Sarah Angleton is a wife, mom, blogger, book nerd, history enthusiast, author and lover of puns. Her books include Launching Sheep & Other Stories, Gentleman of Misfortune, Smoke Rose to Heaven, and White Man's Graveyard.
It’s been 70.3 million years, give or take a day or two, since the approximately six-mile-wide Chicxulub meteor landed in Yucatan, Mexico and caused a mass extinction event. Earth’s dinosaur inhabitants didn’t so much as lift a finger to try to stop it, a decision they weren’t around to regret.
More than 1.9 billion years before that, the Vredefort meteor, now believed to have been more than twice as large as the Chicxulub, impacted the earth at what today is Free State, South Africa. Nothing was done about it by the unicellular lifeforms that might have eventually become dinosaurs if they could have been bothered.
And so, this week I was happy to hear that the planet’s current dominant inhabitants have decided to take the threat more seriously. Since the very first discovery of an asteroid by Italian astronomer, mathematician, and priest Giuseppe Piazzi in 1901, humanity has held onto a little niggling feeling that a human-ending catastrophe might just be hurtling its way through space on a collision course with our big blue ball.
Piazzi’s asteroid, Ceres, isn’t a threat. It seems content enough in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter and has even received an upgrade to dwarf planet. But there are plenty of rocks flying around up there. The researchers who look at such things suggest that asteroids that are at least three miles in diameter have struck the planet about sixty times in the 4.5 billion years or so it’s been around. Of those, three of them were likely large enough to have caused mass extinction.
Frankly, while three instances in 4.5 billion years is enough to keep writers of science fiction busy for a long time, I’m not really all that concerned. The odds of being alive to see it happen are pretty small.
Of course, it’s just this kind of nonchalant attitude that took out the dinosaurs. Lucky for humanity, I’m not in charge of Earth’s defenses against incoming space rocks.
Don’t worry, because NASA is on the job. This past Monday, the Double Asteroid Redirection Test successfully collided with and nudged a completely innocent asteroid that was too busy minding its own business to wipe out life on Earth.
Over the next months and years, astronomers all over the world will be observing and calculating just how much impact the DART had on the asteroid’s path and we will all breathe a little easier knowing that we might just be smarter than the average dinosaur.
In 1637, English lawyer and colonist Thomas Morton, founder of the Merrymount colony that eventually became Quincy, Massachusetts, published a book that was not very complimentary of his Puritan neighbors.
According to Morton, who had been pretty successful in establishing trade and good relations with the Native Americans in the vicinity of his colony, the Puritans were generally unfair, dishonest, abusive, and hateful. He also had some unflattering nicknames for them.
Prior to writing his book, Morton had attempted to expel the Puritans from Massachusetts with a lawsuit that rested on their alleged misrepresentation of their purpose for establishing a colony in the first place. They’d done so in a different location than originally planned as well, and in a location to which someone else technically held the rights. He won the suit.
The lawsuit had come on the tail of a particularly nasty encounter between Morton and his neighbors. Despite his own traditional Anglican beliefs, Morton engaged in his fair share of passive aggressive paganistic behavior of the variety that would drive a Puritan mad. When he erected an eighty-foot-tall maypole and invited his Algonquin friends over for a raging kegger, the highly offended Puritans arrested him, cut down his maypole, burned down his colony, and left him to die stranded on a rocky, coastal island.
Fortunately, Morton had managed to make himself some friends by throwing the best parties and, you know, not slaughtering them, and so he survived the ordeal. If the legal decision that revoked the Massachusetts Bay Colony charter had been enforced, that might have been the end of it, but it wasn’t. And so, Morton wrote his offensive book.
New English Canaan, which today is considered a historically significant literary work of the American colonial period, consists of three parts. The first is a primarily positive view of Native American customs. The second is an account of the natural history of Massachusetts. And the third is a satirical look at why Puritans are just the worst.
The book was originally published in the Netherlands, where anti-English books of the day tended to be published. Not all that surprisingly, most of the copies were initially seized and destroyed by the English government. The few copies that managed to circulate were quickly condemned and banned by the Puritans, making New English Canaan the first banned book in America.
Today there are just sixteen original copies of Morton’s book in existence, though it has been republished with plenty of scholarly criticism and is freely available on the internet. I haven’t read it, but honestly, the mere fact that it was banned makes me kind of want to pick it up.
I might just do so, in honor of Banned Book Week. The annual event is celebrated this week by the American Library Association and by intelligent, thoughtful people everywhere who are not the busy-body mom crusaders across the nation that have for some reason decided they are responsible for monitoring the reading material of everyone else’s children.
I feel compelled, too, as long as I am standing up here on my soapbox, to state that such people shout on each side of the political aisle, as is evidenced by the practice of revenge banning being attempted at a truly alarming rate.
At this point I am so frustrated by the book banners I, probably unfairly, assume that if given the chance they would cut down a maypole, burn down a school, and banish all the librarians to die alone on a rocky, coastal island. All in the noble name of keeping children safe from just the kind of intellectual stimulation and freedom of thought that could help them to develop into critical thinkers. Just the worst.
Thank heavens for the majority of parents who recognize that censorship belongs in their private homes and families, along with their noses. Thank heavens, too, for the librarians who, too often without support from their district administrators, are standing up for the freedom to read. And shame on the politicians who are not.
It was in 1902 that journalist Kate Masterson, writing for the New York Times, solidified an American symbol and expressed perhaps an over-zealous appreciation for America’s favorite dessert. In response to a British writer’s assertion that one shouldn’t indulge in apple pie more than twice a week, which is probably pretty good dietary advice, Masterson called that pace of pie-eating “utterly insufficient.”
She went on to write that “Pie is the American synonym of prosperity. . .Pie is the food of the heroic. No pie-eating people can be permanently vanquished.”
That’s a lot of confidence to put into pie, but to be fair, there really is nothing more American than apple pie. Except, that is, for pretty much anything that is actually uniquely American, or even originally American, which pie is not. For that matter, neither are apples.
There’s only one species of apple that is native to North America. That’s the inedible crab apple, from which Johnny Appleseed liked to make hard cider, but otherwise mostly just makes a mess of suburban lawns. The sweeter varieties that are great for pies come originally from Asia from which they made their way to pie-loving Europe, and then into the early days of the American colonies.
Colonists loved planting apple trees and it wasn’t long before there were thousands of varieties growing, with apple trees on nearly every homestead. When America’s first cookbook, American Cookery, was published in 1796, American housewives could find two different recipes for apple pie among its pages.
And they must have used them well because twenty-four years after Masterson extolled the heroic pie, the phrase “as American as apple pie,” began to show up as an expression of the ideals of American motherhood, wholesomeness, and comfort. When American soldiers headed off to World War II, one of their battle cries became fighting for mom and apple pie.
And why not? In a way I suppose it’s fitting. Much of the culture of the American people didn’t originate in North America, either, but is blended together from influences from all over the world into one big, unique pie, with admittedly quite a few different takes on the original one or two recipes.
I’m grateful for that and also for all the literal apple recipes for pies and cobblers and sauces and breads and apple butter and yes, more pie. Like the colonists that came before us, my family planted apple trees not long after we moved into our house. Two of the trees produce a couple dozen lovely sweet apples every year. The third tree produces somewhere in the neighborhood of ten thousand.
That might be a slight exaggeration, but you get the idea. We’ve given away apples, welcomed friends to come pick apples, canned applesauce to put on a shelf with last year’s canned applesauce we haven’t gotten to yet, and made our share of pies.
I like apples, and apple pie, but we kind of have it coming out of our ears. I guess maybe that’s a sign of prosperity and heroism and immunity to permanent vanquishment. I don’t know. But I do think that at least during apple season, Masterson was probably right to say that pie only two times a week is utterly insufficient.
Hey also, if you happen to know any great apple recipes, please feel free to put them in the comments. Thanks!
It was probably about four thousand years ago that the indigenous arctic peoples of the Inuit, Aleut, and Yupik tribes began using the world’s first kayaks. These early small, versatile boats were covered in animal skins stretched over frames constructed from driftwood or whale bones or any other material that seemed like it might make a good kayak, which most likely did not include giant pumpkins.
The kayak didn’t become a recreational vehicle until much later when in 1866, English barrister and travel writer John MacGregor published his widely read A Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe. In it he described the boat design he used to tour the rivers of Europe. Twenty-eight inches wide, fifteen feet long, and weighing around eighty pounds, MacGregor’s boat was made of oak and cedar and featured a rubber canvas over a cockpit. And it was also definitely not made of pumpkin.
Because no one would ever think that a pumpkin might make a good boat. Except that a couple of weeks ago on August 27, Duane Hansen, a sixty-year-old Nebraska man, hopped into a hollowed-out 846-pound pumpkin that he grew himself and floated thirty-eight miles down the Missouri River from just south of Omaha to Nebraska City.
The really weird part about this story is that Hansen’s journey nabbed him a Guinness World Record, smashing the previous record holder’s distance of a little more than twenty-five miles, meaning there was a previous world record to smash.
The sport of pumpkin kayaking dates all the way back to 1996 and soon resulted in the Windsor Pumpkin Regatta in 1999, an annual event held in Windsor, Nova Scotia and originally founded by Danny Dill, the son of the pumpkin grower responsible for the Atlantic Giant Pumpkin.
Sadly, the event has been discontinued for now because of ongoing venue issues, but it has inspired similar regattas in Oregon, Maine, Utah, and a handful of other locations. Previously it has included three categories of races including motorized, paddled, and experimental kayaks, though I might argue the sport is young enough that one might still consider kayaking in a hollowed-out pumpkin a tad experimental, and plenty ridiculous.
But the event, and the several like it, have attracted thousands of people each year occasionally including celebrities. Mind you, that’s not thousands of participants, because while there seems to be no shortage of people who think pumpkin kayaking is fun to watch, giant pumpkins in the required six- to eight-hundred-pound range aren’t always easy to come by.
That’s the reason it took Duane Hansen five years of dreaming big to finally achieve this gigantic, world record-breaking goal the day after his sixtieth birthday. It took him that long to manage to grow an Atlantic Giant large enough to make the journey.
That accomplishment alone seems impressive to me, because I too am growing pumpkins, and they have turned out somewhat smaller than 846 pounds. And this is even more disappointing to me now that I know I could have been paddling a pumpkin down the Missouri River.
Granted, I didn’t plant Atlantic Giant Pumpkin seeds, but I did have a reasonable expectation that my pumpkins might at least be large enough to carve Jack-o-lanterns. Maybe I just need to take a page from Duane Hansen’s book and dream bigger.
It’s been about two hundred years since the students of the Shrewsbury School in England invented a new game in which they pretended to engage in an epic rabbit hunt. A couple of students took off running through whatever winding path they wished, carrying with them scraps of paper to drop along the way and lay down a trail. These were the hares.
After giving the hares about a ten-minute head start, the next wave of students took off in hot pursuit, doing their best to follow the paper trail “scent” and locate their prey, like good “harriers.” These hounds were usually the younger of the remaining students because older, bigger students rarely tolerate being referred to as dogs.
At last came the field. These were the oldest students who really got their wriggle on and went in for the metaphorical kill. At least I assume it was metaphorical. The whole thing was designed to resemble the traditional hare or fox hunt. It was also a pretty good way to get some exercise.
In general, I approve of exercise and as I’ve mentioned once or twice before I have an almost irrational hatred of rabbits, so it might seem like this game would be right up my alley. Except that it isn’t, because I also have an entirely rational hatred of running. I’ve mentioned that once or twice, too.
The game of “hare and hounds” (referred to sometimes as “paper chase”) certainly does require a lot of running. In fact, it wasn’t long before this game became a competitive sport at public schools throughout England and soon after Oxford and Cambridge. By 1876 the sport held an English national championship.
Eleven years later it had come to the United States. By then the imaginary rabbit had long been abandoned and the sport had become known as cross country. Today it shows up all over the world with lots of crazy people (referred to sometimes as “runners”) who just run through the countryside. For fun, I guess.
It’s definitely not my kind of sport, but I have been working on becoming a superfan because my youngest son has decided he would like to spend his high school years as a crazy person. He started this past spring surprising me, and possibly himself, by deciding to run distance events in Track & Field. Turns out he’s pretty good at it, and improving rapidly.
I, however, have discovered that cross country is a difficult sport to spectate. His first meet of the schoolyear occurred earlier this week at a very crowded park with what felt like about a thousand other schools, each with at least twenty-five runners. I exaggerate, of course, but only because I rarely could pick out my son in the pack.
I lined up with thousands (probably) of parents along the start and saw a mass of runners take off. I really can only assume he was among them. Then I shuffled along with the crowd to another part of the course, held up my camera to catch a picture of him running past, and failed to find him before the horde of spectators began once again to shuffle into a new place and I missed him again.
I did see him cross the finish line, right at his goal time for the event. I caught up with him afterwards to give him his special sport recovery drink I’d been keeping cold for him and to tell him how comfortable he had looked on the course. I assume that was probably mostly true since he was smiling. At least it seemed like the kind of thing a superfan parent should say.
I really am proud of him, though I’m not sure where he got his love for the sport. It’s probably safe to assume that is wasn’t from his mother who mostly thinks running is stupid. But just maybe it stems in part from a shared innate drive to hunt down rabbits.
Sometime around September 25, 1924 the streets of Washington D.C.’s Dupont Circle district opened up and swallowed a truck. I imagine that was quite a shock for the truck driver who suddenly found himself in the literal dark underbelly of his nation’s capital. It was also a surprise to nearly everyone in the city, especially when it was discovered that the reason for the sinkhole was an elaborate series of tunnels dug beneath the area.
Speculation quickly suggested nefarious plots involving spy rings and bootlegger operations, neither of which turned out to be true. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, the tunnels didn’t lead to a great Masonic treasure, either.
The explanation finally came from a former resident of the neighborhood, Harrison Dyar, a fifty-eight-year-old, independently wealthy and highly respected entomologist who spent most of his career at the Smithsonian Institution. There he was the custodian of the Lepidoptera. In case you aren’t up on your bugs, that’s the order of insects that includes butterflies and moths.
If moths do happen to be your thing, then Dyar’s name might be familiar to you. He’s the rock star entomologist behind Dyar’s Law, which is a ratio that can be used to identify larval stages based on insect head width, a fact I’m sure you already knew. He’s also the inspiration for the genus of moth once known as Dyaria. That name has since been changed to Coenodomus, which is harder to pronounce, but is also much easier to say with a straight face.
But that’s not all Dyar is known for because, when he was done looking at insects all day, he also had an unusual hobby. For years, the man spent an enormous amount of his free time digging tunnels that snaked from his home through the ground beneath Washington D.C. When asked why he did this, he replied that he did it for exercise.
His children and their friends played in the tunnels, some of which were reinforced with concrete, lined with ceramic tiles, and included ladders, archways, decorative animal sculptures, and strings of electric lights. The whole thing allegedly started one day when Dyar dug a garden for one of his wives (because there’s more than moths to this historical figure) and then he just kept digging until, a decade and a half later, a truck fell through the streets of Washington D.C. Oops.
Dyar’s tunnels are all filled in or bricked off today, but of course rumors abound that there are plenty of underground tunnels and bunkers throughout the city. Some claims are substantiated. A few such spaces are even open to the public.
Others remain little more than whispers, though I doubt anyone would be surprised to find that Washington D.C. has its fair share of dark, cavernous secrets and an unstable underbelly created by the custodians of all manner of Dyaria.
I confess this is one of my favorite times of the year, as everyone is getting ready for school and activities are firing up all around. Once I get through the drudgery of the start-of-the-year forms, I start filling up my calendar with all the fall fun. The homework stress hasn’t started yet for the kids, the teachers aren’t yet overworked and overtired, the slate is clean, and everyone is optimistic about the school year to come.
And because I live in the suburbs tucked in between two major interstates that run from a lot of heres to theres, it’s also the time I get to see a steady parade of U-Haul trailers, loaded-down trucks, and overstuffed minivans. I enjoy watching the college students headed out on new adventures, carrying wishes for what the year will bring, dreams for their unfolding futures, and lots and lots of stuff.
All these college-bound vehicles are packed to the gills with microwaves, mini fridges, bean bag chairs, and other scraps of hand-me-down-furniture. Some lucky students might be transporting a television or even a game console in addition to the computer, desk lamp, bedding, and laundry baskets they will actually need. It’s all the stuff of home, or at least near enough to make their new home away from home more comfortable and less intimidating.
As much as I enjoy seeing this, I am painfully aware that this time next year, we’ll be transporting my first born to some campus somewhere in a vehicle filled with much more stuff than he really needs. I’m sure he’s already devising a plan to con his brother into letting him take the Xbox, which will definitely not work, and if he can manage, he’d probably also like to take the dog.
Of course, that won’t work either because even if the rest of us could part with the family pet, my son will most likely be living in a dorm where he certainly won’t be allowed to have a dog. If the university is smart, it will also specify that the restriction includes any animal that doesn’t fit neatly into a ten-gallon aquarium, because they will have learned a lesson from Lord Byron.
Romantic poet George Gordon Byron, who was something of a rock star in his day, left for Trinity College in Cambridge in 1805, no doubt carrying the many things he would need to establish a comfortable life as a student away from home. But the one thing this young man, already known for passionate obsession and a tendency to flout the rules, really wanted to take with him to school was his dog.
Byron was an animal lover whose affections ran to a wide range of animals throughout his short life, including, according to his contemporary Percy Shelly, “ten horses, eight enormous dogs, three monkeys, five cats, an eagle, a crow, and a falcon.” And that was just at one time. Over the years his exotic collection allegedly included at least a crocodile, several peacocks, more than one badger, a wolf, and a bear.
Trinity College said no to the dog, but they had no specific rules addressing some of Byron’s other more exotic friends, and so he brought along his bear instead. Because there was no specific rule against it, and I’m sure much to the chagrin of Byron’s classmates, the college let it stand. This after they asked him what they could possibly do with a bear and he replied simply, “he should sit for a fellowship.”
Now that is an outside-the-box, divergent kind of thinker, the kind of guy you want helping you solve a problem. You might even want him as a college roommate because he definitely knew how to have a good time, if that wouldn’t mean that you’d also have to live with a bear.
I assume that Trinity College has since changed its rules regarding exotic pets on campus. I know that here in Missouri, while we do occasionally get bear sightings along our interstates, I’ve not yet seen one stuffed into a minivan on its way to school in hopes of being granted a fellowship.
It’s been another big week in the life of Missouri residents who finally had the opportunity a few days ago to vote in primary elections. Let me tell you, it has been a slog getting here. For many months, and particularly in the last few weeks, nearly every television commercial, radio ad, and piece of junk mail has proclaimed the virtues of candidates while bashing opponents.
Our inboxes have been inundated with uninvited appeals, our spam filters have been working overtime, and every street corner has been littered with brightly colored signs featuring slick, stupid slogans. I imagine that’s been the case for most of us in the US as we move through primary season in preparation for the next one which will begin on Wednesday, November 9.
But it isn’t the worst campaign slogan ever. That distinction probably belongs to 1928 Democratic presidential candidate Al Smith, whose slogan “Make your wet dreams come true,” both communicated his anti-prohibition platform and made would-be voters incredibly uncomfortable. And yes, etymologically speaking, Smith was intentional in doubling his entendre, at least according to Merriam-Webster.
My favorite slogan, however, comes from the race between Barry Goldwater and Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Goldwater’s slogan of choice was “In your heart, you know he’s right.” That one is terrible, but Johnson’s response of, “In your guts, you know he’s nuts” is about as good as it gets. I mean if you’re going to drown us in campaign garbage, then at least have the decency to be clever about it.
I’m just glad that in Missouri it’s finally over. The votes have been cast, the ballot boxes filled, and life can return to normal for approximately fifteen seconds before the winners’ campaigns ramp up for the general election in November.
That’s when the losing candidates who were slinging mud up until and all through this past Tuesday begin instead to issue statements of support, such as, “I may have been mistaken when I called my opponent a child molester who supports cancer in all its varied forms. Regardless, I ask you now to lend him your support because at least he’s not that other guy.”
The elections went okay, I guess, as far as elections go. Primary elections in non-presidential years don’t usually yield a whole lot of excitement, but there were a few hotly contested races and I did have to stand in line in order to vote. I generally think it’s a good thing when citizens care enough to show up. Like pretty much always, the candidates I favored won some and lost others. In a race or two, I was pleased to support someone and in most I voted for the least unsavory alternative.
I can’t complain too much, though, as I remain entirely unwilling to run for office myself. Even if I wanted to, I haven’t yet come up with an adequate slogan. I bet there’s a generator out there circulating on social media somewhere, something to do with rearranging a selection of words like integrity, experience, and leadership, based on your mother’s maiden name and the various digits of your social security number.
It’s been a crazy couple of days here in the Greater St. Louis area as historic flash flooding has overwhelmed roadways, swamped cars, and caused a lot of damage to homes and businesses. By historic, I mean this was the biggest rain event this region has ever seen since records of such things exist starting in 1874.
According to the National Weather Service, in just six hours, the rainfall total surpassed the previous record set in a 24-hour period in 1915. To put it in a slightly different perspective, the St. Louis area received approximately 25% of its normal annual rainfall total in something like twelve hours, and closer to a third in some areas. It’s a hot mess.
Now, let me reassure you that though my suburban town did receive impressive rain totals and is in some places dealing with damage from the flood waters, my personal home is relatively elevated and has remained dry. I’m certainly very grateful for that. Other than having to alter schedules and commutes, my family hasn’t been particularly affected by the downpour.
Prior to the deluge, we St. Louisans had been experiencing a stretch of drought and we needed the rain, so we were more or less delighted when Monday brought us cloudy skies and occasional drizzles with the promise of a nice overnight thunderstorm. We just hadn’t anticipated so much rain so quickly.
It’s not that our weather forecasters hadn’t mentioned the possibility of a lot of precipitation and maybe even some flash flooding. We all accepted, I think, that it wasn’t going to be an ideal night to tent camp in a creek bed. But it’s not easy to anticipate an event that, to the best of our knowledge, has never happened before.
Even with all their university degrees, computer models, and fancy greenscreen maps, meteorologists have a pretty tough audience to try to reach. It’s just that they deal in probabilities and sometimes, the most probable thing that might happen, isn’t the thing that happens. The last highly anticipated St. Louis snow-pocalypse, for example, yielded less than an inch of light dusting. A little flash flood warning wasn’t going to scare us much.
Now if the meteorologists had run their prognostication by a “jury of philosophical counselors” consisting of at least twelve leeches, then that might’ve caught our attention. And if 19th century English physician and leech enthusiast George Merryweather had gotten his way, that might’ve been what happened.
As a practicing physician in the era of physicians not always knowing what they were doing, Dr. Merryweather spent a lot more time than the average non-physician thinking about leeches. One thing he observed was that their behavior tended to change with the weather. He wasn’t the first to realize this. For a long time, people who had nothing better to do had noted that leeches rise out of the water when a storm is coming and roll themselves into a ball when the storm is at hand.
But amazingly, Dr. Merryweather was the first to design a leech-powered weather predicting device. He called it the “Atmospheric Electromagnetic Telegraph, Conducted by Animal Instinct,” which he then shortened to the “Tempest Prognosticator.”
It was an impressive apparatus, consisting of a circle of twelve glass jars arranged around a large metal ball. Each jar contained a little bit of rain water, a leech, and a whale bone striker at the top, which when bumped by a leech climbing into the bottleneck in anticipation of a coming storm, would strike the metal ball and give a warning of impending inclement weather. When enough of Merryweather’s slimy little philosophical counselors sounded the alarm, he knew a storm was on its way.
The really weird part is that it worked, kind of. Or at least it worked as well as other weather predicting equipment of its day. It had limitations, of course. The leeches, who aren’t known to be great communicators, weren’t forthcoming with the direction of a storm, and to be honest, probably wouldn’t have predicted record-breaking flash flooding any better than today’s computer models could.
In the end, Dr. Merryweather’s invention was not adopted as the gold standard of weather prediction he believed it would be. The tempest prognosticator was expensive and required some upkeep as water needed to be changed every week and the jury wanted feeding once in a while. Also, outside of the 19th century medical profession, most people agree leeches are slimy and gross.
But I’m picturing the article headline that might have been: “Leeches Predict Historic St. Louis Rain-Pocalypse.” Something like that would have lit up everyone’s social media feeds and gotten a fair number of clicks, I bet.