Saturday, March 30, 2019

Can These Glasses Really Fix Color Blindness?

 We Put Them To The Test

It's not that I can't see any colors—I had actually lived most of my life without being a bit aware of my condition—but when I'm presented with one of those tests where a jumble of different colored dots supposedly spell out a specific number, I'm usually stumped. According to one such test, I likely have "mild deuteranomaly"—a form of color blindness that mostly interferes with my ability to detect various shades of red and green, and impacts around 6% of the male population. If you click this page and scroll down to the side-by-side picture of a photo and how it would look to somebody with "deuteranopic vision," they look almost indistinguishable to me.

So when I stumbled upon EnChroma, a brand of glasses that purports to correct for some forms of mild colorblindness, I was interested in seeing what I'd been missing. Had I been experiencing a pale reflection of the real world? My curiosity was especially piqued when I saw the various videos EnChroma posted online, showing the moment when color blind individuals put on these glasses for the first time. Their reactions range from excitement to tearful joy. Many feature folks crying after seeing the "real" color of leaves or a loved one's eyes for the first time (just check out the video below). Never mind the Matrix-y philosophical argument that "color" is less a physical fact than a construct created in our brains. I wanted that.

Colorblind dad experiences true color for the first time with EnChroma glasses

Colorblind Mar 15, 2015 4 min. 15 sec.
*UPDATE* follow up video

"In the simplest explanation, EnChroma’s glasses work by reestablishing the correct balance between signals from the three photopigments in the eye of the color deficient," Donald McPherson, Ph.D., a glass scientist who serves as EnChroma's cofounder and vice president of products, explains to me. 

"The eyewear does this by removing small slices of light from the visible spectra. At the cortical level, the neural machinery is intact and perfectly functioning in the color blind, so once the correct ratios entering the eye are reestablished, the neural mechanisms excite and the correct color can be seen and perceived."

In other words: Us color blind folks have an imbalance in the way we perceive light signals, so (as one example) some of us don't get as much green or red as the average person. These glasses selectively filter light in a way that the company claims corrects for this.

To make things more interesting, I recruited the help of my brother, who shares my color blindness. We thought it'd be particularly interesting to compare our experiences.

As soon as I tried on the glasses (there are indoor versions designed for looking at computer screens, as well as outdoors-oriented sunglass varieties), most objects looked like slightly more vibrant versions of themselves. It was only when I glanced at a familiar brick wall by my house that I became aware that things may be very different. This brick wall had always appeared brown to me. Now, it was a bright red.

"What color are those bricks?" I asked a friend.

"Red," they replied.

Cue record scratch.

This same experience repeated itself again and again. "What color is that?" I'd ask of things that I formerly knew to be brown. And the answer again and again: "Red", "Red," "Red."

"They seemed to spread out the red, brown, green color range; moving them from a lot of muddy mess to a number of distinct colors," says my brother, Eric. "It was pretty subtle for the most part—especially for the indoor lenses. I saw a bigger difference with the sunglasses."

EnChroma's glasses purport to change the way some color blind individuals see the world.

It should be stated that the EnChroma glasses do not "cure" color blindness. As vibrant as leaves and bricks now appear, when presented with a color blindness test, both my brother and I still fail it. And there's another major issue that needs to be addressed: These things ain't cheap. Non-prescription versions of EnChroma's color blindness glasses range from roughly $340 to $440. And having lived my entire life barely aware that I even had color blindness, it's hard to make the argument that my life is all that different now that I can suddenly see new hues of red and green. In other words: These are a luxury item.

But they are a luxury item that some folks will love. The videos of tearful users who suddenly see the world in a whole new way are undeniably powerful (I could seriously watch them all day). And if you're color blind and crave nothing more than to see your child's hair or eyes as others supposedly do, these glasses may be an indulgence worth exploring.

For more fun,  follow me on Twitter at @sethporges, or subscribe on Facebook.

I'm a New York-based writer and entrepreneur. I appear on a few shows on the Travel, Science, History, Discovery, and Nat Geo channels. I also write for numerous publications, including Forbes. As a writer, I'm interested in the intersection between technology, human experience, design, and culture. For more fun, you can follow me on Twitter: @sethporges, subscribe to me on Facebook.

Brian Sees Color! WAIT FOR IT!

Brian Willis Sep 23, 2017 9 min. 47 sec.
Brian gets a surprise gift of Enchroma sunglasses that lets him see colors for the first time!

If Doggerland Had Not Drowned

If Europe’s average temperatures had remained a few degrees cooler after the last glacial period 10,000 years ago, the existence of Doggerland would have been a reality in human history.  What impact would it have had on events as we know them?

Inhabitants of northwestern Europe will be familiar with this image from Google Maps.  The lands clustered around the North Sea enjoy a mild climate and are home to a small collection of developed nations which, over the course of their history, have shaped the rest of the world.

End of the Last Glacial Period

20,000 years ago vast ice sheets covered much of the area.  With so much water trapped in ice the sea level was almost 400 ft lower than it is today and average  temperatures were 4 to 5°C colder, forcing human populations to seek refuge further south.  15,000 years ago the climate began to warm and, as the ice sheets melted, humans started to repopulate the area.  Around 13,000 years ago the warming was suddenly interrupted.  The release of massive volumes of previously ice-bound fresh water affected ocean currents like the Gulf Stream and led to a sudden cooling period known as the Younger-Dryas, which lasted for around 1,500 years before the warming resumed.

By 10,000 years ago we can see from research by archaeologists like Bryony Coles and Vince Gaffney  that northwestern Europe looked something like this:

Doggerland’s Ecosystem

As well additional land around our familiar coastlines, the lower sea level reveals a low lying 9,000 square mile landmass called Doggerland – named after Dogger Bank, the large sandbank which currently sits in a shallow area of the North Sea off the east

coast of England (dogger being an old Dutch word for fishing boat).

Doggerland had a rich landscape of hills, rivers and lakes and a coastline comprising lagoons, marshes and beaches.  It had woodlands of oak, elm, birch, willow, alder, hazel and pine.  It was home to horses, aurochs, deer, elks and wild pigs.  Waterfowl, otters and beavers abounded in wetland areas and the seas, lakes and rivers teemed with fish.  It was probably the richest hunting and fishing ground in Europe at the time and had an important influence on the course of prehistory in northwestern Europe as maritime and river-based societies adapted to this environment.

Doggerland – image by Eugene Ch’ng

Then warming accelerated, the ice sheets rapidly melted and sea levels rose.  By around 8,500 years ago most of Doggerland was submerged beneath the North Sea and Britain was cut off from the European mainland.  Dogger Bank remained as an island before it too was flooded by a tsunami around 8,200 year ago, caused by a submarine landslide off the coast of Norway.

Climate Change through Human History

By 5,000 years ago average global temperatures reached their maximum level, being 1 to 2°C warmer than they are today.  During this period many of the world’s great ancient civilizations began and flourished around the Mediterranean area.  They would go on to influence the development of northwestern Europe, where Doggerland had long passed from memory.

Periods of cooling and warming have continued ever since.  Glaciers have advanced and retreated and sea levels have fallen and risen, but not with the dramatic variation seen around the Younger Dryas.  The period from 750 BC to 100 AD was warm, and saw the rise and expansion of the Roman Empire.  The period from 300 to 900 AD was cool and saw the decline of the Roman Empire and prompted mass migrations within northwestern Europe.  900 to 1200 AD was warm, allowing the Vikings to settle Greenland and Iceland and explore Vinland.  1550 to 1850 AD was the coldest period since the Younger Dryas and has been dubbed the Little Ice Age – though the average temperature in the Northern Hemisphere was only about 1 to 2°C lower than today.  The period since 1850 has been one of general warming.

If Doggerland Had Survived Climate Change

But for a few degrees variation of average temperature, say if the warming at the end of the Younger Dryas had been less rapid and the warm Gulf Stream had had less effect on northwestern Europe, the existence of Doggerland could still have been a reality today.  Northwestern Europe would be transformed from this:

To this:

The modern configuration of our major cities would vanish.  The sites of port cities such as Liverpool, Rotterdam and Bremerhaven would suddenly find themselves many miles inland.  Sites of capital cities such as London and Amsterdam which grew around major rivers, may find themselves in provincial backwaters as those rivers change course in the new landscape.

The Thames, Meuse, Scheldt and Rhine rivers will join and flow along what is now the bed of the English Channel before reaching the Atlantic Ocean.  The point of outflow of these rivers would be of massive strategic importance and the likely site of a major capital/port city.  Doggerland itself would have its own major river systems; analysis by sonar has found at least 10,000 miles of river channels.

For Doggerland to remain above sea level, the climate of northwest Europe would need to be cooler and drier.  Arctic ice sheets may well encroach as far south as the northern regions of Canada, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, in the same way that they still cover Greenland.

With the effects of the Gulf Stream blunted, there would be notable changes in the climate of the British Isles.  Winters would be around 5°C cooler, bringing the average December temperature in London to about 2°C.  In the drier conditions, England’s ‘green and pleasant land’, the ‘green, green grass’ of Wales and ‘the Emerald Isle’ of Ireland would be much less verdant.  The landscape of northern Scotland would possibly be tundra and year round ice.

Doggerland’s Impact on History

All of human history would be completely different.

The Mesolithic people who originally inhabited Doggerland 10,000 years ago would not have had to retreat from the advancing sea.  They would likely have stayed and multiplied in situ rather than redistributing their genes to the areas surrounding the North Sea.  By the same token, the persisting landbridge linking Europe together would have made population migration more free flowing – both internally within northwestern Europe and externally by migration/invasion to and from the east and the south.  The result would have been a much more complex genetic picture.  The effect would have been to erase virtually every human being born since then; the human population will have thrived, but every historical figure that we are familiar with, plus ourselves, our families and our ancestors, will never have been born.

The cultural impact of changing the movement of tribal groupings within northwestern Europe would be immediately evident in terms of language.  It is by no means obvious that the current Indo-European family of languages would come to dominate this altered world.  Or they may be Indo-European, but not as we know them.  All subsequent influences on modern European languages, especially on English, would occur differently.  The languages spoken in modern Doggerland and its neighbouring states may sound vaguely familiar to us, but we wouldn’t understand them.

The nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle of the Mesolithic would very likely have still given way to the more settled farming lifestyle that came in the Neolithic, but with less rainfall the pattern of agriculture in northwest Europe would have been different.  Successful cereal cultivation would have been more difficult than the keeping of grazing herds, so the forest clearances undertaken for growing crops would not have occurred in the same way leading to further changes in the geographic laydown of distinct territories occupied by different tribes.  Furthermore, Doggerland’s more sheltered, lower-lying peninsula may have been a more agreeable farming region than the windswept highlands of the British Isles, leaving them with a much lower population distribution.  Stonehenge, or something like it, may have been built on the plains of Doggerland rather than Salisbury Plain.

Stonehenge – image by  Simon Cassidy

The skills required to manufacture copper and then bronze would probably have transferred around Europe at a faster rate, usherring the Bronze Age into Britain earlier.  The accessible reserves of tin, required for making bronze, found in the modern areas of Devon and Cornwall would still exist, so there would still be a trade boom from the export of British tin across Europe.  What may change are the trade routes for exporting it.  From ancient ports in Devon and Cornwall it would be possible to hug the southern English coastline then navigate the Rhine deep inland without making any type of sea crossing.  The presence of Doggerland may generally hinder the acquisition of the seamanship skills and primitive maritime technology that would have been required to navigate around the North Sea area, though sea crossings from the south coast of England may still have been the preferred route for trade with areas around the west coast of France and the Iberian Peninsula.

Moving into recorded history, the changes caused by the presence of Doggerland become too complex to judge.  Would there still be a Roman Empire in a classical world where Doggerland hadn’t drowned?  Even if there was, it wouldn’t give rise to a Julius Caesar who crossed the English Channel twice in 55 and 54 BC to invade Britain.  The ‘barbarians’ of Doggerland would join those of Brittania, Germania and Gaul at the northern end of the Empire.  This may have led to the overstretch of occupying Roman forces in northwestern Europe and an earlier retreat back to the Mediterranean, or the construction of a ‘Hadrian’s Wall’ from Somerset to Norfolk to hem in the most troublesome elements.  Alternatively, these barbarians may have fully welcomed these Romans with open arms when they saw the benefits of their civilisation, prolonging the existence of this Western Roman Empire into the Middle Ages, as occurred with the Eastern Roman Empire.

The Centre of the Roman Town – image by  Peter Urmston

An alternative Dark Ages would not see the Jutes, Angles, and Saxons crossing the North Sea to settle a post-Roman Britain; their Völkerwanderung would have involved a land trek across southern Doggerland itself and may have stopped short there, as the cold climate that they were fleeing in Denmark would not have been any better in the British Isles.

Similarly, even if an alternative Norse people could flourish immediately beyond the southern extent of a Scandinavian ice sheet, their seafaring prowess and technology would be curtailed by the presence of Doggerland; also, the glaciation of Iceland, Greenland and Vinland would put them out of bounds for any Viking colonisation.  Any move into what would have become Normandy, northern England and Ireland would have also involved a movement by land across Doggerland.  No Viking settlement of Normandy would mean no Norman invasion of England in 1066 and so no Norman kings thereafter.

The alternative Middle Ages would be similarly unrecognisable.  Would Christianity and Islam, or variant religions, have arisen and shaped the world in the way that they did?  Would Europe have adopted a feudal system complete with peasants, lords and kings?  Would something like the French Revolution have gone on to overthrow it?

Would the Age of Discovery have begun when it did, or have happened at all?  The inhabitants of the British Isles may not have developed the maritime capability to establish a variant of the British Empire, now that they weren’t wholly an island people.  The landlocked Dutch certainly wouldn’t have had the ability to develop their global trade links, unless the coastlines of Doggerland became theirs by natural extension.  What impact would this have had on the European colonisation of America?  Without a York in England, there wouldn’t be a New York in the US (or even a New Amsterdam, without the original Dutch trading posts).  Would there have been a slave trade? How would civilizations in Africa, Asia and Australia have developed differently without European intervention, or alternatively with the imperial ambitions of a powerful Doggerland state and its mighty navy venturing forth into the Atlantic from the mouth of the conjoined Thames, Meuse, Scheldt and Rhine rivers?

Would the Industrial Revolution have happened in England in the 18th century?  Britain’s great deposits of coal and iron ore would still exist, but without northern England’s damp climate for the manufacturing of textiles, fast flowing streams as a source of power, and a British Empire to provide a source for raw materials and a marketplace for manufactured goods, would industrialisation have happened elsewhere at a different time?

Would the conditions leading to the major European wars of history still be in place and how would they play out in a theatre containing Doggerland?  If World War 1 was rerun, a German Imperial Navy and British Grand Fleet would be marginalised without the North Sea, but the control of Doggerland would be a strategic centre of gravity for any invading or defending land forces.  It may have been the plains of southern Doggerland that became pockmarked by high explosives, scarred by miles of trenches and the scene of the bloodiest battles in history.  In an alternative World War 2, there would have been little to prevent the momentum of a Blitzkrieg pushing all the way to the western coastlines of the UK.

Doggerland – the Northern Front?

Assuming that an alternative northwestern Europe managed to stabilise in a modern era and become the peaceful alliance of wealthy, industrialised states that we are familiar with, Doggerland would be a key economic player.  Rich deposits of oil and natural gas would still exist under its land and off its shores.  In our world, oil was found in the North Sea in 1965 and production started in 1967; 40 billion barrels of oil have been extracted since then and an estimated 30 billion barrels still remain.

The currently productive fields of oil (red) and natural gas (blue) have earned billions of petrodollars for the UK, Norway, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands.  Doggerland would be in for lion’s share of that revenue.

So whether the citizens of Doggerland today would be happily surfing the internet and watching satellite TV, or out gathering crops for some feudal overlord, or even clinging on for survival in a nuclear wasteland, their world would still be totally alien to us.  

Whatever their circumstances, they would no doubt be fretting about the threat of global warming and an advancing North Sea which, in our world, drowned their homeland over 8,000 years ago.
Only a few degrees of temperature separate us.

Friday, March 29, 2019

The Raven & the Snowy Owl

snowy owl and raven, a conversation between two birds on a golfcourse

john dunstan Feb 3, 2014 3 min.

Naturalist Bernd Heinrich, author of 'The Mind of the Raven", was nice enough to provide this description Hi John, The first thing to notice is that the owl is TOTALLY unimpressed. It's not scared in the least, and the raven has no aggrssive intentions, but starts out being just curious- like: "what the hell is This!" So it tests - tries to get a reaction. But the owl still stays totally nonchalent. At some point the raven then tries a different tactic- it puts on its "I'm a big guy" display of erect "ear" feathers- usually used to show status in the presence of potential superiors, but here used also with a bowing and wing-flaring,which is used in supplication if there is NOT going to be a challenge- so, yes, i think the raven was having fun, and then also starting to have some respect, because this big white thing was NOT going to cooperate and be its toy.

Meet the Rare Tiger Cubs Making Their Debut at Sydney Zoo

 BBC  March 29, 2019

Three rare Sumatran tiger cubs are being introduced to the public for the first time at the Taronga Zoo in Sydney. 

The 10-week-old cubs - one male and two females - are part of the critically endangered sub-species, which only has less than 400 wild tigers left on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

The little tigers were born to eight-year-old Kartika on 17 January, as part of a regional breeding programme for Sumatran tigers.

The rare tiger cubs making their debut at Sydney Zoo

Victoria Allum Mar 29, 2019  1 min. 3 sec.  (some audio problems with this clip)
These cute little tiger cubs were born at sydney zoo australia.

A Brief History of That Most Noble Tuber, the Potato

Rebecca Earle Brings a Little Humanity to a Humble Vegetable

Lit Hub via 3 Quarks Daily 

Those times when we grew gold, pure gold …

All 4,500 named varieties of potatoes trace their ancestry to the Americas. Wild potatoes grow along the American cordillera, the mountains that run from the Andes to Alaska. People living on its slopes have been eating potatoes for time out of mind. Stone tools and preserved potato peels show that wild potatoes were being prepared for food in southern Utah and south-central Chile nearly 13,000 years ago; similar evidence dates their domestication from at least 7800 BCE on the northern coast of Peru. They formed an important part of the diet of many of the cultures inhabiting the 9000 kilometers between Utah and Chile.

Together with foods such as quinoa and maize, they provided a robust, starchy backbone to cuisines also enriched with chile peppers, beans and other vegetables. Each variety can be propagated from a “mother potato.” She sounds like an ancient deity but in botany the term refers to the mundane tuber or seed potato that provides the genetic material from which additional plants are cultivated.

One difficulty with potatoes is that they are difficult to store. Anyone who has ever lost track of a bag of potatoes knows this. They have an unfortunate tendency to send forth a tangle of roots, and, worse, rot into a foul-smelling puddle. Andean peoples solved this problem by freeze-drying. Exposing potatoes to the intense cold of the high mountains transforms them into little fists of stone, immune to decay. The technique also neutralizes the poisonous glycoalkaloids present in some of the bitter varieties, allowing these to be eaten safely. If the potato-rocks are trampled underfoot like petrified grapes, it is possible to reduce them to a dry powder that lasts for years. This dried substance, chuño, captivated Spaniards when they first encountered it in the 16th century, and they invariably described in some detail how it is made. Europeans were however slow in adopting it themselves; it was left to industrial manufacturers in the 20th century to bring us Smash and other commercially produced instant mashed potatoes.

Because potatoes were an essential part of the daily diet in the Andean world, their cultivation was a matter of importance. Various rituals helped ensure an abundant harvest. One account from 16th-century Peru describes the festivities that marked the inauguration of the planting season in the mountain village of Lampa. Local dignitaries seated themselves on carpets to watch the proceedings. A procession of richly attired attendants accompanied the seed potatoes, which were carried by six men making music on drums. Events culminated with the sacrifice of a particularly beautiful llama, whose blood was immediately sprinkled on the potatoes. Comparable practices (not necessarily involving llama blood) persist to the present day. Spanish priests objected strongly to these ceremonies but were often powerless to prevent them.

The Andean writer Felipe de Guaman Poma de Ayala described the agricultural potato cycle in an extraordinary manuscript that he composed in the early 17th century, after the arrival of Europeans. The son of indigenous nobility, Guaman Poma was born shortly after the Spanish conquest of his homeland. Late in his life he was moved to recount the history that he had to some extent witnessed first-hand.

Guaman Poma’s New Chronicle, as he titled the 1,000-page text, offered a universal history of the world, from Adam and Eve, through the Inca monarchs, to the dismal period of Spanish rule, whose multiple evils Guaman Poma documented in detail. It also described the ritual calendars of both Christian and Incaic religions, and the agricultural tasks carried out each month. The chronicle is illustrated lavishly with Guaman Poma’s idiosyncratic and immensely appealing line drawings. Several show the labor required to cultivate the essential potato. Digging sticks in hand, a man and woman weed the field in the picture for June, while a second woman ports a heavy sack away for storage. Other drawings depict men and women at work sowing seed potatoes and tending the abundant plants.

No such imperial oversight was bestowed on potatoes.
  Unlike maize, which held a high status within the Inca state, potatoes were considered a lowly food, necessary but banal. Even in the potato’s omphalos they were viewed with some disdain. Along the Andes, maize was used to brew the all-important chicha or aqha, the corn beer that accompanied virtually every important political encounter. Potatoes played no comparable role in high diplomacy; for Andeans as for us, they were ordinary things. Guamon Poma contrasted the robust stature of maize eaters with puffy, effete villagers forced to subsist on dried chuño.

For these reasons, potatoes did not enjoy the intense state ritual lavished on the maize crop. The Inca himself participated every year in a symbolic maize-planting ceremony, to the accompaniment of music and song. Similar state-level festivities marked the maize harvest, and the intervening period was overseen by a team of priests who fasted throughout the planting season and kept track of the crop’s progress. In the sacred fields around the Inca capital, Cuzco, small gold replica cornstalks were interspersed among the growing maize, to “encourage” it. No such imperial oversight was bestowed on potatoes. Cultivated a village level, they were traded and consumed within more local orbits, their growth fostered by smaller rituals such as the one that took place centuries ago in Lampa, where the sprinkling of llama blood on seed potatoes distressed the Catholic cleric.

All potatoes nonetheless benefitted from the attention of the Potato Mother, Axomama, daughter of the earth goddess Pachamama, and sister to Saramama, the Maize Mother. As these names suggest, Andean potato language and cosmology are rich in feminine reproductive power. Plant breeders, perhaps unwittingly, replicate this vocabulary when they speak of the mother tubers from which all potato plants derive. Watching over the potato fields in the Andes—which scientists suggestively call the tuber’s “cradle area”—Axomama cares for her tuberous offspring. Together with her sisters and their all-powerful mother, Axomama controls the earth’s fertility, overseeing the growth of potatoes and other things necessary for sustenance. Household shrines to Pachamama and her fertile daughters balanced state-level neglect of potatoes. The veneration of this feminine dynasty long pre-dated the official rituals of the Inca empire, and persists to the present.

For Andean farmers, human history and human bodies were entangled with these plants and the broader universe. Beautiful or unusual potatoes were themselves miniature Potato Mothers, and all encapsulated the generative powers of the female body. “Corn and clay, potatoes and gold were linked together as emblems of female powers of creation,” writes the historian Irene Silverblatt.

Just as Abosch’s Potato 345 is at once a solid, earthly potato, an organic, living planet, and perhaps a human body, so a Potato Mother is the fecund mother plant used to breed up new generations of potatoes, and an ancient being in command of the earth’s powerful generative strength. Today Andean potato farmers coddle the skittish, feminine soil, hoping she’ll feel sweet enough to favor them with a good harvest. In the happier days before colonialism, they recall, “we grew gold, pure gold”: potatoes as golden nuggets, living stones.

The Moche, who lived along the northern coast of Peru in the first millennium CE, formed beautiful ceramic containers in the shape of potatoes. Moche potters often created realistic replicas of ordinary foodstuffs such as potatoes, or squash or maize. At the same time as they represented the elements of the mundane kitchen world these clay recreations alluded to the overarching spiritual universe that made all existence possible. In one vessel, four potatoes point to four corners of the universe.

They remind us that the story connecting humans to potatoes is a tale of violence as well as sustenance.
  Alongside such lovely earthenware vegetables Moche potters crafted disturbing vessels that meld human faces disfigured by cuts and slashes, missing lips and noses, with the form of a potato. A strange, bulbous figure looks back at us from one pot, its body formed from lumpy tubers. Three eyes stare out from its belly. Lacking lips, it can only grimace with its unnaturally wide mouth.

Redcliffe Salaman, the author of a monumental history of the potato first published in 1949, developed the theory that these pots depict the unfortunate victims of Andean harvest rituals. Some people, he surmised, were selected to represent the potato harvest. The more “eyes” a potato develops, the more shoots it sends out, which means it will produce more prolifically. Perhaps, in order to ensure a bountiful crop, these symbolic potato-people had additional eyes incised into their own bodies, or their lips excised to widen their mouths into another huge eye. Living Mr. Potato Heads, their faces became potatoes—people and potatoes superimposed to reveal their unexpected commonalities.

Anthropologists have questioned this interpretation, but that’s what I think of when viewing these strange pots. They remind us that the story connecting humans to potatoes is a tale of violence as well as sustenance.

The Great Hunger

“And where potato diggers are you still smell the running sore.”

In Ireland the connections between potatoes, people, sustenance and suffering run deep. The Great Famine of 1845 to 1848, which resulted in the death or emigration of a fifth of the population, marked Irish history. Potatoes arrived in Ireland in the sixteenth century, probably from Spain, and over the next centuries came to play an ever more important role in the diet of the Irish poor. The potato’s superlative power to convert earth and light into calories made it possible for entire families to live on the minute patches of land onto which the rural Irish were squeezed as commercial wheat, dairy and meat production expanded after the English colonized Ireland in the sixteenth century.

By the 1840s some 40 percent of the population subsisted almost entirely on potatoes, or potatoes with a bit of buttermilk if they possessed enough land to pasture a milch cow. Poor men in rural Ireland ate between three and five kilos of potatoes a day and little else. The varieties grown were as limited as this diet. While a single valley in the Andes might contain over a hundred different types of cultivated potato, most of the potatoes grown in 19th-century Ireland were a yellow-fleshed variety known as Irish Lumper. Monocultures are extremely vulnerable to disease, since a single pathogen can devastate the entire harvest. When Ireland’s potato crop failed in 1845, and again in 1846 and 1848, over a million people died.

The Famine was triggered by an outbreak of late blight (phytophthera infestans), a micro-organism probably originating in the Americas, but the magnitude of the calamity was greatly increased by the response of the British government, which viewed the crisis as a welcome opportunity to reshape Irish society. In the opinion of officials such as Charles Trevelyan, chief administrator at the Treasury in London, Ireland’s entire economic structure was an affront to modern capitalist practice.

Because it was possible (just) to live off them, potatoes allowed rural Irish families to evade the discipline of wage labor by remaining self-sufficient. The collapse of the potato economy would, he hoped, propel Irish smallholders off their tiny plots of land and into the ranks of the proletariat. This, Trevelyan believed, would an enormous improvement, well worth the “transient evil” of famine. It would also sweep away the inefficient and listless class of Irish landlords, whom the British held responsible for the catastrophic humanitarian crisis. The last thing the British government should do, from his perspective, was prop up this archaic system with aid to the stricken Irish. For liberals such as Trevelyan, the potato was an obstacle to modernity, a roadblock on the march towards economic rationality. It was the enemy of the state. “What hope is there for a nation which lives on potatoes?” he exclaimed in disgust.

Peeling potatoes in silence with his mother was, he declared in a 1987 sonnet, the closest bond they ever shared, a cold comfort to recall after her death.
  Trevelyan’s view that the potato was responsible for the immiseration of the Irish peasant was widely shared. It was this history, more than anything, that prompted the potato historian Redcliffe Salaman to declare the potato “the most perfect instrument for the maintenance of poverty and degradation.” Potatoes, fulminated the 19th-century social agitator William Cobbett, were a damnable crop because they kept the Irish alive to be exploited by landlords. They were the root “of slovenliness, filth, misery, and slavery.” They reduced men to the state of animals, or, actually, potatoes. In Cobbett’s opinion, Irish peasants had become virtually indistinguishable from the potatoes they lived off. The miserable, dirty hovels in which the Irish sheltered differed little from underground potato beds. The lumpen Irish peasant and the Lumper potato were virtually one and the same.

“Commonalities between humans and potatoes” indeed.

But in Ireland the potato is not a signifier only of death, and the cruel mercies of Trevelyan’s brave new world of waged labor. It is also a symbol of nourishment, of sustenance, of the bonds that link families together, of Axomama and her sustaining offspring. The great Irish poet Seamus Heaney captured both aspects of the potato. Born in 1939, Heaney grew up on a small farm in Northern Ireland. The rhythms of rural life shaped his poetry, as did Ireland’s folkways and its troubled history. Heaney alluded to all of these influences in the lecture delivered in 1995 when he accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Heaney’s much-lauded poetry captures the potato’s complex resonance in Ireland. In his poems, potatoes signal his own past, connecting him to his parents and grandparents. Preparing potatoes with his mother, watching his father dig a potato bed, become re-enactments of his own lineage, his own rootedness in Irish history, as well as reminders of his sometimes-uncomfortable relationship with that past. Peeling potatoes in silence with his mother was, he declared in a 1987 sonnet, the closest bond they ever shared, a cold comfort to recall after her death. Potatoes in Heaney’s poetry transmit the steady rhythm of the everyday. A basket of new potatoes counterbalances the gashes carved in Irish society by political violence. In “After a Killing,” the sight of a young girl shopping for vegetables hints that, like it or not, life will continue despite the omnipresence of death. Equally powerfully, potatoes bespeak the painful history of the Famine.

“At a Potato Digging” (1966) evokes the Famine, and also the potato’s inescapable centrality to life itself. The poem is shaped by a constant elision between people and potatoes. It begins with a description of a modern harvest. Despite the century that has passed since Black ’45, the first year of the Famine, its shadow looms over the exhausted workers, who in stooping down to gather in the potatoes, bow in homage to the dark earth, the “black Mother” of potatoes and of life and death:


Of fear and homage to the famine god
Toughen the muscles behind their humbled knees,
Make a seasonal altar of the sod.

No nourishing Axomama this hard deity.

The second stanza describes the living, pulsing potatoes themselves. The newly harvested potatoes are slippery, damp newborns nurtured by their black Earth Mother, who


knots of potatoes (a clean birth)
whose solid feel, whose wet inside
promises taste of ground and root. 

While Heaney cursed the potato as a bitch mother, and Andean potato farmers honored the potato mother, Neruda hailed the potato as a father.

Like subterranean rabbits the fecund potatoes mature in a “hutch of clay” under the earth. Just as the Moche perhaps incised potato eyes into living human faces, Heaney makes the potatoes into human heads. They are “live skulls, blind eyed,” sightless but animate. After the harvest they lie stored in long clay pits that are all too resonate of human graves. Potatoes and people alike are born from the dark earth and return to it.
  The tomb-like storage pits presage the Famine, when “stinking potatoes fouled the land.” The new potatoes, once “sound as stone,” have rotted in their clay burial place. Reversing the image of the potato as a living skull, the starving Irish become themselves “live skulls, blind eyed.” “Wild higgledy skeletons,” they are pecked to death by hunger as the potatoes lie dead in the “bitch earth” who has refused to nourish her people. The final stanza returns to the present, as the resting harvesters, “dead-beat” but at least alive, spill “libations of cold tea, scatter crusts” on the black and faithless earth, still propitiating their fickle mother with these offerings. The poem unites past and present, people and potatoes, all dependent on the fertile but unreliable body of the earth herself. Heaney’s black earth Mother, like Axomama, links the potato to the mysterious reproductive powers of women’s bodies, and indeed to all human bodies.

Heaney’s poetry speaks to the commonalities between people and potatoes noted by Kevin Abosch. It seems fitting that Irish poet and Irish potato have both been the objects of Abosch’s photography. Abosch’s portrait of Heaney was made in the same year as his photograph of Potato 345. Each appears silhouetted against a starless black sky, complete and undeniable in their individuality.

Father Potato

The resonance between families, history and the mundane world of the potato is evoked with equal power in the work of another poet whom Heaney admired: the Chilean Pablo Neruda. Heaney shared with Neruda a commitment to poetry that explored the everyday, functional objects that populate our lives. Like Heaney, Neruda valued “the used surfaces of things, the wear that hands give to things.” His poems consistently honored both worn surfaces and the nameless workers whose lives he sought to resurrect.

Neruda’s childhood was precarious; his father barely eked out a living as a railwayman and his son’s ambitions to write poetry enraged him. A poet Neruda nonetheless became, winning fame and admiration first for his unabashed celebration of sexual desire in Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, and later for his ability to condense into poetry an entire universe of natural beauty, human struggle, the dignity of labour, and the transcendence of love. Like Heaney, he was awarded a Nobel Prize for Literature.

In the 1950s Neruda began work on a series of poems that he called “elementary odes.” Neruda had recently joined the Chilean Communist Party, formalizing a long-standing inclination. In keeping with his newly affirmed political convictions, he began experimenting with less grandiose forms of poetry, which would reflect the material reality of life, rather than exploring metaphysics and the aesthetic avant garde. The elementary odes were the result. Many of them focus specifically on the vigor and authenticity of working-class culture. As one critic put it, they elevate “the commonplace and the everyday to the dignity of poetic treatment.” 

They were written in the midst of personal turmoil; Neruda’s wife had recently learned of his affair with Matilde Urrutia, a Chilean singer who had been hired to care for him when he fell ill during a stay in Mexico. The odes are nonetheless mostly joyful in tone, celebrating the mundane pleasures of everyday life. Food is a recurrent theme; Neruda wrote odes to onions, tomatoes, olive oil (“the celestial key to mayonnaise”), and bread, as well as potatoes. All are praised as simple, honest foods eaten by ordinary people.

While Heaney cursed the potato as a bitch mother, and Andean potato farmers honored the potato mother, Neruda hailed the potato as a father. “Ode to the Potato” opens with a declaration of the poet’s lineage: he is the native son of the Chilean potato. Playing off the similarity of the South American terms for potato (papa) and father (papá), Neruda insists on calling the potato papa rather than patata, as it is known in Spain. “Potato, I call you ‘potato-father’ and not patata,” he proclaimed. 

The ode sets out explicitly the shared heritage that links Neruda to the honest, New World potato. Addressing the potato, the poet explains that “you were not born a pure Spaniard, you are dark like our skin. We are Americans, potato-father, we are Indians.” Neruda and the potato are members of the same South American family. Later stanzas explain how their common mother carefully planted her potatoes in a soft, moist nest in the earth, where they sheltered, little treasures, the true wealth of the Indies. When hordes of acquisitive conquistadors ravaged the land, they found not golden goblets, but potatoes, a different sort of bounty.

Praising the potato as the “enemy of hunger,” honored by all nations, Neruda’s ode celebrates its quiet modesty. Our potato-father is content to rest honorably in the earth, anticipating no great fanfare. “You are not expecting my song, because you are deaf and blind, and buried,” Neruda admitted, before musing whether the hot oil of a frying pan might provoke the potato to break its silence. Potatoes for Neruda, as for Heaney, are our close relatives, and their suffering is our suffering.

Ill with prostate cancer, Neruda died in 1973, twelve days after the military coup that brought Augusto Pinochet to power. It is probable that he was murdered on the orders of the new regime, which despised his political views and his poetry. Shortly afterwards Neruda’s friend, the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, composed an “Epistle to Neruda” to honor his passing. It concludes:

But today I see Neruda—
he’s always right in the centre
and, not faltering,
he carries his poetry to the people
as simply and calmly
as a loaf of bread.

Or a potato, Yevtushenko might have written.

Rebecca Earle is Professor in History at the University of Warwick, UK. She is the author of three books, including The Body of the Conquistador: Food, Race and the Colonial Experience in Spanish America, 1492-1700 (Cambridge University Press, 2012), which was winner of the Conference on Latin America History 2013 Bolton-Johnson Prize, and The Return of the Native: Indians and Mythmaking in Spanish America, 1810-1930 (Duke University Press, 2008), which was Winner of the Conference on Latin American History's 2008 Bolton-Johnson Prize Honorable Mention. She has written about the history of food for The Conversation, BBC History Magazine, The Independent, and The Sunday Telegraph, among other publications.

The Castle of Zafra

In the beloved TV series Game of Thrones, young Ned Stark is seen clashing swords with the henchmen of Targaryen in front of a spectacular castle known as the Tower of Joy. Like many locations in this immensely popular TV series, the Tower of Joy is an actual castle, albeit with a different name. Its real name is Castle of Zafra, and it is located in the Spanish province of Guadalajara.

Castle of Zafra stands on a rocky outcrop in the Caldereros mountain range, at an altitude of 1,400 meters. It is the only building for miles around. The entire area is characterized by sloping meadows interspersed with heavily-eroded sandstone outcrops, one of which is occupied by the castle. The castle tower, known as the Tower of Homage, and the other buildings are enclosed by a wall that runs around the periphery of the entire outcrop. Despite its small size, the castle is thought to have been capable of accommodating as many as 500 people.

Castle of Zafra
Photo credit: Diego Delso/Wikimedia

The castle was constructed between the 12th and the 13th centuries, but this region and the rock in particular has traces of habitation dating back to the Bronze and Iron Ages. There may have been an earlier structure built by the Romans occupying the rock on which the castle now stands. We also know for sure that a fortress stood here during the time of the Visigothic Kingdom in the 8th century. The Moors also built a fortress here that was conquered in 1129 by the Christian kingdoms of the north of Spain.

The present castle was built by the Kingdom of Aragon to serve as one of its key defensive position in the south of the territory. Its defenses were put to the test in 1222 when King Fernando III of Castile tried to storm the castle and failed. The castle remained unconquered until the end of the 15th century when its significance as a defensive fortification ended and it began to fall into disrepair.
The castle was in a completely ruined state when an individual bought it from the state in the 1970s. For the next thirty years, the owner spent most of his fortune repairing and rebuilding the castle to its current state. 

Castle of Zafra
Photo credit: Diego Delso/Wikimedia

Castle of Zafra
Photo credit: Joaquin Ossorio Castillo/

Castle of Zafra
Photo credit: Joaquin Ossorio Castillo/

Castle of Zafra
Photo credit: Amadeo AV/

Castle of Zafra
Photo credit: Amadeo AV/

Castle of Zafra
Photo credit: Amadeo AV/

Vardo: The Opulent Caravans of The Gypsies

gypsy wagon vardo
                                                                                                  image by Toby Charlton-Taylor/Flickr

Living in trailer homes is largely an American culture, but the history of mobile homes originated in Europe.

The first trailer home owners were the travelling showmen who spent most of their lives on the road. Instead of pitching tent wherever they went, they had horse-drawn wagons where they cooked, ate, and slept. Later, around the middle of the 19th century, these caravans were adopted as living quarters by the Romani people, commonly called the Gypsies. These people originated from northwestern India, a country their forefathers left some 1,500 years ago and settled in different parts of the world, but mostly in Europe and Mid-West Asia. In the last hundred years or so, the Romani people have also spread to the Americas.

The Romanis call their wagons vardo, originating from the Ossetic word “vurdon” for cart. They are smaller than the larger transport wagons the circus troupes used, and thus required fewer horses to pull. They are often highly decorated, intricately carved, and brightly painted. Some are even gilded.

The Gypsies took great pride in their homes on wheels, but as the vardo evolved and became more ornate, they became more a showpiece than practical sleeping quarters. Indeed, few Gypsies actually slept in them, preferring instead to sleep in tents or beneath the wagon itself. “They also lacked sentiment in times of need, having no hesitation in selling them or 'chopping' (exchanging) them for something else,” writes historian Janet Keet-Black. Yet, when the owner died it was the custom to burn all his belongings, including the vardo, for the Romanis believed that a dead person’s possessions should not be sold. Money and jewellery, however, was left to the family.

Vardos proliferated in the late 19th and early 20th century. This period is often affectionately called “the wagon time” by Romanichal travellers. The wagon time lasted some 70 years, when a combination of economic factors and social upheaval, not to mention the First World War, brought the practice to an end.

Today, there are only a few original vardos in existence, mostly in museums and in the hands of private collectors.

Vardos are categorized into six main styles—Brush wagon, Reading, Ledge, Bow Top, Open lot, and Burton. The general design evolved over time and were named after the home's owners, for their traditional style (Ledge), for the town of its construction (Reading), or for the name of the builder.

gypsy wagon vardo
Photo credit: Anguskirk/Flickr

gypsy wagon vardo
Photo credit: ScottMurph/

gypsy wagon vardo
Photo credit: Anguskirk/Flickr

gypsy wagon vardo
Photo credit: Anguskirk/Flickr

gypsy wagon vardo
Photo credit: Chris Hourcle/Flickr

gypsy wagon vardo
Photo credit: Chris Hourcle/Flickr

gypsy wagon vardo
Photo credit: M Zemek/

gypsy wagon vardo
A contemporary Gypsy wagon seen on the road in central Slovenia. Photo credit: dejan_k/