Smithsonian Craft Show

Some of the crafts we carry seem museum quality to us, but we offer them in the context of commerce.

We would love to attend this show at the Smithsonian, primarily to see the work of Jessica Beels, whose work is showing in the Mixed Media and Paper section of the Show. Her website is full of reasons to see more of her work.

Nowhere on that site do  we see works like these three bird figures. We favor birds in art, wherever it may be, and when the medium stretches boundaries as these do, all the more interesting.

Have Books – Will Travel

A Pack Horse Librarian returning over the mountain side for a new supply of books (Part of Goodman-Paxton Photographic Collection, Kentucky Digital Library)

We’ve long held the belief that librarians are among the real life Super Heroes of society.  The history of the Pack Horse Librarians may be new to us, but without doubt, they deserve a pinnacle spot in the pantheon.

There are both rural and urban communities in our country that continue to qualify as “at risk” related to the official support received for the public educational and cultural services that libraries represent.  Some of the New Deal programs that helped millions of Americans survive the Great Depression seem advisable in the face of  administrations that turn their backs on libraries and other equivalent cultural elements that helped make the country great.


Horse-Riding Librarians Were the Great Depression’s Bookmobiles

During the Great Depression, a New Deal program brought books to Kentuckians living in remote areas

Pack Horse Librarians start down Greasy Creek to remote homes of mountaineers anxious for books. (Part of Goodman-Paxton Photographic Collection, Kentucky Digital Library)

Their horses splashed through iced-over creeks. Librarians rode up into the Kentucky mountains, their saddlebags stuffed with books, doling out reading material to isolated rural people. The Great Depression had plunged the nation into poverty, and Kentucky—a poor state made even poorer by a paralyzed national economy—was among the hardest hit.

The Pack Horse Library initiative, which sent librarians deep into Appalachia, was one of the New Deal’s most unique plans. The project, as implemented by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), distributed reading material to the people who lived in the craggy, 10,000-square-mile portion of eastern Kentucky. The state already trailed its neighbors in electricity and highways. And during the Depression, food, education and economic opportunity were even scarcer for Appalachians.

They also lacked books: In 1930, up to 31 percent of people in eastern Kentucky couldn’t read. Residents wanted to learn, notes historian Donald C. Boyd. Coal and railroads, poised to industrialize eastern Kentucky, loomed large in the minds of many Appalachians who were ready to take part in the hoped prosperity that would bring. “Workers viewed the sudden economic changes as a threat to their survival and literacy as a means of escape from a vicious economic trap,” writes Boyd.

This presented a challenge: In 1935, Kentucky only circulated one book per capita compared to the American Library Association standard of five to ten, writes historian Jeanne Cannella Schmitzer,. It was “a distressing picture of library conditions and needs in Kentucky,” wrote Lena Nofcier, who chaired library services for the Kentucky Congress of Parents and Teachers at the time. Continue reading

Plastics Conservation Science

Dr. Odile Madden, of the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles, holding a piece of degrading plastic for use in trying out new methods of preservation. Credit Melissa Lyttle for The New York Times

The irony of the need to conserve aging national treasures or works of art configured from plastics and other petroleum-based materials in the time of the “Pacific Vortex” and other plastic-created environmental disasters is difficult to miss. It never would have occurred to any of us that a field called “Plastics Conservation Science” has any need to exist.

And yet, it does…

These Cultural Treasures Are Made of Plastic. Now They’re Falling Apart.

Museum conservators are racing to figure out how to preserve modern artworks and historical objects that are disintegrating.

The custodians of Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit at the National Air and Space Museum saw it coming. A marvel of human engineering, the suit is made of 21 layers of various plastics: nylon, neoprene, Mylar, Dacron, Kapton and Teflon.

The rubbery neoprene layer would pose the biggest problem. Although invisible, buried deep between the other layers, the suit’s caretakers knew the neoprene would harden and become brittle with age, eventually making the suit stiff as a board. In January 2006, the Armstrong suit, a national treasure, was taken off display and stored to slow the degradation.

Of an estimated 8,300 million metric tons of plastic produced to date, roughly 60 percent is floating in the oceans or stuffed in landfills. Most of us want that plastic to disappear. But in museums, where objects are meant to last forever, plastics are failing the test of time.

“It breaks your heart,” said Malcolm Collum, chief conservator at the museum. The Armstrong suit’s deterioration was arrested in time. But in other spacesuits that are pieces of astronautical history, the neoprene became so brittle that it shattered into little pieces inside the layers, their rattling a brutal reminder of material failure.

Art is not spared either, as Georgina Rayner, a conservation scientist at Harvard Art Museums, showed at the American Chemical Society’s national meeting in Boston this month.

Claes Oldenburg’s “False Food Selection,” a wooden box containing plastic models of foods like eggs and bacon, a banana and an oatmeal cookie, now appears to be rotting. The egg whites are yellowing, while the banana has completely deflated.

In museums, the problem is becoming more apparent, Dr. Rayner said in an interview: “Plastics are reaching the end of their lifetimes kind of now.”

Of all materials, plastics are proving to be one of the most challenging for conservators. “I find plastics very frustrating,” said Mr. Collum. Because of the material’s unpredictability and the huge variation in forms of deterioration, he said, “it’s just a completely different world.”

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Last Search for the Jamaican Golden Swallow

Spoiler alert: the search occurred about three years ago. We didn’t find any Golden Swallows.

If you were a regular visitor to this site in the first half of 2015, you probably remember the slew of posts we had on the Smithsonian Institution’s expedition to Jamaica to search for the subspecies of Golden Swallow (a type of bird, in case that needs clarification). The only other known population of this species is on the island of Hispaniola, in the countries of Haiti and Dominican Republic, but the Jamaican population hadn’t been seen in about thirty years, and Justin, John and I were tasked with scouring the final remote areas of the Jamaican mountains that hadn’t been rigorously checked yet.

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“Arks of the Apocalypse”

U.S. National Ice Core Laboratory, Lakewood, Colo. photo credit: Spencer Lowell for The New York Times

Thanks again to the New York Times for highlighting the global nature of this scientific “call to arms” to save not only data, but genetic and organic material as a back-up plan for future generations. From the Svalbard Global Seed bank in Norway, to sperm banks for coral, endangered wildlife, and even glacial ice – these archives are meant to provide both a life line to the future and answers about the past.

The fragility of each project is evident as Science itself has come under attack from current public policy, which doesn’t appear to see the irony of their denial in the face of facts about climate change.

It was a freakishly warm evening last October when a maintenance worker first discovered the water — torrents of it, rushing into the entrance tunnel of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a storage facility dug some 400 feet into the side of a mountain on a Norwegian island near the North Pole. A storm was dumping rain at a time of year when the temperature was usually well below freezing; because the water had short-circuited the electrical system, the electric pumps on site were useless. This subterranean safe house holds more than 5,000 species of essential food crops, including hundreds of thousands of varieties of wheat and rice. It was supposed to be an impenetrable, modern-day Noah’s ark for plants, a life raft against climate change and catastrophe.

A few Norwegian radio stations and newspapers reported the incident at the time, but it received little international attention until May, when it was becoming clear that President Trump was likely to pull the United States out of the Paris climate agreement. Suddenly the tidings from Svalbard were everywhere, in multiple languages, with headlines like “World’s ‘Doomsday’ Seed Vault Has Been Breached by Climate Change.” It didn’t matter that the flood happened seven months earlier, or that the seeds remained safe and dry. We had just lived through the third consecutive year of the highest global temperatures on record and the lowest levels of Arctic ice; vast swaths of permafrost were melting; scientists had recently announced that some 60 percent of primate species were threatened with extinction. All these facts felt like signposts to an increasingly hopeless future for the planet. And now, here was a minifable suggesting that our attempts to preserve even mere traces of the bounty around us might fall apart, too.

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If You Happen to Be at the Smithsonian – But You Don’t Have to Be

Science, entrepreneurship, conservation and innovation converge at this amazing open source summit with events in multiple Smithsonian locations ranging from New York City, Washington DC and Panama City.

Frequent contributor to this site Phil Karp, will participate in a forum on Restoring Nature. The synergy of forum subjects with our interest in wild foods and our work in conservation focused hospitality makes us wish we were there.

What’s Working in Conservation

Earth Optimism celebrates a change in focus from problem to solution in the area of global conservation with an unprecedented gathering of thought leaders, scientists, environmentalists, artists, civic leaders and international media.

The global conservation movement has reached a turning point. Continue reading

Isthmus of Panama Younger than We Thought

Split by the Isthmus of Panama: Species of butterfly fish, sand dollar and cone snail that today live on the Pacific and Caribbean coasts of Central America are very closely related. Genetic sequencing shows that only 4 to 3 million years ago, each pair was a single species, demonstrating that marine connections between the oceans must have existed until that time. (Image by Coppard et al., via The Smithsonian)

It’s probably not something you’ve given much thought to, unless perhaps you’ve visited Central America in the past and experienced first-hand the incredible biodiversity displayed in such a small area. Part of the reason why this little strip of land has so many different species of animals and plants is that it connects two very large continents that used to be separate, but it also has given birth to new aquatic species via evolution, as you can see from the image above. Previous thought on the topic had been that the Isthmus of Panama rose from the ocean roughly between 23 and 15 million years ago, but a very large and very interdisciplinary team of researchers – mostly with some link to the Smithsonian Institution, which has its Tropical Research Institute in Panama City – have reaffirmed that the enormously important geological change occurred around 3 million years ago.

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Smithsonian Features Recycled Trash Sculptures

Image courtesy National Zoological Park

The plastics used in these colorful and eye-catching sculptures being shown at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo weren’t recycled in the way outlined yesterday, but rather were found by artist Angela Pozzi and her volunteers along the West Coast beaches that they traveled, picking up waste to raise awareness at a later date through their traveling art exhibit, “Washed Ashore: Art to Save the Sea.” The seventeen sculptures of marine wildlife are bombastic and full of character. Sabrina Greene reports for the Smithsonian Insider:

“The exhibit at the Zoo appears to be a wonderful success,” Pozzi says. “I have seen dozens of visitors stopping and looking closely, then entering into discussions and then really thinking about the marine debris issue. Besides raising awareness, one of our goals is for the public to start taking ownership of the problem and reevaluating their own plastic usage. We hope to spark positive changes in consumer habits. Every piece of plastic in our exhibit that we have picked up off the beaches, every single bit of it, was once purchased by somebody.”

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Waking the Dead

Martha in a display case in the National Museum of Natural History, 2015. (Photo: Ph0705/WikiCommons CC BY-SA 4.0)

Martha in a display case in the National Museum of Natural History, 2015. (Photo: Ph0705/WikiCommons CC BY-SA 4.0)

If you happen to visit the National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C, don’t just walk by this innocuous stuffed pigeon. Take a good look at Martha, because she’s the last of the world’s flock of passenger pigeons. And now the subject of the ambitious  The Great Passenger Pigeon Comeback, a “de-extinction” project aimed at reviving the species. Using the genomes of the rock pigeon and the band-tailed pigeon as a reference, project scientists aim to assemble a complete passenger pigeon genome and transfer it into the germ cells of band-tailed pigeons in order to generate live passenger pigeons. The target date for the passenger pigeons’ triumphant return is 2022.

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Hunger Games and Peru’s Wachiperi

Victorio Dariquebe Gerewa displays his bow and arrow at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C. PHOTO:  Ben de la Cruz/NPR

Victorio Dariquebe Gerewa displays his bow and arrow at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C. PHOTO:
Ben de la Cruz/NPR

Girls and women in the Peruvian Andes are also asking to learn — but for a different reason. They want to be able to hunt for meat and fish so they don’t have to rely on the men to bring home food.

“The world is modernizing, and women are starting to want to use the bow,” says Sergio Pacheco, a skilled archer who’s part of the tiny Wachiperi community — population estimates range from 90 to 140 — in a remote region of Southeast Peru. “They say, ‘We are just women in the family, so what happens when our father dies? We need to learn this to be able to take care of our families.'”

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How do you Say “Butterfly” in Malayalam?

Photo by James Zainaldin

We have a history of sharing butterfly photos here, primarily from Kerala (ചിതശലഭം, by the way, is Malayalam script for “citaśalabhaṁ,” or butterfly) and Costa Rica (“mariposa” being the Spanish name for the insects) but also in miscellaneous nature posts by our contributors. We also have a bit of a connection to the Smithsonian Institution, and are always happy to hear about friendly, creative polyglots, in this case from the New York Times:

Amid Butterflies, a Bit of a Lingua Franca at the Natural History Museum

 20, 2015

On a recent Sunday, Holly Tooker stood by the transparent wall inside the Butterfly Conservatory, at the American Museum of Natural History. It was, as always, 81 degrees with 78 percent humidity, and it had been a busy morning. Nearby, a giant Danainae butterfly perched on a

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Cave Swallows in Jamaica

Our last big video from the Jamaican Golden Swallow expedition was from the Blue Mountains. This time I have some footage of a colony of Cave Swallows we found at the end of our trip when we were driving along the north coast of the island. About fifty or sixty birds live in this shelf of rock overhanging the ocean, having created nests in the walls with mud pellets.

In the video above, you can see Justin swimming under the natural bridge to get a better view of the birds as they circle around to check on their nests, possibly Continue reading

Status of the Critically Endangered Jamaican Golden Swallow (summary)

Justin Proctor, Department of Natural Resources, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY

Seth E. Inman, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY

John M. Zeiger, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY

Gary R. Graves, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Screen Shot 2015-04-30 at 11.10.57 AM_zpsskyyrz9u (1)

Hispaniolan Golden Swallows in Parque Valle Nuevo, Dominican Republic. (From left to right) Adult in flight; adult perched overtop of artificial nest-box; 25-day-old chicks in nest-box, one day prior to fledging.

The Golden Swallow (Tachycineta euchrysea) is an aerial insectivore and obligate secondary cavity-nester known exclusively to the Caribbean islands of Jamaica and Hispaniola. The Hispaniolan subspecies (T. e. sclateri) was first described in 1866 by the American ornithologist, Charles Barney Cory, and though considered common in the early 1900s, it has become an increasingly rare resident of the highlands of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The subspecies is currently categorized as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Researchers have been studying the life history and breeding biology of the Hispaniolan subspecies since 2012, and initial conservation efforts are currently underway. The nominate Jamaican Golden Swallow race (T. e. euchrysea) was first described in 1847 by the English naturalist, Philip Henry Gosse, and was always considered uncommon, locally distributed, and endemic to Jamaica. Sadly, the Jamaican Golden Swallow subspecies has not been unequivocally observed since the late 1980s. Continue reading

The Great Golden Swallow Gear Review: Part 1

A sea cave on the northern coast of Jamaica, where Cave Swallows nest.

We’ve finally put our heads together and written all our thoughts on the various articles of gear we brought with us to Jamaica for two months! Overall we were pretty pleased with everything we used, and would recommend them to the average backpacker except where it’s clear that we weren’t very satisfied.

GSI Outdoors Pinnacle Dualist Cookware Set:

Justin:  This cookware set has some big pro’s and some big con’s.  The fact that everything fits nicely together, and the entire unit is lightweight is definitely a plus.  However, a rogue surge of flame from our stove one night that came up high on the sides of the pot caused the pot to warp in shape (which is surprising because of its constant tolerance to high heat from below).  Therefore the lid never fit correctly again.  The bowls are solid and the two that come with a foam/elastic band around them are effective in keeping you from getting burned from hot contents within.  The folding handle of the pot is hazardous – perhaps there is a locking mechanism that we are unaware of or did not receive.  The two retracting sporks that come with the set are complete garbage.  The minute you attempt to ‘pierce’ a piece of food, the spork will retract and become useless.  Best to pawn these sporks off as a gift to a friend that you really don’t like much.

John: Hey, Seth, want a spoon?

Seth: Heck yeah! … … … hey, Justin, want a spoon?

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Golden Swallow Expedition Back in Ithaca

A moon rises in the Blue Mountains

Photo by Justin Proctor

It’s been a while since you last heard from us, but not because we’re lost in the Jamaican wilderness!

We arrived back in Ithaca, NY a week ago, and have been hard at work processing our data, photos, videos, and thoughts from this past trip to the Blue Mountains. In addition, we’ve had to analyze our data from both trips combined, trying to seek out patterns in aerial insectivore sightings and making maps of all our point counts with different species seen in both Cockpit Country and the mountainous eastern portion of the island.

We’re also looking up references to all information on Cave Swallows, Antillean Palm Swifts, and White-collared Swifts in either Jamaica, the Caribbean, or the world, depending on what kind of journal articles have been published about them in the past. Other research we’ve been doing involves Barn Owls and Turkey Vultures, which will be the subject of spin-off Continue reading

Jamaican Golden Swallow Expedition Part Two: Into the Blue Mountains


We’re back in Jamaica and now in the second portion of our trip, where we explore the Blue Mountains and John Crow Mountains National Park looking for any signs of the Jamaican Golden Swallow. We arrived at the main visitor center for the park in Holywell yesterday, where we met with park rangers as well as representatives of the Jamaican Conservation and Development Trust, the organization that runs the park. We introduced everyone to our project using an adaptation of the standard slideshow that Justin uses to explain his masters research in Hispaniola to people, and then opened the table for a discussion of the best possible areas to hike and survey.


Map exploration with representatives of the Jamaican Conservation and Development Trust

The park rangers had many helpful suggestions for certain regions that they thought best matched the type of habitat and un-birded nature that we’re looking for, and thanks to their help while poring over our maps we have a much better idea of where to go from here. The national park is simply so massive that any head start we can get on the right places to survey is a great help.

Today, we enjoyed some beautiful weather – blue skies and quite refreshing temperatures comfortably between the wind-chilled -10°F of Ithaca and the muggy 90°F of Cockpit Country. From our short hikes around the park so far we all agree that it’s an amazing area with stunning views and lots of potential for the Golden Swallow.

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Libraries of Life

Elsie, a former teaching assistant for Cornell’s ornithology course, holds up an Impeyan Pheasant skin specimen. Photo by Rebecca Snow.

At Raxa Collective we’ve always been big admirers of museums, whether focussed on art, culture, or nature. In today’s op-ed section of the New York Times, two biologists write about the importance of natural history museums. The authors, Larry M. Page and Nathan K. Lujan, argue that funding shouldn’t be cut from these types of institutions and that the active collection of specimens from the wild should not be curtailed:

These specimen collections serve as the bedrock of our system of taxonomy — the rules by which we classify life — and are integral to our understanding of the threats, origins and interrelationships of biodiversity. And yet, thanks to budget cutbacks, misplaced ethical critiques, public misconceptions and government regulations that restrict scientists while failing to restrict environmental exploitation, the continued maintenance and growth of these libraries is in danger.

Though most visitors never know they are there, natural history collections are as critical to modern biologists as libraries are to journalists and historians. Indeed, like good literature, each museum specimen allows reinterpretation by every person who examines it.

A couple of our contributors–myself included–are currently working for the Smithsonian Institution, and our supervisor is the curator of birds Continue reading

Melton West


Note:  Hey I’m John, a new author with Raxa Collective. I am working as a field technician on an expedition studying the Jamaican Golden Swallow with Justin Proctor and Seth Inman.

While traveling in the Jamaican bush, local people would often pleasantly surprise us. While passing us deep in the bush on a donkey with a pack saddle brimming with yellow yams, a local farmer with a ragged hat and torn work shirt told us about how he just spend the last week in Toronto with his Canadian girlfriend. A group of illegal mahogany loggers, upon seeing our camera equipment, enthusiastically asked us to help them film a music video. But by far, our favorite encounter was with Melton Manuel West.

We met Melton as we set up our camp in the late afternoon near BBQ Bottom Rd. He was walking from his home in the bush to go to the market in nearby Campbells. Like most people we met, he asked us about what we were doing. Intrigued by our project, he declared he would take us to the best places in the bush to see swallows. Then he sat down nearby and just hung out near our camp. At first we were suspicious, and it was a little disconcerting. Yet before he left, we agreed that he could guide us into the hills the next day. Continue reading

Roads and Trails Through Cockpit Country

A Turkey Vulture is king of the power tower

As I mentioned in my previous post, we’ve been traveling around Cockpit Country over the last week and a half by driving around from town to town and finding trails to lead us into the bush. Sometimes these trails are old roads that are clearly still sometimes used by SUVs and donkeys; often they are even older tracks that are for single-file passage and no longer pack-animal-friendly.

Justin on one of the “karstier,” more rugged valley trails

We started out our trip to Jamaica hiking some of these latter types of paths, accurately predicting that they would take us to places few people have birded and naively hoping that they would offer us views of hidden valleys or even the sky. They ended up being difficult to traverse and, as far as we can tell, not the right type of habitat for swallows. Continue reading

Northern Cockpit Country Complete

One of our camps

Justin, John and I have been in Jamaica almost two weeks, and the “Sharpied” names on our Rite in the Rain notebook covers have already faded off, our shirts smell soberingly of rotting onion, and our feet are eager to be released from their boots at any opportunity. At one point John had over a hundred tick nymphs on his body––the actual count was 163––but we won’t talk any more about that.

Barn Owl startled out of an abandoned house

We’ve seen over sixty species of bird in our twelve days here, and only one of them has been a swallow: the Cave Swallow. In general, aerial insectivores like swifts and swallows have been quite scarce, which is really surprising since we’re going through huge swaths of great habitat.

Barbecue Bottom Road with John and Justin by Seth

Barbecue Bottom Road with John and Justin

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