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A Brief History of Insect Control

November 17, 2014 | by

Long before environmentalism, Charles Valentine Riley had a problem with pesticide.

Spraying the capitol with pesticide, 1886.

In science, good ideas often trump great ones. Take, for instance, Charles Valentine Riley, the most prescient scientist of whom you’ve never heard. The man had a great idea. Then came Leland Howard, his prickly and calculating successor. He had the good one.

These men were late nineteenth-century entomologists, a humble vocation by the standards of the day. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture—new then, having been formed in 1862—asked them to accomplish something not so humble: they were to learn everything there was to know about agricultural pests, and then to destroy them. The intended beneficiaries of this project were panicked farmers whose fields were being decimated by insect invasions. Riley and Howard were charged with exterminating the very creatures they studied. If the irony registered, they never said so.

Riley was the older of the two gentlemen. He’d assumed leadership of the U.S. Entomological Commission in 1876 after spearheading the country’s first Grasshopper Commission. His big idea—the great one—was to merge the observational folk-wisdom of everyday farmers with the financial largesse of the federal government to help insects kill insects. Biological control, we now call it. If the concept of exterminating insects with insects seemed moony, American farmers were game. They’d seen it happen on the ground and they were desperate. Between 1860 and 1900—a time when agriculture began to pursue high-yielding monoculture in earnest—armies of chinch bugs, locusts, San Jose scales, boll weevils, Colorado potato beetles, and Hessian flies capitalized on the smorgasbord, moving steadily eastward and shredding the foodscape with biblical power. One Illinois farmer reported that there were so many locusts in his fields that “the ground seemed to be moving.” Pick up an agricultural report from the period—you know, just pick one up!—and you’ll find that an apocalyptic strain of agrarian rhetoric echoed across America’s amber waves of grain.

I’ve read nearly every word Riley wrote, at least every available report and letter, and my overwhelming impression is that the guy was one charming cat. He rode his bike all over D.C. for exercise. He had six kids and doted on them. Like many entomologists, he was a brilliant illustrator of insects. When he taught entomology classes at the University of Missouri in the 1870s, he was so thrilled to be talking shop that he would draw insects on the board with both hands at once. He grew his hair into a cascade of curls and his students adored him. I have no hard proof, but there was something about Riley’s zest for life in general—and for insect life in particular—that dissuaded him from the easy answer to the insect problem, the one that the power brokers of the day wanted: chemicals. Read More »

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Berlin’s Boulevard of Broken Dreams, Part 2

November 7, 2014 | by

Life on the Karl-Marx-Allee. Read Part 1 here.

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Karl-Marx-Allee Block C South, 1951.

Philipp and Quentin live in an apartment next to the Rose Garden, in Block D North, a comely segment of the Karl-Marx-Allee designed by Kurt Leucht.

“It takes time to get used to the style of the buildings,” Quentin tells me. “It’s so massive. There’s nothing delicate in the style.” He points to the oversized street lamps from his window. The lampposts dwarf the cars parked beside them; the lights alone are taller than a seven-year-old child. Life disappears in this enormity. “If you’re sitting on the grass, you don’t see the insects. If you look out the window, you see everything.”

The apartment’s former tenant, Philipp tells me, spent some six decades here and just recently passed away. In the kitchen, Philipp shows me the “refrigerator” that tenant used in the days of the GDR: a wooden cupboard under the window, built into the building’s thick walls. It was the coolest space in the room.

When they were built, the buildings of the Stalinallee were—with their elevators, gas heating, warm water, and private bathrooms—considered luxurious. But the GDR faced a severe lack of resources: certain innovations and foreign-produced goods, like automobiles and refrigerators were produced and acquired at a stiflingly slow pace. Over time, the immaculate facades of the Karl-Marx-Allee fell off. The GDR was coming apart, and so were its buildings. The ceramic tiles began to drop—some fifty thousand square meters of them were lost. There were no replacements, and even if there had been, there were no volunteers and hardly any workers to put them up. Read More »

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Berlin’s Boulevard of Broken Dreams, Part 1

November 6, 2014 | by

Life on the Karl-Marx-Allee, Block C South. Read Part 2 here.

© WalcherBild Fridolin Walcher 2014

In the late eighties, the German Democratic Republic was bleeding people like money; the Iron Curtain was coming apart at the seams. November 9, 1989, would be the turning point, the evening on which the Socialist party allowed what had once been unimaginable.

In Block C South of the Karl-Marx-Allee, Otto Stark sat in the quiet of his apartment, tuning in to the historic national blunder that precipitated the fall of the Berlin Wall: one of the few international press conferences in East Germany’s history, with one very ill-prepared party spokesman, Günter Schabowski, at the microphone.

Schabowski: (reading from a memo) “Permanent departures can be made through all border crossing points of the GDR to the [West German] Federal Republic of Germany. This eliminates the temporarily allowed issuance of appropriate permits in foreign missions of the GDR or permanent exit with the identity card of the GDR via third countries.” […]
Reporter: When does this take effect?
Schabowski: (leafing through his papers) To my knowledge this takes effect immediately … without delay.

Further along the Karl-Marx-Allee, people were buzzing at the Kino International. They had come from the West to see the first—and what would be the only—gay film of the GDR. Later, these West German visitors would witness, by accident, the historic event, as thousands of East Berliners gathered at the border-control points and the confused guards finally relented. Thousands of East Berliners strolled through the gates of the Berlin Wall, their blue GDR passports waving in the air. Scaling the Wall, sitting on the Wall, ecstatic reunions between families after three decades apart.

But things were quiet in the Stark household on the Karl-Marx-Allee. Mr. Stark, the famous actor and later director of the Cabaret Distel, and his wife, the famous actress Ilse Maybrid, did not go out that evening: they would wait until the next day to see for themselves what was going on at the Wall. Otto had had a long day; it was nearing midnight when the gates opened, he was already in his late sixties, he’d just returned home from work. The Starks held a privileged position in the GDR. They were a prominent couple, they traveled to the West on professional engagements, and they lived in a penthouse on the showcase boulevard—something reserved for celebrities and the “best workers,” as Otto Stark, now ninety-two, tells me from his living room of fifty-four years. The same living room in which he and his wife first watched the collapse of the GDR on television, twenty-five years ago this Sunday.

Less than one month before, tanks had rolled down the Karl-Marx-Allee for the fortieth anniversary of the GDR. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had hugged General Secretary Erich Honecker, the two sides coming together after years of stubborn disagreement. “If we stay behind, life will punish us immediately,” Gorbachev told Honecker that day. The last Day of the Republic, the last military parade on the crumbling Karl-Marx-Allee. Read More »

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The Poet Bandit

November 3, 2014 | by

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Black Bart, the outlaw poet.

November 3, 1883, marked the beginning of the end for Charles Earl Bowles, aka C. E. Bolton, aka Black Bart the Poet, aka the very picture of delinquent suavity. Bowles was a legendary nineteenth-century stagecoach robber known for the poetry he left at the scenes of his heists. Over the course of nearly a decade, he pulled off some two-dozen robberies hither and yon, concentrating on Wells Fargo stages throughout Oregon and Northern California. He made off with thousands of dollars a year plus the many intangibles that come with being a criminal mastermind, and he never once fired his gun or rode a horse.

Many fragments of his poetry survive, but apparently only two verses can claim Bowles as their author with full certainty. (Understandably, the guy had a lot of copycats.) Both of these merit close exegesis. The first was found at the scene of an August 1877 stagecoach holdup:

I’ve labored long and hard for bread,
For honor, and for riches,
But on my corns too long you’ve tread,
You fine-haired sons of bitches.

And the second verse, found at the site of Bowles’s July 25, 1878, holdup:

Here I lay me down to sleep
To wait the coming morrow,
Perhaps success, perhaps defeat,
And everlasting sorrow.
Let come what will, I’ll try it on,
My condition can’t be worse;
And if there’s money in that box
‘Tis munny in my purse.

Bowles had a pretty good reputation, as far as highwaymen go. People referred to him as a gentleman bandit, a man of sophistication. A police report described him: “A person of great endurance. Exhibited genuine wit under most trying circumstances, and was extremely proper and polite in behavior. Eschews profanity.” Read More »

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Too Much of a Good Thing

October 17, 2014 | by

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An ad by Mensing & Stecher, ca. 1870.

Fact: two hundred years ago today, eight Londoners drowned in a flood of beer.

I don’t know what else to say.

I guess I can tell you a little about it: how it began at the Meux and Company Brewery on Tottenham Court Road, where an enormous vat ruptured, unleashing more than a hundred thousand imperial gallons of beer; how the force of that gushing beer apparently caused the brewery’s other vats to rupture, thus sending some 1,470,000 liters of beer into the streets; and how that beer washed through a nearby home, killing a mother and daughter as they took tea. The Times reported that “inhabitants had to save themselves from drowning by mounting their highest pieces of furniture.” And the story goes that that the beer deluged right through a living room where a wake was in progress, killing a few mourners with intoxicating irony.

When I learned of the flood, my first question wasn’t “How many people died?” It was “What kind of beer was it?” And according to no less reputable a source than FunLondonTours.com, the answer is porter. Porters tend to be pretty strong, so anyone who managed to gulp down a few mouthfuls as he or she was enveloped by the beer wave … well, you can see where I’m going with this.

For more on the flood, check out Atlas Obscura.

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Very Trustworthy Witnesses

October 17, 2014 | by

The many deaths of Ambrose Bierce.

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A portrait of Bierce by John Herbert Evelyn Partington.

Ambrose Bierce’s old house in St. Helena, California, surrounded by the vineyards of Napa Valley, is in good repair. Eight stout sequoia trunks flare outward from a fused base in the front yard. An hour and a half drive to the south, in San Francisco, is a short knife-thrust of an alley in North Beach named Ambrose Bierce. It runs behind the old San Francisco Examiner building, where Bierce worked as a columnist for the young William Randolph Hearst.

This year marks the centennial of the presumed death of Bierce, Civil War soldier, journalist, and author of The Devil’s Dictionary, a wickedly witty book of social commentary disguised as definitions. He’s still best known for his fiction: his fastidiously plotted horror tales and the dark, vivid stories—including the often anthologized “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”—that drew from his early war experiences at Chickamauga, Shiloh, and Kennesaw Mountain, where he was wounded. In 1913, at the age of seventy-one, the famous writer saddled up a horse and rode into Mexico, not speaking any Spanish, in order to cover the Mexican Revolutionary War, perhaps to participate in it, perhaps to interview Pancho Villa. As newspaper accounts of his time reported, he disappeared without a trace.

More accurately, there were too many traces to follow and World War I soon broke out, so a thorough search for Bierce was postponed. In his disappearing act—and some thought it was an act meant to cloak his suicide or his removal to a sanitorium—Bierce becomes a bit like one of the ghostly characters in Mexico’s most celebrated novel, Pedro Paramo, which is narrated by a man who doesn’t realize he’s dead. Or like the protagonist in Bierce’s own story “An Inhabitant of Carcosa,” who stumbles across his own tombstone. According to witnesses, Bierce died over and over again, all over Mexico. There is even a cenotaph for him in the sleepy mining town of Sierra Mojada, in the Chihuahua Desert. Curiously, although his body doesn’t lie under it, it is the most distinguished marker for any of Bierce’s immediate family. Back in St. Helena, his two sons and his wife are buried in unmarked graves. Read More »

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