Land Under England

In 1862, journalist John Hollingshead accompanied a crew of workers into the sewers under London, “feeling a desire to inspect a main sewer almost from its source to its point of discharge into the Thames.” At one point he asked his guides about the unusual things they had found underground.

‘Well,’ he said, ‘the most awful things we ever find in the sewers is dead children. We’ve found at least four of ’em at different times; one somewhere under Notting Hill; another somewhere under Mary’bone; another at Paddington; and another at the Broadway, Westminster.’

‘We once found a dead seal,’ struck in one of the men pushing the boat.

‘Ah,’ continued Agrippa, ‘so we did. That was in one of the Westminster sewers — the Horseferry Road outlet, I think, and they said it had been shot at Barnes or Mortlake, and had drifted down with the tide. … We sometimes find live cats and dogs that have got down untrapped drains after house-rats; but these animals, when we pick ’em up, are more often dead ones.’

‘They once found a live hedgehog in Westminster,’ said another of the men. ‘I’ve heard tell on it, but I didn’t see it.’

At one point, on being told he was beneath Buckingham Palace, “Of course my loyalty was at once excited, and, taking off my fan-tailed cap, I led the way with the National Anthem, insisting that my guides should join in chorus. Who knows but what, through some untrapped drain, that rude but hearty underground melody found its way into some inner wainscoting of the palace, disturbing some dozing maid of honour with its mysterious sounds, and making her dream of Guy Fawkes and many other subterranean villains?”

Memento Mori

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1952, to “indulge a whim of a peculiar nature,” retired funeral director David H. Brown built a house out of 500,000 empty embalming-fluid bottles.

Situated on the shores of Kootenay Lake in British Columbia, the cloverleaf-shaped house occupies 1,200 square feet, including two bedrooms, a fireplace, a kitchen, and a terrace.

The bottles, together, weigh 250 tons.

Standing Out

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

One of the famous whitewashed towns of Andalusia is blue.

The little village of Júzcar, population 243, was made up with 4,200 liters of blue paint in 2011 to celebrate the release of the movie The Smurfs.

Afterward, Sony offered to paint the town white again, but the villagers declined — in the six months since the film’s premiere, they had received 80,000 tourists.

Ghosts of Mars

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Dust devils can grow huge on Mars — judging by its shadow, this one was 800 meters tall, about half a mile, and some have reached 10 times that height.

They’re constantly scrawling striking artwork on the Martian surface (below), picking up red dust to reveal the darker sand beneath.

These creatures may be lonely (spooky animation here), but apparently they’re friendly — both the Spirit and Opportunity rovers have had their solar panels cleaned by encounters with wandering devils.

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The Shadow of the Bear

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Image: Flickr

Between 5:30 and 6:15 p.m. on sunny days from mid-October to early November, a bear appears in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Cashiers, N.C.

It’s caused by 4,930-foot Whiteside Mountain, whose shadow is cast at the right angle by the setting autumn sun.

The bear appears also in late winter, from mid-February through early March.

(Thanks, Sharon.)

Fair Enough

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Asked why he was riding naked in the rain, American eccentric Hugh Henry Brackenridge pointed to the clothes folded under his saddle.

“The storm, you know, would spoil the clothes,” he said, “but it couldn’t spoil me.”

Homecoming

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Last November, Jacob and Bonnie Richter of West Palm Beach, Fla., drove their motor home to Daytona Beach to attend an RV rally. Their cat, Holly, bolted when Bonnie’s mother opened the door, and could not be found after several days’ search. Finally the Richters returned home.

On New Year’s Eve, Holly was spotted “barely standing” in a backyard about a mile from the Richters’ house in West Palm Beach. The 4-year-old tortoiseshell had traveled 200 miles over two months to return to her hometown. She was identified both by the black-and-brown harlequin patterns in her fur and by an implanted microchip.

No one is quite sure how cats navigate across such long distances. Like other animals they may rely to some extent on magnetic fields, olfactory cues, and the sun, but generally cat navigation seems surest over short distances. In a 1954 study in Germany, cats were placed in a circular maze with exits positioned every 15 degrees; a cat exited most reliably in the direction of home if home was less than 5 kilometers away.

But at least some cats are capable of much greater feats. British cat biologist Roger Tabor cites “Ninja,” a cat who found his way from Mill Creek, Wash., to his old home in Farmington, Utah, in 1997; Howie, an indoor Persian cat who was left with relatives and traveled 1,000 miles across Australia to return to his family’s home in 1978; and a Russian tortoiseshell who traveled 325 miles from Moscow to her owner’s mother’s house in Voronezh in 1989.

Those exploits, and Holly’s, remain unexplained. “We haven’t the slightest idea how they do this,” cat behaviorist Jackson Galaxy told the New York Times in January. “Anybody who says they do is lying, and, if you find it, please God, tell me what it is.”

Home Page

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Elis Stenman built a house out of paper. In 1922 the mechanical engineer began designing a summer home in Rockport, Mass., using wood for the frame, floor, and roof but fashioning the walls from newspaper pressed about an inch thick and coated with varnish.

“Actually, I guess he was supposed to cover the outside with clapboards, but he just didn’t,” Stenman’s grandniece, Edna Beaudoin, told the Cape Ann Sun in 1996. “You know, he was curious. He wanted to see what would happen to the paper, and, well, here it is, some 70 years later.”

In 1924 Stenman moved in and began making furniture, also out of newspaper, rolling it into logs, cutting it to length with a knife, and gluing or nailing it into usable finished pieces (one placard reads THIS DESK IS MADE OF THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR).

Stenman died in 1942, and his family has maintained the house ever since, showing it to curious visitors. “I think probably the most common question is just ‘Why?'” Beaudoin says. “We just really don’t know where he got the idea to build a house out of paper. He was just that sort of a guy.”

“Canine Jealousy”

A letter to the Spectator, Dec. 12, 1891:

I am not versed in dog-lore, and it may be that my love for the animal makes me an ill judge of the importance of the following story; but a friend vouches for its truth, and to my mind it has its importance, not from its display of jealousy, but from the dog’s deliberate acceptance of the undoubtedly changed condition, and the clearly metaphysical character of his motive.

The story is this. A young man had owned for some years a dog who was his constant companion. Recently the young man married, and moved with his bride and his dog into a house on the opposite side of the street from his father’s house, his own former home. The dog was not happy, for the time and attention which had formerly been his was now given to the young wife. In many ways he showed his unhappiness and displeasure, in spite of the fact that the master tried to reconcile him and the bride to win him. One day when the master came home, his wife sat on his knee, while Jack was lying by the fire. He rose from his place, came over to the couple, and expressed his disapproval. ‘Why, Jack,’ said the master, ‘this is all right, she’s a good girl,’ and as he spoke, he patted her arm. Jack looked up at him, turned away, and left the room. In a moment they heard a noise, and going into the hall, they found Jack dragging his bed downstairs. When he reached the front door, he whined to be let out, and when the door was opened, he dragged his bed down the steps, across the street to his old home, where he scratched for admittance. Since then he has never been back to his master, refusing all overtures.

Chas. Morris Addison

Freak Waves

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From the log of the S.S. Esso Lancashire, sailing off Durban in the Indian Ocean, Aug. 5, 1968:

At 0845 GMT the vessel entered a wave at an altitude of approx. 20 ft and emerged seconds later very much the worse for wear. If Cdre. W.S. Byles, R.D. has any idea where ‘The One from Nowhere’ went, we found the wave that should be with his trough! The wave passed unbroken over the monkey island (a height of about 60 ft) and we struck it well above the trough. It was preceded by a wave slightly larger than usual and we rode that one fairly comfortably but the wavelengths to the big one appeared much less and we just did not make it.

The log for 0745 had noted swell reaching heights of 20 feet. If the monkey island was 60 feet tall then this wave towered 80 feet above the trough, four times the average wave height.

The “one from nowhere” was a deep trough encountered by RMS Edinburgh Castle in 1964: Commodore W.S. Byles reported that the cruiser had “charged, as it were, into a hole in the ocean at an angle of 30° or more, shoveling the next wave on board at a height of 15 to 20ft before she could recover.”

The photo above was taken in the Bay of Biscay around 1940 — a merchant ship was laboring in heavy seas off the coast of France when a crew member photographed a huge wave behind them.

On May 5, 1916, Ernest Shackleton and three exhausted companions were sailing in a small boat across the South Atlantic, trying to reach a settlement and get help for their shipmates, who were stranded on Elephant Island. At midnight Shackleton, alone at the tiller, looked behind them and noticed a horizontal line in the sky. At first he thought this was a rift in the clouds, but gradually he realized it was the white crest of an enormous wave:

I shouted ‘For God’s sake, hold on! it’s got us.’ Then came a moment of suspense that seemed drawn out into hours. White surged the foam of the breaking sea around us. We felt our boat lifted and flung forward like a cork in breaking surf. We were in a seething chaos of tortured water; but somehow the boat lived through it, half full of water, sagging to the dead weight and shuddering under the blow. We bailed with the energy of men fighting for life, flinging the water over the sides with every receptacle that came to our hands, and after ten minutes of uncertainty we felt the boat renew her life beneath us.

“During twenty-six years’ experience of the ocean in all its moods I had not encountered a wave so gigantic,” Shackleton wrote later. “It was a mighty upheaval of the ocean, a thing quite apart from the big white-capped seas that had been our tireless enemies for many days.” But they survived the disaster and reached their goal.