Here Be Dragons at the Edges of the Map

I don’t know about you, but to me it feels like the world gets to be a little bit scarier every day. This probably has a lot to do with our 24-hour news cycle. That opens up space for the regional tragedies of which many of us might have remained blissfully unaware, preoccupied with the goings-on in our own little corners of the world. More news also invites more commentary, creating increased competition to place the most sensational spin on every big (or not so big) event, whether it carries a ring of truth or not.

It can get overwhelming, and there’s little doubt, at least here in the US, we are more stressed out than we were when we didn’t have to pay as much attention. A glance at our social media feeds might suggest, too, that we’re not as kind and gentle with one another, either. Because the world is a more frightening place when the dragons in the fairy tales become real.

Encased in an armillary sphere among the rarest of rare collections in the New York Public Library is a sphere about five inches in diameter, which carries this dire Latin warning: HIC SUNT DRACONES or “Here Be Dragons.”

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Illustration of Hunt-Lenox globe.By Kattigara (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Known as the Hunt-Lenox Globe, the hollow sphere of engraved bronze is one of the oldest existing globes produced since Columbus originally sailed the ocean blue in 1492. Though it bears no date, people who know about these things have placed it somewhere in the 1504 to 1511 range, when the Pacific Ocean didn’t yet exist and the continent that would come to be known as North America was no more than a spattering of islands.

But what I find most exciting about the Hunt-Lenox globe is that it warns of the dragons of Southeast Asia. Dragons weren’t an uncommon sight on maps of the era, often gracing the edges or wide open spaces, but this is the only globe (with exception of a matching one created on an ostrich eggshell and probably the original from which the Hunt-Lenox was casted) that actually bears the warning.

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Okay, maybe they’re not all scary. Image courtesy of cocoparisienne, via Pixabay

The expression is probably borrowed from maps of Ancient Rome, that often displayed the phrase “Here Be Lions” in unknown territories. Of course everyone knows dragons are scarier. And I mean everyone.

From pretty much every corner of the world, comes a fairy tale or two in which a dragon kidnaps a princess or guards a mystical treasure or becomes a frozen zombie creature north of the wall. Whether being slain by St. George, or ending a drought, or befriending a runaway foster child named Pete, dragons are everywhere in the stories people have been telling for millennia.

It’s no wonder the phrase “Here be dragons” has come to symbolize the frightening unknown on our maps.

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Komodo Dragon. No wings. No fire breathing. Kind of cute. Might just eat you if given the chance.

Except that it hasn’t. Not really. It’s just this one globe. And there’s even an outside chance that the unidentified cartographer was referring to literal dragon-like creatures in Southeast Asia, where the Komodo Dragon can be found. Though it has yet to breathe fire, this creature is pretty cantankerous and can give you a nasty infection. And maybe eat you.

I would prefer to think the creator of the Hunt-Lenox globe, like the ancient cartographers before him, chose to issue a warning a little more vague in nature. Like the rest of us, he’d surely heard tales of dangers unknown. And maybe sometimes that’s quite enough to cope with. There’ve always been dragons at the edges of the map. We just haven’t always had to attempt to slay them all at once, all day, every day.

So this coming Monday, February 26, to celebrate National Tell a Fairy Tale Day, I’m going to take a little time to ignore the dangers and nastiness that threaten to infect and consume me. Instead I’m going to turn off the news and let the dragons recede, for just a little while, to the edges of the map.

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You Probably Don’t Give a Flick

Earlier this week, social media giant Facebook, which has dramatically altered the way we interact with the kid we used to sit next to in second grade, announced that it has also invented time. The idea comes from designer Christopher Horvath, who first brought up the notion in a Facebook post in October of 2016.

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How else would you ever keep track of the fascinating life of that counselor you met one weekend thirty-seven years ago at Scout Camp?

Because Facebook has been useful for connecting people with similar concerns, the post generated a large, productive response.  A whole bunch of geeks chimed in and more or less agreed that a new division of time would be a pretty handy tool for more precisely synching media frames.

The new time measurement is 1/705,600,000 of a second, which makes it just enough bigger than a nanosecond that it evidently makes a difference to those in the know. These tiny units of time are called “flicks,” not to be confused with “Netflix,” a unit of time defined as the span of one full night of binge-watching The Walking Dead instead of sleeping.

Perhaps, like me, you’re not a media geek, and fail to see how this particular invention will affect you. And you can relax, because most experts who have bothered to comment on the new time division agree that it really won’t.

The flick might make some of your video experiences just a little bit crisper, but your alarm clock isn’t suddenly going to start going off 1/705,600,000 of a second earlier. Most of us ignorant schlubs will go happily on with our lives until sometime at a trivia night we’ll be asked, “What is the smallest unit of time that is still larger than a nanosecond?” and we’ll say, “Shoot. ..I think I read about that once.”

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So there are 42,336,000,000 flicks in a minute and 2,540,160,000,000 flicks in an hour, in case you do happen to give a flick.

But because time measurements are imposed human constructs that help us make sense of our world, it’s not always been easy for humankind to be so nonchalant. From Ancient China’s 100 “mark” day measured between midnights, to the 12 hour day and 3-4 watch night of the Ancient Greeks, every culture has attempted to mark the passage of time through the signs of nature and habits of the population in their particular corners of the world.

And so throughout most of history, everybody just did their own thing. That resulted in a confusing assortment of time systems, but it kind of worked up until 1876 when Scottish-Canadian railroad engineer and manager Sandford Fleming missed a train in Ireland because he couldn’t figure out the local time. Miffed, he joined a movement to standardize time, proposing a universal “cosmic time” based on a common meridian from which twenty-four time zones would spread out across the world.

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To me it’s really all just more wibbly-wobbly, timey- wimey stuff. photo credit: Rooners Toy Photography The Victorious via photopin (license)

Fleming shared his idea with anyone who would listen, including the 1884 Prime Meridian Conference where it was partially accepted. The conference liked the idea of Greenwich Mean Time, which adopted the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England as the center. Worldwide standard time zones, however, were harder to impose.

It turns out time, and how it’s calculated and divided and used, is pretty central to unique cultural identity. The system took some tweaking over the years and the occasional leap second adjustment, and it actually wasn’t until 1972 that every major world nation had finally jumped on the time zone wagon.

So if you aren’t too sure you’re ready to embrace this latest adjustment to the now standard divisions of time, and you’d rather Facebook just stuck to reintroducing you to those friends you haven’t seen in more than a few flicks, it might be that you’re following in the footsteps of history.

The Art of Pumpkinization

Between the years of 1503 and 1508 in Touraine, France, artist Jean Bourdichon, at the direction of Anne of Brittany, two times queen of France, spent a lot of time sprinkling pumpkin spice in the queen’s prayers. What the queen recruited the artist to do was illustrate Grandes Heures d’Anne de Bretagne, a book filled with prayers, monthly calendars, and religiously themed images.

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Who doesn’t love pumpkin? photo credit: Geert Weggen walk in fear via photopin (license)

For the work, the artist focused on painting more than three hundred plant species represented in the Royal Gardens, one example of which may be the first known illustration of the pumpkin, a plant native to Mexico and transported to Europe after the first voyage of Columbus to the New World.

And what that means is that in the course of about sixteen years or so, this one plant, with its basketball fruit, went from unknown to worthy of royal attention half a world away. It’s probably not hard to imagine why.

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It’s possible my local grocery store has gone a tad overboard on the pumpkinization.

Pumpkins aren’t exactly hard to notice, and as anyone who has ever allowed a Halloween Jack-o-Lantern to decay in his garden could tell you, they’re certainly not hard to grow. Archaeologists have found evidence of pumpkins as a food source as far back as 7000 BC in Mexico and there is a long history in Native American cultures of using pumpkin seeds medicinally for treatment of parasitic infections and kidney disease. Today they are touted as a sleep aid, heart healthy snack, anti-inflammatory, and cancer-fighting super food.

 
I don’t know if all those claims can be substantiated. What I do know is that at least in the United States, it’s not fall until every product on the grocery store shelf has been pumpkinized (which I’m confident will soon be a word defined by Miriam-Webster).

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Some products can’t be saved by any amount of pumpkin spice. But I imagine these aren’t any worse than traditional Peeps.

Each fall, stores are taken over by the pumpkin and its accompanying spices. No longer is pumpkin relegated to pies and prayer books, with the truly market-savvy adding more inventive (and often revolting) options each year, including: Pumpkin Spice Cheerios, Pumpkin Pie Kit-Kats, Pumpkin Pie Spice Pringles, Pumpkin Spice Chewing Gum, Pumpkin Spice Candy Corn (though to be fair, it is not the pumpkin spice that makes this product revolting), pumpkin spice pasta, liquors, yogurt, pudding, peanut butter, donuts, soaps, and shampoos. And every year I try an embarrassing number of these freshly pumpkinized products. Because everything is better with pumpkin, right?

So I think trend-setter Jean Bourdichon was on to something. He was bold enough to think outside the traditional religious artwork of his day and add to it the one thing that makes everything better. Or worse. But I suppose there’s no way to know until someone pumpkinizes it.

A Clever Person Does NOT Stick His Head Inside a Lion’s Mouth

In 1820, nineteen-year-old Isaac Van Amburgh accepted a position with the Zoological Institute of New York, as the cage boy whose job it was to clean out the cages of the exotic animals kept by the traveling menagerie. To say it was his dream job would probably be a bit of a stretch, but like most of us, Isaac had to do some grunt work before he got his big break.

That break came just a year later when one of the owners of the menagerie saw that young Isaac had a way with the lions. It turned out he had a knack for training them. He would eventually go on become the person most often credited with beginning the art of lion taming for show, an act that would become as linked with the circus as clowns, elephants, and P.T. Barnum.

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Aw. He looks so cuddly. But he’s not. He will eat you. photo credit: kennethkonica IMG_1874 via photopin (license)

For this reason, when my oldest son realized a camp he attends would have a circus theme this year and for one of their special events, he would need a circus-themed costume, he chose to be a lion tamer. And because he’s an extremely clever kid with a quirky sense of humor, he decided to be a lion tamer who is allergic to cats.

I love the way he thinks, but he may be overconfident in my skill as a costumer. I like to believe I’m fairly clever, too, and I can be crafty when called upon. Like my own mother always did, I keep a few pieces of poster board stuffed behind my dresser just in case one of my kids suddenly remembers the science fair is tomorrow. And I barely batted an eye when he came home from school earlier this year needing an Egyptian pharaoh costume for a social studies speech the next day. Thank goodness bathrobes are so versatile.

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He may make you sneeze, but that lion doesn’t look so dangerous.

But then after weeks of asking him if he had a handle on his lion tamer costume, he finally told me a few days before camp, all he needed was a lion and a red tuxedo jacket, preferably with sequins.

I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to find a red tuxedo jacket for a twelve-year-old on a poster board budget and with two days notice, but it’s not exactly an easy task. What we came up with was a red raincoat that with a great deal of red duct tape and some shiny gold craft tape looked kind of okay from a distance.

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He did what? Evidently Van Amburgh was not allergic to cats. Or very large teeth. photo credit: valentinastorti Lion – yawning via photopin (license)

And really, keeping a lion tamer at a distance probably isn’t such a bad idea anyway. Because lions are wild animals, and unless you are Isaac Van Amburgh, they may bite off your head. Actually it’s surprising they didn’t do just that to Van Amburgh, who earned himself a great deal of fame and wealth by becoming the first man to stick his head inside the open jaws of a lion.

We’re talking the kind of fame that won him the attention of Queen Victoria, who even became a groupie of his for a time, taking the time to catch his act about half a dozen times in a matter of weeks. And this was even in the days before YouTube.

The queen was so taken with the performance that she commissioned a painting of her favorite daring (and incredibly stupid) animal trainer. In it, Van Amburgh is pictured wearing a Roman gladiator ensemble, his preferred costume since shiny red tuxedo jackets can be challenging to find.

A man who stuck his head inside the mouth of a lion and lived to tell the tale.
Isaac Van Amburgh and His Animals, By Edwin Henry Landseer – Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6185738

Van Amburgh’s show did receive a fair share of criticism, too. He was, according to his publicity agent, terribly abusive to the large cats, basically beating and strategically starving them into submission. Had he gotten his head chomped by one of them, he’d probably have gotten what he deserved.

Instead, Van Amburgh had a heart attack and died in his bed in 1865. He was only 54 at the time, but for a guy who made his living putting his head into the open mouths of angry, hungry lions, I’d say he lived a pretty long life.

A Flocking Good Time

On September 4, 1979, the students of the University of Wisconsin in Madison emerged from their dorms to attend their first classes of the semester and discovered their campus had been overrun. As they’d slept, someone had filled the quad with 1008 bright pink, plastic flamingoes. The culprits were members of the Pail & Shovel Party that controlled the student government after campaigning on nonsensical promises and irresponsible fun.

The prank went down in history as one of the most delightful on campus, sparking an annual “Fill the Hill” university fundraiser and eventually inspiring Madison to adopt the pink flamingo as its official city bird in 2009.

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St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame pitcher Bruce Sutter garden gnome standing guard over the beets.

Why not? The students, after all, were simply participating in a longstanding tradition of lawn ornamentation, one that reaches back at least as far as the temple gardens of Ancient Egypt, and winds on up through the sacred groves of Ancient Greece and Rome. It includes the first manufactured garden gnomes of 19th century Germany, the inexplicable rise of Grandma’s polka dotted backside in the 1980s, and the wide variety of tchotchke in, and occasionally stolen from, my next door neighbor’s front yard, of which I am secretly super jealous. Mostly, I just want an excuse to use the word tchotchke as often as I can because it’s pretty much my favorite word of all time. Go ahead and say it (ˈchäch-kē). I bet it makes you smile.

But when someone mentions lawn ornaments, the image that springs to mind first for most of us is the classic pink flamingo, invented in 1957 by then fairly new Union Products sculptor Dan Featherstone in Leominster, Massachusetts. Featherstone’s flamingoes landed in yards throughout the United States during a time when subdivisions featuring cookie-cutter house designs were popping up at a great rate and homeowners were looking for a way to make their homes stand out.

The plastic pink flamingo joined only six species of the living bird, which gets its pinkish hue from the beta-cerotene in its food. Their population has waxed and waned in the decades since their initial introduction in 1957, but the plastic variety are the only ones you are likely to find these days in the wilds of the United States (or even in the suburbs).

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Ozzie wasn’t quite sure what to think of our visitors. Oh, and just in case you ever decide to participate in a flocking, I recommend gloves. Dogs are territorial.

And just like their more natural counterparts, the lawn ornaments tend to flock in large numbers. In fact, there is currently a flock or two living quite happily in my area, roosting each night in the yard of some “lucky” homeowner. The culprits this time are affiliated with my oldest son’s youth group, who will happily take donations in exchange for the nighttime flocking of an unsuspecting friend’s yard. They will also happily sell insurance to anyone not brave enough to host the visiting birds.

My son and I may have had something to do with a few of these migrations. And yes, we have also discovered a flock in our own yard. They’re not so bad really. The birds are quiet. They don’t eat much. And they only stick around to make your next door neighbor (who has otherwise cornered the tchotchke market in your more or less tasteful neighborhood) super jealous for 24 hours before flying off to roost elsewhere.flocked

The Pail & Shovel party would be proud I think. Of course, no matter how many yards get flocked, the official bird of the Greater St. Louis area will always be the Cardinal.

Being Discovered for Discovering a Viking Discovering Boston in a Metal Bra

In 1837, Carl Christian Rafn published his book Antiquitates Americanae. In it the Danish historian most known for his work translating Old Norse literature, suggested a location for Vinland. What many scholars assumed to be only a land of legend, Rafn placed in North America. And at least one North American was listening.

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Eben Norton Horsford. Brilliant chemist. Not as brilliant archaeologist. Responsible for Boston’s “Dude in Metal Bra” statue. By Unknown – [1], Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
In fact, Harvard professor and wealthy inventor of double-acting baking soda, Eben Norton Horsford, became obsessed with the notion. This brilliant chemist turned less brilliant amateur archaeologist confidently declared his discovery of the onetime foundation of a home belonging to Leif Erikson. Conveniently, the foundation stones were discovered along the banks of the Charles River, not far from Horsford’s Cambridge, Massachusetts home.

Other, more established archaeologists, determined that the alleged Viking foundation stone was more likely a pile of relatively insignificant rocks. But that didn’t stop Horsford from producing a great many books  about the huge amounts of evidence he found made up of a Viking settlement in the Boston area that predated Christopher Columbus by about five hundred years.

At least a few North Americans listened to him, too.  That’s why, since 1887, there has been a statue of a young, thrusting Leif Erikson on Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue Mall, even though there is no evidence whatsoever that Vikings ever visited Beantown.

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This might be a pile of construction rubble at my neighbor’s house. OR it could what’s left of the foundation of an Old Norse Starbucks. You be the judge.

Legitimate archaeological evidence did finally surface in Newfoundland in 1960, which places Vikings in North America a good 500 years before Christopher Columbus made the trip. And since 1964, the sitting US President has issued an annual proclamation, calling for the October 10th observation of Leif Erikson Day.

But despite all that, I have to admit, I never knew there was an alleged Viking connection to Boston. That little tidbit of fabricated historical fun I picked up from middle grade author Rick Riordan, of Percy Jackson fame. As the mother of two voracious middle grade readers who both gravitate toward the fantasy genre, I have become a big fan of Mr. Riordan’s work, which playfully borrows from the world’s great mythological stories and introduces a new generation of thoroughly modern young heroes.

One of his newest series, Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, is set in Boston, where the hero, who dies at the beginning of the book only to find himself in Valhalla, discovers that Boston is a stronghold of Norse Mythology, which he probably should have always known because of that statue of the man with the leather bra.

This summer, as part of a crazy road trip adventure, my family and I spent about half a day in downtown Boston. The first thing my oldest son wanted to do was to set out to see if we could find the “dude in the metal bra.” And since the request was inspired by literature, what could we do? Of course, we found him!

Then in a moment of pure inspiration, I got famous. I decided to tweet a picture of the statue to Rick Riordan. My buddy Rick (who I happen to know reads my blog whenever he’s not busy writing a gazillion books, which, just to be clear, is never), liked and retweeted my tweet. And soon some of his followers (he has just a few more than me), also liked and retweeted my tweet. Even now, several months later, I get a new notification every week or so that someone else has found and liked my tweet of discovering Leif Erikson discovering Boston in a metal bra. It’s gotten more action than anything else I’ve ever sent out into the Twittersphere, and the activity stats tell me that it’s been seen by around 45,000 tweeps.

So the naysayers may tell you that the Vikings never settled in Boston, but I know better, because I’ve seen the proof. Thanks to the wonders of instant Internet fame, so have nearly 45,000 of my closest friends.

And that’s the almost sort of true story of how Leif Erikson and I became famous discoverers in Boston.

On the Origin of Clutter by Means of Accidental Collection, or the Preservation of Favoured Artwork in the Struggle for Back to School Organization

Finally a new school year has begun for my children. For the most part it’s going well. My youngest loves his teacher. She seems warm and genuine and well organized, which is a great place to start. My older son is now navigating the halls of middle school, where he has so far managed to remember his locker combination and land in classes taught by teachers as wonderfully quirky as he is. I suppose it takes a special kind of crazy to teach middle schoolers.

What this all means for me is that I am a more or less full-time writer again, and that’s going okay, too. In the five days they’ve been back at school. I’ve managed to draft several short stories and prep a good chunk of the first draft of a novel for the impending painful process of substantial revision.

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You know, maybe I’ll just shove the door closed and not open it again until the school supplies come home at the end of the year.

But I’ve also had to take a little time to get my space organized for long days alone in front of the computer. As I’ve mentioned before, I work in a little hidey hole of a room tucked down a dark hallway in my basement, a place where sometimes the dog even forgets to look for me.

I like having this space, but it can feel a little dismal at times, especially since it often becomes the staging area not just for my writing, but for my organizing as well. Like, for instance, when it came time to buy school supplies a few weeks ago, I started by sorting through the supplies from last year that had been unceremoniously dumped from backpacks on the floor of the closet of my hidey hole. The backpacks were there, too.

Also there were the remains of art projects and reports and poems and notes and all the precious little papers from a year of school that a mom can’t quite bring herself to throw out. And maybe a few from previous years as well.

I know, I know, it was my New Year’s resolution to pare down on the clutter, but in my defense, I also have yet to lose that pesky ten pounds. Actually, I’ve done fairly well sorting through and throwing away or donating my own stuff. With the kiddos it’s always a little harder. I know I’m not alone in this because even Charles Darwin struggled when it came to throwing out the artsy creations of his children.

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I’m not always disorganized. And the hallway is maybe a little less dark these days.

 

We know because in 2003, Cambridge University and the American Museum of Natural History launched a collaborative effort to digitize all of Darwin’s writings and make them available online. The project is ongoing, but currently includes more than 23,000 digital images. This is pretty cool if you’re interested in getting to know the man behind one of the most influential (and contentious) scientific theories of all time.

But the coolest part to me is the handful of remaining pages of original handwritten text from On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Man, was he good with a title! There are only about thirty or so of these pages still in existence and at least some of them are probably still around because a young Darwin artist or two drew on the backs of them.

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Occasionally little surprises show up among my notes on the chalkboard wall in my office. I don’t erase them unless I absolutely have to.

 

The collection includes more than fifty examples of the Darwin children’s drawings and stories, all preserved on what the evidently thrifty Charles Darwin must have considered scrap paper, not realizing that his handwritten notes and papers might one day be of interest to posterity.

What it seems he did realize is that in addition to being the man behind the theory that lit the field of natural science on fire, he was also a father of some pretty great kids, and their contribution to his life’s work wasn’t something he could part with.

As I work my way through the clutter and get settled back into my hidey hole, I realize I’m not going to be able to throw out those little bits of creativity, either. I haven’t come up with any great scientific theories (yet), and I doubt very much that the mess from the floor of my office closet will ever be catalogued and digitized for the benefit of the world. But if I’m wrong, everyone will know that I’m the mother of some pretty great kids.

http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/slide-show-darwin-children-doodles