Copper Clues, Rubber Stamps, and Fancy Pants Treasure

In 1947 in the West Bank, not far from the site of the ancient city of Jericho, some teenage shepherds made an exciting discovery while tending their flocks and maybe also behaving a little like teenagers. One of these young men tossed a rock into an opening on the side of a cliff and heard a suspicious crashing sound. When the young man and his companions investigated, they discovered a collection of large clay jars, at least one of which contained the teenager’s rock, and seven of which contained the first texts discovered in the collection that came to be known as the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Dead_Sea_Scrolls_Before_Unraveled
Even without gold and silver, that’s a pretty fancy find. By Abraham Meir Habermann, 1901–1980 – Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The discovery sparked a race of both Bedouins and archaeologists to scour the area for more, and eventually eleven nearby caves yielded hundreds of ancient texts that include portions of nearly every book in the Old Testament (and a complete copy of Isaiah), additional prophecies, descriptions of sectarian rules, military strategy, and poems of thanksgiving, among numerous other writings that have kept archaeologists geeking out for the last 65 years.

That’s all pretty great stuff, but I think the most intriguing discovery is what’s known as the Copper Scroll, found in March of 1952. It’s appropriately named because while all the other manuscripts found in the caves are written on parchment, this one is etched into copper sheeting. Its contents are pretty different from the other scrolls, too, because this one describes the world’s greatest treasure hunt, claiming to lead to what some estimate is over a billion dollars in silver and gold.

If you happen to be a first century Middle Easterner, familiar with the area, the clues are pretty simple. Each includes a general whereabouts (on the island that can only found by those who already know where it is), a specific spot (in the cupboard under the stairs), a depth for digging (as specified on a medallion last seen in a tavern in Nepal), and the treasure to be found (your body weight in gold, assuming you weigh the same as a duck). If you are a fluent reader of ancient Hebrew sprinkled with a little bit of Greek and a few typos, you might find they resemble a list of modern day letterbox clues.

In case you’re unfamiliar with letterboxing, it’s a treasure hunting hobby, in which people hide small, waterproof containers planted in clever outdoor (mostly) hiding spots and post clues online to help others find them. The containers each include a unique hand-crafted rubber stamp and a log book. When the seeker finds it, they stamp a personal book with the find and mark the box’s log book with their trail name signature stamp. Then they record the find online where they also warn the next letterboxer of the nearby nest of rattle snakes.

us letterboxing
Letterboxing has become a world wide hobby, but I imagine it will take me some time just to hunt down all of these. Protonk at en.wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
A friend of mine introduced me and my boys to the hobby last spring. We’ve had a lot of fun with it, but if you happen to speak letterbox, you’ll probably have an easier time. I’ve found about ten boxes, and failed to find several more. Most of my successes have come when my friend is with me because having planted many herself, she knows the lingo and has hiked most of the trails already, not to mention she possesses a significantly sharper sense of direction than I do.

Some of the clues are straight forward (once you learn some of the basics, like that SPOR is an acronym for Suspicious Pile of Rocks); others consist of word puzzles or are written in Elvish. Some clues are visible only to those who’ve logged a certain number of finds or who are personally acquainted with the planter and have been given a code word. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if some clues were even etched into copper and hidden in a cave somewhere in the West Bank.

golden eagle
A pretty fancy pants find.

I’m sure I hike past five or six for every one I discover. But I have a good time, and though I’ve never found a duck’s weight in gold, I did once find a particularly fancy pants eagle stamp with a gold ink pad.

And I’ve had way more success than those who have attempted to find the Copper Scroll treasures. Despite plenty of expeditions and a few unverified claims, no one has found any of the treasure yet. There’s debate among scholars about whether or not the treasure truly exists, and if it does, who planted it, and maybe even whether it can be found at all by someone who doesn’t already know where it is. But if anyone ever does find this fanciest of treasures, I bet the finder will be a letterboxer.

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A Spring Break Disappearing Act

This week my children have been on Spring Break, a time of staying up late, sleeping in, and generally making their mother panic about how to fill the many hours of a rapidly approaching summer break. At this point in their academic careers, it’s also a time for them to set aside school projects in favor of more leisurely passions.

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A top hat, a cape, and a rabbit. What more does a young magician need?

For my first born son, a bright 11-year-old, that means magic. I’m not actually sure when this latest obsession began to take root, but for months he’s been studying library books full of sleight of hand techniques and grand illusions. My basement is filled with discarded attempts at fashioning a cardboard vanishing cabinet. He has even worked hard to design schemes that can convince an audience of his psychic abilities.

This last one is pretty easy to unravel as he always recruits his little brother to be his less-than-subtle audience plant. Still, I’m reasonably confident that if he sticks with it, he will eventually figure out how to pull off some convincing illusions.

In fact, he’s already managed a few fairly impressive card tricks that I have a hard time figuring out. It’s these he’s worked on the most, mastering some classics and tweaking a few to make them his own. Now I’m thinking the book he might really need to read is what has become known as the “Card Sharp Bible,” The Expert at the Card Table: The Classic Treatise on Card Manipulation by S. W. Erdnase.

Originally published by James McKinney and Co in Chicago in 1902, this little book has been in continuous print for over one hundred years and is widely considered the most influential book on card manipulation ever written.

Erdnase’s work includes sixteen techniques of blind shuffles and card cutting, with illustrations. Bottom dealing, deck stacking, and second dealing are all thoroughly explained. There are discussions of card palming, sleight of hand illusions, and plain old card tricks.

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Pick a card, any card.

 

But the most impressive trick tackled by Erdnase is the author’s own disappearing act, because, even after more than a hundred years, and numerous exhaustive searches, no one is quite sure of the author’s true identity. We know only that S. W. Erdnase is a pseudonym (understandable given the potentially illegal applications of the subject matter in his book) and that the author sold his rights to the book a year after it was originally published.

There’s been A LOT of speculation about who he might have been. From an interview conducted forty years later with the original illustrator, we have a vague description of a short , well-spoken, and pleasant man, who may have mentioned a familial connection to political cartoonist Louis Dalrymple.

It’s not a lot to go on, but clever investigators quickly latched onto the fact that S. W. Erdnase is the backwards spelling of E. S. Andrews. This has led to a number of potential candidates and dead ends, including a notorious Chicago conman by that name and a Herbert Andrews whose business was located a few blocks from the book’s publisher and whose wife was Emma Shaw Andrews.

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Not the most elegant magical prop, but give him time.

 

Other clever investigators have put forward the suggestion of successful mining engineer W. E. Sanders, whose name anagrams nicely into S. W. Erdnase. Still others have proposed Peruvian magician L’Homme Masque whose prowess in the magic community at the time might at least recommend him as a contributor, or Harry S. Thompson, a salesman who was both a short, well-spoken man and a friend to Harry Houdini.

The debate rages on, but it seems unlikely that the true Expert at the Card Table will ever reappear. The real question, it seems, is how he managed to so completely vanish in the first place. Personally, I’m betting it had something to do with a vanishing cabinet, made of cardboard, in his mother’s basement.

Dancing with the Squares

In 1923 America’s dance floors were headed for trouble. Ladies were just beginning to wear almost sensible clothing that allowed them to move and swing, jazz was emerging as a fast-paced and exciting music style, and the kids were snuggling close with a good fox trot or waltz and then dancing themselves silly with the Lindy Hop and the Charleston. The morals of a bygone era were fast crumbling away.

Henry Ford. This man knows his way around a Virginia Reel. [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Henry Ford, who once famously said, “You can dance any way that you want, so long as it’s square.” [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons
One man decided he was going to do something about it. The father of the auto industry and master of the assembly line, Henry Ford, figured if he could put together a car one piece at a time, then he could put wholesome American culture back together the same way, one dance step at a time. And so he set out on a crusade to bring back the good old-fashioned square dance.

American square dance has a muddy history, but it generally traces its roots back to the coordinated group dances of England in the early 1600s. Of course when settlers brought it with them to the new world, it took on a uniquely American flavor. A caller announced the moves, which were given French names (because that seemed likely to irritate the English) like “promenade,” “allemande,” and dos-à-dos” (which quickly became “do-si-do,” because that seemed likely to irritate the French).

As America became more urbanized, square dancing faded, but Ford saw the dance as a way to promote exercise as well as genteel manners. He hired a square dance caller by the name of Benjamin Lovett to teach square dance full time in Dearborn, Michigan and required his employees to engage in the activity. He also sponsored square dance programs in many public schools, on college campuses, and over the radio waves.

It worked. The dance started to catch on. Soon ladies and gentlemen were lined up in groups on the dance floor to bow to their partners and perform coordinated dance steps with very little touching and plenty of room for the Holy Spirit. The dance’s popularity continued through World War II and the following decade before it began once again to fade. But I think it’s going to surge again, led by an army of enthusiastic Missouri 4th graders.

My kids are officially out of school for the summer now, but these last few weeks leading up to the last day have been busy.

Making car parts for the American working square dancer, because that's who they are and that's who they care about. [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Making car parts for the American working square dancer, because that’s who they are and that’s who they care about. [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons
There’ve been awards ceremonies and book fairs and pizza parties and field days. And, yes, square dancing.

Last week, my fourth grader (now officially a 5th grader!) participated in Missouri Day at school. I don’t know if this is a state required thing or if it’s just something our school does, but the kids were taken through a series of activities to help them learn about all things Missouri. Because I am a sucker who can’t say no dedicated parent, I volunteered to help.

It turns out the official state folk dance of Missouri is the square dance (as opposed to other kinds of American folk dances….go on, try to name one). In fact, twenty-four states have declared the square dance their state folk dance, and it would be twenty-five if Minnesota would just bite the bullet and make it official since it was proposed in both 1992 and 1994, but I suppose something this important shouldn’t be rushed.

Go ahead. Just try to do this without making any physical contact with your partner. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Go ahead. Just try to do this without getting cooties. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
So I went to the school to help the fourth graders learn to square dance. Of course I don’t believe I’ve ever square danced. I went to fourth grade in the state of Illinois (where the square dance is also the state folk dance) and no one seemed to care whether or not I learned this critical life skill.

Basically my job was to try to help two groups of eight kids interpret the instruction given by the elderly square dance caller. Allegedly.

What I really did was attempt to convince a bunch of ten-year-olds that they probably won’t die from touching another ten-year-old of the opposite sex, and failing that, how they might effectively swing their partner without actually coming into contact with him or her.

And I think once they figured it out, the kids  had a pretty good time. Henry Ford would have been proud.

Get a Bicycle. You will certainly not regret it, if you live.

In 1963, a leader for the Ozark Area Council of American Youth Hostels, Dick Leary, decided it would be a fun idea to take a nighttime bike ride through the city of St. Louis. He organized the event for a night in October and set it up to begin at midnight at Union Station. Unfortunately (because most people probably thought he was joking) Leary was the only rider to turn up.

Determined that it was still a good idea (and because I’m guessing he battled insomnia), Leary completed it himself and the next year managed to recruit a few more riders. Word started to get out and by the early 1970s thousands of participants were showing up to complete the ride every year.

Eventually, the event became known as the Moonlight Ramble, the longest-running nighttime cycling event in the world. Organized now through the University of Missouri-St. Louis, the route has changed a few times over the years, but the full course is always around 18 to 20 miles through the heart of downtown St. Louis on the early Sunday morning in August that occurs closest to the full moon.

And despite the addition of a premier riding group (personally I’m not sure how anyone can take themselves all that seriously while sporting glow necklaces snaked through their bicycle spokes), the Ramble is NOT a race (shoe clips are not allowed, nor are they advisable). It’s a ride. All ages, all ability levels, and even all manner of wheeled, human-powered vehicles are welcome. I (typically sound asleep by no later than 10:30) rode in the Ramble for the first time this year, along with my sister and a handful of her cycling buddies, most of whom had participated in the event before.

Okay, so maybe "human-powered" isn't a strict requirement.
Okay, so maybe “human-powered” isn’t a strict requirement.

It was a gorgeous night, under the nearly full moon. The first riders took off from Busch Stadium at 12:10 (after a slight delay for traffic from the preseason Rams game). As there were probably four thousand riders, it took a while to get us all going and even with the best efforts of the St. Louis police department and an army of volunteer ride marshals, it took a bit for the remaining downtown traffic to adjust to the onslaught of bicycles (most drivers smiled to see us; a few were cranky). Once we were really going, though, I have to say it was one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had in the city.

Now, I realize that this is generally a (sort of) history blog and that this particular post has thus far come up a little short in that area (unless you’re really easily satisfied and a brief reference to 1963 is enough for you), but I think I can make a case for why it still fits. And to do so, I am going to direct your attention to the expertise of Professor Kenneth Jackson who teaches the History of the City of New York at Columbia University (and who is a much more reliable source of all things history than is yours truly).

Since he began teaching the class in the late 1970s, Professor Jackson has led his students on a nighttime, five-hour bicycle tour from Columbia University to the Brooklyn Promenade. Along the way, Jackson stops at various points of interest to deliver lectures through a bullhorn to the now hundreds of students that come along for the ride.

The professor admits, however, that it is not so much the knowledge shared in his lectures that sticks with the students, but simply the experience of seeing the city in this strangely intimate way, when the moon is bright and the streets are quieter (a little bit anyway, but of course this is New York we’re talking about). One student had this to say about standing in front of Federal Hall at 4:30 AM: “In this sleepy blur I catch myself imagining that I’m there, imagining that [Professor] Jackson is Washington and we’re getting ready to start this new republic.” Another student commented: “This is the first time I feel like I’m really living in the city.”

That's a lot of people "really living" in the city of St. Louis.
That’s a lot of people “really living” in the city of St. Louis.

I get that. I grew up not so far from St. Louis and I have been delighted to be back again, nearer still to what I consider “my city.” Since moving here this past February I have taken my children up in the Arch, explored the Zoo, wandered through the Botanical Garden, enjoyed the theater at both the Fabulous Fox and the outdoor Muni, and been to Busch Stadium to watch the Cardinals play more often than I should admit (I lived two entire baseball seasons in Oregon and apparently distance really does make the heart grow fonder).

After riding the Ramble, all of these different places found a home in that mental map that I always wish I was better at carrying around with me (you may recall that in a previous post I mentioned that my sense of direction is, well, okay so I don’t actually have one). I may not have learned a great deal about the history of my city on this ride, but I did get to know St Louis itself better and be a part of it in a way I never had before.

Bill Emerson said it well in 1967 when he wrote in the Saturday Evening Post: “A bicycle does get you there and more…. And there is always the thin edge of danger to keep you alert and comfortably apprehensive. Dogs become dogs again and snap at your raincoat; potholes become personal. And getting there is all the fun.”

Nighttime cycling is not perfect. The Ramble attracts all kinds of folks, the serious cyclists and the families out to make lasting memories together, but also the rowdies whose frequent beer stops make it best to avoid them.  I also certainly wouldn’t recommend a nighttime ride outside of an organized event. But late night ride events and tours are popping up all over the world (Paris, London, and Moscow are just a few of the cities that I discovered offer similar experiences).

I don't know what this thing is, but it was probably the coolest vehicle in the ride.
I don’t know what this thing is, but it was probably the coolest vehicle in the ride.

But even if you don’t own a bike (often they can be rented), haven’t ridden since you were a kid (you never forget how), or for some reason would prefer sleeping to rambling in the moonlight, consider taking some advice from Mark Twain who once learned to ride one of the old-timey high-wheeled bicycles of his day and had this to say of the experience: “Get a bicycle. You will certainly not regret it, if you live.”

One small step for livestock…One giant shortcut for the practical historian

Okay, I admit it. Despite all of my super mom planning, summer vacation has taken me completely by surprise. It’s not that I didn’t know it was coming or that at only four days in I have run out of creative activity ideas  for my five and eight-year-old sons (that won’t happen until at least day 10), but I failed to really appreciate how little time I would have to get to everything on my to-do list. I am confident that I will get there. I’ll figure out how to balance it all eventually, because, well, I’ll let them play more video game or something.

In the mean time, I’m hoping that you will forgive me for dusting off an old post from the early days of my blogging adventure when very few people were reading anyway. I’ll come up with something good for next week, probably, or at least I hope so, if I have time…

Sheep
Sheep (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1830, an Italian pyrotechnician by the name of Claude Ruggieri announced a truly wondrous event. The latest in a long line of successful Ruggieri firework producers, Claude was particularly devoted to the study of rocketry and had begun, in as early as 1806 to successfully launch small rodents high into the atmosphere (frankly, it was about time someone got around to doing that). As others wasted their genius merely developing more effective weapons delivery systems, Claude Ruggieri proved to be a true pioneer when in 1830, he finally announced that he would, for the purposes of public demonstration of his company’s rocket-making prowess, launch a sheep from the Champs de Mars in Paris, where he was living at the time.

As exciting as this may sound, it wasn’t enough for one young man who eagerly volunteered to take the animal’s place. Ruggieri accepted the gracious offer (much to the relief of the sheep) and the launch was re-advertised. Unfortunately, Paris authorities investigated, discovered that the volunteer was in fact an 11 year old boy, and determined that though perfectly old enough to board the Hogwarts Express, 11 was perhaps not yet mature enough to display good judgment in regard to experimental rocketry. The launch did, however, go ahead as originally planned and the once again greatly dismayed sheep was fired 600 feet into the air (not exactly suborbital, but not bad by 1830 sheep launching standards) only to land gently by parachute, alive and instantly famous.

Though Ruggieri’s success may not seem like a big deal now that we’ve been to the moon, roved Mars, and rely daily upon satellite technologies, his “combination [sheep launching] rocket” was pretty innovative. And while I can’t say that his work formed an important basis for that which followed in the field of rocket science, his story does nicely illustrate the plucky can-do attitude that has plagued the field since it’s earliest days when legendary Chinese official Wan Hoo attached rockets to his wicker chair in an attempt to launch himself to the moon (because he was never seen again I think we can safely assume he made it).

So if we skip ahead a few years to the 1957 Russian launch of Sputnik, it’s not hard to imagine that the excitement of that event may have led to some poor judgment on the part of the enthusiastic, though sadly under-qualified, masses. And a new industry was born.

In 1954, Robert Carlisle, a model airplane enthusiast, needed a model to use for demonstration purposes when he lectured on rocket-powered flight and so he approached his brother Orville, a pyrotechnics expert, to help him design it. When Sputnik went up and the masses began their various dangerous experiments, the Carlisle brothers saw an opportunity. Using their newfound expertise, they developed a (relatively) safe model rocket engine. Through a series of business partnerships, their design became the backbone of the Estes Corporation, still a major supplier of model rocket equipment, to which many wives and mothers owe their gratitude.

This brings me to my weekend. Last Saturday, my husband and young sons held their first launches. Weeks of anticipating, assembling, painting, and still more anticipating culminated in a brief, but awesome display of smoke and propulsion. All three rockets launched successfully and landed intact. Nothing (that wasn’t supposed to) caught fire and there were no injuries to children (or sheep). Thank you to the Estes Corporation, to the Carlisle brothers, and to all those brave pioneers without whose guidance I am certain my boys (all three) would have launched something into the air anyway, and who knows what would have happened.

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Why Running Is Stupid: Proof that penguins are faster than sock monkeys.

English: Painting of Pheidippides.

In 490 BC, an important battle raged across the fields of Marathon in Greece between the Greeks and their would-be Persian conquerors, headed ultimately for the city of Athens. According to legend, as the Persians mounted the attack, the Greek army dispatched a runner, most often referred to as Pheidippides, to Sparta to get some much needed help. The run was a breezy 140 miles and the superstar completed it in about 36 hours. When he was told by the Spartans that they would send help, but could not possibly do so until the appropriate phase of the moon, Pheidippides turned around, Forrest Gump style, and ran the 140 miles back to Marathon to take up arms alongside his fellows.

When the Greeks at Marathon improbably won the battle, even without the aid of the Spartan army, the next concern was to deliver the exciting news to Athens to provide a confidence boost to the city along with a warning that the Persians would soon be coming their way. Since Pheidippides had already so successfully run 280 miles and survived a bloody battle, it seems only natural that he would be called upon again to run the message of victory the measly 25 miles to Athens. Shockingly, he collapsed, dead, as soon as he delivered the message.

Pheidippides runs into the assembly, puts his hands on his knees, spitting up a little blood as he tries to gather his breath, and exclaims: “Something in Greek!” Like most of you, I don’t speak Greek, but I’m pretty sure he said something like this: “Wheez…cough…cough…Give me a minute… gag…wheez…wow that was a stupid long way to run…cough…maybe someone should invent the telephone…wheez…gasp…or the telegraph…or smoke signals? Maybe we could get some smoke signals? That might work. ‘Cuz I gotta tell you, I can’t really feel my legs…gasp…wheez…maybe some Gatorade or water or something? …cough…Is it getting dark in here?…gag…oh, and we won…gasp….”

Obviously there are a few things we could learn from the tragic tale of poor Pheidippides. First, if you plan to run a marathon, it may not be in your best interest to run a 280 mile training run first, and you should probably consider not heading into it straight from battle which, likely, is also quite strenuous. Second, the Greek language is surprisingly efficient. And third, running is stupid.

It’s this third point I wish to expand upon, but let me first say, if you are a runner, and you read past the title and you’ve held on this long, thank you. I do not think you are stupid. I have the utmost respect for you and all those elite athletes out there who work so hard to achieve their goals. Running may be a great source of joy for you and I applaud your determination. I do, however, stick to my assertion that running is stupid. Because it is.

Now, if you read this blog regularly you may recall that I have two sons, the oldest of whom is seven. What I’m not sure that I’ve mentioned is how amazingly bright my seven-year-old is and like a lot of bright seven-year-olds, E is a voracious reader. So, yes, he reads all the great classics of children’s literature (he’s working his way through Madeleine L’Engle right now), but he’s also just as likely to read nonfiction works, particularly those dealing with science and invention. It doesn’t end there, though, because he reads everything that he finds that can possibly be read.

Like fliers. He picks up every single one he sees, without fail, and reads it word for word. So if you are running for political office, raising money for cancer research, or selling gym equipment, you should know that your advertisements are mostly falling into the hands of bright seven-year-olds, which I’m guessing are not within your primary demographic.

So a couple of weeks ago, we’re walking through the lobby of the local YMCA after swimming lessons, and E, predictably, can’t resist a stack of bright orange fliers that are advertising something called the Monster Dash, a costumed 5 K/1K fun run/walk to raise money for our local Food Share program. E looks it over and says, “Hey Mom, I want to do this.” I, lugging the bags full of wet towels and swimsuits, pulling on the hand of my uncooperative 5-year-old, trying to get out of the lobby so that we can make the mad run back home to grab dinner, finish homework, take showers, and get to bed at a reasonable hour, say, without thinking it through, “What’s that? For Food Share? Sure. That sounds fun.” He, of course, takes me at my word.

Trouble is, I don’t run. It hurts my joints. I don’t enjoy it. And so I think it’s stupid. That said, I am a fairly active person, and I’m in pretty good shape. I even enjoy the occasional challenge of a race type event, have completed a sprint triathlon (didn’t do the full because it required too much running), and if I could find a biathlon that included swimming and cycling, without the running, I’d be all over it. On top of this, I am currently about half way through the P90X fitness program, so a little 5 K should be easy, or at least doable. Probably.

Last Saturday we all got up nice and early, pulled on our Halloween costumes and headed for the race. My sons, a shark and a ninja, both successfully ran the 1 K kids’ run. Then it was my turn. Dressed as a sock monkey, I left the boys and my husband (a banana), and headed to the start line to meet up with my running partner for the day, an 8-year-old daughter of some family friends. This little girl is quite a runner and she wanted to give the 5 K a try so since I was committed anyway, I agreed to run with her and keep an eye on her.

And that’s how I found myself, running way faster than I ever run (because I don’t run), just trying to keep the gap small enough to maintain visual contact with an 8-year-old superstar penguin. I could say that I let her outrun me, but I won’t lie to you, my faithful blog audience.

The closest the sock monkey ever came to catching the penguin.

I may have had an embarrassing run, but I did at least win the funniest costume award so I guess I can be proud of that, although, I think the gingerbread man was robbed. Most importantly, though, I found out I can run, if I have to. Like, perhaps if I have an important message to deliver that will impact the survival of my nation or even the future spread of democracy throughout the world, or if my son picks up a flier advertising a fun run for a good cause.

Turns out the gingerbread man wasn’t that hard to catch after all. Maybe that’s why he didn’t win the funniest costume award?

The Trouble with Wallabies

A week or two ago, a suspiciously happy circle cropped up on a hillside near my home. This constitutes my only first-hand experience with a crop circle so I was delighted to discover that in the great state of Oregon where I live, this is not a terribly uncommon occurrence.

Though the vast majority of crop circles in the 20th century have been located in southern England there are examples from 26 nations throughout the world. Circles have been reported in forty-seven out of the fifty US states. And yes in 1991, Puerto Rico even got into the action when a group of concentric rings turned up on a rocky plateau near the city of Ajuntas.

Oregon ranks 11th among the fifty states with 19 reported circles by 2008 (Not quite as impressive as the 23 boasted by my native home state of Illinois, but not too shabby). Ohio claims the title for most reported crop circles in a single US state with a whopping 42, confirming what researchers have long suspected: there really is very little to do in Ohio.

This data comes from the Independent Crop Circle Researchers’ Association (ICCRA) which describes itself as a cooperative of researchers with a wide variety of interests in crop circles dedicated to objective data collection, independent of individual theories about crop circle formation. And it’s a good thing it exists because it’s a heated debate, contributed to (according to Wikipedia) by paranormal enthusiasts, ufologists (I can’t help but wonder if this field of study requires post graduate work), and anomalistic investigators. For some reason practical historians didn’t make the list.

Many of these enthusiasts, investigators, and ‘ologists have come to different conclusions as to the cause of crop circles. Which makes me wonder how exactly the large happy face appeared because there are a number of possibilities to consider.

The first good picture we have of crop circles comes from a 17th-century English woodcut pamphlet entitled Mowing-Devil on which appears the story of a farmer who said he’d rather have the devil himself mow his field than to pay the high price demanded by a laborer. Apparently no one ever told him to be careful what he wished for because that night, his field appeared to catch fire and the next day it was perfectly cut (at a rather higher price I assume). The accompanying picture includes the image of the devil cutting a circle into the field with a scythe. Of course, since he went on to cut the entire field, and because I don’t usually think of the devil as a particularly happy chap, I don’t think this explains my mystery circle.

1678 pamphlet on the "Mowing-Devil".

The more modern crop circle phenomenon took off a few years after a curious event near the city of Tully in Queensland, Australia. In 1966, a farmer by the name of George Pedley reported hearing a strange hissing noise. Looking toward the sound, he saw a saucer ascend from the nearby swamp. When he investigated the area, he found a circular depression in the vegetation, about 30 feet in diameter. Officials determined the cause to be vaguely related to a dust devil. The saucer sighting was “officially” overlooked.

Then in the 1970’s, circles began popping up all over the English countryside. Most of these would turn out to be the handiwork of pranksters Doug Bower and Dave Chorley who patterned their initial circles on the Tully “saucer nest.” The two later claimed over 200 circles, many of which sparked at least a little bit of serious scientific study.

In 1980, a meteorologist and physicist by the name of Terence Meaden weighed in with a complicated theory that the circles were caused whirlwinds bouncing around the unique topography of the southern English countryside. The theory gained some momentum, even garnering a tentative endorsement from Physicist Stephen Hawking who said that it was a plausible explanation if  the circles weren’t just part of some elaborate hoax. When Bower and Chorley finally came clean, I imagine Meaden’s response was something like: “Or it could all just be part of some elaborate hoax.” It is, however, worth noting that a lot of cereologists (one who has a post graduate degree in the study of crop circles, or maybe Cheerios) claim that crop circles which can be attributed to hoaxes are in fact promoted by governments as a way to discredit the true origin of others.

My favorite explanation for the appearance of crop circles, though, comes from Lara Giddings, then Deputy Premier of Tasmania, whose theory appears in a June 2009 article from the BBC. To give a little background here, Australia produces about 50% of the world’s legally grown poppies for use in the pharmaceutical industry. Australia also has wallabies. Giddings apparently said the following: “We have a problem with wallabies entering poppy fields, getting high as a kite and going around in circles. Then they crash. We see crop circles in the poppy industry from wallabies that are high.”

So I guess that explains it.

Except as far as I know, there are no wild (high as a kite) wallabies in Oregon. And while I can’t completely discount alien visitation, this particular hill is highly visible from a pretty busy road and I haven’t heard any reports of UFO sightings in the area. So maybe, just maybe, there’s a mystery artist or two out there having a little fun and spreading a little joy. But I should probably report it to the ICCRA just to be safe.

Red necked wallaby (picture taken in Australia)

Note: I know that some of you are probably still thinking about the Mowing-Devil and just can’t let it go because technically a crop circle is created by bending crops and not mowing them. I understand your concern, but the way I see it, if visitors from another planet decide to use lawn mowing equipment to communicate with us then who are we to cry foul? Just to be clear, though, I don’t think it’s a good idea for gorked wallabies to be operating heavy machinery.