all photographs by the author
On the northeast margin of Lake Baikal in Siberia, a scattering of log buildings fills the narrow strip between shore and mountain. Blue and turquoise window frames sport elaborate matching fretwork in true regional style, and on eaves and gables folk carvings of bearded men, bonneted peasant women, and strange, fanciful animals appear.
There is no one about, and shoulder high grass fills most of the yards and gardens. The vegetation casts the three dozen structures in a sea of pale yellow-green that waves in the breezes off the lake, while around the clearing the silent taiga forest stands guard. It is a place on the doorstep of decay. Its purpose would be opaque to the casual visitor, but there are no casual visitors here. In fall and spring, for nearly half the year, the place is inaccessible because of the thin and shifting ice. In winter, trucks can be driven a hundred miles on the surface, like the temporary railroad that once carried the Trans-Siberian across the frozen lake to the south. In summer, boats can gamble the crossing, but rarely do anymore.
This is Davsha — Давша — and it has been abandoned for almost a decade. Once, more than 200 people lived here: scientists, rangers, families, schoolteachers, radio operators, and huntsmen. In this land of extremes — of extreme solitude, and extreme weather — these people looked after the animals of the forest. In 1916, Czar Nicholas II was so worried that the sable was going extinct that he carved out a wilderness on the shores of Baikal, declared it forbidden to hunters, natives, and settlers, and built Davsha, a miniature village in the heart of the reserve for the rangers and biologists he sent to manage it.
The indigenous Evenks were moved out of the reserve and relocated north of the Tompa River, echoing similar moves of American Indians in the early days of the National Park System in the United States. This was the first zapovednik — or nature reserve — in Russia, and it lasted long after Nicholas’ execution and the fall of the Empire the following year. Throughout the Soviet era and into the Federation, it was a revered — and well-funded — post.
Why protect the sable? This small fur-bearing cousin to the marten and the weasel was the key to Siberian settlement for hundreds of years. Its priceless fur was the golden promise that drew the Cossacks over the Ural Mountains in the 1580s, and what spurred them to the Pacific in only 60 years. In contrast, it took the trappers, explorers, and settlers of the United States four times as long to go half the distance. As a result, this little black-furred creature — martes zibellina —was in steep decline by the start of the 20th century. Long before the idea of environmental protection took hold elsewhere, this landscape of mountain, taiga, and lake was set aside to shelter one of its smallest — and most valuable — denizens.
Today, the Barguzinskii Biosphere Reserve has no permanent residents. In 2005, its funding was cut, and the tenuous existence Davsha had maintained for almost 90 years was over. Almost overnight, the settlement was evacuated by boat, the population leaving many of their possessions in place.Read More
In the Photo of the Week feature, we highlight an exceptionally amazing photograph submitted by an Atlas Obscura user.
When Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans with flooding and destruction, one of the larger casualties was the Dixie Brewing Company, a local staple that was forced to abandon its massive production facility in the wake of the storm. Since its abandonment, the facility has become a hotspot for graffiti artists and urban explorers.
Atlas user blwilde took a picturesque snapshot of the unfortunate relic saying this about the view:
"I took this while doing a photoshoot for my friends' band. On the other side of the lens you can see the entire city of New Orleans."Read More
A Tanuki far from home, in Brisbane, Australia (photograph by the author)
The signs and symbols of Japan can be disorientating, as Western signage such as the striped barber's pole and the green/red man of traffic lights is blended with more traditional symbols, such as the hanging drapes that indicate onsen (traditional baths), the red-caped kitsune (fox-gods), and jizo (statues of dead children, dressed to stay warm against the cold of the grave.)
One of the more curious symbols is the tanuki, a raccoon dog that represents a traditional Japanese prankster god. The tanuki is known in the West best from Super Mario Brothers 3, which features a tanuki suit that allows Mario to change form into a statue and to fly, as well as from the Studio Ghibli film Pom Poko, which is about a gang of tanuki (although in the English language version of the film they were misrepresented as badgers.)
The real tanuki (photograph by Emily/Flickr user)
Tanuki in Shigaraki, Japan (photograph by akaitori/Flickr user)
The tanuki has a mixed reputation in Japan. Statues of the full-bellied (and large-testicled) tanuki can be found throughout Japan, even if pollution and urban sprawl have taken their toll on the actual animal after which the trickster takes its name and form. The tanuki is a shape-shifter, and his testicles play an important role in his shifting. Tanukis have legendarily been known to use their testicles as makeshift raincoats, as weapons, and as drums. They knead and massage them into the shape they desire, and often impersonate humans to buy alcohol and delicacies, which is where the tanuki fits into modern Japanese culture.
Myths and legends surrounding the tanuki are commonplace around Japan — the mischievous creature's antics even feature in a traditional Japanese children's song (sung, for some reason, to the tune of an old Baptist hymn): “Tan Tan Tanuki no kintama wa/Kaze mo nai no ni/Bura bura.” The lyrics translate as: “Tan-tan, the Tanuki's testicles ring/the wind has stopped blowing/but still they swing-swing.”
1881 tanuki woodblock print by Yoshitoshi (via Wikimedia)Read More
The Exosuit (courtesy Nuytco Research, Ltd)
The depths of the ocean still remain one of our planet's great mysteries, despite our world mostly being water. A new atmospheric diving suit — the Exosuit — is allowing humans to descend into the sea further than we've ever gone before, perhaps changing what we know of life on Earth.
The suit created by Nuytco Research, Ltd. looks a bit like if an early diving bell-style suit — such as that from 1882 by the Carmagnolle brothers, on display at the Musée de la Marine in Paris — was crossed with the ASIMO robot. This week it made a special stop this week at the American Museum of Natural History which culminated in a discussion with researchers John Sparks, curator at the AMNH; David Gruber, research associate at CUNY; and Vincent Pieribone, research associate at the Pierce Laboratory-Yale. They noted that this was the first time an ADS system was being deployed for scientific research since the 1980s.
The suit is constructed from aluminum alloy, weighs in at 530 pounds, is entered through the torso, can contort at several rotorary joints, and even has curious little foot pads that have pressure sensitivity — of which there is quite a bit, some 30 times that on the surface, at the 1,000 foot depth to which a human inside can safely reach. What makes it even more advanced is that it has 50 hours of life support, meaning researchers can actually spend time viewing marine life at that depth. And what they are looking for is bioluminescence.
A test of the Exosuit is planned for July of 2014 on the Stephen J. Barlow Bluewater Expedition off the coast of Massachusetts. The team has already discovered eels and sharks and other creatures with unexpected bioluminescence and biofluorescence in a previous expedition. But why does it matter that there are these little glowing creatures far beneath the waves? While every bit of our world that we understand more changes in some way our greater picture of life, bioluminescence research has already had great impact in medical research, particularly with cancer where bioluminescence imaging has revealed cell activity that was previously invisible. What next we can discover in nature may break through another barrier with this innovation in technology.
The Exosuit at the American Museum of Natural History (photograph by the author)Read More
Preparing for the Seattle World's Fair (via Seattle Municipal Archives)
World's Fair Street Scene (via Seattle Municipal Archives)
Unlike other host cities, Seattle planned its infrastructure for the 1962 Century 21 Exposition to be a permanent city improvement. Seattle’s fair came shortly on the heels of a dramatic population and income boom, following the establishment of Boeing’s manufacturing plant in the city. However, many new Boeing workers settled in the suburbs, leaving Seattle’s downtown desolate. City planners hoped the 1962 fairgrounds could transition into a revitalized downtown civic and cultural center, rejuvenating the city itself.
World's Fair Grounds Under Construction (via Seattle Municipal Archives)
Their gamble paid off — the entire fairgrounds, and most of its infrastructure, became today’s Seattle Center, a 74-acre park with museums, performance spaces, public art, and sports complexes. Also unlike other host cities, Seattle managed to turn a profit with its 1962 fair. Some of the original fairground have since been torn down or heavily remodeled, but a number still stand.Read More
Grotesques from Reims, France, photographed by Joseph Trompette (ca. 1870-90) (via Cornell University Library)
Mermaids, unicorns, and fairies have been romanticized through the ages, but what about the Pennsylvanian Squonk? Here is a motley assortment of mythical beasts and beings found in folklore from around the world. From soul-sucking cats to child-thieving shape-shifters, these are the oddballs found in the magical bestiary that haven't gotten much love.
The Squonk as featured in "Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods, With a Few Desert and Mountain Beasts" by William Thomas Cox (via Wikimedia)
This sad, mythical creature hails from the legends of northern Pennsylvania. The Squonk was said to be a hideous forest animal with grotesquely loose, scaly skin entirely covered in warts and blemishes. The animal was so miserable over its own gruesome appearance and lack of companionship that it almost constantly wept. Local legend had it that the Squonk was quite easy to track; you could pretty much just follow the sound of the animal's sobs and salty, tear-strewn trail through the woods. Capturing one proved much harder: when greatly distressed the Squonk was said to literally dissolve into a puddle of its own tears.
The Tiyanak takes various forms in Philippine mythology. In one version it is an evil dwarf-like creature posing as a human baby, in another it is an actual demon child. The Christian take on this mythical monster turns Tiyanaks into the restless ghosts of children who have died unbaptized. In any case, the Tiyanak is said to mimic the cries of a human baby to lure its victims in. Once picked up, out come the fangs and things get gory.
The Tiyanak also enjoys confusing travelers into losing their way, leading them deeper and deeper into the Philippine jungle with its cries. If you ever find yourself being lured astray by this monster baby, the traditional trick for escape is to turn your clothes inside out. According to Philippine lore, this amuses the Tiyanak to no end, and he may just think that you're funny enough to let you live.Read More
"Seaweeds," 1848 (all images courtesy the Brooklyn Museum Libraries Special Collections)
The Victorian period had a particular flourish for domesticating the wildness out of nature. From taxidermy animals contorted into a controlled version of ferocity to pressing flowers into collectible objects, there was both a mix of fascination with flora and fauna as well as a desire to form the natural world into a vision of refinement. Yet while some young ladies delighted in clipping flowers and pressing them in books, others scraped up seaweed and kept the specimens in elegant scrapbooks.
One of these scrapbooks is held in the Brooklyn Museum Library's Special Collections and was recently digitized with high res images viewable online. The 1848 scrapbook created by Eliza A. Jordson was given to Augustus Graham, whose name is spelled out in seaweed on the first page of the book. Graham was on the Brooklyn Apprentice's Library board of directors and was a founder of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, both precursors to the Brooklyn Museum. On the second page is another elegant script in seaweed spelling out "prepared by Eliza A. Jordson, Brooklyn, L.I. 1848" (this was prior to the consolidation of 1898 that brought Brooklyn into New York City as a borough, so it is labeled as its own city on Long Island).
The keeping of a seaweed scrapbook wasn't as unusual as you might think for a Victorian lady; even Queen Victoria herself reportedly made an album as a young girl. And Victorian ladies, stuck inside, definitely devoted themselves to some equally odd handicrafts, like hair art for example. Harvard Library has a detailed description of seaweed scrapbooking from A. B. Hervey's 19th century Sea Mosses: A Collector's Guide and an Introduction to the Study of Marine Algae, with the process involving washing, arranging, pressing, and then adhering the seaweed to paper in its pristine state.
Each page of the scrapbook seems carefully considered, the seaweed a response to the curves of the lace doilies with an eye to the balance between the space and the specimen. It's definitely not a scientific work, but instead a social one, with no labels of genus or providence, just the bits of dried algae and fine paper. On one page, the seaweed has even been positioned into a tiny house, and on another it is bookended by a poem written from the perspective of the seaweed. An excerpt:
"Hm! Call us not weeds —
We are flowers of the sea."
A letter included in the scrapbook addressed to Augustus Graham reads: "I am commissioned by the above named persons, members of the Brooklyn Institute, to beg your acceptance, from them, of the accompanying volume of Algae, as a memento of their gratitude and esteem." Below are some images of that volume of Long Island seaweeds that was created for Graham over 150 years ago.
Basilica of St. John Lateran (via Wikimedia)
Roman churches usually aren’t shy about their macabre histories. At Santa Maria dell’Orazione e Morte a nun will be happy to let you photograph their crypt of abandoned bodies in exchange for a small donation. At Santa Prassede a sacristan will give you a pamphlet and helpfully point out the well where St. Praxedis and St. Pudentiana poured the blood that seeped out of the three thousand bodies of martyrs they were hiding. At the famous Capuchin crypt you can even buy postcards of the mummified monks to send to dear friends or enemies.
But if you go to the Basilica San Giovanni Laterano looking for such morbid attractions, you’ll find you’re on your own. What happened there over one thousand years ago is still too horrible to speak of. This is the church where Pope Stephen VI put the rotting corpse of Pope Formosus on trial in January of 897.
The trial was called the Cadaver Synod or Synodus Horrenda (since everything is more colorful in Latin). It ushered in one of the most corrupt eras in the history of the papacy, a time that’s now referred to in all seriousness as the pornocracy.
Basilica San Giovanni Laterano (photograph by Rafel Miro)
To understand what happened to Pope Formosus’s unfortunate corpse, you have to understand that the world around him was falling apart. The western empire Charlemagne had united had since crumbled away into smaller and smaller factions. Little fiefdoms were eyeing Rome’s treasures and demanding protection money while the city was still smarting from the Saracen sack of 846. Rifts formed within the church as the men who aspired to be pope found they needed the additional strength of one of the many secular leaders to achieve it.
The story of the corpse trial actually starts during the reign of Pope John VIII. At this time, Formosus was bishop of Porto (the Roman suburb, not the city in Portugal). He was also a successful missionary, known for spreading Catholicism throughout the Bulgar kingdom. But he might have been a little too good at his job. Pope John VIII turned on Formosus and accused him of violating a law that prevented bishops from ruling over more than one place at a time — a law that was supposed to prevent bishops from building up their own little fiefdoms. And perhaps more tellingly, John accused Formosus of violating a recently passed law that forbid openly aspiring to the papacy. Formosus was getting a little too close for comfort, so John had him excommunicated.Read More
The Hollywood Sign has come to signify all that is glamorous in the movie-making business, but over nine decades ago, those hillside letters — made of telephone poles, corrugated sheet metal, and chicken wire — were merely an advertisement for the real estate development below: HOLLYWOODLAND.
The Hollywood Sign (photograph by Todd Eric Andrews)
To explore this unusual monument — a landmark that became permanent after several restoration efforts and fundraising campaigns — the Los Angeles Obscura Society first gathered down in the area that was once known as Hollywoodland, now Beachwood Canyon, where you can pass through the Old Hollywoodland Gate (built from granite that was mined locally) on your way to the sign. The area still contains prime real estate and architectural styles worth admiring, though now this neighborhood has all the advertising it could ever want (and more).
Meeting at the Old Hollywoodland Gate (photograph by Todd Eric Andrews)
Hollywoodland Realty Co. (photograph by Todd Eric Andrews)
We were accompanied on our journey up Mount Lee via the Hollyridge Trail by LA's resident Hollywoodland expert, Mary Mallory — author of Hollywoodland, frequent docent, and board member of Hollywood Heritage — who added lots of tidbits about various points of interest along the way. From the movies that have featured the Hollywood Sign, to the lore that surrounds it, to the sprawling estate that was planned but never built atop Mount Lee, our climb to this Griffith Park peak was not merely a hike, but a ramble through time and history and a version of Hollywood many of us had never seen before.Read More
The Parker Brothers version of the Ouija board (via Dave Winer)
These days, the word “Ouija” conjures up shades of mysticism, Satanic panics, and teenage bedrooms. The origin of the term is supposedly lost in the sands of time, or created out of a compound of the German and French terms for “yes.” But ask Ouija board collector and historian Robert Murch for the real story of the board’s name, and he’ll tell you a different tale — one that connects the board to two intriguing women.
As one of the world’s most active Ouija board collectors and historians, Murch has been researching the history of the object since the early 1990s. Its origins are cloudy, he explains, rife with he-said-she-said squabbles and family feuds. But at least one part of the story seems clear. Two years ago, Murch discovered a 1919 article in the Baltimore American in which one of the board’s originators, Baltimore businessman Charles Kennard, states how the Ouija got its name.
In 1890, Kennard gathered a group of investors to capitalize on the “talking board,” which was born out of the Spiritualist movement and introduced to the wider world four years earlier. But the Kennard Novelty Company, as the fledgling business dubbed itself, had no name for its wooden board inscribed with letters, numbers, and the words “yes” and “no.” On April 25, 1890, Kennard was hanging out at a Baltimore boarding house with investor Elijah Bond and Bond’s sister-in-law, Helen Peters, when the group decided to ask the board what it wanted to be called.
Sketch of Helen Peters by her then-fiancé Ernest Nosworth (1890-91), & photo of her and Ernest (courtesy Bob Murch)
According to Murch, Helen Peters was a cultured, affluent woman who came from a society background. She was also, according to Bond’s letters, “a strong medium.” That night at the boarding house, the group waited with their fingers resting on the paddle-shaped planchette and watched as the board spelled out “o-u-i-j-a” in response to their query. When the group asked what “Ouija” meant, the board answered “good luck.”
But there was something Peters wanted to share. According to Kennard, she drew a chain from her neck and showed the men a locket with an image of a woman and the word “Ouija” written below. Kennard asked Peters if she had been thinking of the locket during their session, and Peters said no. That was good enough for Kennard — the board had found its name.Read More