fairly active port to this day. Last year, it handled 500,000 railroad carloads of taconite. The railroad also brings grain to Duluth from all across the northern Plains, which also gets loaded there onto ships.

But nowadays, more valuable than wheat or taconite to Duluth's economy are tourists. Now that the smoke is gone from the old ore processing works, the city's scenic lakeside setting attracts vacationers interested in all the outdoor activities of the north country: boating, fishing, hunting, snowmobiling, and so on. Along the top of the hill is a string of popular state parks. Even the sand bar that protects the harbor, seen in the distance in the photo, is now a park, and also a seaplane base. Visitors are buying up the old houses on the side of the hill to use as vacation homes.

Somewhere in the city, I can't figure out where, is a trail they've named the Bob Dylan Walking Path. Must be near Highway 61.