Category Archives: History

Without a net: farewell to Miss Mara

Headshot for Miss Mara. Source Yesterday’s Town blog.

I want to die on the trapeze.

La Mara has left us. María Papadopoulos Vaquero, the Spanish aerialist who electrified the circus world for four decades with her trapeze act, passed away on December 14 due to complications following back surgery. The opening line of a poem her brother Enrique dedicated to her is quoted above.

A woman without age

Born in the early thirties, she was recruited by Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey circus in 1951. As she said to the newspaper El País:

Goddesses shouldn’t age and on the trapeze I was a goddess.

Born inside a dressing room

Mara swinging while hanging from her heels. Source Circo Meliés blog.

Though her father came from a circus family of Greek and Romanian origin, her parents initially tried to keep her away from the circus. But it was to no avail. Since her first act at the age of five, Mara was drawn to performing at great height.

The eldest of eight siblings, she was their matriarch, with the closeness that is so common among Spanish families of that generation. Her wirewalker brother Tonito, also a recipient of Spain’s National Circus Prize, accompanied her to the US when she moved there.

Heel catches on a swinging trapeze

Miss Mara hanging from the back of her neck. Source Yesterday's Towns blog.
Miss Mara hanging from the back of her neck. © Elliot Fenander, in the Collection of Shelburne Museum. Source Yesterday’s Towns blog.

© Elliot Fenander, in the Collection of Shelburne Museum

Mara’s solo act was novel for the time as it took place on a swinging trapeze. She developed several unique moves. In one, her calves slid along the trapeze until catching herself by the heels. The other involved balancing from the back of her neck. She always performed without a net or any other safety device.

When asked about fear, she didn’t mince words.

Fear costs nothing. Each of us chooses the dose we want to take.

Readily acknowledging the danger of working at height, Mara noted the parallel to the quandary of a bullfighter: you triumph or you die.

Every night, she dreamt of slipping

Mara’s first serious fall in 1948 resulted in a broken hip. In Tacoma WA in 1953, she fell fourteen meters to the concrete floor of the ring, suffering fractures in her right leg, left arm, and three lumbar vertebrae. Two pins were inserted in her ankle. After seven surgeries, the doctors believed that with hard work and luck, she might walk again.

In March 1955 Mara performed in front of 18,000 spectators in Madison Square Garden

This book by Simón Gonzalez includes wonderful photos. The cover image is from a 1962 poster.

Although Mara and her siblings owned various circuses over the years, her greatest successes were on the trapeze. She received many awards, including  the International Circus Oscar in 1966, the Press Award in the III Montecarlo Festival in 1976, the National Circus Award of Spain in 1992, and the Gold Medal for Merit in Fine Arts in 2007. She performed for Sinatra and Hemingway and was perhaps the most internationally renown trapeze artist of Spain.

Watch her yourself

This six-minute video took my breath away. I dare you to remain indifferent. Sure, the flamboyant headdress, the swan-bedecked chariot, the makeup, the music may seem quaint to the Cirque du Soleil generation, but Mara’s courage and skill, strength and precision, are timeless.

Mara was a star, in a time and a place where women weren’t encouraged to stand out. Her triumphs were hard won- with exemplary grace.

Mara has left us, but in our memory she will continue to fly, to a standing ovation.

The fall of the Land of Cockaigne: a tale of two blues

Four horses were standing in the yard threshing corn with all their might, and two goats were heating the stove, and a red cow shot the bread into the oven.

This surreal excerpt comes from the very short Tale of the Land of Cockaigne  from the Grimm Brothers. There is no plot, simply a recitation of preposterous scenarios.

It s obviously a tall tale, one where the storyteller is self aware, breaking out of the story to ask:

            Have I not told enough lies?

The Land of Cockaigne, a Medieval theme

The Land of Cockaigne, of Plenty, is an Upside Down World.  The established order is subverted: animals do the jobs of peasants, the clergy are punished, the poor are idle and fat. Like El Dorado, it is a land of riches untold, with an added element of humor and the grotesque.  Unlike El Dorado, it remains firmly ensconced in myth and metaphor.

Pieter Brueghel’s The Land of Cockaigne (1563). The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei via Wikimedia Commons

Pieter Brueguel the Elder’s 1563 unflattering but humorous portrayal of the Land of Cockaigne is combined with Flemish proverbs. He also makes a humorous and satirical  commentary on the failed revolt against the Spanish in 1560.

The idea of the Land of Cockaigne is found throughout Europe: the Italian Cuccagna, Spanish Cucaña, German Schlaraffenland, and Swedish Lubberland.

A proposed origin of the name is from the Pays de Cocagne

The southwestern region of France around Toulouse, Albi, and Carcassone is still known as Pays de Cocagne. It was home to the production of the most valuable blue in the late Middle Ages: pastel. The cocagnes (in French) were the round balls of paste formed after grinding the leaves of woad (Isatis tinctoria).

The traditional process to obtain blue from Isatis tinctoria included two fermentation processes and took over a year. The first fermentation process was accelerated by adding urine. (Natural dyeing processes release ammonia, an early example of noxious industrial emissions. Queen Elizabeth I forbade woad dyeing within five miles of her residences.)

Panoramic view of the hôtel d’Assézat. Construction started in this Renaissance palace in 1555. It now houses an art museum, the Fondation Bemberg. Source by Pom2 via Wikimedia Commons.

The period between mid-fifteenth and mid sixteenth century was known as the Golden Age of Pastel, and led to the construction of Renaissance mansions in Toulouse, such as the hôtel d’Assézat and Beyron.

In search of blue: a costly color

Chaucer mentions three core plants for dyers: woad (blue), madder (red), and weld (yellow). Woad, in the cabbage family, grows throughout Europe. Dyed fabric has been found in burials since the Iron Age (1st century CE).

Julius Cesar’s claim in The Conquest of Gaul that the inhabitants of Britain painted their faces blue has been interpreted to explain the name of the Picts. However, it seems unlikely that he is describing the Picts nor that woad was used as body paint.

Dyes for cloth made fortunes in SW France

The region’s climate and soil were ideal for woad cultivation and it was widespread already by the XIIth century. Initially centered in Albi in the 14th C, the shift to Toulouse enabled meteoric expansion.

The banking structure was better able to manage the risk associated with the time lag between planting and dye production.  The Garonne also provided a good means for export north and east.

Like so many booms, the pastel economy fell sharply. Many reasons have been proposed to explain the decline in the 1560s. These include a lack of investment back into the industry and dubious practices (adding chalk to the paste). Two years of heavy rainfall with abundant but low-quality harvests wreaked havoc on the pricing. The already precarious trading routes were severely disrupted by the religious wars between Catholics and Protestants. Eventually, the easy access to indigo almost made pastel obsolete.

A color found in snails and leaves

The dye chemical produced from the lengthy and smelly procedure to produce pastel is indigo. It is also found, and in greater concentration, in the tropical indigo plant Indigofera tinctoria, from the pea family and native to Asia and India.

Indigo or indigo derivatives are also produced by several snails. In fact the chemical behind the famous Tyrian purple (great animation here) is di-bromine indigo.

Indigo in the left hand, woad in the right. From the blog Root Simple.

The ancients that knew both woad and indigo considered them completely different. Woad led to a different color, probably because the pastel technique didn’t lead to pure pigment. The components of red and yellow add a richness, a shadow to the brighter indigo blue.

Indigo, the devil’s dye

Although indigo had long been known in Europe, it arrived via overland spice caravans in such low quantities it could not compete. However after Vasco de Gama opened the maritime trade route, the Portuguese were importing it in large quantities by 1516.

This led to great consternation in France, Germany and England where the woad industry was a cornerstone of the economy. Its use was punishable by death in France and Germany into the XVII century.  Britain initially also forbade the use of indigo, but by 1634 indigo was one of the mainstays of trade of the East India Company.

Although indigo was cultivated in Spanish and French colonies and in South Carolina in the XVIIIth century, Indian production eclipsed all other sources.

Blue military uniforms

Napoleon tried to revitalize the French pastel industry, establishing an academy and using it for his uniforms in the early XIXth century. However, at the fall of the empire in 1823, indigo took over.

The color blue continued to play a significant role in French military uniforms during WWI with a shift from the bright indigo blue to a lighter shade after high death tolls.

The development of synthetic indigo in 1893 led to the end of large-scale indigo production, but not before the oppressive conditions of indigo plantation workers played a role the independence movement in India.

Today woad is used for its pigment and for medicinal purposes

Natural biodegradable pigments have gained in allure beyond craft dyers. Bleu de Lectoure is researching cultivation and extraction techniques, as well as applications for a sustainable activity. The medicinal properties of woad, long used in traditional Chinese medicine, are also under investigation.

Blue is always with us

It is obviously questionable to aspire to a Land of Cocaigne as there is no free lunch (an expression not shown explicitly in Bruegel’s work). But this story of blue shows that color transcends any sense of frivolous decoration.

It has the power to build empires and to bring them down.

The troll under the bridge

Is there a troll under that bridge? Underpass for the Canal du Midi bike trail.
Is there a troll under that bridge? My photo of an underpass for the Canal du Midi walk and bike trail, November 2013.

The wonderful walking and bike trail along the Canal du Midi in Toulouse sometimes goes under bridges to avoid a surface street. As much as I love forgetting about traffic, it can be downright spooky as the trail narrows, swoops downhill, approaches the water, and turns a corner.

I sometimes worry I might disturb a troll.

Trolls are Scandinavian in origin, and have about as many forms as stories about them. As far as I can tell, the original troll under the bridge is the one the three Billy Goats Gruff met.

The story has inspired several authors, including Stephen KingNeil Gaiman  and Terry Pratchett.

You don’t remember the story? I’ll re-tell it to you 

Once upon a time there were three brothers, the Billy Goats Gruff. Perhaps due to an acute lack of imagination on behalf of Mom & Pop Goat Gruff, all three kids were named Billy. (Yeah, I know, confusing…)

One day, Billy noticed that the grass was much greener on the other side of the river. (Heard that before?) The river was narrow, but deep. He’d avoided swimming lessons, because he was afraid of water, so he skipped along the river bank until he came upon a bridge.

He tippity-tapped onto the bridge. His little hooves woke up the Troll who was napping under the bridge.

“Who’s that tippity-tapping across my bridge?” The Troll was cranky. Who likes being woken up from a nap?

“Just me, the Little Billy Goat Gruff, on my way to the pasture,” Billy squeaked. (He was really small, the size of a Nigerian dwarf goat.)

“I’m going to gobble you up!”

Billy was a fast thinker. “Oh, if you want to, but I’m a runt, all bones and leather. My brother, who’s much juicier, will be by shortly.”

The troll wasn’t terribly hungry since he’d just ordered buffalo wings a few weeks earlier. Trolls are notoriously slow digesters. “Oh, well, whatever.” He turned over and fell back asleep.

Billy tippity-tapped to the other side, where he picked and chose the sweetest leaves of the meadow.

His middle brother, Billy, saw him from the other side and called out, “Hey, Billy ¿Qué pasa?”  (Yeah, I know, confusing…)

His little brother blinked once and kept on munching. So Billy trotted until he reached the bridge. He clippety-clopped onto the bridge, disturbing the Troll’s nap, yet again. The Troll once more made his threat. But Billy convinced him that his big brother would be coming along soon enough.

As the traditionally troubled middle kid, Billy resented his baby brother and considered the older one a big fat bully.

Speaking of which, Billy, who’d been wondering what his younger brothers were up to, finally saw them across the stream. “Dudes, whatcha doin’?” he bellowed.

Billy and Billy rolled their eyes and kept on munching. That bothered (big) Billy. What bothered him even more was that they were up to their knees (middle brother) and shoulders (little brother) in grass and he was  on the other side. He considered swimming across, but didn’t want to get his beautiful white coat wet.

So he halumphed along the river bank to the bridge and clunkety-clunked onto it. Now, (big) Billy was big, like a Saanen goat, and the bridge could barely hold him up.

The Troll saw his roof shaking and yelled, “Who’s that clunkety-clunking across my bridge?” He poked his head over the side and growled.

IMGP0474b troll 11-25-05_small
Now this is a troll. The wonderful 18-foot Fremont troll sculpture by Steve Badanes, Will Martin, Donna Walter, and Ross Whitehead, moved under the Aurora Bridge in Seattle on Halloween 1990. Apparently this guy survives on car parts. You can follow him on twitter!

Billy was shocked at how ugly he was, eyes like hubcaps and a nose like a telephone pole, and skin that looked like the surface of the moon. He shoved him with his pointy horns and the Troll fell backwards into the raging stream, where it’s quite likely that he drowned.

After all, he’d absolutely refused to take swimming lessons and, even worse, it was a bright sunny day and we all know that Trolls turn to stone after long exposure to sunlight, and stones– well, they tend to sink.

Billy tossed his head and swaggered on across the bridge. After bullying Billy and Billy a bit, he was soon distracted by the juicy grass. There was more than enough for all three of them, for a while at least.

One moral of the story is to take swimming lessons 

It can also be a good idea to give your kids different names, unless you’re George Foreman, in which case your charm will let you get away with it.

What’s cool here 

Versions of this Norwegian story appear in other countries, usually with a wolf instead of a troll. It’s been classified under the category Eat me when I’m fatter, where a potential victim uses that phrase to buy time, and not always with a plan in hand.

My re-telling attributes the events to sibling rivalry, but the Billy Goats Gruff might have been quite intentionally strategic. After all, there was plenty of grass on the other side of the river.

Appeasing the water spirits: the bridge sacrifice.

George Washington Bridge, spanning the Hudson River between New York City and New Jersey, circa 1985. The toll to cross the GWB, the busiest bridge in the world, is $13 if you don’t have EZ-Pass. Photo from the US Library of Congress, Historic American Engineering Record collections (HAER NY,31-NEYO,161-28, digital ID hhh.ny1264).

Even though no riddle is posed, the troll can be seen as the guardian of the river. Myths and folktales often speak of payment or a sacrifice to cross a river, usually to appease water spirits.

These payments can be in the form of money: such as the gold sometimes found in the foundations of old bridges.

But others say the bridge sacrifice means a child or person must die so the bridge can be built. Other times stealing a shadow is enough.

Another interpretation of the bridge sacrifice is that it alludes to the danger inherent in bridge building.

From trolls to tolls

While bridge construction continues to be dangerous and expensive, we’re much more likely to find a toll than a troll.

Have you run into any trolls lately? 


Where and what is El Dorado

In his poem El Dorado, Edgar Allen Poe gives its location as

Over the Mountains
Of the Moon,
Down the Valley of the Shadow

Which doesn’t help very much

But the directions followed by explorers in their search for the legendary El Dorado, a supposed city of gold and riches beyond belief, weren’t much more specific.

The Cadillac El Dorado was at or near the top of the line for Cadillac after it was introduced in 1952 until it was discontinued in 2002. Photo by Bill Mitchell, 1971 model via Wikimedia Commons
The El Dorado was at or near the top of Cadillac’s line between 1952 and 2002. This is a 1971 convertible. Photo by Bill Mitchell via Wikimedia Commons

El Dorado is an excellent example of an evolving myth, growing and metamorphosing over time. Its allure is fueled by gold and our fascination with it. With gold of course, we find greed.

The search for El Dorado is a tragic one

It led to the devastation of entire civilizations at the hands of the Europeans, sometimes purposefully and sometimes through the inadvertent spread of disease. Evidence is growing that, prior to the arrival of the explorers, missionaries, and colonists, both the spare highlands and the thick jungles were in fact densely populated, with urban centers and complex engineering.

The cost wasn’t negligible for the seekers either. For over three hundred years, scores of expeditions organized by Spaniards, English, Germans, Portuguese, and Dutch often ended in death.

We learned things also: while searching for El Dorado, Francisco de Orellana navigated the entire length of the Amazon river in 1541.

A twisting spreading myth

The origin of the El Dorado myth is commonly attributed to stories of the Muisca in eastern Colombia. At the death of their ruler, the next in succession would enter Lake Guatavita dusted in gold. Jewels and gold objects were then thrown into the water.

The Muisca raft from the Museo del Oro, Banco de la República in Bogotá, Colombia.

This exquisite Muisca raft, found in 1969 within a clay vase in a small cave south of Bogota is dated between 600 to 1600CE. For amazing close-ups go to the Laboratorio Imagine (Universidad de los Andes).  A beautiful 3-minute video the from Smithsonian shows the lost wax method used to make it.

There was also the story of Manoa, a city of gold on the banks of a huge lake (of the same name) with beaches of gold-bearing sand, described by a delirious Juan Martínez on his deathbed in 1531. The lake was apparently source to a river flowing into the Orinoco from the south .

And there were the rumors of a wealthy city to the east of the Andes, to which the Inca rulers had fled from the Spaniards.

Gold objects found among Aztecs and Inca fueled the El Dorado myth 

The Spaniards sent so much gold and silver back to Spain that it destabilized the European economy, and served to fund the global empire of Carlos I of Spain and V of Germany.

The tradition of working with gold in the Americas goes back to at least 1500 BCE, when strips of gold foil were placed in a burial in Andahuaylas in Peru.

Gold was important to pre-Columbian civilizations, but interestingly not as currency. The few functional objects that have been found are heavily decorated and in a burial context. The value of gold was as symbol of the divine. It conferred rank to leaders and priests. Gold objects speak of ritual, of the supernatural and of transformation.

Tumbaga, an alloy of gold and copper with a low melting point, was widely used. Applying an acid to the surface of a completed piece dissolves the copper, leaving pure gold over a harder alloy base.

Beyond El Dorado at the British Museum

Many pre-Columbian objects are currently featured in an exhibit at the British Museum in collaboration with the Museo del Oro on view until March 2014. Some works can be seen online.

On a quest? Take a map 

Map of Nicolas Sanson, considered father of French cartography (1600-1667) showing Lake Parime consistent with Sir Walter Raleigh’s accounts. Source: Biblioteca Digital Mundial.

Maps are helpful for any search. Maps are also key for control, for access to resources, for power.

But areas of rampant vegetation and dangerous animals, seemingly endless rainy periods, rivers that seasonally flood their banks only to fall back to another course, and extreme changes in elevation don’t lend themselves to map-making.

Sir Walter Raleigh had access to Martínez’s story and was sure he could find the mythical city beyond the Orinoco. He had to turn back because of the onset of the rainy season in his first expedition. On return to England he wrote The Discovery of Guyana, which became the likely basis of the 17th and 18th century maps showing Lake Parime (in Arawak language) or Manoa (in Caribe).

However, there is no vast lake in the region, much less one harboring a city of gold. Alexander von Humboldt proposed in the late 18th century that Raleigh’s sources may have referred to Lake Amuku, which floods in the wet season.

Sometimes a mythical quest is just that

But just as most mythical destinations or objects have multiple meanings among those who seek, quests are usually about more than one thing. Raleigh was probably as interested in undermining Spanish authority in South America and beating the Spaniards to El Dorado as he was in finding it.

It didn’t work out so well for Raleigh. After returning from his second (unsuccessful) expedition to Guyana in 1616, where his son was killed, he was executed by James I.

What’s your El Dorado?

Whether you see it as the search for a desirable unattainable something or as a shameful chapter in western history, El Dorado is recognizable to most.

Do you have an El Dorado? What will you do to find it?


The universe was created last Thursday, and you did it

Some years ago my father, one of the most interesting people I know, created a list of arbitrary subjects, for debating or when conversation lulls. (He hates being bored.)

Me: What’s number 4, Last Thursdayism?

Him: The universe was created last Thursday.

Me (speechless)

Him: It was created chock-full of records of the non-existent past. You know: fossils, historical artifacts, ruins…

Me: But I remember things that happened longer than a week ago.

Him: Ready-made memories came as part of the (new) universe.

Me (walks away)

So much for a flagging conversation…

Since then, I discovered the Church of Last Thursday

They note in their creed that, You, the reader, are the Creator of the universe.

What caught my eye this time was the second-person point of view (POV)  of the doctrine. You created the world, but You don’t remember doing it.

Second-person POV is awkward in fiction

Probably because it addresses the reader directly. Fiction aims to draw us into the story, so we forget we’re reading. In its very directness, second-person POV can be exhortative. It tells the reader what they’ve done or thought. So if the reader isn’t engaged,  it can confront and alienate. Many find it bossy or presumptuous.

Italo Calvino used second-person POV in If on a winter’s night a traveller  (1979). This postmodern classic is clever and witty, as is all his work. But, while at first I was intrigued by the second-person POV, it eventually grew tiresome.

If the universe was created last Thursday…

Then Calvino’s book and the list of arbitrary subjects are among the many artifacts created at that time. Last Thursdayism is an extreme parody of the idea of a Young Earth.

Taking the Bible as the ultimate authority about all reality, the earth cannot be more than 10,000 years old.

Since the earth is young (according to the ultimate source), the scientific methods that determine age are obviously erroneous. (At least over long time periods, though more recent records may be accepted.)

But what if things that appear old were created to appear old

Then it’s impossible to use observations as evidence.

Adam and Eve (1533) by Lucas Cranach the Elder. Photo by Till Niermann via Wikimedia Commons.
Adam and Eve (1533) by Lucas Cranach the Elder. Photo by Till Niermann via Wikimedia Commons. Giovanni di Paolo gave Adam, Eve and even the angel a navel too.

However this radical position isn’t new, nor is it always meant in satire. In 1857, Philip Gosse  argued in Omphalos that the fossil record was created to make the world appear older. The title (the Greek word for navel) refers to the idea that God created Adam and Eve with navels to prove their human ancestry.

Artists usually represent Adam and Eve with navels, like in the 16th century painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder. Of course, that doesn’t constitute evidence.

Can we prove Last Thursdayism is wrong?

Last Thursdayism and Omphalism aren’t scientific premises, as they can’t be falsified— all evidence is tainted by definition. As Stephen Jay Gould said in The Flamingo’s Smile (1987):

Omphalos is the classical example of an utterly untestable notion, for the world will look exactly the same in all its intricate detail whether fossils and strata are prochronic or products of an extended history.

Last Thursdayism is a straw man argument because its exaggeration misrepresents the position it wishes to critique.

Last Thursdayism can be a little zen

Many Eastern philosophies note that the past is gone and the future may not arrive.

There is in each moment only that moment. Our compulsion to plan our next steps, to fantasize about future events or to worry, and the equally common tendency to ruminate about the past can get in the way of appreciating and living the present.

On the other hand, we can be considered a sum of what happened before, as famously expressed by William Faulkner (Requiem for a Nun, 1950):

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

But just maybe, we aren’t obligated by it.

It might not matter. The universe will end next Thursday. (Or in five minutes.)

What’s your experience with second-person POV? Any books where it really worked? Do you think Faulkner’s right? Do you ever fall into obsessive remembering or worrying? 

And, most importantly: where were YOU last Thursday?