Crescent Lake

https://emorfes.com/2017/05/22/crescent-lake-an-oasis-in-the-gobi-desert/

Six kilometers south of Dunhuang in western China lies Crescent Lake, an oasis that once served as a waypoint to the West along the Silk Road. British missionaries Mildred Cable and Francesca French recorded their first sight of it during their travels through the Gobi Desert in the 1920s:

All around us we saw tier on tier of lofty sand-hills, giving the lie to our quest, yet when, with a final desperate effort, we hoisted ourselves over the last ridge and looked down on what lay beyond, we saw the lake below, and its beauty was entrancing.

The lake survived for 2,000 years thanks to its low altitude and sheltered position, but it began to shrink in the 20th century due to population pressures — its depth dropped from 7.5 to 0.9 meters between 1960 and the early 1990s. In 2006 the government stepped in to reverse the decline, and now it’s growing again.

(Via eMORFES.)

Podcast Episode 154: Spared by a Volcano

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cyparis.jpg

The worst volcanic disaster of the 20th century struck Martinique in 1902, killing 30,000 people in the scenic town of Saint-Pierre. But rescuers found one man alive — a 27-year-old laborer in a dungeon-like jail cell. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll meet Ludger Sylbaris, who P.T. Barnum called “The Only Living Object That Survived in the Silent City of Death.”

We’ll also address some Indian uncles and puzzle over a gruesome hike.

Intro:

The French newspaper La Bougie du Sapeur is published only on Leap Day.

When a vat burst in 1814, 323,000 imperial gallons of beer flooded a London street.

Sources for our feature on Ludger Sylbaris:

Peter Morgan, Fire Mountain, 2003.

Edmund Otis Hovey, The 1902-1903 Eruptions of Mont Pelé, Martinique and the Soufrière, St. Vincent, 1904.

Ludger Sylbaris, “Buried Alive in St. Pierre,” Wide World Magazine, November 1903.

Matthew St. Ville Hunte, “Inside the Volcano,” Paris Review, Sept. 16, 2016.

“Prison Cell of ‘The Man Who Lived Through Doomsday,'” Slate, July 31, 2013.

Brian Morton, “There’s No Smoke Without Fire,” Financial Times, Feb. 13, 2003.

Tony Jones, “Lone Survivor,” New Scientist 177:2382 (Feb. 15, 2003), 48-49.

“[front page — no title],” New York Times, Oct. 13, 1906.

Listener mail:

Kate Connolly, “He’s Hired: Belgian Lands ‘Dream Job’ as Hermit for Austrian Cliffside Retreat,” Guardian, April 19, 2017.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener David White, who sent two sets of corroborating links — these contain explicit photos, and these don’t.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Moo

http://rarehistoricalphotos.com/cow-shoes-prohibition-1924/

This is clever — during Prohibition, moonshiners wore shoes that left hoofprints. From the St. Petersburg, Fla., Evening Independent, May 27, 1922:

A new method of evading prohibition agents was revealed here today by A.L. Allen, state prohibition enforcement director, who displayed what he called a ‘cow shoe’ as the latest thing from the haunts of moonshiners.

The cow shoe is a strip of metal to which is tacked a wooden block carved to resemble the hoof of a cow, which may be strapped to the human foot. A man shod with a pair of them would leave a trail resembling that of a cow.

“The shoe found was picked up near Port Tampa where a still was located some time ago. It will be sent to the prohibition department at Washington. Officers believe the inventor got his idea from a Sherlock Holmes story in which the villain shod his horse with shoes the imprint of which resembled those of a cow’s hoof.”

(Via Rare Historical Photos.)

Adam’s Bridge

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Adams_Bridge_aerial.jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

A curious chain of limestone shoals extends between India and Sri Lanka, possibly the remains of a land connection between the two. The sea between the two landmasses is called Sethusamudram (“Sea of the Bridge”), and early British maps refer to it as Adam’s Bridge. How and when the structure evolved are still sources of controversy among geologists, but historical records suggest that it was passable on foot until a cyclone deepened the channel in the 1400s.

Appealing to NASA satellite images, some sources contend that the bridge was created by Rama to rescue his kidnapped wife Sita, as described in Hindu theology, perhaps with the aid of a human army. NASA delicately observes that this interpretation “is certainly not ours. … Remote sensing images or photographs from orbit cannot provide direct information about the origin or age of a chain of islands, and certainly, cannot determine whether humans were involved in producing any of the patterns seen.”

“The Elephant Who Walked to Manchester”

https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/the-disputed-toll-205152
Image: Art UK

In 1872, as he prepared to retire in Edinburgh, English menagerie owner Alexander Fairgrieve auctioned off his remaining attractions in the Waverley Market. The largest lot was Maharajah, an Indian elephant 7 feet tall with 20-inch tusks. The winning bid, £680, came from James Jennison, proprietor of the Belle Vue Gardens near Manchester, who was expanding his zoological collection. The elephant rebelled at entering a horse box on the Northern British Railway, so his keeper, Lorenzo “Lion Tamer” Lawrence, simply walked his charge to Manchester.

The unlikely pair covered 200 miles in 10 days, arriving on April 20, and the celebrated animal, “having travelled by road from Scotland, via Carlisle, Kendal, Lancaster, Preston and Bolton,” was installed in a temporary glass-roofed elephant house. In the ensuing years he would walk among the visitors, ridden by thousands of children and starring in spectacles such as “Napoleon Crossing the Alps” in the city’s May Day and Whit parades. He died of pneumonia in 1882 at the age of 18.

Heywood Hardy’s 1875 painting A Disputed Toll, above, records an event that probably never happened — it’s said that during their journey, while Lawrence was arguing with a parsimonious gatekeeper, Maharajah simply lifted the gate from its hinges. Accurate or not, the memorable painting now hangs in the Manchester Art Gallery.

Thorough

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lucas_Cranach_d._%C3%84._035.jpg

Obscure but interesting: In his 1857 history of the West Branch Valley of the Susquehanna River, John Franklin Meginness quotes a 1793 indenture that purports to trace the title to a plot of Pennsylvania land back to the creation of mankind:

Whereas, the Creator of the earth, by parole and livery of seisin, did enfeoff the parents of mankind, to wit, Adam and Eve, of all that certain tract of land, called and known in the planetary system by the name of The Earth, together with all and singular the advantages, woods, waters, water-courses, easements, liberties, privileges, and all others the appurtenances whatsoever thereunto belonging, or in any wise appertaining to have and to hold to them the said Adam and Eve, and the heirs of their bodies lawfully to be begotten, in fee-tail general forever, as by the said feoffment recorded by Moses, in the first chapter of the first book of his records commonly called Genesis, more fully and at large appears on reference being thereunto had …

This goes on for four pages, tracing ownership through the Six Nations of North America to William Penn and finally to one Flavel Roan, the “witty and rather eccentric gentleman” who Meginness says drew up the deed. “His education was good, and his penmanship superior.”

The whole thing is here.

A Lost Landmark

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Elefant_der_Bastille.jpg

In 1808, as a monument to his victories, Napoleon planned to erect a colossal bronze elephant on the site of the Bastille. Standing 24 meters tall, the creature would be cast from the guns captured at the Battle of Friedland, and a stairway inside one leg would lead visitors up to an observation platform on its back.

The project fell apart after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, but they got as far as building a full-sized plaster model of the finished statue, protected by a guard who lived in one of the legs. The plaster elephant stood for some 30 years, overrun with rats and gradually falling into ruin. Finally removed in 1846, it was commemorated by Victor Hugo in Les Misérables: “It was unclean, despised, repulsive, and superb, ugly in the eyes of the bourgeois, melancholy in the eyes of the thinker.”

Far From Home

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:George_Stubbs_-_Zebra_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

You’d look forlorn too if you were the first zebra in England. The bewildered creature, known as “Queen Charlotte’s she-ass,” departed the Cape of Good Hope “Noah’s-ark fashion” with another zebra in 1762, but her companion died on the voyage. Installed at Buckingham Palace, she “was pestered with visits, and had all her hours employed from morning to night in satisfying the curiosity of the public.” And, inevitably, there were jokes:

A sight such as this surely was never seen:
Who the deuce would not gaze at the A___ of a Q____?
What prospect so charming! — What scene can surpass?
The delicate sight of her M____’s A____?

Though squeamish old Prudes with Invective and Spleen,
May turn up their Noses, and censure the Q____n;
Crying out, “‘Tis a Shame, that her Q____nship, alas
Should take such a Pride — in exposing her A____.”

She was eventually sold to a clockmaker named Pinchbeck, who led her through Yorkshire in a traveling menagerie. She died in April 1773, eleven years after she’d arrived. “Pray do you not think the fate of this animal truly pitiable?” wrote the Rev. William Mason to Horace Walpole. “I should think this anecdote might furnish the author of Heroic Epistles with a series of moral reflections which might end with the following pathetic couplet: ‘Ah beauteous beast! Thy cruel fate evinces / How vain the ass that puts its trust in Princes!'”

(Christopher Plumb, “The Queen’s Ass,” in Samuel J.M.M. Alberti, ed., The Afterlives of Animals, 2011.)

The Right Perspective

French artist François Abélanet creates anamorphic landscape illusions. “With my creations, I transform fiction into reality,” he writes. “Where there’s a garden, a plaza, a courtyard, or a confined space, I see a playing field where everyone is invited to participate, to play with nature. Indeed, I like the idea that nature lives its own life and becomes its own creation.”

More at his website.

Evolution

Order a beer at Kayabukiya Tavern, in Japan’s Tochigi prefecture, and it will be brought to you by one of five monkeys. Owner Kaoru Otsuka started his business nearly 30 years ago, but business really took off when he brought his pet macaque to the premises and got it to hand a wet oshibori towel to a customer. Now the monkeys hand out oshibori and beer and perform on a makeshift stage.

Under animal welfare laws the monkeys work only two hours a day, and customers give them boiled soya beans as tips for their service. Now they’ve begun donning human masks and wigs — perhaps they’ll soon be opening a restaurant of their own: