Dream job: color librarian.

Harvard_Rare_ColorsI once read that the most expensive paint colors were also the most difficult to describe. We can all picture buttercup yellow, but can you imagine a sandy mixture of yellow with hints of pink and gray? Or that pretty, silvery green color that so often appears on spring things, like lambs ear or dusty miller? What are those colors called?

Of course, there are experts who know about the names, uses, and mixes of each strange new hue. Like the folks at Pantone, who have just discovered the Worst Color Ever, which the Australian government plans to use on cigarette packs to deter smokers. (If you ask me, a crappy brown box wont be nearly as effective at deterring smokers than pictures of cancer patients—which is what they do in Canada—but you do you, Australia!) harvard_pigment_museumAnother place you’ll find experts in color is at The Straus Center. This Harvard-affiliated color library is home to all sorts of rare and valuable colors, including mummy brown and dragon’s blood. Their samples are made from plants and minerals, chemical compounds and organic detritus. They run the gamut from startlingly bright to subtle and murky.

The pigments at Harvard are used primarily for scientific analysis (like one time, scientists at the Straus Center used chemical analysis to out a faux-Jackson Pollock painting as a forgery). However, in my head I like to pretend that “Color Librarian” is a job title I could hold—if I studied my colors enough, that is. Aside from sorting and categorizing colors, I would like to be hired to name colors. Hard acorn green, dog’s ear pink, maple syrup brown, dead tooth gray, distant mountain blue. I’d spend my days matching pigments with their ephemeral counterparts, the things we see but can’t extract color from, the impossible things that slip right through our eyes and into memory. Insomnia street-light yellow, strawberry top pink, dandelion fuzz white.


“A wandering mind unsticks us in time.”

Screen Shot 2015-12-27 at 4.31.32 PMNeed something to read in your post-holiday downtime? Here are a few interesting things from around the web, including the story of a very fancy French dominatrix, a theory about the real Jack the Ripper, and an article on why your brain needs to chill. Here we go!

A smart, obsessive screenwriter from England thinks he has figured out who Jack the Ripper really was, and he has a convincing theory as to why police never caught him. He suggests there was a massive cover-up born out of the cop’s connections to freemasonry (and the politicians and royals, too). The real Ripper was a philandering songwriter named Maybrick (in my head, I picture him like an old timey Mark Ronson):

In 1992 a diary surfaced in Liverpool, ostensibly written by a man named James Maybrick, in which he confessed to being the Ripper. Maybrick – who also happens to have been a Freemason – was a cotton trader and serial adulterer who died in 1889 as a result of poisoning. In one of the most controversial trials of the era, Maybrick’s wife Florence was convicted of the murder.

The diary was dismissed as a hoax. But reading it, something struck Robinson as a little odd. ‘It was written in three acts. Nobody writes a diary in three acts, because you don’t know what the third act will be. But the middle act, talking about the homicides, was so potent, so powerful, it got me thinking it could have been written by the murderer.’ But not by James Maybrick. Jack the Ripper, Robinson believes, was Maybrick’s brother Michael.

Michael Maybrick was a hugely popular singer and composer in the Victorian era, who is virtually forgotten today – for reasons that Robinson believes are no accident. He was particularly well known for his sentimental seafaring songs, written under the pen name Stephen Adams, among them Nancy Lee, the sheet music of which sold more than 100,000 copies in two years, and – ironically – They All Love Jack, which was written in 1887, the year before the Ripper killings began. His composition The Holy City sold more than one million copies, making it the best-selling song of the 19th century.

This Vanity Fair feature about a French author/dominatrix is straight-up bananas. It’s kind of over-written in that fancy, Voguey kind of way, but trust me, it’s still a reallllly good read. Here’s a taste:

Catherine embodied his lifelong obsession with young girls, resembling a little girl in her height, size, and manner. “Alain always said, ‘She’s my wife and my children,’ ” says Catherine. Well into her 30s she was regularly mistaken for Alain’s daughter. (Vladimir Nabokov met Catherine when the Stanley Kubrick film of his best-selling book was being cast and abruptly announced, “I want her to be Lolita!” He was sorry to learn that she didn’t speak English and so couldn’t play the role.)

Here’s an interesting detail about her book, which was published sous la table (a completely unnecessary bit of French is par for the course with this kind of rich-person profile. Note to self: Never do that!):

Susan Sontag named L’Image, alongside Story of O, as an example of pornographic books that she regarded as “belonging to literature.” And the book uncannily foretold Catherine’s own future erotic switch—17 years later—from submissive to dominant… L’Image was banned upon publication. The police arrived at the office of the publisher, Jérôme Lindon, demanding to know who was this “Jean de Berg”? “I have no idea,” lied Lindon, and, under their orders, he handed over copies of the book, which were burned. However, he continued publishing the book sous la table.

While we’re on the topic of sex, here’s a weird question: How does one design a cover for the book Lolita? Obviously, it is a difficult task, since designers need to chose imagery that nods at the subject matter but doesn’t glamorize it or sexualize the character. Many have tried. (And many have failed—too often the book looks like it’s about a consensual love affair between a precocious, sexy teenager and an older man, which very, very much misses the point.) Here’s an entire website devoted to Lolita covers, and here’s a great New Yorker article on the topic.

dee-nickerson-freedom-2015-30x40cmFinally, let’s all read this Scientific American story on why your brain needs more downtime and then immediately after, we’ll all close down our computers and go for a walk. Logically, I know I need to take breaks in between working and playing, but it can be really hard to make time for nothing. I’m great at doing things but I’m less adapt at just chilling, solo, without turning on some sort of stimulating device (TV, computer, podcasts, etc). But this article makes a great argument for taking out your earbuds, closing that book, and just… thinking. Without distraction. Here’s a good bit:

In making an argument for the necessity of mental downtime, we can now add an overwhelming amount of empirical evidence to intuition and anecdote. Why giving our brains a break now and then is so important has become increasingly clear in a diverse collection of new studies investigating: the habits of office workers and the daily routines of extraordinary musicians and athletes; the benefits of vacation, meditation and time spent in parks, gardens and other peaceful outdoor spaces; and how napping, unwinding while awake and perhaps the mere act of blinking can sharpen the mind. What research to date also clarifies, however, is that even when we are relaxing or daydreaming, the brain does not really slow down or stop working. Rather—just as a dazzling array of molecular, genetic and physiological processes occur primarily or even exclusively when we sleep at night—many important mental processes seem to require what we call downtime and other forms of rest during the day. Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life. A wandering mind unsticks us in time so that we can learn from the past and plan for the future. Moments of respite may even be necessary to keep one’s moral compass in working order and maintain a sense of self.

Top image via Pinterest, artist’s page here. Second image by artist Dee Nickerson. See more of her work here

Build-a-genius, go outside.

girla nd her bear

In her famous essay the Ecology of Imagination in Childhood, Edith Cobb proposed that contact with nature stimulates creativity. Reviewing the biographies of 300 “geniuses”, she exposed a common theme: intense experiences of the natural world in the middle age of childhood (between five and 12). Animals and plants, she contended, are among “the figures of speech in the rhetoric of play … which the genius in particular of later life seems to recall”.

Studies in several nations show that children’s games are more creative in green places than in concrete playgrounds. Natural spaces encourage fantasy and roleplay, reasoning and observation. The social standing of children there depends less on physical dominance, more on inventiveness and language skills. Perhaps forcing children to study so much, rather than running wild in the woods and fields, is counter-productive.

From an essay on the “second environmental crisis” in The Guardian by George Monbiot. He argues that kids these days don’t spend nearly enough time outdoors, which has caused many people to lose their desire to fight for environmental rights. It makes perfect sense—the most eco-minded folks are usually people who really like nature and spend a significant amount of time in it.

It reminds me of a piece I read earlier this year about wild words being removed from children’s dictionaries. The publishers at Oxford University Press decided that some words were more relevant to modern kid’s lives than others. What’s out? Bluebell, newt, and willow. What made the cut? Broadband, block graph, and celebrity. Ouch, right? My personal hero, Margaret Atwood, protested the change, and when someone who specializes in spookily prescient dystopian fiction warns of a dangerous societal shift, well damn, I sit up and listen.

What whale songs can tell us about art.

goofy whaleFrom a fantastic article on whale songs, this great quote (emphasis mine):

Whale song has artistic elements beyond simple communication of information. For example, since each whale theme ends with consistent final sounds, the phrases can be said to “rhyme” in a way akin to human poetry. Is such ornamental courtship behavior just an illustration of the “male quality” valued by hard-line evolutionists? Or does it show that evolution, over thousands of years, is able to produce art if there are no serious predators around?

Another interesting bit that describes graphing whale songs to find patterns by speeding up the music then assigning each tone matching colors and shapes:

Whale songs include a strange range of sounds, from the bowed bass beats of a giant sub-surface fiddle to the feedback squelches of an electric guitar. But we have trouble perceiving the structure by which the sounds are organized because the notes seem cast out in slow motion, with relatively long silences between each unit of sound. To better appreciate the patterns, we can speed a song up by ten times, allowing us to hear a compressed version… The set of shapes resembles the notation of Gregorian chants written in the tenth century.

Granted, I’m just about as likely to sit around listening to 10th Century Gegorian chants as I am to download an entire album of whale songs, but it’s still pretty freaking cool.

Image: A very goofy whale from Treasures of the Deep: a Descriptive Account of Great Fisheries and Their Products, published in London by Nelson and Sons in 1876. Found via the University of Washington Freshwater and Marine Image Bank (a great resource for lithographs and early American photographs).

Butterfly names are surprisingly awesome.

Whistler_as_a_butterflyReal names of actual butterflies found in North America (many of which would also make pretty good assassin aliases):

  1. Sara Orangetip
  2. Ruddy Daggerwing
  3. Two-barred Flasher
  4. White Checkered Skipper
  5. California Dogface
  6. Theona Checkerspot
  7. Zebra Longwing

From now on, please call me Theona Checkerspot. Thanks!

(P.S. That image above? It’s a portrait of the artist James McNeill Whistler as a butterfly. I love Whistler, partially because he seems like kind of a jerk, but an “impish” and hilarious one, kind of like Oscar Wilde, another big believer in art for art’s sake.)

Star light, star bright, last star I see tonight (because light pollution is ruining everything)

To celebrate its 24th year in orbit, the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has released this beautiful new image of part of NGC 2174, also known as the Monkey Head Nebula. NGC 2174 lies about 6400 light-years away in the constellation of Orion (The Hunter). Hubble previously viewed this part of the sky back in 2011 — the colourful region is filled with young stars embedded within bright wisps of cosmic gas and dust. This portion of the Monkey Head Nebula was imaged in the infrared using Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3.
These are the things I know about the night sky: I know where to find the Big Dipper. I know that the Big Dipper is also called “Ursa Major” because it is supposed to look like a large bear, though I can’t claim to ever have noticed a resemblance. I know that planets emit steady light while true stars flicker in and out (they twinkle, to use an infantile word I rather hate). I know how to find the North Star and how to spot Orion (it’s his belt, from which supposedly hangs a sword, though let’s be honest: dude’s probably not packing steel, ya hear me?).

I used to know more. I used to know the myths and legends and how to find the vain queen Cassiopeia. But that’s gone now, stuck somewhere in the weird and unreliable filing system of my memory.

I recently found myself staring at the stars and something funny happened: I got lost (or maybe more accurately: my ursine familiar was lost to me). I was camping in Canada, way up north on the coast of Cape Breton Island, in this beautiful place called Meat Cove, which seemed all the more lovely for its terrible name. In this remote place, few lights compete with the stars. There is no light pollution from cities, for there are no cities. There are few cars and fewer towns. When I looked up, I couldn’t find the Big Dipper. Orion seemed to have gone into hiding, shamed at being so easily overshadowed by the sheer wealth of stars. In many places in America, you can’t even see the Milky Way. Up there, you could see that pale, stagnant river of light. But it’s beauty was bland in comparison to the light show going on elsewhere. Night sky image “This sky makes me stupid,” I kept saying to my boyfriend. We would go for walks in the semi-dark, and I would trip over stones because my head was turned upwards. (This happens to me a lot, actually. Even city streets are more beautiful when you look at the tops of buildings and not the trash below.) One night, I sat on a rock and stared at the sky for over an hour, just looking. Just watching. Flicker, flicker, little stars.

It’s amazing to think that this experience is so rare—yet it used to be so common. A recent article in Nautilus (one of my favorite publications) profiles an astronomer named Tyler Nordgren who is working to reestablish dark spots in national parks. He wants to make it possible for everyone to get drunk on stars, to stare at the sky until they become lost in its splendor. A fellow astronomer describes the significance of Nordgren’s work in rather romantic—but wonderfully effective—terms: “It’s also one thing all of humanity has in common. It’s the same sky in the Sahara as it is over Philadelphia. It’s also the same sky as Native Americans gazed up at 10,000 years ago. People think of light pollution as an astronomer’s concern, but Tyler helps establish this broad value, that it matters to everyone.”Screen Shot 2015-09-02 at 7.06.46 PM

Does it matter to everyone? Probably not. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t give too much thought to the stars until I found myself silenced by their brilliance. It took driving 15 hours away from home to a campground on the edge of an island for me to see why light pollution matters. It matters because there are so few things in the world that can truly induce awe (and so many things that induce aww but that’s a post for another time). I’m not very spiritual, but the closest thing I have to a religion comes from those strange moments of sublime wonderment, where I become very, very small and the world around me expands, like the universe is supposedly doing at all times, only at a far more rapid clip.

So, I do care. And maybe so should you.

(P.S. The image at the top of this post is from NASA. Taken by the Hubble Telescope, it shows a STAR FACTORY. Really, that’s what it’s called. How wonderful! Thousands of times better than “Meat Cove.”)

Sweet science: deer beds.

Katherine_Wolkoff_DeerbedHere is something I learned today: Deer beds are beautiful.

Here’s another thing: Deer travel and live in herds. They’re social animals—to an extent. While the bucks are off… doing whatever it is bucks do, the lady-deers come together. The female deers and their little dappled fawns bed down together in large groups, while the bucks only hang out in groups of three to five (they are constantly fighting for dominance, which weakens the herd dynamic, kind of like when you go out with a few guys and they start playing darts and the night quickly dissolves into puffed chests and hurt feelings).

Hunters often track deer based on the imprints they leave when they lie down to rest. They create oval-shaped indents on the ground, crumpled swirls of grass. In the winter, their body heat melts the snow beneath, so if you see a few round melty spots, that’s probably a deer bed. Katherine_Wolkoff_deerbed_2

Photographer Katherine Wolkoff has created a series called “Deer Beds,” and I’m absolutely in love. To capture these images, she followed deer around Block Island, stopping where they did and training her camera on their nocturnal nests. The photographs (above) are strangely intimate and human. Touching and wild. Sweet and subtle. Imagine stumbling on a one of these deer beds in the wild grass. Lie down, it’s still warm from their gentle heat. Smell the plants, prickly and pungent, green and growing. Go to sleep. Dream of the herd, prancing away without you. Oh, deer.

“You are the only custodian of your own integrity.”

Screen Shot 2015-01-10 at 10.12.15 AMBrain Pickings is one of my all-time favorite websites. It’s a thoughtfully curated selection of intellectual inspiration and bookwormy quotes. The woman who runs it, Maria Popova, who describes the site this way: “The core ethos behind Brain Pickings is that creativity is a combinatorial force: it’s our ability to tap into our mental pool of resources — knowledge, insight, information, inspiration, and all the fragments populating our minds — that we’ve accumulated over the years just by being present and alive and awake to the world, and to combine them in extraordinary new ways.” So good, right?

Naturally, Popova has accumulated quite a bit of knowledge in her years of running the site. In 2013, to celebrate seven years of pickin’ brains, she published a short essay on seven things she learned. It’s a lovely little meditation on how to generously give your time while protecting your own integrity, how to respect yourself and others, and why changing your mind is an important part of being human. Now, the fundamental points of this piece have been made into a sweet animated video. It is the greatest way to start a Saturday—some gentle music, some inspiration, and a reminder that slowing down and doing nothing at all is sometimes necessary. Vital even. It gives our brains time to be creative, space to play with new thoughts. I tend to think of my best story ideas in the shower. I think it’s partially due to the water (few things make me feel creative or light or good or strong like water on my body) but it’s also because showering is metal downtime, when I have nothing to do but let the drops wash over me and think, quietly and unfocused, open and without purpose.

I’m getting sidetracked! Go watch the video. Then go create things. Or do nothing. It’s Saturday, after all.

Herbal cures for whatever ails you.

Screen Shot 2015-01-05 at 11.59.36 AM
Blogger and artist Catherine of Wolf Eyebrows took to Instagram this summer for a 30 days project in which she sketched medical ailments and their natural remedies. The results are just great—albeit a little bit gross. But I don’t find that off-putting. There is so much humor in each pretty little sketch!

Screen Shot 2015-01-05 at 12.02.59 PM
On a related note, I’m learning how to make herbal tinctures. I’ve dabbled in foraging—though who in Maine hasn’t gone out looking for fiddleheads? It’s practically a rite of spring—but herbal medicine is new to me. I love the idea that we can cure ourselves with leaves and petals and roots rather than pills and needles and plastic. Admittedly, that idea is particularly attractive at the moment, seeing as I don’t have health insurance, but there’s something deeply appealing to this highly independent, mildly prickly lady about being able to fix my damn own body without calling for help.

See the full project here.

Your body is a wonderland.

Travis Bedel1What I’m Reading:
Mary Roach’s delightfully morbid, tastelessly funny Stiff. I’ve read Bonk before, Roach’s book on the scientific study of sex, and this one is similar, but I think much better. Stiff is all about cadavers (that word sounds too much like a food item for my taste, yet I like it more than “dead bodies”). How we care for them. How we use them. How we abuse them. In the introduction to the book, she describes the process of becoming so deeply obsessed with a topic that she pursues it for years—despite the fact that many people find her work off-putting and strange and her professional interests disturbing, even threatening. “I’m a curious person,” she explains. “Like all journalists, I’m a voyeur. I write about what I find fascinating. I used to write about travel. I traveled to escape the known and the ordinary. The longer I did this, the farther afield I had to go. By the time I found myself in Antarctica for the third time, I began to search closer at hand.” The world is full the strange and unfamiliar things, and Roach wants to find them, to peer closely at them, to play doubting Thomas and prod at their wounds. Reading this, I was reminded of a quote by essayist Kathleen Hale: “I never look for things to grab me. They just do, and once they do, the obsessions usually continue until I’m so sick of them—or of myself for enacting them—that suddenly, and with a sense of great relief, I’m repulsed.” When I read this passage, I wanted to find Hal and shake her. “You nailed it!” I would yell in her face. “That’s exactly exactly what it’s like!” To be obsessed, to be a voyeur, to be relentlessly curious to the point where you begin to wonder if it’s really healthy—I think maybe that’s what it is to be a writer.

Travis BedelWhat I’m Admiring:
To stay true to theme, I’ve been really digging the work of artist Travis Bedel. He use anatomical imagery as the jumping off point for his intricate collages, turning the human body into a lush and unsettling menagerie. I imagine if one dissected a nymph, or a citizen of Narnia, they might find this waiting inside. It’s a lovely visual depiction of the circle of life (dust to dust and earth to earth and guts to flowers and the worms crawl in and all that) or an eerie reimagining of what lies within. I personally think his work is very pretty, but then again, I consider Stiff light bedtime reading, so perhaps I’m a terrible judge of these things. (If you like his work, you can buy prints online at Society6 and Etsy.)

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