Ancient GPS – Viking sunstones

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There is a lot wrong with the popular History Channel series Vikings. There is a lot right with it, too. Much of what you see on screen falls in the middle somewhere.

An example or two of the wrong: If there even was a Ragnar Lothbrok (the series’ main protagonist in its first four seasons, and who some historians consider a conglomeration of many Viking characters), he did not live at the same time as his series’ brother, Rollo.

In the series, the character Rollo (in reality, “Gangr Hrolf,” or “Hrolf the Walker” for his long legs) lived 50 to 75 years before the man was actually born and he received land in France, which became “Normandy,” meaning “Land of the Northmen,” perhaps 100 years after the series begins.

After agreeing to help the King of France repel any further invasions by his brother, Rollo proceeds to use French troops to kill his Viking compatriots who complain. Why then is Rollo needed? Now he is just a lone Viking.

In the Season 5a finale, we see Rollo coming to the aid of his nephews Ivar and Hvitserk at the head of a massive fleet. If the French had a massive fleet capable of reaching Norway, it’s news to virtually everyone, and history would likely have played out much differently than it did.

Those are just a couple of things wrong with the character Rollo and the timeline of the program.

However, the series does get much right. Much of the everyday life of the Vikings depicted in the series is correct, with the popular exception of the semi-Mad Max leather costumes.

We know too that Viking men were frequently tattooed and wore somewhat elaborate hairstyles. We are told this by Arab travelers who documented their visits among the Northmen. Most of the rituals depicted in the series fits outside contemporary accounts as well.

It seems also that Michael Hirst, the shows’ creator and writer, got the idea of female warriors right. While “shield-maidens” had been loosely mentioned in some texts following the Viking era, there had never been definitive proof. We don’t have it now, but it’s beginning to look like some women did take part in Viking warfare, and/or at the very dangerous game of Viking politics.

In 1889, Viking-era remains were found in a grave in Birka, Sweden. 128 years later, they were identified as female through DNA testing. In the grave with the female skeleton were typical warriors goods. Though nothing points directly to her being a warrior–she may have been a high-status warrior’s wife, given his expensive goods as a token of love, or perhaps the high-status female was anticipating joining the Valkyries in the afterlife. We are not 100 percent sure.

However, when taken with tales from the sagas (whose details, not theme, should be taken lightly), we know that women played a significant role in the political world of Iceland.

We know that women in Norway and Iceland enjoyed rights that few other women of the time could even dream of, such as divorce and inheritance.

The series’ first episode revolves around Ragnar Lothbrok and his brother yearning to try their hand at raiding in the west, not around the Baltic Sea as they apparently have for years. This is another of the show’s errors–the Vikings knew full well there was land to the west.

10 Things you may not know about the Vikings

Trade had gone on sporadically for centuries throughout the breadth and length of northwestern Europe, including the British Isles. Still, many British trade goods arrived via Denmark over land from France, and not every Ragnar, Rollo, or Ivar would know how to get there over the open ocean.

Ragnar lets his brother in on a little secret. He has gained a “sunstone” from a wanderer, and this will allow them to successfully navigate even if the sun is obscured with cloud and fog, as is common as dirt in the North Sea.

Here’s the trouble. No one is sure that sunstone (which is the nickname for certain types of feldspar, and other stones, such as calcite and tourmaline) was used in the Viking era, or as early as Ragnar Lothbrok was said to have lived. Icelandic sagas written in the 12th and 13th centuries mention “sunstones” but are vague about their use.

Later Christian texts mention them as well, but we do not know whether the Vikings of any era used them for navigation. Until archaeologists find one in a Viking grave or other yet undiscovered site, we may never know for sure.

Recent studies at the Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary have shown that it was possible to navigate using a sunstone. As reported in the journal Royal Society Open Science in April 2018, two professors, Dénes Száz and Gábor Horváth, knowing the measurements and traits of Viking-era vessels, weather patterns in the North Sea and currents, ran 36,000 computer simulations of Viking voyages.

They found that if a navigator used a sunstone to monitor the sun’s position at least once every three hours he would reach his target exactly 92-100 percent of the time (and this period includes just before sunrise and just after sunset, as sunstones can magnify the suns light on the horizon before its truly visible to the naked eye).

In one of their simulations, the professors used a different type of sunstone, and departing from Norway in their simulation, found that if they checked their stone for the sun once every four hours instead of three, they would blow past the United Kingdom, Iceland, Greenland, and end up in…Canada.

 Matthew Gaskill


Matthew Gaskill holds an MA in European History and writes on a variety of topics from the Medieval World to WWII to genealogy and more. A former educator, he values curiosity and diligent research. He is the author of many best-selling Kindle works on Amazon.

The unlikely home of the world’s smallest desert

It had snowed overnight, but there were already tracks on the ground. The fine powder had covered the perimeter of spruce and willow and was already starting to melt on the topmost branches when I set out on my expedition. Ahead was a denuded and frozen basin of snowy ridges and gently rising slopes.

The noise of the village had faded, and as I took my first steps onto the plateau, following the contour of the land, an intense squeak escaped from under my boots. It was all I could hear for the next 10 minutes. A muffled, metronomic marriage of snow groaning on sand. After that, I had reached my destination. I had crossed what many believe is the world’s smallest desert.

At only 600m wide, Canada’s Carcross Desert is said to be the world’s smallest desert (Credit: Credit: Mike MacEacheran)

At only 600m wide, Canada’s Carcross Desert is said to be the world’s smallest desert (Credit: Mike MacEacheran)

This was my introduction to one of North America’s most bizarre geological phenomena, the Carcross Desert in Canada’s Yukon). At first glance, it admittedly didn’t look like much. Hardly recognisable as a desert and only 600m wide, best measured end to end by bootprints, it was blanketed in snow, the sand only apparent between cracks in the melted crust. But the details sharpened over time. Closer inspection revealed a miniature kingdom of fine-grain sands, a rare habitat for plants, ungulates and insect species that may be new to science.

Arriving at its roadside gateway, marked by an abrupt ‘Carcross Desert’ signpost, the words seemed jarring and out of place in Canada. I’d seen dunes in Oman, Morocco, Namibia, Chile, Saudi Arabia, India, Mongolia and Egypt, but there are few places at 60° North where you’ll see the word ‘desert’ writ large. Deserts take up one third of the Earth’s land surface, but the one outside the village of Carcross doesn’t offer the philosophical mindset of the Sahara or the Rub’ Al Khali. It is a pipsqueak. A Lilliputian sandpit, by comparison. And measuring just 1 sq mile (2.59 sq km) it is one of only a few such dune systems in North America.

“The desert has long been an enigma to us locals,” said Keith Wolfe Smarch, a member of the Tlingit First Nation who lives in Carcross, population 301. The wood carver, who can see the dunes from his workshop, has long used the surrounding landscape as inspiration for his work. “There’s plenty of rare vegetation that lives down by the beach on the Carcross River and one day the desert will swallow it up. It shapes our town.”

The Carcross Desert is a rare habitat for plants and insect species that may be new to science (Credit: Credit: Mike MacEacheran)

The Carcross Desert is a rare habitat for plants and insect species that may be new to science (Credit: Mike MacEacheran)

According to Wolfe Smarch, the village of Carcross was founded some 4,500 years ago at a crossing point where Bennett Lake and Nares Lake meet. Such good fortune created a natural land bridge, which in turn became a makeshift trap for migrating game. “Massive herds of woodland caribou would cross here,” Wolfe Smarch told me. “As nomadic people, both the Tlingit and Tagish tribes camped beside the nearby Natasaheen River to hunt – so the town’s name comes from a portmanteau of caribou and crossing.”

As Carcross has grown, so has the number of visitors to the Yukon’s one-of-a-kind desert. Originally called Naataase Heen (meaning ‘water running through the narrows’), Carcross was the kind of village most would pass through. There is a scattering of white-painted churches, a general store, and cabins adorned with moose antlers and rusted axes, leftovers from the Klondike era when paddle-steamer traffic ferried miners to the territory’s goldfields near Dawson City and Atlin. But today, the story is changing.

It shapes our town

Sport lovers now descend on the sands every weekend, creating a multi-purpose adventure playground. In summer, exposed dunes are used by quad bikers, hikers and sand-boarders, and become a shelter for dall sheep, mountain goats and deer. As soon as enough snow falls, the desert turns into something else entirely, the dunes reclaimed by ski-tourers, tobogganers, snowshoers and snowboarders.

“I bring my kids tobogganing and they love it,” said Whitehorse-born Jennifer Glyka, who I met at the village’s Bistro on Bennett, one block from Wolfe Smarch’s studio. “I grew up in the Yukon, but it’s still pretty weird for me to slide down an ice-covered sand dune. I’d never heard of this place when I was a kid.”

The village of Carcross was founded more than 4,000 years ago at the point where the Bennett and Nares lakes meet (Credit: Credit: Mike MacEacheran)

The village of Carcross was founded more than 4,000 years ago at the point where the Bennett and Nares lakes meet (Credit: Mike MacEacheran)

For all the feel-good spectacle, the Carcross Desert leads a double life. It is also the territory of Canadian scientists and geologists at pains to unravel its secrets, to work out just exactly how this nanoscale oddity came to be.

One such expert is surficial geologist Panya Lipovsky from the Yukon Geological Survey. She has made it her mission to research the scaled-down desert’s backstory, and she understands its contradictions better than most. “I study dirt,” she said, matter-of-factly, when we met at the Yukon government building in Whitehorse. “I also study landslides and surface deposits. And that encompasses deserts.”

The ice bulldozed everything

According to Lipovsky, the Carcross Desert’s unique genesis is the result of 10,000 years of natural labour. The Yukon was last glaciated during the Wisconsinan McConnell glaciation, she explained, some 11,000 to 24,000 years ago. “Carcross would have had 1km of ice sitting on top of it,” she told me, while hunched over research papers and geological fieldwork studies. “You just can’t picture it.”

As the ice started to melt, lobes of ice began to retreat south, leaving the southern Yukon with heavily scarred valleys. Lipovsky likens this to a vast construction site, as “the ice bulldozed everything”. Over time, massive lakes formed at the snout of the lobes, then when the ice retreated, water levels dropped, leaving beaches and strand lines socked in between the valleys. To finish, sand was hoovered up by fierce winds and blown north-west, giving birth to one of the world’s most unlikely deserts.

“There’s a misconception it’s the result of a dried-up lake, but that’s not the case,” Lipovsky told me. “Strong prevailing winds continue to whip along Bennett Lake today, blowing exposed fine-grain sands into the dunes. So the combination of the wind, the water and the Ice Age created a distinctive set of circumstances.”

Artist Keith Wolfe Smarch of the Tlingit First Nation has long used the unique landscape of the Carcross Desert as inspiration (Credit: Credit: Mike MacEacheran)

Artist Keith Wolfe Smarch of the Tlingit First Nation has long used the unique landscape of the Carcross Desert as inspiration (Credit: Mike MacEacheran)

Another inconsistency is the issue of classification. To be categorised as an arid desert for scientific purposes, one needs to receive less than 250mm of annual precipitation, while semi-arid deserts receive between 250mm and 500mm. This is the category that Carcross falls into, despite sitting in the rain shadow of the surrounding mountains.

“You can certainly call it a wet desert,” Lipovsky said. “But with so much sand and sediment blown in, there’s no chance for the vegetation to regenerate. It’s a truly dynamic system.”

Despite such contradictions, what’s not debated is the sense of awe and sheer amazement the desert inspires. As you enter, its mystery deepens, the tall willow and spruce appearing in ghostly silhouette. Beyond this, surprises wait. Yukon lupine and Baikal sedge flower in summer. Rarely seen coast dart moths and dune tachinidae hover in the skies. Five new species of gnorimoschema, a genus of the moth family, have been discovered. The likelihood is there are more.

The Carcross Desert is home to a variety of wildlife, including dall sheep and mountain goats (Credit: Credit: Mike MacEacheran)

The Carcross Desert is home to a variety of wildlife, including dall sheep and mountain goats (Credit: Mike MacEacheran)

All this beauty in one of the Earth’s most unforgiving and complex environments is hard to fathom. This isn’t the Sahara, the Gobi or the Kalahari. But each step across its diminutive dunes makes you realise: this desert is a whole world of wonder unto itself.

By Mike MacEacheran 22 June 2018

 

Stopping habitat loss is the key to saving Canada’s endangered species

Canada has been losing and saving species for a long time. Since European settlement, over 100 species have been lost here. These include plants and animals that are extinct and extirpated and species that are considered historic (no one has seen them in Canada for a long time). The number of lost species varies between different regions of the country. In the Great Lakes region of southern Ontario, there are extinct species (passenger pigeon), extirpated species (paddlefish) and historic species (Eskimo curlew). There are also species that have vanished from this landscape but still exist elsewhere in Canada. This includes large carnivores, such as black bear and cougar, and plants and smaller wildlife, such as white prairie-clover, spring salamander and Melissa blue butterfly.

The causes of species loss in Canada have varied through time, and include over-hunting, pollution, invasive species, habitat loss and climate change. These mirror the threats to species around the world. Canada has made significant progress in reducing some of these threats, and helping some species to recover.

Pronghorn antelope, Old Man on His Back (Photo by Karol Dabbs)

Pronghorn antelope, Old Man on His Back (Photo by Karol Dabbs)

Over a century ago, many of our game and furbearing animals, such as pronghorn, beaver and marten, had vanished from huge areas of Canada because of unregulated hunting and trapping. Many migratory birds were becoming rare because of over-hunting and commercial harvest. Today, trapping and hunting are not a significant threat to endangered species in Canada. We have also seen an extraordinary recovery of species, such as wood duck and river otter.

Peregrine falcon, ON (Photo by Brian Ratcliff)

Peregrine falcon, ON (Photo by Brian Ratcliff)

When I was kid in the late 1970s, I had posters of peregrine falcons and American white pelicans on my wall. Their populations had drastically declined, in part, because of the pesticide DDT. DDT would accumulate in these birds and cause the shells of their eggs to thin and crack. Without new generations of these birds being born, their populations were declining. When DDT was mostly phased out by the mid-1970s, populations of these birds recovered. While there are still some chemicals that are impacting species, we now know that by reducing environmental pollution, species can recover.

Canadians today should be thankful to those who made the changes needed to help wildlife recover. Introducing new trapping regulations, passing the Migratory Bird Act in 1916 to control hunting and protect birds, and the banning of DDT were not simple feats. But they were necessary, and those conservation actions benefit Canadians and Canadian wildlife today.

Today our challenge to save species is also not simple, but it is equally necessary. Of all the threats to species and of all the factors endangering Canada’s wildlife, the challenge to our generation is stopping habitat loss.

Now, you might have thought climate change is our biggest challenge. But to save species, to prevent the further loss of Canada’s wildlife, we need to save habitat. There is no opportunity for species’ recovery if their habitat is lost. Changes in hunting regulations couldn’t have saved pronghorns if there wasn’t any habitat left. And solving climate change won’t protect species if, in our race to reduce carbon emissions, their habitat disappears.

The Green Mountains Nature Reserve, QC (Photo by Appalachian Corridor)

The Green Mountains Nature Reserve, QC (Photo by Appalachian Corridor)

There are many important initiatives to protect habitat for endangered species and wildlife. Canada’s current target of protecting 17 per cent of our land and inland waters by 2020 will help us meet an important conservation milestone, but many of these new protected areas and conservation lands will be in our northlands. This is critical for woodland caribou and wolverines, but many of Canada’s most endangered species live in the southern areas of Canada where most of the land is privately owned. This is also a landscape that is under the most immediate threat. In many regions, we have a one-time opportunity for our generation to protect critical habitats for our most endangered plants and animals.

One of the most important roles of the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC), and other land trusts, is to work with private landowners to protect habitat for species that are at risk of being lost from Canada. NCC now protects habitat for over 200 species that have been assessed as endangered, threatened or special concern by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada(COSEWIC). This growing number reflects both the increasing number of species assessed as at risk by COSEWIC and NCC’s continued focus on protecting lands that provide habitat for our most endangered species.

Over the last two years, with support from the Government of Canada’s Natural Areas Conservation Program, NCC has documented over 20 new species of endangered wildlife on our properties. Some of these are found on new NCC properties. Some are the result of new information and discoveries, and additions from recent COSEWIC assessments. Some of the species new to NCC’s portfolio of Canada’s endangered wildlife that we help to protect include:

Maritime ringlet (endangered)

The entire range of this small butterfly is restricted to coastal marshes in northern New Brunswick and the southern coast of the Gaspé Peninsula in Quebec. NCC documented this globally rare butterfly in 2016 on a property in the Southern Gulf of the St. Lawrence.

Lark bunting (threatened)

The global population of this grassland bird has declined by 98 per cent in the last 50 years due to habitat loss. When the species was assessed as threatened by COSEWIC in 2017, NCC had already protected over 30 properties in Alberta and Saskatchewan, including the Wideview Complex in Saskatchewan, that provide the shrinking prairie habitats it needs.

Van Brunt’s Jacob’s ladder (threatened)

This globally rare wildflower was recently discovered on an NCC property in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. Van Brunt’s Jacob’s ladder is rare throughout its range in northeastern Northern America and is threatened by habitat loss.

Evening grosbeak (special concern)

This coniferous forest songbird has been declining throughout most of its range. Threats to the evening grosbeak include loss of mature and old-growth forests. This bird was assessed as special concern by COSEWIC in 2016. At that time, NCC was already protecting nesting and stopover habitat across Canada, including Southwest Nova Natural Area in Nova Scotia, Riding Mountain in Manitoba and the Salish Sea in BC.

Hine’s emerald (endangered)

The Canadian distribution of the globally rare Hine’s emerald dragonfly is restricted to the Minesing Wetlands, just west of Barrie, Ontario. In 2017 and 2018, NCC protected two properties where the Hine’s emerald has been recorded. In addition to habitat protection, NCC will also be restoring wetlands on the Patrick W. E. Hodgson Property over the next few years to create additional habitat for this species.

Habitat is the lynchpin of wildlife conservation. There are important successes in recovery and discovery that we need to share. But most importantly, we need to do more conservation and we need to do it faster. No one else can save Canadian wildlife except Canadians.

May 18, 2018 | by Dan Kraus   The Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC)

 

Dan Kraus

About the Author

Dan Kraus is NCC’s National conservation biologist.

Read more about Dan Kraus.

North Americas unexpected neon jungle

Surprisingly, Vancouver – not Shanghai, Hong Kong or Las Vegas – was once the neon capital of the planet.

Wide shot: a city’s majestic backdrop of sea and sky, skirted by folds of Douglas fir, and deep, zigzagging fjords. Zoom in: a downtown core on the rise, a mixture of newly built condominiums, theatres and red-brick saloons. Close-up: in the middle, a hodgepodge of advertising signs and overhead utility lines rearing out of the darkness. And the big picture: the sky electrified in a glow of red, yellow and green as 19,000 neon lights switch on.

Step back in time to 1950s Vancouver, and this is what would have greeted you after sailing across the Georgia Strait to the city’s historical district of Gastown. From here to the suburbs, the streets hummed with transporters and Frankenstein-like glass insulators. Logging agencies, lumberjack recruiters – even churches – advertised with neon lettering, while residents amped up their houses with neon door numbers. Harder to believe still, the city produced more strip neon than anywhere else on the planet, with one sign for every 18 residents, and 12 factories, including the world’s largest.

Vancouver, Canada, was one of the first capitals of neon, with one sign for every 18 residents (Credit: Credit: Michael robertharding/Alamy)

Vancouver, Canada, was one of the first capitals of neon, with one sign for every 18 residents (Credit: Michael robertharding/Alamy)

Stories like this aren’t supposed to happen in the middle of the Pacific Northwest’s beautiful temperate rainforests. Maybe in Hong Kong, Las Vegas or Shanghai, cities where streets besieged with neon are part of downtown lore. But Vancouver, Canada’s great-outdoors capital? The sheer volume of neon colour juxtaposed with its beautiful natural setting seems alien. Yet the truth that it was one of the world’s first capitals of neon is unlike anything stereotypes of the city might lead you to expect.

To learn more, I contacted John Atkin, a Vancouver-born civic historian, heritage consultant and neon expert. “Neon and rain are made for each other – it makes the colour diffuse and come alive – and that really helps explain why there was such a boom here,” he said as we toured the Museum of Vancouver’s permanent neon gallery on an overcast afternoon. “Vancouver has more grey days than anywhere else in North America, but it was also a streetcar city, which advertising neon is perfect for. Add the weather to the transport system, then factor in the low cost of leasing the signs as manufacturers began competing with each other, and neon boomed. It workedhere.”

The museum’s rich collection of aged and weathered signage comes from the groundwork of Atkin, who first curated an exhibition on the city’s neon history back in 2000. Two stand-outs are a gigantic pink-striped ‘R’ from Regent Tailors, first hung on West Hastings Street in 1960; and a buzzing red and green headstone designed for S Bowell & Sons Ltd Funeral Directors from the previous decade.

Even Vancouver’s churches advertised with neon signs (Credit: Credit: Mike MacEacheran)

Even Vancouver’s churches advertised with neon signs (Credit: Mike MacEacheran)

According to Atkin, the key thing that set Vancouver apart was the majority of sign makers here were art-school graduates. That meant there was a real consideration for design, and streets became canvases of typography, colour and action. The definition between where the building finished and art began started to blur.

“The artists had fun with it,” said Atkin, as we looked upon one-sided mounts advertising a beauty salon, a dry cleaner, a garage, a dairy and a pool hall. “In the 1940s and 1950s, Vancouver wasn’t just lit by neon – it was illuminated with stories.”

Vancouver wasn’t just lit by neon – it was illuminated with stories

Atkin clearly remembers the tales that illuminated his childhood. When he was a boy, he used to cycle through the inner city on his way to swimming practice. He was an early riser, and somehow felt drawn to the rainbow-coloured signs on downtown Granville Street in the pre-dawn light, particularly vibrant around 05:00.

Share such stories with Vancouverites today and many will be puzzled. Tell them trees were covertly planted beneath well-known signs to blot out the visual noise and they’ll scarcely believe you. But there’s a good reason: the signs have all but gone, with most consigned to the scrapheap.

For history hasn’t been kind to Vancouver’s neon. Did it signal glamour and big-city living – or was it a vulgar display that vandalised a city? From the 1950s to 1970s, this was the question that divided the city, with neon becoming a symbol of a deep civic controversy and a lightning rod for critics.

By the 1960s, a growing suburbia meant neon had become demonised and associated with urban blight. “You can have civilisation, or you can have neon,” said one detractor, the criticism ironically lit up as a display at the museum. “It is vital to Vancouver’s reputation as a beautiful city… that these proposed sign controls be implemented before any more visual squalor is added to our most attractive streets,” said another at the height of the backlash.

To the city’s lawmakers, the signage frustrated people’s expectations of what Vancouver – surrounded by a northern cape of mountains and forests – should be. The throbbing glow was seen as an ugly, seedy distraction. So by 1974, the city adopted its first comprehensive sign control bylaw, restricting new neon signage beyond measure.

As Atkin sees it, the distaste came from a misguided realisation of just how corrosive to society neon was. “The bylaws made it damn difficult to do anything,” he said. “Everything that made neon cool – you couldn’t do it anymore. And with it the craft started to disappear.”

By the 1960s, Vancouver’s neon became a symbol of deep civic controversy

By the 1960s, Vancouver’s neon became a symbol of deep civic controversy (Credit: Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Today, examples of vintage neon still dot Vancouver, although you need to know where to look. For maximum impact, a walk through the city should take in The Orpheum and Vogue Theatre, two typographic verticals on Granville Street trimmed with bulbs. On nearby Hastings Street, a quick succession of marvels then spreads farther east, including signs such as those at Save On Meats, The Balmoral and The Pennsylvania (hotels turned social housing projects) and Ovaltine Cafe, a city fixture dating to the early 1940s.

We’re bringing the neon back

However, thanks to newly tempered bylaws keen to curtail downtown’s commercial decline, change is gathering pace, particularly in Chinatown, an area intrinsically tied to neon’s rise and fall because of the propensity of restaurants to embrace the advertising. Walk along East Pender Street and you’ll come to Sai Woo, a nearly 100-year-old restaurant, restored and reopened in 2015 as part of the area’s ongoing gentrification. Here, the unmissable 3x2m neon cockerel advertising chop suey – paid for by a community-supported C$19,000 Kickstarter campaign – is just the start of a welcome revival.

“We’re bringing the neon back,” owner Salli Pateman told me, while staring out at the two-sided gold-and-green cockerel sign. “It’s happening again, and a year from now there’ll be five or so more places with signs like this. We’re salvaging the heritage of this neighbourhood.”

The message is clear: there’s a new generation willing to embrace the visual noise.

Owner Salli Pateman raised nearly C$20,000 to locate and restore the Sai Woo restaurant’s original neon sign (Credit: Credit: Mike MacEacheran)

Owner Salli Pateman raised nearly C$20,000 to locate and restore the Sai Woo restaurant’s original neon sign (Credit: Mike MacEacheran)

Next for Chinatown is the return of Foo’s Ho Ho, Vancouver’s oldest Chinese restaurant and a place famous for a once-notorious neon artwork. It was the address for an incredibly complex four-storey sign depicting a two-sided bowl of steaming noodles with flashing, alternating English and Cantonese words. The campaign to restore it has been masterminded by restaurant owner Carol Lee. Designed from scratch by Atkin using a more streamlined design, and paid for through heritage grants and donations, the C$80,000 signboard will be unveiled later next year.

It creates a sense of nostalgia, but also community

But while such visual ambition forms part of a wider lighting strategy to revitalise downtown Vancouver, it’s about more than just adding drama to the cityscape for locals. “It creates a sense of nostalgia, but also community,” said Pateman, looking up and down the street with a look of marked confidence. “When these signs are switched on, people will know Chinatown is back.”

The ultimate symbol of Vancouver’s transition from west coast logging town to vibrant metropolis, neon was once the city’s hallmark. Tomorrow’s Vancouver – shining bright – will be as much a reaction to its past as it is a celebration of the future.

By Mike MacEacheran 4 May 2018

The US-Canada border runs through this tiny library

The Haskell library straddles two nations, with one foot in the US and the other in Canada.

Step into the Haskell Library and you’d easily mistake it for a typical small-town American library. Sure, it’s a bit more elegant, with original woodwork from 1905 and upholstered reading chairs but, still, a library like any other.

The library straddles two nations, with one foot in the US and the other in Canada

Soon, though, questions nag. Why do the librarians toggle effortlessly between English and French? Why do the stacks contain so many books on French-Canadian history? And, most perplexing of all, what is that black line traversing the floor?

The Haskell, it turns out, is a library like no other. It straddles two nations, with one foot in the US and the other in Canada. That black line running along the floor – a strip of masking tape – marks the international border, separating the towns Derby Line, Vermont, from Stanstead, Quebec. The front door, community bulletin board and children’s books are in the US; the remainder of the collection and the reading room is in Canada.

The Haskell Library sits on the border between Vermont in the US and Quebec in Canada (Credit: Credit: DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)

The Haskell Library sits on the border between Vermont in the US and Quebec in Canada (Credit: DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)

You may also be interested in:
• The US land lost in Canada
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• The dessert that’s blocked at borders

The tape looks worn. No wonder – it’s the source of endless attention. Not an hour goes by, according to Nancy Rumery, the library’s director, when visitors don’t pose for photos with the line. They pose while making faces, or while lying across the tape. They pose with Flat Stanley, a paper cut-out of the children’s book character. Some families queue on either side of the line, others in descending height order.

Lately, Rumery has noticed something even odder: some visitors freeze before the black line, as if it were emitting an invisible force field. They’ve seen an internet rumour claiming it’s illegal to cross the line. In fact, it is encouraged. The library relishes its role as a sort of free-trade zone for humans, a reprieve from a border that, while not exactly the Korean DMZ, is no longer the loosey-goosey frontier of decades past. Why such a fascination, though, with an innocuous strip of black masking tape?

A border runs through the middle, yet it brings people together

Borders fascinate us, always have. There is something about the divide between two worlds that intrigues – and frightens. Let’s face it, borders can be scary. They hint at darkness and danger out there, on the other side. That is what makes the Haskell Library so refreshing. It refuses to cave to this fear.

“A line on a map is supposed to separate us, supposed to be what divides us,” said Canadian Hal Newman. “But that is what makes the Haskell so spectacular. Yes, a border runs through the middle, yet it brings people together. How fantastic is that?”

Library patrons can freely cross the black tape that marks the international border (Credit: Credit: Boston Globe/Getty Images)

Library patrons can freely cross the black tape that marks the international border (Credit: Boston Globe/Getty Images)

Newman is the former director of the adjoining Haskell Opera House, which also straddles the border. He calls it ‘the impossible room’, as in impossible that such a venue exists. The stage is in Canada, most of the seats in the US. The border, in fact, slices through some of those seats, making the Haskell “the only opera house in the world where you can have one cheek on both sides of the border,” he said.

This is by design, not accident. The Haskell family purposefully built the library and opera house along the border more than a century ago to promote cross-border interaction and friendship.

Managing a bi-national enterprise “is absolutely complex,” said Rumery, who, while Canadian, uses ‘we’ when referring to Canadians or Americans. There are international exchange rates to contend with (the library accepts both currencies; there are no fines, but they sell postcards and other mementos); and two sets of safety regulations (the library uses whichever is strictest). Going out to lunch requires crossing an international border (it’s easier to order in). Rumery must negotiate not only with readers hunting for the latest Stephen King novel but also with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, US Homeland Security, and the International Boundary Commission, among others.

The Haskell Opera House’s stage is in Canada while most of the seats are in the US (Credit: Credit: Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images)

The Haskell Opera House’s stage is in Canada while most of the seats are in the US (Credit: Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images)

Then there was the time 15 years ago when the library wanted to install a new lift. The lift was in Canada, but bringing the crane, which was in the US, to that side – even for a few hours – meant paying hefty duties. The solution? Leave the crane on US soil and hoist the lift through Canadian airspace.

“Sometimes I wish I worked for a plain old cinder block library,” Rumery said, but the mischievous twinkle in her eyes gave her away. She was only kidding. She wouldn’t want to work anywhere else.

The library is more than a geographic curiosity; it is, in this age of geopolitical tension and talk of walls, a reminder that borders are fictions created by humans that are precisely as real, and as menacing, as we choose to make them.

I’ve been visiting this stretch of borderland for years. The cottage I rent with Canadian friends represents something of a compromise; located in Vermont, but so close to Canada you can walk there – which is exactly what I did this summer. I also drove and cycled across the border, each time dutifully clearing US and Canadian customs and immigration.

While kayaking on Lake Memphremagog, the author crossed the US border into Canada (Credit: Credit: Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images)

While kayaking on Lake Memphremagog, the author crossed the US border into Canada (Credit: Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images)

One sunny morning, though, I decided to do something different. I hopped into a kayak and paddled across the border, the boundary marked only by a small white obelisk perched on a tiny island in the middle of Lake Memphremagog. It was wrong, I knew, but also exhilarating. There is something deliciously delinquent about crossing an international border surreptitiously, even one as seemingly benign as the US-Canadian border. I had thrown shade on the Treaty of Westphalia, the 17th-Century accord that created the concept of modern nation-states that prevails to this day.

Borders are not static places. They change with the mood on one, or both, sides of the line. The big change to this sleepy border crossing came after the attacks of 11 September 2001. Streets that traversed the border were closed to traffic. Large potted plants were installed in front of the library, a barrier that would have been unthinkable on 10 September. Today, a US Homeland Security vehicle sits outside the library’s entrance 24 hours a day.

Back in the day you wouldn’t think twice about crossing the border to get a slice of pizza

The biggest change, though, is the steady flow of asylum seekers – ‘northbounders’, as they’re known – from the US to Canada. “I remember one day I saw a van driving up a street on the US side and this family gets out and they run across the border,” Newman recalled. “It’s minus 20C outside and the kids are wearing flip-flops. I’ll never forget that.” People separated by the border arrange to meet at the library, embracing among the copies of Philip Roth and Robertson Davies.

Among long-time residents here a strain of border nostalgia persists. Back in the day you could cross the border effortlessly. Back in the day, the customs agents knew your name and waved you through with a smile. Back in the day you wouldn’t think twice about crossing the border to get a slice of pizza. Back in the day – it isn’t said but understood – life was better.

Before the attacks of 11 September 2001, you could cross the border effortlessly (Credit: Credit: Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images)

Before the attacks of 11 September 2001, you could cross the border effortlessly (Credit: Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images)

“I used to have as many Canadian friends as American friends,” said Buzzy Roy, the pharmacist at Brown’s Drug Store in Derby Line. “You didn’t think of them as Canadians or Americans. They were just friends. In our minds, the border didn’t exist.” Today, the two towns still share a water system but, aside from fond memories, not much else. The library and the adjoining opera house are the last places where residents regularly interact.

You didn’t think of them as Canadians or Americans – they were just friends

Roy’s pharmacy occupies a precarious position, a sort of No Man’s Land between the US and Canada. Cars entering from Canada must drive about 100m before reaching the US customs and immigration post, which means that, while on US soil, they have yet to officially enter the country. The pharmacy stands in this gap. “It’s very confusing, very abnormal. You don’t see many borders like this,” he said, adding that occasionally people walk into his store not knowing which country they’re in.

Derby Line, like many small towns, is hurting economically, as the boarded-up storefronts attest. Competition from big box stores is partly to blame, but so is the border, according to Roy. “Too much hassle for too little reward,” he said. Sometimes borders fuel the local economy, other times they starve it. Never are they neutral.

The library's community bulletin board and children’s books are in the US while the rest of the books are in Canada (Credit: Credit: Bloomberg/Getty Images)

The library’s community bulletin board and children’s books are in the US while the rest of the books are in Canada (Credit: Bloomberg/Getty Images)

“I can see the need for tightening the reins from 30 or 40 years ago, but some of the things they do are unnecessary,” said Brian Smith, a Vermont state representative who has lived virtually his entire life in Derby Line. Smith relayed a story about an 85-year-old Vermont man who drove to visit his Canadian girlfriend. When he returned, the US Homeland Security computers were down, so the agent – who knew the man – insisted he wait for an hour until they came back on line. “That’s ridiculous,” Smith said. “Canada is not our enemy.”

True, but in recent years some have tried to exploit the border’s relative porousness. In 2011, a Montreal man was arrested for allegedly smuggling a rucksack filled with guns through the library’s restroom. (He was recently extradited to the US to face charges there.) It was a shock to the library staff; “a violation of sacred space,” Newman said.

It also raised fears that, in the current climate, the library’s future is uncertain. Shuttering the library, though, wouldn’t happen without a fight, predicted Smith.

“You would see citizen outrage,” he said. “On both sides of the border.”

By Eric Weiner 6 November 2017

 

Canada’s vital role in the communications revolution

I carefully framed the iceberg over my left shoulder and snapped the perfect selfie. A few taps of my phone later, the image was soaring through cyberspace from my location in St John’s, Newfoundland, to my various social media channels and followers around the world.

I smiled, wondering if, when Guglielmo Marconi stood on this spot in December 1901 to receive the world’s first wireless transatlantic transmission, he had any idea of where his success would lead. Would Marconi have taken a selfie on this spot?

Signal Hill in St John’s, Newfoundland, is where the first wireless transatlantic transmission was received (Credit: Credit: Wayne Barrett & Anne MacKay/Getty Images)

Signal Hill in St John’s, Newfoundland, is where the first wireless transatlantic transmission was received (Credit: Wayne Barrett & Anne MacKay/Getty Images)

I was on Signal Hill, a massive piece of bedrock about 140m above the Atlantic Ocean on Canada’s eastern shore. It’s a dramatic spot where the ocean merges into St John’s Harbour, creating a waterway appropriately called The Narrows. Fishing boats and trawlers pass through each morning just as the sun begins to illuminate the route, and again in the early evening hours to bring seafood to the local restaurants and canneries.

They, too, make vivid images to share on social media.

A paved trail from downtown St John’s follows the harbour shoreline to the bottom of the hill before winding around and up via a series of switchbacks and steps that make the hike an energetic workout. When I explored on a Saturday afternoon, the hillside was dotted with picnickers, dog walkers and people enjoying the beauty of the day. Two wedding parties with photographers in tow were taking advantage of this exceptional setting as a backdrop for their special day.

But its popularity was not what brought Marconi to Signal Hill. Indeed, the number of visitors was a concern as he considered the needs for his experiment.

Signal Hill is not the most eastern point in North America, but it’s protected from North Atlantic storms (Credit: Credit: Wolfgang Kaehler/Contributor/Getty Images)

Signal Hill is not the most eastern point in North America, but it’s protected from North Atlantic (Credit: Wolfgang Kaehler/Contributor/Getty Images)

The child of a wealthy family in Bologna, Italy, Marconi was well-educated, and from an early age was fascinated with science, specifically the transmission of electromagnetic waves through the air. He was the first to discover that by grounding a transmitter and receiver, and raising the height of an antenna, he could extend a signal’s range.

That was big news in 1894. But few in Italy were impressed, so Marconi moved to Great Britain where he patented the invention and found investors to continue his work. The big question of the day was whether a long-distance radio wave could follow the curvature of the Earth or whether it just shot out into space.

Marconi scoured several locations on North America’s eastern seaboard for this experimental, transatlantic transmission. His first choice was a rocky outcropping in Wellfleet on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, but a series of storms on both sides of the ocean that battered antennae and other equipment eventually led him further north.

Marconi needed to use balloons and kites to help keep his antennae upright (Credit: Credit: Hulton Deutsch/Contributor/Getty Images)

Marconi needed to use balloons and kites to help keep his antennae upright (Credit: Hulton Deutsch/Contributor/Getty Images)

Signal Hill is not the most eastern point in North America; that would be Cape Spear, a little further south. But Signal Hill is slightly more protected from the North Atlantic’s furious storms by a natural recess in the coastline. On a clear day, you feel as though you could shout a greeting to someone on England’s rocky coast, about 3,500km to the east.

Marconi had already chosen his ideal location on the other side of the Atlantic: Poldhu on the Lizard Peninsula in South Cornwall. Although the original transmission station is gone, a monument and visitors centre today marks the spot and interprets what was going on here while Marconi and team worked on the other side of the ocean.

The transmission was sent from Poldhu, South Cornwall, where a monument to Marconi now stands (Credit: Credit: incamerastock/Alamy)

The transmission was sent from Poldhu, South Cornwall, where a monument to Marconi now stands (Credit: incamerastock/Alamy)

Those in England worked in isolation, struggling with weather conditions of their own, not knowing at all what was transpiring in Newfoundland. It had been weeks since they had communicated with Marconi and team.

For several days, at an appointed time each day, the scientists at Poldhu transmitted three simple dots – the Morse code signal for the letter ‘s’. Marconi was battling against the violently cold and windy winter up here, and needed to use a series of balloons and kites to help keep his antennae upright. But each day, at the designated time, he donned headsets and listened.

Finally, on 12 December 1901, it happened. Dot-dot-dot.

It was one of Marconi’s radios that received wireless transmissions from the sinking RMS Titanic (Credit: Credit: Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

It was one of Marconi’s radios that received wireless transmissions from the sinking RMS Titanic (Credit: Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Marconi was instantly a name known around the world, comparable today perhaps to Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs. He made millions from his inventions and received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1909.

Marconi was instantly a name known around the world

Signal Hill is now a National Historic Site. And about 64km south is Cape Race, the first permanent Marconi station in North America. It was here on a cold night in April 1912 that wireless transmissions from the RMS Titanic were received and shared with the rest of the world.

Both places are worthy of a selfie, thanks to Guglielmo Marconi.

By Diana Lambdin Meyer  2 September 2017