St. Patrick's Day

I’m 25% Irish and 0% Catholic, but I’m as happy to wear green today as any other day. And yes, it’s hard to sort out the conflicting advice over whether I should drink Guinness or Bailey’s Irish Cream or Irish whiskey or Irish coffee today, so I think the safest course of action is to do all of the above. I’m sure St. Patrick would have wanted me to.

I do feel an obligation to point out that, no matter your nationality, what color you wear, or what you drink today, you must not refer to this date as “St. Patty’s Day.” It’s St. Paddy’s Day. Paddy, with d’s not t’s, because etymology. OK?

Image credit: Pixabay


Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

A portion of Guédelon castle under construction in 2012

History in the making

For 13 years, from 1981 to 1994, restorers worked to remove centuries of soot and candle smoke from the famous frescoes of the Sistine Chapel, including those created in the early 16th century by Michelangelo. After layers of varnish and grime covering the frescoes disappeared, the newly vibrant ceiling and walls of the chapel showed a modern world what Michelangelo’s work might have looked like soon after it was completed in 1512. Not only were the colors of the frescoes revealed to be much brighter, but even individual brushstrokes were visible enough to be compared to the styles of other artists.

Although restoration work of this kind can stir up controversy, as some would prefer not to risk damaging delicate artworks, or may disagree about the best method for restoring them, there is something extremely compelling about seeking to return old objects to their original states. It’s not possible for us to know what it was like to stand and watch Michelangelo at his work 500 years ago, but it is fascinating to imagine it.

Of course, restoration is not limited to famous paintings; ancient buildings also often undergo painstaking restorations. One such example is the castle of Saint-Fargeau in Burgundy, France. Built in 1453 on the foundations of a fortress dating from the 10th century, the castle now draws in large numbers of visitors who view epic historical reenactments on its grounds.

The man behind its restoration, Michel Guyot, has another project currently underway: the creation of an entire castle from the ground up, using the building techniques and materials of the 13th century. In the small village of Guédelon, not far from Saint-Fargeau, visitors to the castle can watch trained artisans go about their work, much as their counterparts did 800 years ago. Although seeing a restored castle can give you historical insight, the Guédelon project goes much further; with its emphasis on recreating the methods used to build the grand castles of the past, the experience could be likened to looking over the shoulder of a Renaissance artist, watching as he mixes his paints.

I Louvre What You’ve Done to the Place

The design of the castle was inspired by the castles built by King Philippe Auguste (or Philip II Augustus) in the 13th century. Among them is the original Louvre fortress, built to protect Paris from Viking attacks on its west side. Although the fortress was later razed to make room for a new palace, parts of its foundations remained intact (modern visitors to the Louvre can view these foundations in a special exhibition beneath the museum).

Although Philippe Auguste only lived until 1223, the Guédelon project’s designers imagine its beginning construction date as being 1228, when castle designs still followed Philippe’s model. Having chosen to emulate this historical era, the specific plans for the Guédelon castle were developed by Jacques Moulin, the chief architect of historic monuments in France. Begun in 1997 with the laying of the foundations, the Guédelon project is not scheduled to be completed until 2023. When it is finished, the castle will consist of high fortress walls, with towers of varying sizes around its perimeter.

Material Whirl

Forming the backbone of the project are the 40 or so builders who quarry stone, mix mortar, and chisel rock, among other tasks, during the warmer part of the year. In spring, summer, and fall these workers put in long days of work, while the site is closed in the winter. In keeping with the spirit of the project, workers wear simple tunics that would not have looked out of place in the 13th century, although they do make use of modern safety equipment such as goggles, helmets, and harnesses.

Both the materials they use and the techniques they employ are limited to those used by builders of the 13th century. The area around the construction site provides all the necessary materials for the project, including sandstone, wood, iron, limestone, earth, and hemp. Sandstone is quarried near the site, using only hand tools (such as sledgehammers), and then carried by horse-cart or wheelbarrow to the area where masons wait to shape the rock with chisels and mauls. The nearby forests provide wood for a variety of uses including the production of beams, planks, levers, scaffolding, banisters, wheelbarrows, pails, and tool handles, as well as fuel for all the site’s heating needs.

One of those heating needs is the kiln in which sandstone is fired for two days, before producing a lump of iron ore. Blacksmiths reheat the iron in a furnace before shaping it on their anvils into nails, tools, chains, weapons, or hinges. Likewise, blocks of limestone are heated to obtain quicklime, which is mixed with sand to produce mortar. Earth is used to produce bricks, pottery and tiles, and to weatherproof walls. Lastly, the project’s rope makers rely on hemp to create lifting ropes, belts, and harnesses.

Build It, and They Will Come

The Guédelon building site was first opened to the public in 1998, and by 2000, it was producing enough income to be self-sustaining. In recent years, as many as 300,000 people visit the site annually, and it is especially popular for groups of schoolchildren.

Although the workers at Guédelon are involved in actual construction, and are not just doing demonstrations of building techniques, visitors are welcome to not only observe, but to ask questions about what they’re seeing. Education is a big part of the project, and indeed, those involved in the process are also learning as they go, testing hypotheses about how medieval castles were built. The project has recently produced its own web series, “The Fires of Guédelon,” with the first season showing all the ways fire is used in the construction, and the second season dealing with how wood is used.

On a cold October day in 2012, my family and I visited Guédelon ourselves and saw first-hand the detail and craftsmanship that goes into the construction. It was amazing to see walls being built before our eyes, and to experience the site not only as a beautiful structure, but as a work in progress.

To me, the most remarkable thing about Guédelon is that people are not only studying history, but are themselves experiencing what life was like so long ago. The Guédelon workers and their guests have the opportunity to feel what artisans of the 13th century might have felt, watching a medieval castle take shape beneath their hands.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on October 25, 2006.


Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

A giant panda

Pandas are cute, furry, and of course masters of the martial arts. They’re also a threatened species. We’re lucky to have two of them at the nearby San Diego Zoo, but if you’re not close enough to visit pandas in person today, you can check out the Panda Cam!

Image credit: J. Patrick Fischer [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons


Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Fried crickets in Cambodia

Insects as food

Having lived the majority of my life in the northern latitudes, I have rarely had to deal with the everyday aspects of life in a tropical climate. Despite this fact, on those occasions when I have visited countries to the south, I have been able to endure the usual tropical conditions, chiefly high heat and humidity, without too much difficulty. However, there is one aspect of tropical life I find particularly hard to handle: coming face to face with insects of gigantic proportions.

While there are insects I find annoying in my part of the world (such as mosquitoes and ants), their relatively small size makes them seem less threatening than their tropical cousins. I realize that many people are used to seeing such creatures every day and and therefore don’t find them unnerving. However, this knowledge didn’t help me much when I was Indonesia, and we found two enormous water bugs hiding out in the mosquito netting above our bed. After some comically desperate maneuvers, we finally succeeded in banishing the bugs from the room. Perhaps if we had known that water bugs make a tasty condiment (ground up with chilies to make a spicy Thai paste), we might have welcomed them instead.

A Plate of Locusts

Although in Western cultures there is a general aversion to being around insects, let alone eating them, in many parts of the world (and also increasingly in the West) the insect kingdom is seen as an important and coveted source of food. The practice of eating bugs as food is known as entomophagy, and has been part of the human experience throughout history.

There is evidence that ancient cultures in Mexico, Spain, China, and what is now the United States included insects in their diets. The biblical book of Leviticus mentions locusts, bald locusts, beetles, and grasshoppers as acceptable food for the Israelites, and in the book of Matthew, John the Baptist is said to have subsisted on locusts and wild honey. The ancient Romans also reputedly practiced entomophagy, consuming locusts, cicadas, and stag beetle larvae at their lavish feasts.

Today, insect-eating is popular in parts of Africa, Australia, Central and South America, and Asia, including Thailand, Indonesia, China, and Japan. In some places, such as among Aboriginal peoples in Australia, insects are part of the traditional diet, being a readily available source of protein. In other places, insects are considered delicacies, and are prepared in numerous ways meant to tempt the palate—including roasting, frying, and grilling. In Colombia, for example, Hormigas culonas, or fried giant ants, are a regional specialty. Hachi-no-ko, or boiled wasp larvae, can be found in some restaurants in Japan, along with fried cicadas (Semi), rice-field grasshoppers (Inago), and silk moth pupae (Sangi).

It’s now possible to obtain edible insects prepared in lots of ways from online vendors, including candied insects, savory canned insects, and even insect alcohol infusions. A quick search of “edible insects” on Amazon currently brings up nearly 400 results of products an aspiring entomophage could sink their teeth into.

How to Eat Fried Crickets

Despite Western societal taboos against human consumption of insects, a growing number of enthusiasts believe there are economic, environmental, and health benefits to the practice of entomophagy. They argue that it is cheaper and more efficient to raise insects as a protein source than it is to rely on other animal products, and that it is less damaging to the environment. In addition, they claim that insects provide more nutritive value, while being lower in fat than other types of protein.

These benefits make entomophagy seem like the answer to some pressing problems, but there are a few barriers to it becoming more socially acceptable. Besides the obvious reluctance to eat creatures that many people find repulsive, there is debate about what effect the large-scale practice of entomophagy might have on the environment, with some voicing concern that certain species could be eradicated entirely. Also, some people have adverse reactions to eating insects, whether from allergies or pesticide contamination, making it necessary to educate the public about these dangers.

Despite these issues, as a former vegetarian I understand and applaud people’s efforts to eat lower on the food chain, for both health and environmental reasons. However, I don’t think I’d ever be able to switch to a bug-eating lifestyle, no matter how tasty or nutritious they might be. I’ll leave that to those with more adventurous palates and stronger stomachs.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on February 21, 2007.

Image credit: Thomas Schoch [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons


Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

A sleeping cat

Hey, it’s World Sleep Day! And to think, I just wrote about dream groups yesterday. As I’ve mentioned from time to time, sleep is one of my very favorite activities, and yet one that (due to having two small children and one small business) I’m unable to indulge in as much as I’d like. If your life situation is conducive to getting extra sleep—and most of us need it, especially after setting our clocks forward a few days ago—make it happen today.

And you know what, it’s probably safest to spend today in bed anyway—it’s also the Ides of March!

Image credit: Image by Eugen Visan from Pixabay


Source: Interesting Thing of the Day