Plain Sailing

In 1670, Louis XIV’s finance minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, ordered the planting of the Forest of Tronçais to provide masts for the French navy 200 years hence. His order established one of the principal stands of oaks in Europe, carefully interplanted with beeches and larches to encourage them to grow straight, tall, and free of knots.

By the time they matured, in the 19th century, they were no longer necessary. Historian Fernand Braudel wrote, “Colbert had thought of everything except the steamship.”

A Discovery

Crossing the woodlands of upstate New York in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville came to an island at the center of a lake, “one of those delicious solitudes of the New World.” As he explored it, “the deep silence which is common to the wilds of North America was only broken by the hoarse cooing of the wood-pigeon, and the tapping of the woodpecker upon the bark of trees.”

I was far from supposing that this spot had ever been inhabited, so completely did Nature seem to be left to her own caprices; but when I reached the centre of the isle I thought that I discovered some traces of man. I then proceeded to examine the surrounding objects with care, and I soon perceived that a European had undoubtedly been led to seek a refuge in this retreat. Yet what changes had taken place in the scene of his labors! The logs which he had hastily hewn to build himself a shed had sprouted afresh; the very props were intertwined with living verdure, and his cabin was transformed into a bower. In the midst of these shrubs a few stones were to be seen, blackened with fire and sprinkled with thin ashes; here the hearth had no doubt been, and the chimney in falling had covered it with rubbish.

“I stood for some time in silent admiration of the exuberance of Nature and the littleness of man,” he wrote, “and when I was obliged to leave that enchanting solitude, I exclaimed with melancholy, ‘Are ruins, then, already here?'”

(From Democracy in America, 1835.)

Peace and Quiet

Most of the inhabitants of Colma, California, are dead. When a fast-growing San Francisco outlawed new interments in 1900, and then evicted its existing cemeteries two years later, nearby Colma became the city’s burying ground. Over the following 30 years, thousands of bodies were carted here from their former resting places in the city — the Catholic Holy Cross cemetery alone received 39,307. Today the town’s 17 cemeteries occupy 73 percent of its 2.25 square miles, and the dead (1.5 million) outnumber the living (1,792) by more than 800 to 1.

The town has a sense of humor about it, though — its unofficial motto is “It’s great to be alive in Colma!”

Podcast Episode 181: Operation Gunnerside

During World War II, the Allies feared that Germany was on the brink of creating an atomic bomb. To prevent this, they launched a dramatic midnight commando raid to destroy a key piece of equipment in the mountains of southern Norway. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll remember Operation Gunnerside, “one of the most daring and important undercover operations of World War II.”

We’ll also learn what to say when you’re invading Britain and puzzle over the life cycle of cicadas.

See full show notes …


Tenth-century merchant captain Bjarni Herjólfsson spent his summers trading in Scandinavia but returned to his native Iceland each winter to visit his parents. In 986 he was told that his father had sailed to Greenland with Erik the Red, so he followed them west. Lacking a map or a compass, he was blown off course by a storm, and when the weather cleared he sighted a wooded country with low hills. This couldn’t be Greenland, so he sailed north, and after two days he came upon a second land, level and wooded. Despite his crew’s protestations, Bjarni didn’t stop here either, but sailed north three days more, when he sighted a land of mountains and glaciers. This couldn’t be Greenland either, so he sailed away from it, and after four days by a lucky chance he landed at his father’s estate.

Today, writes University of Manitoba historian T.J. Oleson, “There are strong arguments for the view that the three lands seen by Bjarni were Newfoundland, Labrador, and Baffin Island” — he was probably the first European to sight the east coast of North America, but he’d been too incurious to investigate.

Podcast Episode 179: Two Vanished Young Writers

ruess and follett

Everett Ruess and Barbara Newhall Follett were born in March 1914 at opposite ends of the U.S. Both followed distinctly unusual lives as they pursued a love of writing. And both disappeared in their 20s, leaving no trace of their whereabouts. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the brief lives of two promising young authors and the mystery that lingers behind them.

We’ll also patrol 10 Downing Street and puzzle over when a pigeon isn’t a pigeon.

See full show notes …

That Settles That

The famous mathematician Stanislaw Ulam thought of the following paradox, which is now known as the Ulam Paradox: When President Richard Nixon was appointed to office, on the first day he met his cabinet he said to them: ‘None of you are yes-men, are you?’ And they all said, ‘NO!’

— Raymond Smullyan, A Mixed Bag, 2016

Podcast Episode 177: Averting a Catastrophe in Manhattan
Image: Flickr

New York’s Citicorp Tower was an architectural sensation when it opened in 1977. But then engineer William LeMessurier realized that its unique design left it dangerously vulnerable to high winds. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the drama that followed as a small group of decision makers tried to ward off a catastrophe in midtown Manhattan.

We’ll also cringe at an apartment mixup and puzzle over a tolerant trooper.

See full show notes …

Twice Missed

Union general Joseph Hooker had an eventful day at the Battle of Chancellorsville:

I was standing on this step of the portico on the Sunday morning of the 3d of May, and was giving direction to the battle, which was now raging with great fury, the cannon-balls reaching me from both the east and the west, when a solid shot struck the pillar near me, splitting it in two, and throwing one-half longitudinally against me, striking my whole right side, which soon turned livid. For a few moments I was senseless, and the report spread that I had been killed. But I soon revived, and to correct the misapprehension, I insisted on being lifted upon my horse, and rode back towards the white house, which subsequently became the center of my new position. Just before reaching it, the pain from my hurt became so intense, that I was likely to fall, when I was assisted to dismount, and was laid upon a blanket spread out upon the ground, and was given some brandy. This revived me, and I was assisted to remount. Scarcely was I off the blanket, when a solid shot, fired by the enemy at Hazel Grove, struck in the very center of that blanket, where I had a moment before been lying, and tore up the earth in a savage way.

In Strange Tales of the Civil War, Michael Sanders writes, “In this way, Joseph Hooker avoided being instantly killed by two cannon balls within minutes of each other.”

Long Hand,_Holy_Roman_Emperor

The framers of medieval charters needed to make them visually striking and memorable — relatively few people would be able to understand the Latin legalities, but many would see the documents, and in order to carry authority they had to look different from ordinary texts, remarkable and unique.

One way to do this was with “an altogether peculiar sort of writing, of which the first characteristic is elongation,” writes Nicolete Gray in Lettering as Drawing. In this charter given by Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV to the bishopric of Bamberg in 1057, the text is written in long, attenuated letters:,_Holy_Roman_Emperor

“The strange letter forms impress themselves, due to their difference from the norm, on the peoples’ consciousness and they thus endow the charter with a kind of aura that sets it apart,” writes Laurence de Looze in The Letter & the Cosmos. The signatures were often elaborate for the same reason: “A trace of worldly power is carried over into the writing, the letter forms performing this transfer of the power from the people who created the charter into the document itself.”