30 September 2010

The Statue of Liberty Under Construction

There is always a point in time when famous landmarks weren’t there. One image of America which is fixed in the minds of millions is the Statue of Liberty and the history of its construction is fascinating. Take a trip back in time and see extraordinary behind the scenes images of the creation of this superlative structure.

A giant is formed. The sheer scale of the statue under construction can be seen here, in contrast to the workmen posing woodenly for that fairly new invention, the camera. The more formal name for the statue is Liberty Enlightening the World and it is constructed with sheets of pure copper, even though the picture makes it look something like marble. It is something of a miracle that we now have the finished product standing proudly on Liberty Island. Had it not been for the contributions of ordinary French and Americans then she would never have arisen in the first instance.

Such is the immensity of the statue one can only wonder whether or not the workmen pictured above had any idea which part of the statue they were working on at any one time. The photographer Albert Fernique, who captured these pictures around 1883, must have been in a certain awe at the immensity of the statue and his images capture its sheer scale and size beautifully. The French had decided to give the United States of America something for their centennial independence celebrations that the Americans and the world would never forget. The process of building was painstaking, slow and fraught with financial difficulties. The copper ‘shell' was only what the public would see. What lies beneath - both in terms of its structure and the story behind its erection - is almost as startling.

Officials survey the workshop - models of statues can just be seen in the background. While they probably had an idea that their statue would become an icon of freedom the world over, the French politicians of the day had some rather more down to earth reasons for gifting the immense sculpture to the States. French politics. Perhaps for this reason the source of the copper has never been revealed. The rumor had always been that the copper was of Norwegian origin, from a village called Visnes, rather than a French source. In 1985 Bell Labs confirmed that this was fairly likely to be true.

At the time France was in political turmoil and, although at the time under their third republic, many people looked back at the time of Napoleon and the monarchy before that with fondness and wanted its return. The desire for a backwards step to authoritarianism was worrying. French politicians - as wily then as now - saw Lady Liberty as a way, albeit phenomenally huge, to focus the public's imagination on republicanism as the best way forward. The USA and its centennial of independence from the yolk of England was the perfect focus.

The plaster surface of the left arm and its hand take shape, the skeleton underneath revealed. As there is a deal of work under the carapace, so the French politicians had ulterior motives. Using the USA - which many saw as the ideal of government and populist aspirational politics - the French used the statue as a Trojan Horse in reverse, as it were. Its true purpose, in the eyes of the political gift givers, was to make republicanism the center of political ideology in the minds of the people. How greatly it succeeded can never fully be quantified but the French cannot be faulted for thinking big. It must be said here that the ordinary French, through their substantial buying of lottery tickets (and other fund raising efforts) had a much purer purpose at heart than their politicians.

It must surely have been amazing for the workers to turn up each morning to the sight of a colossal head looking down upon them. The inspiration for the face seems to be the Roman god of the sun, Apollo or his Greek equivalent, Helios. More down to earth sources of inspiration center on the women in the life of the sculptor, Frederic Auguste Bartholdi. It may well have been Isabella Eugenie Boyer, a good looking and well-known figure in Paris at the time. More worrying, some believe the face of the statue actually belongs to Bartholdi's mother. Bartholdi never revealed the true model of the face, but if this is the case Freud would have had a field day.

Bertholdi made a small scale model first, which is still displayed in the Jardin du Luxembourg in the city of the statue's original construction, Paris. Before the statue was shipped to America, though, it had to be seen to be tested. If it had not been for money, it may never have landed in the states - particularly in the form we all know. On a visit to Egypt, Bartholdi's vision of liberty expanded to its present proportions. Had his original idea received financial support, then whatever gift the French gave the Americans for the 1876 centennial could not possibly have been the statue.

Little by little, the statue arises. Bertholdi saw the Suez Canal under construction in the eighteen sixties and was inspired to build a giant figure at its entrance. He drew up plans which bore a remarkable similarity to what now stands on Liberty Island but his ideas were rejected by the Egyptian ruling body of the time because of the financial problems the country was facing at the time. Had the statute been built in Egypt as a lighthouse, the idea would never have been taken up for America. The Statue of Liberty as we know it was in fact used as a lighthouse, from its unveiling in 1886 right until 1902 - the very first in the world to use electricity.

Almost there! There were huge structural issues that had to be addressed in the design and construction of a sculpture of such enormity. Enter a certain Gustave Eiffel, who would later go on to build that eponymous tower which still dominates the skyline of Paris. It was his job (which he delegated to Maurice Koechlin, his favored structural engineer) to ensure that Liberty's copper sheath could move while still remaining vertical. Koechlin created a huge pylon of wrought iron and the famous skeletal frame to ensure that the statue would not fall down in high winds.

Money was always a problem. The plan had been to get the statue to the US by the fourth of July, 1876. Only the right arm and torch were finished by then. However, as the Americans had taken responsibility for the construction of the pedestal, these pieces of the statue were displayed to the American public at the Centennial Exposition (in Philadelphia). Money raised by allowing people to climb this part of the statue started the funding efforts for the base of the statue. The French did their bit too, showing the head in their own exposition in 1878.

1886 must have been one of those years that people remembered for the rest of their lives. A statue of gigantic proportions, symbolizing the ideas and aspirations of America, was unveiled by President Grover Cleveland at Liberty Island (renamed from Bedloe's Island or Love Island). In an ironic twist, President Cleveland had vetoed the New York legislature from contributing fifty thousand dollars to help with the building of the statue's pedestal. Letting bygones be bygones, President Cleveland was more than happy to officiate at the ceremony. This had not been the only problem to face the statue in the years before its final unveiling, of course. From the model stage, above, to its triumphant moment of revelation, the process was fraught with difficulty - mostly of a financial nature. However, thanks to the efforts of both the American and French people we now have a permanent reminder of what we should hold dear - liberty still symbolically steps forth from her shackles to protect, shelter and enlighten.

29 September 2010

Bubble Gum

Beauty can be found in simplicty and this is certainly true of this short - impeccably filmed and lit - short film by Copete.  Put a variety of people in front of a camera, give them various unusual tasting bubble gum, add a nostalgic soundtrack and you have a few minutes of fun.

Nothing more, nothing less - this (as far as we can see) is the primary aim and objective of this short film.  Watch, enjoy.  There is nothing quite like the extraordinary contortions of the human face to engage for a short while.

Attack of the Giant Vegetables

A glorious homage to the B movies (especially those with the words giant and vegetables in the title), sit back and enjoy this six minute wonder - feel fear, be awed - as the giant vegetables attempt to take over the planet.

Who will stand in their way?

A wonderul parody of the monster movies that you grew up watching, this short animation will allow you to wallow in a little nostalgia - as well as tasting (or smelling) the lovely aroma that is irony.  Cool.

27 September 2010

The Mysterious Moeraki Boulders

If you go down to Koekohe beach in New Zealand you can be sure of a big surprise. In front of you, scattered like enormous marbles from some long abandoned game between giants, are hundreds of giant spherical rocks. Or are they the egg shells of sea-born dragons? The Moeraki boulders present us with a mystery – what are they and how on earth did they get there?

Some are isolated but may occur in clusters. That they are here is the result of three things – erosion, concretion and time. First the waves, inexorable and patient, have pounded the local bedrock for countless millennia. The mudstone on the beach – rock which was originally mud and clay – is slowly but surely eroded. Underneath are the boulders that the mudstone – in its original wet form, helped to form. However, the boulders were not there to begin with – that came later.

Many of the Moeraki boulders give the impression of being completely spherical – and they almost are. They are septarian concretions – a sedimentary rock that has had the space between its individual grains filled up by minerals which acted like cement. Concretions form inside the layers of mud and clay and are not, as some think, boulders buried over time.

They do, however, tend to form early on in the history of the deposited sediment – it is thought they occur before the rest hardens in to rock. A consequence of concretion is that the resulting boulders are more resistant to the weathering effects of the element. So, when the rest of the sedimentary layers is eroded, the boulder (eventually) appears.

What is significant about these concretions is their size. They are big. While not unique on the planet, some of them are up to a meter in diameter but the majority range from 1.5 to 2.2 meters – that is almost seven feet in diameter. Most of them are almost perfect spheres.

The material responsible for their concretion is a carbonate mineral called calcite. In the center the concretion is sometimes quite weak (perhaps the opposite we might expect) but the exterior is usually the hardest part being made up of sometimes 20% calcite. Not only has the calcite concreted the boulder’s clay and silt – it has replaced a lot of it too.

There are large cracks on the boulders and these are known as septaria. The center of each boulder is hollow and the septaria radiate from there. It is not really known what causes these septaria but they can be filled up by several layers of calcite themselves and sometimes an extremely thin layer of quartz.

The Moeraki boulders date from the Paleocene epoch which translates as the early recent. In geological terms that may well be true, but that means that the boulders are at least fifty six million years old. Our own mammalian ancestors during that epoch were mostly small and rodent like until late on.

As you can imagine, there are many Māori legends concerning these hollow boulders. One says that they are eel baskets that came ashore when a large canoe was sunk. The reality is perhaps stranger than the legend. Yet whenever they get visitors, there always has to be one!

26 September 2010

Elizabeth Gaskell Bicentenary

Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell, was born two hundred years ago on 29 September.  To mark the bicenenary of her birth, we would like to offer up this small video in way of tribute to an author who has brought joy to millions but only now has joined the other poets, playrights and novelists in Westminster Abbey's famous poet's corner.

1810 was a strange year. Napoleon and Josephine had their marriage annulled, Beethoven composed Für Elise and the State of West Florida declared its independence from Spain. Plus a little girl was born in Chelsea, the last of eight children and one of only two of them to survive in to adulthood.  She was christened Elizabeth and sent away on the death of her mother three months later to live with her Aunt Hannah in a small Cheshire village called Knutsford.

Knutsford and her childhood theirein was to be the inspiration for her later Cranford novel.  The industrial landscape of the north of England informed many of her novels including the seminal North and South and Wives and Daughters but her reputation lay until fairly recently on her debut work Mary Barton.

The BBC, however, has changed all of that with successful adaptations of several of her novels, which have given her a new and modern audience.  The Cranford series in particular inspired many to take up her novels and read them.

Scenes from one of them, North and South form the basis for our video tribute above.  You're Still You by Josh Grogan is a fitting tribute to a lady who stuck by her unitarian beliefs throughout her life and gave the world some unforgettable fiction in her own indelible style.

It is long overdue that this national treasure be remembered with a place in Poet's Corner and yesterday it came to pass - finally.  Over two hundred people gathered in the Abbey, many of them members of the Gaskell Society who travelled from all over the world for the event, to attend the dedication of a stained glass window in her honor.  Her great great great grand-daiughter Sarah Prince laid a gorgeous wreath of lilies below the window.

Perhaps this marks the end of the almost two centuries of underestimation of one of our greatest novelists, the incomporable Mrs Gaskell.

Image Credit Wikimedia - Gaskell pictured at the age of twenty two by William John Thomson.

The Old Man of Hoy - A Giant Due to Fall

The Old Man of Hoy is, at just inches off four hundred and fifty feet one of the largest sea stacks in the world.  A stack is formed through geomorphology – erosion which is totally natural.  Man had no hand in his existence – only water, wind and time. Here he looks like a giant  Bart Simpson from the back, gazing out to sea but it is as The Old Man that we know him.  Yet what looks like it might last all eternity could topple in to the sea today.

The inexorable force of water and wind has slowly but surely created cracks in the headland.  These crack enlarge and force a collapse, leaving a stack isolated and standing alone.  The Old Man of Hoy was formed like this – some think as little as four hundred years ago. Maps older than this show no evidence of its existence.

After 1750 the sea stack appears on maps.  Situated on the west coast of the Orkney Islands, the Old Man of Hoy is like a red cloth to mountaineers but it was not until 1966 that it was conquered for the first time, by the legendary mountaineer Chris Bonnington and his team.

Image Credit Flickr User ant2ant41
When William Daniell painted the Old Man in 1817 it had an arch at the base and a smaller section on the top which very much made it look like a hobbling old man.  The elements have done for the arch which formed the impression of legs and the top has slowly weathered until it is as wide as we see it today.

When Bonnington and his team of Rusty Baillie and Tom Patey climbed the Old Man of Hoy for a second time in 1967 it caused something of a media event which is associated with the twenty first century rather than the era of The Beatles.  A live broadcast showed their progress over three days, attracting more than 15 million viewers.

Ascents are rare.  In 2008 Sir Ranulph Fiennes climbed the Old Man when he was preparing to clime the Eiger but there only around twenty ascents each year.  When the summit is reached climbers can find a RAF log book tucked away inside a Tupperware container which itself is buried in a small mound of rocks (known as a cairn).  It is considered one of the personal pinnacles of mountaineering to have your name recorded in the log book.

The Old Man of Hoy has remnants of past climbs dotted around his almost sheer side.  Wooden wedges, ironmongery and a deadman anchor are just some of the items which have been left on the rocky Cliffside, as if he were some kind of giant geological voodoo doll.

Yet mountaineers recognise the fact that the Old Man of Hoy might not be around too much longer.  True, he may persevere for hundreds of years to come but that is unlikely.  The chances are that someday soon he will tumble in to the sea, creating a mini tsunami.  A shame in many ways as, in geological terms the Old Man of Hoy has been around for a nano-second.

25 September 2010

The Walking Dead - Opening Titles

The Walking Dead - the much awaited AMC TV series based on the hugely successful comic book by Robert Kirkman will launch on Halloween this year.  Until then, fans have had to make do with a few teaser trailer but one enterprising soul, Daniel Kanemoto, has gone one step further.  He has created his own opening titles to the show - and the results are excellent.  If AMC haven't already sorted out their opening titles, then they should really get on the phone to Mr Kanemoto right now...!

This spec title sequence was created using artwork ripped from the pages of the comic, originally illustrated by Charlie Adlard and Tony Moore.  As well as referencing the story's comic book roots it is exceptionally well executed.  Kanemoto made it after a moment of inspiration at this year's Comic-Con. If Frank Darabont (the director of the TV series whose past credits include The Shawshank Redemption and Frankenstein) is watching - dump your opening sequence and swap it for this one please!

For those of you who don't know what the fuss is all about, where have you been? here is the official trailer for the upcoming TV series.  If you like your zombie movies, like us, the thought of a whole series (especially one based on such a brilliant comic) is enough to grab the nearest Timelord, hijack his Tardis and take it forward to October 31.  OK, so here is the trailer - and it looks good.

Supreme Being

When you are a supreme being (by your own definition) then it is important that presentations to inferior races go well. Unfortunately, sometimes things just go wrong and that's that!

I guess we all have our off days...

This is a funny animated short by Rachael Walker and three colleagues from Queensland University in Australia.

Atchafalaya – the Biggest Swamp in the States

Atchafalaya – the name itself is something of a mystery. When exactly the swamp got its name is unknown, though it means long river in one of the local languages. What is known about this place of splendor and inscrutability is that it is the largest swamp in the United States and is the spiritual home of Cajun culture.

Louisiana is culturally rich, drawing from African, Caribbean, Native-American as well as European culture and the ecology of Atchafalaya is just as diverse and varied. If you want to pronounce it properly, try these syllables - ah-CHA-fa-LIE-ah – and you may be as close as you are ever going to get.

The swamp itself (known also as the basin) adds to the Louisiana mix, combining both a river delta where the Gulf of Mexico and the eponymous river come together and some of the most astonishingly beautiful wetlands on planet earth. While the wetlands are nearly stable the delta system itself is continuing to grow.

A pristine cypress and mixed wood swamp, Atchafalaya looks at times how you might imagine earth looking millions of years ago – the sight of a dinosaur would not be amiss here. Although you might not meet a stegosaurus the chances are you will see beaver, otter, mink deer and many other mammals. Alligators can also be found in the waters of the Atchafalaya.

As it is often heavily flooded the area is very sparsely populated which helps to place it in to the top ten wildernesses of the United States. Altogether the basin stretches out to twenty miles in width but lengthwise it is almost 150 miles. This area is just under 600,000 acres and as such makes it the largest swamp in the US and a place of national significance in terms of ecology and wildlife.

There are few roads that cross the Atchafalaya and those that do follow the top of levees. If you are in a car, however, the longest stretch next to the swamp is on Interstate 10, part of which consists of an eighteen mile long bridge built on elevated pillars, affording views of the basin.

However, the best way to experience the swamp is not from the side, but from within. Yet the damming of the bayous and activity by the US Army Corps of Engineers has led to a decreasing of the rate of siltation. The water moves much less than it once did and has meant that it is less aerated – much of it is now black instead of brown. Many ecologists see the shrinkage of the delta country as one of the biggest ecological threats to the US at present.

There are still people who make a living fishing the waters of the basin. It floods each years and these floods create the right environment for species such as crawfish to reproduce and grow. Yet in recent years the floods have not come at all – and when they have they have carried with them too much extra silt which buries the breeding grounds. The flow of water is controlled by human hand – and is doing damage.

It can also only be hoped that the currents of the river can keep the oil from that spill out in the Gulf. If the water levels of the swamp become too low in the fall then the oil could find a way in to it, bringing with it a devastation that the swamp has never seen before. It can only be hoped that this does not happen.

Magical is a term which is overused when describing places. However, there is no more appropriate a word than that for the Atchafalaya swamp. Whether this, one of the last truly great places of wilderness in the United States will still be able to transfix and fascinate future generations by its dual nature - serenity and strength - is yet to be seen.

Image Credit Flickr User fratch 
Kuritas would like to thank Flickr Users StevenLPierce, fratch, David Jonze, dnskct, gail des jardins, and particularly Ebla442 and amaw for giving their permission to use the photographs above.  Please, visit their amazing photostreams!